In Steam Power and Sea Power: Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire, c. 1870-1914 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Steven Gray examines the pivotal...

In Steam Power and Sea Power: Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire, c. 1870-1914 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Steven Gray examines the pivotal role of coal in the Royal Navy, during the short-lived but crucial “age of steam.” Drawing on British government and military records, ships’ logs and mariners memoirs, Gray examines coal from multiple, intersecting perspectives. Beginning with its geopolitical importance, Gray shows that steam powered ships significantly increased the nature and frequency of material supplies needed to maintain a navy at sea. Unlike the relatively self-sufficient sailing ship, steam-powered vessels had an almost insatiable appetite for coal, requiring resupply much more frequently. Further, not just any coal would do: after extensive tests on the quality of coals from across the globe, engineers found that Welsh steam coal was the essential fuel for Britain’s steam-powered navy, and there were precious few suitable alternatives. These facts, then, shaped the construction and maintenance of a system of fossil-fuel infrastructure that spanned the globe. Gray rounds his analysis out by following coal’s journey from mines, through depots and coaling stations, in lighters, and then into ships holds. He identifies coaling stations as unique imperial spaces, in which naval personnel, administrators, and local inhabitants crossed paths. He considers the innumerable hands and backs that groaned under the weight of tons of black rocks, including indigenous laborers and British sailors. Throughout, he demonstrates conclusively the utter centrality of coal to the late-Victorian and Edwardian Royal Navy, and hence to the British Empire.

Steven Gray is Senior Lecturer in Imperial and Naval History at the University of Portsmouth. He studies imperial, maritime, transnational, global and transoceanic history, with particular interest in the material infrastructures of global networks, and how these facilitated the mobility of goods, people, militaries and empires.


David Fouser is an adjunct faculty member at Santa Monica College, Laguna College of Art and Design, and Chapman University. He completed his Ph.D. in 2016 at the University of California, Irvine, and studies the cultural and environmental history of wheat, flour, and bread in Britain and the British empire.

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