I have read the Jenny Bulstode’s History and Technology paper, perhaps not yet as closely as I should. The leading work on Cort is Mott’s book, which is perhaps too uncritical and has some mistakes, not necessarily major ones. However the paper is riddled with what I can only describe as leaps of faith:
- Iron was made in Africa, but only by a bloomery process. But there is no evidence provided that any African ironmakers were enslaved.
- Maroons and escapees may have recycled old iron into useful goods. But the evidence provided is only of blacksmiths, not ironmakers.
- There were also foundries in Jamaica, though it is not stated whether they were casting iron or brass. Ironfounding at the period would probably involve an air furnace (a reverberatory furnace).
- John Reeder established an ironworks, with two reverberatory furnaces, four small forges, 2 larger ones, a water wheel and a rolling mill. Unfortunately no detail is provided of the nature of these: the small forges may be for blacksmiths. The rolling mill would be illegal under the British Iron Act 1750, but they probably did not know that. One of the reverberatory furnaces may have been an air furnace for foundry work. Another might have been a balling furnace for recycling scrap iron. Therefore the larger forges may have been belly helve hammers (legal) or tilt hammers (illegal in colonies).
- There is no reference to a blast furnace (to produce pig iron), but such a substantial structure would undoubtedly have been mentioned. As the nature of the structures built of brick is not clear. The presence of fineries cannot be completely ruled out, but (if so) where was pig iron as its feedstock obtained? The shipment of pig iron from Virginia (or other continental colonies) could have occurred before the outbreak of the American War of Independence, but is improbable during it. The war provided a period of hardship due to the disruption of trade.
- Bloomery ironmaking was effectively extinct in England by this time and no evidence is given of its use by the maroon community, so that this is unlikely to be involved in Reeder’s works.
- Reeder brought in 60 white artisans from England to instruct his black workers. This implies that he was seeking to use English technology. The use of all the processes described were long established in England. The emphasis in England was on the production of new iron in blast furnaces and forges. This means that evidence for recycling iron is scattered in England, and that tends to be swamped by material on making new iron, but any process likely to have been in Jamaica was already established in England. All the technology of which there is evidence was already well-known in England.
- Reeder’s works were suppressed in 1782. In subsequent petitions say something of the works, but may reflect what he hoped to achieve if they were continued, rather than what he had achieved. His reference to obtaining pig iron is in terms implying that he had not made any. Similarly his hope to have coals from Newcastle or Wales cheaper than it was in London may sound improbable, but actually reflects the coastal customs duty charged (uniquely) on coal.
- Bulstrode makes a link between John Cort, a ship’s captain, who arrived in Portsmouth from Jamaica in c.1781, but that does not imply that he even knew of Reeder’s works, let alone how they worked. Ironmaking was a technical process which would not have been easily reported by a casual observer.
- Anything useful from Reeder’s works, together with naval stores were taken on board naval ships and brought to England. This would not include the brick of air furnaces, but might have included the machinery of the rolling mill and hammers. We are not told that any of Reeder’s workers were brought to England. Useful machinery may have arrived as scrap, but the knowledge of how to use it depends on the movement of those with the skills. This is why Reeder had started by bringing in English artisans.
- Cort was not ‘near bankrupt’; to say so is a caricature of his situation. He was the ironmonger to Portsmouth dockyard, making him the sole supplier of ready-made ironware required there. There were separate contracts for the supply of bar iron (mostly Swedish) for use by dockyard smiths and also for anchors, but supplies from Cort (and later Cort & Jellicoe) would have run to thousands of pounds. This was undertaken through a warehouse at Gosport, but it is not clear whence it was supplied. This (rather than the ironworks at Funtley) was Cort’s main business.
- It is likely he was under pressure to accept scrap in part payment for what the Navy Board owed him for supplies. British wars were conducted on credit. There was a well-established system by which delivery was acknowledged and payment authorised but not immediately made. Suppliers could obtain immediate payment by selling their bills at a discount, whose size would reflect the time the buyer of the bill expected to wait for payment. Several years into the war, he would have been owed substantial sums, which is why he took a partner (Samuel Jellicoe) with an apparently rich uncle Adam. This ultimately proved Cort’s undoing, but that concerns later events.
In summary, Jenny Bulstrode has told a tale based on a series of tenuous linkages, which do not stand up to scrutiny. It is noticeable that she cites no general work on the history of ferrous metallurgy, meaning that it is far from clear that she understands the processes involved or the nature of different varieties of iron. She certainly did not explore the English background to the processes established by Reeder’s English artisans at his works. If she had done so, she might have realised that little or nothing being done in his works was novel.
In this she suffers from a common failing, one that has caused me difficulties on occasions. A historian who tackles a subject beyond their particular area of expertise is liable to fall into error. That, I fear, is what has happened here.