New Evidence Suggests Innovation Stolen from enslaved Jamaican Metallurgists Contributed to Britains Economic Dominance in the 18th Century

The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain in the mid-18th century, brought significant changes in manufacturing and disruption in the social and economic conditions of the time. An important element facilitating the growth of Britain’s economic dominance was its ability to turn scrap metal into bar (wrought) iron, a process originally attributed to British financier and ironmaster Henry Cort.

In a recent paper, Dr. Jenny Bulstrode, a lecturer in the history of science and technology at University College in London (UCL), challenges the record after research found that the manufacturing innovation was developed by 76 black Jamaican metalworkers at a foundry in Reeder’s Pen (now Reader’s Pen) in St. Thomas.

Many of them were trafficked people from West and central African countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, etc.), collectively known as the slave coast. Significantly, these countries boasted skilled artisans of all stripes and successful ironwork industries dating back centuries before Europe.

The names denote the principal regions targeted by British enslavers , but not the complexity and reach of the systems that brought people to these coasts or the skills and knowledge they carried with them. In focusing on these regions, British enslavers targeted some of the most significant
iron work cultures in world history.

Black metallurgist and the making of the industrial revolution – Dr. Jenny Bulstrode
The ‘grand secret in the making of iron”

Dr. Bulstrodes paper sought to ‘engage with these metallurgists on their own terms’ by analysing ‘oral histories and material culture’, published works, correspondences, shipping records, and newspaper reports to ‘uncover’ the ‘significance and reach of their work’.

What she did uncover was the myth of Henry Cort, who for 240 years was ‘lauded as one of the revolutionary makers of the modern world’. The paper questions this conception of Mr. Cort and instead proposes that his great ‘discovery’ was nothing but a great theft.

Henry Cort, British iron producer
Henry Cort – British iron producer, illustration c1780s

According to Bulstrode, the patented process, which would come to be known as the ‘Cort Process’, was proclaimed by Henry Cort to be his own invention, ‘the product of great study, labour, and experience’. In reality, Cort, who was a Navy financier, found himself heavily in debt after taking over a lucrative ironwork business. Cort, who thought the takeover to be a profitable endeavour, entered into an agreement with the navy to make ‘mast hoops” for their ships, which would’ve required more advanced equipment for which he had neither the skill nor experience to build or operate.

Cort’s luck turned when the British imposed martial law on Jamaica and ordered Reeders ‘perfected’ foundry to be destroyed by claiming rebels could use the process to convert scrap metal into weapons and use them to overthrow the colonial authorities. According to Bulstrode, Britain effectively removed its competition by using military force.

The foundry was dismantled and ‘absorbed into a maritime infrastructure that transported unused Naval stores and equipment from Jamaica to the Naval base in Portsmouth, where Cort operated’. Cort’s deep connections to the navy and to high-powered officials in the Caribbean afforded him exclusive access to opportunities and information.

In the paper Dr. Bulstrode intimates in no unsubtle way that Cort borrowed money to purchase the equipment dismantled from Reeders foundry in Jamaica and that it was no coincidence that soon thereafter he ‘found out some grand secret in the making of iron’ which he proceeded to patent.

The ‘perfect’ enslaved Jamaican metallurgists
Groover rollers illustration

John Reeder, who owned and operated the Jamaica iron works foundry himself, acknowledged his ignorance of iron manufacturing but noted that the black metalworkers who operated the foundry were “perfect in every branch of the iron manufactory.” They were skilled in turning poor-quality metal and scrap iron into wrought iron, which, according to Bulstrode, was “like a mechanical alchemy” that transformed material that was “essentially rubbish” into a very high-value product.

The Jamaican innovation used grooved rollers—the same type used in sugar mills—to replace a labour-intensive process of removing impurities from low-quality iron by hammering. By 1781, the foundry was turning a profit of £4,000 ($51,000) a year, the equivalent of £7.4 million (nearly $9.6 million) today.

A thief shall never prosper

The Cort process made Britain an economic powerhouse and impacted the building industry, which saw the construction of, among others, the Crystal Palace, the Temperate House in Kew Gardens, and the arches of St. Pancras train station. However, Cort’s own prosperity was severely diminished after it came to light that the money he borrowed to acquire equipment from Reeders Foundry was embezzled from Navy funds.

Cort’s properties and goods, including his patents, were seized and made public, thus allowing more manufacturers to utilise the process and thereby establishing Britain as an economic superpower based on the unacknowledged skills and prowess of Jamaican slaves.

former colonies were to become markets for Brsitsh Manufacturers and America’s revolution to inaugurate a new paradigm for British extraction.

Black metallurgists and the making of the industrial revolution – Dr. Jenny Bulstrode
A debt owed for what was stolen
Dr. Jenny Bulstrode – Lecturer in History of Science and Technology at UCL

This attempt by Bulstrode to correct historical records has been met with hostile criticism from the British press and has raised questions about the integrity of the research. But Bulstrode has also received support from academic historians such as Dr. Sheray Warmington, an honorary research associate at UCL with expertise in reparations and development. Dr. Warmington, whose research explores how the legacies of slavery continue to impact the lives and welfare of post-colonial states, says that historians have long been aware of the integral role enslaved African people played in the development of the industrial complex.

This discovery has also led to renewed calls for not just acknowledgement of this monumental contribution to Britain and America’s development then and those countries wealth now but for monetary reparations to the descendants of the enslaved. While it is difficult to quantify the monetary value of the black intellectual property that was stolen and deprived its rightful heirs what is clear is that the violent loss of this resource is still reverberating to this day.

A challenge to current narratives

Bulstrode and Warmington hope their research will challenge current narratives about innovation and prompt more discussions about how the history of science and technology is taught in schools. Warmington stated that Jamaica’s society and people have made significant contributions to the world for hundreds of years, adding, “It is time for us to be recognised.”