Jamaican Origin of the Iron Production Method During the Industrial Revolution, Unveiled by British Explorers | Science

**The Jamaican Foundry Innovation That Revolutionized Britain’s Iron Industry**

A Surprising Origin for a Revolutionary Technique

An innovation that played a pivotal role in making Britain the world’s leading iron exporter during the Industrial Revolution may have come from an unexpected source. New research suggests that the Cort process, which allowed for mass production of wrought iron from scrap iron, was not originally developed by the British financier and ironmaster Henry Cort. Instead, historical records indicate that it was first pioneered by 76 black Jamaican metallurgists at an ironworks near Morant Bay, Jamaica. These enslaved workers, many of whom were brought from west and central Africa, were skilled in ironworking techniques that were prevalent in their home countries.

Unveiling the True Origins of the Cort Process

Dr. Jenny Bulstrode, a historian of science and technology at University College London (UCL), has conducted an analysis of correspondence, shipping records, and contemporary newspaper reports to shed light on the true origins of the Cort process. She explains that this innovation was instrumental in thrusting Britain into a position of economic dominance and reshaping the country with iconic iron structures such as Crystal Palace, Kew Gardens’ Temperate House, and the arches at St Pancras train station.

Henry Cort’s Role in the Innovation

While the Cort process has traditionally been associated with Henry Cort, Dr. Bulstrode’s research challenges this narrative. According to her findings, Cort acquired the machinery from the Jamaican foundry and patented the technique in the 1780s. However, it is now believed that he imported the fully developed innovation rather than inventing it himself. The Jamaican ironworks were owned by John Reeder, a white enslaver who admitted in correspondence that he had little knowledge of iron manufacturing. Reeder referred to the 76 enslaved metallurgists running the foundry as experts in every aspect of iron production. Through their skill, they were able to transform scrap and low-quality metal into valuable wrought iron.

The Innovations of the Jamaican Ironworkers

The Jamaican metallurgists introduced grooved rollers into the foundry, mechanizing the previously labor-intensive process of hammering out impurities from low-quality iron. Interestingly, the same type of grooved rollers were utilized in Jamaican sugar mills. Dr. Bulstrode describes this as a form of “mechanical alchemy,” in which seemingly worthless materials are transformed into high-value products.

The Success and Profitability of the Jamaican Ironworks

By 1781, the Jamaican ironworks, powered by the innovative use of grooved rollers, was generating impressive profits of £4,000 per year, which would amount to approximately £7.4 million today. In contrast, Cort was grappling with financial difficulties, having taken over an ironworks in 1775 and invested substantial sums to secure a Royal Navy contract for processing scrap iron. He later realized that this venture would result in significant losses.

The Transfer of the Innovation to Britain

Cort’s connection to the Jamaican ironworks came through a cousin who frequently transported seized vessels, cargo, and equipment from Jamaica to England. Learning about the ironworks from his cousin, Cort seized the opportunity and acquired the machinery for himself. He then transported it to Portsmouth, where he patented the innovation. However, five years later, Cort’s embezzlement of large sums from navy wages was discovered. As a result, his patents were confiscated and made public. This allowed the widespread adoption of the Cort process in British ironworks.

Challenging Conventional Narratives of Innovation

Dr. Bulstrode’s research aims to challenge prevailing narratives of innovation, which often overlook the contributions of marginalized individuals. She highlights the lack of recognition given to black people, who were enslaved in Jamaica during the 18th century, as pioneers of technological advancements. By uncovering the true genesis of the Cort process, Dr. Bulstrode seeks to broaden our understanding of who can be considered an innovator.

Implications for the Reparations Movement

Dr. Sheray Warmington, an honorary research associate at UCL, emphasizes the significance of this research for the reparations movement. By documenting the true origin of scientific and technological advancements, this work provides a foundation for addressing the impact that the loss of these innovations had on postcolonial states. It also contributes to the discourse on technological transfer as a fundamental component of the reparations movement.

In conclusion, the recent analysis conducted by Dr. Jenny Bulstrode and her team at UCL suggests that the pioneering Cort process, attributed to Henry Cort, was actually developed by enslaved workers at a Jamaican foundry. This surprising revelation challenges existing narratives of innovation, highlighting the important contributions of marginalized individuals in technological advancements. The research also has implications for the reparations movement, providing a starting point for quantifying and addressing the developmental opportunities that were denied to postcolonial states.

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