“The supposed security need for distant American coaling stations in the late nineteenth century did not play a significant role in catalyzing the emergence of an American island empire around 1898. Instead, the reverse happened: the establishment of that empire created entirely unprecedented demands for coal and coaling stations because Americans suddenly needed ways to protect their new, distant colonies from external threat and overcome internal resistance to American rule.”
Peter Shulman, Coal and Empire, p. 9
Europeans and North Americans, by and large, believe that markets are king in energy. According to this perspective, prices, supply-demand balances, and technological innovation are the primary drivers of the global energy system. Yet many outside the West believe that empires determine the energy sources that dominate globally and force others to adopt them through persuasion and coercion.
Fledgling nineteenth century America, which faced few other threats besides internal strife, is a case in point. The imperial power then was Britain, which dominated global coal production and planted coaling stations around the world to fuel its coal-powered steam-propelled navy. This context constrained America in some ways, and certainly pushed it to adopt coal. At the same time, the British empire bestowed serious advantages. America could pursue its overseas commercial interests without its own requisite coal empire.
All this and more is brought home in Peter Shulman’s excellent history, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), which is out in paperback this fall. Coal and Empire is one of several recent books on American empire, including Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) and A.G. Hopkins’ American Empire: A Global History (Princeton University Press, 2018). Shulman’s, however, uniquely focuses on energy, and coal in particular. He argues that since the United States did not have overseas colonies prior to 1898, policymakers and naval officials in Washington were unwilling to invest in overseas coaling stations simply to protect private commerce. The rewards were too ill defined, the path of investment and strategy too nebulous.
This all changed after 1898. That year, the United States defeated Spain in Cuba, assumed control of Spanish territories Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and annexed Hawaii shortly thereafter. It then moved to build coaling stations abroad and showcase its naval power and burgeoning empire, as revealed by the 1907-9 global tour of its own coal-powered White Fleet.
The need for speed
Shulman explains in Chapter 1, “Empire and the Politics of Information,” how the U.S. navy first considered subsidizing a fleet of mail-carrying steamships because the British were reading, and sometimes not delivering, their mail (p. 15). This underscores how coal-powered steam power, above all, was about greater speed and beating the competition to information. (We all know a slow or intermittent Internet connection is commercial death in today’s world.)
Buying coal abroad from non-U.S. sellers was, of course, expensive and prone to exorbitant prices. Establishing independent overseas coal stations was even more financially daunting. Nevertheless, the United States considered building them in Borneo, Japan, Samoa, Mexico, Chiriquí (western Panama), Peru, Saint Thomas, and Santo Domingo throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
Unsurprisingly, America’s interest in coal had domestic origins. Chapter 2, “Engineering Economy,” details a fascinating debate between lobbies backing bituminous coal in Maryland and anthracite coal in Pennsylvania. This had all the trappings of the state rivalries we see today. Each side sought to compete with British coal in foreign markets and win future U.S. naval contracts (p. 42-53). The idea for a coal mine and coaling station in Chiriquí was also the product of President Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to resettle freed slaves after the Civil War, the subject of Chapter 3, “The Slavery Solution.”
Efforts to build coaling stations failed, we learn, because of “the general lack of American [governmental] interest” (p. 134). This particularly frustrated American colonists in Hawaii, who desired annexation as early as the 1870s. Pearl Harbor, they argued, was ideal for a coaling station. It would later become a coal (see photo) and oil depot. Stymied in Washington, they resorted to the British boogieman to rally support. “Preventing Britain or another power from established a coaling station in Hawaii mattered far more than developing an American one there” (p. 136). Imperial encroachment also prompted America to worry that Austria would claim Saint Thomas, the Danish-owned island in the Caribbean (p. 127), an episode that echoes into today’s contentious idea of the United States buying Danish-owned Greenland before the Chinese do?
The push for coaling stations abroad correlated with the expanding purview of the U.S. navy. In the first part of the century, coastal defense was the priority, but this changed in the late 1840s. The United States annexed California and the other Mexican territories, making it Pacific-oriented for the first time. Keeping Britain and Germany from establishing dominance in the “peaceful sea” shaped naval strategic thinking over the ensuing decades.
In Chapter 4, “The Economy of Time and Space,” Shulman details U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s classified expedition to Japan in 1853-4. Perry’s primary goal was coal – Japan was rumored to have healthy mines and ample harbors for stations (p. 79-81). He enthusiastically reported back to Washington that China, Formosa, Borneo, and Japan all had it, even suggesting the United States seize one of Japan’s Lew Chew Islands. Though discarded, Perry’s mission marked a new chapter of sorts. “As steam helped Americans renew their desire for commerce with east Asia, the government employed geological and diplomatic missions to obtain access to foreign ports and coal supplies to create markets for American vessels” (p. 91).
Chapter 5, “The Debate over Coaling Stations,” covers the period from the American Civil War to 1898. War-weary Americans reverted to traditional isolationist sentiments in the 1870s and 1880s (p. 143-4). Yet advances in navigation and steam technology kept the coal question at the fore. Coaling stations remained attractive, but the U.S. government lacked the will to invest in them. The Spanish-American War in 1898 changed everything, making coaling stations a necessity. Essentially an island in the Atlantic, the United States faced a daunting task of projecting naval power around the world. Marshaling coal, foodstuffs, and troops – became a scientific undertaking detailed in Chapter 6, “Inventing Logistics.”
Empires and energy security
My critiques of Coal and Empire are minor. I’d recommend striking the word “Industrial” from the subtitle, as it implies significant focus on domestic manufacturing. I also wish Shulman had written more about American-British relations in oil. Since America rose in the shadow of Britain’s coal empire in the nineteenth century, and managed to conform to and then imitate it, I wonder how Britain dealt with the same process in the shadow of America’s growing oil empire in the first half of the twentieth century. Shulman’s 2003 article about America’s oil insecurity from 1898-1924 is helpful in this regard, and most of this material was repurposed in Coal and Empire.
Coal and Empire is, above all, a keen reminder that geopolitics drives changes in energy. “The problems Americans faced in managing an empire made the world after 1898 very different from what had come before, not least with regard to energy” (p. 218).
China is the best contemporary analogy to nineteenth century America. Its investments in electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies are formidable, but they are not eroding global consumption of fossil fuels. It will have to first become a geopolitical superpower before it can persuade and coerce the world to adopt its energy regime. China has already assumed de facto control over the South and East China Seas and has clearly delineated interests in fortifying its coastal waters within the nine-dash line. In recent years, it has sought to gain influence in islands in the South Pacific and other points around the globe that carry naval and fossil fuel significance, such as Greenland. If China has its own 1898, its position as regional hegemon will formalize, and things could change globally for energy.
Picture: Pearl Harbor Coaling Station, 1919; Credit: Wikimedia Commons.