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CHF – ‘Cast iron in Jamaica’ with Andrew Smith, chaired by Peregrine Bryant

1 May - 18:00 - 19:00


Wednesday 1 May, 6pm GMT: Andrew Smith, ‘Cast iron in Jamaica’, chaired by Peregrine Bryant

Andrew Smith, MA CEng MIStructE. is a structural engineer. Much of his work has been on existing structures, often historic, usually to repair and sometimes to adapt them to new uses. He first went to Jamaica on a ‘bus man’s holiday’ in 2005 and has returned several times since. In recent years he has become more of an amateur historian, currently developing ideas about 3 pre-stressed iron bridges from the mid-19th century, and for several years he has researched the origins of London’s New River, which first brought water to London in 1613 and still supplies a small proportion of its needs, and the people who contributed to its achievement.

Until relatively late in the colonial era, all cast iron was brought to Jamaica from somewhere else – almost entirely from Britain. Although cast iron was relatively cheap in relation to the British economy, its weight and the consequent cost of transport made it considerably more expensive in Jamaica in relation to the island’s economy. Alongside cast iron, other forms of iron were also imported – wrought iron and crucible steel – but as their production and working didn’t require an industrial scale and could be done on a smaller ‘blacksmithing’ scale, the ability to produce the tools and other necessities that used these materials was probably present on the island from the time of the Spanish occupation.

Speaking broadly, cast iron was brought to Jamaica to satisfy two motives – to support the power of government and administration, as exerted both from Britain and on the island, and to support the wealth extracted from the island. Those on the island who had the vote were reluctant to agree to expenditure that increased their own taxation, and those in Britain who had political power were amongst those who benefitted most from the wealth patriated from Jamaica – the self-styled ‘Interest’ which successfully delayed the abolition of both the slave trade and then of enslavement itself. When both were eventually abolished, the same ‘Interest’ secured compensation for themselves at enormous expense to Britain.

This system of self-interested power meant that expenditure to bolster the power of government was usually delayed and then tended to be niggardly. In contrast, expenditure to support the generation of that wealth was more likely to be made promptly, particularly when the abolition of the slave trade made enslaved labour more expensive, and so such expenditure both stimulated and followed technological developments in Britain.

As the proportion of the island’s population that was neither enslaved nor white grew, of whom a few became wealthy themselves, they began to import iron artefacts that supported their lives on the island. Seen from this perspective, the cast iron that survives on the island is an integral part of the history of the colonial enslavement economy and its slow and sometimes repressed evolution into the present after the abolition of enslavement itself.

Andrew will discuss several cast iron artefacts he has looked at on the island and their context to exemplify this broad perspective.

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1 May
18:00 - 19:00
Event Category:


Commonwealth Heritage Forum
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