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Intended for Jamaica
2022- Work in Progress

Sugar cane field in Jamaica photography by Tracey Thorne, former British sugar plantation

Photograph (2022) Canefield on the wall of Frome Sugar Factory, Westmoreland, Jamaica

Boulton & Watt Papers Jamaica

Letters from the Boulton & Watt Collection, Library of Birmingham

Worthy Park Jamaica cyanotype by Tracey Thorne of Boulton & Watt Co steam engine c 1846 for her project Intended for Jamaica

Blueprint Worthy Park, Jamaica (2023) cyanotype made in response to an original engine drawing (c1845) in the Boulton & Watt Collection 

Intended for Jamaica is an artist led project that is responding to archives held in the Boulton and Watt Collection at the Library of Birmingham.

 

The new work focuses on an unseen part of the archive held within the collection that sheds light on the sale of the Boulton and Watt Co. steam engines from Soho Foundry near Birmingham to sugar plantations in Jamaica.

For more than 200 years the stationary steam engine has been celebrated as a testament to the pioneering industrial heroes of Boulton, Watt, and Murdoch, who played pivotal roles in Birmingham's Industrial Revolution. Yet, beneath this celebrated narrative lies a missing chapter, one interwoven with the threads of transatlantic slavery, indentured (boned) labour and the enduring legacies of colonialism.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, James Watt and Matthew Boulton corresponded and met with some of Britain's most powerful and wealthy slave traders, plantation owners, and West Indian merchants. These individuals were eager to develop a scheme for adapting the steam engine for sugarcane milling in the colonies. As Watt and Boulton retired around 1800 from daily operations at Boulton and Watt Co., their heirs, particularly James Watt Junior. Who along with William Murdoch employed at Soho Foundry, began the lucrative export of steam engines to sugar plantations.

The first official order was placed for Trinidad in 1803, and despite Jamaican planters expressing interest in the scheme since the 1780s, the first steam engine order for Jamaica was fulfilled in 1808. Commissioned by Sir Alexander Grant, who was from a wealthy Scottish slave-trading family of merchants and plantation owners.

Boulton and Watt Co.'s clientele consisted of some of the wealthiest slave and plantation owners from across the Caribbean. The sales of Boulton and Watt Co. steam engines are directly linked to sites of historic enslavement, subjugation, and colonisation.

 

The project seeks to explore the collection through artist research that has also informed fieldwork in Jamaica to create new artworks in direct response to the archival records detailing Boulton and Watt Co.'s trade with sugar plantations in Jamaica in the nineteenth century.

The history at the centre of this project dates back to around the 1770s and is found in the form of correspondence, record books and a significant number of technical steam engine drawings for sugar mills. 

 

Cyanotype Denbigh sugar mill Jamacia

Photograph: Cyanotype, Denbigh Jamaica (2023) montage over original engine drawing. Letters (c1790s) from the Boulton & Watt Collection

The artist's new body of photographic work includes  creation of cyanotypes (blueprints), representing a creative and reflective response to archival materials and field trips in Jamaica. The intention is to delve into the intricate connections between Birmingham and Jamaica by exploring locations (sites) where steam engines were sold. The themes explored in this artistic work connect to issues relating to place, collective memory, and colonialism, with an emphasis on both environmental and social legacies.

The use of cyanotypes, a photographic printing process known for its distinctive blue colour, aims to evoke a sense of historical documentation and symbolise the intertwining of past and present, echoing the historical significance of the steam engines in Jamaica.​

The project's visual narrative, using photography and cyanotypes, seeks to excavate layers of history and memory in the context of Jamaica.  The act, in this context, involves a careful and deliberate exploration of the remnants of the colonial era and the legacy of the steam engines in Jamaica.

The works will be exhibited in a new exhibition at The Library of Birmingham in 2024 called Intended for Jamaica. 

 

The project is supported with a grant from Arts Council England. See an earlier blog made at the start of the project published in 2022 here - Sugarland 

Plan of Birmingham cyanotype workshop of empire Soho Foundry

Blueprint Re-imagined Soho Foundry on the

Plan of Birmingham as a workshop of Empire, (2023) cyanotype showing Soho Foundry, the homes of Matthew Boulton and James Watt, as well as Aston Hall residence of James Watt Jnr.

Intended for Jamaica Print File Web poster small.png

Selected References & Notes 

Boulton and Watt Co. Collection MS 3147/4, Library of Birmingham Archives

Satchell, Veront, Steam for Sugarcane Milling: The Diffusion of Boulton & Watt Stationery Steam Engine to Jamaican Sugar Industry, 1809-1830 in Jamaica in Slavery & Freedom, (2002) pp 242 - 258

Tann, Jennifer, Steam and Sugar: The Diffusion of the Stationary Steam Engine to the Caribbean Sugar Industry 1770–1840 in the History of Technology, Vol 19 (1997), pp 63 - 84

Maps

 

Robinson, James (1804) Map of the Island of Jamaica, digital edition available at David Rumsey Map Collection, original copy in the Boulton and Watt Collection MS3147/31/83-86   

 

Estates in Jamaica 

Dalvey Estate, St Thomas in the East, Jamaica, Legacies of British Slavery 

Denbigh Estate, Clarendon, Jamaica,  Legacies of British Slavery 

Frome Sugar Factory in Westmoreland is one of only a few sugar estates in Jamaica that still process sugar. Sugar grown near by on what would have been the former Midgham Sugar Estate  (formerly estate owned by the Ricketts of Westmoreland, planters and slave owners) is taken to the factory at Frome for processing. Boulton & Watt Co, steam engine order was recorded in 1816 for the estate. In the twentieth century Tate and Lyle bought sixteen estates in Westmoreland and built the sugar processing factory at Frome. In 1938 Frome was at the centre of a nationwide labour dispute that ended in violence, tragedy and the transformation of Jamaican politics.

Worthy Park Estate, St John, Jamaica, Legacies of British Slavery 

Estates/Sites in Britain (connected to this trade that benefit from Transatlantic slavery) 

Aston Hall, Birmingham, property managed by Birmingham Museums Trust. James Watt Junior who was leading operations at Boulton and Watt Co and its colonial trade to sites of enslavement in the colonies, during the nineteenth Century lived in the Jacobean mansion between 1817 and 1848. During this period he funded significant improvements to Aston Hall house and estate. 

Penhryn Castle and Gardens, North Wales, Richard Pennant, property managed by the National Trust. Owned by the Pennant family, and the staunch anti-abolitionist, Richard Pennant whose fortune was gained from sugar plantations in Jamaica that used enslaved labour including at Denbigh in Clarendon. Pennant was intimately involved in discussions with Boulton and Watt on a scheme to make available steam engines for sugar cane milling in Jamaica, c1780s onwards. The estate later ordered engines from Boulton & Watt, during the early part of the 19th century. 

Soho Foundry (now in Sandwell) is a Scheduled Monument, Historic England.

Trengwainton Gardens, Cornwall, George Price, gardens managed by the National Trust. The estate near Madron, Penzance was once owned by Sir Rose Price (1768-1834) who had inherited sugar plantations in Jamaica, which included Worthy Park. Price became a powerful Jamaican planter and slave owner using the wealth to create a landed estate at Trengwainton with gardens in the picturesque style in Cornwall. George Price whose name is on the Boulton and Watt Co. engine drawings was Rose Price's son.

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© Tracey Thorne
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