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Diffusion of the Boulton and Watt Steam Engine to Sugar Plantations in Jamaica

Photograph (2022) old Sugar Windmill Green Park Estate, Trelawney

Sugarland is a new project that focuses on using a set of old steam engine drawings and archival records to explore the sale of the Boulton and Watt steam engines from the Soho foundry near Birmingham to sugar plantations in Jamaica during the 19th century.

Archival records and evidence of this trade in steam engines to Caribbean plantations are held in the Boulton and Watt collection at the Library of Birmingham. These records show that over fifty-five steam engines were sold by Boulton and Watt Co to sugar plantations in Jamaica between 1808 and 1850s from Soho Foundry, near Birmingham (now a Scheduled Monument - Historic England).

The only discussions I could find about this colonial steam engine trade are in academic publications, most notably the research by Jennifer Tann (1997), Steam and Sugar: The Diffusion of the Stationary Steam Engine to the Caribbean Sugar Industry 1770–1840, and a paper by Vernot Satchell that looks specifically at sales to sugar mills in Jamaica.

I was struck that in nearly three decades that I have lived in Birmingham, I can't recall ever seeing any public-facing discussion, art, or historical interpretations that attempts to explore this colonial trade from Boulton and Watt Co. This is largely, an untold story, and for the last two hundred years, Birmingham as well as the rest of Britain have largely celebrated James Watt, William Murdoch, and Matthew Boulton as heroes of the industrial revolution without question.

Photograph Polaroid transfer (2022) William Bloye's bronze public art statue in Birmingham

This project aims to use photography as a tool to explore these archives to learn about this shared colonial past, and specifically to raise our collective consciousness about the relationship between Boulton and Watt Co's steam engine trade with plantation slavery and its aftermath in Jamaica.

The archival texts are linked with the devastating social, physical, emotional, and environmental impact of colonisation and enslavement. I am especially, interested in exploring issues relating to collective memory linked to place and the colonial landscape.

Worthy Park Letter (1841) Boulton & Watt Co Courtesy of the Library of Birmingham

Additional artist-led research and fieldwork in Jamaica will help to trace the estates where the engines were sold to provide a way of visualising this trade with sugar plantations enabling us to reflect on Boulton & Watt Co's relationship with plantation slavery and its aftermath.

Photograph (2022) Worthy Park Estate billboard on the roadside of its canefields

The contemporary photograph above was taken at Worthy Park Estate in September and linked to the sale of a Boulton and Watt steam engine sold to George Price (son of the Cornish, planter, and slave owner Sir Rose Price) around 1846 for the estate in St Catherine, Jamaica.

Worthy Park is one of the oldest sugar estates in Jamaica that still produce sugar and rum. We can trace this colonial landscape from Jamaica across the ocean to Cornwall where the Price family used profits from slavery to build houses, Trengwainton Garden (now a National Trust-managed property), and a sugar monument.

The research and fieldwork will continue throughout 2023. Do get in touch if you're interested in the project and would like to know more about the work.

About the Artist

In the late 1980s, I relocated to Birmingham from a mining community in Cornwall. Engines and mining are deeply entwined in our Cornish identity and my own story. I am especially interested in alternative narratives that go beyond the romantic imaginaries of places, so my work has for several years explored issues relating to the altered landscape and the environmental legacies (see Altered Landscape and Fieldnotes Jamaica).

I also have a special interest in the typographical landscape and fragments of found objects, which is a thread that runs through all my work.

Photograph (2022) Wall sign fragment Foame Sugar Factory, Westmoreland

My practice includes the use of the cyanotype alternative photographic process which I will be using in my work to disrupt, interpret and explore the archival material.

This project has received support from Arts Council England.


All photographs copyright, Tracey Thorne (2022)

Library of Birmingham, Boulton and Watt Collection

Mullen, Stephen (2020) James Watt and Slavery in Scotland, History Workshop available here

Jennifer Tann (1997), Steam and Sugar: The Diffusion of the Stationary Steam Engine to the Caribbean Sugar Industry 1770–1840

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

UCL, British Legacies of Slavery database

Historic England, Soho Foundry

National Trust Trengwainton Gardens

1 Comment

It will be interesting to see what survived; those things were built to last. Even if replaced, someone may have been able to use the original engines. Though maybe at some point, they would have been worth more as scrap...

© Tracey Thorne
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