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Digging up coals, Down Under

By Matthew DJ Ryan

Growing up I would often take the eight-hour train ride from my home town in the ‘bush’ (country) down to Sydney, Australia. For at least half of that trip the train would zip past coal mine after coal mine, sharing the tracks with cargo trains carrying their fossilized loads, often hundreds of cars in length. Most people are aware that mining is a central feature of the Australian political economy – and a contentious one too, in the age of the ‘Anthropocene,’ and its accompanying environmental crisis.[1]

But even as people argue for the end of coal in Australia, very little is known about the origins of coal mining in the colonies. Passing the mines of the Hunter valley, New South Wales, I never once asked ‘how long have these mines been here?’ or ‘why did we start mining coal in the first place?’ While the disinterest of a teenager might be forgiven, the neglect of these questions by both historians and policymakers is far more concerning. So, what can we learn from the history of coal mining in the Hunter valley that might better inform our politics and policies?

The very first export of the colony of New South Wales was coal: a shipment of 600 tons was carried by the ‘Earl Cornwallis’ to Calcutta in 1801.[2] This enterprise was quickly forgotten by the economic history of Australia, overshadowed by the development of the wool industry, and later the goldrushes of the 1850s and 1860s. Largely neglected in existing economic histories of the colony, coal mining was steadily developing throughout the entire nineteenth century. While the coal raised in the Hunter region did not compare to wool or gold in the export figures, there was a steadily expanding base of fossil-fuel energy supporting the early urbanization and industrialization of the colony. For instance, by 1852, more than half of all mills in the colony were powered by coal.[3]

There have been calls in the context of the Anthropocene to ‘denaturalize’ energy history, to ensure we do not read history backwards, and assume the ‘transition’ to fossil fuels was straightforward or automatic.[4] The uneven exploitation of fossil fuel deposits – especially coal – around the world would lend weight to this, forcing us to consider ‘why coal became dominant when and where it did?’ Among its colonial peers, New South Wales was an early adopter of this fuel, with much of this specificity explained by an unexpected actor: the Australian Agricultural Company (AACo). Formed largely by British financial capitalists, the AACo was given exclusive rights to mine coal in the colony, in the form of a state-backed monopoly lease lasting thirty-one years.[5] This lease, combined with a plethora of other state subsidies, including the provision of free convict labour for over a decade, effectively worked as infant industry protectionism, supporting the development of the industry.

The implications of this history for policy are stark. Those arguing that a transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy must be driven by the ‘market’ are, in effect, ahistorical. Why should renewable energy be measured against the yardstick of the market, when this test was not applied to coal? Indeed, if this had been the benchmark at the time, it is likely that the transition to coal power in Australia would have occurred much later than it did. History allows us to move past ahistorical and fallacious arguments, in this pressing policy challenge, supporting the case for a rapid transition toward renewable energy.

[1] The ‘Anthropocene’ refers to the way human impacts on the planet are now registering on a geological scale. Although the term is contested in scientific circles, it has been adopted widely across the social sciences to encapsulate the breadth of current environmental crises. The implications of this term for the discipline of history are usefully explored in D. Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four theses’, Critical Inquiry, 35(2): 197-222.

[2] J. Comerford, Coal and Colonials: The founding of the Australian Coal Mining Industry, Aberdare: United Mineworkers Federation of Australia (1997), p. 33.

[3] Colonial Secretary, Returns of the Colony of New South Wales, London: Colonial Office (1856), p. 997.

[4] C. Bonneuil and J. Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, history and us, trans. D. Fernbach, London: Verso (2016 [2013]), p. 107.

[5] Parry to Macleay, 8 May, 1830, in E. Parry, In the service of the company Letters of Sir Edward Parry, Commissioner to the Australian Agricultural Company, Vol. I: December 1829 – June 1832, Canberra, ANU Press, (2005), pp. 83-4

Image: Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine in the Hunter Valley, 2015, and can be attributed to Lock the Gate Alliance, ‘Warkworth,’ Flikr (2015)

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