Cort case shows why historical truth matters

  • Themes: History

The pressure on historians, particularly young ones, to produce work that conforms to a particular worldview, threatens the integrity of the discipline, as a recent controversy demonstrates.

Book plate of iron making in the 1800s.
Book plate of iron making in the 1800s. Credit: Michelle Bridges / Alamy Stock Photo

A row has broken out in the British press about an article by a young historian of science and technology, Jenny Bulstrode, entitled ‘Black Metallurgists and the Making of the Industrial Revolution’. Bulstrode, with a PhD from Cambridge and a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, holds a job at the prestigious University College London (UCL) – ‘London’s Global University’ as it brands itself. Her article caused a tremendous stir when it was first published. In recent weeks two incisive critiques of Bultstrode’s article have appeared, resulting in hostile coverage in The Times and the Telegraph. There are reports that the journal that published Bulstrode’s essay, the respectable History and Technology, is reviewing its decision, and there are calls for UCL to enquire into the integrity of Bulstrode’s research. Meanwhile, a professor of law has written in the Spectator defending Bulstrode’s right to publish work that other people don’t like.

This is an ongoing story, that tells us much about the pressures on young academics to conform to a particular worldview. But it is not too soon to make a preliminary assessment. On first reading, Bulstrode’s article is impressive and enthralling. It is not difficult to see why it was published, nor why it caused a stir. Let me summarise it very briefly:

i. Slaves imported to Jamaica came from parts of Africa where there were extensive metalworks.

ii. Jamaica developed an intensive, slave-labour-based, metalworking industry recycling old metal to produce new artefacts.

iii. A man called John Reeder established a foundry in 1772. That foundry initially relied on skilled labour imported from England, but soon became primarily dependent on slave labour.

iv. In the spring of 1782 Reeder’s foundry was dismantled for fear that it would fall into the hands of enemy forces.

v. The foundry was using new techniques, deriving in part from African technology and in part from the process of manufacturing sugar from sugar cane, Jamaica’s main crop.

vi. Knowledge of those techniques, and indeed machinery from the foundry, reached Portsmouth, England.

vii. There in December of 1782 Henry Cort declared that he had invented a new process for making iron, using grooved rollers. This was the first of two patents (the second being for a process called ‘puddling’) that Cort took out and which transformed iron production and thus made possible the Industrial Revolution.

viii. The Industrial Revolution was thus made possible by knowledge stolen from Black slaves.

Bulstrode’s ‘Conclusion’ begins as follows:

‘EuroAmerican accounts have often described the combination of processes for which Cort took credit as one of the most important innovations in the making of the modern world. But the theft of this combination from Black metallurgists in Jamaica who developed it was not the central concern of this paper. The principal ambition of this paper has been to engage with the practices and purposes of some of those Black metallurgists on their own terms.’

There are two problems here. The first is that Bulstrode has really had nothing to say about puddling: but we must accept that Cort learnt about puddling as well as rolling from Jamaica, because a core claim is that he was incompetent, and couldn’t have invented either process himself.

The second lies in the claim that the ‘central concern’ of the paper is the practices and purposes of Black slaves in Jamaica, not the invention of rolling and puddling. Bulstrode has a lot to say about African metallurgy and Jamaican slaves, though how reliable it is is not easy to tell – oral history is a key, and necessarily problematic, source. But she can have been in no doubt that whatever her central concern might be, the claim that one of the most important innovations of the modern world had been stolen from Black slaves was explosive, and would result (as it did) in considerable publicity, along with which would come critical inspections of her argument. Inevitably, that argument has got caught up in larger culture wars about the British Empire, and Bulstrode’s article invites such engagement over and over again. But let’s leave the culture wars to one side, and read her serious critics.

The first is Anton Howes. He received his PhD three years before Bulstrode, has written a book published by Princeton University Press, and works on the history of technological innovation, primarily in the nineteenth-century. Howes is a serious figure; he has a widely-read substack in which he reports what he is thinking about, and there’s no doubt that he knows a lot and argues well. In a lengthy blog entry dated 7 July he took Bulstrode’s article to pieces. What makes his posting devastating is that he lists all the claims that Bulstrode makes and for which she provides no evidence. Let me summarise them:

There is no evidence:

i. That Reeder’s works were commercially successful because of a newly invented process.

ii. That if Reeder did have a new process it had been developed by his slave labourers.

iii. That the rollers used at Reeder’s works were the very specific sort required by the Cort process. Rollers were commonplace at foundries; and the rollers used in the sugar production process were very different.

iv. That Cort learned of the process used by Reeder, or acquired machinery from Reeder’s works.

In other words, there really is no evidence to support the claim that caused such a stir when Bulstrode published her article, that ‘one of the most important innovations in the making of the modern world’ was stolen ‘from Black metallurgists in Jamaica’.

Where does Howes’ piece leave us? The answer is simple: Bulstrode’s article is at best highly speculative, one might even say wildly speculative. There’s a sense in which she is fairly honest about this. Howes’ critique is based very largely on a close reading of her own text, to which he adds some knowledge of the Cort process and some illustrations of cane sugar mills. A key moment in Bulstrode’s article is the timeline she produces which is supposed to show that Cort must have got his knowledge from Jamaica – but post hoc propter hoc is a well-known fallacy.

Whatever fault one may want to attribute to Bulstrode at this point, it is clear that the referees who approved the article for publication should have seen that the argument was full of holes, and should have required that those holes were acknowledged as being filled with mere speculation. The story was, on the one hand, too good to be true; on the other irresistible. The journal should have demanded a much more careful, cautious presentation of the argument.

But now we must turn to the second critique. This is something of a mystery. It is written by someone called Oliver Jelf, who is described on the internet as an MA student. He has never published a book or a refereed article, and this essay appears on SocArKiv, which means it has been ‘moderated’ but not refereed. It appeared on 28 August. I assume Oliver Jelf really exists, but I can’t help being reminded of Bernoulli, who was shown an anonymous solution to a profoundly difficult problem. ‘Tanquam ex ungue leonem’, Bernoulli remarked. ‘We can recognise the lion from his claw’: only Newton could have done such work. If Jelf is indeed a real person he has a claw, and may prove to be a lion.

For what Jelf has done is go straight to the sources on which Bulstrode relies, and what he has found is a series of major errors. We thus enter very different territory from Howes’ critique. Howes shows that Bulstrode’s article is based on unwarranted speculation. Jelf shows it is based on misreadings and false claims – and I think we can trust him, because he supplies transcripts of the documents in an appendix. In his ‘Conclusion’ Jelf makes five points. The first three are of Howes’ ‘no evidence’ sort:

i. There is no evidence that the foundry in Jamaica used grooved rollers to process scrap metal into wrought iron.

ii. The foundry’s operations were [as far as we can tell] quite normal for the time, and the sources give sufficient detail to explain its notable success.

iii. The sources reveal little about the foundry’s workforce, and there is nothing to suggest that Black metalworkers in particular had developed a valuable ironworking technique.

But the last two are quite different.

Bulstrode claims that Henry Cort’s cousin John arrived in Portsmouth from Jamaica just before Henry made his big breakthrough. She is confident that he brought with him information about Reeder’s foundry and met with Henry. Unfortunately she appears to have confused two different ships, the Princess Royal and the Abby. The Princess Royal went to Portsmouth, but John on the Abby went to Lancaster not Portsmouth, so even if he had specialist information about Reeder’s foundry (which seems unlikely), and even if Reeder’s foundry was using a new rolling technique (also unlikely), he was in no position to transfer that knowledge to Henry.

Second, Bulstrode claims that when Reeder’s foundry was destroyed, the machinery was transferred to naval vessels, who may well have brought it back to Portsmouth, where it could have been reconstructed by Henry in a triumph of reverse engineering. If Bulstrode’s first error consisted in mixing up two different ships, her second error consists in failing to see that the sources say the machinery was destroyed. What was transferred to naval vessels was Reeder’s stock, which consisted of naval supplies such as anchors and cannons, all of which would have been useful to an invading force. Much of this was later returned to Reeder; there is no evidence to suggest any of it (let alone any of his machinery) reached England.

In summing up the first error Jelf writes: ‘Neither of the sources quoted above is ambiguous, and it is hard to believe that Bulstrode did not comprehend their true meaning when she cited them in support of her case. Each contains a clear refutation of her claim that John Cort sailed to Portsmouth and there told his relative Henry Cort about Reeder’s foundry. This alone is fatal to Bulstrode’s case.’ Can she really have misread the sources so badly? And can she really not have seen that at other points her sources failed to provide the evidence she needed?

Jelf quotes an article Bulstrode has published in a Jamaican newspaper: ‘Cort’s cousin told him […] of a major foundry, where black metallurgists had discovered a way to convert scrap into valuable new metal and huge profits. Within a few months of their conversation, the British government had put Jamaica under martial law and ordered the destruction of the foundry. The public reason was that the foundry might fall into enemy hands. However, in private, the military governor warned the foundry was too dangerous, because if Black Jamaicans could convert scrap metal into cannon, then they could undermine British manufacturers and overthrow British colonial rule.’

Unfortunately, if there is any evidence to support the claim that ‘in private, the military governor warned the foundry was too dangerous, because if Black Jamaicans could convert scrap metal into cannon, then they could undermine British manufacturers and overthrow British colonial rule’ it has yet to be published.

How to sum up this complicated and sorry tale? Bulstrode is a brilliant young historian who got carried away. A good deal of responsibility lies with the editors and referees of the journal, who should have seen that her argument was full of gaps. This isn’t a simple case where scholars disagree over how to interpret the evidence, or what significance it can be given. Bulstrode gives a misleading impression that the evidence goes much further than it really does. She and the journal are at fault, but we all make mistakes, and hope to learn from them, and she will, on the evidence as Howes presents it, go on to do fine work and have a successful career – though we may note the irony that Howes has not been awarded a prestigious prize while still a doctoral student, does not have a job at a prestigious institution, yet it is he who is the more careful, reliable, and indeed innovative scholar.

Jelf’s argument against her article is more serious. It raises the hint of academic malpractice, though in my judgement it falls far short of proving deliberate misrepresentation of the evidence. It successfully convicts Bulstrode (or so it seems at the moment) of playing fast and loose with the evidence. In the Spectator Andrew Tettenborn writes: ‘if we want to preserve any serious academic freedom, accusations of academic misconduct… need keeping carefully in check, and reserving for the most serious cases of fraud. No-one here is alleging any academic dishonesty in the sense of deliberately misstating evidence, suppressing some vital finding or inventing facts that are not there. The complaint about the Cort piece, even if it is right, is essentially about reasoning, balance and the proper treatment of evidence the other way: in short, an allegation of too little evidence and too much speculation. That is not malpractice.’

I can only conclude that Tettenborn has relied on the news articles in The Times and Telegraph, and perhaps, in addition to Bulstrode’s article, Howes’ critique. But he’s wrong. The complaint Jelf is making is that there has been suppression of vital findings, invention of facts that are not there, and misstatement of evidence. In the light of Jelf’s essay, Howes has hardened his own position markedly: ‘What I simply cannot fathom, now that I’ve read her sources thanks to Jelf’s transcriptions, is how Bulstrode arrived at her narrative at all… if you were to read those same sources before reading Bulstrode’s arguments, there is absolutely no way that you would derive the same conclusions as her.’)

I don’t think Tettenborn has deliberately erred in misstating the case against Bulstrode, but he has certainly erred. I don’t think Jelf has successfully made (or perhaps, on careful consideration, actually wants to make) the case that Bulstrode has deliberately mis-stated evidence. But the errors he points to are serious and puzzling. If we can blame the journal for not requiring Bulstrode to present her case more cautiously, we can’t expect even the most careful referees to catch her confusion between the Princess Royal and the Abby, or her failure to recognise that ‘stock’ and ‘machinery’ are not the same thing. In my opinion, facts have been misconstrued; in all probability not deliberately, for wishful thinking can be extraordinarily powerful.


David Wootton