SOAS University of London

Japan Research Centre

From Black Ships to Black Smoke: Karatsu coal in the history of transpacific Japan

Black Ships Monsters
Prof Martin Dusinberre (University of Zurich)

Date: 25 November 2020Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 25 November 2020Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Virtual Event

Type of Event: Webinar


In the classic woodblock prints depicting Commodore Perry's 1853 arrival in Japan, the key protagonist is often taken to be the black ships. But in this paper, I shall argue that the most important--and overlooked--element of the print was the billowing black smoke. And this, in turn, leads historians towards a difference conception of the "terraqueous" in the history of mid-nineteenth century Japan. For in the new age of steam, ships had to be coaled; and in their need for coal, ships on the seas were in fact bound ever more tightly to the land. Thus, as US leaders and entrepreneurs sought to expand their Pacific presence following the annexation of California (1848), they increasingly turned to Japan, a land which they believed to be "abundant" with coal. My paper first reconstructs the line of knowledge which led back from the corridors of power in Washington DC, via the mediation of Philipp Franz von Siebold, to the coalfields of Karatsu (northwest Kyushu). In trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the steamship and the land, the paper secondly reconstructs the labour that contributed to the coal’s journey from mine to engine room. Shamelessly piggybacking on William Cronon’s "Kennecott Journey: the Paths Out of Town" (1992), my paper concludes with a reflection on how a transpacific history of global breadth must also be, thanks to the materiality of coal, an analysis of earthly depth.

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From Black Ships to Black Smoke: Karatsu coal in the history of transpacific Japan

Speaker Biography

Martin Dusinberre is Professor and Chair for Global History at the University of Zurich. Author of Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan (2012), his work has more recently examined Japan's place in the mid-nineteenth century Pacific world. He is co-editor of special issues of The Journal of Global History (on the concept of shipboard transits), Historische Anthropologie (on sugar Transplantation in the Pacific World) and The Historical Journal (on history-writing between East Asia and Europe). In 2020, he also launched a text-based computer game, "Lives in Transit" to teach BA and MA students about global history methodologies. He completed an MA in Japanese Studies at SOAS in 2002.


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Organiser: SOAS Japan Research Centre

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