The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893
The Electricity Building at night, at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair put many world firsts on display. There was the first Ferris wheel and the first moving sidewalk. You could chew on the world’s first Juicy Fruit gum and munch on a batch of the first chocolate brownies. You could ride in an electric elevator or an electric crane, and see electric boats whizzing about on the lake. You might even have caught the first game of night football or watched Nancy Green (better known under “Aunt Jemima” branding) flip her first pancakes.

It was a celebration of a very particular version of America, inviting the world to see the host nation as the pinnacle of progress and enlightenment – just as the British had done in 1851 with their Great Exhibition, and the French with their series of Expositions Universelles. Only a few decades on from the Civil War and abolition of slavery, the US was not only keen to show off its technological prowess, but to present a united sense of itself.

Timed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the fair’s official title was The World’s Columbian Exposition. This didn’t pass without complaint, with petitions and letters sent by Native American leaders to the organisers. At the event itself, Potawatomi chief Simon Pokagon gave a high-profile speech against celebrations of the Italian explorer, flipping the standard historical script on offer.

If the Great Exhibition is remembered for its Crystal Palace – a vision in industrial plate glass, cast iron and everything that the burning of coal for steam power could achieve – then the 1893 Chicago event left a glare of intense electrical light. Known as the White City, the fair’s 14 neoclassical-style buildings are a possible inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City in the Land of Oz. All lit up with electricity inside and out, each building was sprayed a specific shade of white to show off the gleam. The organisers also switched the electrical supply from coal to oil to avoid the air pollution causing smudges. Lighting in the fountains coloured water in successive flashes of green, yellow, blue, red and white, and the iconic Ferris wheel was studded with 3,000 bulbs, its twinkles reflected in the lake.

Never had so much artificial light been produced in one place. Most of the visitors wouldn’t have seen as much, accumulatively, in their whole lives. The glow could be seen a hundred miles away, thanks to a six-foot searchlight on the roof of one of the fair’s buildings, its reach increased through the use of a parabolic mirror.

But pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells was concerned that the whitewashing of the fair went further than the innovative use of spray paint and a selective history of Columbus. Along with Frederick Douglass and several other Black journalists, she pulled together a collection of essays: The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. Distributed through the expo’s Haitian Pavilion, the essays pushed against the idea of great American progress on display at the exposition. It challenged the fair’s organisers, asking how America could pat itself so smugly on the back for “progress” when people were being lynched. Where were the Black Americans in this vision of the modern United States? It’s not as if the US lacked Black innovators, artists and educators. Moreover, as the preface puts it: “The wealth created by [Black Americans] has afforded to the white people of this country the leisure essential to their great progress in education, art, science, industry and invention.”

They had a point, one we could readily expand to the history of the climate crisis at large. This isn’t to say that climate change would not have existed if it wasn’t for slavery. There are plenty of other ways groups of humans might have found to cook up global warming. But if you look at the technologies that built our modern addiction to fossil fuels, then colonialism – in particular, enslavement – provides a key context.

Slaves, steam and "Fossil Capital"

James Watt’s version of the steam engine was one of the crucial catalysts. Before Watt, steam engines were rare, inefficient beasts – of some limited use pumping water within coal mines, where the fuel was in easy reach, but rarely worth the bother elsewhere. Working with Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, Watt sold his improved machine to factories and mills, vastly expanding the market for burning coal in the process. Before long, steam engines were powering ships and trains too, and the patterns for what Andreas Malm calls “Fossil Capital” were set.

Both Boulton and Watt, like other British merchants of the time, had their pockets lined by slavery and other injustices of colonialism – at least indirectly. As Priya Satia’s book Empire of Guns shows, the city of Birmingham, where Boulton and Watt based their business, was especially enriched by gun-making, profiting from British colonial expansion and exploitation. Despite the anti-slavery stance of many in Boulton and Watt’s social circle (Josiah Wedgwood, for example), plantations in the Caribbean became a key market for their new engines.

Watt’s family history has a particularly clear link to slavery. His father worked in shipping out of the docks in Greenock, trading in goods such as tobacco and sugar. The family was also occasionally involved in trading enslaved people. In 2019, historian Stephen Mullen found evidence of James Watt himself being involved in the trafficking of an enslaved boy, Frederick, in 1762. In the end, Watt decided against joining the family business, moving to Glasgow and looking to a job in science and engineering instead. But the slavery link didn’t end there.

As well as family contacts at the university in Glasgow, Watt was lucky enough to arrive around the same time as a shipment of astronomy equipment, donated after the death of Alexander MacFarlane, a slave owner in Jamaica. MacFarlane had built himself a fine observatory to study the stars from his plantation. This bequest provided the basis for constructing Britain’s first purpose-built university observatory, but the equipment needed to be carefully cleaned and repaired first, having salted up in its trip over the ocean. This provided Watt with his first paid job, a crucial foot in the door at the university and a step up on the career ladder, which would eventually find him fixing a model steam engine and partnering with Boulton.

When it comes to fossil-powered transport, the story of steamships often starts with American inventor John Fitch. As the story goes, he’d been captured by Native Americans while exploring the Ohio River valley. Haunted later in life by nightmares of canoes chasing him, he imagined that a steam-powered ship might have helped him escape and started to build one on the Delaware River. This project was short-lived though, and Finch had little success selling his idea in France and England, ending his life in 1797 with a handful of opium pills washed down with a bottle of whiskey.

It would be another couple of decades before anyone managed to really sell the idea of steamships. The man to do this, Robert Fulton, was born in Pennsylvania, but ended up in Europe in his 20s and 30s, first working as an artist but later shifting to engineering. Whilst living in Paris, he met Robert Livingston – the politician, diplomat and one of the founding fathers of the United States. Livingston was in town negotiating the acquisition of Louisiana from the French. He was keen to invest some of his family fortune (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, had profited substantially from slavery) in steam-powered boats. With this new wealthy backer, Fulton built a steamship business first in New York and then on the Mississippi.

Before long, steamships were running on pretty much any expanse of water in the United States and many other parts of the world too. As Kirkpatrick Sale points out in The Fire of His Genius, his book on Fulton, in the two decades that followed the first steamboats arriving on the Mississippi, more people moved to the middle of America than the colonies had attracted in the previous two centuries. They were key not just to the movement of trades based on enslavement, like cotton, but also to the colonisation of the interior. And when the army beat Native American communities back, they arrived on steamboats – a sad twist on Fitch’s nightmares a century before.

As for trains, the East India Company brought steam railways to India, with a line between Mumbai and Thane opening in 1853. Presented as the embodiment of civilisation, which the British were graciously endowing on India, the trains were always an imperial project, designed by British people for British interests. Like the Manchester and Liverpool Railway back in the UK before it, at its heart was the movement of cotton. Moreover, once up and running, the railway was speedily used to transport forces against the First Indian War of Independence in 1857.

In the US, an iconic railway – running east to west – stitched the country together after the Civil War. As with steamships, this helped white Americans move further into the interior of the country, taking millions of acres of land from indigenous nations. When they resisted, railroad officials and military authorities responded by cutting off food supplies or, in several cases, with brutal massacres.

Genocide and the Little Ice Age

There’s at least one story that bucks the trend. In 1906, Tamil lawyer V. O. Chidambaram Pillai – known by his initials V. O. C. – registered an Indian-owned steam shipping company in Thoothukudi, a port on the southern tip of India. Inspired by the Swadeshi movement, which used boycotts of British goods as a form of resistance against imperial rule, he sold shares door-to-door for the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, raising a million rupees for steam power owned by and for Indians. His ship, painted in the colours of the Swadeshi flag and emblazoned with a provocative nationalist slogan from a Bengali poem, ran between Thoothukudi and Colombo, irritating the British India Steam Navigation Company immensely.

The British fought back hard, cutting prices and at one point giving out free umbrellas to attract customers away from V. O. C.’s boats. Sadly, this era of steam-powered anti-colonialism was short-lived. V. O. C. was arrested in 1909 for inciting a strike at a cotton mill, and the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was liquidated in 1911. Still, this attempt to use steam power for Indians by Indians helps us appreciate that the politics of fossil fuels didn’t necessarily need to play out the way they did.

It’s also worth remembering links between colonialism and climate change didn’t start with the crisis we currently find ourselves in. In 1610, there was a dip in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. At the time, no one would have noticed, but in 2019 researchers at UCL discovered it hidden in bubbles of ancient air buried deep in polar ice. The researchers traced this shift in carbon dioxide levels back to the colonisation of the Americas a century or so before – or more precisely, to the deaths of 60 million indigenous people which followed (10 per cent of the world’s population at the time). The scale of the massacre meant land cleared for farming by indigenous Americans grew back. Indeed, an area roughly the size of France was reforested, breathing in enough carbon dioxide to have caused at least a temporary lowering of global temperatures.

The researchers have linked this dip in carbon dioxide to the so-called “Little Ice Age”, a series of cold snaps between roughly 1350 and 1850. Though not quite cold enough to be a true Ice Age, it was certainly cold. At the more carnivalesque end of this, there were frost fairs on thickly frozen rivers and lakes, and stories of Henry VIII sleighing down the Thames between palaces. The darker side saw whole villages destroyed by growing glaciers. Prolonged cold and dry periods had an impact on crops and livestock. People starved. Some environmental historians have framed this as a warning from history, tracing the changes in weather to a rise in anti-Semitism, a period of witch-hunts as well as several wars.

As Dagomar Degroot argues in his book The Frigid Golden Age, there were winners too when it came to this Little Ice Age, just as there are people who make a buck from climate change today. Migration within Europe, for example, benefited the Netherlands greatly, as many “great minds” of the time moved there, helping to fuel a so-called Dutch Golden Age of international prestige in trade, art and science. The changing weather conditions also may have sped up Dutch ships bound for Asia and the Americas. Or to put it another way, climate change helped fuel some colonialism, as well as the other way around.

Climate reparations and a new idea of progress

Today, the legacies of climate change and colonialism are felt most strongly through inequalities of both carbon emissions and climate impacts. As Tim Gore, Oxfam’s former policy lead on climate change, points out, the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10 per cent of global emissions and yet live overwhelmingly in countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts. This is partly a quirk of geography. Britain’s weather, for example, is relatively boring compared to the rest of the world and even as climate change bites, we get off relatively mildly.

But it’s a long way from simple happenstance. Britain is one of a handful of countries which has spent hundreds of years sucking resources from other parts of the world, leaving it in a better financial position to both protect itself from and cause greater quantities of pollution. This is why issues like climate financing are so hotly contested at UN climate conferences, and why we might expect to see more calls for “climate reparations” in future years.

With politicians, engineers and businesses increasingly talking about a new “green” industrial revolution to tackle the climate crisis, it’s worth looking back to that big smoky industrial revolution of Watt and Fulton. In doing so, we should remember not only the opportunities characters like these were afforded because of colonialism, and riches amassed through enslavement – but leaders like V. O. C. Pillai and his Swadeshi steamship too.

How might emerging technology, and the new powers it gives to people, be mobilised to change the political rules with which we’ve played the game so far? Further, as fears about eco-fascism increase, we shouldn’t forget that genocide-induced drop in carbon dioxide at the start of the 17th century. It’s vital we don’t just demand climate action, but fair and just climate action. We could all too easily imagine a route to net zero by way of exploitation and injustice, even genocide.

As we try to navigate the possible futures on offer to us, we could do worse than revisit Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and their colleagues’ critique of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Whose future is on display here, whose idea of progress? Who is it made by, for whom? Who, crucially, is missing? Whose pain and whose achievements have been left out? What is being celebrated, and what is being covered up, with a blast of gleaming white light?

This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.