Slavery and Steam: steam power, railways and colonialism

The relationship between steam power and global trade is complex, from the adoption of steam power on plantations to the global distribution of materials and products, and the adoption of new business models to finance capital projects. Furthermore,the wealth generated in the colonial economy was a stimulus to industrialisation, long after the abolition of slavery in the UK and US.

Academic interest in the topic is uneven and spread across various disciplines, but there has been little dedicated interdisciplinary study on the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries when the established commercial, political, legal, and human networks and frameworks of slavery fed into the emerging systems of steam and railway infrastructure.

This project will examine the economic,social and infrastructural legacy of steam and slavery across the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The project will create a sustainable research network on the relationship between steam power and colonialism over the long nineteenth century (1750-1914). It will develop a greater understanding of how the advent of steam-power and railways was embedded in both colonial and the metropolitan infrastructures of commerce and transport. It will establish a new agenda for the communities impacted by the advent of steam and the global economy- from the plantation to the factory floor.


  1. to build academic connections to articulate a new interdisciplinary research agenda
  2. to engage museum and industry partners in developing new pathways to wide public impact
  3. to submit a major bid to the AHRC
  4. to improve public/museum engagement activities, and public facing activities around these issues to engage new and diverse audiences particularly from BAME backgrounds.

Lead Academics at Lead Institution:  

Prof. Jonathan Finch, (Deputy Director of the Humanities research Centre/Department of Archaeology, University of York)

Lead Academics at other two universities:

Dr Kate Pangbourne, (Deputy Director of the Leeds Social Sciences Institute/Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds)

Dr Rosie Knight, (Department of History, University of Sheffield)

Other staff


Dr Geoff Cubitt, (Department of History/Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, University of York)

Dr Kevin Tennent, (University of York Management School)

Dr David Turner (University of York Management School/Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of York)

Dr Sophie Vohra, Department of History / University of York Management School, (University of York)


Dr Anyaa Anim-Addo, (School of History, University of Leeds)

Dr Peter Maw, (School of History, University of Leeds)

Dr Amrita Mukherjee, (School of Law, University of Leeds)


Dr Andrew Heath, (Department of History, University of Sheffield)

Dr Michael Bennett, (Department of History, University of Sheffield)

Dr Esme Cleall, (Department of History, University of Sheffield)

Other partners:

National Railway Museum (NRM), York;
Science and Industry Museum (SIM), Manchester;
Network Rail;
Early Railways Conference Committee;
Leeds Industrial Museum/Leeds Museums & Galleries(LIM).

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