A World of Copper: Workshops

Members of the World of Copper project met three times during 2012 and 2013. 

The first workshop was held at the University of Swansea in April 2012.

Delegates convened for the second workshop in the South Australian Heritage Town of Burra in September 2012.

The final workshop took place in April 2013 at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile.

The workshops addressed the following themes:

Technology, Labour and Industrial Development

Mining companies brought with them distinctive technologies: mining and ore dressing methods from Cornwall and processing techniques that were Welsh. Quite often the companies were local pioneers of steam technology, with railways and telegraphy following closely behind. With what success was this technological package installed in new environments? To what extent did it 'hybridise' as it was dispersed? To what degree did imported technologies remain the preserve of British 'experts'?

The mines brought together very varied sets of people. Some elite migrant workers had long-held views on workplace justice and the organisational power to enforce them. At the other end of the spectrum were men and women who were plunged into a totally novel industrial environment and whose ability to alter the labour regime was minimal. How did issues of class, gender, ethnicity and race play out in different mining communities?

The relationship between the various mining settlements and Swansea district was, as far as Swansea's copper masters were concerned, to be one of subordination. That perspective was not shared in Chile and Australia. With what success did some mining centres break free of Swansea's tutelage?

 Communities and Diasporas

 The jurisdictional contexts in which mining communities were found differed widely. Australia's mines were in one of Britain's formal colonies and those of Chile in one of Britain's 'informal' imperial spheres; Cuba's were in the empire of another European power. Likewise, systems of community governance were very varied. In some regions the structures of local administration were well established; in others the locality was an open imperial frontier.

 Copper mining at the behest of Swansea's smelters brought up-to-the-minute technology and enterprise to the peripheries of modernity. How were host communities affected? Mining companies, with their appetite for water and space, were not good neighbours. On the other hand, their demand for goods and services could act as a stimulus to those with the capacity to exploit the possibilities. 

 Copper mining relied on diasporas willing and unwilling, bonded and free: Africans, Asturians, Chinese, Irish, Welsh and others. What cultural characteristics did they bring and what legacies did they leave? Such questions have been addressed with respect to the ubiquitous Cornish miner; other diasporic groups have not been so well served. Major questions also remain with respect to the relations between different diasporas and between diasporas and host communities.

 In Swansea itself, increasing reliance on overseas ores had profound consequences for the town. The South Wales-Cornwall axis, which had sustained Swansea's smelters for the first century of their development, was superseded by a new commercial order. Personal connections and established links between ore field and smelting site had to be re-negotiated on an international scale. Meanwhile landowners, industrialists and local government leaders strove to expand dock facilities at a pace sufficient to meet the demands of the new trans-oceanic shipping fleets. Maritime communities and seafaring labour markets underwent change in tandem. 

Global markets and globalising products

During Swansea's moment of global dominance her industrialists developed special products for niche markets, particularly in Asia, demonstrating global reach and attention to local detail. Questions of design and marketing are scarcely gestured at in the existing literature but product differentiation was an important corollary of Swansea copper’s globalisation. Some new uses were themselves powerful vehicles of global integration, such as electrical telegraphy, which from the 1840s constituted an unanticipated market for copper wire and for improved varieties of refined copper.

After 1870 the development of ore fields in North America and the maturing of rival smelting-refining centres, especially in the United States, brought the 'Swansea moment' to a close, but for the previous forty years a Welsh-centred copper sector had been the pioneer global industry. For historians it represents a prime opportunity to critique and extend the field of global history.



Further information on the individual workshops can be found here:

Swansea, April 2012

Burra, September 2012

Santiago, April 2013