The role of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic coal route from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century: corporate strategies Miguel Suarez Bosa

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This paper analyses a factor that contributed to the maritime transport dynamic in the second half of the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth century: the supply of coal in Canary Islands ports to ships covering the Mid- and South Atlantic route. Till now, research has tended to be informed by the theory of a fully liberalised market where supplying companies were able to compete in terms of price and quality.

According to this theory, the quantities sold by each company were directly related to the prices at which such products were offered in the ports. This price, in turn, was fixed in accordance with the current coal purchasing price, to which the cost of transporting the coal to the supply docks would have to be added, together with loading, freight and import duties where applicable. In this situation, British coal – which combined low raw material costs with economical haulage costs – displaced Spanish mainland coal to an extent that the almost total lack of Spanish coal on offer in the Canary Islands ports became starkly apparent. The coal came mainly from English mines in Newcastle and Wales. The paper analyses the characteristics of the marketplace and transportation of this coal designated for maritime trade, and the role that the islands of the Iberian Atlantic archipelagos played as coaling stations, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, when coal ceased to be the main form of fuel used in shipping. An analysis is made of the quantities of coal supplied, corporate behaviour and supply conditions (prices, haulage etc.), filtering certain sets of statistics and adding others that are either unknown or unused to date.

The paper’s framework is therefore the role of coal in the development of maritime transportation within the context of capitalist expansion from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. It deals with the coal supply in the Canary Islands ports in relation to the other ports of the ‘coal route’ of the Iberian Atlantic Islands (the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde). Here the Canary Islands is treated as the central axis firstly because the Canary ports came to be the most important coaling stations in the Atlantic Ocean, and secondly because of the greater amount of available documentation. It also examines the companies that supplied coal in these ports, and in particular the domination of British companies in the Iberian Atlantic coaling business; and analyses coal sale and supply conditions, with particular reference to agreements made between the different companies with a view to forming a price cartel.

Please note a previous version of this paper was published in the International Journal of Maritime History, 16:1 (June 2004), pp.95-124.

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Miguel Suárez Bosa talks about the research behind the working paper: