Oxbridge dons have accused a rival scholar of “undermining the history of Britain” with “absolutely no evidence” in a row over claims that a key figure of the Industrial Revolution stole his idea from Jamaican slaves.
A leading academic journal has now launched a formal investigation after a history lecturer at University College London, Dr Jenny Bulstrode, claimed that Henry Cort, who is widely credited for inventing a groundbreaking new iron-making process in 1784, was not, in fact, responsible for the innovation.
Her paper, published in the prestigious journal History and Technology, said that his method for processing scrap iron into high-quality wrought iron was “theft...from Black metallurgists in Jamaica,” and his patent was “false mirrors for imperial eyes to picture themselves as they built their institutional lies”.
However, leading scholars have declared there is “absolutely no evidence” for the theory and accuse Dr Bulstrode of “ideologising history”. They have demanded that UCL investigates the “scandal”. Taylor and Francis, the publisher, has confirmed it has launched its own investigation.
Dr Bulstrode claims that a foundry in Jamaica was using grooved rollers to process scrap metal into wrought iron several years before Cort obtained his patent. She also argues that 76 black workers there were responsible for this innovation and that the foundry was demolished under a false pretext, with Cort conspiring for its machinery to be shipped for him to use in Portsmouth during the Industrial Revolution.
Rival academics have trawled through the primary sources that Dr Bulstrode used and claim to have found misreadings, missing words, and evidence stating the contrary.
‘Almost a fairy tale’
Prof Lawrence Goldman, a leading historian at the University of Oxford, said the lecturer “constructed a story that is literally too good to be true…almost fairy tale’
“It’s serious, and evidence of how reason and facts are being suspended in the search for ever more ways to undermine the history of Britain and its empire,’ he told The Telegraph.
“We must give Jenny Bulstrode every chance to explain herself. We must also expect University College London, where she teaches, to investigate what has gone on, as, on the face of it, this is a serious infringement of academic conventions and the pursuit of historical truth,” he said.
In a rival academic article, Oliver Jelf, another history scholar, analysed Dr Bulstrode’s primary sources and said they showed ‘absolutely no evidence’ for the theory.
He said there was no evidence of grooved rollers ever existing at Reeder’s Pen, the foundry at Morant Bay in Jamaica established in 1772 by an Englishman, John Reeder, which forms the focal point of her thesis.
Mr Jelf also found it was “almost impossibly unlikely” that the 76 “black metallurgists who ran John Reeder’s foundry… transformed scrap metal into valuable bar iron,” as Dr Bulstrode claims, and that no new iron processing technique was ever linked to the foundry by Mr Reeder.
His paper also claimed that Cort’s relative John did not sail to Portsmouth and tell him about the foundry, as originally alleged, and the foundry was destroyed to fend off enemy troops - not under any pretext of “black retribution” as Dr. Bulstrode claimed - and no parts of the foundry were moved to Portsmouth afterward.
He also accused Dr Bulstrode of going “far beyond reasonable inference and veer[ing] into unsupported speculation” in interviews since the piece was published, on a podcast called The Context of White Supremacy.
A senior academic at Cambridge University, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the row: “The fundamental principle one has to abide by is ‘Plato is my friend but the truth even more,’ attributed to his young rival Aristotle.”
‘Multiple smoking guns’ required
Anton Howes, an expert in the history of innovation who has also considered the controversial paper, said: “Bulstrode’s narrative requires multiple smoking guns to work, none of which are in the evidence she presents… something that ought to have been picked up by the journal’s peer reviewers.”
Prof Goldman said that he thought the academic was “a victim of the system” which “encourages young researchers to choose certain types of subject, and, in order to stand out in the crowd, to reach surprising or even sensational conclusions, irrespective of the evidence,” with “any research that is in tune with academic fashion and the ‘zeitgeist’ is likely to be published and celebrated”.
A UCL spokesman said: “We are committed to maintaining and safeguarding the highest standards of integrity in all areas of research and take any allegations of research impropriety very seriously. We understand the journal has launched a review process and we will await the outcome of this.”
A spokesman for Taylor and Francis said ‘there is currently an investigation into the criticisms being carried out by History and Technology and the Taylor & Francis Publication Ethics and Integrity Team, following our usual processes. Since that investigation is ongoing, we are not able to provide any further comment on the issue.’
Dr Bulstrode said: “My peer-reviewed research used a combination of shipping records, old newspapers and evidence in Jamaica, which are conventional methods of historical investigation.
“The comments raised are now being reviewed by the journal, and should I be asked, or where new evidence arises I will work with the journal to strengthen the evidence or add any addendums as is usual in academic discourse.”