Thermal Horizons: Energy and Infrastructures of British Power in Asia, c.1830-90

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

Abstract / Description of output

At least since the advent of postcolonial theory in the twentieth century, the history of architecture vis-à-vis empire has tended to focus on built form as an inflection of the unequal relationships embedded in cultural encounter and imperial conquest. However, the rise of the current global climate crisis is precipitating a shift of emphasis in this critique towards the role of energy in mediating, if not determining, those relationships. One of the key questions for scholars now is what further inferences can be gleaned from the colonial built environment and its concomitant spatial strategies through exploring the relationship between architecture, empire, and energy.

As many scholars have argued, one of the greatest step changes in the history of human civilisation was the invention of technology during the nineteenth century that enabled the efficient transformation of stored solar radiation into rotary mechanical force, bringing into being what some have termed the ‘coal development block’. The increase in opportunities for the application of energetic power resulting from this transformation overlapped with and dramatically compounded its political equivalents, leading to new and devastatingly efficient means of subjugation, extraction, and control. Realising this new type of ‘power’ required structuring to achieve its full potential. In this the built environment was a fundamental organising principle that both channelled and amplified energetic power relations. Buildings, when understood as nodal points in wider structural networks of extraction and supply, were crucial to larger systems-based infrastructures.

This paper will map out ways of understanding this infrastructure, in the process connecting it to wider frames of analysis in the energy and environmental humanities. In this the activities of the China Trade firm Jardine, Matheson & Co will be considered as a case study for understanding how ‘free trade imperialism’, on the scale implemented, was enabled through the harnessing and secure control of fossil-fuel energy supplies. This will be considered for the implications it had on the formal and informal extension of imperial power across the Asia Pacific region.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 23 Feb 2024
EventAsia’s Carbon Territories: Infrastructure, Environment, and Society from the Age of Imperialism to the Climate Crisis - Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore
Duration: 23 Feb 202424 Feb 2024


WorkshopAsia’s Carbon Territories
Internet address

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • climate change
  • coal
  • fossil fuels
  • imperialism
  • Jardine
  • Matheson
  • shipping
  • mining


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