March 17, 2022
Great Britain’s rail history has been thrown under the train after the National Museum of Wales declared the steam-powered vehicles to be “rooted in colonialism and racism.”
While the museum — having several Welsh museums in its purview — has admitted it cannot prove “direct links between the Trevithick locomotive and the slave trade,” they insist the locomotive is still implicated because “links to slavery are woven into the warp and weft of Welsh society.”
The museum seeks to “identify collections linked to colonial aggression and the trans-Atlantic slave trade” as part of its ‘Charter for Decolonizing’ audit.
“We will review this area of our collection in collaboration with our community partners to ensure that we give clear and explicit information to audiences on the sometimes complex history of objects in our collections and the stories they tell. This will form part of our wider decolonizing work,” the museum said.
By the time railroads spread across the British Empire in the 1850s, slavery had already been abolished in Britain for forty years.
The museum has in its collection a full-sized reproduction of Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive. The engine debuted in 1804 replacing a team of horses.
On its debut, the locomotive pulled a train nine miles along the line at the Penydarren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. The journey was an industrial first and was widely recognized as being an achievement “ahead of its time.”
“Trade and colonial exploitation were embedded in Wales’ economy and society and were fundamental to Wales’ development as an industrialized nation,” a museum spokesperson said.
“As we continue to audit the collection, we will explore how the slave trade linked and fed into the development of the steam and railway infrastructure in Wales.”
The inventor from Cornwall, Richard Trevithick, had no known personal links to the slave trade. Trevithick was working at Coalbrookdale on water pumps when he started work on his first railway locomotive. He was a British inventor and mining engineer born in 1771 into the mining heartland of Cornwall, southwest England.
Papers suggest Trevithick began work on the locomotive in the fall of 1803. By February of the next year he had finished the engine. Tradition says the owner of the nearby Cyfarthfa ironworks, Richard Crawshay, was very skeptical of the new engine. He and a couple of his associates placed a bet of 500 guineas each with Richard Hill of the Plymouth ironworks as to whether or not the engine could haul ten tons of iron to Abercynon, and haul the empty wagons back.