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Empire and dispossession: Coal, communication, and the labour process at the origins of capitalism in British Columbia, 1849 – 1903

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Coal mining on Vancouver Island was a conjunctural point for two complementary systems of dispossession: capitalism and colonialism. Soon after London granted the island and its minerals to the Hudson’s Bay Company in January 1849, industrial mining began to replace the previously non-capitalist organization of the coalfield. The island shifted into industrialization in part through its entanglement in Pacific markets hungry for coal. The tools and capital that returned on homeward voyages hastened mining’s development, while transoceanic maritime networks provided inflows of labour power. As energy capital developed internally, strategies to displace Indigenous organization of the land were matched by efforts to alienate miners from acting as a class in their own interests. Through analysis of archival evidence, this project demonstrates that Vancouver Island mining before 1903 proceeded through a series of compounding deprivations, generally beneficial to islanders occupying dominant economic positions. Toward unpacking this history, “Empire and Dispossession” asks three questions: how did the coal industry support the development of capitalist social relations in the Pacific, north of parallel forty-nine; how did transportation systems sustain the expansion of empires operating on the island; and what social, political, and economic relationships conditioned technical change in the mines? Taken together, the answers to these questions root the development of capitalism in active power relationships of class and race. This project’s original contributions to communication studies include a historical narrative of Western Canadian capitalism, otherwise absent in the field; the development of a transportation-focused approach to communication, rooted in the work of Karl Marx; a history of Indigenous transportation and communication labour at the origins of capitalism on Vancouver Island; and a reinterpretation and application of labour-process theory to the mutually constitutive development of coal-mining machinery, social class, and race in the island’s mines.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Feenberg, Andrew
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