Combine and Conquer: Managing Colonial Resource Security in the Age of Disequilibrium

This paper analyzes the post-WWI boom and bust in a wider temporal context, centering anxieties over manganese access. Little-studied, but critically important, manganese was an essential ingredient for steelmaking, but none of the industrial powers possessed suitable domestic deposits. Scholars have emphasized the problem of glut, as wartime production created supplies which outstripped peacetime demand. I reframe the problem in terms of access. The collapse of currency stability and closure of credit markets spelled doom for primary product producers—not only because there was less demand for their products, but because consumers lacked the means and facilities to acquire them. For major steelmakers, despite the accumulation of mineral stocks, the material shortages endured during WWI and memories of the blockade had cemented the need to secure sustained access to strategic mineral resources unavailable at home. Minerals like manganese can help highlight how mineral geoeconomics and interdependence between the World Wars shaped foreign and commercial relations, by showing how firms, states, and colonial governments adopted different strategies to navigate post-war disequilibrium. Using the Central Provinces of India Manganese Ore Company (CPMOC) as a case study, I examine how its directors navigated post-war bottlenecks, price and production dislocation, and new competition. Facing deteriorating mining conditions, CPMOC’s directors tried to drum up more business with promises of new transport infrastructure, lowered freight rates, and investments in extractive efficiency—all of which were contingent on obtaining new, long-term contracts. For CPMOC’s directors, new American tariffs on manganese imports, W. Averell Harriman’s new Soviet manganese concession, and upstarts in South Africa and the Gold Coast created inauspicious conditions for winning new business. Muddling through the crisis, CPMOC’s directors eventually sought out stability amid the disequilibria through an imperial combination with British smelting industries. This paper plots their strategy into global, structural geopolitical and economic conditions.