Coaling by James McBey



A watercolour painting by James McBey, a British war artist, as commissioned by Wellington House. The image was later transferred to the Department and Ministry of Information and then to the Imperial War Museum. The image depicts Egyptian dockworkers loading crates of coal onto a transport ship.


James McBey was born in 1883 and raised near Aberdeen, Scotland. A former bank clerk, he worked in Morocco in 1912 and was appointed as an official British war artist on 21 April 1917. McBey followed the main body of British forces in their advance north from Suez through Palestine, the Lebanon, and Syria. Though he was never placed with T. E. Lawrence’s campaign, his paintings of Lawrence and some Arab chiefs when they did meet undoubtedly enhanced McBey’s reputation.
In ‘Coaling’, McBey captured the process of refuelling transport ships by the local people, in this case Egyptian dockworkers. The image is reminiscent of descriptions of ‘coaling’ in ports like the Suez Canal, Aden, or Colombo as recorded in the diaries and letters of colonial troops, particularly those from New Zealand and Australia. Often, this was the first encounter the combatants had with ‘native’ people in ‘foreign’ lands as their long journeys on the ship were welcomingly disrupted by docking at port. Though this represented their ‘arrival’ in a new land and the opportunity to explore, the soldiers were also anxious and wary of the colonial structures and racial dynamics in place in the unfamiliar setting. McBey’s blurred depiction of the numerous non-white people labouring to reload the ship echoes the description by the soldiers of ‘crowds’ or ‘swarms’ of natives who were perceived en masse as threatening to the white troops. The racial assumptions made by the men in their written accounts was often a way of exerting control and asserting their own superiority in these settings. McBey’s painting, homogenising the dockworkers could be seen to serve a similar purpose.