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Priya Satia on her new book Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution

Published: May 30, 2018
For more information on Empire of Guns visit the publisher’s website here.


I did not set out to write a history of the industrial revolution, though the sources of global inequality have long intrigued me. Indeed, my graduate student career began with a master’s degree in development economics at the London School of Economics. When I became frustrated with the way economics as a discipline took context—existing global disparities—for granted, I decided to pursue a PhD in history instead. As a history student at UC Berkeley, I took Brad de Long and Barry Eichengreen’s course in economic history alongside first-year PhD economics students. I did an exam field in economic history.

After my first book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Origins of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008), I resolved to study the history of arms trading to integrate economic questions into my understanding of imperial state power. While searching for the beginnings of that story, I stumbled on the Farmer-Galton family, owners of the largest gun-making firm in eighteenth-century Britain. They were the forefathers of the eugenicist Francis Galton, whose traits he cherished as the sources of his own, hereditary genius. Curiously, apart from one article in Business History,historians had not shared Francis’s curiosity about his ancestors.

This was especially curious given that the Farmer-Galtons were Quakers and gun-makers. Indeed, the endogamous Quaker marriage networks that produced Francis Galton helped persuade him of the virtue of carefully selected reproduction. Even more curious was the fact that the gun business the family started in 1702 attracted no negative comment within Quaker networks until the 1790s, when, suddenly, it became a scandal.  

I made for the Galton papers in the Birmingham City Archives to make sense of these mysteries, and, to my surprise, discovered a new possible narrative of the industrial revolution. For, in defending his gun-making business to concerned fellow Quakers in 1796, Samuel Galton Junior argued that there was no way to participate in the economy around him in the Midlands without contributing to war. As he saw it, complicity in war was general and inescapable. Galton printed his defense for posterity; even if he was rationalizing, he was in earnest. 

I wondered, what if he was right? What if, in fact, Britain’s continuous wars from 1689 to 1815, which made it the preeminent global imperial power, had some bearing on the fact that the industrial revolution happened there, then? Was this a clue to that old mystery—the origins of global inequality, that hinge moment known as the “great divergence” between East and West? 

So, I wound up writing about the industrial revolution by accident. Samuel Galton Junior may have been a white rabbit; but the stakes of the question made it worth my while to go down the rabbithole and retrain as a historian of the eighteenth century. 

I had never been quite satisfied by the idea that some unique British cultural trait could explain why the industrial revolution happened there; the contextual factors that produced such traits existed across a wider space than Britain. I found more compelling explanations that reckoned with the specificities of the British context: for instance, Maxine Berg’s argument that the industrial revolution was the outcome of a British effort at “import-substitution” to produce imitations of Asian luxury goods. 

But as I explored Galton’s perspective, I became increasingly convinced that explanations of industrial revolution based on commercial demand were insufficient; there were too many government officials involved in knowledge networks, too much overlap between commercial and government demand, and too many instances in which large government contracts triggered innovation in either technology or industrial organization. The state was a consumer, too, and many commercial consumers, like the East India Company, were tied to the state.

The gun industry provided the focus of my assessment of Galton’s view of the world. I examined the records of gun-makers in London and Birmingham, records of the London and Birmingham Quaker communities, government and parliamentary records relating to contracting and the gun trade abroad, East India Company records, and a wide array of sources on gun use in eighteenth-century Britain and in British colonies abroad. 

All this persuaded me that the gun industry’s dramatic transformation in the long eighteenth century—from an annual production capacity of tens of thousands in the 1690s to millions by 1815—was driven by state demand and intervention. Moreover, the gun industry had important ripple effects in allied fields. In short, the guns that enabled the rule of property in Britain, the trade in slaves in West Africa, the rise of the plantation system in North America, and the conquest of North America, South Asia, and the South Pacific alsoenabled industrial revolution in Britain.

As I immersed myself in the literature on the industrial revolution, I found scattered within it evidence that the gun trade was no anomaly, that many trades and sectors benefited from government contracts in the long eighteenth century—including the financial world. The Galtons themselves became bankers in 1804, as their fortune from gun making skyrocketed during the Napoleonic Wars. Their bank later merged with what became Midland Bank, now folded into HSBC. When Galton defended himself as a Quaker gun-maker in 1796, he was painfully aware that his prominent Quaker relations, the Lloyds and the Barclays, owned banks intimately involved with war finance; indeed, the Lloyds had also supplied iron to his gun business. The ties between banks and war-related industry suggest that we may have drawn too fine a line between industrial and “gentlemanly” capitalism. After all, like many metal objects in the period, guns were a currency, too.

Their prominence in the abolition movement made Quakers especially concerned with members’ adherence to Quaker principle in the 1790s. They were not persuaded by Galton Junior’s pragmatic arguments. He was formally disowned—although he continued to attend the worship in Birmingham, and his donations to Quaker charitable causes were accepted. Later Quakers looked more favorably upon his defense, and he was certainly not alone in his own time in perceiving a connection between arms-making and industrialism. Indeed, British officials in India were so alive to such a connection that they actively suppressed Indian arms-making to prevent industrial take-off in the subcontinent. The story of Britain’s industrial revolution was global in its sources and impact; the Galtons showed me the hinge.

We have missed it for as long as we have—despite our awareness that war has stimulated economic growth in other periods—because of the weight of eighteenth-century political economic theory. For, as military contracting drove economic transformation in Britain, political economists like Adam Smith criticized it as corruption, urging clearer distinction between state and economy. Theory displaced reality, and the period’s military history and economic history evolved along parallel lines. The story of military purchasing shows us that these histories were not parallel or even merely intersecting, but deeply entangled. The state’s bulk demand was critical to industry in the long eighteenth century. 

The industrial revolution is an epic topic of British history—one of the reasons for the field’s depth and strength. But the common-sense view of it remains one of heroic entrepreneurship embodied by the likes of Matthew Boulton and James Watt—a view with deep imaginative influence on conversations about what drives innovation today and what role governments should have in economies. Certainly, Boulton and Watt were heroic, but they were also government contractors mixed up with gun-makers. That is the crucial backdrop that Empire of Guns inserts into the story, with the hope of changing our common-sense view of this world-historical event. 

Doing so can help us make better sense of our present discontents. After all, Galton Junior printed his defense for posterity—for us. As Americans struggle to tame the gun industry’s influence on politics and culture, we must do so well aware of the central place of military- (or “defense-”) industries in our economy. By focusing on Galton Junior’s particular villainy, the British Quaker community absolved Friends who profited more elliptically from war. But Galton was right: war was central to the first industrial revolution, and it remains central to our industrial way of life today.

Priya Satia is a Professor of Modern British History at Stanford University.



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