Wars, not just genius, fuelled Britain’s industrial revolution

Turning point.
Turning point.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
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Conventional wisdom says Britain’s transformation in the 18th century from an agrarian economy to an industrial one was largely midwifed by technological innovation and mechanisation, as symbolised by the steam engine and the cotton factories, respectively.

However, in a new book titled Empire of Guns, Priya Satia, a professor of British history at Stanford University, argues that this isn’t the whole story. In fact, it was war that fueled the industrial revolution, and specifically war in the colonies, including India.

While doing research on the history of the global arms trade, Satia stumbled upon the story of one Samuel Galton Jr, born in 1753, who presided over a Quaker family business in Birmingham that would go on to become the largest gun manufacturing firm in Britain and a key supplier to the East India Company (EIC). When asked in 1795 to defend his line of business to the critical Quaker church, Galton Jr maintained that guns were an instrument of civilisation, not just war, and that Britain was actually a military-industrial society.

For Satia, this was eye-opening since it suggested that rather than an emerging industrial economy, Britain was actually shaping up to be a military economy in the 18th century. In this context, the widely accepted idea of “unfettered geniuses,” rather than the warring British state, sparking economic transformation seemed particularly misleading.

“For some reason when we talk about the invention of industrialism in the 18th century, it’s always a very pacific affair. It was about entrepreneurial genius, a culture of tinkering, some special cultural qualities in Britain, rather than the fact that Britain is always at war,” Satia told Quartz. This idea, she argues in the book, has in turn shaped the way the world has thought about stimulating development for over 200 years, even though it’s wrong. 

Recognising the connection between war manufacturing and economic development, the British sought to suppress arms-making traditions in their colonies, especially India, to ensure that they stayed relatively underdeveloped. For instance, the EIC’s forces went on to capture and take over the arms-making facilities of Indian rulers like Tipu Sultan, at the same time selling British guns to the native princes.

In a recent conversation with Quartz, Satia explained how that legacy lives on in today’s Indian government.

Edited excerpts:

What was the firearms industry in India like before the British arrived? 

In India, there were gun-making traditions that had been established by the Mughals because there’s a lot of exchange in the 17th century between the adjacent empires, the Ottoman empire, the Safavids…and the Portuguese. Through those connections, there was exposure in the subcontinent to the ways of gun-making.

Then the Europeans entered this competitive arena, bringing in their firearms and technologies. 

How exactly was Indian arms-making influenced by the British?

When the British arms started to come into the subcontinent, they were being sold to Indians, they were trade goods in the subcontinent. But as the EIC became an imperial power, they were also buying guns to arm the army they (subsequently) used to conquer the subcontinent. So these English-made arms are increasingly pervasive in the subcontinent and Indian gun-makers could copy some of that technology. There were even smuggling networks in which old British guns could be purchased and reassembled or repaired.

How did guns fuel the industrial revolution in Britain? 

Guns alone didn’t drive the industrial revolution. I’m using them as a case for looking at a larger argument that war generally drove the industrial revolution in Britain. There were all kinds of war material that the government needed. The (wars) were being fought in Europe, but also at sea, in North America, the Caribbean, and in India. So this was a huge logistical challenge: They needed firearms but they also needed all kinds of materials for ships; stationery; ink; they needed uniforms, buttons, and buckles; bedding, medicine, even the coin that’s used to pay the soldiers.

All of that bulk purchasing by the state…over the course of the 18th century was a really important driver of industrialism in Britain.

Many British people…were aware that this military purchasing was driving industrialism. And then I looked at some of the correspondence of British officials in India, (in which) people would say, “Well look, there are rich metalworking traditions here. Why are we buying all of our firearms from England and shipping them here? Maybe it’s worth exploring sourcing them locally and more cheaply.” And then whenever that idea came up, British officials would say, “Wait a minute. Do we really want to do that, because we know that could be really dangerous. One, we would lose the profit of selling our English guns here, and two, we would be reviving and strengthening metalworking and, thus, industrial traditions in India, which will not be good for Britain.”

For some reason when we talk about the invention of industrialism in the 18th century, it’s always a very pacific affair. It was about entrepreneurial genius, a culture of tinkering, some special cultural qualities in Britain, rather than the fact that Britain was always at war.

In a recent article for Aeon, you talked about how the British tried to strangle India’s arms-making industry. Can you tell us more about that?

There was an effort to kind of smother (Indian arms-making). They would rather have Indian polities armed with British guns than have them making their own guns. So step by step, in each place that the EIC conquered, they either smothered those traditions or they co-opted them and made them part of the EIC’s capacity.

Some people said, well, why are we supplying Indian princes with English guns. What if they use those guns against us? And from the British point of view that was still better than having Indians use Indian guns, because they felt that just by providing those guns they’re kind of also purchasing a little bit of the allegiance of Indian princes. (The British) have some influence that way and make some profit. If they didn’t sell guns to them, the Indian princes would buy guns from the French or the Dutch. That would be no good to the British. So, for them, the best compromise was to sell British-made guns to even people who seemed to be their enemies in the subcontinent.

As a result of colonialism, India is obviously far behind Britain. What role did this aspect of history have in it?

It’s not that India fell behind. It’s that India’s economy was oriented to serve the British economy. You can, I think, talk about a relative de-industrialisation of India in the 18th century. Whatever industrial capacity was there was negatively affected by British presence in India, and then the question is how does India rebuild that capacity?

Certainly I do think that things that happened in the 18th century have had a long-term impact in India, and I know that some people say India has now been independent for 70 years, and it’s still not catching up. But I think that really underestimates the strength of the legacy of colonialism. I think it really underestimates the extent to which the current Indian government is still a post-colonial government, it’s still in colonial hangover. Its structure, its agenda, the goals it has, all those things have been inherited from the state that the British constructed. 

I don’t think the lesson is that now if any country wants to catch up and become industrialised overnight, it should also prosecute wars. The lesson in this 18th century story is that the government can sometimes have a really powerful role in driving change in the economy.