The Spinning Jenny, the power loom, the steam engine, and Mr. Henry Bessemer turning Pig-Iron into fine Steel were the driving forces behind the industrial revolution. This is what history in British schools taught us. British bellicosity and violence, though not mentioned in these terms, appeared as discordant episodes, an unfortunate diversion from the main story. Textile production, the clothes we wore, not how we killed, led the way in this version of industrialisation. Thanks to Charles Dickens, the big picture, and Britain’s self-image, will always remain mixed.
But Stanford History Professor, Priya Satia, in her Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution adds another question mark. She makes a convincing case that guns, along with banks, jump-started the industrial revolution.
Professor Satia’s central theme is that wars, and slavery, obliged the State to intervene so frequently in the ‘civil’ economy that private and public sector became almost co-joined. To win a war the State required large quantities of superior weapons made of better steel with improved firing mechanisms. Manufacturers met the demand. From 1854, Henry Bessemer, applied his considerable skills to meet the State’s need for artillery. In the 1880s, Hiram Maxim’s Gun Company, which was eventually financed and absorbed by the Vickers Steel family, started as a subsidiary of the Barrow-in-Furness Shipyard. So we had got the Maxim gun and they had not. One prerequisite for efficient guns was high quality steel. Public spending on war boosted the domestic economy of the 19th century as it had been doing since mediaeval monarchs set sail for France.
Priya Satia argues that the production of what are now called ‘small arms’ – actually a range of weapons from a shoulder-held surface-to-air missile to the handbag-sized Beretta - drove the international arms trade and the industrial revolution. She sets out an interesting anthropology of gun use. For many years, from highwaymen to African tribal chiefs, guns enhanced their owners’ power with the promise of lethal force, but they were used more to threaten than to kill. There was something impersonal, even a little louche about shooting people, compared to manly close encounters with Sheffield stainless steel, a knife-thrust to the body.
For emerging industrialists the risk of depending on gun production as the dynamo of industrialisation, and guarantor of public spending, was that wars were intermittent – though there were plenty of small to medium scale conflicts in the nineteenth century. Diversification was the answer. Eliphat Remington, who learnt the blacksmith’s trade from his father in Connecticut, started a gun company making rifle barrels. But when the American Civil War ended, the Remington Gun Company fell on difficult times. The Gatling, predecessor of the Maxim gun, spring loaded, but needing cranking - so not quite a machine-gun - had just come on the market and been used in the last stages of the Civil War. The Remington Company, falling on harder times, did a deal in 1868 with Christopher Sholes, inventor of the modern QWERTY keyboard, to create the sit-up-and-beg typewriter with a self-rotating head, aptly described in 1874 as ‘a discursive machine-gun’.
The other problem was oversupply. But Africa provided an ideal market for yesterday’s weapons or for the surplus left after European wars were concluded. From the 1860s to the 1890s between 100,000 to 150,000 trade muskets, made in Birmingham, supplemented Britain’s civilising mission, and kept profits coming.
Old history? Unfortunately not. The passage of years has not made the arms trade, small or big, less important to the global economy. It's 150,000 drones for sale now rather than trade muskets. A UN review in 2006 estimated 200,000 deaths were caused annually by small arms worldwide. 60-90% of direct conflict deaths were caused by small arms – a figure that must need lowering since the recent Russian and Syrian use of indiscriminate bombing and shelling of it civilian population. The Stockholm International Peace Institute put the value of sales from the top 100 arms companies worldwide in 2017 at $398 billion. National statistics for gun ownership show that for every 100 Yemenis 53 own guns, 39 in Serbia and Montenegro, 35 in Canada and 21 in the USA. Encouraging figures for gun manufacturers.
Nor when considering who benefits have we left behind the blurring of private and public. A 2012 Jobs for Generals Press scandal revealed the revolving door between the military and the armaments industry. In the preceding sixteen years 3,500 senior military officers had accepted remunerative positions in private sector armaments companies. In December 2014, after many tries, a – partial - implementation of a UN Arms Trade Treaty began , signed by over one hundred member states, aimed at blocking the flow of weapons to areas suffering war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It had met with determined opposition from the US gun-lobbies, notably the NRA.
Priya Satia has written a fascinating book. There are chapters which seem to have come from a doctoral dissertation: these are about individual ‘pacifist’ Quaker gun manufacturers and their spiritual struggles. If you like tortured theology and tortured consciences these are for you. Others readers may find them hard-going. But everyone reading the brilliantly researched Empire of Guns will be struck by the continuity of the inglorious story of Britain’s and the USA’s relationship to the global arms trade, Eisenhower’s “MiIitary - Industrial Complex”.
Will the arms trade be discussed in Britain’s forthcoming trade talks with the EU and USA? We heard nothing about trade in weapons before BREXIT and, most likely, we’ll hear nothing after. Perhaps we fear being seen as a nation of gun-runners. It’s difficult to be a nation of shopkeepers with shops boarded up in dying high-streets. Or perhaps we are simply ashamed to admit how much money we make from providing the means to kill people.
See TheArticle 16/02/2020
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