NACBS Blog Post: Priya Satia on the Process of Writing her book Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution

Stephen Jackson's picture

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.

To read the rest of Priya's blog piece, check out the NACBS blog here.