Empire of Guns (review)

Department: 
Empire of Guns:
The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution 
Written by Satia Priya
Reviewed by Emily Garrison and Rocky Garrison

How free is your life from war, violence, and oppression? How free is your financial life from these forces? Satia Priya poses these questions as she traces the conflict between the Birmingham Monthly Meeting (BMM) in central England in the 1790s and the Galton family, who were members of the meeting and who made their livelihoods selling guns as England became the leading weapons manufacturer in the world. In fact, Quakers owned or managed over half of the ironworks in operation in England in the last half of the 18th Century, and weapons were a major product of the iron industry, sold to the Ordnance Office of the British Government and on the open market – throughout several decades of war and colonial expansion dominated by the British.

As Priya documents, in April 1795, Birmingham Monthly Meeting minuted its concerns about the Galtons’ growing weapons business. In January 1796, Samuel Galton Jr. answered those concerns in an open letter to the meeting. He claimed that he had no control over how his products were used, and he supported this claim by way of an analogy with the brewing industry:

Is the Farmer who sows Barley, the Brewer who makes it into Beverage, the Merchant who imports Rum, or the Distiller who makes spirits; are they responsible for the Intemperance, the Disease, the Vice, and Misery, which may ensue from their Abuse?
. . . upon this Principle, who would be innocent? (Empire of Guns, p. 320)

Galton’s question resonates with Jesus’s statement centuries earlier, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) The conflict between BMM and the Galton family still raises questions about the ways that violence may result from our daily lives. In Empire of Guns, Priya explores: How is violence a part of our lives? Who is to blame? Who is responsible? She explores some obvious responses, including: that we all consume products with links to violent, sexist, and racist means of production; and that our tax dollars support war and oppression.

As well as presenting the history of 18th Century conflicts within BMM and Britain Yearly Meeting over weapons production, Priya presents a broader history of gun making and the role of the British government in nurturing the firearms industry. She also examines how “gun making’s ties to the manufacture and sale of other goods help reveal the place of military manufacturing in Britain’s growing military-industrial society” (p. 66). She proposes that the manufacture of firearms was a central force propelling in the industrial revolution, both by providing colonizing armies with superior firepower and by fueling the development of new manufacturing techniques. The economics of war and of weapon making are documented extensively to support this hypothesis.

The table of contents will guide the reader to the chapters on the Society of Friends and on the history of gun making and weapons economics. This is an important book for Friends to read.  ~~~

Emiliy Garrison and Rocky Garrison are from Bridge City Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).