STARRED REVIEW
April 10, 2018

The dark heart of progress

By Priya Satia

The Industrial Revolution in Britain is usually portrayed as the transformation of an agricultural economy to an industrial one through the rise of visionary inventors and technology supported by private enterprise. Historian Priya Satia challenges that understanding in her sweeping and stimulating Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.

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The Industrial Revolution in Britain is usually portrayed as the transformation of an agricultural economy to an industrial one through the rise of visionary inventors and technology supported by private enterprise. Historian Priya Satia challenges that understanding in her sweeping and stimulating Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Between 1688 and 1815, Britain was either at war, preparing for war or recovering from war. During those years, Britain declared war eight times. War and the development of a modern state demanded military necessities that set the context for an industrial-military-economic complex in which the Industrial Revolution took place. Manufacturers in Birmingham were the center of “war machine” activity. Satia describes this activity in significant and interesting detail in this extensively researched and carefully crafted narrative.

Satia is also concerned with the role of the gun in society, as well as the moral responsibility of those involved in war efforts and what it meant for future generations. We learn of Samuel Galton Jr., a prominent Quaker whose family’s wealth came from gun manufacturing. In 1795, Quaker leaders questioned the conflict between Galton’s pacifist faith and his business. Galton understood guns and war to be products of the entire nation’s economy rather than an individual’s moral decision. He was part of an economy focused on war, and his business was essential to the spread of civilization based on property. Britons understood war as something that happened abroad and kept them safe at home as their empire and economy expanded. Galton’s family story shows how the military-industrial economy worked. There were no villains. But often, horrible developments happen because of incremental decisions of decent people.

The book traces the evolution of the literal and symbolic uses of small arms down to the present day, when sales of weapons remain robust. The various international attempts to control or limit small-arms sales are discussed. This important book helps us to look at British and United States history in an unconventional way and makes for great reading.

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Empire of Guns

Empire of Guns

By Priya Satia
Penguin Press
ISBN 9780735221864

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