Pacifists making guns

Returning to the West Midlands for the first time since she completed the research for her new book Empire of Guns. Sandford’s Professor Priya Satia delivered the final event in the BRIHC BIG GAME Series in conjunction with the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History and the Birmingham Eighteenth Century Centre to an audience of around one hundred people, the majority of whom were members of the general public.

The lecture was filmed and is available on Youtube below:

On Wednesday 13 June, Prof. Priya Satia from Stanford delivered the Centre for Modern and Contemporary’s Annual Lecture and the next of BRIHC’s Summer Series of events in front of a packed lecture theatre. The lecture came after a number of supporting workshops and events held with Priya Satia in the preceding days. 

Satia structured her lecture around the terms “quaker gun-maker”, exploring specifically the Galton family, who were the biggest gun-making firm in eighteenth century Britain, supplying guns to the slave trade in Africa, the East India Company, and the British government’s various overseas campaigns. This was despite being a Quaker faith and therefore considering war un-Christian. Why therefore, Satia asked, was the Galton’s business tolerated?

Satia begun with a focus on the guns themselves, stating that “War was and remains integral to industrial capitalist society”. She traced the development and use of guns in this period, examining how they were not use in crimes of passion, but rather were instruments of intimidation, viewed as part of the civilising process. They were mechanically very unreliable and so were used for terrorising, as a deterrent. Under these cultural perceptions, the Quaker’s could arguably justify the weapon as a civilizational object. However, periods of wartime at the end of the eighteenth century increased exposure to firearms, and developed the notion of using guns to aim directly at targets. New generations were now shaped by mass warfare, with new gun violence that was now casual and impersonal.

The talk then shifted to a discussion of the makers, and Satia discussed how the Galton family made a multitude of different products including toys, buckles, and iron, and were involved in global trade. In addition, the gun trade was a highly divided industry, kept diffuse by a government that wanted to avoid the emergence of any one company gaining a monopoly over gun manufacture. As such, the Galton’s were making parts for guns, involved in a wide network. Indeed, most Quakers were making objects to do with war, and war-related contracting was central to industrial life in the West Midlands.

Finally, Satia turned to a discussion of the people themselves, examining the state use of Quaker networks in particular due to their reputation of reliability. She noted that in the late 1700s, ethical consistency started to become important for Quakers, and regional uniformity was enforced, which led to complaints about Galton due to his role in aiding the slave trade. A formal complaint was made, but Galton publically defended himself, arguing that everyone almost inadvertently was participating in war, and suggesting that it was impossible to assign moral responsibility. Satia argued that indeed, economic actors were deeply embedded within this military industrial society. The talk concluded by suggesting that industries like gun-making lay the origins of Britain as a superpower, showing how major banks, such as Midland Bank funded by the Galton family were funded on guns.

The lecture was followed by a number of pertinent questions which drew interesting comparisons between the significance of guns then versus now, as well as other observations about this fascinating global history and its local links to Birmingham.

Event report written by BRIHC Contemporary History MA Scholar Rose Parkinson (@RoseParkinson8 on twitter)