The British gunpowder industry and Atlantic slavery, c.1701-1807

March 24, 2021 | Blog
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Funding for the project on which this blog is based was provided by the Economic History Society’s Carnevali Research Grant

By Nicholas Radburn (Lancaster University)

Of the myriad goods that Britons used to purchase captive Africans through the slave trade, none has been as controversial as firearms — millions of which were exported to Atlantic Africa during the eighteenth century. Historians have argued that these weapons enabled the formation of militarized slaving states and may have sparked a ‘slave-gun-cycle’, in which imported firearms were used to enslave people, who were then traded for more arms.  Others contend that guns may have provided a limited military advantage, especially as some imported guns were of such poor quality that they exploded in the hands of their users!

Historians have simultaneously debated the degree to which the African gun trade facilitated British economic development.  Guns for overseas markets were produced using complex methods, stimulating the emergence of arms-making centres such as Birmingham and fostering a symbiotic relationship between Britain’s emerging fiscal-military state and private manufacturing. The degree to which African markets cemented this relationship, and drove industrialization, remains unclear, however. The firearms trade clearly had an impact on the economic and social history of the Atlantic World, but the extent and importance of these impacts remains debatable.

My project offers new perspectives on these long-running debates by shifting the focus from guns to gunpowder.  By the mid-eighteenth century, gunpowder was so essential in the slave trade that Britons could not acquire captives without it (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  ‘Capture and coffle of enslaved Africans: Angola, 1786-87’

Source: Louis de Grandpre, Voyage a la cote occidentale d’Afrique, fait dans les annèes 1786 et 1787 (Paris, 1801), vol. 2, facing p. 49 (Available at Rights: Image is in the public domain.


African consumers also valued powder highly; by the late eighteenth century, gunpowder comprised as much as 40 percent of imports once they had been reckoned in African currencies. Immense quantities of powder were consequently exchanged for slaves: in the second half of the eighteenth century alone, Britons sent forty-seven million pounds of powder to Africa — enough to fire a musket every minute of every day.  Despite its size and importance, remarkably little scholarly attention has been paid to the African gunpowder trade.  Historians have calculated the size of the business, but they have not systematically explored how powder was made in Britain, exchanged for slaves on the African coast, or used by African consumers.

By analyzing the African gunpowder trade, I will investigate the slave trade’s importance to British economic development, and the impacts of European imports on African societies, economies, and militaries.  I will explore how the slave trade’s voracious demand for powder was satiated by expanding production at existing works, and through the establishment of new mills in Cumbria, Cheshire, and Somerset.  Analyzing the archives of those mills will reveal how the slave trade fostered industry and trade, because gunpowder makers procured precursors both domestically and abroad, and then combined them using complicated manufacturing techniques.

Examining the manufacture and trade of gunpowder will also reveal much about the uses of firearms in Africa.  The quality — and therefore utility — of guns was linked to the powder that fired them: weak powder fired low-quality weapons that were likely useful only for non-military purposes, rather than enslavement.  Conversely, the trading of high-grade powder would indicate that firearms were used by well-organized African militaries that could have been used to  conquer and capture their bow-wielding neighbours.   By examining how gunpowder was exchanged and used, I will also explore how Africans valued European imports, the importance of African consumer demand in shaping British manufacturing practices, and the connections between imported gunpowder technology and enslavement.  Taken together, my research should illuminate the slave trade’s impacts on the economic, military and social history of the British Atlantic World.

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