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Gunpowder, Government and War in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.

The explosive mixture of saltpetre, charcoal, and sulphur was the real stuff of Britain's eighteenth century empire. India was the major supplier of saltpetre, and the slave and fur trades were, together with British mining and hunting, the major peacetime markets for the production of ten gunpowder watermills in the Thames Valley. These mills had a vital wartime relationship with the Ordnance Office that is the focus of this meticulous study of the supply, distribution, and manufacture of gunpowder for the British government between 1740 and 1770.

Britain at war had massive gunpowder requirements. Susceptible to damp and to settling, gunpowder did not keep well; the government bought very little in peacetime. Reworking of spoiled naval gunpowder was a major additional task for this strained industry during war. The Ordnance Office, which demanded a very high quality of gunpowder, purchased an unprecedented average of nearly 14,500 barrels a year during the Seven Years' War. Awarding of Ordnance contracts was a clear indicator that the government expected imminent war, as they did when preparing for Braddock's expedition in November 1754. Problems of inadequate supply of acceptable gunpowder became progressively worse in this war, leading the government to license exports, to buy the Faversham powdermills and, on one occasion, to demand all serviceable powder from the makers.

From its Greenwich magazine, the Ordnance Office supplied gunpowder to the army, militia, naval ships, and English garrisons, as well as colonial governments. New ordnance bases were added at New York, Boston, and Quebec to distribute arms, ammunition and gunpowder for this North American War, supplementing existing new world bases at Antigua, Jamaica, Annapolis, Halifax, St. John's, and Placentia. As with other aspects of the war, there was wrangling, delay, and confusion about the responsibilities of provincial and imperial governments until 1758. Thereafter the British Ordnance Office provided gunpowder to both imperial and provincial troops. Surprisingly, all gunpowder used in North America before 1800 was imported from Europe. Despite ignorance and misfortune, the difficulties of supply and distribution of gunpowder cannot be blamed for any major reversals suffered by British forces in the Seven Years' War. Suggestions about more serious French problems with gunpowder supplies are intriguing, but primarily a call for comparable research.

Two measures to improve the British government's supply of gunpowder are given special attention by Jenny West. In October of 1755 an act was passed to restrict the export and coastal transport of gunpowder. The licenses granted to circumvent this restriction on private trade in gunpowder indicate that the legislation failed in its obvious effort to have the contracting mills produce more gunpowder of proof quality. Political and economic favouritism destroyed the legislation, and the vast majority of license applications were granted.

The other measure to improve production, the purchase of the Faversham mills in 1759, was also disappointing. Having blamed private trading for the shortcomings of the suppliers, the Ordnance Office discovered that its own mills could not reliably meet targets of quantity or quality. Long after the war was over, this venture would provide the government with expertise and opportunity to make significant improvements in the manufacturing and testing of gunpowder. Here the reader benefits from the author's special knowledge of early modern English wind, water, and horse mills.

This book shows some impatience with the inadequacies of the English gunpowder industry, though ending with a forgiving remark about "the very complex circumstances and restrictions of the day" (p. 195). Perhaps the victor's gunpowder industry performed close enough to realistic expectations. The eighteenth-century was a time of dangerous coal-fired gunpowder drying ovens, of flagrant political favouritism, and of carping bureaucrats who left particularly full records for this period.

Although written densely, and close to its detailed research notes, this competent monograph immediately becomes the standard reference work on this useful subject.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Steele, Ian K.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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