Friday, April 29, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - XI

In today's post, we will look at a rather important place in the history of firearms, the region that is now the modern day country of India. What, you say? Well, the importance of India in the gunpowder trade cannot be understated, because for a few centuries, they were the source of about 80-85% of the entire world's saltpeter production. As we have seen in previous posts, no saltpeter = no gunpowder.

Back in the middle ages, the country we know today as India, was divided into several kingdoms, each with their own rulers. The knowledge of saltpeter in India seems to have been known well before the middle ages, as it is mentioned in ancient Indian texts as being used by textile makers and metallurgists. After its explosive properties were discovered in China, the technology of making fireworks came down to India around the mid-thirteenth century. As we have seen before, saltpeter can be obtained from both natural sources and artificial methods (like nitre beds). In China, most of the production of saltpeter was from nitre beds, and since the science was not fully understood, it was usually weaker than natural saltpeter. This is why China used gunpowder mainly for incendiary rockets and fireworks. In contrast, saltpeter in India was produced from mainly natural sources and was of higher quality, which enabled production of gunpowder with more ballistic strength and led to the development of rockets as well as large siege guns. Therefore, by the fifteenth century, many Indian rulers began to acquire artillery and needed saltpeter for these.

Two separate books written by court scholars from the kingdoms of Bengal and Jaunpur in Eastern India describe saltpeter production in great detail and make it clear that by 1460 AD, these two kingdoms had already developed organized saltpeter production, managed by prominent merchants who were granted monopolies by the rulers. The books describe in great detail about investment of capital, division of labor, specialists for different tasks and state control of saltpeter production. It is significant that this same region later developed into one of the top saltpeter-producing regions of India.

A map of India from the 1800s. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The above is a map of India from the 1800s, showing various kingdoms. The areas circled in red are some of the regions that were engaged in commercial production of saltpeter and the areas circled in green are the main areas from where it was exported to the world.

We will start off by looking at the regions that produced saltpeter first (i.e. the areas marked in red). First off, we have the region in the north-eastern part, marked in the map above as Bahar and Bengal (now, the modern day states of Bihar and Bengal in India), which was one of the major areas of production of saltpeter. This is the region mentioned by the court writers above, where the kingdoms had organized saltpeter production on a commercial scale by 1460 AD. People from this area were later recruited to other kingdoms because of their knowledge and expertise in gunpowder production. In particular, the kingdom of Malwa in central India recruited many of these experts and established their own center of saltpeter production. In northern India, the area of Punjab (marked on the map as the kingdoms of Lahore and Moultan) and Delhi (marked on the map as Delhi and Agra) were both centers of saltpeter production. In Punjab, the main centers were Lahore and Multan (marked as Moultan on the map) and in the Delhi area, the main centers were Agra and Hissar.

Down in the southern part of India, the regions around the modern day states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telengana (seen in the map as Carnatic, Golconda and Mysore) were known for saltpeter production, in particular, the towns of Coimbatore, Anantapur, Kurnool and Guntur (the first two towns are marked on the map).

Meanwhile, over in Europe, during the fifteenth century, the Age of Exploration had started and the pioneers behind it were the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain (Spain was then divided into the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon). Before then, from the 8th to the 15th century, the various Italian kingdoms, such as the Republic of Venice, Genoa, Pisa etc. had a monopoly on trade between Europe and Asia, via the Arabs. In the early part of the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal decided to explore the west coast of Africa. Development of new types of ships (carracks and caravels) made it possible to sail into the open Atlantic ocean, which was much rougher than the calm waters of the Mediterranean sea. Due to travelers like Marco Polo and Pedro da Covilha, accounts of the riches of China and India became known to Europeans, but the land routes passed through several countries, each with their own difficulties and dangers for travelers. Prince Henry the Navigator had already explored enough of the African coast beyond the Sahara desert that he could bypass the Arab and Berber traders and trade with the African kingdoms directly. The next prize was to establish a sea-route to the fabled country of India, and both the Portuguese and the Spaniards were trying to discover how to do it, so that they could bypass all the countries in between and trade with India directly. The Portuguese concentrated on finding a route by sailing south around the tip of Africa and then sailing north and eastwards towards what they hoped was India. Meanwhile, a navigator from the Italian republic of Genoa, named Christopher Columbus, hoped to find a westward route to India and sailed in that direction, on behalf of Spain in 1492 AD. We all know what Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered instead :-). When he got back to Europe, a minor squabble started between Spain and Portugal, which was settled by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which stated that all lands west of a meridian past Cape Verde islands could be claimed by Spain and all lands east of this line could be claimed by Portugal (of course, the opinion of the people already living on these lands wasn't considered!). The Portuguese liked this deal because this gave them claim to Africa, Asia and part of South America (Brazil), whereas the Spanish were given control of mostly unknown territory. Of course, the other non-catholic kingdoms in Europe, such as England, Holland, Denmark etc., paid little attention to the Pope's orders and got into the exploration game afterwards. Meanwhile, in 1498, a Portuguese expedition under Admiral Vasco da Gama, successfully rounded the coast of Africa and reached the fabled land of India, landing at the town of Calicut (circled in green in the south-western coast of India). The discovery of a viable sea route led to yearly fleets of ships leaving from Portugal to India and the Portuguese soon established trading posts in the southern coast of India, at Cochin, Goa, Calicut, San Thome (now a suburb of Madras city) and Pulicat and the town of Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) on India's eastern coast. Initially, the Portuguese only traded in cotton, spices, pepper etc. and saltpeter purchases were only made by soldiers buying their own supplies from dealers. However, by 1510, the Portuguese had established a powder mill in Goa (marked in green on the map, towards the west coast of India) and were exporting gunpowder and saltpeter from Goa and Surat, back to Portugal. Soon after, they also established trading treaties with kingdoms on India's south-eastern coast and were also exporting from San Thome (a suburb of Madras city, circled in the map in green) and Pulicat (also marked on the map) and the volume of trade increased as the years went by. There is a letter from 1605, from the King of Spain to the Portuguese viceroy of Goa (on the south-west coast of India), directing him to send an order of 12 casks of saltpeter.

Soon enough, other European kingdoms saw how rich the Portuguese were getting from their Asian imports and decided that they needed to set up trading posts in Asia too. Despite the Pope's orders that only Spain and Portugal were authorized to claim lands around the world, the mainly non-catholic countries, such as England. the Netherlands, Denmark and France openly defied his orders and decided to develop their own businesses.

The first was the English East India Company (EIC), also called the Honorable East India Company, formed on 31st December 1600 and the first ship left England in 1601 (Fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series might have seen this company mentioned more than a few times in the movies, but it is not a fictional company, it actually existed and grew to become the largest company in the world, at one point, controlling over 50% of the world's trade by itself). In 1602, the Dutch established their Dutch East India company (VOC - Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), which was the world's first multinational corporation and the first company in the world to issue stock. These two companies started establishing bases all over Asia. In India, the Dutch captured the trading post of Pulicat from the Portuguese in 1609, while the English East India Company established trading posts in Surat (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668, acquired by England from the Portuguese as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza, when she married King Charles II) and Calcutta (established 1690).

The Dutch VOC company started exporting saltpeter from India (from Pulicat town) as ship ballast in 1617 and the English learned this from them and started doing so in 1627. Correspondence between East India Company Headquarters in London and their trading outposts in India are quite revealing on the growth of the saltpeter trade. For instance, in December 1630, two ships, the Discovery and the Reformation, traveling from Surat to London, carried 597 bales of saltpeter instead of rocks for ballast, along with their regular cargo of pepper, cotton, indigo, calico cloth etc. In 1638, the Company asked captains to prefer loading sugar, preserved ginger, cinnamon etc. on the grounds that 'saltpeter is ... troublesome to bring home, as it infects and spoils other goods.' The agents in Surat responded that while saltpeter was certainly 'a bad neighbor to better goods', a sprinkling of pepper 'praeventeth all praejudice'. A letter to the Company headquarters in 1639 even suggests to not import as much saltpeter on the ship, so as to keep the demand up and 'increase its value in England'. By 1643, with the English Civil War in full swing, English saltpeter men and European sources could not meet the demand for saltpeter and the East India Company started refining their own saltpeter in Surat and Ahmedabad, before shipping it out. The English began to receive reports of the availability of high quality saltpeter available from the north-east region of India, in Bengal and Bihar. However, the Portuguese were already established in that area since the 1530s (in Chittagong) and so were the Dutch. Soon after, the English started to concentrate their efforts in Bengal as well, later edging out both the Portuguese and Dutch from this area (we will study how that happened in our next post).

Seeing the success of the Portuguese, Dutch and English companies, other European countries also tried to get in to the action and established their own (often short-lived) East India Companies. The Danes founded the Danish East India Company in 1616 and built Fort Danesborg in Tranquebar, south of Madras (marked in green in the map), the Prussians established the Prussian East India Company (1752), the Swedish had the Swedish East India Company (1731) and the French formed the French East India Company (1664). The French were slightly more successful than the others in the beginning, until the English seized control over most of India and pushed them out. Nevertheless, the French still kept trading posts in Pondicherry (south-east India) and Chandernagore (eastern India near Calcutta) until the 1950s, but they couldn't get much saltpeter out of India, because of English interference.

In the next post, we will look at how the English managed to edge out all the other competitors and gain a monopoly on Indian saltpeter production. We will also examine how saltpeter was produced in India in some detail.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - X

In our last post, we looked at how saltpeter was obtained in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign, England built up their stocks of saltpeter and gunpowder, and her successor, King James I, didn't need that much. Incidentally, this is the same ruler that authorized an official translation of the Bible into English, that we know today as the King James Version of the Bible.

James I of England. Click on the image to enlarge.

During the early part of his reign, he attempted to curb the excesses of the saltpeter men and reduce their powers. However, in 1618, the Thirty Years War started in continental Europe, and the need for saltpeter extraction came back into focus, and the saltpeter men were back in business. However, one more significant development started during the reign of King James I. His predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, issued a royal charter authorizing the creation of the Honourable East India Company on December 31st, 1600 AD. Initially authorized to trade in cotton, spices, silk, indigo etc., the company also began to import small quantities of Indian saltpeter during James's reign. By the time of the reign of King Charles I, the imports of Indian saltpeter were still small and England was deriving most of its supplies from local saltpeter men or importing from Europe. During King Charles I's reign, England was obtaining about 280 tons of saltpeter a year in the 1630s, but when the English Civil War broke out in the 1640s, the demand for saltpeter rose again and the English saltpeter men and other European producers could not meet their needs. The East India Company saw an opportunity and stepped up the quantity of their saltpeter imports from India. By the time of the Restoration in the 1660s, when King Charles II became the king of England, the East India Company were shipping over 1000 tons of saltpeter annually from India and the need for saltpeter men in England went away soon afterwards, giving the East India Company a virtual monopoly.

The East India Company found the trade in saltpeter very profitable for them. While they imported other goods to England, the mark-up on cotton textiles was seldom more than 200%, whereas they could easily mark-up saltpeter to well over 400% and still find willing buyers. Not only that, since saltpeter is a chemical, it isn't a perishable item unlike their other imports (tea, pepper, spices, indigo etc.) and can withstand rough handling. They used it as ballast on their ships and simply emptied their holds upon returning to England. Saltpeter also repels insects and bacteria, so it also helped preserve the hulls of their wooden ships.

It might be interesting to note that by the time the East India Company (and other European countries) first started trading in India around 1600 AD, saltpeter manufacturing was already a well-established industry in different parts of India for at least 150 years or so and they were the largest manufacturers of saltpeter in the world until the importance of black powder began to decline in the late 1800s. The saltpeter produced in India was not only of better quality, it was also cheaper than anywhere else in the world and was produced in huge quantities as well. The British held a monopoly on Indian saltpeter and were very happy to supply their allies (Sweden, Portugal, Spain etc.) with it, but kept it out of the hands of their enemies. This is why the French were forced to develop saltpeter plantations, because they couldn't access Indian saltpeter the way that the British could. By the time of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, the East India company had exported 7300 tons of saltpeter that year alone. During the US Civil War, both the North and the South were supplied with Indian saltpeter from England. The following quote is by C. H. Davis of the Bureau of Ordnance, US Navy from November 22nd, 1862 in a report to the US Congress:
I feel it, therefore, to be my first duty to urge that suitable provision of ordnance material be made for probable future necessities of the Navy. Most important among them is nitre, which enters so largely into the composition of gunpowder that it may be said to be gunpowder itself, with some slight additions of sulphur and charcoal under proper combination.
It is not produced naturally in this country, nor by any other but India, except in insignificant quantities.
Hindostan (India) alone supplies the whole world, which being a British dependency, places us entirely at the mercy or caprice of that power for our stock of this essential article.
Therefore, a study of the history of saltpeter production in India will be the subject of the next few posts in this series.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - IX

In our previous post, we looked into some early history of saltpeter and gunpowder in England, until the reign of Henry VIII. We will now study some further developments under his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Elizabeth I of England. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII, but she was not the immediate ruler after his death in 1547. Instead, Edward VI, her half-brother, became king for a few years (1547-1553), followed by his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (only 19 days in July 1553) and then, her half-sister, Queen Mary I (1553-1558) who died of natural causes. After Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister Mary and became Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, her new secretary of state was Sir William Cecil, who had also served in the same role earlier for her half-brother Edward VI in 1550. This is the same William Cecil who was mentioned in our last post, who later became Baron Burghley.

At this time, England was still mostly importing saltpeter and gunpowder from other places in Europe, and during the first few weeks of Elizabeth's reign, the amounts of saltpeter and gunpowder available in England were greatly reduced. Fearing that other powerful European rulers (such as the French king, the Spanish king, the Portuguese king, the Hapsburg dynasty etc.) could attempt to invade England soon, William Cecil started working with Elizabeth's Council of ministers to build up England's stocks of gunpowder and saltpeter on an urgent basis.

To do this, they went to dealers of saltpeter in Europe. The problem was that the same people who sold saltpeter to the British, were also selling it to the other European rulers (the French king, the Spanish king, the Hapsburgs etc.) as well. Therefore, William Cecil advertised that England was willing to pay higher prices for saltpeter and gunpowder than anyone else, and was perfectly happy to encourage smugglers to supply them. Of course, there was the danger of the supplies being intercepted by the other countries, so he contacted as many dealers as possible, to ensure that there would be multiple sources. Pretty soon, Italian, Flemish, Dutch and English merchants were all supplying England. Cecil sent his agent, Sir Thomas Gresham, to Flanders, Germany and Netherlands, to talk to dealers in those regions and buy everything that they had. By 1660, Sir Thomas Gresham had obtained over 200 tons of saltpeter, enough to take care of England's needs for at least two years, but the quest for more saltpeter did not end there. Gresham's people went to Hungary, Bohemia, Russia and Denmark to get more supplies. England even traded as far south as Morocco and the Persian empire, exchanging timber and iron cannon balls for saltpeter. Of course, much of this had to happen in secret, so that the other rulers would not know how much gunpowder England had. Sir Thomas Gresham prophetically wrote to the Queen in 1563, that '£20,000 of saltpeter would be more useful to her than £100,000 in gold'.

At the same time, England also tried to jumpstart their own local production of saltpeter, reasoning that this would reduce their reliance on foreign suppliers and hostile countries stopping ships from reaching England. They also argued that local manufacturing would be cheaper and of better quality, as well as creating local jobs. William Cecil was already aware, through his agents, that some German states had developed techniques to produce saltpeter plantations, and he sought to import this knowledge to England. At the same time he was setting up to import supplies from an Italian merchant in 1561, he also found a German engineer, Gerard Honrick (or Hoenrich), who was willing to transfer the technology for £300. Honrick talked about his method of mixing earth with urine, horse dung and lime and then refining and crystallizing it to produce saltpeter. We already discussed his methods some time earlier, so we will not repeat those details here again.  Honrick envisioned a system where vast nitre beds would be set up to supply centrally located factories to refine and extract saltpeter. However, two months later, he was complaining that England hadn't paid him for his transfer of knowledge.

Instead, the British government granted an exclusive 10 year license to a pair of British merchants, Cockeram and Barnes, to supply them with saltpeter from England. As part of the license, they were granted the power to dig anywhere they like. Of course, instead of working on any sort of saltpeter plantation technology, Cockeram and Barnes were quite content to dig in other people's lands, just like the saltpeter men of old. While there were many attempts made to develop saltpeter plantations, the majority of England's supply simply came from saltpeter men searching around England and digging up other people's property. Other experts, such as Leonard Engelbreght of Aachen and the Flemish merchant, Cornelius Stephinson, attempted to set up saltpeter beds in England at different times, but most of these efforts proved unsuccessful. Instead, England became more reliant on saltpeter men searching through various places in England to find natural supplies and licenses to dig were granted to more people. It is interesting to note that when the Spanish Armada tried to invade England in 1588, the British ships never had a shortage of gunpowder during the sea battle. By the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, about 50% of England's saltpeter supply was from domestic sources, largely using a network of saltpeter men throughout the country. While these saltpeter men were hated by the average citizens, their complaints were ignored, on the grounds of national security. It was left to Queen Elizabeth's successors to figure out how to obtain saltpeter without angering the citizens. We will study how they managed to do this in the next post, when we study the rise of the British East India Company.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - VIII

In today's post, we will cross the Atlantic and take a look at the history of saltpeter and gunpowder trade in England.

We know that gunpowder was most certainly known in Europe by the middle of the 13th century, brought to the west by the Mongols. The English monk, Roger Bacon, references gunpowder in his book published in 1267 AD and he witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers, probably brought by his friend, William of Rubruck, who had traveled to the Mongol empire. He even mentions it as a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. However, it was about 70 years since then that it was used for warfare in England. The European use of gunpowder in warfare really started with the Italians and Spaniards (via Arabs and the Mongol empire) and slowly spread north to France and England.

The first time that gunpowder weapons were used in war in England was a French raid into the port town of Southampton in 1338. A fleet of French, Italian and Spanish sailors attacked the town and one of the weapons they brought was a ribauldequin, a multi-barrel cannon weapon.

Drawing of two ribauldequins designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image..
Note that da Vinci did not invent ribauldequins, as they were already in existence before he was born. Thanks go our to our reader Richard Sharpe, for his insightful comments below.

It is recorded that the very next year (1339), Edward III of England obtained his own ribauldequins and used them against the French. They were also used by Edward III during the Battle of Crecy in 1346. While the battle is famous for the longbow becoming the dominant weapon in Europe for the next few decades, ribauldquins were used as well (though they didn't inflict many casualties at Crecy) and archaeologists are still finding cannon balls on the battlefield centuries later. Of course, it must be noted that at this time, England wasn't really manufacturing their own gunpowder, and they were largely buying supplies from Italians and Flemish merchants.

During the War of the Roses in England, the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire in 1485 AD saw both sides use gunpowder weapons. Henry VII, who won the battle, understood the value of firepower and brought in many foreigners who knew how to make gunpowder. While England made some saltpeter locally at this time, it was not enough to meet the needs of warfare. It is recorded that Henry VII authorized one James Hede in 1492 (the same year Columbus discovered America!), to make saltpeter for the Royal Armory. Another document from 1501 mentions a Wyvard Godfrey as one of the king's makers of saltpeter. However, at this time, England's local production was not really that much at all.

Henry VII's son, Henry VIII, developed England's firepower even more, buying practically every cannon he could lay his hands upon.  His gunpowder supplies and supplies of raw saltpeter and sulfur came mainly from the Italian and the Baltic states (Hanseatic League). We have records of some of his suppliers: In November 1512, a Spanish merchant named Francis de Errona delivered 2906 pounds of raw saltpeter and 707 pounds of gunpowder, at the price of 4 pence per pound. It is recorded that Henry VIII went to war in France in 1513, carrying about 510 tons of gunpowder and his siege cannon used about 32 tons per day. Naturally, since he didn't have his own sources of saltpeter, he had to buy it from Southern Europe and the price of his supplies went up. In April 1514, a merchant named Leonardo Friscobaldi provided about 20 tons of saltpeter for a price of 6 pence per pound. The Cavalcanti family (especially Thomas and John Cavalcanti) from Florence, Italy, are also recorded as suppliers of saltpeter and gunpowder. Other suppliers include the Hanseatic merchants, Hans van Colen (also known as Hans Wolf) and Edmond Frende, as well as the Italians, Benedict Morovelli, Anthony of Naples and Frances de Bara. Soon after this, Henry VIII realized that it would be preferable for him to have his own source of saltpeter, otherwise his supplies could be disrupted by the French. Not only that, he and the French were buying their supplies from the same merchants, so they were often in competition with each other and the other European states as well! Therefore, he ordered the above mentioned German, Hans van Colen (alias Hans Wolf), 'to go from shire to shire to find a place where there is stuff to make saltpeter of'. As part of this order, he granted him permission to dig wherever he wished, as long as they compensated the owner accordingly. This was the rise of the saltpeter men in England.

For about 30 years, the saltpeter production in England was by saltpeter men extracting it from natural sources (this type of saltpeter was called rock saltpeter). Then, in 1545, a German engineer named Stefan von Haschenperg told Henry VIII that he knew of a way to make saltpeter in one place, without going across the country to search for it. The technology for saltpeter plantations (nitre beds) was known to the various German states, but unknown in England at that time. Not much is known about von Haschenperg's experiments in England though, and if there was any success, it was on a very small scale, because Henry was still buying a lot of his supplies from Antwerp, Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck. His next two successors, Edward VI and Mary Tudor, also bought their saltpeter and gunpowder from Antwerp (which was then under the control of the Spanish). In 1551, a spy working for the English secretary of state, William Cecil (later known as Baron Burleigh or Baron Burghley), informed him that several German states had developed techniques to produce their own saltpeter locally and they had plenty of supplies of it.

In our next post, we will study the rise of saltpeter production under Queen Elizabeth I.