5/3/11 - the saltpetre trade

In today's excerpt - the English East India Company, locked out of the lucrative spice trade by the Dutch during the 17th century, turned to India and its saltpetre, the indispensable ingredient of gunpowder. This new business fueled its profitability and helped fuel the rise of England. Some historians have noted that England and Europe experienced significantly more war than other continents during this period, and some have attributed this to the odd geography of Europe, where a predominance of peninsulas has long made it difficult to unify the continent. Whatever the reason, gunpowder was a superb business to be in during the 17th and 18th centuries:

"Spices would no longer be the primary goal of the [English East India Company]—access to cheap spices direct from the source was controlled by the [Dutch], whereas India offered new and valuable commodities such as silks, indigo dye, cotton textiles and saltpetre, the vital ingredient in gunpowder that was in perpetual short supply in Europe and would drive the company's fortunes for over a century. ...

"Saltpetre—crystals formed in the earth from bacterial action on animal dung and urine, with the assistance of heat—formed with particular vigour in the sewage-sodden soils of the agricultural heartland of Bengal, around Calcutta, where the extraordinary heat and prolonged dry season produced great quantities of the highest quality. 'East India,' according to one seventeenth-century merchant, 'gloryeth as much in this salt-petre as in its spices.' By the end of the seventeenth century India was the primary source of supply for almost all of Europe, and by the eighteenth century many European companies had agents, warehouses and social or commercial relationships with the various saltpetre producers in India. ...

"Indian saltpetre to a large extent fuelled most of the European wars from the mid-seventeenth century through the eighteenth century. In Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600 - 1800, Holden Furber writes that throughout the second half of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century the English East India Company's 'sales, with their steadily rising receipts from Bengal sattpetre, reflected an ever more warlike Europe.' The historian Jagadish Narayan Sarkar comments in the Indian Historical Quarterly that 'saltpetre was so much in demand in England that there was a standing order from the Company's authorities there for an annual supply.' In spite of the wild price fluctuations for saltpetre (depending on the state of war), the English and Dutch companies reaped vast profits from their mercantile activities and paid huge dividends to their shareholders and taxes to their respective governments....

"[By 1744], the English East India Company had thrived such that it had surpassed the Portuguese and was soon to eclipse the Dutch East India Company as well. ... The second half of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century saw a continuous series of conflicts in Europe involving Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire in an endlessly shifting round of alliances. Scarcely a handful of years passed when a war was not being fought somewhere on the continent."


Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 by Stephen R. Bown


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