Historian Priya Satia wins AHA’s prize for best book in world history

Priya Satsa
Priya Satia’s Empire of Guns has been recognized by the American Historical Association as the best book in world history. (Photo: Steve Castillo)

PRIYA SATIA, the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, has been awarded the American Historical Association’s Jerry Bentley Prize for best book in world history for Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.

The prize, established in 2014, honors the contributions to world history of the late University of Hawaii historian who was a founding editor of the Journal of World History. The award recognizes the best book each calendar year dealing with global or world-scale history with connections or comparisons across continents. The prize will be awarded on Jan. 3, 2020, at the American Historical Association’s 134th annual meeting in New York City.

In the book, Satia found evidence that war and Great Britain’s gun industry played a more important role in the Industrial Revolution than previously thought.

Scholars have long debated what led to the evolution of industrialism in the 18th century, a period of economic transformation that most believe was fueled by technological advances in textile manufacturing, steam power and iron-making.

But Satia’s research revealed that industrialism really began with Britain’s need for guns and other war supplies.

She found evidence that some 18th-century British officials were aware that the domestic production of arms was driving an industrial revolution in Britain. Those officials actively discouraged the development of gun industries in other countries, including those increasingly under British rule, such as India. The British government preferred to supply firearms to everyone who needed them, including their enemies.

In a 2018 Stanford Report article, Satia said that she was originally doing background research on early arms trading for a project on the 20th century when she stumbled on an article about the Galtons, a family in Birmingham, England, who was in charge of the biggest British gun-manufacturing firm in the 18th century.

“What was interesting about the Galtons is that they were practicing Quakers, who are known for their pacifist principles,” she said. “But throughout the 18th century no one pointed out that their business contradicted their faith. Then suddenly, in 1795, the Quaker meeting in Birmingham ordered the Galtons to either stop making guns or leave the congregation. Instead of complying with this order, the head of the family, Samuel Galton II, published a defense of his position as a Quaker gun-manufacturer.”

Satia said that Galton argued that every industrial job in Birmingham, which was the center of metallurgical industries in Britain, in some way contributed to war. He countered that he was no worse than the copper supplier, the taxpayer or the thousands of skilled metal workers producing everything from buttons to pistol springs for the British army.

“That was really eye-opening to me,” she said. “I wondered: ‘What if Samuel Galton was right? What if the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century actually had a lot to do with war?’”

Read more about Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.