It is, almost, an out-of-this-world thought that the humble, crystalised detritus of human and animal excrement and body waste, known as saltpetre, made immense fortunes for its dealers in lands that are now those of Bangladesh in the 17th and 18th century. And that, as the essential ingredient of gunpowder, could be argued to lie at the foundation of today’s international economy.
When cargoes of the saltpetre created for one dealer, alone, based hereabouts, in one year, 1760, over Rs1 million, with an estimated modern equivalent of £150m to £250m, it is easy to begin to appreciate the value the world gave to it at the time.
There is evidence that, it not only comprised a considerable proportion of exports from these lands that are now Bangladesh, for centuries, but even that the sources of the humble, naturally created resource in and around these lands represented some 75% of world supply in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
The dealers of 1760 were, of course, the East India Company, based on assets they had seized from the Armenian trader, Khoja Wajid at Plassey. The evident irony that the victory was probably arranged by Wajid simply tells us that deceit was an early part of the “arms trade.”
Saltpetre was the essential, major, nitrate, ingredient of gunpowder.
The use of gunpowder, the world’s first, non-manual, propellant of weaponry, formed from natural sources, saltpetre, sulphur, and carbon, in warfare, is credited to the Chinese. There is, however, a strong body of informed opinion that it was Buddhist monks from “North-east India” who first experimented with uses for the vast deposits of saltpetre in the region.
It probably didn’t take a great deal of ingenuity, although, it seems, it took a few centuries, to discover its use as the propellant. The first recorded mention of these explosive properties comes in the 9th century. Records from China in the 6th century, however, suggest limited supplies of useable saltpetre found in China at that time.
Whilst the Chinese had mastered the art of containing an explosion within an iron barrel, it was probably the Mongols who can be credited with taking this new form of warfare to the western lands of Asia.
It is, certainly, no accident that the three great Empires that developed in those Middle Eastern lands from the 13th century onwards, known, collectively, as the “Gunpowder Empires,” the Ottoman, the Safavid and, finally, the Mughal, in South Asia, all descended from the Mongol inspired hordes who swept across Asia from the 12th century.
The knowledge of this “dreadful” weaponry, needless to say, rapidly reached Europe. However, Europe was never especially rich in saltpetre. By the late 16th century, it seems likely that the Portuguese, at least, firmly established in Bengal, and the surrounding areas, probably became aware of the plentiful supply thereabouts. There were, certainly, Portuguese mercenaries in the army assembled by Pratapaditya, Zaminder of Jessore, to resist the Mughal onslaught on Bengal, which, when he surrendered in 1611, included in weaponry, an estimated 45 tons of gunpowder.
When we look at the eruption of international warfare in Europe in the ensuing centuries, warfare subsequently fought, with well-armed vessels and armies, across the world, we may well speculate on causal relationships: Have gunpowder, will go to war! Whilst the saltpetre with its origins hereabouts, is, in fact potassium nitrate, and that of Peru is sodium nitrate, both are the critical nitrate oxidising agent for gunpowder.
It is no coincidence that, following the War of Independence, conscious of their limitation of supply of propellants for weaponry, the company known, then, as EI du Pont de Nemours, was founded near Wilmington, Delaware, by a refugee from the French Revolution to develop locally produced gunpowder.
Later in the 19th century, both Du Pont, and, in Sweden, Nobel, began to explore other means of creating explosives, not as reliant on the natural agents. By the time, in 1859, the British government took over the East India Company assets and activities in India, Bengal shipments of saltpetre had largely ceased. Well may we wonder why the evidence of the shipments of refined gunpowder, refined saltpetre, and raw saltpetre by the East India Company has not drawn more attention. State secrets would, presumably, be one possible answer.
From the early days, there is circumstantial evidence that, like the development of most forms of weaponry, there were traces of espionage involved.
Could it be a coincidence that, in 1583, the Levant Company, in which Sir Francis Walsingham, and Queen Elizabeth, herself, were major investors, facilitated a voyage to India by Ralph Fitch, a London Leatherworker -- a profession very familiar with the properties of saltpetre in tanning, and in manufacturing containers to carry the explosive?
Less than a year earlier, letters indicating the Spanish intention to invade England had been seized, and the fear of Armada, that manifested itself in 1588 in an attempted invasion, would have galvanised a search for war supplies.
A coincidence, again, that, in 1685, the Governor of the East India Company, Sir Josiah Child, a former “victualler” to the Commonwealth navy, and described as, “agent to the Navy Treasurer,” a man clearly familiar with sourcing requirements for naval weaponry, and who had seen the opportunity to build his stock holding in the Company until he became a major holder, and Governor, should have persuaded King James to send a fleet to seize Chittagong, and force uninterrupted, free trade, with the lands around?
Certainly, the reading of the various journals of Company employees and visitors from early in the 17th century, note both regular cargoes of gunpowder being shipped down river, and, equally regular, seizures, with cargo, crew and craft held to ransom by local rulers.
From all of which emerges, perhaps hazily, but still, perceptably, grounds to suspect that saltpetre may, in fact, have been a major reason for the arrival of so many European nations on a coast that was, in fact, both remote from home, and not really on the route to anywhere else, at those times. The fabrics, the gems, the spices, could, more readily, have been transhipped from elsewhere, not least the Coromandel coast. Why the Ganges delta, and these lands of Bangladesh, if not one of the most unique of local, naturally produced, cargoes, saltpetre? A natural, essential, part of warfare.