Colonial India's saltpeter production, England and American Civil War - a brief note

saltpeter stockpile, American civil war.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the expansion of empires across the continents by the European powers, in particular, Britain. You won't believe it that the gunpowder - a dry composite  powder of saltpetre (KNO 3 ), native sulphur and charcoal carbon mixed in an approximate proportion of 70:15:15,  served as a driving force.  Stable isotopic evidence derived from each ingredient  shows the  distinctive signatures relevant to its origin.

The European countries' quest for expansion of lands, domination and exploitation of natural resources in the newly discovered lands peaked during that period. Advancement in ship building knowledge, navigational techniques and gadgets,  and the discovery of the new sea route to India via the Atlantic  and to the Americas  triggered a cut-throat competition among countries like Spain, Denmark , Britain, France and Portugal.   Naturally, numerous wars  were waged  worldwide during the 19th century over control of natural resources and valuable metals,   each with advanced artillery fire power. The United Kingdom (UK)  had an advantage over them all because the East India company' production facilities in the Indian subcontinent controlled 70% of the export.  As a matter of fact in the early period of its operations, the EIC had  saltpeter factory at Patna (now capital of Bihar) where Job Charnock  (supposedly the founder of Calcutta) was in charge of  its  operation for a long time before moving over to Calcutta on promotion. In India, saltpeter is leached from the ground as sheets of water left by monsoon flooding evaporate. A crust of saltpeter, including mineral salts, spreads across the ground, and can be dug up and refined into pure potassium nitrate.”  (Frey, James W.   2009)

The demand for the ammunition- gunpowder was ever on the increase. Britain's vast opium export to China from Indian factories and later Tea from Assam, bengal  and Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu earned them unbelivable revenue and India being a ''cash cow'', they never wanted to free it from their vice-like grip. Freedom came to India only in August 1947 after a pretyty long struggle..Further,  Britain took a lot of beating in the WWII. literally, the Germans bled them which made Churchill give wild speeches in a melancholy mood,  ''I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat'' (May 13, 19140).  

William Shakespeare  uses the term  villanous’ to refer to  saltpetre  in Henry IV (Act I, Scene 3, 1598, note 1), because of its then known relevance in gunpowder manufacture: 
           ''This villanous salt-petre should be digg’d
            Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
            Which many a good tall fellow had
            So cowardly; and but for these vile guns,
            He would himself have been a soldier.''
British Raj.

It was one Sir John Banks, an enterprising  businessman from Kent  negotiated an agreement between the King and the English Company and had thus  begun   his career in a syndicate arranging contracts, in particular, for the navy.  Having made substantial fortune in Indian trades and others, he  became a Director and later, the  Governor of the East India Company in 1672.  He took initiative and  succeeded in arranging for  a contract which included a loan of £20,000 and £30,000 worth of saltpetre for the King 'at the price it shall sell by the candle.' 

It was  a breakthrough  for the ruler  because previous requests for the King to buy at the Company's auctions had been turned down as 'not honourable or decent.' Outstanding debts were also agreed and the Company permitted to export 250 tons of saltpetre. In 1673, Banks, again with his innate skill,  closed a successfully negotiated  contract for 700 tons of saltpetre at £37,000 between the King and the Company.  A large amount of the gunpowder had to be made available  as there was an urgent  demand for it to supply the armed forces in the United Kingdom, America and elsewhere.  Company' s fortune improved a lot and it  developed a triangular commerce among China, India and Britain. The former sold tea to Britain and other countries.
The Noord Nieuwland in Table Bay 1762, Saltpeter

During the 1700s when there was a bloody civil war between northern yankees against the Southern  Confederates over the issue of  Abolition of Slaves.  Unionists  expected a long war and began to stockpile some 3 million pounds of niter – i.e. saltpetre to be used in the war.  The Confederates - 13 states, on the other hand, anticipating  brewing trouble and not to be cowed down by the yanks, had  sent their emissaries James Mason and John Slidell to England not only to get much needed saltpeter from Britain  but also their recognition of the Confederate and by the European powers. They said,  ''Empty promises won't suffice''.  In the war the  northern union  had a run on the southerners and in the aftermath, Confederates Mason and Slidell were captured by Unionist forces. Britain  poked their nose and demanded Abe Lincoln to release Mason Slidell which Lincoln refused.

In the midst of an explosive political turmoil in America, the import of cotton from the Southern plantations declined  a lot.  This made the British look for other alternatives for cotton for their factories in Manchester and other places.  This quickly led to the development of cotton plantations in India. Queen Victoria issued a proclamation forbidding the export from all ports of the United Kingdom, of gunpowder, nitre, nitrate of soda, brimstone, lead, and fire-arms.—London Gazette, Dec. 4.

Britain imposed a ban on exports of saltpetre to show to the world their monopoly in that business. Known in history as the ''Trent Affair'', Unionist began to feel the pinch as their  saltpetre stocks went down,  Having no other choice,  Lincoln backed down and agreed to release Mason and Slidell. As the demand was high, prices of saltpetre shot up sky high from mere US$0.20  to US$3.0 within one year after the war began. To get the war going the Confederates  introduced a special division called ''Niter Corps''  just to  keep track of their saltpeter sockpile. 

The wily British  realized that the civil war would last longer than expected earlier  and politically wanted to maintain neutrality in the American civil war. Part of the reason was then Britain for their textile production was no longer  dependent on American cotton. The  British godowns  were packed to the full with subtantial  Indian and Egyptian cotton.  The wily Bobs wanted to take advantage of internal struggle between two groups - a nice oppportunity to make fast bucks for the  East India company. Britain kept quiet and was watching with glee  at  the Southerners and Northern Yankees  squeezing  each other's throat as much as they could.  As long as they were at war so long  Indian saltpeter supply would be flowing continuously to both sides to energize them for more assaults; the company's coffers would be full to the brim with American money.

Not happy with the way Britain exploiting the explosive political situation in America, numerous American politicians and intellectuals were  sore over their  undiplomatic approach. C.H. Davis, of the Bureau Of Ordnance, Navy Department,  on November 22, 1862 reported to the US Congress, 'Saltpeter  is not produced naturally in this country, nor by any other but India, except in insignificant quantities.  Hindostan 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.'
Dangerous neutrality. opinionator.blogs
 Above image: of Congress - A cartoon showing Jefferson Davis, having won a declaration of neutrality from France, trying unsuccessfully to win recognition from Napoleon III...............

Tit-bits: A talented young chemist and businessman, Lammot du Pont, took the resposibility of secretly buying British saltpeter for the United States government. It was desperately needed for the Union war effort. Du Pont's mission, ran into problem because of  the famous Trent Affair in November, 1861.  It is said  Du Pont played a crucial role in subsequent events, first causing Secretary of State William H. Seward to agree to British diplomatic demands and then himself pushing the nation to the brink of transatlantic war in completing his assigned task. Since India had been  the major producer of  most of the world's saltpeter since the early 1600's, the British had a monopoly  and suppliers in Calcutta  would arrange through brokers in London or Liverpool. 

Using various stragies, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, America's leading powder producer, managed to get  its saltpeter in this manner since its first mill had been erected in 1802 on the banks of Brandywine Creek near Wilmington , Delaware. The company's stocked in 1860 about 23,169 bags, and in 1861  26,194 bags,  enough to last for a long time.  In the later months the price of saltpeter incresed because of demand  from southerners and others. However, a standing order of 125 tons per month  was in place in May 1862. According to  the chief of the navy's Bureau of Ordnance, Captain Andrew A. Harwood, War Department reported a stock of 3,800,000 pounds of saltpeter to go after the confederates in case there was no peace treaty.  (
''The Confederacy ultimately imported millions of pounds of saltpeter for making gunpowder and 400,000 rifles. Without England’s merchant marine and humming industrial plant,
the Confederates would have been firing blanks. Neutrality had
hardly ever been ''deadlier''. (
The Historian, Article date: September 22, 2009, Author: Frey, James W.
pdf "The Devil to Pay!": Saltpeter and the Trent Affair
Harold B. Hancock, Norman B. Wilkinson
Civil War HistoryThe Kent State University Press
Volume 10, Number 11, March 1964