Isaac Chotiner: How much is the story of guns intimately connected to the story of slavery?
Priya Satia: They’re very deeply connected in multiple ways, because guns were a very big trade item on the West African coast. They were used in the slave trade, and exchanged for slaves. In that way, they’re part of the slave trade. Then they’re also used to enforce slavery on plantations. They’re an instrument of discipline, and oppression, and violence in the whole slave plantation system that the British helped create, that trans-Atlantic system. But even after the slave trade is abolished in 1807, guns remain a big part of the trade with West Africa. They’re just exchanged for other types of goods instead. The end of the slave trade doesn’t actually spell the end of the gun trade in West Africa, but what initially drives the gun trade in West Africa is the European interest in procuring slaves.
And what is the connection between the period you are writing about and the prevalence of guns today?
The connection is the way the British expanded in the 18th century, and their involvement in various different types of colonial conflict all over the world. Guns are a big part of all of that. Guns are a part of their trade relations with so many parts of the world. Because of the multiple ways they’re used—as items of trade, as weapons of war, as items with symbolic value, even as a currency in a way, too—it becomes really difficult to regulate them as simply weapons of war. Look at today and the way we have regulations for pretty much every kind of weapon you can think of except firearms.
But didn’t the British themselves regulate the manner in which they were selling guns everywhere?
Interestingly, they didn’t regulate it, even then. Sometimes people would ask questions and say, “Wait a minute, should we really be selling guns to our enemies in India, the very people we’re trying to conquer? Isn’t that a bad idea? Because they’re going to be armed with the same guns as us, and they will use them against us?” Whenever someone offers that kind of logic, it’s always answered with the idea, “If we don’t sell our guns to them, the French will sell similar guns to them, and then they end up being armed with European guns, and we don’t make any money off it. So, we might as well make money from it, and plus, then they’ll owe us something. We might even not have to conquer them militarily because we can buy their loyalty by becoming their arms suppliers.”