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Its acquisition involved alchemical knowledge, exotic technology, intrusions into people's lives, and eventual dominance of the world's oceans. The quest for saltpeter caused widespread 'vexation' in Tudor and Stuart England, as crown agents dug in homes and barns and even churches. Governments hungry for it purchased supplies from overseas merchants, transferred skills from foreign experts, and extended patronage to ingenious schemers, while the hated 'saltpetermen' intruded on private ground.

Eventually, huge saltpeter imports from India relieved this social pressure, and by the eighteenth century positioned Britain as a global imperial power; the governments of revolutionary America and ancien regime France, on the other hand, were forced to find alternative sources of this treasured substance.

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In the end, it was only with the development of chemical explosives in the late Victorian period that dependency on saltpeter finally declined. Saltpeter, the Mother of Gunpowder tells this fascinating story for the first time.

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Lively and entertaining in its own right, it is also a tale with far-reaching implications. As David Cressy's engaging narrative makes clear, the story of saltpeter is vital not only in explaining the inter-connected military, scientific, and political 'revolutions' of the seventeenth century; it also played a key role in the formation of the centralized British nation state - and that state'ssubsequent dominance of the waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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I read this book because I thought it would be interesting to know a bit more about the role played by difficulties with the production of saltpeter in the various wars that were fought in the period, as well as about the consequences of mining and producing all that saltpeter had for local populations and the lived environment.

Cressy however has little to say about either topic beyond a superficial understanding of the problems associated with its production, leaving me a tad disappointed. To start, the title is rather misleading, as it suggests the author will discuss or at least say something about the social consequences of the discovery of the usefulness of saltpeter for the Western war industry, as well as for the environmental and societal changes brought about by its production becoming important for national security reasons.

As suggested by the synopsis, what you get instead is a pretty bland and repetitively formulated discussion in which the author hammers home the fact that a lot of "vexation" accompanied the mining and transportation of saltpeter in England , an appreciation for the fact that English saltpetermen indeed had a lot of trouble making the stuff apparently more so than their continental colleagues , and a few words on the production of gunpowder. Tacked on at the end, we find a brief discussion of the practice in France and the revolutionary USA.

Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder by David Cressy

Rather less elaborate is Cressy's promised discussion of "saltpeter['s vital role] in explaining the inter-connected military, scientific, and political 'revolutions' of the seventeenth century [as well as] in the formation of the centralized British nation state - and that state's subsequent dominance of the waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The right to extract saltpeter in a certain area was sold via auctions, and it seems that a lot if not most of the people who bid on the contracts to extract saltpeter from the ground were inconsiderate bastards who really enjoyed destroying people's property in search of profit.

However, because of the "national security" angle, very few of the people whose properties were destroyed or damaged by them were able to sue for recompense, even though they strictly speaking had this right under English common law. Additionally, most of the attempts to produce saltpeter locally in the UK failed, for reasons left unexplained because neither analyzed in detail, nor contrasted with continental attempts, which seem to have been successful more frequently.

Parenthetically, the author contrasts the English legal situation favorably with the French system. Why he does so is unclear to me, though, as pretty much the only people who were able to get judges to rule their way were members of the nobility anyway; the rights of regular citizens were ignored almost without exception.

The abuse continued and increased with some variation depending on demand unabated from the mid 16th century until the EIC got serious about importing saltpeter from India esp. Bengal , which was far cheaper than English-sourced saltpeter, and which thus destroyed the local "industry".


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This of course made India a very important colony, while India's being under British rule allowed the Brits to become extremely powerful at sea, because of the saltpeter owning India provided them with. What is peculiar, though, is the fact that although the author seems to have been quite interested in discussing the "vexatiousness" of extracting all this saltpeter from soil from under the houses owned by English people, he doesn't spend a single word on the question how vexatious the extraction of saltpeter from the soil was for the inhabitants of the Bengal coast or wherever it was sourced precisely; this is not discussed in detail , leaving the reader with the question whether the extraction was done in a way that was more respectful of local rights, whether the records weren't there, or whether the rights of the various Indian populations were simply deemed "less interesting" by him.

Whatever the reason, given the title, I found this omission rather difficult to forgive, as well as just plain odd. Nov 03, Andre rated it it was ok.

Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder

Jan 29, Elizabeth marked it as to-read Shelves: history , science-and-medicine. As seen in Nature. Oct 19, Tucansam rated it it was ok Shelves: history , non-fiction , military. I began reading this book with enthusiasm.


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Though informative the book is repetitive and choppy. Jur rated it liked it Aug 28, Fred rated it really liked it Sep 07, Jim rated it liked it Dec 28, Mick rated it liked it Oct 13, Home Saltpeter. Skip to the end of the images gallery. Skip to the beginning of the images gallery.

David Cressy author. Be the first to review this product. The story of the science, the technology, the politics and the military applications of saltpeter - the vital but mysterious substance that governments from the Tudors to the Victorians regarded as an 'inestimable treasure'. This product is reprinting and delivery will take a little longer. SKU Add to Cart.

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Saltpeter from soil

Return purchased items within 30 days for a full refund. This is the story of saltpeter, the vital but mysterious substance craved by governments from the Tudors to the Victorians as an 'inestimable treasure. Derived from soil enriched with dung and urine, it provided the heart or 'mother' of gunpowder, without which no musket or cannon could be fired. Its acquisition involved alchemical knowledge, exotic technology, intrusions into people's lives, and eventual dominance of the world's oceans. The quest for saltpeter caused widespread 'vexation' in Tudor and Stuart England, as crown agents dug in homes and barns and even churches.

Governments hungry for it purchased supplies from overseas merchants, transferred skills from foreign experts, and extended patronage to ingenious schemers, while the hated 'saltpetermen' intruded on private ground. Eventually, huge saltpeter imports from India relieved this social pressure, and by the eighteenth century positioned Britain as a global imperial power; the governments of revolutionary America and ancien regime France, on the other hand, were forced to find alternative sources of this treasured substance. In the end, it was only with the development of chemical explosives in the late Victorian period that dependency on saltpeter finally declined.

Saltpeter, the Mother of Gunpowder tells this fascinating story for the first time.