‘This abominable traffic’: a consequence of gun manufacture

The Illustrated London News of 1 February 1851 carried a long article on gun barrel making (see our pictures ST216, ST217 and ST218 by typing the codes into our website search box), which included the following:

‘The manufacture of fire-arms is one of the most extensive trades carried on at Birmingham; and in all its various departments – of stock, lock and barrel – is estimated to give employment to between 6000 and 7000 persons. During the war, happily ended by the peace of Waterloo, Birmingham could not manufacture fire-arms with sufficient rapidity to meet the necessities of the Government; although for a period of many years it turned out, according to a phrase still repeated in the town, “a gun a minute, night and day, Saturdays and Sundays”, or 525,600 per annum … Though the trade since those times has greatly diminished, Birmingham still manufactures immense quantities of fire-arms of all descriptions; and supplies the gun-makers of every part of the kingdom with gun-barrels and gun-locks, which are afterwards fitted together in London and elsewhere …

‘A proportion of the gun-barrels thus produced are for the Government and for the East India Company; and another portion are for sporting purposes, for the home and foreign trade; but by far the largest number are manufactured for Africa. The African trade in this article alone supports many hundreds of people. The guns are of the cheapest and commonest description. The orders are received from the merchants of London and Liverpool, who barter the guns on the African coast for ivory, spices, gold-dust, and other produce. It is asserted that many of these guns find their way to Brazil, and that the Brazilian slave-traders carry on an extensive business with some of the African kings and chiefs, by exchanging guns for men. When this abominable traffic was legal in England, a Birmingham gun was the common price for a negro.’

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