13. The Expansion of Christian nations

13.3 The New Weapons

In 1326, Florentine official documents refer to the acquisition of bronze guns shooting iron balls 2. After 1330, guns were used in warfare. Firearms were used in 1346 at Crécy, where the English opposed the French. The widespread demand for bronze church bells had acquainted craftsmen with the manipulation of this easily worked alloy and the first guns were in bronze, which is an expensive material. The big manufacturing centers were in the industrial-capitalistic cities of the Low Countries and northern Italy. The first trend was to build cannons bigger so as to destroy bigger walls. The unwieldy cannons were put on ships, whereby they could be easily moved. After this initial inclination towards monstrosity, handier guns were made, that might be used in the field. The French were first in this endeavor and used field guns at Ravenna (1512).

The Flemish cannon manufacturers supplied Spain and Portugal, who paid with the gold from America and the spices of the East. The underdeveloped England of Henry VIII went bankrupt buying bronze guns in Malines (Belgium). England masterly succeeded in making iron guns locally. However, Elizabeth imposed political restrictions on the exportation of ordnance (1567) while a complete deforestation pushed the price of fuel up to an intolerable degree (1630) so that the main centers of manufacture moved to Holland, Germany and Sweden, usually under the direct supervision of the Dutch, who needed the formidable guns for their formidable fleet and could pay for them with their formidable commerce. Many of the victories of various European armies (e.g. the Swedes) can be traced to the continuous improvement and/or possession of the manufacturing centers as well as the adequate primary materials. The Dutch installed a gun factory near Moscow in 1630, which helped in a decisive way the Russians in their final victory over the Swedes.

The poor quality of the iron ores of France disadvantaged that country during that period.

The initial development of this new weapon system was rapidly assimilated by other civilizations. In 1331, the Moorish king of Granada allegedly attacked Alicante with artillery. The Mameluckes used cannon in 1350. The Ottomans started manufacturing cannons in 1364 and Constantinople fell because the formidable guns made locally by a Latin Christian (a Hungarian) at the service of the Ottomans battered down its formidable defenses. The Chinese used gunpowder as early as 900 and Chinese cannons existed in 1356. From there, the knowledge of firearms spread to Korea, Japan, and Java etc. In 1360, ordnance was used in India, locally made by Turks. Artillery was known in Asia long before the arrival of the Portuguese (Ferenghee, Farrangi, i.e. Franks) and Chinese guns were superior to European guns up till the 15th century. The guns defending Peking drove the Mongols away in 1449. Yet, when the Portuguese arrived in China in 1517, the fame of their guns, asserted in 1511 when they took Malacca, had preceded them: the Chinese called the guns, characteristically enough, Fo-lang-ki.

The Western conquerors were very few, had nothing of value to offer beside their ability to efficiently kill and destroy and relied heavily on the divide and conquer policy to maintain themselves. This is the reason why they taught the manufacture of ordnance to local rulers, in order to foster quarrels that might help them (fig. 13.4).

Afbeelding 44

Figure 13.4. J.L. Gottfried. A Dutch visitor mandated by the Dutch East Indian Company offers guns to the king of Calicut (around 1660). The purpose was to drive the Portuguese out of the spice-producing regions.

Whenever a country refused contact, as was the case with Japan, China, Turkey, Ethiopia, Thailand, the newcomers were forced to withdraw. This was true however only in the beginning. At sea, their well-gunned superior ships made them unbeatable from the start.


2. C.M. Cipolla: European Culture and Overseas Expansion. Pelican Book, 1970

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