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Aim at Empire: Arms Trading and the Fates of American Revolutions


Brian Delay, an associate professor of history at UC Berkeley, is researching the first global wave of decolonization, which took place between 1775 and 1825.

Historian Brian DeLay, a Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at the Center, offers a reinterpretation of the Age of Revolutions. He explains how the international arms trade connected the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Spanish-American Wars for Independence, and how privileged control over that trade enabled the United States to forge an empire of its own.

DeLay is an associate professor of history at UC Berkeley who is an expert on the American West, transnational history, and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He is the author of War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (Yale, 2008), co-author of the United States history textbook Experience History (McGraw-Hill), and editor of North American Borderlands (Routledge, 2013). He is currently writing a book about the first global wave of decolonization, which took place between 1775 and 1825 and has plans to develop a digital humanities project that uses customs records to reconstruct the global arms trade between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.

Your project looks at the role of arms trafficking in the American Revolution, which seems to be a fairly untold story. What drew you to this topic?

I came to the topic from a mix of interests. First, I’ve always been interested in the history of power—who has power over who, and why. I’m also interested in borderlands and international history, in contexts where sovereignty is fractured and contested. But my other major interest as a historian is in intersections of U.S., Latin American, and Indigenous histories.

After I finished my first book, I spent a long time looking for a topic that would cut across all of these different preoccupations. I finally found it in the international arms trade, a topic that historians have done very little with. So, about ten years ago, I started researching a book about how access to guns and ammunition shaped contests for power across the Western Hemisphere, from the American Revolution to WWII.

But as I began writing a few years ago, I gradually discovered that the arms trade story in the independence era (1775–1825) was richer, more complex, and more important that I initially realized. I decided that I needed to write two books: one about the Age of Revolutions: Aim at Empire: Arms Trading and the Fates of American Revolutions, which I’ve been working on all year as a fellow, and another about the 19th and 20th centuries called Means of Destruction: Guns, Freedom, and Domination in the Americas.


It’s a very practical question, but what kind of guns were available in the American colonies? How did the insurgents arm themselves against British? It seems insurmountable.

Gun ownership was more widespread among British North Americans than in most colonial societies. Partly that was because they kept so many people enslaved and were constantly engaged in a violent settler colonial project, and partly because so many guns had been left behind after the Seven Years’ War. Some colonists had rifles. But most guns in the colonies were smoothbore, flintlock muskets. Still, the firearms on hand weren’t remotely enough to equip a rebellion against Great Britain, and no one in the New World had the capacity to mass-produce more.

The colonies launched a highly sophisticated international effort to smuggle in arms and gunpowder from Europe. That effort helped launch the rebellion and sustain its early phase. But by the end of 1776 it became clear that the market alone couldn’t equip the revolution.

Ultimately, American rebels depended not on the market, but on patronage. France and Spain took the calculated risk of sending more than a hundred thousand muskets, hundreds of thousands of pounds of gunpowder, and, eventually, their royal navies to secure American independence.


How did the success of the American Revolution influence the decolonization of the Western Hemisphere?

That risk France and Spain took turned out to be a strategic error of world-historic proportions. U.S. independence meant that there was something new in the Western Hemisphere: a sovereign nation, unencumbered by entangling treaties, equipped with a huge merchant marine, and very willing and able to export arms and ammunition all over the Americas.


"That risk France and Spain took turned out to be a strategic error of world-historic proportions." 

In other words, for the first time, would-be insurgents in the hemisphere could equip revolutions through the market. U.S. merchants provided most of the muskets and powder that revolutionaries in Haiti used in their long war for independence from France (1791–1804), and they did the same for independence movements across Spanish America (1810–1825).

These later independence movements cost France and Spain their most valuable colonial possessions, and none of them would have been armed if not for U.S. imports.


What’s the lasting legacy of this arms trade?

This arms trade was a precondition for the world’s first global wave of decolonization, enabling white people around the hemisphere to enjoy a level of self-determination inconceivable before 1775. It equipped history’s greatest slave rebellion—in Haiti—and therefore played a vital role in the beginning of the end of racial slavery.

But this arms trade also paved the way for U.S. empire. As a new nation committed to energetically importing, making, and exporting war material, the United States embarked on the independence era with a kind of power denied to other postcolonial states. It first used that firepower against Indigenous nations, to construct a continental empire. But over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the weapons gap would empower the United States to begin building its extra-continental empire around the Circum-Caribbean and the Pacific