Liz Bourke foisted this question upon me on Twitter using her profound ability of psychic suggestion and the promise of free alcohol. The question is this: what would the world look like if gunpowder had never been discovered?
- I’m only going to consider worlds like our own in which the materials for gunpowder exist. I feel inadequate to the task of arguing the science involved in imagining the absence of gunpowder materials.
- I’m only going to consider worlds like our own in which the inhabitants didn’t discover gunpowder until much later — up to about when the early modern period began. I find it unlikely that gunpowder would go undiscovered indefinitely.
- Due to my limited knowledge of other gunpowder-using cultures, most of what I will say below will come from a largely Western perspective. It will likely be somewhat reductive primarily because I can’t write a 200-page book about the subject and expect anyone to read it. However, if you can shine some light on how the above question might have affected different cultures before (or after?) colonization or contact w/ other cultures, please write a post in response. I don’t have that expertise, and so I will refrain from making too many assumptions.
While I’m no expert on medieval sea warfare, I imagine the absence of gunpowder-based cannons would mean greater need for well-trained soldiers on the decks of ships and a frequent use of flammables either in the trapping of enemy ships or as a matter of the boat siege process. In my mind, I imagine balanced crews of soldiers, sailors, and chemical experts, each in place in just the right numbers to combat the onslaught of chemicals and soldiers trying to crash or take over enemy ships full of supplies or ground troops. And don’t forget the crossbows and ballistas. A ballista whose tip contains a pouch of flammable liquid could be launched through the wooden hull of an enemy ship, and fire-tipped bolts or arrows could be used to light the enemy ship on fire. In a weird way, I just imagine warfare to be a more violent, flammable, terrifying endeavor, such that it might actually be against the better judgment of monarchic leaders to consistently wage war against their enemies. At some point, the cost would become too great to constantly grab for territory.
All of this, however, assumes that the Europeans would have arrived in the New World at roughly the same time as they did in our own world. Imagine, if you will, what the New World might have looked like if the Spanish hadn’t arrived in Central and South America until 200 years later. Imagine if the British and French had been delayed in their colonization of the New World, too. I can’t say whether there would have been any enormous technological advances among the Native American populations with that extra time. Certainly, some things would have changed, but would those changes have been warfare based? I don’t know. However, I do think it’s fair to say that the advancement of Europeans across the Americas would have been considerably slower, and perhaps far less violent. Conflict was probably inevitable, but it’s much more difficult to justify the mass extermination of another people when you are not, in fact, that advanced in warfare technology OR in numbers. There would be a greater necessity for cooperation. And that cooperation would, I think, work partially in the favor of the Native Americans, if only because the cultural transmission would have been measured and more open. That, in my mind, produces the conditions necessary for organic adaptation within cultural groups.
: Most of this sentence is not true.
: I’m not a historian, so a lot of the dates I have given here are loose.
: Gunpowder had been used in explosives and other forms of weapons after its discovery, but it didn’t completely alter warfare, as I understand it, until that 200 year period. I’m getting much of this loose information from the source list on this Wikipedia page (many of which come from a fellow by the name of John Merton Patrick, who wrote an essay for a University of Michigan academic journal). So, yes, I’m using Wikipedia, but only as a nice pointer for better sources.
: I also imagine a world where assassinations are more frequent as a method for avoiding physical conflict.
: I hope readers will forgive me for the somewhat reductive view of the Native Americans here. Most of what I’ve written is fairly reductive, so my focus is less on the particularities of these real world conflicts than on basic concerns as they relate to the topic. If one were to actually use the idea of a gunpowder-free society to create an alternate history, they would have to do far more research than I have done here. This is a scratching-the-surface type thing.