Holly Foxton

Gunpowder: Fireworks and Fatality

The smell of fireworks, of the sulfur within the ignited gunpowder, permeates the streets of Amsterdam as the Central European Time Zone welcomes in the new year. Illegal for the public’s usage at all points throughout the year except from 6pm on December 31st until 2am on January 1st, scenes akin to the Purge play out upon the streets of the Netherlands as sparks illuminate the smokey celebrations.

Of course, fireworks are not the only application of gunpowder, as the name might suggest, and since it was formulated in China in the 9th century it has been inextricably tied to warfare and weaponry. Ironically, gunpowder was born in China as an attempt at a potion for immortality, but its destructive potential was soon realised and the mixture of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur and charcoal existed as the primary propellant in guns, bombs and cannons for many centuries. 

History has no clear answer as to why or how exactly gunpowder made it so rapidly to Europe, much faster than other crucial technologies such as paper, the compass or printing, taking 50 years rather than several centuries (Andrade). Many suspect that its aggressive ignition and military applications were responsible. As such, a historic tendency for Europeans to focus attention on the destructive qualities of gunpowder over anything else can be illustrated simply with the name ‘gunpowder’, whereas in China it had been referred to as the perhaps more mystical ‘fire-drug,’ and ‘Chinese snow’ and ‘Chinese salt’ in Andalusia and Persia, respectively (Andrade). The military applications of the chemical was seized upon not least by the VOC. 

The extent of the VOC’s success as a wildly large corporation that launched the Dutch Republic into the Golden Age around the 17th Century would not have been possible without their ability to win battles, which of course would not be possible without weapons and the gunpowder that fuelled them. 

European trade had always been a violent activity, with unavoidable aggression from Asia as well as encountered pirates and competing trade fleets. However, as warfare was an expensive commitment, it was not until they were met with unexpected force from the Portuguese in the East Indies in 1609, only a few years after their founding, that they upped their game in this respect. They had hoped to procure spices for trade, but the Portugese’ defence of their self-declared monopoly on the region ended up transforming the VOC’s attitude to military force and violence (Mostert). No longer would they avoid conflict; but confront it in defence and in novel occupations of trade territories. And thus the need for gunpowder to fuel power and resultant profit became core to the VOC.

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Willem van de Velde (II) - Het kanonschot - Willem van de Velde the Younger [Public domain]  A Dutch Warship fires a gunpowder-propelled cannon on the calm waters. 

Despite the importance of gunpowder to the VOC’s operations, exact figures of its consumption remain largely mysterious to historians. This is because they would carry large quantities, up to 4.5 tonnes (Mostert), aboard their ships to use as needed in their voyages. On the vessels’ arrival to Batavia from the Dutch Republic, whatever remained would be distributed as necessary, in either supplying the Asian demand or back onboard a ship for use. 

For the first half of the 17th century, the VOC had to be dependent on the supply of gunpowder from Europe, where production methods were so revered they were coveted by Asian governments (Mostert). However this was inefficient for the company and they made several attempts to produce their own supply in Asia, as the warmer climate and good supply of saltpeter made for good conditions for gunpowder production. They had requested talented European gunpowder makers to be sent to them, though it was not until 1655 that a prison-labour-powered mill began its own production. One year later after its creation it became a water powered mill that was able to produce 5.5 tonnes of gunpowder each month, and then by 1662, with the addition of two other mills, 13.6 tonnes were produced in Batavia and the VOC were able to be self-sufficient in their supply without dependence on Europe (Mostert). 

As mentioned, today the relationship between the Dutch and gunpowder is tied into celebration, sparks and a little bit of anarchy. It is intriguing that the same smells that would have been prolific throughout the battles that saw so many lives lost through the centuries are now associated with the hoopla of New Year. Though this festivity is also not without destruction. In 2019 434 people came away with New Year’s firework-related injuries, including 3 lives gone, 11 lost eyes and 16 amputated fingers. It would seem that throughout its history, despite how the intention for gunpowder to bring vitality and beauty into this world, somehow the destructive potential of the chemical in unavoidable, and arguably triumphs. And whether applied in aim of frivolity or fatality, the distinctive smell with soon follow.