The thesis of this sketch survey is that Britain developed through a combination of dynastic shifts, strategic trade outposts and aggressive nationalistic policies, expressed through its navy, into a position of world-wide authority (if not supremacy) between the years 1660 and 1760. It is tempting to consider the words of Horace Seeley, writing in 1870, that Britain acquired an empire “in a fit of absent-mindedness.” That is to say, there was no devious strategy for world-domination, only a series of small-scale largely trade-based decisions. The concept of “Empire” is a much later ideological construct.
The century under review was dominated by a series of relatively inconclusive wars, and it is appropriate to consider the role of those wars in the development of that authoritative position.
1. The role of the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the development of Britain’s empire.
The “Anglo Dutch wars” were a series of sporadic conflicts through the second half of the seventeenth century. In essence they were trade disputes and provoked initially by the Navigation Acts through which Britain claimed dominion over the Channel and North Sea. The wars had a series of mixed results for both sides and ended in 1688, when William of Orange acceded with his wife Mary to the English throne, apparently merging Dutch and English interests.
The regime change of 1688 brought about the ultimate downfall of the Dutch Republic. The Dutch merchant elite immediately began to use London as a new operational base. Dutch economic growth slowed. William ordered that any Anglo-Dutch fleet be under English command, with the Dutch navy having 60% of the strength of the English. From about 1720 Dutch wealth declined.
By 1780 the per capita gross national product of the Kingdom of Great Britain surpassed that of the Dutch Republic. Whereas in 1660 the commercial success of the Dutch had fuelled English rivalry, by 1760 the growth of English power led to Dutch resentment. When the Dutch began to support the American rebels, this led to further conflict, and the loss of the alliance made the Dutch Republic fatally vulnerable to the French. Soon it would be subject to regime change itself.
The Dutch navy was by now only a shadow of its former self, having only about twenty ships of the line, so there were no large fleet battles. The British tried to reduce the Republic to the status of a British protectorate, using Prussian pressure and gaining factual control over the Dutch colonies, those conquered during the war given back at war’s end. The Dutch then still held some key positions in the European trade with Asia, such as the Cape Colony, Ceylon and Malacca. The war sparked a new round of Dutch ship building in the generation after our period but the British kept their absolute numerical superiority by doubling their fleet in the same time.
So, were the Anglo-Dutch wars inconclusive? At their time it may have appeared so, but after 1688 it may be seen that they laid the basis of part of Britain’s rise into world empire in the following century
Although its beginnings were hit-and-miss, the British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean, and the trade outposts of India. The establishment of a private company, the English East India Company (from 1600) was poised to develop its extensive trade with Asia. This period, until the loss of the Thirteen Colonies after the United States Declaration of Independence towards the end of the 18th century, has subsequently been referred to as the “First British Empire”.
2. The role of the Americas in Britain’s colonial empire
The Caribbean initially provided England’s most important and lucrative colonies, but not before several attempts at colonisation failed. The colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations successfully used by the Portuguese in Brazil, which depended on slave labour, and—at first—Dutch ships, to sell the slaves and buy the sugar. The Anglo-Dutch Wars eventually strengthened England’s position in the Americas at the expense of the Dutch. In 1655 England annexed the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, and in 1666 succeeded in colonising the Bahamas.
England’s first permanent overseas settlement had been founded in 1607 in Jamestown, led by Captain John Smith and managed by the Virginia Company, an offshoot of which established a colony on Bermuda, which had been discovered in 1609. The Company’s charter was revoked in 1624 and direct control was assumed by the crown, thereby founding the Colony of Virginia. The Newfoundland Company was created in 1610 with the aim of creating a permanent settlement on Newfoundland, but was largely unsuccessful.
In 1620, Plymouth was founded as a haven for puritan religious separatists, later known as the Pilgrims. Fleeing from religious persecution would become the motive of many English would-be colonists to risk the arduous trans-Atlantic voyage: Maryland was founded as a haven for Roman Catholics (1634), Rhode Island (1636) as a colony tolerant of all religions and Connecticut (1639) for congregationalists. The Province of Carolina was founded in 1663. In 1664, England gained control of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (renamed New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War, in exchange for Suriname. In 1681, the colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn.
1695 the Scottish parliament granted a charter to the Company of Scotland, which proceeded in 1698 to establish a settlement on the isthmus of Panama, with a view to building a canal there. Besieged by neighbouring Spanish colonists of New Granada, and afflicted by malaria, the colony was abandoned two years later. The Darien scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland as a quarter of Scottish capital was lost in the enterprise. This episode is viewed as a major factor in persuading the Scottish Parliament to negotiate the terms of the Treaty of Union as the new United Kingdom of Great Britain would take responsibility for some of Scotland’s debts.
American colonies, which provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval materiel and furs in the north, were less financially successful than those of the Caribbean, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants who preferred their temperate climates. The American Revolution resulted in de-facto self-government by 1775 for the Thirteen Colonies, who then declared their independence in 1776 creating the United States of America. Between 20 and 30% of the population remained loyal to the British Crown. The new nation was forced to defend that declaration against Britain in the American War of Independence, with victory on the battlefield resulting in recognition of independence in the Treaty of Paris (1783). In the end, this became the first successful colonial war of independence.
From the outset, slavery was a vital economic component of the British Empire in the Americas. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic. To facilitate this trade, forts were established on the coast of West Africa, such as James Island, Accra and Bunce Island.
In the British Caribbean, the percentage of the population comprising blacks rose from 25% in 1650 to around 80% in 1780, and in the Thirteen Colonies from 10% to 40% over the same period (the majority in the south). For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay for such western British cities as Bristol and Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the so-called triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. However, for the transportees, harsh and unhygienic conditions on the slaving ships and poor diets meant that the average mortality rate during the middle passage was one in seven. The profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
3. The role of Asia in the development of Britain’s world empire
At the end of the 16th century, England and the Netherlands had begun to challenge Portugal’s monopoly of trade with Asia, forming private joint-stock companies to finance the voyages—the English (later British) and Dutch East India Companies, chartered in 1600 and 1602 respectively. The primary aim of these companies was to tap into the lucrative spice trade, and they focused their efforts on the source, the Indonesian archipelago, and an important hub in the trade network, India.
The close proximity of London and Amsterdam across the North Sea and intense rivalry between England and the Netherlands inevitably led to conflict between the two companies, with the Dutch gaining the upper hand in the Moluccas (previously a Portuguese stronghold) after the withdrawal of the English in 1622, and the English enjoying more success in India, at Surat, after the establishment of a factory in 1613. Though England would ultimately eclipse the Netherlands as a colonial power, in the short term the Netherlands’s more advanced financial system and the three Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century left it with a stronger position in Asia.
As noted, hostilities ceased after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Dutch William of Orange ascended the English throne, bringing peace between the Netherlands and England. A deal between the two nations left the spice trade of the Indonesian archipelago to the Netherlands and the textiles industry of India to England, but textiles soon overtook spices in terms of profitability, and by 1720, in terms of sales, the English company had overtaken the Dutch.
The English East India Company shifted its focus from Surat—hub of the spice trade network—to Fort St George (later to become Madras), Bombay (ceded by the Portuguese to Charles II of England in 1661 as dowry for Catherine de Braganza) and Sutanuti (which would merge with two other villages to form Calcutta).
4. The Global struggles with France and their role in Britain’s rise to empire
Peace between England and the Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two countries entered the Nine Years’ War as allies, but the conflict—waged in Europe and overseas between France, Spain and the Anglo-Dutch alliance—left the English a stronger colonial power than the Dutch, who were forced to devote a larger proportion of their military budget on the costly land war in Europe. The 18th century would see England (after 1707, Britain) rise to be the world’s dominant colonial power, and France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage.
The death of Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain and its colonial empire to Philippe of Anjou, a grandson of the King of France, raised the prospect of the unification of France, Spain and their respective colonies, an unacceptable state of affairs for Britain and the other powers of Europe.
In 1701, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands sided with the Holy Roman Empire against Spain and France in the War of the Spanish Succession. The conflict, which France and Spain were to lose, lasted until 1714. At the concluding peace Treaty of Utrecht, Philip renounced his and his descendants’ right to the French throne. Spain lost its empire in Europe, and though it kept its empire in the Americas and the Philippines, it was irreversibly weakened as a power.
The British Empire was territorially enlarged: from France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain, Gibraltar and Minorca. Gibraltar, which is still a British overseas territory to this day, became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. Minorca was returned to Spain at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, after changing hands twice. Spain also ceded the rights to the lucrative asiento (permission to sell slaves in Spanish America) to Britain.
The Seven Years’ War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for Britain and its empire. In North America, France’s future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain.
The British victory over France in the Seven Years’ War therefore left Britain as the world’s dominant colonial power, already one on which “the sun never set.”
It is often argued that Britain’s rise to global empire and world power was achieved at sea, and that as James Thomson’s rousing mid-18th-century anthem Rule Britannia repeatedly points out, it was only because Britannia ruled the waves that her subjects could rejoice in the knowledge that they never would be slaves. That Britain’s history was an ‘Island Story’ has been reinforced by a long and rich tradition of seagoing fictions. In a recent book, Brendan Simms offers a different view: the success and failure of 18th-century British foreign policy were not, he contends, a direct consequence of the waxing and waning of naval strength.
Rather, British power abroad and political stability at home were founded on a constructive engagement with the European continental system as sketched above. It was always a question of preserving the balance of power. Only by preventing any single great power from dominating the western European littoral could British administrations guard against the threat of invasion and create the preconditions for imperial expansion.
The key to this strategy lay in the Netherlands and the vast sprawling commonwealth of German states known as the Holy Roman Empire. With the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1714, the British Crown gained a foothold deep within the political fabric of German Europe. Now the British king was also a German potentate with privileged access to the complex machinery of the Holy Roman Empire.
Armed with this new asset, British statesmen could respond flexibly to rapid shifts in the constellation of great power politics, throwing their weight when necessary against the Bourbons in France and Spain, the Russians in the Baltic and the Habsburgs in Vienna.
The successful cultivation of the European balance, Simms argues, provided the foundations for that long sequence of imperial triumphs that culminated in the Peace of Paris of 1763, which secured, among many other territorial acquisitions, British control of the entire eastern seaboard of North America. Conversely, it was the fateful turn away from European politics after 1763 that precipitated the loss of America – the greatest political catastrophe of Britain’s 18th century. Simms draws a stark contrast between the brilliant management of British interests at the height of the Seven Years’ War and the haughty isolationism of the later 1760s and 1770s, when London neglected continental politics, only to find itself hemmed in by Spain and France in North America.
The apogee of British statesmanship, by this view, was the premiership of William Pitt the Elder, a man with a deep understanding of German affairs who succeeded for the first time in truly integrating the ‘blue water’ and continental theatres of British policy. In Pitt’s foreign policy, well-judged interventions in the European war (in support of the immensely popular Frederick the Great of Prussia) combined with a far-sighted imperial programme to create ‘the perfect strategic virtuous circle, in which Germany was defended in America and America was won in Germany’. At one level, then, this book is a forensic analysis of the roots of success and failure in more than a century of great-power politics. But Simms weaves his argument into a dynamic and subtle account of British political culture.
The choice between the ‘navalist’ and ‘continental’ options was the subject of violent political debate. Tory blue-water enthusiasts demanded disengagement from Europe and accused the Hanoverian administration of pursuing a narrowly ‘German’ foreign policy on behalf of a ‘despicable electorate’ in which England could have no legitimate interest. Whig continentalists warned in turn that English liberties would not be secure unless the ‘liberties’ of Dutchmen and Germans were safeguarded against the pretensions of Bourbons and Habsburgs. These arguments were not confined to the ministerial elites – they reverberated in parliament and across the political nation. At stake were not merely questions of strategic priority, but the very identity of the Hanoverian polity. For the statesmen and commanders involved, being caught on the wrong side in these battles could bring about a fall from office and favour, loss of patronage, disgrace, impeachment and even (in the case of poor Admiral Byng) execution.
The Whig continentalists may have had the better arguments, but ultimately it was the Eurosceptics who had the catchier tunes and the more stirring rhetoric. The fable of an island nation fending for itself in a hostile world made for better reading (and singing) than the complexities of diplomacy and alliance in the bewildering world of the Holy Roman Empire.
And so it is that we remember Trafalgar and the Armada, but have largely forgotten Dettingen and Minden, where British troops and their allies lost their lives fighting to maintain the European balance of power.