The Making of the British Empire

1. Introduction: “The first Empire was built by pirates” (Niall Ferguson)
From whence does the idea of Empire emerge? Armitage (2000) traces the emergence of a British imperial ideology from the time of Henry VIII to that of Robert Walpole in the 1720s and 1730s. He argues that the imperial ideology was both as a critical agent in the formation of a British state from three kingdoms and an essential bond between the state and the transatlantic colonies. In this way he links the local and the international in an easy mix. Before 1700 Armitage finds that contested English and Scottish versions of state and empire delayed the emergence of a unitary imperial ideology. Furthermore the notions of republicanism produced a tension between “empire and liberty” and “imperium and dominium.” However 17th century political economists emphasized the significance of commerce to the success of the state, arguing that “trade depended on liberty, and that liberty could therefore be the foundation of empire.” To overcome competing versions of ’empires of the seas’ within Britain, Parliament undertook the regulation of the Irish economy, the Act of Union (1707) and the formation of a unitary and organic ‘British’ empire of the sea. Walpole’s opponents developed an alternative vision of empire that would be “Protestant, commercial, maritime and free.” Walpole’s did not ensure the promised “liberty” to the colonists colonies because he was intent on subordinating all colonial economic activity to the mercantilist advantages of the metropolis. Anti-imperial critiques emerged from Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, foreshadowing the republicanism that swept the American colonies in the 1770s and led to the creation of a rival empire.
Armitage’s writing is brilliant and compelling, but the categories do seem a little rigidly drawn. The thesis of this essay –by contrast- 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, pace Armitage, 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.
According to Niall Ferguson : “in the beginning were the pirates.” The beginnings of Britain’s worldwide influence came through the willingness of Elizabeth 1st (in the sixteenth century) and James 1st (in the seventeenth century) to sponsor somewhat dubious trade ventures that were little short of piracy. A “patent” was granted to Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 for discovery and overseas exploration. That year, Gilbert sailed for the West Indies with the intention of engaging in piracy and establishing a colony in North America, but the expedition was aborted before it had crossed the Atlantic. In 1583 he embarked on a second attempt, on this occasion to the island of Newfoundland which was formally claimed for England. Gilbert was succeeded by his half-brother, Walter Raleigh, who was granted his own patent by Elizabeth in 1584. Later that year, Raleigh founded the colony of Roanoke on the coast of present-day North Carolina, but lack of supplies caused the colony to fail.
In 1604, James 1st negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain. Now at peace with its main rival, English attention shifted from preying on other nations’ colonial infrastructure to the business of establishing its own overseas colonies. 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 establishment of a private company, the English East India Company, to trade with Asia. This period, until the loss of the Thirteen Colonies after the American War of Independence towards the end of the 18th century, has subsequently been referred to as the “First British 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. In 1655 England annexed the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, and in 1666 succeeded in colonising the Bahamas.
2. Slavery: The “Evil necessity”
The first half of the seventeenth century saw a series of English and European settlements across the Caribbean and North America. Some settlements had a religious basis, but most were seeking the opportunities of new trade markets. In 1670, King Charles II granted a charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, granting it a monopoly on the fur trade in what was then known as Rupert’s Land, a vast stretch of modern-day Canada. Forts and trading posts established by the Company were frequently the subject of attacks by the French, who had established their own fur trading colony in adjacent New France.
Two years later, the Royal African Company was inaugurated, receiving from King Charles a monopoly of the trade to supply slaves to the British colonies of the Caribbean. From the outset, slavery was the basis of the British Empire in the West Indies. 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 of black people rose from 25 percent in 1650 to around 80 percent in 1780, and in the Thirteen Colonies from 10 percent to 40 percent over the same period (the majority in the southern colonies). 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. 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.
3. The role of the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the development of Britain’s empire.
The “Anglo Dutch wars” were a series of on-off conflicts through the second half of the seventeenth century which were little more than trade disputes. They were provoked initially by the highandedness of the English 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.
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
4. 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).
5. 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 became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. 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.”

6. The Importance of the Navy
The traditional view is that the British Empire was the result of maritime expansion. From the seventeenth century new maritime growth underpinned the evolution of an international trade network. British economic, military and cultural influence was felt globally. As the British government and private firms developed they protected this infrastructure through an intimate economic partnership. This alliance provided new goods and fashions to the growing British markets, while acting as a catalyst for future industrial growth.
Britain competed for territory with the French, Spanish and the Dutch navies. While wars were won as well as lost, Britain’s dominance was not simply confined to the acquisition of land. The ‘informal empire’ also extended its influence through increased trade and mass migration. Millions of people emigrated great distances in search of work. Many never reached their destination, most never returned home and some put down new roots in the countries to which they had moved. During this time the British liked to assume that their role was essentially peaceful. They believed they were only protecting their existing empire while trade and culture was allowed to spread.
In the seventeenth century the British copied an economic system of national public debt from the Dutch. This allowed the government to borrow from its citizens at low interest rates. This system was funded through a stock exchange where bonds could be bought and sold. It was used to fund large-scale projects like wars and to create the Royal Navy.
6. Analysis
The traditional view, stated above, was 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 his recent book, Three Victories and a Defeat, 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 power politics.
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.

• Adams, James Truslow. “On the Term ‘British Empire,'” American Historical Review, 22 (1927), 485–9; JSTOR
• Bailyn, Bernard, and Philip D. Morgan (eds.), Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire (1991).
• Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (2000).
• Armitage, David, ‘Greater Britain: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?’ American Historical Review, 104 (1999), 427–45. JSTOR
• Armitage, David, ed. Theories of Empire, 1450–1800 (1998).
• Cain, P. J.. and A. G. Hopkins. “Gentlemanly Capitalism and British Expansion Overseas I. The Old Colonial System, 1688-1850,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 39, 4 (1986): 501-525 JSTOR
• Simms, Brendan, Three Victories and a Defeat (2008).
• Wilson, Kathleen, ed. A New Imperial History: Culture Identity, and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840 (2004)

This entry was posted in A Level History, British Empire, History, Rise of Empire 1660-1760 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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