Charles II: Accidental Architect of Empire?


It can be argued that Charles II was the real architect of the British Empire. Though perhaps, he wasn’t an intentional one

Since 1640, Portugal had been fighting off Spanish control, relying heavily on French help. In 1659 that help was suddenly withdrawn. The regent -Queen Luísa of Portugal- cast about for support like a drowning swimmer clutching at branches. And there in the distance was the newly restored Charles II of Britain, desperately in need of allies himself. On 23 June 1661, a marriage treaty was signed, and in May 1662, Charles married Catherine of Braganza. Her dowry brought the territories of Tangier and Bombay under British control. Tangier was later abandoned as too expensive to run, but Bombay, of course, had crucial infuence on the development of the British Empire in India.

Later that year, scratching for finance, Charles sold Dunkirk, to his cousin King Louis XIV of France for about £375,000. It wasn’t a popular –or very bright- move. Dunkirk had massive strategic significance. A less significant gesture –at least at the time- was the awarding of “Carolina” (named after his father) to the eight lords who had helped him on to the throne.

Meanwhile, by a series of five charters, Charles was somehwat chivvied into allowing the British East India Company the rights

• to autonomous territorial acquisitions,
• to mint money,
• to command fortresses and troops,
• to form alliances,
• to make war and peace,
• and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas in India.

In 1668 he leased the islands off Bombay for a nominal sum of £10.
On May 2, 1670, Charles signed the Hudson’s Bay Company charter, naming his cousin Rupert as “true lord and proprietor” of the Hudson Bay. The signing came after a year of indecision on the king’s part, stemming from concern that the treaty would mar his close ties with France’s Louis XIV, whose substantial monetary input was crucial to the British sovereign’s role in Parliament.
The financial benefits of signing the HBC charter proved greater for England and for Charles than the political setbacks. The document allowed private investors to achieve profits while risking little. Prince Rupert’s loyalty to the crown also helped to sway Charles — the prince had never before asked for a royal favour, so Charles felt an obligation to grant one. The HBC charter, while not an unusual document for the king to sign, stood apart from the rest because of the sheer scope of land involved. The charter set the geographical boundaries of the HBC at 1.5 million square miles, almost 40 percent of present-day Canada. While Charles added a clause that the Company may not attack the holdings of another Christian monarch, he made no mention of the well-established presence of the indigenous peoples. By signing a charter with such ample room for interpretation, the king, in essence, handed over the reins of an expansive hunting ground for the HBC to dispose of as they saw fit.
So, within ten years of coming to power, Charles had laid the foundation of a world empire with effects that continue to resonate today.
Accident or design?

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

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