The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Colonial Expansion and the Formation of the Colonial Empire

Category: 18th century

The English bourgeoisie having achieved its main aim in the revolution — having secured political and economic domination in the country and consolidated its rule over the masses became deeply interested in promoting its interests abroad. The 18th century saw the actual making of the British colonial empire. This process was closely associated with the numerous wars waged by England against its main rivals and colonial conquests made by the state in different parts of the world. Moreover, Scotland and Ireland became fully subjugated by the English crown in this period.

Ireland became the first target of the English colonialists. In 1689 the deposed king of England, James II, took advantage of a nationwide rebellion which broke out in Ireland against English rule. With French aid he led the Irish army against the English forces quartered in the country. The combined forces of the Irish Catholics would have captured the Protestant stronghold of Londonderry had not an English force come to its aid. William III hurried to Ireland, defeated the Irish forces at the battle on the river Boyne in 1690, occupied Dublin, and captured Limerick after a long siege. James fled to France, and Ireland was conquered.

To pacify the Irish William concluded the Treaty of Limerick (1692) in which he promised to respect the rights of the Irish Catholics. The Irish were allowed to retain their parliament. It soon became evident however, that the English Parliament did not intend to observe the treaty. Irish Catholics could not rent more than two acres of land, nor could they get employment in industry either. At the insistence of English traders, the English Parliament also restricted Irish trade. Already it had prohibited the export of Irish livestock to England. Parliament now forced the Irish to import staple colonial products by way of England. Irish goods were in fact barred from the English market. Irish industry and trade was as a result of these measures crippled. Starvation or emigration were the only remaining options which the Irish could choose. A growing feeling of bitterness of the Irish against the English became overwhelmingly widespread in the country and this later led to new revolts which revealed that the Irish had never been subdued.

In 1689 William started a war against France. It is known as the War of the League of Augsburg (1689—97). The war had serious consequences for England itself: an indirect result of the conflict was the formation of the Bank of England (1694). The war had meant fresh taxes, including a window tax and a land tax. Both were passed by Parliament, although the land tax was especially unpopular with the squires.

One of the Whig ministers thought of a new way of getting money for the government: by loan. If the government was lent money on a long-term basis, it could pay interest on the amount received. Several Whig ministers formed a company, the Bank of England, to organize the collection of the loans. The Bank borrowed money from the bourgeoisie at a low rate of interest and lent it to the government at a higher rate. Soon the Bank of England was allowed to make its own paper money banknotes. The first loan or the first National debt was one million and two hundred thousand pounds. After two wars at the beginning of the 18th century the National debt reached 54 million pounds and by 1816 (the end of the wars against Napoleon) it increased to 876 millions. Now taxes were formally levied by the government not for wars but to allegedly pay the national debt. In other words the ruling classes undertook a tremendous swindle — they put the brunt of hardship on the shoulders of the taxpayer, at the same time these financial speculations offered golden opportunities for the rich to become richer. The emergence of the Bank of England and of the National debt clearly manifested the level of capitalist development in the country.

In this keeping two other important developments occurred. The coffee-shops in eighteenth century England were not only places of leisure, but also good places for talking business. A coffee-shop keeper named Edward Lloyd started selling insurance to ship-owners who gathered in his shop. Ships and cargoes had been lost not only in storms at sea and to the enemy, but also to pirates. Ship-owners in Lloyd’s coffee-shop were glad to have insurance. Other customers agreed to share the risk, and- the business developed. The Society of Lloyds became the largest insurer of ships and cargoes in the world.

Merchants also sold shares in their business while at the coffee-house. The habit developed too, and a London ‘stock exchange’ was started. Here, in the City of London, merchant bankers began to buy and sell stocks and shares in commercial companies on a regular basis.

In her greed to secure new overseas possessions Britain actively participated in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701 — 14). The king of Spain had died childless and Louis XIV decided to use this opportunity to have his grandson on the Spanish throne. Such a turn of events would pose a direct threat to English colonial and commercial interests, because England had made serious commercial inroads in the Spanish colonies. Now, if France gained control of the Spanish colonies Britain would lose these benefits. So England formed a coalition consisting of the Netherlands, Austria, and some of the German states against France.

The English commander, Marlborough, won an important victory at a village called Blenheim in Bavaria. In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) England seriously expanded her colonial possessions: she acquired Gibraltar, the western key to the Mediterranean sea, the island of Minorca, in North America Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the Hudson Bay territory were taken over from France. She also received freedom of trade with the Spanish colonies. Moreover, England secured the monopoly right to supply the Spanish colonies with slaves from Africa. The shameful slave trade which flourished all throughout the eighteenth century gave the merchants of London, Liverpool and Bristol tremendous profits. The War of the Spanish Succession increased England’s colonial, commercial, and naval power, exhausted her rivals, and greatly stimulated British sea trade.

Important developments took place on the British Isles, in particular regarding Anglo-Scotch relations. In 1707 after a period of serious hostilities Scotland agreed to a union with England losing its independence. In order to pacify the Scotch England made some concessions: Scotland was to have sixteen peers in the English House of Lords and fifty-five members in the House of Commons. Scotland also secured free trade with England, and kept her own law courts, system of private law, educational system, and Presbyterian church. The union with Scotland greatly increased the power of the ruling oligarchy in Britain.

The growth of English trade on an international scale in the 18th century enhanced the importance of the English colonies in North America which had already made considerable progress. They became an important market for the goods of English industry and a source of supply of necessary raw materials.

The first English settlements in North America were made at the beginning of the 17th century, but it was not until the twenties of the century that those settlements were founded which formed the permanent basis of the English colonies. From the very beginning there were considerable differences between the colonies in the south and in the north of North America. On the north-eastern coast, due to the presence of necessary mineral resources industry developed on capitalist lines. The south-eastern colonies due to favourable climatic and soil conditions remained mainly agricultural. Here large-scale plantation cultivation of rice, cotton, tobacco based on slave lalour developed on a wide scale.

In their greed to seize as much land as possible the colonists were ruthless to the local Indian population whom they gradually exterminated.

By the middle of the 18th century the population of the colonies reached about 2 million. The colonies were a motley assembly of people of different origins: Puritan refugees from England, the Catholic Irish, immigrants from other European countries. There were also several thousand criminals who had been transported there from English prisons.

In the period when the English were settling along the coast, French fur traders had already penetrated into the interior from the St Lawrence river down the Ohio and Mississippi, and were attempting to unite as a whole the French trading settlements from Canada along the rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. Trade rivalry between British and French colonists in North America led to the outbreak of open hostilities. In spite of the vast territories the greed of the colonizers was unlimited.

English and French interests clashed in India too. The forerunner of English colonial encroachments in India was the East India company (founded in 1600). Early in the 17th century the first English trading stations were established, which were followed by fortified outposts the French were neither idle. There was also a French East Indian company which acted in similar fashion as the English. Pondicherry became the main French stronghold in India.

When Robert Walpole was in power (1721—42), much of the growing discord between the two rivals was settled peacefully. However, this conciliatory attitude of Walpole was most unpopular among the militant Whig faction headed by William Pitt the Elder. This faction known as the Younger Whigs was blatantly aggressive in colonial foreign policy. It advocated open war with France which was regarded as Britain’s most dangerous age-long rival. Eventually the Younger Whigs gained political supremacy, Walpole was defeated (1742) and England participated in two successive wars against France: the War of Austrian Succession (1740—8), and the Seven Years War (1756 — 63). English colonial conquest of this period and the wars waged by the country are closely associated with the name of William Pitt the Elder (1708—78), an active protagonist of British colonial supremacy. He is regarded by English historians as Britain’s greatest empire-builder. He believed that the country should expand commercially and colonially and to do both was ready to use British might to the limit. He openly declared France to be Britain’s main enemy and that French trading places all over the world must be captured. He also insisted that the French in Canada must be conquered. It was Pitt’s policy to buy allies in Europe who would fight the French. Hence, in the War of Austrian Succession it was Austria who was to do all the fighting, and in the Seven Years War it was Prussia while Austria, a former ally, became an enemy siding with France. Having a free hand on the continent, Britain with her army and fleet could secure her main aim — seize new colonial possessions and oust the French from the territories where they threatened British colonial interests.

The odds of the wars waged by Britain were not always favourable for Britain. However, as a result of most of the fighting which occurred mainly in India and North America the British gained victory. The Seven Years War,— as Karl Marx pointed out,— turned the East India company from a trading power into a real military and territorial power and laid the foundation of the British empire in the east.

The hero in Canada was General Wolfe, who was the man chosen by Pitt to regain Britain’s position there.

In the Peace of Paris (1763) Britain consolidated her colonial gains: the British empire became the world’s largest. It included Canada, parts of America, the West Indies and India, together with bits of the West African coast. Britain’s victory made her indisputed mistress of the seas, bankrupted France, and deprived her of her navy and many of her colonies.

Britain’s colonial greed led her further to the remotest parts of the world. In 1769 Captain Cook discovered Australia. However, only in 1788 did Britain begin to make a settlement there. In that year a special fleet transported 1350 people (mainly convicts) to the new territory. The party stepped ashore in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 which marks the beginning of the Australian colony. The Aboriginals in Australia experienced the same fate as the Red Indians in America. The natives were very friendly towards the first settlers showing them fresh water streams, good anchorages, sharing fish and fire. However, having offered the hand of friendship to the whites, they were eventually betrayed, driven off their lands into the desert and eventually exterminated. Today they form a tiny minority of the population and are on the brink of extinction.

The colonial victories of Great Britain in the 18th century gave her new opportunities to enhance the shameful slave trade. Millions of African slaves were transported from West Africa to the South American colonies, or the cotton and tobacco plantations of the southern colonies in North America giving the English slave traders tremendous fortunes.

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