The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 19th century

The growing hostility of England towards the development of the revolution in France finally led to war between the two countries. In 1793 using the execution of the French king as a pretext England severed diplomatic relations with France and declared war. England together with Austria, Prussia and Spain already at war with France formed Jhe .first coalition which lasted four years up to 1797. In the course of the war Prussia and Spain withdrew from the conflict while the defeat of Austria put an end to the first coalition.

At this stage Napoleon decided to strike at England through her possessions in India. Egypt was an important link in his strategic plans. Bonaparte captured the island of Malta and in the battle of the pyramids took Cairo thus securing his hold of Egypt. From Alexandria and Cairo Napoleon hoped to make an Eastern empire and then occupy India. However, these plans were disrupted by the English fleet under the command of admiral Nelson.

Eventually Bonaparte was forced to return to France secretly when he learned that the English prime minister William Pitt the Younger was forming the second coalition of Austria, Russia, Spain, the kingdom of Naples, Portugal and Turkey against France. On returning to France Napoleon overthrew the existing government, and eventually established his personal dictatorship.

Meanwhile, Malta was recaptured. A British army went to Egypt and forced defeat on the French soldiers whom Bonaparte had abandoned there. The British colonial interest in India, which Bonaparte regarded jealously, was also saved.

During the-second coalition (1799 —1801) the allies attempted to undo the gains made by Napoleon previously. The Russian army in severe conditions under the command of Suvorov defeated the French in north Italy and was approaching French territory while admiral Ushakov dealt severe blows to the French fleet.

However, Napoleon managed to defeat Austria in 1800 and Russia formed an armed neutrality with Denmark and Sweden. Soon England made peace with France. The establishment of a military dictatorship in France led to a change of the people’s attitude to Napoleon. The peoples of the countries occupied by France had to pay a heavy toll both in taxes and human lives to support the ever-growing aggressive greed of the new rulers in France. This in its turn led to a growth of discontent on the occupied territories and encouraged an anti-French movement.

The collapse of the second coalition masterminded by William Pitt the Younger meant that he was to become the scapegoat. In 1801 he resigned and was replaced by a Tory Addington by name. The latter, compared with Pitt, was a weak prime minister.

The Peace of Amiens (1802) signed between England and France proved to be only a truce. In these circumstances William Pitt’s experience in forming coalitions was invaluable, and as a natural outcome Pitt in 1803 resumed his former position, which he held until his death in 1806.

In 1804 Napoleon consolidated his autocratic power being declared emperor. Tension between England and France broke into open war and a third coalition of England, Russia, Austria and Sweden was formed in 1805.

At this stage of the war Napoleon was determined to invade England and thus conquer his main rival. He gathered a large army at the French channel port of Boulogne! He built boats to carry his soldiers and tried to collect warships to protect them. All England was in great tension awaiting the invasion.

In this tense period a march of Russian and Austrian troops under the command of Kutuzov to the Bavarian border frustrated Napoleon^s plans. He had to direct his army to repulse Britain’s allies. The immediate danger to Britain was past. Moreover, Napoleon was eventually compelled to abandon his invasion plans especially after admiral Nelson’s brilliant victory near Cape Trafalgar, about fifty kilometres south of Cadiz in 1805 when he destroyed the combined forces of the French and Spanish fleets. The emperor decided to confine his military operations on the mainland. (Late in the same year he seized Vienna and won a crushing victory over Austria at Austerlitz. This meant a collapse of the third coalition. Russia and France negotiated the Peace of Tilsit when Napoleon and the Russian tsar met on a raft in the river Niemen.

In 1806 Pitt died. He had led English politics for 23 years and now there was no able leader in the struggle against France. In the event of the growing French threat a coalition government of both Whigs and Tories was formed with Fox playing a dominant role in it.

Of all those nations that fought Napoleon, England alone seemed unconquerable. Safe from invasions by an expanse of sea and a powerful navy, she headed every coalition against France and defied every attempt to bring her to terms.(The English, however, had one weak spot in their armour — their commercial dependence upon Europe — and that spot the French emperor determined to strike.> Without the European market, British products would find little sale, and British factories would close. Hence the economy would collapse. Therefore Napoleon imposed a continental blockade of the British Isles: no French trader or trader of the occupied countries was allowed to deal commercially with Britain and British traders. Britain did the same for France. It was hoped that a British blockade might starve Napoleon into terms. Each power, therefore, determined to strike at the commerce of the other.

Fox soon died, and his cabinet broke up. A Tory government was formed with George Canning as foreign minister and Castlereagh as war minister. The two did not waste time and activated the war effort.

It was difficult, however, for Napoleon to close all of Europe to the British. Moreover, smuggling developed to unheard-of proportions, with the British encouraging such traffic.

The British lost no time in making friends with the Portuguese, who welcomed assistance. It became necessary, therefore, for the French to reach Portugal, and to do so they had to go through Spain. Napoleon sent an army into Spain in 1808. Moreover he forced the Spanish ruler and his son to abdicate and placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain. That act led to a popular uprising which was a source of much concern to Napoleon. To add to these worries, the English sent their ablest leader, the Duke of Wellington, into Portugal? He gradually recovered that territory from French control, extended his operations to Spain., In England itself Canning and Castlereagh were in deep conflict: Canning urged action in alliance with the Spanish guerrillas, Castlereagh was against such democratic contacts. This confusion over policy put the British army in a difficult position and it was only the Russian campaign that finally made it possible for the English in alliance with the Spanish guerrillas to oust the French from Spain.

Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie of the United States decided to take advantage of the war between England and France and seize Canada. The English blockade against France affected American trading interests. Moreover, the British held up American ships and seized some British naval deserters and many Americans. They extended the list of contraband goods, forbade trade with the French West Indies. War between England and the USA became imminent and it lasted from 1812 to 1814>

American invasions of Canada in the first year of the war were repulsed, but the Americans gained control of Lake Erie. On the sea the Americans inflicted much damage on English commerce, but before long the British had effectually blockaded the American coast. In 1814 a British army captured Washington, the capital, and burned the Capitol and the White House.

It was at this stage that the common people, who saw the danger to their independence, played a decisive role in the war. They participated widely and frustrated British attempts to seize Baltimore and New York. The British were forced to withdraw. In” the Peace of Ghent (1814) the warring powers signed a treaty that amounted to little more than an agreement to cease fighting. This implied that a status quo was established. However, later Britain became more careful in her relations with the USA and previous offences were not repeated.

The fate of Napoleon’s empire was decided in Russia. It was the heroic resistance of the Russian people and the army in 1812 that led Napoleon to his final downfall.

The brilliant victory of Russia in the 1812 campaign encouraged widescale resistance to Napoleon all throughout Europe. Though the emperor managed, by extraordinary efforts, to raise another army his attempts to stave off defeat were in vain, for an Allied army met and scattered his troops at Leipzig in 1813. The Allies then entered Paris and forced the Emperor to abdicate the throne. Napoleon was given sovereignty of the island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea and the Bourbons were restored.

The Allies assembled at the Congress of Vienna, which met from November 1814 to November 1815 to redraw the map of Europe which Napoleon had drawn>> Quite naturally England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, who had led in the fight against France, dominated the meetings. However, ^soon serious dissensions began to occur among the allied diplomats. Napoleon, hearing of these events, returned to France, made a triumphal entry into Paris, and proceeded once more to occupy the throne. His return known as the ‘Hundred Days’ caused the allies to bury all differences for the time being and to make one more grand coalition against him. They accomplished his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, a village situated near Brussels, the capital of Belgium. This was the greatest battle for the Duke of Wellington who commanded the allied forces and it made him a national hero. Napoleon became a prisoner of the British and was banished to the far-off island of St Helena, where he spent the remaining six years of his life.)

The allied powers at the Vienna Congress formed the so-called Holy Alliance which was set to establish a regime of reaction all throughout Europe, to suppress progressive liberation movements, revolutionary ideas. The victors intended to restore Europe, as much as was possible, to the status of 1789 before the outbreak of the French revolution.

England made serious gains to her empire. She secured Malta, Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope and surrounding territory (in South Africa), Mauritius, Trinidad, Santa Lucia, Tobago, Heligoland, and a protectorate over the Ionian Islands. As we see most of these colonies were important strategic key points. The Congress of Vienna boosted English colonial interests. Moreover, favourable conditions were created for the expansion of British trade and for the penetration of the products of British industry on the world markets. However, as to the results in England itself, the country acquired a huge national debt. The country suffered a severe economic crisis. Many industries had been hard hit by the continental blockade and the war with America. Foreign trade had seriously shrunk during the long . period of wars. Agriculture too was hit. Inevitably prices went up. This in its turn was coupled with mass unemployment. Social tension grew. A reflection of this was a new upsurge in the Luddite movement in 1811 —12, especially in the Nottingham area. Parliament responded by passing the law of capital punishment for machine-breakers. It was then that George Gordon Byron made his famous passionate defence of the Luddites in the House of Lords,a member of which he was by right of birth.

There were active protagonists of the ruling-class too, among them Thomas Malthus (1766—1834) with his reactionary population theory according to which the human race was multiplying geometrically while the means of human subsistence were increasing in an arithmetical order. In other words, population according to Malthus allegedly outstripped subsistence. Thus the only way out was to prohibit marriages among the poor. In this context Malthus regarded wars as a blessing.

This manhating theory was widely criticized by the progressive circles in Britain, of which most prominent was Robert Owen (1771 —1858), a Utopian socialist. At the beginning of the nineteenth century he worked out a philanthropic plan aimed at improving labour conditions within the framework of capitalism and attempted to implement it at the cotton-spinning mill in New Lanark (Scotland), where he worked as manager. In 1817 he elaborated a programme of radical transformation of society by founding self-governing communities devoid of private ownership, exploitation and class conflict. However, the actual communities which he founded in the USA and Britain did not work. Owen disregarded the role of class struggle and relied mainly on evolutionary reforms. However, the ideas of Robert Owen despite their Utopian character contributed to the growth of the class-consciousness of the English workers and to the development of socialist thought in and outside Britain.

Political radicalism of this period was vividly expressed by William Gobbett, a man of modest origin who through labour and persistence received an education becoming a journalist. He founded a radical paper in 1802 known as the Weekly Register, which appealed to the government to improve the lot of the workers. Cobbett openly criticized the cabinet for solely disregarding the abnormal social conditions under which the workers toiled. For this he was later put into prison despite a wave of protest in the country.

Cobbett believed in parliamentary reform, hoping that with universal suffrage a .truly democratic parliament would be established with ensuing radical changes in the economic and social life of the common people.

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