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The History Of England - A Study In Political Evolution
The Expansion Of England
by Pollard, A. F.


1603-1815

In the reign of Elizabeth Englishmen had made themselves acquainted with the world. They had surveyed it from Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand, and from the Orinoco to Japan, where William Adams built the first Japanese navy; they had interfered in the politics of the Moluccas and had sold English woollens in Bokhara; they had sailed through the Golden Gate of California and up the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus; they had crossed the Pacific Ocean and the deserts of Central Asia; they had made their country known alike to the Great Turk and to the Grand Moghul. National unity and the fertile mingling of classes had generated this expansive energy, for the explorers included earls as well as humble mariners and traders; and all ranks, from the queen downwards, took shares in their "adventures." They had thus acquired a body of knowledge and experience which makes it misleading to speak of their blundering into empire. They soon learnt to concentrate their energies upon those quarters of the globe in which expansion was easiest and most profitable. The East India Company had received its charter in 1600, and the naval defeat of Spain had opened the sea to all men; but, with the doubtful exception of Newfoundland, England secured no permanent footing outside the British Isles until after the crowns of England and Scotland had been united.

This personal union can hardly be called part of the expansion of England, but it had been prepared by some assimilation and cooperation between the two peoples, and it was followed by a great deal more. The plantation of Ulster by English and Scots after the flight of the Irish earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell in 1607 is one illustration, and Nova Scotia is another; but Virginia, the first colony of the empire, was a purely English enterprise, and it cradled the first-born child of the Mother of Parliaments. To Virginia men went for profit; principle drove them to New England. The Pilgrim Fathers, who sailed in the Mayflower in 1620, had separated from the church and meant to separate from the state, and to set up a polity the antithesis of that of Laud and the Stuarts. But there was something in common between them; the Puritans, too, wanted uniformity, and believed in their right to compel all to think, or at least to worship, alike. Schism, however, appeals with ill grace and little success to authority; and dissentients from the dissenters formed Independent offshoots from New England. But all these Puritan communities in the north were different in character from Virginia in the south; they consisted of democratic townships, Virginia of plantations worked by slaves. Slave labour was also the economic basis of the colonies established on various West Indian islands during the first half of the seventeenth century; and this distinction between colonies used for exploitation and colonies used for settlement has led to important constitutional variations in the empire. Only those colonies in which large white communities are settled have received self-government; those in which a few whites exploit a large coloured population remain subject to the control of the home government. The same economic and social differences were responsible for the great American civil war between North and South in the nineteenth century.

There are three periods in British colonial expansion. The first, or introductory period, was marked by England's rivalry with Spain and Portugal; the second by its rivalry with the Dutch; and the third by its rivalry with France; and in each the rivalry led to wars in which Britain was victorious. The Elizabethan war with Spain was followed by the Dutch wars of the Commonwealth and Charles II's reign, and then by the French wars, which lasted, with longer or shorter intervals, from 1688 to 1815. The wars with the Dutch showed how completely, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, commercial interests outweighed those of religion and politics. Even when English and Dutch were both living under Protestant republics, they fought one another rather than the Catholic monarchies of France and Spain. Their antagonism arose over rival claims to sovereignty in the Narrow Seas, which the herring fisheries had made as valuable as gold mines, and out of competition for the world's carrying trade and for commerce in the East Indies. The last-named source of irritation had led to a "massacre" of Englishmen at Amboyna in 1623, after which the English abandoned the East Indian islands to the Dutch East India Company, concentrating their attention upon India, where the acquisition of settlements at Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay laid the foundations of the three great Presidencies of the British Empire in India.

A fatal blow was struck at the Dutch carrying trade by the Navigation Acts of 1650-1651, which provided that all goods imported into England or any of its colonies must be brought either in English ships or in those of the producing country. The Dutch contested these Acts in a stubborn naval war. The great Admirals, Van Tromp and Blake, were not unevenly matched; but the Dutch failed to carry their point. The principle of the Navigation Acts was reaffirmed, with some modifications, after the Restoration, which made no difference to England's commercial and colonial policy. A second Dutch war accordingly broke out in 1664, and this time the Dutch, besides failing in their original design, lost the New Netherland colony they had established in North America. Portions of it became New York, so named after the future James II, who was Duke of York and Lord High Admiral, and other parts were colonized as Pennsylvania by the Quaker, William Penn. The great importance of this acquisition was that it drove out the wedge dividing the New England colonies to the north from Virginia and Maryland, which had been founded in Charles I's reign, mainly as a refuge for Roman Catholics, to the south; and this continuous line of British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard was soon continued southwards by the settlement of the two Carolinas. The colonization of Georgia, still further south, in the reign of George II, completed the thirteen colonies which became the original United States.

France now overshadowed Holland as England's chief competitor. Canada, originally colonized by the French, had been conquered by the English in 1629, but speedily restored by Charles I; and towards the close of the seventeenth century France began to think of uniting Canada with another French colony, Louisiana, by a chain of posts along the Mississippi. Colbert, Louis XIV's minister, had greatly developed French commerce, navy, and navigation; and the Mississippi Company was an important factor in French history early in the eighteenth century. This design, if successful, would have neutralized the advantage England had secured in the possession of the Atlantic seaboard of North America, and have made the vast West a heritage of France.

Nevertheless, the wars of William III and Anne were not in the main colonial. Louis' support of James II, and his recognition of the Old Pretender, were blows at the heart of the empire. Moderate success on James's part might have led to its dismemberment, to the separation of Catholic Ireland and the Scottish Highlands from the remainder of the British Isles; and dominion abroad would not long have survived disruption at home. The battle of the Boyne (1690) disposed of Irish independence, and the Act of Union with Scotland (1707) ensured Great Britain against the revival of separate sovereignties north and south of the Tweed. Scotland surrendered her independent parliament and administration: it received instead the protection of the Navigation laws, representation in both houses of the United Parliament, and the privilege of free trade with England and its colonies--which put an end to the tariff wars waged between the two countries in the seventeenth century; and it retained its established Presbyterian church. Forty- five Scottish members were to sit in the House of Commons, and sixteen Scottish peers elected by their fellows for each parliament in the House of Lords. Scottish peers who were not thus chosen could neither sit in the House of Lords nor seek election to the House of Commons.

In time this union contributed materially to the expansive energy of the British Empire, but it did not substantially help Marlborough to win his brilliant victories in the war with France (1702-1713). Apart from the general defeat of Louis XIV's ambition to dominate Europe, the most important result, from the British point of view, was the definite establishment of Great Britain as a Mediterranean power by the acquisition of Gibraltar and Minorca. English expeditions against Canada had not been very successful, but the Peace of Utrecht (1713) finally secured for the empire the outworks of the Canadian citadel-- Hudson's Bay Territories, Newfoundland, and the future provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The trading privileges which Great Britain also secured in Spanish America both assisted the vast growth of British commerce under Walpole's pacific rule, and provoked the war with Spain in 1739 which helped to bring about his fall. This war, which soon merged in the war of the Austrian Succession (1741-1748), was indecisive in its colonial aspects, and left the question of French or English predominance in India and North America to be settled in the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763.

War, however, decides little by itself, and three of the world's greatest soldiers, Alexander, Hannibal, and Napoleon, founded no permanent empires. An excellent servant, but a bad master, the soldier needs to be the instrument of other than military forces if his labours are to last; and the permanence of the results of the Seven Years' War is due less to the genius of Pitt, Wolfe, Clive, and Howe than to the causes which laid the foundations of their achievements. The future of North America was determined not so much by Wolfe's capture of Quebec-- which had fallen into British hands before--as by the fact that before the Seven Years' War broke out there were a million and a quarter British colonists against some eighty thousand French. If Canada had not fallen in the Seven Years' War, it would have succumbed to British arms in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. The fate of India seemed less certain, and the genius of Dupleix roused better hopes for France; yet India, defenceless as it was against European forces, was bound to fall a prize to the masters of the sea, unless some European state could control its almost impassable overland approaches. Clive, perhaps, was almost as much the brilliant adventurer as Dupleix, but he was supported at need by an organized government more susceptible than the French ancien régime to the pressure of commercial interests and of popular ambitions.

The conquest of Canada led to the loss of the thirteen American colonies. Their original bias towards separation had never been eradicated, and the recurrent quarrels between the various legislatures and their governors had only been prevented from coming to a head by fear of the Frenchmen at their gates and disunion among themselves. Charles II and James II wanted to centralize the New England colonies on a monarchical basis; and they began by attacking their charters in much the same way as they dealt with the Puritan corporations of English cities and boroughs. Those of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were forfeited, and these colonies were thus provided with a grievance common to themselves and to the mother-country. But, while the Revolution supplied a remedy at home, it did not in the colonies. Their charters, indeed, were restored; but when the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill similar to the Bill of Rights, the royal assent was not accorded, and the colonists remained liable to taxation without their own consent. This theoretical right of Great Britain to tax the American colonies was wisely left in abeyance until George Grenville's righteous soul was vexed with the thought that colonists, for whose benefit the Seven Years' War had largely been waged, should escape contribution towards its expenses. Walpole had reduced the duties on colonial produce and had winked at the systematic evasion of the Navigation Acts by the colonists. Grenville was incapable of such statesmanlike obliquity. He tried to stop smuggling; he asserted the right of the home government to control the vast hinterland from which the colonists thought that the French had been evicted for their particular benefit; and he passed the Stamp Act, levying internal taxation from the colonies without consulting their legislatures.

Security from the French made the colonists think they were independent of the British, and, having an inordinate proportion of lawyers among them, they did not lack plausible arguments. They admitted the right of the British parliament to impose external taxes, such as customs duties, on the colonies, but denied its right to levy internal taxation. The distinction was well established in English constitutional history, and kings had long enjoyed powers over the customs which they had lost over direct taxation. But the English forefathers of the Puritan colonists had seen to it that control over direct, led to control over indirect, taxation; and it may be assumed that the American demand for the one would, if granted, soon have been followed by a demand for the other. In any case, reasons for separation would not have been long in forthcoming. It was not that the old colonial system was particularly harsh or oppressive; for the colonial producer, if restricted (nominally) to the home market, was well protected there. But the colonists wanted complete control over their own domestic affairs. It was a natural and a thoroughly British desire, the denial of which to-day would at once provoke the disruption of the empire; and there was no reason to expect colonial content with a government which was not giving much satisfaction in England. A peaceful solution was out of the question, because the governing classes, which steadily resisted English demands for reform, were not likely to concede American demands for radical innovations. There were no precedents for such a self-denying ordinance as the grant of colonial self-government, and law was on the side of George III. But things that are lawful are not always expedient, and legal justification is no proof of wisdom or statesmanship.

The English people supported George III until he had failed; but there was not much enthusiasm for the war, except at places like Birmingham, which possessed a small-arms manufactory and other stimulants to patriotic fervour. It was badly mismanaged by George, and Whigs did their best to hamper his efforts, fearing, with some reason, that success in North America would encourage despotic enterprise at home. George would, however, in all probability have won but for the intervention of France and Spain (1778-1779), who hoped to wipe off the scores of the Seven Years' War, and for the armed neutrality of Russia and Holland (1780), who resented the arrogant claims of the British to right of search on the high seas. At the critical moment Britain lost the command of the sea; and although Rodney's naval victory (1782) and the successful defence of Gibraltar (1779-1783) enabled her to obtain tolerable terms from her European enemies, American independence had to be granted (1783). For Ireland was on the verge of revolt, and British dominion in India was shaken to its foundations. So the two great sections of the English people parted company, perhaps to their mutual profit. Certainly each government has now enough to do without solving the other's problems, and it is well-nigh impossible to conceive a state maintaining its equilibrium or its equanimity with two such partners as the British Empire and the United States struggling for predominance within it.

Meanwhile, Warren Hastings saved the situation in India by means that were above the Oriental but below the normal English standard of morality. He was impeached for his pains later on by the Whigs, whose moral indignation was sharpened by resentment at the use of Anglo- Indian gold to defeat them at the general election of 1784. Ireland was placated by the grant of legislative independence (1782), a concession both too wide and too narrow to provide any real solution of her difficulties. It was too wide because Grattan's parliament, as it is called, was co-ordinate with, and not subordinate to, the imperial parliament; and there was thus no supreme authority to settle differences, which sooner or later were bound to arise between the two. It was too narrow, because the Irish executive remained responsible to Downing Street and not to the Irish parliament. The parliament, moreover, did not represent the Irish people; Catholics were excluded from it, and until 1793 were denied the vote; sixty seats were in the hands of three families, and a majority of the members were returned by pocket-boroughs. A more hopeless want of system can hardly be imagined: a corrupt aristocracy, a ferocious commonalty, a distracted government, a divided people--such was the verdict of a contemporary politician. At length, after a Protestant revolt in Ulster, a Catholic rising in the south, and a French invasion, Pitt bribed and cajoled the borough- mongers to consent to union with Great Britain (1800). Thirty-two Irish peers, twenty-eight temporal and four spiritual, were to sit in the House of Lords, and a hundred Irish members in the House of Commons. The realization of the prospect of Roman Catholic Emancipation, which had been held out as a further consideration, was postponed by the prejudices of George III until its saving grace had been lost. Grattan's prophecy of retribution for the destruction of Irish liberty has often been quoted: "We will avenge ourselves," he said, "by sending into the ranks of your parliament, and into the very heart of your constitution, one hundred of the greatest scoundrels in the kingdom"; but it is generally forgotten that he had in mind the kind of members nominated by peers and borough-mongers to represent them in an unreformed House of Commons.

The loss of the American colonies threw a shadow over British colonial enterprise which had some lasting effects on the colonial policy of the mother-country. The severance did not, as is often supposed, convince Great Britain that the grant of self-government to colonies was the only means to retain them. But they had been esteemed mainly as markets for British exports, and the discovery that British exports to America increased, instead of diminishing, after the grant of independence, raised doubts about the value of colonies which explain the comparative indifference of public opinion towards them during the next half- century. For the commercial conception of empire was still in the ascendant; and if the landed interest controlled the domestic politics of the eighteenth century, the commercial interest determined the outlines of British expansion. Territory was acquired or strongholds seized in order to provide markets and guard trade communications.

From this point of view India became, after the loss of the American colonies, the dominant factor in British external policy. The monetary value of India to the British far exceeded that of all their other foreign possessions put together. The East India Company's servants often amassed huge fortunes in a few years, and the influence of this wealth upon British politics became very apparent in the last quarter of the century. It put up the price of parliamentary pocket-boroughs, and thus delayed reform; it enabled commercial men to force their way into the House of Lords by the side of landed magnates, and the younger Pitt doubled its numbers in his efforts to win the political support of the moneyed classes; and finally, it affected consciously or unconsciously men's views of the interests of the empire and of the policy to be pursued to serve them.

The half-century which followed the American War of Independence was not, indeed, barren of results in other directions than those indicated by the East India Company. Canada was saved from the seductions of American independence by a wise recognition of its established customs and religion (1774), and was strengthened by the influx of United Empire Loyalists who would not bow the knee to republican separatism. Provision was made for the government of these some what discordant elements by dividing Canada into two provinces, one predominantly French, the other British, and giving each a legislature for the voicing of its grievances (1791). So, too, the impulse of the Seven Years' War survived the War of Independence in other quarters of the globe. Naval officers, released from war-like operations, were sent to explore the Pacific; and, among them, Captain James Cook surveyed the coasts of Australia and New Zealand (1770). The enthusiastic naturalist of the expedition, Joseph Banks, persistently sang the praises of Botany Bay; but the new acquisition was used as a convict settlement (1788), which was hardly a happy method of extending British civilization. The origin of Australia differed from that of New England, in that the Pilgrim Fathers wanted to avoid the mother- country; while the mother-country wanted to avoid the convicts; but in neither case was there any imperialism in the aversion.

India was, in fact, the chief outlet at that period for British imperial sentiment. It is true that Great Britain laid down in solemn official language, in 1784, that the acquisition of territory was repugnant to the principles of British government. But so had Frederick the Great begun his career by writing a refutation of Machiavelli; circumstances, and something within which made for empire, proved too strong for liberal intentions, and the only British war waged between the Peace of Versailles in 1783 and the rupture with Revolutionary France in 1793 resulted in the dismemberment of Tippoo Sultan's kingdom of Mysore (1792). The crusading truculence of the French republicans, and Napoleon's ambition, made the security of the British Isles Pitt's first consideration; but when that was confirmed by naval victories over the French on the 1st of June, 1794, and at the battle of the Nile in 1798, over the Dutch at Camperdown and over the Spaniards at Cape St. Vincent in 1797, over the Danes at Copenhagen in 1801, and over the French and Spaniards combined at Trafalgar in 1805, Great Britain concentrated its energies mainly on extending its hold on India and the Far East, and on strengthening its communications with them. The purpose of the battle of the Nile was to evict Napoleon from Egypt, which he had occupied as a stepping-stone to India, and Malta was seized (1800) with a similar object. Mauritius, too, was taken (1810), because it had formed a profitable basis of operations for French privateers against the East India trade; and the Cape of Good Hope was conquered from the Dutch, the reluctant allies of the French, in 1795, as a better half-way house to India than St. Helena, which England had acquired from the same colonial rivals in 1673. The Cape was restored in 1802, but reconquered in 1806 and retained in 1815.

In the Far East, British dominion was rapidly extended under the stimulus of the Marquess Wellesley, elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, who endeavoured in redundantly eloquent despatches to reconcile his deeds with the pacific tone of his instructions. Ceylon was taken from the Dutch in 1796, and was not restored like Java, which suffered a similar conquest; and British settlements were soon afterwards founded at Singapore and on the Malay Peninsula. In India itself Tippoo was defeated and slain in his capital at Seringapatam in 1799, the Mahrattas were crushed at Assye and Argaum in 1803, the nabob was forced to surrender the Carnatic, and the vizier the province of Oudh, until the whole coast-line of India and the valley of the Ganges had passed directly or indirectly under British control. These regions were conquered partly because they were more attractive and accessible to the British, and partly to prevent their being accessible to the French; the poorer and more difficult mountainous districts of the Deccan, isolated from foreign infection, were left under native rulers.

The final overthrow of Napoleon, to which Great Britain had contributed more by its efforts in the Spanish Peninsular War (1808-1814) than at the crowning mercy of Waterloo, confirmed its conquests in India and its control of the trade routes of the world. Its one permanent failure during the war was Whitelocke's expedition to Buenos Ayres in 1807; that attack was not repeated because the Spaniards having, by their revolt against Napoleon, become England's allies, it was hardly fair to appropriate their colonies; and so South America was left to work out its destinies under Latin and not Teutonic influence. Most of the West Indian islands, however, with British Honduras and British Guiana on the mainland, had been acquired for the empire, which had now secured footholds in all the continents of the world. The development of those footholds into great self-governing communities, the unique and real achievement of the British Empire, was the work of the nineteenth century; and its accomplishment depended upon the effects of the changes known to us as the Industrial Revolution.

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