Of course, every country is the product of its past. All around Britain today are reminders of events that took place hundreds of years ago – many of them far from home.
By 1700, the British East India Company, a private enterprise granted a charter by Elizabeth I, was trading from fortified townships at Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata). British colonies were thriving in North America and the Caribbean. By the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713-14, Britain gained Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the Hudson Bay territory, Gibraltar and Minorca: then came the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).
The Seven Years’ War evolved from separate rivalries between Prussia and Austria on the one hand, in which Britain needed to protect the interests of Hanover, and conflicting British and French interests in India and the Americas. The war is seen as the first real global conflict, pitching an alliance of Britain and Prussia against everyone else (France, Spain, Austria, Russia and Sweden). In 1757, at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal, Colonel Robert Clive’s inspired cunning gave the East India Company control over an area larger than Britain. By the 1760s, the British, through the East India Company rather than by any design on the part of His Majesty’s Government, were the dominant foreign power in India, pushing out the French. Clive’s use of local puppet rulers established a principle – similar to that used by the Romans – which the British would repeat elsewhere. The man known to history as ‘Clive of India’ seems to have been an unpleasant piece of work, indulging in levels of corruption that exceeded even those generally accepted at the time; when defending his actions in Parliament, he replied, “By God, Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.”
Elsewhere, the war had not begun well for Britain; Minorca was lost, for a start – a tragedy for the future British tourist industry – and, more seriously, there was a real prospect of French invasion. But 1759 saw a series of spectacular successes, including an allied victory at Minden, General Wolfe’s heroic capture of Quebec from the French and the naval battles at Lagos and Quiberon Bay, which ended any prospect of French invasion and firmly established Britain as a leading naval power. 1759 was called ‘Annus Mirabilis’ – or the year of victories. The Treaty of Paris which concluded hostilities in 1763 made Britain master of most of North America east of the Mississippi.
The motivation for countries to gain overseas territories was almost always financial gain. Indeed, many of the characters that laid the foundations of the British Empire were entrepreneurs of one sort or another. Often brave and invariably ruthless in the pursuit of wealth, some of them operated way outside the law, even as it was then. However, by far the most profitable trade was legal human trafficking and slavery. The plantations of the New World were labour intensive. The labour was either provided by humans torn from their homes in West Africa, shipped across the Atlantic in appalling conditions, degraded and sold, or by those bred in captivity. Along with their freedom, these people even lost their names and their families. The trade made men rich; slaves weren’t known as ‘black ivory’ for nothing. And Europe was hungry for the fruits of their labours – the sugar, tobacco and, later, cotton, for example – and these commodities were themselves also immensely profitable. Manufactured goods and textiles were exported from Britain to complete the famous trade triangle – with a profit made on each leg. Spices, tea and textiles were traded with India. As overseas territories grew, so did trade; more markets ripe for the products of Britain’s new and developing factories.
It wasn’t just individuals that grew rich. Ports, like Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow boomed and it is impossible to ignore the uncomfortable fact that their wealth, and that of Britain as a whole, was partly based on the misery and inhumanity of slave labour. Liverpool, in particular, was slave city, dominating the trade in the latter half of the 18th century. Trade also feeds other industries and suppliers – including transport, construction and the banking and insurance services required to fund and insure the voyages and their valuable cargoes. So the proceeds of trade, including slavery, helped Britain’s fledgling financial services prosper, built and furnished opulent country houses for the new elite, enabled the construction of public buildings, including handsome town halls and churches, as well as helping to establish many of Britain’s institutions, such as the British Museum and the National Gallery.
There was nothing new about slavery, of course; it was a barbaric trade that had been practised since ancient times. The Islamic rulers of North Africa had had a taste for white Christian slaves for centuries – often snatched in coastal raids as far afield as Iceland – which lasted well into the 19th century. The Portuguese and Spanish were the first European nations to make African slavery pay, but, aided by African chieftains (who controlled the supply), France, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands all used and traded slaves. It was Britain, though, that became the most efficient and prosperous slave trading nation. By the 18th century, however, there were moves to abolish the trade in all European countries – often championed by nonconformists, such as Quakers. Britain abolished the slave trade in its territories in 1807, but slavery itself was not abolished in the Empire until 1834.
In 1768, a former collier, renamed HMS Endeavour, slipped out of Plymouth harbour. Her Captain, James Cook, had instructions to record the transit of Venus from Tahiti. While he was about it, Cook, a master cartographer, charted New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, claiming both in the name of His Majesty, King George III. Nobody seemed to mind… Cook made two more voyages of scientific discovery; he was killed by islanders on Hawaii in 1779.
When the French Revolution espoused principles of freedom and equality in 1789, some sympathetic liberal noises could initially be heard in Britain. However, revolutionary methods resulted in 17,000 executions and a further 25,000 other deaths. France declared itself at war with Britain, and others, in the name of French Republicanism. A genius Corsican artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, delivered the new Republic victory after victory in Europe. Though Captain Horatio Nelson destroyed the French Mediterranean fleet near the delta of the Nile in 1798, an invasion of Britain was very much a part of Napoleon’s strategy. This was thwarted, however, and Britain’s position as the world’s premier maritime power confirmed, by Nelson’s defeat of the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. Britannia thereafter ruled the waves for at least the next hundred years. The Napoleonic Wars rumbled on as Britain harried a French army in Spain and Portugal and Napoleon was forced to retreat from Moscow. A coalition led by Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s Blűcher finally ended Napoleon’s ambitions at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Apparently, Wellington said the battle was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” I like to think Napoleon said something memorable too, like, “Oh, merde!”
Ireland was still treated like a colony. In 1800, in an effort to discourage separatist unrest, Parliament passed the Union with Ireland Act, formally joining Great Britain – England, Scotland and Wales – with Ireland. The United Kingdom was born – as was the Union Flag (or Union Jack) – the red cross of St George on a white background (for England), the white diagonal cross or saltire of St Andrew on a blue background (for Scotland) and the red saltire of St Patrick on a white background (Ireland). Ireland was a predominantly Roman Catholic country; whilst qualifying Catholics were allowed to vote, Catholics were not permitted to stand as Members of Parliament until 1829. The ‘Irish Question’ would come to dominate British politics for many years.