Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:16 pm
Britain helps create several of the world’s great nations
Whilst Britain was busy building its global power in the 18th century, it very carelessly managed to lose 13 British colonies on the east coast of mainland North America. The colonies were pretty much self-governing, with white populations of mostly independent-minded farmers that were overwhelmingly British in heritage. By and large, the British government had pursued a policy of ‘salutary neglect’ toward people it regarded as its own, avoiding the enforcement of legislation that might limit trade, because it believed this would enable the colonies to flourish. Yet the 13 colonies – Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Providence Plantations, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia – fought for their independence and ultimately formed the United States. So – what happened?
North America was a primary theatre of operation in the Seven Years War (1756-63), at the end of which all of France’s former territories in North America had been ceded to Britain, as well as Florida (from Spain). The wars had been expensive, doubling the national debt, and the new territories involved Britain in additional administrative and military expenses. The government in London introduced a series of clumsy taxes to raise money from all of its colonies, including a tax on sugar in 1764 and a stamp duty in 1765 that caused particular resentment in America, provoking the slogan – “no taxation without representation” (the colonials had no seats in the British Parliament). After furious protests, most of the taxes were repealed – except for a duty on tea.
Some colonists also resented the Royal Proclamation which declared the lands gained from France to be Crown property and prohibited colonists from settling them. There were, too, radical anti-British voices being raised – after all, many colonists had travelled across the Atlantic to escape the mother country and start afresh. In 1770, British troops opened fire on a mob that had attacked a sentry outside Boston’s State House. In 1773, a party of Bostonians, some disguised as native Indians, boarded three ships of the East India Company docked in the harbour laden with tea, and tipped the cargo into the sea. Britain’s reaction to the intended affront to authority was to pass a series of acts (the ‘Intolerable Acts’), including closing the port of Boston, which just made matters worse. Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies meeting in Philadelphia in 1774 (The First Continental Congress) called for a boycott of British goods.
Armed conflict began in April 1775, when British troops sent to seize stores of gunpowder in Lexington and Concord were confronted by colonial ‘minutemen’ – militiamen intended to be ready for action in a minute. No one knows who fired the first shot – “the shot heard round the world” (according to Ralph Waldo Emerson) – but 8 colonials were killed at Lexington and 70 British soldiers at Concord. There were conciliatory voices who wanted to reach agreement, but war sometimes carries its own momentum and there was a definite shift toward a break with Britain. The Second Continental Congress created a Continental Army in June 1775, with Virginia Congressman George Washington – who had recently been fighting with the British against the French and native Indians – as its Commander in Chief. Britain’s navy controlled the seas and, to begin with, fortunes on land were mixed for both sides. On 4 July 1776, the colonials declared independence from Britain, which included one of the most ringing passages in the English language:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, slaves and native Indians were exempt.
In 1777, an entire British army surrendered at Saratoga, which encouraged France, Spain and Holland to, not very sportingly, support the rebels. This widening of the war proved decisive. Britain also had problems at home, where the war was already unpopular. Any victories it achieved were at a disproportionate cost in casualties and, in addition, the conflict was extremely expensive financially. The military historian Richard Holmes claimed that Britain was in no position to deliver the killer blow needed to defeat the rebels, who only needed to remain a viable fighting force. Interestingly, it has been estimated that about one in five colonials were loyal to Britain and about a third did not want to get involved and pretty much sat on the fence. The rebels, the Patriots, numbered no more than 50% of the population at any one time. The population of the 13 colonies was around 2.4 million. Had a measure of self-rule been offered at the outset, perhaps war would have been averted and history would have taken a different course.
In any event, the end came at Yorktown in Virginia in October 1781, when General Cornwallis, besieged by a French fleet, surrendered to a combined rebel/French army under Washington. The war was formally concluded by the treaty of Paris in 1783.
Following the war, an estimated 80-100,000 Loyalists left the new United States, about half of them ending up in British North America – Canada, as it is now called.
So, the United States broke away from Great Britain – and they seem to be doing OK without us. It is important to remember that the American War of Independence was not a war between two sovereign states. Indeed, there are elements of a civil war about it. Whatever reasons people had for making the hazardous journey to the New World – economic, religious, political, to escape persecution, or make a fresh start – most shared a common British heritage and culture. Some had been born there, while many had parents or grandparents who had been. Even though the UK and the US were to often fall out in the future – not least when British troops occupied Washington and set fire to the White House in 1814 – by and large the two nations have rubbed along fairly well ever since. Would rock ‘n’ roll have been invented if Britain had won? Maybe not; so perhaps things worked out for the best.
One consequence of the new independent United States was that Britain had to stop exporting its unwanted convicts to America – which it had been doing since about 1718. From around the 1780s until the 1860s, the main destination for this was Australia. Thus did Britain help create two of the world’s great nations..!
The ‘First Fleet’, as it was called, of 11 ships sailed from Portsmouth for Australia on 13 May 1787 under the command of Arthur Phillip. It carried about 790 convicts, including around 190 women and 14 children – though accounts vary. There were roughly the same number of ships’ crew, marines and ‘others’. The ships arrived in Botany Bay in January 1788. Phillip soon identified Port Jackson as a better location and moved the colony there, where it provided the nucleus for the city of Sydney.
Penal transportation was actually viewed as a more humane alternative to the severe punishments that could be meted out in the 18th and 19th centuries for what today would be considered relatively minor misdeeds. By 1750, 160 offences carried the death penalty in Britain – including petty theft – and the number had increased to 288 by 1815 – a series of laws that historians have called “The Bloody Code”. The relative leniency of transportation was unlikely to be shown to those convicted of serious crimes, like rape or murder, but people could be sentenced to penal servitude for acts that were considered seditious. For example, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset (the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’) were transported in 1834 for, effectively, forming a trade union. Something like 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia until the practice ended in 1868. The voyage was long – roughly 6 months – the conditions were appalling and some did not survive the trip. At the end of their terms, the majority of prisoners settled in Australia – though some returned to the UK.
Incidentally, another option was to sentence men to serve in the army or navy…
Of course, the Australian dimension meant that they have had time to get used to the idea of cricket. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have caught on in quite the same way in the United States – or even Canada. Many believe that the cradle of cricket was on Broadhalfpenny Down, near the village of Hambledon in Hampshire, where Hambledon Cricket Club dominated the game in the late 18th century and where the laws of the modern game developed. The game is older than that – no one knows its precise origins – but it seems to have originated in south-east England. And you might find the Bat & Ball pub opposite Broadhalfpenny Down still serves a good pint.