The global expansion of Western Europe between the 1760s and the 1870s differed in several important ways from the expansionism and colonialism of previous centuries. Along with the rise of the Industrial revolution, which economic historians generally trace to the 1760s, and the continuing spread of industrialization in the empire-building countries came a shift in the strategy of trade with the colonial world.
Instead of being primarily buyers of colonial products (and frequently under strain to offer sufficient salable goods to balance the exchange), as in the past, the industrializing nations increasingly became sellers in search of markets for the growing volume of their machine-produced goods.
Furthermore, over the years there occurred a decided shift in the composition of demand for goods produced in the colonial areas, spices, sugar, and slaves became relatively less important with the advance of industrialization, concomitant with a rising demand for raw materials for industry (e.g., cotton, wool, vegetable oils, jute, dyestuffs) and food for the swelling industrial areas (wheat, tea, coffee, cocoa, meat, butter).
This shift in trading patterns entailed in the long run changes in colonial policy and practice as well as in the nature of colonial acquisitions. The urgency to create markets and the incessant pressure for new materials and food were eventually reflected in colonial practices, which sought to adapt the colonial areas to the new priorities of the industrializing nations. Such adaptation involved major disruptions of existing social systems over wide areas of the globe.
Before the impact of the industrial revolution, European activities in the rest of the world were largely confined to:
(1) Occupying areas that supplied precious metals, slaves, and tropical products then in large demand;
(2) Establishing white-settler colonies along the coast of North America; and
(3) Setting up trading posts and forts and applying superior military strength to -achieve the transfer to European merchants of as much existing world trade as was feasible.
However disruptive these changes may have been to the societies of Africa, South America, and the isolated plantation and white-settler colonies, the social systems over most of the Earth outside Europe nevertheless remained much the same as they had been for centuries (in some places for millennia).
These societies, with their largely self-sufficient small communities based on subsistence agriculture and home industry, provided poor markets for the mass-produced goods flowing from the factories of the technologically advancing countries; nor were the existing social systems flexible enough to introduce and rapidly expand the commercial agriculture (and, later, mineral extraction) required to supply the food and raw material needs of the empire builders.
i. Forms of Extensions:
Such continental extensions, in general, took one of two forms, or some combination of the two:
(1) the removal of the indigenous peoples by killing them off or forcing them into specially reserved areas, thus providing room for settlers from western Europe who then developed the agriculture and industry of these lands under the social system imported from the mother countries, or
(2) The conquest of the indigenous peoples and the transformation of their existing societies to suit the changing needs of the more powerful militarily and technically advanced nations.
At the heart of Western expansionism was the growing disparity in technologies between those of the leading European nations and those of the rest of the world. Differences between the level of technology in Europe and some of the regions on other continents were not especially great in the early part of the 18th century. In fact, some of the crucial technical knowledge used in Europe at that time came originally from Asia.
During the 18th century, however, and at an accelerating pace in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gap between the technologically advanced countries and technologically backward regions kept on increasing despite the diffusion of modern technology by the colonial powers.
The most important aspect of this disparity was the technical superiority of Western armaments, for this superiority enabled the west to impose its will on the much larger colonial populations.
Advances in communication and transportation, notably rail-road, also became important tools for consolidating foreign rule over extensive territories. And along with the enormous technical superiority and the colonizing experience itself come important psychological instruments of minority rule by foreigners – racism and arrogance on the part of the colonizers and a resulting spirit of inferiority among the colonized.
Naturally, the above description and summary telescope events that transpired over many decades and the incidence of the changes varied from territory to territory and from time to time, influenced by the special conditions in each area, by what took place in the process of conquest, by the circumstances at the time when economic exploitation of the possessions became desirable and feasible, and by the varying political considerations of the several occupying powers.
Moreover, it should be emphasized that expansion policies and practices, while far from haphazard, were rarely the result of long-range and integrated planning. The drive for expansion was persistent, as were the pressures to get the greatest advantage possible out of the resulting opportunities.
But the expansions arose in the midst of intense rivalry among major powers that were concerned with the distribution of power on the continent of Europe itself as well as with ownership of overseas territories.
Thus, the issues of national power, national wealth, and military strength shifted more and more to the world stage as commerce and territorial acquisitions spread over larger segments of the globe. In fact, colonies were themselves often levers of military power-sources of military supplies and of military manpower and bases for navies and merchant marines.
What appears, then, in tracing the concrete course of empire is an intertwining of the struggle for hegemony between competing national powers, the manoeuvring for preponderance of military strength, and the search for greatest advantage practically obtainable from the world’s resources.
ii. European Colonial Activity (1763-C. 1875):
Stages of history rarely, if ever, come in neat packages: the roots of new historical periods begin to form in earlier eras, while many aspects of an older phase linger on and help shape the new. Nonetheless, there was a convergence of developments in the early 1760s, which, despite many qualifications, delineates a new stage in European expansionism and especially in that of the most successful empire builder, Great Britain.
It is not only the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain that can be traced to this period but also the consequences of England’s decisive victory over France in the seven years’ War and the beginnings of what turned out to be the second British Empire. As a result of the treaty of Paris, France lost nearly all of its colonial empire, while Britain became, except for Spain, the largest colonial power in the world.
iii. The Growth of Informal Empire:
The transformation of the old colonial and mercantilist commercial system was completed when, in addition to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, the Corn Laws and the navigation acts were repealed in the late 1840s.
I. The repeal of the navigation acts acknowledged the new reality: the primacy of Britain’s navy and merchant shipping. The repeal of the Corn Laws (which had protected agricultural interests) signalled the maturation of the industrial revolution. In the light of Britain’s manufacturing supremacy, exclusivity and monopolistic trade restraints were less important than, and often detrimental to, the need for ever-expanding world markets and sources of inexpensive raw materials and food.
II. With the new trade strategy, under the impetus of freer trade and technical progress, came a broadening of the concept of empire. It was found that the commercial and financial advantages of formal empire could often be derived by informal means.
The development of a worldwide trade network, the growth of overseas banking, the export of capital to less advanced regions, the leading position of London’s money markets-all under the shield of a powerful and mobile navy-led to Great Britain’s economic preeminence and influence in many parts of the world, even in the absence of political control.
iv. Loss of the American Colonies:
The path of conquest and territorial growth was far from orderly. It was frequently diverted by the renewal or intensification of rivalry between, notably, England, France, Spain, and the Low Countries in colonial areas and on the European continent. The most severe blow to Great Britain’s 18th century dreams of empire, however, came from the revolt of the 13 American colonies.
These contiguous colonies were at the heart of the old, or what is often referred to as the first, British Empire, which consisted primarily of Ireland, the North American colonies, and the plantation colonies of the West Indies. Ironically, the elimination of this core of the first British Empire was to a large extent influenced by the upsurge of empire building after the seven years’ war.
Great Britain harvested from its victory in that war a new expanse of territory about equal to its prewar possessions on the North American continent: French Canada, the Floridas, and the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi river. The assimilation of the French Canadians, control of the Indians and settlement of the trans-Allegheny region, and the opening of new trade channels created a host of problems for the British government. Not the least of these was the burdensome costs to carry out this program on top of a huge national debt accumulated during the war.
To cope with these problems, new imperial policies were adopted by the mother country- raising (for the first time) revenue from the colonies; tightening mercantile restrictions, imposing firm measures against smuggling (an important source of income for colonial merchants), and putting obstacles in the way of New England’s substantial trade with the West Indies.
The strains generated by these policies created or intensified the hardships of large sections of the colonial population and, in addition, disrupted the relative harmony of interests that had been built up between the mother country and important elite groups in the colonies.
Two additional factors, not unrelated to the enlargement of the British empire, fed the onset and success of the American War of Independence (1775-1783): first, a lessening need for military support from the mother country once the menacing French were removed from the continent and, second, support for the American revolutionary forces from the French and Spanish, who had much to fear from the enhanced sea power and expansionism of the British.
The shock of defeat in North America was not the only problem confronting British society. Ireland in effect, a colonial dependency also experienced a revolutionary upsurge, giving added significance to attacks by leading British free traders against existing colonial policies and even at times against colonialism itself.
But such criticism had little effect except as it may have hastened colonial administrative reforms to counteract real and potential independence movements in dependencies such as Canada and Ireland.
v. Conquest of India:
Apart from reforms of this nature, the aftermath of American independence was a diversion of British imperial interests to other areas the beginning of the settlement of Australia being a case in point. In terms of amount of effort and significance of results, however, the pursuit of conquest in India took first place.
Starting with the assumption of control over the province of Bengal (after the battle of Plassey, 1757) and especially after the virtual removal of French influence from the Indian Ocean, the British waged more or less continuous warfare against the Indian people and took over more and more of the interior.
The Marathas, the main source of resistance to foreign intrusion, were decisively defeated in 1803, but military resistance of one sort or another continued until the middle of the 19th century. The financing and even the military manpower for this prolonged undertaking came mainly from India itself.
As British sovereignty spread, new land-revenue devices were soon instituted, which resulted in raising the revenue to finance the consolidation of power in India and the conquest of other regions, breaking up the old system of self-sufficient and self-perpetuating villages and supporting an elite whose self-interests would harmonize with British rule.
vi. The Second British Empire:
The removal of threat from the strongest competing foreign power set the stage for Britain’s conquest of India and for operations against the North American Indians to extend British settlement in Canada and westerly areas of the North American continent. In addition, the new commanding position on the seas provided an opportunity for Great Britain to probe for additional markets in Asia and Africa and to try to break the Spanish trade monopoly in South America.
During this period, the scope of British world interests broadened dramatically to cover the South Pacific, the Far East, the South Atlantic, and the coast of Africa. The initial aim of this outburst of maritime activity was not so much the acquisition of extensive fresh territory as the attainment of a far-flung network of trading posts and maritime bases.
The latter, it was hoped, would serve the interdependent aims of widening foreign commerce and controlling ocean shipping routes. But, in the long run many of these initial bases, turned out to be steppingstones to future territorial conquests. Because the indigenous populations did not always take kindly to foreign incursions into their homelands, even when the foreigners limited themselves to small enclaves, penetration of interiors was often necessary to secure base areas against attack.
vii. Global Expansion:
Except for the acquisition of additional territory in India and colonies in Sierra Leone and New South Wales, the important additions to British overseas possessions between the seven years of war and the end of the Napoleonic era came as prizes of victory in wars with rival European colonial powers.
In 1763 the first British Empire primarily centred on North America. By 1815, despite the loss of the 13 colonies, Britain had a second empire, one that straddled the globe from Canada and the Caribbean in the Western Hemisphere around the Cape of Good Hope to India and Australia. This empire was sustained by and in turn was supported by maritime power that far exceeded that of any of Britain’s European rivals.
viii. Policy Changes:
The half century of global expansion is only one aspect of the transition to the second British Empire. The operations of the new empire in the longer run also reflected decisive changes in British society. The replacement of mercantile by industrial enterprise as the main source of national wealth entailed changes to make national and colonial policy more consistent with the new hierarchy of interests.
The restrictive trade practices and monopolistic privileges that sustained the commercial explosion of the 16th and most of the 17th centuries built around the slave trade, colonial plantations, and monopolistic trading companies did not provide the most effective environment for a nation on its way to becoming the workshop of the world.
The desired restructuring of policies occurred over decades of intense political conflict: the issues were not always clearly delineated, interest groups frequently overlapped, and the balance of power between competing vested interests shifted from time to time. The issues were clearly drawn in some cases, as for example over the continuation of the British East India Company’s trade monopoly.
The company’s export of Indian silk, muslins, and other cotton goods was seen by all who were involved in any way in the production of British textiles to be an obstacle to the development of markets for competing British manufactures. Political opposition to this monopoly was strong at the end of the 18th century, but the giant step on the road to free trade was not taken until the early decades of the 19th century (termination of the Indian trade monopoly, 1813; of the Chinese trade monopoly, 1833).
In contrast, the issues surrounding the strategic slave trade were much more complicated. The West Indies plantations relied on a steady flow of slaves from Africa. British merchants and ships profited not only from supplying these slaves but also from the slave trade with other colonies in the Western Hemisphere.
The British were the leading slave traders, controlling at least half of the transatlantic slave trade by the end of the 18th century. But the influential planter and slave-trade interests had come under vigorous and unrelenting attack by religious and humanitarian leaders and organizations, which propelled the issue of abolition to the forefront of British politics around the turn of the 19th century.
Historians are still unravelling the threads of conflicting arguments about the priority of causes in the final abolition of the slave trade and, later, of slavery itself, because economic as well as political issues were at play: glutted sugar markets (to which low-cost producers in competing colonies contributed) stimulated thoughts about controlling future output by limiting the supply of fresh slaves; the compensation paid to plantation owners by the British government at the time of the abolition of slavery rescued many planters from bankruptcy during a sugar crisis, with a substantial part of the compensation money being used to pay off planters’ debts to London bankers.
Moreover, the battle between proslavery and antislavery forces was fought in an environment in which free-trade interests were challenging established mercantilist practices and the West Indies sugar economy was in a secular decline.
The British were not the first to abolish the slave trade. Denmark had ended it earlier, and the U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, had already provided for its termination in 1808. But the British act of 1807 formally forbidding the slave trade was followed up by diplomatic and naval pressure to suppress the trade. By the 1820s Holland, Sweden, and France had also passed anti-slave-trade laws.
Such laws and attempts to enforce them by no means stopped the trade, so long as there was buoyant demand for this commodity and good profit from dealing in it. Some decline in the demand for slaves did follow the final emancipation in 1833 of slaves in British possessions.
On the other hand, the demand for slaves elsewhere in the Americas took on new life-e.g., to work the virgin soils of Cuba and Brazil and to pick the rapidly expanding U.S. cotton crops to feed the voracious appetite of the British textile industry. Accordingly, the number of slaves shipped across the Atlantic accelerated at the same time Britain and other maritime powers outlawed this form of commerce.
ix. Anti-Colonial Sentiment:
The growing importance of informal empire went hand in hand with increased expressions of dissatisfaction with the formal colonial empire. The critical approach to empire came from leading statesmen, government officials in charge of colonial policy, the free traders, and the philosophic Radicals (the latter, a broad spectrum of opinion makers often labelled the Little Englanders, whose voices of dissent were most prominent in the years between 1840 and 1870).
Taking the long view, however, some historians question just how much of this current of political thought was really concerned with the transformation of the British Empire into a Little England. Those who seriously considered colonial separation were for the most part thinking of the more recent white-settler colonies, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and definitely not of independence for India, or for that matter, for Ireland.
Differences of opinion among the various political factions naturally existed over the best use of limited government finance, colonial administrative tactics, how much foreign territory could in practice be controlled, and such issues as the costs of friction with the United States over Canada.
Yet, while there were important differences of opinion on the choice between formal and informal empire, no important conflict arose over the desirability of continued expansion of Britain’s world influence and foreign commercial activity.
Indeed, during the most active period of what has been presumed to be anti-colonialism, both the formal and informal empires grew substantially – new colonies were added, the territory of existing colonies was enlarged, and military campaigns were conducted to widen Britain’s trading and investment area, as in the Opium wars of the mid-19th century.
Although Britain’s energetic activity to suppress the slave trade was far from effective, its diplomatic and military operations for this end led it to much greater involvement in African affairs. Additional colonies were acquired to serve as bases for suppressing the slave trade and for stimulating substitute commerce.
British naval squadrons touring the coast of Africa, stopping and inspecting suspected slavers of other nations, and forcing African tribal chiefs to sign antislavery treaties did not halt the expansion of the slave trade, but they did help Britain attain a commanding position along the west coast of Africa, which in turn contributed to the expansion of both its commercial and colonial empire.