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“The sun never sets on the British empire”[1] was a phrase that meant that the British Empire was so extensive that, at any one time, at least part of its territory was in daylight. Guyana was a part of the British Empire. All Guyanese students are familiar with the rise of the British Empire in the eighteenth century. The term long eighteenth century is most commonly used by Guyanese scholars to assess the achievements of Great Britain. The Long eighteenth century was a period from 1688 to 1832. This period is generally depicted as Britain’s greatest triumph.

    In the centuries before the period of the long eighteenth century England, France and Spain generally fought between themselves for supremacy. For example the sixteenth century marked the time of Spanish dominance in Europe and the America’s. In the seventeenth century Britain witnessed the rise of Bourbon France and the eighteenth century was a century that welcomed colonial world power conflicts between old powers, as France, Spain, and England. Moreover, the time period of the eighteenth century fathered the first feelings of nationalism as these old regimes tried to balance each other’s power so that none would get to have an advantage.

    By the mid eighteenth century it was clear that the winner of this struggle would be the kingdom of Great Britain. What is remarkable to many scholars including myself is that this small island had survived the “bubonic” plague, the great fire of London in 1666, heavy taxes, and civil war. However, in less than seventy years Great Britain had put itself in position to rule the world. Many factors contributed to Great Britain rising to prominence. The true historian will base their arguments on Great Britain putting together a highly professional bureaucracy that believed in a sophisticated land and naval force that was later employed to protect the colonist. It was more than politics and military genius that forced Great Britain to the forefront. The common Englishman would point to the geographical location of Great Britain playing a role in its rise to prominence along with the decline of The Ottoman Empire.  Finally, the most important factor that contributed to this nation’s rise to prominence is the Industrial Revolution and the British government’s quiet involvement in the slave trade. This essay is written to identify the factors that transformed Britain from a second-rate to a first rate world power in the eighteenth century. The question is whether Britain’s political policy for success was also a cause of their decline. 

    “Eighteenth-century Europe can be described as states dancing together in temporary partnership until the music changed and old partners were deserted and new embraced. The eighteenth-century system was based on rivalry and alliances.”[2] Rulers sought to expand their power and territory through marriages. In Great Britain dynastic marriages were important but the main advantage the British had over the other European powers was the power of parliamentary government. “The origins of Parliament go back to the 13th century when the nobles would summon a parliament to discuss matters of disquiet to the barons and other prominent men of the realm.”[3] By 1649 parliament and Oliver Cromwell were powerful enough to behead Charles 1 for treason. For the next eleven years Britain was governed by Oliver Cromwell and his incompetent son Richard Cromwell. It was also parliament who had decided to recall the Stuart lineage. By 1679 an exclusion bill to exclude James II was introduced. This parliament was called the First Exclusion Parliament.

   The evolution of the common man in politics is a significant factor to the cohesion or stability of the British parliament in the eighteenth century. By the eighteenth century Great Britain’s peasant society and working class had achieved far greater privileges than their counter-part on the continent. Further evidence of this statement would be the Peasant Revolt of 1381. On the contrary the middle and lower classes of France only gained their independence in 1789. By the early seventeen hundreds, Britain had established sophisticated political factions who served the nobility and the common people. In this new kingdom men could rise from nothing to become exceptionally rich and powerful. The poor and middle class man could speak his mind on religion, and politics without any fear of being imprisoned or hanged by their respective institutions. This cannot be said of the great kingdoms of Spain and France.

    Political parties in power such as the Whigs and Tories functioned by checking the power of the monarchy. This gave the ruling government an opportunity to create wealth for the nation and government. On the contrary countries such as Spain had to deal with the Inquisition and divine rule of the monarchy. Furthermore, the opposition to the British political system in Europe was feudal in their political thoughts. In Spain Inquisition dominance stifled the social and political growth of that country. In contrast parliamentary rule enabled Britain to manage its resources and balance the national debt. This ingenuity encouraged migration of rich merchants from other parts of Europe to invest in the economy of Great Britain and the development of London as the business capital of the known world as it was in the eighteenth century. These expansions were instrumental in moving the World Bank from Amsterdam to London in the eighteenth century.    

     The Whig party is recognized in establishing the kingdom of Great Britain. “The Whigs were instrumental in pushing a bill which would exclude all catholic sovereigns from taking the throne of England after the death of James the 2nd. This act is known as the Act of Settlement 1701. Furthermore, the Whig party along with Tory engineered the Act of Settlement act of Union in 1707.”[4] The Act of Union incorporated Scotland into a union with Britain and it further nullified the freedom of monarchs to rule without a government. The power gained by the Whigs and Tories quickly established liberty within the new Kingdom.

   In Great Britain a monarch had to call parliament to gain support for certain endeavors. Moreover, local governments ruled without much control from central governments. “The powers exercised by the two governments made it less time consuming to pass certain laws and to raise taxes. The people only had contact with government on local levels unless they were taken into the armed services.”[5] This meant that the taxes collected were controlled and they were rarely used to fill the treasury of the monarch. 

   Taxes were important because they supported the army, the poor and they were used to ‘build bridges and fix roads. The population in Great Britain was helped because of poor relief. The poor relief was tax money the government collected that was eventually used to feed the homeless and the poor. Furthermore, this made Great Britain a much more unified and grounded nation than the rest of Europe.

   Sir Robert Walpole is Great Britain’s first prime minister and greatest political leader. “Walpole rose to power as a Whig M.P. from 1700 to 1721”[6]  Sir Robert Walpole is famous for handling the stock market crash of 1720. This crisis is known as the South Sea “bubble.” Walpole limited political damage by honoring the debt.  The country of France had a similar crisis however it was much more damaging to their market.  Walpole never favored war and the British people were constantly at war during the period of the eighteenth century. The monarch usually influenced parliament; however the final decision for war was a vote. “In 1701 the war of the “Spanish Succession” began.  “When Charles 2nd died in 1700, he left a will expressing his desire that his diminished empire “remain” intact and that Louis 14th grandson, Philip of Anjou, succeed him.”[7]  This was an easy decision for British parliament who along with Queen Anne feared the consolidation of Bourbon France with Hapsburg Spain. This war involved all the great states of Europe. It was the first known world war because the battle was fought in Europe, Africa, India and the Americas. By the signing of the treaty of Utrecht (1713) it appeared that France and Philip had done better on the bargaining table. This treaty laid the foundations for Great Britain taking full possession of New France by 1763. 

     In 1746 Britain fought their last war on their own natural soil.  At the battle of “Culloden” Charles Stuart was crushed and sent packing to France. The battle of Culloden was the Stuart line’s last claim to the throne of Great Britain. This is instrumental because for centuries countries such as Spain and France would always support independent states like Scotland and lesser extent Ireland to rise up against England. They were many other battles lost and won by Great Britain in the period of the eighteenth century. War was heavily financed from the taxes of the colonies taken by Great Britain. This added revenue contributed to the building of more and better naval vessels for exploration, war and defense. War was costly. However, war laid the foundations for the Anglo-Saxon empire and domination of the world. CANADA/

     Britain was an Anglo-Saxon empire forged with the blood of the landed gentry, common people and the nobility. This rise to prominence was further achieved by nature and the decline of old religious enemies such as the Ottoman Empire. “The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople after a lengthy siege in 1453, and by 1481, the Ottoman Turkish Empire extended to the Danube River in Central Europe.”[8]  Islam would continue to be a threat to Christianity. “The Ottoman Turks commanded the Black Sea and the northern Aegean and many prime trade routes had been closed to European shipping.”[9] The Islamic threat loomed even larger with incorporation of the janissary soldiers. These soldiers were influential in winning great wars for the Sultans. However, by the eighteenth century the janissaries began to raise political war against the Sultans. By the mid eighteenth century they had risen to an astronomical number of 130,000. They were eventually killed by the Sultan. It was soon after the massacre of this secretive warrior sect that the Ottoman Empire declined. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire the trade route to the east was now controlled by England.  Further evidence of the decline of Ottoman rule playing a factor in European and Great Britain expansion east is the attempt of Britain to align Egypt with India. These were all territories within Ottoman sea ports. The Ottoman decline opened the door for Hapsburg Austria to control the Balkans. This is an important statement because the powerful Austrian Hapsburg had joined in union with Great Britain to disband the Spanish Hapsburg succession.   

      Political alliances were not the only reason for Great Britain’s success in the eighteenth century. Not since the year 1066 had an army successfully landed on British soil. In 1688 William 1st successfully landed an army in London. He won the day without a shot being fired. Over the centuries Great Britain’s waterways have proven too tricky to conquer. Invading armies have had to maneuver the rough Irish Sea, Atlantic Ocean and narrow river Thames. The leading European powers on the continent did not have the luxury of being an island. They had to spend a large sum in the upkeep of forts and troops to defend their borders.

    It was not only the huge sums of money spent by rival European powers in protecting their homeland that gave Britain an advantage for economic dominance. By the eighteenth century the trading route soon switched to the Atlantic.  In early colonial settlement, goods came from two main sources:  England and Africa. “A typical system of goods would consist of cloth, rum or weapons. These goods would be traded for black people. Many of the slaves died during transportation to the colonies-they were, tightly packed in disease invested compartments. Many died of malaria, or scurvy.”[10]  Once in the colony, the ship would unload the slaves and take on any or all of molasses, sugar or tobacco and then head to Great Britain, completing the triangular trade.      british-empire-333

   “Slave ships brought the occasional slave back to England and advertisement offering slaves for sale were seen in Liverpool and Bristol newspapers.”[11]  “In the eighteenth century sugar was Britain’s largest import by value and per capita consumption of sugar reached a level of between 16 and 24 pounds per annum during the eighteenth century.”[12]  West Indian sugar made huge profits for the British all around the world. Slavery in the colonies grew in numbers. “Many British people would borrow money to start small and large plantations. In 1671-1775 a total of one 1.75 million slaves were transported to the British colonies.”[13] The selling of slaves to the colonist and exchange of natural goods, proved lucrative for the British government. Although slavery was ruled illegal on English soil in the late seventeen hundreds the law was not passed in the colony until the late 1830s. Slavery generated much needed money to reduce the national debt in Great Britain. It was a win situation for many of the parliamentary members many of whom had invested large sums of money in building plantation businesses in the colonies. Great Britain reduced the national debt by taxing the colonies and ignoring the atrocities of slavery.

   With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century Great Britain realized the value in new inventions-these innovations were used to cultivate more crops. The industrial revolution of the 18th century dramatically changed the function of industry. These new innovations were machines, fresh sources of power and energy, and the construction of assembly style lines. Industrialism improved the quality of the goods and it increased production of finished goods to be sold in the various markets. Many people speculate why industrialism occurred first in Great Britain.

    The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain because people had more freedom to explore and expand on ideas. It was the Whig Oligarchy of the early 1700s that established a new law on patents for inventions. Moreover, monarchs could not control or seize earnings or impose taxes. This freedom enabled Britain to become masters of the world. The freedom achieved in this period more than anything gave the people of Great Britain an identity. The Industrial Revolution changed the world for good. Great Britain’s factories on the outskirts of its cities, the tall chimneys smoking by day and glowing by night, the incessant hum of machinery, the bustle of crowds of workmen, all these were familiar to eighteenth century Britons.[14] Just a few short years before the Industrial Revolution, the population changed greatly in Great Britain. People began to migrate from the rural and far country side in search of jobs in the bigger industrialized British cities. This revolution created and eliminated competition between old rivalries such as Holland.

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    Earlier in this journal we spoke of Britain’s triumph across the seas. By the eighteenth century Great Britain had the ability to obtain an abundance of natural resources and minerals from the territories they won in conquest. These commodities were then brought back to Britain where they were mass produced in factories across the island. The increased production usually meant availability for the British colonists and the rest of the world. It also destroyed the competition because the British market could sell products at a cheaper than normal price. The most important commodities of British export were wool, metal, porcelain potteries and refined sugar. “However, the factory system also improved on the silk industry, which was borrowed from Italy, and brought to a London suburb by French refugees, after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes.”[15] The preconditions for industrialization can be classified as economic, social, and cultural. As mentioned earlier British banks became the center for world economy. Furthermore, the industrial era created advances in steam power, iron metallurgy and mechanical devices for spinning and weaving. “Very few of the early inventors were scientists: James Hargreaves, who invented the spinning jenny, was a carpenter; Edmund Cartwright, who developed the power loom, was a preacher and many others, including Abraham Darby a businessman who learned by doing.”[16] This was the British way of doing things; a new freedom not seen in any other European country.

   Industrialism also changed the family structure in that women could now seek opportunities to work in the factories. This monumental change occurred with the improvement of the loom. Gone were the days of spinning at home. During the industrial period the wealth of the nation tripled and the British people earned the unheralded title of Empire maker. This domination was envisioned in every aspect of life. This was so because with the improvement of the loom-women moved from spinning at home to within factories. The improvements were to be found everywhere in the manufacturers’ world. Ethically or culturally the British could do no wrong. The accolade was owed to the brilliant men of this period who now made Britain the centre for education, technological advances, and new cultural world capital. The great philosophers of the period such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine; these men were born and bred in the spirit of the British Empire.

    Britain’s presence is felt in the eighteenth century. We understand that an empire can only be developed by individuals from all levels of society. In Great Britain the government created private companies to whom the government and monarch granted exclusive rights to trade in a particular part of the world. Examples of these companies are the Hudson Bay Company, East India Company and the Royal Africa Company. Many people were given opportunities to invest in these companies.

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   When the population of Britain exploded many people migrated to The Americas and other regions to seek their fortune. By the second stage of the empire white citizens who were raised in these regions started to gain control of their administration. This is an important time period because these second class British citizens started to resent the system instituted by the Empire. Their major concern was taxes in the Americas, Caribbean and India. In the region of India the British achieved great wealth at the expense of the peasant farmers and middle class population. In Great Britain’s colonies the colonists were angry at a Britain they felt had forgotten the prime directive. This directive was a fair balance of taxes and freedom to grow. The British had forgotten where they had come from and Britons were now draining the blood of their own brothers and sisters. With the episode of the French revolution, America took notice and gained their independence in 1776 from Great Britain. The British rulers could not fathom future wealth and power within America. It would take another 300 years for the British Empire to finally subside in the 1970s.

 In summary Great Britain proved to be a better negotiator at the peace table than the other European powers. Britain would use these negotiation skills to divide the potential power of their foes. A prime example of this was how they blocked the Bourbon claim to unify Hapsburg Spain with France and their generous financial gifts to weaker Protestant states within the territory of Europe. This proved effective in neutralizing the powerful Absolute states of Europe.   

 This world has witnessed many great achievements and people have benefited or suffered from Imperial rule. The British can never give back the money or capital stolen by a system centuries ago. The black, red and yellow man can only be thankful that they have gained back their lands. However sad this story may be, many people are still proud to be part of the Commonwealth.

Courtney Duncan

                   

 

 

 

 

        

 

   

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[1] Simon Winchester, The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire (New York. N.Y): Prentice Hall Press, 1985), xvii

 

 

[2] John Merriman, A history Of Modern Europe: From The Renaissance To The Present (New York N.Y.): Library of Congress Catalog-in-Publication Data, 1996), p.444  

[3] Stanford E. Lehmberg and Samantha A. Meigs, From Prehistoric Times to 1688: The Peoples of the British Isles: A New History (Chicago, Illinois: Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, 2001), p79

[4] Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, p446.

[5] Thomas W Heyck, The People of the British Isles A New History: From 1688 to 1870 (Chicago, Illinois): Lyceum Books Inc, 2002), p69

[6] Heyck, The People of the British Isles, p74.

[7] Merriman, A History OF Modern Europe, p320

[8] Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, p7

[9] “The End of Europe’s Middle Ages,” Ottoman Turk, http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/endmiddle/FRAMES/ottoframe.html (accessed February 2, 2009).

[10]  History of Britain II, the wars of the British,1603-1776. Volume 6, The wrong empire// written and presented by 
Schama, Simon: a BBC production in association with the History channel.

[11] David Eltis, The Rise of Slavery in the Americas (New York, NY): Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.1

[12] Ralph Davies, The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade (Leicester, Leicester County): Leicester University Press, 1979) Table 27, p.45.

[13]( History of Britain II, the wars of the British,1603-1776. Volume 6, The wrong empire, 2002)

[14] T.S. Ashton & John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Mantoux: The Industrial Revolution in The eighteenth century: An outline of the beginnings of the modern factory system in England. (Chicago, Illinois: The Chicago University Press, 1990), pg25

[15] Ashton & Galbraith, The Industrial Revolution, pg 104

[16] Heyck, the People of the British Isles, pg 188

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