Saturday, December 30, 2006

How the Indians saw the British

Over the holidays I've been reading an essay by the Indian historian, Rajat Kanta Ray in the Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford, 1998) on how Indian society reacted to the establishment of British supremacy after the Battle of Buxar (1764) finally guaranteed British control over Bengal.

In the eyes of the pundit who wrote the Sanskrit work, The Pleasure of All the Gods, c. 1787, the seizure of power by 'the white-faced upstarts' was like the recurrence of the age of the demons. The late Mughal poet Sauda (1713-80) was aware of 'living in a special kind of age' when every heart was aflame with grief and every eye brimmed with tears.
How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal's cry is not heard.
Indians used the Arabic and Persian term inqilab (inversion) to describe the catastrophe.

But the new generation saw matters differently. In 1809 the westernizing reformer Raja Ram Mohun Roy saw the transition from Mughal to British rule as the passage to a 'milder, more enlightened and more liberal one'. In 1831 he travelled to England (accompanied by his cow- he was a Brahmin!) and was full of admiration for what he saw there.

The foundation of the Hindu College in Calcutta in 1817 helped to create a generation of westernized intellectuals. This new class was initially pro-British, but in spreading western ideas of freedom and representative government to India, the British (unwittingly) were to create Indian nationalism. Gandhi and Nehru were the products of the British educational system!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

It's that man again (updated)

You might enjoy this review in the Telegraph of David Starkey's Monarchy.

And here's another.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Seven Years War

This post owes a great deal to Frank McLynn, 1759: the Year Britain became Master of the World (Pimlico, 2005) and Jeremy Black, The British Seaborne Empire (Yale University Press, 2004).

This is what McLynn says about the war.
‘The year 1759 should really be as well known in British history as 1066 for this was when the British finally achieved the global supremacy they would maintain for at least another hundred years.’
The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle seemed almost irrelevant to the British and French settlers and the traders across the oceans. The fundamental problem was that Franco-British colonial and commercial ambitions were mutually incompatible, and their rivalry extended to the West Indies and West Africa, as well as North America and the Far East. The war was the last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the great powers of Europe. Generally France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, Spain and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover and Great Britain on the other. In Europe it was a struggle for dominance between France and Prussia. Abroad it was a colonial war between Britain and France. Some historians have seen it as the ‘first world war’.

The war made the reputation of a politician (William Pitt), two military leaders (Clive and Wolfe) and an admiral (Edward Hawke). It also destroyed the reputation and life of another admiral (John Byng).

In North America, where it is known as the French and Indian War, the war did not have a definite beginning. In 1748 the British government gave the Ohio Company, a group of Virginia landowners and London merchants, title to half a million acres in the Ohio valley. In 1749 the French sent a small force into the valley, and between 1752 and 1754 they drove out British traders and intimidated British Native American allies. In 1754 they began the construction of Fort Duquesne where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River (now downtown Pittsburgh).

In India Joseph Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry from 1742 followed an assertive and expansionist policy becoming a player in the volatile situation created by the decline of the Mughal Empire and in particular the disputes over the control of Hyderabad and the Carnatic (the major territories in south-central and south-eastern India). In 1749 the Nizam of Hyderabad, a protégé of the British, was defeated and killed by a mixed French-local force and a Frenchman, Charles de Bussy, became the key adviser to his two successors. The French were making important gains in Hyderabad, while separately a French protégé was recognized as the Nawab of the Carnatic.

At this stage it seemed possible that France would at least manage to contain Britain in both North America and India. Thanks to an influx of funds, the French fleet had been built up since 1749. She was also allied to Spain and Prussia (and this alliance was threatening Hanover) There was nothing inevitable in the ultimate British victory, though she had two leading advantages: a leading navy and a more prosperous colonial base than France in North America.

The French position unravelled first in India when they attacked the Maratha Confederacy, the most dynamic force in India. This diverted their attention from the British. In 1751 Robert Clive, a clerk in the East India Company’s service in Madras, captured Arcot in the Carnatic, a fort belonging to the Chanda Sahib, an ally of the French, and then held it against a siege of fifty-three days. This victory was followed up the following year when the French were defeated at Trichinopoly. These two victories made Clive, a hitherto obscure figure with no military training or powerful connections, famous and wealthy. Pitt described him as a ‘heaven-born general’.

These two victories wrecked Dupleix’ strategy and caused the collapse of his alliance system. He was recalled in 1754 and a provisional peace was reached with the British that winter, leaving Britain the dominant European power in south Asia.

In North America it was not so easy to reach a settlement as the British could not accept French claims in the Ohio valley. On 17 April 1754 a 500-strong French force forced the surrender of the garrison of 40 men in Fort Prince George. In May George Washington advanced at the head of a small Virginia detachment and defeated the French. But the French advanced in greater numbers and on 3 July Washington was forced to surrender at Fort Necessity. The British had fewer than 900 troops in North America and felt increasingly vulnerable.

In 1755 the British pursued an extremely aggressive policy in North America. They dispatched regulars to attack French bases and used the navy to attack the forts which threatened Nova Scotia. The Acadians, who were accused of disloyalty, were expelled. But in that year Britain suffered one of the great disasters in colonial history which convinced many that the French would win the war. On 9 July the inexperienced Major-General Edward Braddock was ambushed and defeated at the Monongahela River near Fort Duquesne. His defeat left the frontier wide open.

The early stages
The war began badly with the loss of Minorca (which will be looked at in a subsequent post).

North America: There were also defeats on land in North America. In August 1756 the new French commander, Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, captured Forts Ontario, George and Oswego, taking 1,620 prisoners and driving the British from Lake Ontario. The government, preoccupied with defending Britain from possible French invasion, did not devote enough time to North America. In 1757 Montcalm captured Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George.

In the same year William Pitt (the Elder) became one of the two Secretaries of State and the key figure in planning war policy. For 1758 he planned a three-pronged offensive on New France and Louisbourg gell to a successfully organized amphibious operation. At the same time a force mostly of Americans captured Fort Duquesne.

India: The British position in Bengal was challenged by the newly acceded Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula. In June he stormed the poorly defended Fort William at Calcutta after a brief siege and imprisoned between 60 and 150 prisoners in what became known as the ‘Black Hole’.
Clive was instructed to take Calcutta. In December 1756 he reached Bengal in command of 850 British troops and 2,100 sepoys and regained Fort William. He then marched inland to the Nawab’s capital of Murshidabad. On n 23 June he defeated Siraj-ud-Dowlah force of 50,000 at Plassey. Soon after the Nawab was killed and replaced by a British protégé. Clive became governor of Bengal. Although the fighting was not over, the situation had been radically transformed. Britain had triumphed though she owed her triumph as much to Indian factionalism as to any other factor.

The ‘Annus Mirabilis’
1759 was the annus mirabilis.
In Europe a British-German army defeated the French at Minden.
On 13 September Quebec fell to the British though General Wolfe died as the city was taken.

At sea the British were challenged by the pre-war increase in Bourbon naval strength. Together, France and Spain launched warships with a total displacement of c. 250,000 tons in 1746-55 while Britain launched only 90,000. But Spain did not join the war until 1762, by which time France had been defeated at sea. On 20 November 1759 Edward Hawke’s victory at Quiberon Bay (Brittany) in the teeth of a 40 knot gale guaranteed the Royal Navy complete command of the sea.

At the end of year David Garrick's 'Heart of Oak' was composed to commemorate the great events.

The end of the war
In 1760 the French forces in Canada surrendered (after a failed attempt to recapture Quebec. In 1761 the French surrendered at Pondicherry; Britain conquered Dominica, and Martinique, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent in 1762. When Spain entered the war, Britain captured Havana and Manila.

The achievements of the year of victories were sealed by the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. Britain returned many of its conquests including Guadaloupe, Martinique, Gorée (the slave port), Pondicherry, Cuba and the Philippines, but it retained Canada, Senegal, Grenada, Tobago, Dominica and St Vincent, and East and West Florida from Spain. The concessions led to a political crisis in Britain, but nevertheless this was the most successful war in British history.

One thing was decided irrevocably: India would be British and not French. Under the Treaty of Allahabad (1764) the Mughal Emperor granted the East India Company the civil administration (the diwani) of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This gave the company the right to tax over 20 million people. Long-term the British gained in India a huge market for its products and an almost inexhaustible supply of manpower for its armies.

However it is only in retrospect that this can be seen as a decisive turning point. The Indian historian, Rajat Kanta Ray has written in the Oxford History of the British Empire: the Eighteenth Century:
‘Which usurpation [of Mughal power] [the Maratha or the British] would finally gain supremacy was an issue that was not resolved until 1803, when the British captured Delhi and gained permanent control over the person of the Emperor and over the Red Fort.’
The British victory was based on naval superiority, but this in turn was only possible because Britain had one crucial advantage over France: the ability to borrow money. More than a third of British war expenditure was financed by loans. Pitt’s government spread the cost of war by selling low-interest bonds to the investing public. The National Debt grew from £74 million to £133 million during the war.

Before the war, Britain’s empire had been small enough and homogeneous enough to seem reasonably compatible with British values. But the post-war Empire included Quebec, with its 70,000 French (Roman Catholic) inhabitants as well as large stretches of Asia (Hindus and Muslims). This multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Empire was to pose new problems and challenges.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The First British Empire

‘By 1615 the British Isles had been an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class entity. Two hundred years later Great Britain had acquired the largest empire the world had ever seen, encompassing forty-three colonies in five continents. … They had robbed the Spaniards, copied the Dutch, beaten the French and plundered the Indians. Now they ruled supreme.’
This is the historian Niall Ferguson's take on the situation of Britain in 1815. But the road to this position of power was often a bumpy ride accompanied with defeats as well as victories. The period of what is known as the 'first British Empire' begins modestly in the 17th century and ends with defeat in America in 1783. The 'second British Empire' was forged in the wars with France between 1793 and 1815.

Go here for an excellent overview of the history of the British Empire.

In the European race for empire, the English were late beginners. It was only in 1655 that it acquired Jamaica. This was 150 years after Columbus had laid the foundations of the Spanish Empire which stretched from Madrid to Manila and encompassed Peru and Mexico. But England’s imperial ambitions (if not achievements) dated from the 16th century. Envy of the Spanish Empire led the Elizabethan seaman to launch piratical raids on Spanish colonial ports and treasure ships. But the only successful colonization was that of Ireland.

Elizabeth's astrologer, John Dee seems to have been the first to write about a ‘British Empire and from the reign of James I and VI the term was used by enthusiasts for the integration of England and Scotland. During the 17th century claims were made to include the seas round Britain. From 1685 maps began to delineate the extent of ‘an English Empire in America’; after 1707 this became a British one.

In the second half of the 18th century the term ‘British Empire’ acquired its now accepted meaning: a collection of territories and peoples ruled by Britain. In the early 18th century the poet Matthew Prior invoked a Britain that ‘rules an Empire by no Ocean bound'. From the 1760s it became conventional to speak and write of a single British Empire. In 1773 Sir George Macartney wrote of
‘this vast empire on which the sun never sets and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained’.
The poet William Cowper saw Boadicea in the light of imperial expansion:
‘Regions Caesar never knew/Thy posterity shall sway’.
The term ‘British’ was a recognition of the role the Scots played in the Empire. The 'plantation of Ulster was a common ‘British’ venture. In the later 17th century enclaves of Scots and Irish settlers established themselves in predominantly English colonies in North America or the West Indies, a process that increased after 1707. During the 18th century Scots and Irish emigration to British America was much larger than English emigration. A high proportion of the East India Company’s army officers and civilian servants were Scots. By the 1740s Scots firms based on Glasgow had won a large stake in the tobacco trade of the Chesapeake.

Imperialism was a means of defending the Revolution Settlement by building a strong navy and by creating satellites that gave Britain a measure of independence from powerful European neighbours. Most of those who used the term saw it in extremely belligerent terms: it was an empire that rested on commerce and naval power over Britain’s rivals (France, Spain, the Netherlands). Colonial and trade wars were popular, land wars on the continent not. Pride in Britain’s maritime prowess and hatred of foreigners formed an important element in the British people’s sense of national identity.

Maritime wars became wars of expansion, especially in the thought of Pitt the Elder, even though territorial empire was not the explicit objective of such wars.

The Empire before 1756

North America
The British experience of colonization in America was to be very different from that of the Spaniards and Portuguese. The majority of Spanish and Portuguese colonists were single men, who took sexual partners from the indigenous or slave populations. The result within a few generations was a substantial mixed-race population of mestizos and mulattos. British settlers brought their wives and children and preserved their culture more or less intact. John Rolf's marriage to Pocahontas did not set a precedent.

In 1497 Henry VII had sponsored John Cabot’s voyage and discovery of Newfoundland. In 1583 Newfoundland became the first English possession in the New World though Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s formal act of possession made little difference to the fishermen who were already spending half the year there.

The two original nuclei of colonization further south were the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland and the New England colonies.
In 1606 the Virginia Company was founded at Jamestown under John Smith. His discovery in 1612 that tobacco could be grown in the Chesapeake Bay area led to an influx of settlers ready to brave the harsh conditions.
On 9 November 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Cape Cod on the shores of what Smith had christened New England. Not all were religious zealots in search of heaven on earth; for many the motive was ‘not God but cod' (Ferguson). The Massachusetts Bay Company was founded in 1629. You can see how the life of the Pilgrims is renacted today if you visit Plimouth, Massachusetts.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in 1670 to trade in furs.

English settlement was achieved at the expense of the Native Americans. By 1700 their numbers had reduced from over half a million in 1500 to less than half that number in 1700. The near disappearance of the original proprietors meant that the land belonged to the king and the Stuart monarchs were very ready to grant land to favoured courtiers. In 1632 Charles I granted Maryland to the heirs of Lord Baltimore, Charles II gave New Amsterdam (renamed New York) to his brother James and Pennsylvania to William Penn. A grant from Charles II in 1663 created the Carolina settlement. By the beginning of the 18th century the population of English North America was about 265,000. The most important early 18th century colony was Georgia, founded by James Oglethorpe as a refuge for debtors.

The Caribbean
The majority of British emigrants in the 17th century went not to North America but to the Caribbean. The first English West Indian settlements had been established early in the 17th century on Barbados and the Leeward Islands. Jamaica was conquered in 1655. Of the total population of some 145,000 at the beginning of the 18th century three quarters were black slaves largely employed in sugar cultivation.
(We will be returning to the Caribbean when we study the slave trade.)

In December 1600 Elizabeth gave a 15 year monopoly to the ‘Company of Merchants in London trading in the East Indies’ and in 1613 the Company established itself at Surat in north west India. But in 1602 the Dutch had established their own East India Company at Chinsura north of Calcutta. The inevitable tensions were among the causes of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century. The Glorious Revolution can be seen in business terms as an ‘Anglo-Dutch merger’, which introduced the British to a number of crucial financial institutions that the Dutch had founded. It enabled the English to trade more freely in the East – Indonesia and the spice trade went to the Dutch, leaving the English to develop the newer Indian textiles trade. The textile trade proved enormously profitable, enabling the East India Company to outstrip its Dutch rival. Even before the Glorious Revolution, this had involved a relocation of trading bases. As Surat was gradually wound down Fort St George (Madras) was founded in 1639. Bombay was acquired in 1662 as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry. In 1690 the fort at Sutanuti on the Hugli was amalgamated with two other villages to form Calcutta.

The East India Company was a commercial monopoly. It was also a parasite on the periphery of the Mughal Empire, where power was centred on the Red Fort in Delhi. In 1700 the population of India was twenty times that of the United Kingdom and it has been estimated that India’s share of total world output was 24% (to Britain’s 3%). It was only with the Emperor’s permission that the EIC was allowed to trade at all. But by the 1740s the Empire was in decline. There were repeated invasions from the north and the provincial deputies (the nawabs) were carving out kingdoms for themselves. In order to protect themselves, the EIC began to raise its own regiments, equipping them with European weapons and subordinating them to English officers. The Company was beginning to acquire the characteristics of a state.

The First British Empire: the challenge from France (updated)

In 1700 France had an economy twice the size of Britain’s and a population almost three times as large. Like Britain she was a colonial power. ‘New France’ stretched from Quebec to Louisiana.

In 1534 Jacques Cartier had taken possession of Quebec, which became the capital of ‘New France’. On his second voyage to Canada in 1535 he visited the site of what was to be Montreal, though the settlement was not founded until 1642 by Paul de Chomedy.

In the reign of Louis XIV it was Colbert’s policy to organize New France and subject the colony to close control. In 1679 René-Robert de la Salle (1643-87) received permission from Louis XIV to explore the Mississippi. In 1682 he led twenty Frenchmen and thirty Indians in canoes down the Illinois River to the Mississippi. He started the journey in February and reached the Gulf of Mexico in August, and claimed the whole basin, which he named Louisiana, for Louis XIV. In 1717 the decision was taken to found New Orleans. The fort of Baton Rouge was garrisoned in 1719. But Louisiana was never the economic miracle the French government hoped for and it was peopled mainly be transported criminals rather than voluntary settlers. After the collapse of Law’s Mississippi Company in 1719 it stagnated.

In the north Louisbourg (Louisburg) was founded on Cape Breton Island in 1713 to guard the Atlantic approaches to New France. It was a staggeringly ostentatious stronghold covering a hundred acres and encircled by ten-metre-high stone walls. It took so long to build and was so expensive that Louis XV said he was expecting its towers to rise over the Paris horizon. From its strategic position at the mouth of the St Lawrence, the inhabitants victualled their Newfoundland fishing fleets and potentially threatened Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. (However the fort was wildly ill-conceived: the humid weather stopped the mortar from drying, the fort was overlooked by a score of hillocks, and developments in gunnery had already made high stone walls an ineffective means of defence.)

By the middle of the eighteenth century French Canada had 70,000 inhabitants (far fewer than British North America).

The French sugar islands, Martinique and Guadaloupe, were among the richest in the Caribbean. In 1664 the Compagnie des Indes Orientales was set up with its base at Pondicherry south of Madras.

War and Empire, 1739-1748

The War of Jenkins’ Ear
Britain and Spain were in dispute over the seizure of British ships. They also had a dispute over the boundaries between Georgia (British) and Florida (Spanish). These disputes were partially resolved at the Convention of El Pado, 1739 though in the Commons, ‘Patriot’ opposition was stirred up by the young MP, William Pitt, who argued that commercial interests could best be fostered by war and further colonial conquests Following the mutilation of Captain Jenkins, Britain, much to Walpole’s reluctance, declared war on Spain. In November Admiral Edward Vernon captured Puerto Bello. Otherwise, the war was unsatisfactory for Britain.

The War of the Austrian Succession
The war with Spain merged into a more general war that began over a dispute over Frederick the Great’s seizure of Silesia from Maria Theresa in December 1740, the heiress of Austria. It became a four-sided conflict between Britain and Austria against France and Prussia.
In the War of the Austrian Succession Anglo-French hostilities took place mainly in Flanders. However fighting spread to North America, West Africa and the Indian sub-continent. The contest with France was not about territory for its own sake, but about trade: the cottons and spices of India, the sugar of the West Indies, the tobacco and rice of the southern colonies of North America, the furs and fish of the northern colonies, the slaves of Africa. Such acquisitions were the only secure guarantee of lasting commercial supremacy.

In June 1745 Britain captured Louisburg and Cape Breton Island. In September the French captured Madras from the East India Company. The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war in 1748. Britain gave up Louisburg in exchange for Madras; France repudiated the Pretender.
But the peace seemed almost irrelevant to the British and French settlers and the traders across the oceans. The fundamental problem was that Franco-British colonial and commercial ambitions were mutually incompatible. Their rivalry could no longer be confined to Europe and the high seas. It now extended world-wide.