Just what drove the expansion of the British Empire into one of the largest in history? Kenneth Morgan weighs up whether it was the desire for greater trade or the thirst for conquest.
A flourishing power
The long 18th century was the period in which Britain rose to a dominant position among European trading empires, and became the first western nation to industrialise. The extent of economic change between 1688 and 1815 can be discerned through a glimpse at the state of economic and social conditions at home, and the growth of trade and empire at the beginning and end of that period.
In 1688 England and Wales had a population of 4.9 million, and the internal economy was still largely based on agricultural work and production. Domestic industry flourished, with many workers pursuing dual occupations on a seasonal basis in industry and agriculture. English society contained a flourishing and more extensive middling sector than any other western country, including the Dutch Republic. This provided a strong platform for commerce with, and settlement in, far-flung territories.
' The long 18th century was the period in which Britain rose to a dominant position among European trading empires...'
Merchants sent out ships to trade with North America and the West Indies, where England had established a network of colonies, following on from the permanent settlement of Virginia in 1607 and the acquisition of Barbados in 1625. Some 350,000 people had emigrated from England across the Atlantic by the end of the 17th century. In 1686 alone these colonies shipped goods worth over £1 million to London. Exports to the colonies consisted mainly of woollen textiles; imports included sugar, tobacco and other tropical groceries for which there was a growing consumer demand.
The triangular slave trade had begun to supply these Atlantic colonies with unfree African labour, for work on tobacco, rice and sugar plantations. It was based around the activities of the Royal African Company, with headquarters in London.
Trade and settlement also occurred in Asian waters. This was mainly based around the activities of the East India Company, a large joint-stock company based in London. The ships of the East India Company fleet traded mainly in bullion, textiles and tea with Bengal.
Overseas commerce was conducted within the mercantilist framework of the Navigation Acts, which stipulated that all commodity trade should take place in British ships, manned by British seamen, trading between British ports and those within the empire.
Despite these developments, in 1688 Britain was still a vulnerable competitor for stakes in overseas colonies and trade - her rivals were the trading empires of France and the Netherlands, as well as Spain and her client state, Portugal.
Growth of Empire
By the end of the Napoleonic wars, this scenario had been transformed. Population growth increased rapidly after c.1770, and by 1815 the British population totalled 12 million.
Agricultural productivity, proto-industrialisation, the growth of manufacturing and new mineral technologies, along with the arrival of factories, had helped the economy to industrialise. Dual occupations had largely been superseded by specialised, regular working conditions.
Trade and colonisation had also proceeded apace. In 1700 most foreign commerce, by volume and value, was still conducted with Europe, but during the 18th century British overseas trade became 'Americanised'. By 1797-8, North America and the West Indies received 57 per cent of British exports, and supplied 32 per cent of imports.
'...the British became the largest and most efficient carriers of slaves to the New World...'
After the Royal African Company's monopoly was rescinded in 1698, the British became the largest and most efficient carriers of slaves to the New World. Private merchant houses provided the capital for this business activity, and Jamaica, the largest British slave colony, was also the wealthiest colony in the British Empire.
By 1775 Britain possessed far more land and people in the Americas than either the Dutch or the French - who were the two main northern European rivals for international power and prestige. The East India Company's trade also still flourished at this time, and greater settlement by the British in Bengal occurred after c.1765.
The loss of the thirteen mainland American colonies in the War of Independence was a major blow to British imperial strength, but Britain recovered swiftly from this disaster, and acquired additional territories during the long war years with France from 1793 to 1815. The new colonies included Trinidad, Tobago, St Lucia, Guyana, the Cape Colony, Mauritius and Ceylon. Various Indian states were also subjugated.
By 1815, Britain possessed a global empire that was hugely impressive in scale, and stronger in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and around their shores, than that of any other European state. All of this had occurred within basically the same protectionist trade network as in 1688: free trade, much discussed by Adam Smith and Josiah Tucker, had failed yet to make much inroad into British economic policies.
Which came first?
To what extent were these changes between 1688 and 1815 a case of trade stimulating empire, or of empire stimulating trade? The answer is that trade and empire went hand in hand, with a symbiotic relationship to each other.
Growing overseas commerce with colonies stimulated merchants to provide ships, as well as goods for expanding settler societies. The slave trade also became a vehicle for establishing an empire of slavery in the Caribbean and southern American colonies, and emigrants sailed to the colonies in search of better material conditions. They also, in some cases, had to emigrate to escape religious persecution.
Rapid population growth in 18th-century North America provided a large market for British exports. In the quarter century before the American Revolution, British foreign trade changed its commodity composition to provide a wider range of textiles, notably linen and cotton fabrics.
This was in addition to a range of metalware and hardware, fabricated to meet the demands of a burgeoning colonial population with less advanced industrial processes than were current in the home country, and with some restrictions on their own manufacturing.
'The answer is that trade and empire went hand in hand...'
The slave trade stimulated British manufacturing production by the derived demand for goods such as plantation utensils, and clothing needed for slaves and estates. Colonies became linked to the metropolis by complex bilateral and multilateral shipping routes.
An integrated Atlantic economy came into being after the mid-18th century, in which merchants in British, American, West Indian and Iberian ports established firm commercial ties and a modern, enterprising outlook with regard to making money through imperial trade.
To what extent was British hegemony in empire, trade and industry based on the growth of imperial commerce? Many historians have discussed this basic question, and disputed the level of stimulus to the domestic British economy, and hence to industrialisation, that was provided by the growth of empire.
A negative assessment would emphasise that the profits of slavery and the slave trade were more modest than the bonanza that was once thought to have taken place, and that the contribution of slavery and the slave trade to national income was marginal at best.
Sceptics would also argue that British manufacturing production owed more to demand from the domestic market than from overseas customers; they would stress agricultural productivity and other supply-side factors as the vital components of British economic growth.
Others would suggest that the protectionist trade network led to the Caribbean colonies becoming a burden on the mother country, once defence and administration costs are considered, and that trade with India, with an imbalance between imports and exports, was a similar drain on British capital.