British imperial expansion in the eighteenth century was accompanied by odes to liberty, progress and patriotism. Those who drove the expansion pictured themselves in a narrative of British history that told of the forward march of freedom; Alfred, Elizabeth I, even Cromwell, and now themselves. Magna Carta, the 1688 revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights were all wheeled out and invoked as symbols of a Britain that had freed itself from European-style (and, of course, Catholic) despotism.“The connection between the championship of liberty at home and the creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas was at the heart of the new, the first truly British, patriotism”.
Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, had based his ‘Patriot King’, published in 1738 as vocational guidance for Frederick, Prince of Wales, on this same narrative. Alfred, ‘Guardian of liberty’ and originator of trial by jury (actually, he wasn’t) would be the model for the next king, though in the event, Frederick was to die before he reached the throne.
The cognitive dissonance required to maintain the oxymoronic concept of an Empire of Liberty was on full display in this quote from Bolingbroke:
“The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves”
Offence is defence, theft justified by the sacrifices of the thief, and domination over others nothing more than self-preservation. This was the base metal of self-interest alchemised into golden noble virtue.
Like today’s right-wing ‘Libertarians’, many of the eighteenth century’s champions of freedom were thinking of their own liberty rather more than of liberty as a universal right and principle. The oligarchs who saw themselves as the ‘Heart Blood’ of the nation “believed themselves tyrannized by the arbitrary powers of Walpole’s excisemen, and ... looked to the promotion of blue-water empire to fulfil their partnership between trade and freedom. So when they spoke of liberty they meant, among other enterprises, the liberty to buy and sell slaves”.
Empire of slaves
The theory of the imperialists was that by eschewing direct territorial conquest, a British imperial despotism could be avoided. Britain would exert no more than the minimum level of power required to operate a global commercial concern wherein the colonies would provide the raw materials and the homeland manufactured goods in an “endlessly benevolent cycle of mutual self-improvement”. But by the end of the eighteenth century “[i]nstead of an empire of farmers and traders the British Empire was, overwhelmingly, an empire of soldiers” ruling over “a million Caribbean slaves and at least 50 million inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent”.
The Empire of Liberty’s “prosperity depended on the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans” who, when they fought for their own liberty, as did the Antiguan rebels of 1776, were “publicly burnt alive...broken on the wheel...gibbeted alive...mutilated”, castrated or flogged “til they are Raw, some put on their skins Pepper and salt to make them smart” says a contemporaneous source quoted by Schama.
“The irony that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin: a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away”
The raw materials provided by the colonies were commodities such as tobacco, tea, chocolate, coffee and sugar, creating and satisfying new demands at home.
“As early as 1655, three years after [the] first coffee house opened in London, Barbados was shipping 7,787 tons of sugar back to England, and there were already 20,000 slaves on the island against 23,000 whites, well over half of whom were probably indentured servants” helping to make the plantation owners “by far the richest men in British America”. “It was precisely between 1640 and 1660, when the rhetoric of liberty was being most noisily shouted at home, that the slave economy was being created in the Caribbean”.
By 1700 there were 50,000 slaves on Barbados, with the white indentured labourers almost gone. By 1800 there were 70,000, and another 400,000 on Jamaica.
Excusing British slavery by pointing to the social mores of the time is by no means an adequate response. As has been noted, liberty was far from an alien concept; talk of it filled the political air. And the specific moral abhorrence of slavery was not a thought that had simply failed to occur to the backwardly innocent men of the time. The Puritan Richard Baxter asked, in 1673, “How cursed a crime is it to equal men to beasts. Is this not your practice? Do you not buy them and use them merely as you do horses to labour for your commodity...Do you not see how you reproach and condemn yourselves while you vilify them all as savages?”. A time-traveller from the early twenty-first century who encountered the slave-drivers of the era could scarcely have put it better. Such arguments were known, understood, and consciously rejected.
“In the century and a half of the slave trade, from the 1650s to 1807, between three and four million Africans were transported out of their homelands to the New World in British ships”, accounting for about a third of those abducted and sold by all European nations involved. A million and a half of the British slaves died en route across the Atlantic. While it is true that the Europeans did not invent West African slavery, the demand they provided certainly grew and expanded the practice, driving its horrors deep into the African interior.
The slaves were denied every last vestige of their humanity by traders, their private parts inspected closely for signs of yaws prior to purchase, their breast our shoulder then branded by the initial of the ship that would take them across the ocean. Many attempted suicide rather than face the hell of the plantation. One slave trader spoke of sharks following the ships all the way from West Africa to the Caribbean, feasting on the suicides and the corpses pitched over the side. Those who remained on board were crammed in cheek-by-jowl and chained together, malnourished, forced to fester in each other’s filth, driven slowly mad by dehydration and dysentery.
One might almost say that it was the unlucky ones who survived the “middle passage” and made it to the West Indies. One fifth of slave children born on the plantation were dead before their second birthday. If they lived to six or seven they were sent out to work. Eighty per cent of slaves worked seventy to eighty hour weeks. The work, especially in the mill and the boiling house, was not only back-breaking but highly dangerous. Simply being a slave was lethal in itself, but they cost sufficiently little to purchase for their deaths not to pose a serious economic problem. Women bore a particularly harsh burden, subjected as they were to the “habitual sexual aggression” of their owners. Pregnant women were forced to continue working right up til the point of delivery. In spite of all this, the slaves resisted whenever and however they could, either in outright rebellions as in Antigua in the 1720s and 1730s and Jamaica mid-century, or in simply preserving their own cultures against all the odds. But this is another story. “By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ‘empire of liberty’ was critically dependent or its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery”. Britain’s single most valuable import was the sugar produced by three quarters of a million West Indian slaves, generating huge personal fortunes and general enrichment which was in turn to transform both the economy and British society. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool developed and expanded significantly as a direct result of the transatlantic trade. The great library at All Soul’s College, Oxford was built thanks to a donation from the Codmingtons of Barbados. The banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds grew rich, and reinvested in manufacturing. And the nouveaux riches of the trade were now throwing their weight around in Westminster and the City of London. Their liberty, at least, had been greatly enhanced.
The greatest threat to the serene continuation of these happy arrangements came from – where else? – France. The plantation plutocrats may have aroused little sympathy with their complaints about the rising cost of slaves and the falling price of sugar, but when they complained about the French they were sure of an audience.
The dynastic links of the Bourbon royal houses meant that the French could operate in the Western Hemisphere free from harassment from the Spanish coastguard, whose attentions had been a source of consternation to British patriots for some years. The French made inroads into the markets of West Africa, provided tough competition for the British Caribbean plantations from their own colonies such as St Domingue (later Haiti) and began to interfere in the affairs of India, to which the British East India Company took principled exception, waging war to expel its new competitors.
In North America, the population of the British colonies now exceeded that of Britain itself, but the westward expansion seen by the colonists as their natural right was blocked by French territorial acquisitions, which also threatened their hold over trade in fish and furs.
Skirmishes in Ohio in which the French prevailed (involving, amongst others, one George Washington) were the prelude to worldwide war. Prussia was subsidised to pin the French down in Europe, starving it of men and resources that might otherwise have been deployed in the theatres of India, West Africa, the Caribbean or North America, while the Royal Navy guarded the British coast and harassed the French in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
But while Robert Clive prevailed in Bengal (more of him presently), Britain initially floundered elsewhere. In 1757, William Pitt was brought in to run the government, and instantly set about turning the situation around. Money and resources were thrown into the war effort, particularly in North America, where complacent and overbearing generals were replaced with pragmatists who were more disposed to take a collaborative approach with the local militia. £200,000 was given annually to Frederick the Great to keep French forces in Europe occupied. The 1758 military budget was a hitherto inconceivable £12.5m; half-borrowed and half-taxed. This bought Britain 120-130,000 regular and irregular troops, a 70,000-man Navy and, ultimately, victory. The French lost imperial footholds in India, the Caribbean, West Africa, and finally Canada in 1760.
Benjamin Franklin was overjoyed by the conquest of Canada, believing that it cleared the way for a British-American Empire of Liberty to expand westward, making itself “broad and strong enough to support the greatest political structure human wisdom ever yet erected”. So how did Franklin get from there to signing the declaration of independence in 17 years?
Parting of the Ways
Peace with France was settled with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, leaving Britain the pre-eminent world power. But at a cost. The Treasury was in debt, credit was tight due to a Dutch banking crisis, and half the army was demobilised and in need of work just as labour-intensive industry was being scaled back to pre-war levels. The economic situation was already causing political instability, as harvests failed and prices rose, so more domestic taxation was not an attractive option.
It was in this context that the management of the American colonies was reappraised and a new approach decided upon. First, the colonies must not develop a manufacturing industry that might compete with Britain’s. Economic relations must remain dependent. Secondly, to limit the costs of defending the colonies, westward expansion must halt, thus securing the goodwill of the indigenous peoples, many of whom had sided with the French during the war. Third, the colonists, who had after all benefitted from Britain’s ‘vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure’ in the war effort, would henceforth have to pay for their own defence. Through taxes.
The colonists did not take kindly at all to this. The traders resented the excise regime, while highly literate Boston, with its lively and intimate political culture, took the 1765 Stamp Act’s tax on paper as a personal affront. Rioting and general unrest ensued. The Act was repealed after fierce debate in the House of Commons, but by that stage Britain’s standing in the colonies was at an altogether new low.
The duties regime continued to grow - repeal of the Stamp Act notwithstanding – and now became increasingly militarised. The colonists reacted with import boycotts, violent unrest, and general disobedience and protest. Lord North’s incoming administration of 1770 repealed most of the objectionable duties but, fatefully, retained one, that on tea.
The international trading relationship envisaged by the founders of the East India Company (hereafter “EIC”) in 1600 had not developed according to plan. India’s own manufactured goods were quite sophisticated enough, a good deal more so that Britain’s in fact, and no inferior British imports were required. Instead, India exported its textiles to England, taking only silver in return. The dazzling ‘calicoes’ arrived in vast quantities (more on this later) causing English manufacturers to beg for protection from the competition. The company therefore switched to shipping tea, but was undercut in that market by Dutch traders. EIC stock began to collapse, with huge debts to the government piling up for unpaid customs and military protection. The solution was to eliminate tea duties in England, thus slashing the price and making the product more competitive. The duties would however remain in the colonies, as the assertion of London’s sovereign right to levy taxes in its Empire. It was a right not recognised in Boston. Once again, Americans were being taxed without the consent of their popular assemblies. It led to the “Boston Tea Party” where imported tea stocks were smashed and dumped in the harbour by a mob dressed, with notable lack of self-awareness, as native Americans, complete with blacked-up faces. But more than this, it was anger at Britain’s response to these events – the military occupation of Boston and the closing down of its port until losses were compensated – that lit the revolutionary spark.
Even during the war, demands for outright American independence were not inevitable. At least at first, the colonists sought autonomy within the empire in accordance with the patriotic myth of English-British history as a narrative of liberty unfolding. They found that the myth was just that. George III and his government rejected all demands, expecting nothing less than total surrender and obedience. It was Britain’s failure to live up to the patriotic mythology that resulted in its loss of the American colonies and with them much of the advantage gained in the Seven Years War with France.
Franklin took the view that a country’s fortunes depended on things like geography, population and social structure; a novel perspective in those times. For him, it was clear that America had far greater natural endowments than the homeland, and that London’s treating its American colonies as subjects rather than partners, and any divorce that ensued, would ultimately be its own loss. This view was, it must be said, nothing if not prescient.
Empire of Plunder
The claimed ideals of the Empire of Liberty were being betrayed on both side of the compass. The EIC was being reigned-in by a London establishment that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its violent, corrupt excesses. Edmund Burke accused the company of having pillaged a proud civilisation on the false pretext of securing free trade: “every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India”.
The EIC’s enterprise had originally been aimed at what is now Indonesia but, with its way blocked by the Dutch and Portuguese, it sought footholds in India instead, securing its first licenses to trade from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir at the port of Surat in 1608.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the company controlled Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, while at the same time, Mughal India was becoming increasingly vulnerable to external pressures. The subcontinent was run on a decentralised basis, with local ‘nawabs’ operating (and skimming off) a land tax system which sent money to the imperial court. But as Delhi was increasingly subjected to successful raids by Afghan and Persian armies, local rulers looked to build up their own independent means as insurance against the erosion of the central state’s credibility. It was at this point that the nawabs were coming to the attentions of European traders seeking advantages and ways into the Indian markets.
One of those traders was Robert Clive who, as a teenager, had made his name in his home town of Market Drayton running a protection racket as the head of the local gang. By the age of twenty-five, his adventurism as an EIC military officer had resulted in the installation of a friendly nawab in south eastern India, thwarting French attempts to do the same.
In 1757, Clive was sent north to deal with an attempt by the young nawab of Bengal to roll back European privileges. The Battle of Plassey was largely won through intrigue and bribery as the nawabs' lieutenants saw the writing on the wall and switched sides. A quarter of a million pounds was extorted from the Bengali coffers by Clive’s forces, and a personal revenue territory bestowed on Clive himself, making him one of Britain’s richest men.
But there was a bigger issue at stake here, even than the healthy state of Clive’s bank balance. In 1758, Clive told the EIC directors that “such an opportunity [as in Bengal] can never again be expected for the aggrandisement of the Company”. Britain became increasingly involved in the government of the region, installing and deposing nawabs at will, collecting and demanding immunity from taxes. A business empire was turning into a military empire, and now turning its gaze up the Ganges, into the weakening heart of Mughal India, towards Delhi.
While London fretted about the costs of defending these new acquisitions, the likes of Clive enjoyed the bounty. “[T]hey began to spend freely in Britain itself, buying country houses and sometimes, as at Sezincote in Gloucestershire, hiring architects to give them the air of an Indian palace. They began to throw their weight around in London and their money at Parliamentary seats. As the ‘nababs’, they displaced the West Indian planters as the most envied and detested plutocrats of the age”.
While they bathed in their new-found wealth, the nababs' means of enrichment was the source of misery for Bengalis. The tax regime had become so onerous that, when the monsoons failed in 1769 and 1770, the peasant farmers had neither savings nor productive capital to see them through. Famine was the result, and not for the last time in British India.
Clive’s huge personality sucked the popular understanding of events into orbit around him, thus obscuring less superficial interpretations of what had gone wrong. Schama’s next observation is directly analogous to the modern focus on the shortcomings of the George W Bush regime, as opposed to the deeper assumptions of the imperial tradition that produced his Presidency.
“Paradoxically, Clive’s personal notoriety spared the logic of his interventionist imperialism from the scepticism it deserved. For if, somehow, with the best will in the world, British government in Bengal had failed to bring about general peace and prosperity, it could only be because wicked men, selfish men, perhaps led astray by greedy opportunist natives, had abused their trust in order to line their pockets. The proper correction was not to examine the assumptions behind the proposition, but merely to find the right men and the right measures”.
Warren Hastings, the new Governor-General of Bengal, had much less autonomy than Clive. He ruled in tandem with a five man council on which he was but one voice, the other four being appointed by the crown and the company. It was Hastings that ushered in the era of the ‘White Mughals’, taking a greater interest in the native religions, cultures and languages. This was so as to effect a more sympathetic and benevolent, and thus a more effective rule. But it was also born of a degree of respect and admiration for Indian civilisation (albeit not as an equal to that of Britain).
Hastings however was recalled to London for impeachment proceedings (though subsequently acquitted). His replacement, Cornwalis, sought to run British India differently; now as a replica of the English rural hierarchy. The local Indian tax collectors were to become the local gentry: property owners extracting rents from tenant farmers and providing tax revenue to a state managed by British courts and military muscle.
But the stability on which this new order depended was hard to maintain. War with various Indian princes proved costly, though Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the greatest challenge to British rule in India at that time, was ultimately defeated. For plotting to free his domain of the British yoke, in collaboration with Bonaparte’s France, Tipu Sultan’s capital was sacked and his court looted. The armies of the new Governor-General, Wellesley, now dominated the scene. Britain prevailed over the entire subcontinent. By 1804, it ruled with an army of 192,000 – as large as many of those in Europe. Clive had only ever commanded 5,000.
All this was of course justified as defence against the aggression of others, be it France or, ludicrously, the Indians themselves. And every extension of British power, so justified, preceded a new extension, to be justified in the same way. The more Britain defended its interests, the bigger its interests became. So it was that the Empire of Liberty in the imagination of the patriots transformed itself into the empire of coercion and plunder of the historical record.