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The Growth Of The British Empire

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Published: Tue, 02 May 2017

The slave trade was highly significant because of its large role in the transatlantic enterprise which eventually made the British gain superiority over her rivals, the Dutch and French. It was a trade which was especially successful since every stage of the journey could be profitable for merchants. This particular trade was also referred to as the Triangular trade because it consisted of three legs. The first part of the triangular trade (also referred to as the ‘Outward passage’) was a voyage from Europe specifically Bristol, London and Liverpool to African traders on the West Coast where manufactured goods such as cloth, spirit, tobacco, beads, metal goods, musket (a gun which was traded for slaves as there was a high demand for them by African kings and chiefs), bead bracelets pots and manilas were exchanged for slaves. The guns were highly desired goods from the Africans as they helped to capture more slaves. The second stage of the voyage, also known as the ‘Middle Passage’ was where the captured slaves were shipped to the American colonies in order to work on plantations to produce goods such as tobacco, sugar, rum and cotton. It is uncertain how many slaves were sold into slavery, but an approximate estimate of the number of African slaves carried in British ships between 1662 and 1807 is about 3.4 million. On the final stage (also referred to as the ‘Return passage’) all these good grown by the plantations in the Americas were shipped to Europe, ready to sell in local businesses. A historian James Walvin has written that ”Black slavery lay at the heart of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic empire. It dictated the pace and direction of the flow of people and goods along those complex trading routes which were, at once, the lifeblood of empire and the sustenance of expanding metropolitan business trade and taste” [1] The Triangular Trade helped the growth of the British Empire by providing large amount of profits for the British therefore allowing them to invest in the enlargement of ships to be able to carry more slaves from continent to continent to work on plantations which lead to more goods being grown. This satisfied the needs of plantation owners because the British had high demand for sugar and tobacco and providing large amounts of slaves lead to satisfied consumers.

Contributing to the growth of the British Empire through the help of the slave trade was the sugar trade. At the heart of the link between slaves and trade lay the British consumption of sugar. In 1700 the British imported 23,000 tons of sugar this had risen to 245,000 tons in a century’s time. Drinking tea was a habit the British had obtained by the late 17th century by the 1720’s the British had imported 9 million tons of tea and by the 1740’s this figure reached above 20 million pounds of tea. Tea had become part of the British lifestyle, to the point where there was a actually period in the day dedicated to drinking tea. Inevitable as sugar increased the appeal of the taste of tea for the British this boosted the sugar trade and equally increased the demand for sugar. This can also be connected to the sudden demand for Chinese porcelain, the porcelain was used to accessorise the tea, for example little plates were used to balance/place the tea cups on to, therefore the tea market indirectly lead to the increase in other product sales too. In the beginning when Chinese porcelain had just been discovered by the British it was highly expensive and people of the lower classes could not afford it, however as the demand accumulated the prices of the porcelain declined, this was because when a product is ‘rare’ it is not easily obtained therefore has a higher price whereas when the product is easily obtained the price is lower as they have easier access to it. Tobacco much like tea had grown upon the English and had created yet another habit, people had grown fond of smoking a pipe whilst drinking tea, this is proven when looking at the amount of tobacco exported to England in the 1620’s which was 65,000lbs this accumulated within 50 years to create 220 million pounds of tobacco. In many ways sugar allowed the Empire to grow, one of these ways were that sugar could only be grown in warm and wet climates, the only reasonable place to grow such crops was in the British colony Barbados, due to this exclusive advantage the British had full control over the production and sold the products at highly profitable figures. Sugar also created the demand for slaves as there were more slaves needed to grow the products that indirectly generated from sugar consumption (e.g. tea, tobacco). The historian Thomas Bender suggests that sugar was in fact a major factor in the expansion of the Empire, when he says ”the British aggressively expanded their sugar empire, establishing or capturing more colonies and importing more slaves than their rivals. Within a century (of 1627) they dominated the Atlantic sugar market. Neither slavery nor sugar production was a novelty, but the seaborne interrelationship of land, labour, and markets on three continents constituted a new systematic pattern of relentless expansion” [2] 

One other factor contributing to the growth of the British Empire due to the slave trade was in the large amount of settlements owned by the British in various countries. During the 17th century the English settlements within North America and the Caribbean had drastically increased. Most countries that the English settled in were ones which had the suitable characteristics to grow sugar and tobacco along with other highly demanded goods. This meant that Britain’s New World relied heavily on the slave trade for their economic development, there was a strong economical link between the slave trade and the growth of crops, as the cultivation for staples such as tobacco, rice and indigo expanded so did the demand for slaves. Some of these colonies were ”The Caribbean colonies, St Kitts-1624, Barbados-1627, Nevis-1628, Montserrat-1632, Aintigua-1632 the British are the first to acquire valuable footholds in this region” [3] The British economy grew from the colonies producing high amounts of goods.

On the other hand slavery was not the only significant factor in the growth of the British Empire, the Government played a vital role too. The Navigation Acts (NA) of 1645 and 1761 were one of the aspects within the government that helped increase Britain’s dominance in the trading world, the acts stated that all goods from colonies had to be taken to Britain or a British port, this allowed the British to tax more crews hence the increase in profits and income for the Empire. The Navigation Acts based it’s ideology on Mercantilism this refers to the use of trade to build up a wealthy and powerful state. It views trade as limited so that if one country gained another had to lose. Wealth was defined exclusively in terms of gold and silver, how much a country had showed how wealthy it was. Draining another country who was a potential enemy in war of its gold and silver was thought to be almost as good as increasing your own wealth. To begin with the NA allowed the British Navy to boost in power, this was due to the fact that the majority of crews on ships were British (75% to be precise). This inevitably increased the amount of skilled workers which as I said contributed to the Navy’s success and overall power. Not only did the Navigation Acts boost the Navy’s power it immediately boosted trade and shipping between Britain and colonies as British companies had exclusive trading rights. The amount of ships being taxed helped increase profit/income for the British government. The man contribution the Acts portrayed was of course the exclusion of the Dutch from trade between Britain and the colonies, this made Britain the current most powerful sea power, The Dutch had always been the dominant sea power and quite frankly without the Acts they would have still been the best in trading.

The second aspect of the government was The English Navy 1649 – 1815. ”The British decided to expand the navy fleet increasing the number of ships from 100 to 131 in 1714 after the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 14). The number of cruisers increased from only eight in 1689 to sixty-six in 1714, the total increase in ships required the building of 159 new ships of the line and 113 new cruisers between 1691 and 1715.”4 Although the Navy was very expensive to maintain the Bank of England and the creation of the national debt helped to provide the necessary amount of money needed to keep Britain as the main dominant power. The national debt was set up by the Bank of England where ordinary people could invest money into the Bank and promised to be repaid with interest, this was a form of steady income for the Navy and allowed the Navy to be stronger which helped to protect trade. With the help of the Navy, the British successfully defeated the French in the War of the Spanish Succession forcing them to have a continental war which made France highly vulnerable to attack. The war leaded to the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 giving Britain Minorca, Gibraltar and certain amounts of territory in Canada and the Caribbean. The English Navy also played a vital role in the success of the Seven Year’s War as very few ships sunk and large amount (1165+) of French ships were taken as prizes. ”The Royal also helping General James Wolfe move into the St. Lawrence with twenty-two English Ships of the line and five frigates on his way to defeating the French forces on September 13, 1759.”5

Last but not least the Seven Years’ War impacted on the wealth and growth of the British Empire dramatically, it is lasted from 1756-63 and involved all the major European powers of the period and caused nearly 1.4 million deaths. The war originally began with a dispute between the French and the Indians which took place in North America from 1754. Britain was mainly concerned with the American Colonies, India and the West Indies, which were coming under threat from France. The British experienced many successes during these seven years, the first success was achieved in 1757 where the East India Company was given the Diwani (the right to collect land taxes from the population of Bengal) this made the British the first Europeans to control parts of India. The following year, 1758, Fort Louisburg in Nova Scotia is captured by the British forces whilst a large number of French posts were captured along the Great Lakes too. 1759 was referred to as the best year in the duration of the seven years’ war, in this year the French controlled, sugar-producing Caribbean island of Guadeloupe was captured by the British along with the capture of Montreal and Quebec (Canada), in Asia the French were defeated by the East India Company at Masulipatam and in Africa the French factories in Goree (Senegal) were captured too. By 1761 all French forces were removed from India, giving the British high amounts of power over these areas. In 1763, the final year of the war, the treaty of Paris gained Britain all of the following; Canada, Nova Scotia and Florida. All these captured areas boosted the growth of the British Empire as they were areas that could be used to grow crops for trading which inevitably contributes to the boost of Britain’s economy. The war had made Britain the greatest imperial power in Europe.

In conclusion, all factors were significant in the success of the British Empire as there were many symbiotic relationships in contribution to the Empire’s growth, for example without the government supplying the money for the Navy through the National Debt, the Navy would not have been able to protect the colonies from attack by rival powers (such as the French) which would’ve decreased the amount of goods created by the plantations hence ruining Britain’s economy. Without the government funding the wars, the wars would’ve failed leaving Britain with minimal amounts of territory. However the slave trade was probably the factor that obtained the highest significance, if it had not been put into place the goods that had become highly demanded by the British wouldn’t have been able to be supplied (sugar, tobacco etc) also, all settlements/colonies would have failed to provide enough income to sustain a lifestyle which would have led to these people living on plantations to die, further leading to the Navy having nothing to protect and Britain once again having minimal amounts of territory.

5 http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=english_navy_1649-1815


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