E16: The British Empire

Throughout the preceding discussion it has become clear that the construction of a network of lighthouses parallels the development of civilisation. We have therefore examined the way in which the European powers extended their influence so as to explain how lighthouses came into being in the world beyond Europe. The main players in the story are Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland, but the outright winner of the competition was Britain. The British Empire became the greatest power the world has ever seen. At its zenith, it directly governed about one quarter of the planet and indirectly influenced much more. Great Britain was responsible for the establishment of a network of lighthouses, which still exits today.

By comparison with Spain and Portugal, the British were late starters in the race. Ferguson [13] believes that this was to Britain’s advantage. She had to work harder to develop her wealth in less obvious, but potentially more beneficial regions of the world, whilst Spain simply creamed off the obvious riches of Mexico and Peru. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, British activities abroad were almost entirely centred on competition with her arch-enemy – Spain. That country had developed extensive overseas dominions that were providing great revenues in the form of gold, silver and jewels, which the British monarchy coveted. British efforts to acquire precious metal wealth, along with the desire for spices, began in the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Early in the 17th century, focus began to shift towards tea, coffee, tobacco and sugar, the last of these becoming a major import from the West Indies and leading to a huge growth in the shipment of slaves from Africa to work on the sugar plantations. The English were not averse to acts of outright piracy and theft in order to acquire wealth from the Spanish, as evidenced by the voyages of Sir Francis Drake, Richard Grenville and Henry Morgan, the success of which was determined not so much by what was discovered but by how much was deposited in the royal purse.

However, the wealth that was sought changed from the overt wealth of precious metals to the disguised wealth of traded commodities and military force was used to acquire tracts of foreign soil so as to set up trading centres. These imports changed not only the British economy but also their entire way of life. Later, textiles became extremely important. The Dutch had already begun to replace the Portuguese in the East Indies and early competition between the Dutch and the British soon turned into naked aggression, such that in 1667 a Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames towards London and attacked a number of shore bases. However, the aggression melted away once the Dutch Protestant William III (of Orange) replaced the Catholic James II on the English throne in 1688. This resulted in a general agreement whereby the Dutch were left to exploit the East Indies, whilst the British concentrated their interests in India. In the end this was a serious strategic mistake for the Dutch because the eventual establishment of India as British brought with it great wealth, not only as money raised from taxes but also in traded goods.

The conflict between Britain and Holland had been over a strictly commercial agenda, but that between Britain and France was about who ruled. The result was the Seven Years War that lasted from 1756-63, although it had been preceded by eight years of war in disguise. The war was a true world war in the 18th century involving many issues and in which many countries took part, but fundamentally affected ownership of North America and India. The outcome of the war was very much decided by naval power. William Pitt, the British Prime Minister had managed to secure sufficient funding to recruit 55,000 seamen, to increase the fleet to 105 ships, compared to the 70 French, and to create the largest industrial complex in the world in the Naval dockyards. (This, in turn, was only possible because the British had developed a financial system that allowed the government to borrow the money; the French were unable to do this and their government was unable to expand its forces in the way it might have wished.) Matters came to a head in 1759 when the French Navy was seriously defeated at Quiberon Bay and soon after when General Wolfe secured victory for the British army over the French in Quebec, thus ensuring the future ownership of Canada by Britain. By the end of the War in 1763, the British had entirely evicted the French from India giving them control over both of the main sources of argument. Although there were a number of islands in the Caribbean that were given over to French control, this was very much a token gesture and the British took control of many of the most important centres in that region too.

Ferguson [13] writes that during the two hundred years from 1615 to 1815, Britain had gone from an “economically unremarkable, politically fractious, strategically second class entity” to “one which had the greatest empire ever seen in the world, encompassing forty-three colonies on five continents”. The 18th century, spent under the influence of the Hanoverian dynasty, was very much one of subjugation and exploitation. The management and development of empire consisted of more forts and other military constructions. In contrast, the largely Victorian nineteenth century was one in which the empire was to receive a far more caring, motherly approach. This new desire, no longer just to exploit the natives but to genuinely improve their lives, would inspire the development of civilisation (in the British style, of course). It resulted in the construction of infrastructure, public buildings and parks – acts that were at least positive if they were not quite altruistic. It also eventually became a force in which the past policy of slavery was reversed. Enslaved people were given their freedom such that the British nation, which had previously been one of the leading exporters of slaves from Africa, was in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. This progress of civilisation in the positive sense parallels the drive to build lighthouses - just one indicator of the extent to which the culture had matured.