The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James Read Free Book Online

Book: The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James Read Free Book Online
Authors: Lawrence James
re-export of these commodities made up 30 per cent of Britain’s foreign trade. Cloth’s share of the export market had fallen dramatically from 90 per cent in 1640 to 47 per cent at the end of the century and continued to decline. At the same time new markets were emerging. Between 1630 and 1700 half a million men and women had emigrated to the colonies, two thirds of them to North America, and all were dependent on home-manufactured goods; during the 1650s 20,000 pairs of boots and shoes and 1,500 horses were imported into Barbados.
    The early stages of this economic revolution coincided with a period of domestic political instability which culminated in the outbreak of the Civil War between Charles I and parliament in 1642. The principle source of contention was control over the making of policy, particularly in matters concerning religion and taxation. The waves stirred by the war in Britain sent ripples across the Atlantic. From 1640 onwards, many New England Puritans returned home to fight for parliament and in Virginia, its governor Sir William Berkeley, a former courtier and playwright, welcomed royalist refugees after the collapse of their cause in 1649. The new, republican Commonwealth disapproved and removed him from his post, allowing him to retire to his plantations, from where he emerged to recover his position on Charles II’s restoration in 1660.
    The establishment of Commonwealth in 1649 may be reckoned as marking a major turning point in the history of the empire. The next eleven years witnessed continuous and dynamic government activity to preserve and enlarge Britain’s overseas possessions and their trade. There was legislation to assert the total dominance of Britain over all aspects of colonial commerce; an ambitious programme of naval rearmament; a challenge to Dutch seapower; and a partially successful offensive against Spain in the Caribbean.
    One thing was clear to the ministers and civil servants who framed these policies: Britain’s colonies and the new transatlantic commerce they were generating were a vital national asset to be coveted, protected and extended, if necessary by aggression. At every turn, the government was influenced by the prevailing economic dogma, mercantilism. This assumed that a limit existed to global trade and measured a nation’s wealth in terms of its self-sufficiency. Autarky, especially in raw materials, was also an indicator of a country’s international status since it released it from dependence on other powers and allowed it to accumulate a surplus of treasure. For this among other reasons James I and Charles I had been willing to charter colonies which, their promoters hoped, would provide alternative sources for commodities previously imported from Europe. They were largely mistaken, but, unexpectedly the American and Caribbean settlements offered products for which there appeared a growing but finite continental market. If trends already detectable during the 1640s continued, Britain would soon become the focus of a transatlantic commerce based upon tobacco, sugar, fish and the new traffic in slaves.
    The future of this commerce was by no means assured. Britain’s position in North America was vulnerable: the French had already begun to penetrate the St Lawrence basin, and further south the Dutch had a toehold in what is now New York. The Dutch also posed another threat for, temporarily disengaged from European conflicts after 1648, they were free to increase their already vast merchant fleet and become the world’s main sea carriers.
    In broad terms the government aimed to tighten commercial links with the colonies, which were compelled to conduct all their seaborne trade through Britain and in British-owned ships. This was the objective of the Navigation Acts of 1649 and 1660, the Staple Act of 1663 and the Plantation Act of 1673. Non-British carriers were banned from conveying goods of any kind between Britain and its colonies or between individual

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