By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain how the Seven Years’ War established a new balance of power in Europe
- Discuss the causes and effects of Britain’s colonization of India
- Analyze the ways in which the Qing dynasty developed and maintained a favorable balance of trade with Europe
- Describe how colonized societies responded to the expansion of European empires
In the mid-1700s, the British Empire grew from a minor player on the world stage to a dominant superpower. Trade that flowed through and from the British North American colonies made many British business and political leaders rich. Victory in the Seven Years’ War consolidated their power over European rivals. In hopes of further increasing their political and economic power, many supported further expansion of the empire into new areas. Britain therefore expanded its colonies in India and turned its eyes to China.
The Seven Years’ War
The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) was a global conflict that began as a fight for dominance between European powers, primarily Great Britain and France, but it quickly involved groups from India, Africa, and the Americas (Figure 6.10). Conflicts that overlapped with the Seven Years’ War were the French and Indian War in North America and the Third Carnatic War in India.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, New France grew steadily. In 1663, King Louis XIV canceled the royal charter with the Company of New France and transformed the settlement into a royal colony. French merchants and priests gradually expanded their reach from Quebec through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River, founding New Orleans near the Gulf of Mexico in 1718.
The English proved a serious obstacle for the growth of New France, however. Wealthy farmers in the English colonies of North America wanted to expand into the Ohio River Valley, territory claimed by France and its Native American allies. In 1754, violence broke out between French soldiers and members of the Virginia militia near what is now Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Initially the French and their Native American allies performed well, launching skillful ambushes on English troops and forcing George Washington, a young officer in the Virginia colonial militia, to surrender Britain’s Fort Necessity.
George Washington on the French and Indian War
George Washington wrote to his mother on July 18, 1755, when he was twenty-three years old and fighting in the French and Indian War. His letter, excerpted here, describes the battle near Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. British soldiers and members of the Virginia militia met a surprise attack by French and Indian fighters and were defeated.
HONORED MADAM: As I doubt not but you have heard of our defeat, and perhaps have had it represented in a worse light (if possible) than it deserves; I have taken this earliest opportunity to give you some account of the engagement, as it happened within 7 miles of the French fort, on Wednesday the 9th instant.
We marched onto that place, without any considerable loss, having only now and then a straggler picked up by the French scouting Indians. When we came there, we were attacked by a body of French and Indians, whose number (I am persuaded) did not exceed three hundred men; ours consisted of about 1300 well-armed troops, chiefly regular soldiers, who were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive. The officers behaved gallantly, in order to encourage their men, for which they suffered greatly; there being near sixty killed and wounded; a large proportion of the number we had. The Virginia troops showed a good deal of bravery, and were near all killed; for I believe, out of three companies that were there, there is scarce thirty men left alive. . . . In short, the dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others that were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death; and, at last, in despite of all the efforts of the officers to the contrary, they broke, and run as sheep pursued by dogs; and it was impossible to rally them. . . .
I luckily escaped without a wound, though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me. Captains Orme and Morris . . . were wounded early . . . I was the only person then left to distribute the General’s orders, which I was scarcely able to do, as I was not half recovered from a violent illness that had confined me to my bed, and a wagon, for above ten days. I am still in a weak and feeble condition, which induces me to halt here two or three days in hopes of recovering a little strength, to enable me to proceed homewards; . . .
I am, honored Madam, your most dutiful son.
—George Washington, Letter to Mary Ball Washington, July 18, 1755
- Why does Washington want to explain to his mother what happened during the battle?
- What is Washington’s opinion of the regular British soldiers, British officers, and Virginia militia in the battle?
- What obstacles did Washington face during the battle?
However, the early success of the French in forcing the British to retreat did not last. In 1758, the Shawnee tribe, the Delaware tribe, and the powerful Iroquoian Confederacy agreed to ally with the English in exchange for their promise to respect Indigenous rights to contested lands on the frontier. The Iroquois Confederacy was a collection of allied Native American tribes who called themselves Haudenosaunee, which means “people of the longhouse.” The name referred both to the rectangular homes in which they lived and their geographic territory, which extended from what is now Vermont in the east all the way to Lake Erie in the west, an area roughly the shape of a longhouse. The Iroquoian tribes had formed a military and economic alliance by 1600 that consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. The Tuscarora tribe joined the confederacy in 1722. Other, non-Iroquoian Native Americans, including several Algonquin tribes, remained loyal to the French until the end of the war in 1763. With Native American help, the English launched successful offensives against New France. The British turned in the tide in 1759, with a series of victories culminating in their capture of French Quebec after the Battle on the Plains of Abraham (Figure 6.11).
The French and Indian War ended with the victory of Great Britain and Prussia over France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. Under the treaty, the French government surrendered all its territory in North America, as well as outposts in the Caribbean, India, and Africa. Britain became the undisputed controller of eastern North America, from Canada in the north to the Florida border in the south, and from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Mississippi River in the west.
The Seven Years’ War had begun in Europe in 1756 when Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded Saxony and annexed the area as part of his broader plan to expand Prussian territory. In response, France, Spain, and Russia joined forces with Austria to oppose him. Great Britain allied itself with Prussia to maintain the balance of power in Europe, a situation in which competing nations have approximately equal military power. Maintaining this balance was a key feature of British foreign policy meant to prevent the domination of Europe by any one nation. Military alliances thus transformed what could have been a small border dispute in Europe into a major war that quickly spread around the world (Figure 6.12).
In 1758, a British expeditionary force captured the French outpost of Senegal in West Africa, and other French outposts were taken during a series of subsequent offensives. The loss of valuable trading ports damaged the French economy at the very moment France desperately needed money to fund the war effort. More importantly, it deprived French military forces of strategic bases they could have used to raid British shipping and resupply their warships.
In Asia, the British East India Company, a joint stock company founded in 1600 with the original goal of trading in the Indian Ocean, was by now providing the British with a much stronger economic as well as military and diplomatic foundation than their French rivals had. To thwart these British advantages and gain control of valuable territory in India, the French formed an alliance with the Mughal Empire. At its height, this powerful Muslim realm had once ruled more than 150 million people living across 1.5 million square miles in what is now Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh. The British defeated the French forces in 1761, however, when they captured Pondicherry, the most important French outpost in India. The Mughals continued to resist British domination even after the French had largely withdrawn from India.
In 1762, the British launched attacks on Spanish colonies in Asia and the Caribbean, capturing the port of Manila in the Philippines and occupying it until the end of the war in 1763. They were less successful in expanding their control over the islands, despite the assistance of Indigenous Filipinos who disliked Spanish rule. In the Caribbean, however, Britain succeeded in capturing Havana, Cuba, one of the most important ports in the Western Hemisphere, and held it until the end of the conflict.
Furthermore, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the French surrendered their imperial possessions in North America and India to the British, while the Spanish surrendered Florida to the British and France gave control of the Louisiana Territory to Spain. The subsequent Peace of Hubertusburg guaranteed Prussian control of Silesia, an area in central Europe, and confirmed Prussia’s status as a major force in Europe. The British, for their part, emerged from the Seven Years’ War as the world’s leading economic, military, and political power.
British Influence in India
After their victory in the Seven Years’ War, the British focused on expanding their control in India. In 1757, the forces of the British East India Company led by Robert Clive defeated the ruler of Bengal, a region in northeast India, who had favored the French. The British East India Company’s victory left it in control of territory larger than the island of Britain itself. Four years later, the capture of Pondicherry by the British effectively removed the French from contention in the competition to dominate Indian trade. After 1761, the Indigenous peoples of India provided the only significant source of resistance.
In 1764, British and Indian forces under the command of the British East India Company defeated a much larger army led by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II at Buxar. After Buxar, the Mughals retained control of territory in northern and western India but effectively surrendered governance of much of southern and eastern India to the British East India Company. This included awarding the British East India Company the right to collect taxes in Bengal in 1765. The immense wealth gained from tax collection enabled the Company to further dominate India. Forces under the leadership of the Company defeated the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India by 1799 and the central Indian Maratha Empire by 1818 (Figure 6.13).
Britain and the British East India Company both benefited economically from their colonial control of India. When investors founded the company in 1600, they initially focused on trading in spices. As spices decreased in price and profit, however, the Company turned its attention to textiles produced by highly skilled Indian artisans. Finally, when the value of hand-woven fabric began decreasing in the early nineteenth century, the company pivoted to trading Indian-produced opium for Chinese-grown tea, which became an increasingly valuable consumer good in the late eighteenth century.
The British East India Company typically engaged in indirect rule, a system in which colonial powers cooperated with Indigenous elites and allowed local leaders to exercise some authority. In exchange for British support of their power, Indian elites upheld the company’s foreign and economic policies. Most importantly, they ensured a steady flow of taxes and soldiers from the Indigenous people to the British East India Company. Indian soldiers, called sepoys, who were often led by British officers, defended British territory in India and enforced British laws (Figure 6.14).
The system of indirect rule often worked within existing power structures, providing British support for elites that had already long ruled India. However, in areas where Indigenous rulers opposed colonization, the British disrupted traditional practices, removed elites who refused to cooperate, and administered those areas directly. British rule led to conflicts within Indian society, with many Indigenous communities divided between people who wanted to cooperate with the British and those who supported a series of rebellions against foreign domination. Indians who opposed the British were further divided between those who supported violent resistance and those who believed peaceful resistance was more promising.
In 1813, as a result of pressure exerted by religious interests on the British Parliament, the British East India Company allowed missionaries limited access to India. This was a reversal of the Company’s longstanding policy of banning Christian missionaries for fear their activities would lead to unrest that would disrupt trade. The new policy pleased nobody and led to an unlikely alliance among British Christians and Indian Muslims and Hindus, who agreed on very little other than that the British East India Company should not rule India. British Christians opposed the East India Company’s rule because of its stance on missionary activity. Indian Muslims and Hindus opposed the Company’s rule because they wished to govern themselves.
China’s Dominance in Trade
China had long been a major world power and became even stronger with the rise of the Qing (1644–1912), the last imperial dynasty. After defeating their Ming predecessors and consolidating their power, Qing rulers turned to rebuilding the Chinese economy. With a stable frontier, they were able to reduce military spending and lower tax burdens, which freed money for people to invest in businesses and for the wealthier classes to purchase luxuries. The Qing seized land from wealthy families that supported their political rivals and distributed it to other families that set up small farms. To help these new farms, the government gave the owners draft animals, tools, and seeds. Most farmers focused on growing rice in the river valleys, but the introduction of potatoes from the Americas allowed them to grow food on hilly ground that had never been widely cultivated before. Some began growing tobacco, which also came from the Americas and became a key cash crop for Chinese farmers.
To facilitate economic development, the Qing upgraded China’s infrastructure, including rebuilding roads and improving the Grand Canal. Begun in the fifth century BCE and still in use today, this waterway stretches 1,100 miles from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. It is the world’s longest canal and connects several important waterways, including the Huang (Yellow), Huai, and Yangtze Rivers (Figure 6.15). In the Qing era, the Grand Canal transported luxuries, but most importantly it brought food from the rich agricultural river valleys of the south to the large cities of northern China such as Beijing, which became major centers of commerce and manufacturing during this time.
The Qing dynasty’s leaders also focused on increasing China’s international trade. They signed new treaties with foreign nations, including the Treaty of Kyakhta (1727) with Russia, which opened China to new European markets. They also improved trading relationships with Japan, the nations of Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. The Qing government lifted most prohibitions on trade with the western nations. Under the Canton system, in place from 1759 to 1842, western Europeans were permitted to trade with China if they agreed to work through the Chinese guilds that enjoyed monopoly rights to the tea and silk trades. Under this system, all trade was confined to the southern Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou) in order to limit contact with Europeans and foreign influence on China. Only members of the merchant guild authorized to transact business with Westerners were allowed to have contact with Europeans. All Europeans trading in China were subject to Chinese law, and they were required to live and do business in a small area outside the city walls. Europeans were not allowed to bring firearms or warships into the port, and European women were also prohibited from settling in Canton, which prevented a permanent European community from taking root there.
The Canton system successfully increased China’s trade with Europe and improved the Chinese economy. By 1833, the Chinese were exporting twenty-eight times more tea and welcoming thirteen times more foreign ships than before. Tea was the most important export, but China also exported large quantities of silk and porcelain. It rejected most European trade goods and insisted on payment for its exports in silver. Desperate for Chinese goods, Europeans complied, and several million dollars’ worth of silver flowed into China each year. As a result, China enjoyed a very favorable balance of trade with Europe. This encouraged European nations to find a way to chip away at China’s trade advantages.
Colonial Resistance and Revolution
The colonies’ role as generators of wealth for their home nations led to the exploitation of both their original inhabitants and their natural resources. As European states sought to expand their colonial dominions in order to play a greater role in the global economy, they encountered resistance from the people whose lands and labor they sought to use. Some of the earliest resistance took place in the Americas.
Resistance in the Americas
The Indigenous people of New Spain were the first to fight back. The first instance of resistance took place in 1493 with the destruction of Columbus’s early colony, called La Navidad, by the Indigenous inhabitants of Hispaniola. When Columbus returned to Hispaniola on his second voyage he discovered that all thirty-nine of the men he had left behind had been killed. Some acts of resistance nearly put an end to Spanish settlement in parts of North America. In 1680, a Tewa Pueblo religious leader named Popé (Po’pay) led his tribe along with other Pueblo people and the Apache tribe in an uprising against Spanish religious, economic, and cultural abuses in New Mexico. Four hundred Spanish died, and the rest fled the region. Twelve years passed before the Spanish returned to the region in significant numbers. The Pueblo Revolt ultimately failed to provide Native Americans with permanent independence, but it did shape Spain’s colonial policies in the region. Although Spain regained control of the region in 1692, it subsequently granted land to the Pueblos and appointed officials to represent the tribes’ rights in Spanish courts. The Pueblos adopted some elements of Spanish culture, including some Christian practices, but Spanish priests did not attempt to destroy the Pueblos’ traditional religion as they had before. The Pueblo tribes were thus able to retain much of their way of life, preserving unique cultures that remain today.
North American tribes in areas claimed by the English also were threatened with the loss of their way of life, especially in the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Virginia and Maryland where tobacco constituted the main cash crop. Tobacco cultivation quickly drained the soil of nutrients, leading English settlers to push further westward in search of land for new fields. Even where colonists did not grow cash crops, the demand for farmland placed pressure on Indigenous communities.
Colonists attempted to enslave Native Americans and use their labor to grow tobacco. Sometimes the English captured Indigenous people in attacks on their villages, and sometimes Native American tribes sold war captives to them. Before the arrival of Europeans, Native American tribes had often integrated captives from other groups into their own. Now these people might be sold to the English as enslaved laborers. Although the enslavement of Native Americans was most common in English colonies in the south, it occurred in northern colonies as well.
The English found themselves in frequent conflict with Native American tribes. Between 1609 and 1646, Virginia colonists fought a series of wars with the Powhatan Confederacy, an alliance of tribes that spoke languages of the Algonquin family. In New England, longstanding complaints by Indigenous people about English usurpation of land, dishonest traders who cheated them, attempts to convert them to Christianity, and English officials’ refusal to allow them to punish Europeans who had wronged them led to the outbreak of King Philip’s War.
United in the summer of 1675 by the Wampanoag leader Metacomet, called King Philip by the English, Native American tribes throughout New England attacked English settlements, destroying several and threatening to expel the English from their lands entirely. The English led a counterattack with the help of Native Americans who had converted to Christianity and killed Metacomet’s followers. The conflict ended in 1676 when Metacomet too was killed (Figure 6.16).
English colonial leaders displayed Metacomet’s severed head in Plymouth as a grisly trophy of their success. To prevent future attacks, captured Wampanoags and others who had allied themselves with Metacomet were enslaved and sent to labor on English sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Between 1715 and 1717, provoked by many of the same issues that had led to conflict in New England, the Yamasee, a confederation of Native American tribes in the Carolinas, also waged war on British colonists. Like Metacomet’s followers, the Yamasee were killed or enslaved. The survivors fled the region or joined other tribes.
Resistance in Africa
Africa was also subject to European incursions, beginning with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century, other Europeans began to arrive. The coastal areas were most likely to be targeted and were particularly vulnerable to imperialist invaders because they were more accessible to advanced warships.
As Native Americans had done, Africans resisted European encroachments on their lands and efforts to deprive them of their sovereignty. In the early 1500s, Europeans began enslaving Africans in large numbers as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. European slave traders, like the Arab slave traders before them, typically worked within Africa’s existing power structures and purchased enslaved people from rival groups of Africans, in a process that disrupted but did not initially challenge Africans’ control of the interior. Many Africans, particularly in the interior, actively resisted foreign influence.
One of the longest acts of resistance was led by Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. Nzinga inherited the position of ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo, in what is now Angola, in 1624 following the death of her brother. She had served as emissary from her brother to the Portuguese and helped end the hostilities between them and her brother’s military forces. In 1621, she negotiated an agreement whereby the Portuguese were allowed to engage in the slave trade within Ndongo territory but not to establish forts there. Nzinga was also adamant that Ndongo would not pay tribute to the Portuguese king. To assure the Portuguese that she negotiated in good faith, she agreed to convert to Roman Catholicism and had the Portuguese governor’s wife serve as her godmother.
Following Nzinga’s ascension to the throne, however, Portugal began to renege on the terms of the treaty and to insist that the nobles of Ndongo become vassals of the king of Portugal. This would mean sending the Portuguese king the soldiers, enslaved people, and supplies they otherwise owed to Nzinga. In retaliation, Nzinga encouraged enslaved people to escape from the Portuguese. In 1626, Portugal declared war on her.
The common people of Ndongo and some of the lesser members of the nobility supported Nzinga, while more powerful nobles, who hoped to benefit from engaging in the slave trade with Portugal, supported the Europeans. Nzinga found allies in the kingdom of Kongo. She was also assisted by Dutch slave traders, with whom she did business. Following the conclusion of a peace treaty between the Dutch and the Portuguese, Nzinga found herself unable to force the Portuguese out of Ndongo territory and dedicated her efforts to preventing them from moving deeper into the African interior. Finally, in 1656, Nzinga concluded a peace treaty with Portugal and hostilities ceased.
Other African tribes resisted the incursions of the Dutch. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope and traded with the Indigenous people of the region, the Khoikhoi, who were hunters and cattle herders. Although the Company prohibited the enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of the Cape in order to maintain their willingness to participate in the cattle trade, conflict arose between the settlers and the Khoisan (the name by which the Khoikhoi and another people, the San, are jointly known). Dutch farmers took over Indigenous hunting and grazing lands to grow crops and herd their own cattle. The Khoisan responded by burning Dutch farms and stealing their cattle. The Dutch then retaliated by attacking Khoisan settlements. This conflict continued throughout the eighteenth century.
As the Khoisan lost control of their lands to the Dutch, who increasingly expanded inland from the Cape, many found themselves becoming laborers on Dutch farmsteads, either because they could not support themselves after losing their land and cattle or because they were captured by settlers during Dutch raids. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Dutch instituted a system of forcing Khoisan children to serve “apprenticeships” until age twenty-five. Although technically the Khoisan were not enslaved, they had been reduced to a situation very much like slavery. The Dutch also employed enslaved laborers brought from elsewhere in Africa.
The movement of the Dutch inland brought them into conflict with the Xhosa people, who were farmers. Although the Dutch possessed more firepower, the Xhosa greatly outnumbered them. The Dutch fought two wars with the Xhosa and, from 1799 to 1803, also faced an armed uprising by Khoisan farm laborers, some of whom allied themselves with the Xhosa.
As other European empires grew more powerful in the early nineteenth century, they also began to expand beyond their coastal trading posts in Africa as the Dutch had done and became more active in events on the continent (Figure 6.17). In 1806, the British supported the Fante Confederacy, their African trading partner on what is now the coast of Ghana, in a series of conflicts with the Asante Empire and its Dutch allies. These conflicts culminated in the Anglo-Asante Wars of 1823–1900. The Asante, who hoped to replace Britain as the most powerful nation on the western coast, resisted the British slave trade and Britain’s broader pattern of economic imperialism, the practice of dominating a foreign country economically. They succeeded for many years and repeatedly forced the British to retreat to their coastal strongholds. Despite the Asante’s initial successes, however, the British and their allies eventually proved more powerful and claimed victory in 1900. The British controlled much of the African west coast until the Indigenous people in the region used a combination of nonviolent resistance and political pressure to win independence for the nation now known as Ghana in 1957.
Resistance in Asia
Resistance to European colonialism took place in India as well. The Indian Mutiny of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Rebellion, was an attempt to overthrow British rule. The British East India Company’s preference for indirect rule had changed as its successes in India convinced British leaders they were capable of governing it directly. As Indian elites saw their power slipping away, they became more interested in opposing British rule. Waves of European missionaries who sought to convert Indians to Christianity had also offended many who wanted to preserve their own traditions.
The activities of Christian missionaries were only one cause of Indian resentment. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India from 1848 to 1856, had devised a means of gaining direct control for the British over formerly independent Indian states. It was Hindu custom for a ruler who did not have a natural heir to adopt one and to pass his kingdom to him upon his death. Dalhousie, however, introduced the doctrine of the lapse, which gave Britain the right to approve any such adoptions and to annex states without heirs. Under this policy, adoptions were rejected and states annexed beginning in 1848. Even though the practice affected primarily states with Hindu rulers, British usurpation alarmed all members of India’s aristocracy.
Britain’s confidence in the superiority of its own culture also led it to attempt changes in customary Hindu practices in ways that angered many Indians. The British attempted to end the Hindu practice of sati (suttee), in which Hindu widows were expected to burn themselves alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and passed a law allowing these widows to remarry. The British also introduced Western schooling with English as the language of instruction, not Persian, the language favored by the Mughals and the language of literature and scholarship in many Islamic empires. The young men who attended these schools were preferred by the British for positions in business and government. Because British schools were more prevalent in Hindu-majority areas, Hindus threatened to supplant Muslims in positions of authority that Muslims had held for centuries.
Long-simmering anger against the British turned into violence in response to the introduction of the Enfield Rifle, which used lubricated cartridges that soldiers had to bite open before loading. The lubricant had been beef or pork fat, but pork is taboo for Muslims and Hindus believe cows are sacred. The British attempted to correct the problem by using another lubricant, but Indian troops remained suspicious and some began to believe the British were intentionally using lubricants made of offensive materials to emasculate the sepoys. In March 1857, a sepoy named Mangal Pandey, a devout Hindu from the high-ranking Brahmin caste, attacked two British officers. The British executed him, and India erupted into a mass revolt.
The rebelling Indians outnumbered the British during the mutiny, but the British were unified while the Indians were unable to work together across religious, ethnic, and geographic divisions. After a series of fierce battles and war crimes by both sides, the British declared victory on July 8, 1859. They celebrated with mass executions of rebel leaders, a move some British officers criticized. The Indian Mutiny convinced the British government that the owners of the British East India Company were unable to effectively govern India. The government thus abolished the company, took control of British India in 1858, and directly ruled the territory until it became independent in 1947. The period from 1858 to 1947 is therefore known as the British Raj (raj means “rule” in Sanskrit), or the British Paramountcy, which meant rule of India by the British government through the Viceroy of India.
Growing economic relationships also led to conflict when the British tried to end China’s positive balance of trade by importing opium into China from their territories in India. The Chinese had used chewed opium as a medicine and mild recreational drug for thousands of years, but in the early nineteenth century, users began smoking dried opium, a practice inspired by the smoking of tobacco imported from the Americas. Smoking opium led to a far more intense high than chewing it, and opium addiction became a serious problem in China. The Chinese government outlawed recreational opium in 1729, but the British traders refused to stop selling it, and the price skyrocketed. Merchants from other nations including France and the United States also began selling opium in China, but the British dominated the trade from their bases in India.
In 1839, the Chinese government seized opium in British warehouses in Canton. In response, the British sent military forces to China with orders to impose penalties on the Chinese government and protect British merchants in a conflict later named the First Opium War. The British used their superior military technology and organization to defeat the outdated Chinese military in almost every engagement. They could not hope to conquer the huge nation, but they made repeated raids against which the Chinese were unable to defend themselves. In 1842, Great Britain and China signed the Treaty of Nanjing, which forced China to surrender Hong Kong to Great Britain, opened five ports to European traders, and gave the British a favorable trading status. The Chinese were also forced to pay a huge fine. The following year, a second treaty allowed British citizens in China to be tried in British courts for violations of the law, making them immune from prosecution by Chinese authorities.
After a brief period of relative peace, the Second Opium War broke out in 1856 after Chinese soldiers seized a British ship in Chinese waters, crewed by Chinese sailors suspected of piracy. The British demanded the immediate return of the ship and crew and an apology. The Qing government refused, and the British navy bombarded the Chinese coast. The French supported the British in hopes of gaining greater access to Chinese markets. The United States and Russia did not formally join the alliance, but they did provide limited support for British and French combat operations. The Second Opium War, like the First, was marked by European raids on the Chinese coast that damaged and humiliated China but did not threaten its existence.
The war ended in 1860 with the Convention of Beijing, which ceded select Chinese territories to Russia, expanded the borders of British-controlled Hong Kong, prevented religious discrimination against Christians, and eliminated almost all restrictions on foreign access to China. The treaty also led to a continuous series of other treaties between the west and China—later referred to by the Chinese as “unequal treaties” because they were imposed rather than negotiated. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.
North America: The Road to Revolution
Europeans were occasionally victims of their own success, as when economic imperialism inadvertently created societies strong enough to form independent nations that declared independence from the home country. In at least one case, thirteen former colonies formed a nation that became wealthier and more powerful than the empire that preceded it.
The British colonies in North America began as struggling trading outposts in the early 1600s, but by the middle of the 1700s they were home to more than two million people who largely governed themselves and enjoyed a thriving commercial economy. British mercantilist policies, however, threatened North American economic development. In the second half of the seventeenth century, England passed a series of Navigation Acts designed to maximize profit from its colonies while denying their resources to other European powers and clamping down on efforts to avoid trade restrictions through smuggling. The Navigation Act of 1660 listed goods produced in the colonies that could be sold only in England or to its colonial possessions. Thus, English merchants paid American colonists what the merchants thought their goods were worth; the colonists were forbidden to sell to Dutch, French, Spanish, or other merchants who might be willing to pay more.
Among these products were furs, tobacco, and sugar, goods for which all of Europe yearned. Also included were rice, ginger, cotton, and indigo and other plants used to make dye. English textile manufacturers needed the cotton and dyestuffs, and to protect their interests further, the Exportation Act of 1660 also prohibited the export of English wool. In addition, naval stores for building and maintaining ships for trade and war could be sent only to England. These included masts, hemp (to make rope), pine tree pitch (which sealed ships and made them watertight), and pine tree sap (used in the manufacture of turpentine). Once they arrived in England, these colonial products were heavily taxed, and the revenue went to the English government, not to the colonies that had produced them.
To generate yet more income for the government, the Navigation Act of 1663 mandated that all goods bound for the colonies from outside the British Empire had first to be shipped to England and taxed before they could continue to their final destination. This provision increased the price to the colonists of non-English goods because foreign shippers passed the cost of the English taxes on to them.
At the end of the seventeenth century, Parliament also began to prohibit colonists from manufacturing certain goods that were also produced in England, to prevent them from underselling English merchants. Colonists could not sell goods made from wool or iron, either in England or to other English colonies, and by the mid-eighteenth century they could not export beaver hats. Beaver hats were a popular fashion in Europe, and the English colonies actively participated in the fur trade. By allowing the colonists to export only the unfinished furs instead of the finished hats, for which they could have charged higher prices, Parliament limited the amount of wealth the settlers in the English colonies could acquire.
In the wake of the French and Indian War, British colonists in North America greeted with hostility other actions by Britain’s Parliament that they believed unfairly restricted their economic opportunities. Many had longed to move west of the Appalachian Mountains to establish farms on the rich lands of the Ohio Valley, for instance. New England families were large, and with each generation, parents found it difficult to provide sufficient land for their children. In the southern colonies, the demands of tobacco farming meant that new, fertile land was always in demand. Many colonies claimed territories west of the Appalachians, but this land had been taken by the French and was inhabited by their numerous Native American allies. With the British victory over the French and their Indigenous allies, the colonists looked forward to finally claiming it. The British government, however, wishing to avoid antagonizing the tribes of the Ohio Valley and seeking to avoid costly new wars, promptly prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians, to the dismay and anger of many colonists who had fought alongside British troops in the recently ended conflict.
Furthermore, determined to keep the peace with Native Americans and repay war debts, the British kept troops in North America who policed the frontier, regulated colonial trade, and collected taxes. The need to pay for the army’s maintenance led to attempts to impose new taxes on the colonists or to more vigorously enforce the collection of already existing ones. Colonists’ efforts to evade trade restrictions by smuggling were countered with laws that required smugglers be tried in admiralty courts, which lacked a jury. Many colonists felt this practice violated protections guaranteed by the English Bill of Rights. The 1774 decision by Parliament to grant control of the Ohio Valley to the newly acquired French province of Quebec, to allow Quebec to continue to be governed by French civil law, and to extend religious toleration to the province’s Roman Catholics outraged British colonists, most of whom were Protestant. This ruling, made at the same time as one that interfered with the century-and-a-half-long tradition of colonial self-government, led many colonists increasingly to regard Britain as hostile to their interests. Growing resentment of British rule erupted in bloodshed in 1775 and a subsequent declaration of independence in 1776.