British Empire

26 November 2021

How important was war in British imperial expansion?

Darwin claims that 'more or less organised violence' played a huge part in British imperial

expansion1. This paper will examine examples of hostilities in three (admittedly

overlapping) categories: localised national rivalry; all out international war; and conflict at

the frontiers of empire.

One early example of national rivalry occurred in 1568 when John Hawkins and Francis

Drake established a period of 'privateer preying on Spanish shipping' in the West Indies2,

which was important as it laid the 'unofficial' foundation of empire building as England

moved its focus of attention more globally3.

Later, in 1614, two ships belonging to the East India Company out-fought four Portuguese

vessels near Surat. This relatively small naval battle is historically important as it marked

the beginning of the ascent of the English East India Company's presence in India4.

Later still, Cromwell's 'Western Design' sent an army of 3000 marines5 to oust the Spanish

from Hispaniola. This ended in disaster6 but was followed in 1655 by the successful

capture of Jamaica7. This was 'a major coup' for England8 ensuring the potential of

significant income from sugar9 10. Crucially, the capture gave England control of two

principal Caribbean trade routes11 12 13. Confronting Spain directly in the Caribbean, was

important as it 'reshaped the international situation and .... transformed British

engagement with the world'14.

Then in March 1664, Charles II awarded land colonised by the Dutch in America to his

brother, the Duke of York, and months later, four English warships with several hundred

soldiers arrived in New Amsterdam demanding Dutch surrender, which duly occurred

without bloodshed15. In 1667, following this and other hostilities of the Second Anglo-

Dutch war, the Treaty of Breda16 was signed - largely benefiting the Dutch17 18. But

England gained New York and New Jersey - a hugely significant step in the expansion of

England's north American empire19 20.

These localised rivalries were significant in themselves, but were often part of, or

expanded into, full-blown conflict fought by the British 'for their imperial survival'21 at

different locations across the globe22 23.

There were six major wars fought with European rivals between 1689 and 181524. Five of

these were Anglo-French conflicts25 ostensibly fought to 'prevent France from establishing

a hegemony in Europe26' but equally, to enlarge and secure the emerging British empire.

The War of Spanish Succession 1710-1714, was fought to forestall a threatened Spanish-

French hegemony in Europe27. Britain and its allies28 prevailed and the war ended with the

Peace of Utrecht in 1713 29 through which Britain gained Gibraltar and Minorca (both of

strategic rather than commercial importance), and Nova Scotia. Most importantly 'it had

become clear that Great Britain had become a world power'30 31, not least because Britain

was 'unchallengeable at sea'32 having learnt what could be accomplished by the

'audacious use of seapower'33 34.

In 1748, the war of Austrian Succession35 ended in both stalemate and new alliances 36 37.

In consequence, the Seven Year War, begun in 1756, was 'virtually certain'38 39. It began

badly with the loss of Minorca but it proceeded with British gains40 41. Then, in 1760

Montreal was captured42. After protracted treaty negotiations France capitulated leading to

their ousting from Canada43 44 45. By now, both France and Spain 'were prostrate'46. The

ensuing 1763 Treaty of Paris 'drew colonial lines largely in favour of the British47, who

gained Canada, Louisiana and Florida48. It was 'a turning point'49. Britain's thinking 'was

forced to be global'50.

Although the victory marked 'the beginning of an era of British dominance outside

Europe'51 Britain also gained 'an endless succession of crisis in different parts of the

word'52. Uppermost was settler discontent emerging in the Americas53. After the Boston

Tea Party54, British troops were sent to quell the riots55 56 which eventually (in 1776) led to

the American Declaration of Independence and eventual war between Britain and its 13

settler colonies57. With French and Spanish help58, Britain was defeated and in the 1783

Peace of Versailles lost its American colonies (a quarter of its white subjects)59. But even

taking that into consideration, Britain 'had come out of the war remarkably well'60 61.

Significantly, it spurred on both a desire to hold the remaining empire together 62 and a

realisation that it was 'better to trade with the Americas than to rule them"63.

Another longer term consequence was that the American War of Independence had

bankrupted France which indirectly led to its revolution, then defeat in the Napoleonic

wars, and consequently a 'colossal augmentation of British power and possession'64 and a

'huge geopolitical dividend'65 allowing its trade to expand virtually unhindered by other

European forces.

Despite the scale and frequency of national rivalries and all out war, Darwin claims that

frontier wars were 'the commonest form' of hostility66. These could be 'small-scale

'punitive raids', frontier 'skirmishes', or campaigns involving scores or thousands of


Colonial frontier war began with Ireland68. But as its empire spread to the west, tensions

between British settlers and native peoples flared up in both north America and the West

Indies. St. Kitts was home to the first European colonists in the Caribbean in 1623, and

tensions between native Kalingo people and the English and French settlers resulted in

three years of intermittent warfare. Then, in 1626, 'the Europeans got wind that the local

tribe was preparing to launch a surprise attack'69 providing a pretext for a pre-emptive

strike. This virtually wiped out native resistance in an act tantamount to genocide70. The

English were now able 'to establish large sugar plantations worked by vast numbers of

imported African slaves' which created enormous wealth both for the planter-colonists'71,

and also for the English metropole.

Later, by the 1730's, 38,000 Britains had settled in the Americas72. Initial contact with

Native Americans was based on trading and 'colonists were able to build thriving colonies

with the help of locals'73. But settler hunger for land inevitably brought conflict74 75.

Hostility and mistrust led to the First Indian War in 1675 in which 'much of the Native

American opposition (was) destroyed by the colonial militias and their Native American

allies'76. This alliance77 caused 'rifts that kept Native American tribes from working together

to stop European takeover'78. This, and the deadly impact of disease79, meant that

Britain's North American expansion proceeded unabated.

Then, in the 18th century, 'awesome in its savagery and vindictiveness', war played a

huge part in Britain's 'exploitative, racist imperial project' in India80 81. 'Power fed upon

itself'82 creating a 'long and shameful'83, almost continual 'ragged series of wars'84 between

1757 and 1857 - two significant years85.

1757 saw Robert Clive complete the annexation of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey

when he fomented conspiracy between competing nawab rulers86 and used naval power to

ship in reinforcements to overcome an 'undisciplined army of 50,000 men'87 with a force of

only 2,80088. This was an important 'milestone in the spread of Britain's power in India'89 90

and created a 'deep and lasting impression on the Indian mind'91. It also began 'the rape

of a continent'92 93.

One hundred years later, the Great Indian Rebellion began as a Sepoy mutiny in Meerut

and quickly spread to forty military stations94 developing into 'a political earthquake'95. The

rebellion was fuelled by anger, resentment and fear96. Rebels congregated in Delhi, Agra,

Cawnpore and Lucknow and were held under siege by relatively small British forces 97.

The rebellions were crushed but 'shattered the myth of British invincibility, with

incalculable consequences'98. The single most significant outcome was the dissolution of

the East India Company 99, and transfer in 1858 to the British government100 who

undertook a policy of appeasement, consultation and consolidation101. Expansion was

halted, but any hope of a revival of the past diminished, traditional Indian societal

structures were superseded102, and a strong middle class emerged with a heightened

sense of Indian nationalism103 from which the beginnings of an independence movement

and an end to Britain's Indian empire emerged.

Fifty years later, in Africa, the Benin punitive expedition of 1897 involved 1200 British

troops. More than punitive it was plunder104, and a deliberate attempt to de-throne the

Benin king - an act that was 'unexceptional'105 in Britain's 'scramble for Africa'. A 'pretext'106

for the attack was retaliation for the near annihilation of poorly prepared British forces in

what became propagandised as the 'Benin Massacre'107 108 109. In theory 'British rule

harmonised Nigerian discord'110. In reality 'they acquired Nigeria by force'111 - the raid on

Benin being perhaps the most shameful example which nonetheless succeeded in

absorbing Benin into colonial Nigeria112, opening up Britains largest African colony to

unrestricted trade for the British.

In conclusion, in the 20th century, there has been a 'shift in emphasis: from empire as an

arena for military prowess and the display of superior metropolitan character towards

Empire as an actively interacting economic and cultural community, and a way of

enriching metropole and colonies alike'113. But by then the empire had already been built

on endless war and countless loss of life.



Ackroyd, Peter. (2017) The History of England vol iv: Revolution. MacMillan, London.

Black, Jeremy (2020) A New History of England (3rd ed) The History Press, Cheltenham

Brendon, Piers (2008) The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Vintage, London

Brumwell, Stephen & Speck, W.A. (2001) Cassell's Companion to Eighteenth Century


Darwin, John (2013) Unfinished Empire, the Global Expansion of Britain. Penguin. London

Dalziel, Nigel (2006) Historical Atlas of the British Empire. Penguin, London

Jackson, Ashley (2013) The British Empire, a Very Short Introduction. OUP, Oxford

James, Lawrence (1994) The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Abacus, London.

Morgan, Kenneth, O. ed. (2010) The Oxford History of Britain. OUP. Oxford

Osulsoga, David (2018) Civilisations: First Contact and The Cult of Progress Profile Books,


Paxman. Jeremy (2011) Empire - What Ruling the World did to the British. Viking, London

Wasson, Ellis (2010) Modern Britain, 1714 to the Present. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester

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1 Darwin, p118

2 This was aggression fuelled by religious belief as much as a hunt for riches. (I appreciate

that foot notes such as this are tangential to the main text and will not be included in the


3 James, p16

4 27/10/21

5–1660) 29/10/21

6 James,p31

7 Spanish defences were poor and resistance was weak–1660) 29/10/21

8 James, p31

9 the 'object of a sustained vogue' during the later 17th century

reshaped-the-british-empire?t=1635960067855 28/10/21

10 At this time English demand for sugar was not that significant although growing.


1671.htm 27/10/21

12 the Yucatan Channel and the Windward Passage

13 In capturing Jamaica established a base from which English buccaneers relentlessly

attacked Spanish strongholds and shipping. This helped strategically by diverting Spain’s

military resources 27/10/21





16 There were three separate Treaties, collectively becoming the Peace of Breda 03/11/21

17 The Dutch had gained the upper hand due partly to their successful attack on the

English navy in anchor in the Medway - perhaps going down in history as England’s ‘most

humiliating defeat’ (Boxer 1974, in 03/11/21

18 The Dutch also gained control over the valuable sugar plantations on the coast of

Surinam 03/11/21They also gained

spice islands which were the only source of nutmeg at the time. 28/10/21

19 England also gained some outposts in Africa from the Dutch, and recovered Antigua,

Montserrat, and St. Kitts, in theWest Indies, from France). 03/11/21

20 Not all attacks against rival powers had formal approval from the homeland. For

example Henry Morgan's audacious capture of Panama City in 1671. He was an indentured

labourer in Barbados who had served his time and had established an infamous catalogue

of piracy and looting of Spanish riches and land

21 Darwin, p131

22 The second Anglo-Dutch war for example, as seen above.

23 They also acted as precursors to the Seven Years War - the 'great war for the empire'

Brumwell and Speck, p207

24 Jackson, p75

25 James,p51

26 James, p51.

27 James,p80

28 the Grand Alliance of Britain, the Dutch Republic, and the Holy Roman Empire

29 and Treaty of Rastatt in 1714 Brumwell and Speck, p361

30 Ackroyd, p63

31 It had 'marked Britain's coming of age as a European and global power' James, p58

32 Black, p163

33 James,p32

34 During the 1700's, 'Britain established a naval hegemony that was to remain unshaken

until the 1920s'

the-waves/ 03/11/21. By 1714 Britain had 124 ships, 'nearly twice the strength of the

Franco-Spanish navies James, p58

35 which had been marked by 'treachery and criminality, double-dealing and division,

defections and secret treaties, lies and bloodshed on an enormous scale marked by

'treachery and criminality, double-dealing and division, defections and secret treaties, lies

and bloodshed on an enormous scale Ackroyd, p141

36 Austria aligned itself with France, which marked the end of their centuries-old enmity,

and Prussia became an ally of Britain.

37 France was still (rightly) suspicious of Britain's empire aspirations, and Britain was still

suspicious of renewed French-Spanish collaboration.

38 James,p33

39 Fought over five continents, it can be seen as the first global conflict 03/11/21. Winston Churchill later

called it “the first world war.”


40 due largely to Pitt's leadership and vision,

41 Fort Louis and Goree on the Senegal coast, and Louisbourg were captured in 1758 and

Quebec later that year followed by the capture of French sugar island Guadeloupe in 1759.

Naval victories against the French occurred off Lagos and emphatically off Quiberon Bay

led by Sir Edward Hawke.

42 27/10/21

43 27/10/21

44 Britain also 'beat back the French at Guadeloupe, Martinique, Havana, Manila,

Pondicherry, and West Africa and India'

war 03/11/21

45 Later the Battle of Wandiwash was decisive in the Anglo-French struggle in southern

India 27/10/21

46 James, p76 Even so, Britain was negotiating a peace due to rising costs and the

unpopularity of increases in taxes to pay for the war.

47 an outcome that would later influence the French to intervene in the war for American

Independence' 03/11/21.

48 hence removing European rivals from North America paving the way for further

westward expansion 03/11/21

49 Darwin, p131

50 Darwin, p304

51 27/10/21

52 It was 'a prelude to a fifty year lesson in what could go wrong' Darwin, p304

53 Britain had to send a force to Virginia in the 1670's to restore order in dispute between

the settlers James,p35

54 precipitated by Lord North's 1773 Tea Act

55 Wasson,p72

56 It was apparent that 'nearly everyone except the royal governors on the ground .....had

missed the growth in self-confidence and assertion of authority of the colonial assemblies'

Wasson, p72

57 It is claimed that 'between 1778 and 1783 the British empire faced a crisis which

remained without equal in seriousness until the summer of 1940' James, p78


59 Britain also lost Minorca and Florida to Spain, Senegal, St. Lucia and Tobago to France,

and Ceylon to the Netherlands.

60 James, p82

61 Loosing the 13 colonies was widely thought to trigger a domino effect such that the

West Indies , Canada, Ireland and India would be next'. George III thought so and many

shared his fears that 'after the escape of the American tiger, Britain was doubtful about

breeding colonial cubs which might grow up to be equally savage' Sydney Smith in

Brendon, p10

62 Although there was also a rise of strongly anti-empire opinion, notably expressed by


63 Trade with America actually increased after the American War of Independence

prompting open questioning of the mercantilist approach to empire. Adam Smith argued

(and Pitt agreed) that 'protectionism was less profitable than free trade'. Ackroyd, p247

64 Brendon, p12

65 Darwin, p131

66 Darwin, p119

67 Jackson, p65

68 Various plantation attempts in the last half of the 16th century were defeated by

resistance from Irish catholics - sometimes violently so. Attempts in 1609 were more

successful, especially in Ulster.


69 27/10/21

70 It was estimated that 2,000 Kalinago were massacred while attempting to surrender.

Survivors were either enslaved or removed from their island. 03/11/21

71 03/11/21

72 In the 1600s, when the first English settlers began to arrive there were about 60,000

Native Americans living in what would later become the New England colonies (Plymouth,

Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Haven, and Rhode Island).




74 Dalzeil,p28

75 The English had not attempted to maintain or even understand first peoples' customs,

laws and rights



77 These alliances show that the relationships between settlers and Native Americans was

complicated; most tribes took sides with the French against the English Dalziel, p28



79 European settlers brought these new diseases with them when they settled, and the

illnesses decimated the Native Americans—by some estimates killing as much as 90

percent of their population.

colonial-america/ 03/11/21

80 Ferriter in

did-to-india-1.2981299 08/11/21.

81 Officers of the East India Company 'had a great deal to gain from its wars of expansion'


82 Ackroyd, p248

83 Tharoor quoted by Ferriter in

what-the-british-did-to-india-1.2981299 08/11/21

84 Darwin, p124

85 08/11/21

86 Dalziel, p36

87 Brumwell and Speck, p298

88 Clive admitted to using a medley of 'fighting, tricks, chicanery, intrigues, politics and

Lord knows what' in his victory at Plassey Ackroyd, p170

89 Brumwell and Speck, p298

90 It led within three years to the French leaving India, Ackroyd, p170

91 James, p124

92 Durant, in a pamphlet entitled The Case For India, 1930 in Aziz


93 I find the arguments of 'colonial apologists like Biggar, Gilley and Ferguson' completely

unconvincing and deeply repellant. Aziz in

empire-what-the-british-did-to-india/ 09/11/21

94 Darwin p248

95 Darwin, p246

96 and 'a hope that the British might vanish and an older India return' Darwin p246

97 who went on to carry out horrendous acts of cruelty and torture, especially in

Cawnpore. The response to the rebellion in other areas of India was largely quiet which

enabled the British to move troops from these areas as well as gaining reinforcements

form Europe. Dalziel, p78.

98 Brendon, p132

99 and a 'general housecleaning of the Indian administration' 08/11/21

100 In fact, Britain bought the Company and 'its purchase price was added to the colony's

public debt' Aziz in


101 Brendon, p135.

102 Christian evangelism was discouraged; Hindu customs respected:Annexations ceased'

Brendon, p135 The Indian Army was completely re-organ sided and downsized. Darwin

p257; financial crisis caused by the mutiny led to a reorganization of the Indian

administration’s finances' 08/11/21

103 08/11/21

104 Aberdeen University called the sack of Benin City “one of the most notorious examples

of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial

expansion” Guardian, 29/10/21

105 Olusoga, p22

106 Olusoga, p20

107 03/11/21

108 It took ten days for the punitive expedition to capture Benin city with a loss of only

eight of the attacking forces. The number of Benin native casualties was not recorded No

reliable record was kept by the British on how many of them were killed in action Roth,

1903, in 03/11/21

109 Unlike the Caribbean, there was 'no question of (Africa's) highly organised states

tamely submitting to European mastery or caving in to invasion' Darwin, p42

110 Brendon p568

111 Brendon p568




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