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An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

John Gascoigne


The British empire was a mirror which both magnified and distorted the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the home power. And in the period from the American Declaration of Independence to the Great *Reform Bill, Britain passed through a number of jolting experiences which were reflected in its dealings with the territories under its control. It had to absorb the shock of the *American Revolution, the humiliation of defeat, and, soon afterwards, the cataclysm of the *French Revolution, which coloured all aspects of political life. Even after the defeat of *Napoleon in 1815, the long shadow of the French Revolution gave a sinister hue to the moves for reform which were partially and belatedly implemented in the wake of the Reform Act of 1832.

Naturally, these upheavals at home left their mark on the empire and gave our period some measure of distinctiveness in the sphere of imperial relations. Fear of colonial revolt which had been prompted by the American Revolution was strengthened and given a much sharper ideological edge by the impact of the French Revolution. The forms of colonial rule were shaped by the distrust of popular participation which these experiences had instilled in the minds of the British governing classes. In this counter-revolutionary climate the traditional practice of allowing colonies representative institutions was weakened—particularly as such colonial replicas of Westminster had proved so inimical to British interests, not only in the Thirteen Colonies of America but also in Ireland where Protestant ‘patriots’ and parliament had been obstreperous and independently minded.

Moreover, British policy towards India had moved in the direction of maintaining firmer control—even, if necessary, at the expense of the traditional privileges of the *East India Company and the demands of British residents. As Lord Stormont remarked of the machinery established by the India Act of 1784, which vested supreme power over Indian affairs in a governmental Board of Control, the goal was ‘a strong government in India, subject to the check and control of a still stronger government at home’. Policy towards India, then, reflected the prevailing view that in the imperial sphere the traditional checks on the power of the Crown should largely be pruned in the interests of effective government. After all, the American experience appeared to show that if the imperial government allowed its powers to be largely superseded by local authorities, the reassertion of centralized control was likely to prove a difficult and hazardous enterprise.

Fear of *revolution [1] was compounded by the exigencies of *war [2], so that colonies captured from the French or their allies during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were generally given the political forms of a Crown colony whereby a strong executive, largely unimpeded by representative institutions, could if necessary act resolutely to meet the needs of war. The British experience of dealing with the problems of Quebec did much to develop such an alternative to the traditional pattern of creating some form of representative body as a bridge between the British settlers and the royally appointed governor. In Quebec, Britain faced the novel problem of creating political forms to accommodate the needs of some 80,000 European but non-British settlers. Since the loyalty of such recent and involuntary subjects of the British Crown was inevitably uncertain, it was naturally feared that the erection of representative institutions might provide the forum for continuing frustration of British rule or even for revolt—revolt that might infect the increasingly tense relations between Britain and the nearby Thirteen Colonies. Moreover, the French settlers themselves, having been nurtured on the practices of the French absolutist state, found such representative institutions alien to their traditions.

The result was the Quebec Act of 1774, which placed power firmly in the hands of the Crown or, in practice, the royally appointed governor. An elected assembly was rejected in favour of a council drawn from both the French and British settlers and nominated by the Crown in consultation with the governor. It was, moreover, a council whose powers were closely circumscribed, especially in the critical area of taxation. At the local level the Act also left in place much of the traditional pattern of French seigneurial rule allied with a privileged position for the Roman Catholic Church. This ensured the long-term loyalty of the Canadiens—even if it further inflamed the suspicions of the American colonists about the sinister intentions of the British Crown. The Quebec Act of 1774 did achieve its most basic goal of securing the stability and loyalty of an area of strategic significance and uncertain intentions. Naturally, then, it was a model to which the British government turned when having to deal with the problems of administering newly acquired territories which had an alien European population or which were of strategic significance.

Such problems became ever more manifest as the fortunes of war brought under British control an increasing number of colonies once ruled by the French or their allies. Thus, in the former French colonies in the West Indies all executive powers were placed in the hands of the governor. The governor was advised by a nominated council, but he was free to disregard its advice. In adopting such autocratic forms the British were largely preserving the style of old-regime government already in place under their predecessors. This was also the case in the former Dutch colonies of the Cape and Ceylon, or in Spanish colonies such as Trinidad which passed to Britain during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

However, the traditional practice of granting British colonists representative institutions was not extinguished by the counter-revolutionary tide. In Canada, the Quebec Act of 1774 was modified in 1791 in order better to quarantine the country from the political contagion of the newly formed United States and to meet the demands of the increasing number of British settlers who regarded representative forms of government as part of their birthright. The result was a constitutional amalgam which reflected both the counter-revolutionary tenor of the times and a more traditional attachment to representative forms. Colonists were granted an assembly, but it was hoped that any democratic excesses would be checked by yoking it to an upper house made up of members nominated by the Crown—an upper house which was intended to act in the manner of the House of Lords by providing a form of aristocratic stability. In order to avoid conflict between the French- and English-speaking colonists, Canada was divided into two provinces with names which reflected their position on the critical St Lawrence River: an English-speaking Upper Canada and the predominantly French-speaking Lower Canada, each with their own assembly kept in check by a nominated legislative council which, it was vainly hoped, might eventually give birth to a colonial aristocracy.

Since the threat of revolution was a challenge to the constitution of both the Church and the state, imperial policy sought, where possible, to promote religious as well as political institutions which might serve to contain revolutionary impulses. Just as colonial analogues of the House of Lords were seen as a bulwark against revolution, so too it was hoped that the promotion of another pillar of the traditional constitution, the Church of England, would serve a similar goal. For many in Britain regarded the American Revolution as being proof that religious Dissent led to political dissent. In Canada, moves to shore up the position of the Church of England could be justified as following the entrenched precedents created by the founders of New France in bestowing privileges on the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, under the terms of the 1791 Act, the Crown was authorized to devote a seventh of the lands not yet allocated to European settlers to the maintenance of clergy ‘according to the establishment of the Church of England’. This association between British rule and the advancement of the Church of England gathered pace in the wake of the French Revolution, the de-Christianizing rhetoric of which appeared to confirm the view that the traditional political and social order needed the ideological mortar provided by the established Church. When the bishoprics of Jamaica and Barbados were created in 1824 the imperial government ensured that they were well endowed. In the following year the governor of New South Wales was instructed to set aside one-seventh of public land to support schools based on *Anglican principles, while in 1831 the governor of British Guiana was commanded to establish schools which would provide religious instruction ‘according to the Doctrine of the United Church of England and Ireland’.

However, such counter-revolutionary-inspired attempts to make the Church of England a virtual established church throughout the empire were checked by countervailing forces. In the first place, imperial administrators were well aware that too obvious an alliance with the Church of England could inflame the suspicions both of non-Christian native peoples and of European settlers outside the Anglican fold. The imperial government also had to reckon with the increasingly well- organized political voice of Protestant Dissent both at home and abroad—particularly after the Repeal of the Test Act in 1828 removed from Dissenters any restriction on their involvement in the political life of the nation [see *toleration]. Furthermore, the advancement of *religion [10] by state power was difficult to combine with *Whig traditions of promoting at least some measure of religious and political liberty—traditions which slowly began to reassert themselves in the 1820s and 1830s as the shock of the French Revolution began to abate. By 1835 the Whig Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg (1778–1866), could acknowledge the futility of choosing ‘any one Church as the exclusive object of public Endowment’ in Australia, and the Colonial Office discouraged plans for the further endowment of Anglican rectories in Upper Canada. It is a measure of the limits of the alliance between the imperial government and Anglicanism after 1776 that nowhere in the empire was the Church of England formally made the established church.

Though, as we have seen, imperial policy was deeply coloured by the counter-revolutionary attitudes of the British oligarchy, the actual form assumed by imperial rule was also influenced by the local traditions of the colonies, whether (as in India) of the indigenous inhabitants or (as in most of the territories annexed during the French wars) of the former colonial powers which the British had superseded by force of arms. Even the phrase ‘the British Empire’ exaggerates the uniformity and cohesion of the rag-bag collection of territories which had fallen into British hands as the result of the vagaries of military or commercial success. Since, for much of our period, those directing the British state were chiefly concerned with resisting the threat of foreign domination or, to a lesser degree, popular *insurrection at home, the affairs of distant colonies were generally given scant attention. Only towards the end of this period did greater stability at home and the development of more effective bureaucratic forms permit the luxury of a coherent examination of the direction of imperial policy and a consideration of the ways in which the scattered threads of empire could be gathered together.

The result, then, was that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the British empire was a coat of many colours, as local traditions gave the forms of government in its different parts their own distinctive hues. The former French colonies in Africa or the Caribbean retained some of the forms of old-regime absolutism while former Dutch colonies such as the Cape Colony also remained largely autocratic in their patterns of government. In the traditional British West Indies, by contrast, longer British settlement had left a deeper British imprint in the form of representative institutions. These institutions to some degree mirrored those of the homeland, yet were at the same time distorted by the phenomenon of *slavery [6], which made the white planters a virtual aristocracy, free from many of the constraints in dealing with their social inferiors to which even members of the House of Lords had to submit. In New South Wales the cleavage between the mass of the unfree convict settlers and their rulers was more openly acknowledged by adopting the forms of military government. A great range of legal systems also continued to exist under the British imperial flag. Lower Canada and St Lucia were controlled by old-regime French law, Mauritius by an amalgam of pre- and post-revolutionary French codes; former Dutch colonies such as the Cape, British Guiana, and Ceylon retained Roman-Dutch law modified to some extent by the enactments of the Batavian republic; in Trinidad Spanish law prevailed, and in Heligoland Danish. In India, of course, there was no single legal code, as indigenous and British legal forms coexisted. And, despite the attempts to give the Church of England a privileged position, the empire had a heterogeneous religious composition. The Roman Catholic Church retained much of its traditional prominence in former French and Spanish colonies, and predominantly Protestant settler societies, such as the Cape and Australia, supported a range of denominations jealous of any signs of particular government favour to the Church of England.

Variegated though the empire of our period was, common threads of unity ran through the whole, and were also linked with the political and cultural structures of Britain. The empire naturally reflected the values of a governing landed class which had become convinced of the possibilities of increasing wealth by the application of improving techniques, whether in agriculture, manufacture, or in response to such social problems as the *poor law. The greatly increased yields made possible by the techniques associated with the *agricultural revolution reinforced the cultural values of the *Enlightenment [32] with its confidence in the fruitfulness of experimental and scientific techniques and the possibilities of human progress [see *land, 16].

Both at the metropolitan level and through the local colonial élites, the techniques of improvement offered the possibility of meshing the diverse fruits of empire into a web of trade, with the mother country at its centre. Hence the endeavours promoted by prominent agricultural improvers such as Joseph *Banks and Lord Sheffield (1735–1821) to enhance British self-sufficiency by attempting to promote the growth of cotton in the British West Indies or tea in India, or to transplant cochineal by surreptitious means from South America to British colonies. The ideal of improvement not only offered the possibility of greater wealth and self-sufficiency for Britain but also provided some moral veneer to soften the crude realities of imperial expansion. Improvement, it could be argued, not only benefited the home country but also offered the indigenous people some hope of relief from the traditional scourges of disease and famine. At home, improvement was promoted by such institutions as the Board of Agriculture or the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—institutions which were reflected in colonial miniature in societies such as the Jamaican Society for the Cultivation of Agriculture and other Arts and Sciences, or the Society of Arts of Barbados. Though such colonial replicas were often short-lived, they testified to the dissemination of cultural values which helped to bind the metropolitan power with the colonial élites of the scattered empire, just as the goals of improvement had done much after the *Act of Union to weld Scotland and England into a more effective greater Britain.

The need for such informal ties was the stronger because of the lack of a clear institutional mechanism for the conduct of empire. Though the scale of British government had ineluctably expanded in response to the needs of war, the bureaucratic apparatus for dealing with the greatly increased scale of empire occasioned by naval *exploration [37] of the Pacific and military success against the French lagged well behind. In the late eighteenth century imperial concerns were untidily divided among a number of governmental agencies as the machinery of government belatedly and inadequately began to catch up with changed imperial realities. Indian affairs largely fell to the Board of Control, commercial matters to the Committee of the Privy Council for Trade and Plantations, while other colonial problems came under the Home Office or, as imperial expansion and warfare became more closely intertwined, under the War Office. It was symptomatic that when a colonial secretaryship was eventually established in 1801 its full title was Secretary of State for War and the Colonies: the order in the title reflected the priorities of the office, and recognized that new colonies were an often unintended by product of war. Nor did colonial affairs really emerge from under the shadow of the immediate and pressing needs of war until 1812, when Henry Goulburn (1784–1856) was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies under Henry Bathurst (1762–1834), the first Secretary for War and Colonies to take a close interest in colonial affairs. Further bureaucratic recognition of the importance of colonial affairs came with the establishment of a Permanent Under-Secretary in 1825. Between 1836 and 1847 this office was held by Sir James Stephen (1789–1859), under whom the Colonial Office was put on a firm organizational footing and rendered an effective instrument in advancing representative government and in opposing the slave trade.

The slow rise of the Colonial Office and the apparent bureaucratic confusion in dealing with colonial affairs has masked the fact that late-eighteenth-century imperial policy was actually given a large measure of direction and coherence. It was mainly shaped by a group of prominent landowners who shared a similar conception of the goals of empire—goals which, in their emphasis on a large degree of metropolitan control over the affairs of the empire, naturally meshed with the counter-revolutionary climate of the period. The most important of these were Charles Jenkinson (from 1786 Lord Hawkesbury and from 1796 Earl of Liverpool), Secretary at War, 1778, and from 1786 President of the Privy Council Committee on Trade; John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, President of the Board of Agriculture, 1803, and a Lord of the Board of Trade, 1809; William Eden, Lord Auckland, First Lord of the Board of Trade and Plantations, 1776, and Joint Postmaster-General, 1798–1804; and Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, 1778–1820, and from 1797 a Privy Councillor and member of the Committee on Trade. These dominant voices in determining late-eighteenth-century imperial policy shared a common commitment to the goals of improvement and, with it, a largely *mercantilist conception of the place of the colonies. In their view, colonies should be improved to some extent for their own benefit but primarily for the contribution they might make to the economic well-being of the mother country.

At the Board of Trade, which in the late eighteenth century became the chief instrument for promoting imperial policy, Jenkinson, with Banks's assistance, promoted such improving schemes as attempting to establish tea or hemp in India or cotton in the West Indies—schemes which accorded well with the view of commerce put forward a century earlier by the archmercantilist Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who wrote that ‘Commerce is the means to augment the power and grandeur of his Majesty and to lower that of his enemies and rivals’. Jenkinson's determination to maintain at least the basic machinery of mercantilism, despite the irritation it had caused to the American colonists, was most evident in his support for the last great Navigation Act of 1786. It was an Act that rejected the earlier view of Lord *Shelburne, expressed in 1782, that ‘We prefer trade to dominion’, for it attempted to prevent trade between the West Indies and the United States with the goal of protecting British trade and British maritime and naval supremacy. As Jenkinson told the Commons during the passage of the Act: ‘If proper means could be devised to secure the navigation trade to Great Britain, though we had lost a dominion, we might almost be said to have gained an empire.’

Such attempts to maintain the traditional mercantilist forms of empire were strengthened by the fact that the representatives of the landed classes, who had such a strong voice in shaping imperial policy, were increasingly committed to protectionist policies at home, as the rise of imported foodstuffs—and especially corn—came more and more to pose a threat to their incomes and position. Both Lord Sheffield and Joseph Banks, for example, were active in forming the landed interest into an effective lobby group with the aim of countering what they considered was the undue power of the manufacturing classes. Agricultural protection at home and mercantilist policies were, then, naturally complementary in the minds of such landed gentlemen, who regarded the empire as an extension of the agricultural and commercial wealth of Britain. After all, had not the great Chatham (1708–78) considered ‘the sugar islands as the landed interest of this kingdom’?

Such informal methods of formulating and directing imperial policy and, with it, the strong bias towards the views of the landed interest were, however, gradually supplanted as the machinery of the British state was belatedly compelled to expand and readjust to take account of the growing girth of empire. The ineluctable need for the British state to become involved in the affairs of India as the scale of imperial involvement surpassed the competence of the East India Company paved the way for greater state direction elsewhere in the empire. The India Act of 1784 and the establishment of the Board of Control proved to be the first large step on a path which led, first, in 1833 to the East India Company ceasing to trade, then to the elevation of the governor-generalship of Bengal to the governor-generalship of India as a whole, and in 1858 to the abolition of the Company. In 1821 the remnants of another of the chartered companies, the Royal African Company, were abolished and its forts were taken over by the Crown.

The demise of the Royal African Company was also testimony to the force of the *abolitionist movement which drew the British government more and more into the internal workings of its colonies in order to stamp out the slave trade. In combating the slave trade the British state's main agency was the Colonial Office. Under Lord Bathurst's supervision from 1812 to 1827, this established a reputation and routines which gradually enabled the British government to exercise a more direct role in directing the affairs of empire. Though the Colonial Office long remained too understaffed and too politically marginal to be fully equal to such a mission, its activities were an indication that the British state was beginning to turn its attention to the long and never fully completed task of drawing the diverse and scattered fragments of empire into a more coherent whole.

The activities of the Colonial Office in fostering representative government were also indicative of the waning of the counter-revolutionary climate which had dominated much of the period from 1776. In 1823 even the distant gaol of New South Wales received the forms of a Crown colony with a nominated council, a constitutional concession extended in 1825 to the Cape Colony—a colony where autocratic control had been well established because of its strategic significance and its volatile mixture of Dutch, British, and African inhabitants. Settlers in New South Wales and the Cape followed their English-speaking counterparts in Canada by showing that the forms of a Crown colony could be moulded to correspond more closely to representative institutions, as the memberships of councils were expanded to include non-officials and even elected members. Predictably, fully-fledged representative government followed in New South Wales (1843) and the Cape (1853), while Canada—the traditional pace-setter in imperial constitutional affairs—gained a form of de facto responsible government from 1848.

Such moves down the path to an empire in which the traditional conception of the ultimate sovereignty of the British parliament became more and more attenuated was, of course, chiefly evident in areas where British or, at least, European settlers had settled in large numbers. By contrast, in places such as India, where the Europeans were vastly outnumbered by the indigenous peoples, more autocratic forms of government were retained. None the less, however partial, the gradual dismantling of these often autocratic forms of imperial control was an indication that the empire was acquiring a new form, as the fear of revolution began to abate. The growth of free trade also contributed to the dismantling of many of the mercantilist controls over empire with which Hawkesbury, Sheffield, and their allies had attempted to shore up British economic, strategic, and political power. In 1776 the shock of the American Revolution marked the beginnings of an imperial policy which was based on fear of revolution and which was wary of too great a measure of colonial autonomy. By 1832, in contrast, at least the general outlines of another conception of empire, which allowed for a considerable loosening of the reins of political and economic control, could be discerned.


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John Gascoigne