The British Empire's beginnings

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, October 07, 2008 ,

Tory Historian has launched into Niall Ferguson’s highly praised “Empire” and found a fascinating analysis of how the British Empire began. Of course, the role of the privateers (pirates as far as the Spanish and the Portuguese were concerned) is well known.

English and Scottish explorers arrived in the New World a little late and could not find what they wanted – large amounts of gold that was enriching the King of Spain. Therefore, they acquired riches by raiding the Spanish and Portuguese ships and settlements, causing periodic small wars in Central and Southern America as well as the various islands.

On the other hand, it was a cheap way of finding new lands and of fighting the Spanish who had become a direct threat to England under Elizabeth. Send the ships out and let them earn their own keep. If they returned with gold and pearls a percentage went to the Queen. If not, they could take their chances.

The privateer (or pirate) Professor Ferguson spends some time on is the infamous Captain Henry Morgan who tried to terrorize Spanish settlements in present-day Cuba, Panama and a few other places. As Professor Ferguson points out:

The scale of such operations should not be exaggerated. Often the vessels involved were little more than rowing boats; the biggest ship Morgan had at his disposal in 1668 was no more than fifty feet long and had just eight guns. At most, they were disruptive to Spanish commerce. Yet they made him a rich man.
The real point of interest is what Captain Morgan did with his money. He claimed to be a “gentleman’s son of good quality” from Monmouthshire. This was disputed by some and a Frenchman, Exquemlin, who had probably taken part in some of the raids, wrote an account of Captain Morgan’s career, in which he implied that the man had arrived in the Caribbean as an indentured servant. The book was published first in Dutch, then in English.

This, Captain Morgan felt, was an insult to him, though he did not mind the descriptions of what he and his men did during those raids. When “The History of the Bucaniers” came out in England, the good captain sued the publisher and was awarded £200. Subsequent editions of the book had to be amended. It just goes to show that libel tourism has a longer history than any of us knew.

Well, what did he do with his ill-gotten gains?
He invested in Jamaican rreal estate, acquiring 836 acres of land in the Rio Minho valley (Morgan’s Valley today). Later, he added 4,000 acres in the parish of St Elizabeth. The point about this land was that it was ideal for growing sugar cane. And this provides the key to a more general change in the nature of British overseas expansion. The Empire had begun with the stealing of gold; it progressed with the cultivation of sugar.
The sugar duties brought the Crown substantial earnings and Jamaica became a prime economic asset that had to be defended. Fortifications were built to protect the harbour at Port Royal.
Significantly, the construction work at Port Royal was supervised by none other than Henry Morgan – now Sir Henry. Just a few years after his pirate raid on Gran Grenada, Morgan was now not merely a substantial planter, but also Vice-Admiral, Commandant of the Port Royal Regiment, Judge of the Admiralty Court, Justice of the peace and even Acting Governor of Jamaica.

Once a licensed pirate, the freelance was now being employed to govern a colony. Admittedly, Morgan lost all his official posts in 1681, after making “repeated divers extravagant expressions …. in his wine. But this was an honourable retirement. When he died in August 1688 the ships in Port Royal harbour took turns to fire twenty-two gun salutes.
And so the greatest Empire the world has ever known began in this rather ramshackle fashion.


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