with permission from Dr. George P. Landow
The growth of the British Empire was due in large part to the ongoing competition for resources and markets which existed over a period of centuries between England and her Continental rivals, Spain, France, and Holland. During the reign of Elizabeth I, England set up trading companies in Turkey, Russia, and the East Indies, explored the coast of North America, and established colonies there. In the early seventeenth century those colonies were expanded and the systematic colonization of Ulster in Ireland got underway.
The first British Empire was a mercantile one. Under both the Stuarts and Cromwell, the mercantilist outlines of further colonization and Empire-building became more and more apparent. Until the early nineteenth century, the primary purpose of Imperialist policies was to facilitate the acquisition of as much foreign territory as possible, both as a source of raw materials and in order to provide real or potential markets for British manufactures. The mercantilists advocated in theory, and sought in practice, trade monopolies which would insure that Britain's exports would exceed its imports. A profitable balance of trade, it was believed, would provide the wealth necessary to maintain and expand the empire.
After ultimately successful wars with the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish in the seventeenth century, Britain managed to acquire most of the eastern coast of North America, the St. Lawrence basin in Canada, territories in the Carribean, stations in Africa for the acquisition of slaves, and important interests in India. The loss in the late eighteenth century of the American colonies was not offset by the discovery of Australia, which served, after 1788, as a penal colony (convicts like Magwitch, in Dickens's Great Expectations, were transported there). However, the loss influenced the so-called "swing to the East" (the acquisition of trading and strategic bases along the trade routes between India and the Far East). In 1773 the British government was obliged to take over for the financially troubled East India Company, which had been in India since 1600, and by the end of the century Britain's control over India extended into neighboring Afghanistan and Burma.
With the end, in 1815, of the Napoleonic Wars, the last of the great imperial wars which had dominated the eighteenth century, Britain found itself in an extraordinarily powerful position, though a complicated one. It acquired Dutch South Africa, for example, but found its interests threatened in India by the southern and eastern expansion of the Russians. (The protection of India from the Russians, both by land and by sea, would be a major concern of Victorian foreign policy). At this time, however, the empires of Britain's traditional rivals had been lost or severely diminished in size, and its imperial position was unchallenged. In addition, it had become the leading industrial nation of Europe, and more and more of the world came under the domination of British commercial, financial, and naval power.
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