British Colonial Developments, 1774-1834

By Vincent Harlow; Frederick Madden | Go to book overview

PREFACE

IN the history of British colonial developments the period between 1774 and 1834 is noteworthy as one in which old and new objectives strain and jostle against each other in the turbulence of swift waters. With the exploration of the Pacific in the age of Cook and the growth of industrial techniques an old ambition was revived, that is, to establish an empire of trading depôts in the Far East--in contradistinction to troublesome colonies in the West. Almost simultaneously an explosion occurred which shattered the North American Empire, and compelled politicians at home to adjust the imperial system to take account of an independent United States and an autonomous Ireland.

On the constitutional side the official policy was twofold: to reproduce the 'perfect equipoise' of the British constitution in the Canadian wilderness as an antidote to subversive republicanism, and to rule non-British dependencies by the benevolent dictatorship of an evolving Crown Colony system. At the end of our period the problem of internal colonial self-government, stimulated by a renewal of large-scale emigration, was just about to reappear over the rim of the horizon. With regard to the regulation of trade a modified form of the Old Colonial System was vigorously operated; but as merchants and manufacturers began to think with increasing confidence in global terms the tenets of Adam Smith began at long last to win more general acceptance, and the rigidities of imperial monopoly were gradually replaced by the principle of reciprocal concessions--the prelude to the experiment in free trade. These and other related trends were accentuated (and in some cases temporarily distorted) by the strain of the long struggle with revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

During this span of sixty years other changes took place which exerted a formative influence upon later imperial policy. The sustained campaign against the slave trade, the unavailing struggle to induce the planters to ameliorate slave conditions, followed by the imposition of slave emancipation by an imperial statute, marked the growth of a sense of responsibility for primitive peoples which immensely complicated relations with European settlers, particularly along weakly held frontiers, but also provided an enduring inspiration as Britain became increasingly an African power.

In compiling a collection of documents which would give as balanced a view as possible of this diverse range of experimentation overseas we have adopted certain principles of selection. In the first place we are concerned, not with the political and economic disputes

-v-

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