The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

2
Economics and Empire: The Metropolitan Context

P. J. CAIN

Despite the loss of the American colonies, Britain was still the greatest Imperial power in the world in the 1790s, a position emphatically confirmed by her victory in the Napoleonic Wars. In the following century the Empire expanded greatly in area on four continents. By 1914 it had become a global phenomenon of immense economic and cultural diversity and by far the largest, most populous and most prosperous of the European Imperial domains. Yet despite its impressive dimensions, the Empire never recaptured the position of importance in Britain's economic life it had held before 1776. Britain's overseas economic relations between 1790 and 1914 spanned the globe: in the latter part of the century around three- fifths of its trade was with extra-European partners, a proportion far greater than that of any other major industrializing power.1 Imperial economic ties were never more than part of this broader pattern of trade and the associated movements of people and capital. In economic terms, the British Empire always exercised a far greater influence on the mother country than did the overseas possessions of France or Germany: but that influence was not great enough for Imperial considerations to dominate British international economic policy which became infected by the spirit of free-trade cosmopolitanism.

The expansion of trade with the American colonies had been one major reason for the rapid growth in importance of the Imperial element in overseas relations in the eighteenth century. The loss of the colonies in the 1770s converted about one- fifth of Britain's exports from Imperial to foreign trade at a stroke; and, since the emerging United States continued to provide one of Britain's most dynamic markets, growing dramatically as a source of supplies and providing the biggest single outlet for British migrants and capital in the nineteenth century, the rupture had an enduring influence. Moreover, the independence of the American colonies occurred precisely when, as a result of the industrial revolution, Britain's competitive advantage as an international trader was becoming marked in terms of both industry and services, spreading British economic influence across the whole

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1
Paul Bairoch, "'Geographical Structure and Trade Balances of European Foreign Trade from 1800 to 1970'", Journal of European Economic History (hereafter JEEcH), III ( 1974), Tables 5 and 6.

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