1.13 Around the Globe

Trade Empires and Early Capitalism

The British

Even as the British were actively participating in the Slave Trade in the Atlantic region, they began the process of seizing control of territory in India as well. There, they set up self-contained merchant colonies (called factories) run by the English East India Company (EIC), which had a legal monopoly of trade just as its Dutch counterpart did in the Netherlands. The original impetus behind the EIC was profitable trade, not political power per se.

Britain, however, eventually came to control India outright. As of the mid-eighteenth century, however, British power in India was limited to its factories, which served as clearinghouses for trade with Indian merchants. In 1756, however, an Indian prince sent an army to Calcutta to drive out the British, whom he hated and resented, resulting in the massacre of hundreds of English noncombatants and thousands of their Indian colleagues and allies. The next year, a small British force of 800 men with 2,000 Indian mercenary troops (called sepoys) defeated the prince at the Battle of Plassey, then began the process of taking over the entire province of Bengal.


Hayman, Francis. "Robert Clive and Mia Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757." c. 1760
Hayman, Francis. “Robert Clive and Mia Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757.” c. 1760.National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia. March 30, 2009.

The takeover of Bengal started the slow creep of British power: tax revenue supplemented mercantile revenue, which allowed the British to hire tens of thousands of sepoys, who they armed with modern European weapons. That, in turn, both allowed the British to drive out the French from Indian territories and to dominate Indian princes, thereby seizing yet more Indian territory. In this patchwork fashion, the EIC expanded its power in India over the next century, directly controlling some territories, indirectly controlling others through Indian puppet princes, and economically dominating others. The result was that the EIC, a private corporation backed by the British state, controlled almost all of the Indian subcontinent by the middle of the nineteenth century.

On the other side of the world, while far less economically important than the Caribbean, North America was still a focus of European colonization. Britain was one of the two major powers – France the other – that colonized areas of the eastern seaboard of North America. While initial attempts at colonization either failed or struggled to survive (e.g. almost all of the original settlers at Jamestown in Virginia were dead by the time more arrived in 1610), the survivors discovered that they could at least grown one cash crop that would both enrich themselves and tempt other Europeans to immigrate: tobacco. Likewise, a relatively small part of the slave trade soon included the importation of slaves to work first the tobacco fields, and then later cotton fields, farther south. Simultaneously, a French explorer named Samuel de Champlain founded the colony of Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. That soon became the center of New France, and its cash “crop” consisted of furs gained through barter with Native American groups or taken by French trappers.

Until the latter half of the seventeenth century, these were small-scale colonies compared to the vast states of Central and South America. Slowly but surely, however, colonists did arrive in North America, and not always for economic reasons. Britain came to boast the largest population of colonists among Europeans in North America in the seventeenth century because English religious dissenters, Puritans, fled persecution from the Anglican state and began to settle in Massachusetts by the thousands in the 1620s (this was during the period under James I and Charles I before the English Civil War). That said, the North American colonies all remained small and economically unimportant compared to the colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean until well into the eighteenth century.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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