Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 (London: Routledge, 2020)

2020, it now seems clear, is a decisive year in British history, however it ends. It is a year that
has seen the disaster of a major pandemic and which will probably see Britain’s withdrawal
from Europe and possibly even herald the breakdown of the United Kingdom itself. Just
potentially, 2020 will see the final end of a process that began as long ago as 1603, when
England/Wales and Scotland were joined together through having a common monarch,
coming together properly in 1707 and being enlarged by the addition of the kingdom/colony
of Ireland into a new polity in 1801 called the United Kingdom. 1603 preceded by a couple of
years the founding of the East India Company, giving England and then Britain a toehold in
India, which became much bigger after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. It
was followed by the tentative starts of a British Empire in the Americas, begun in a chaotic
and disastrous fashion in England’s first settlement in North America, in Jamestown,
Virginia. By 1800, that empire, despite the political loss of the 13 colonies and the creation of
the USA, was extremely large and world-spanning. My book on how England and then
Britain went through this dramatic transformation, one that might be on the verge of finally
collapsing, between 1603 and 1800 is a British history as written by an historian of the
Atlantic world. It explores how the British nation was made in this period and how

England/Wales moved from being the pariah of Europe – insular nations devoted to
Protestantism and to the killing of monarchs – to near global dominance, with a powerful
empire and an even more flourishing economy. Britain by 1800 had become a mighty world
power and through the Industrial Revolution the richest country in the world, overturning in a
few decades China’s millennium-long presence at the top of wealthy nations. I pay particular
attention in my book to three things: imperialism, economic growth and changes in gender
relations.
And within these three topics, slavery is important, though it is only one of many themes that
I cover in this survey of a lengthy period in British history. I deal with slavery here less than I
do in other works but I take for consideration Barbara Solow’s famous statement that `it was
slavery that made the empty lands of the western hemisphere valuable … [and] what moved
in the Atlantic … was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies
and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products.’ America was
valuable to Britain because it had plantations and it had plantations due to the work of
enslaved Africans. Britain became the most important slavery nation in the eighteenth
century. That this was the case makes us pause when thinking about imperialism and the
development of settler societies in North America and Australasia. Britain’s movement into
the wider world was immensely successful for Britain itself, not least for its poorest
inhabitants, who got goods that they wanted from the colonies and could improve their
standard of living by moving out of Britain. It came, however, at great cost, including the
immiseriment of thousands of enslaved slaves, living miserable lives as coerced worker. The
gap between British prosperity and the misery Britain caused its non-white imperial subjects
was something that increasingly bothered thinking Britons, not least of whom was a young
Hull-born politician and evangelical, William Wilberforce, born in the triumphal year of
1759, when Britain acquired Canada, Senegal and Bengal, and who lived his life in a time
when Britain and its empire were important in the world in ways Britain never had been
before.
booker cover

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