Saturday, January 24, 2015

An Empire On The Edge

On January 24, 1774 the British Colonial Office asked James Scott, captain of the Hayley, to come brief them on reports circulating in recent days of shocking events in Boston. The Hayley had arrived at Dover on January 19 carrying barrels of tar sent by a Boston merchant, John Hancock.  The very next day, the stock of the British East India Company (which we last encountered in Dr Brydon Reaches Jalalabad) began to fall and by January 21 the London papers were claiming that the company's tea had been dumped into Boston harbor.

The next day Hayley appeared and recounted the events of December 16, 1773 being careful not to implicate Hancock.  It is that event, known to us as the Boston Tea Party, that in the analysis of Nick Bunker, author of a new book, An Empire On The Edge, made the American revolution inevitable.

As Americans we are used to seeing the origins of the revolution through the eyes of our patriot leaders like Sam Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, James Otis and Patrick Henry while we have our own well-known path to revolt; The Proclamation of 1763, The Stamp Act, The Townsend Act, The Boston Massacre, The Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts.  Bunker tells the story from the other side, through British eyes, particularly those of the key government actors and he does it with an emphasis on finance and economics perhaps befitting given his background as an investment banker and then as a journalist for the Financial Times.  And it certainly looks different from that perspective.  For an American everything that happened leading to the revolution was important at the time it occurred but for the British, the North American colonies were mostly a backwater receiving little attention (the American colonies are not mentioned at all during the entire year of correspondence between Lord North and George III in 1773).

Bunker starts his story in late 1771, more than a year after the Boston Massacre telling two tales in parallel, the efforts of British officials to stop the massive about of smuggling contraband into the colonies in defiance of Britain's mercantile restriction and, a world away, of how the China tea trade and its boom and bust cycle led the East India Company into a financial crisis that threatened the stability of Britain and eventually to the shipping of surplus tea to Boston - along with explaining the cultural and economic importance of tea to Britain and all its colonies.  And two centuries on tea is still a big deal in England as The Kinks remind us: The first tale culminates with the burning of the British naval schooner Gaspe which had been hunting smugglers in the Providence River in the summer of 1792 and the inability of the government to prosecute anyone.  Bunker points out that even by that time Rhode Island and Connecticut were virtually independent under their colonial charters and with little or no Royal presence.
The tale of venality and speculation that led to the East India Company to the brink and the poor decision making by Lord North's government that resulted in the Tea Party while convoluted is told in a clear and very understandable way.  While the American colonists thought the East India Company and the government were in cahoots, Bunker says the reality was much different:
"George III disliked the company intensely.  A monarch of simple tastes . . . the king believed that the best parts of the nation were the farmers.  In his eyes, speculators like Colebrooke [Chairman of the East India Company] could never speak for an England with honest agriculture at its heart. . . . the king used the word 'rapine' to describe the misconduct that brought the East India Company to its knees.  Although Lord North expressed himself more diplomatically, he viewed the directors with the same distaste."
In fact, Lord North used the company's financial crisis to wring concessions from it that allowed more government control, including over its profitable India provinces.
All of this goes to the rather ramshackle way Britain acquired and managed its 18th century empire; which was much different from the empire of Queen Victoria from the mid-19 century.  It was above all a mercantile empire which was created by adventurers under charters granted by an England which lacked the funds to do it on its own.  The result was a sprawling company in Asia which had carved out first a commercial and then an actual land empire.  In North America and the West Indies there were more than 25 colonies most with their own charts and legislative assemblies and, particularly in North America, very little presence of British officials.

Bunker draws vivid portraits of the main government players, Lord North who remained Prime Minister through 1781, Lords Hillsborough and Dartmouth who ran the Colonial Office and a hot of other characters including Charles  Jenkinson, the aide at Treasury who authored the January 1773 plan to force Americans to buy the tea and pay the threepenny tax and who was described by biographer as "a born bureaucrat of restricted sympathies".

All of them shared a mindset that made it impossible for them to understand the concerns of the colonists.

For the British, the purpose of British North America was purely business.  As Lord Hillsborough put it in a memorandum of April 1772 the sole purpose of the colonies was "to improve and extend commerce, navigation and manufactures of this kingdom, upon which its strength and security depends".  He then lists the four reasons that justified their existence:

1) fisheries 
2) raw materials - timber, tar, hemp for the navy fleet
3) a captive market for goods manufactured in Great Britain
4) America's role in supplying food and lumber to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, which were of much more value to Britain than all the colonies on the mainland combined.

To control and maintain the colonies for this purpose Hillsborough concluded that they needed to remain coastal communities and their expansion to the west strictly limited which became a major grievance for colonists, particularly in the middle and southern colonies. North)
This inability to understand America in anything other than commercial terms (the government insisted that smugglers were the only troublesome colonists) and the way that American development had diverged from the Britain they knew had devastating consequences when they implemented policies such as the Tea Act in 1774.  In Bunker's words:
"It was a short term expedient intended to prop up the company, undercut the smugglers, and reassert the doctrine that Britain had the right to levy taxes in America.  It did not occur to North and his colleagues that while for them tea was just an object of trade, in the colonies it would acquire a new meaning [as a symbol of tyranny]."

". . . the British scarcely saw the colonies at all as anything more than a bundle of economic resources or a destination for convicts"
Even the mercantile speculators aspired to a life of the landed gentry in Britain.  A gentleman's rank and status was everything. 
"From North's perspective, a planter from Virginia might just qualify as the equal of an English landlord.  But even there he had his doubts, and the artisans and laborers of Massachusetts did not count at all.  In November and December 1773, when the people of Boston threw open their meetings to everyone, including the landless and the unemployed, they not only broke the law.  They violated every principle of government to which North and his colleagues adhered." 
Bunker writes that Hancock was particularly incomprehensible to North who viewed the merchant as duty-bound to defend the status quo.  He didn't realize that while in America "the wealthy expected to lord it over their neighbors, they had to ask their permission first" something simply unthinkable to North.

What also strikes the reader is the small size of the colonial bureaucracy and the difficulties of timely communication in a day of sailing ships.  The Colonial Office in London, which oversaw all the colonies, was staffed by less than ten people.  The government appointees on the ground in North America, other than the governors, were few and far between and mostly confined to the coastal port regions.  Even with the governors the quality and frequency of their official correspondence with the Colonial Office was extremely erratic and unreliable.  For this reason, until the verge of fighting in 1775 the officials in London thought the problem was mostly confined to Massachusetts while in reality their were major organized resistance groups forming throughout New England, New York, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina, the latter of which was in peaceful revolt for a year prior to Lexington and Concord.

Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virgina, the largest and most prosperous colony, was particularly derelict.  In March 1773 the Virginia assembly selected its own Committee of Correspondence (including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson) to coordinate with the similar committee established in Massachusetts by Sam Adams, a momentous step which should have indicated how serious and widespread a problem Britain was facing.  Yet in the six official letters Dunmore sent to the Colonial Office in the first half of 1773, none mentioned this committee and then the governor sent no further letters for nine months!

The Colonial Office's lack of information is astonishing.  It was only in 1774 that it sent a survey to all of the governors asking for the most basic information including population and simple economic data.

It was no better on the military side.  General Gage, the British Commander in Chief since 1765, was based in Manhattan and had no knowledge of New England or the southern colonies.  Nonetheless he felt confident enough when on leave back in England in early 1774 to advise George III that if Britain was firm the rebels would back down and show themselves "very meek".  When, later that year, Gage went to Boston to oversee the closing of the port and the buildup of the army garrison he realized how poor his advice had been.,_2nd_Earl_of_Dartmouth.jpg(Lord Dartmouth)
Finally, in late January 1775 Lord Dartmouth sent instructions to Gage to suppress the rebellion by force of arms and to arrest its leaders for treason.  Due to the vagaries of winter weather in the North Atlantic, Gage didn't receive the instructions until April 14.  Five days later the Redcoats marched out of Boston to seize reported rebel arms in Concord and into history.

A fitting epitaph was later written by William Knox, second undersecretary of the Colonial Office) whose recommendations for reform of the colonial system had been ignored:
"It was with no small degree of astonishment that I perceived a total want of plan or system in the British government" calling the history of British North America a sad chronicle of "neglect, Ignorance, bad Law and worse Policy".

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