Britain’s colonial past

In 1600 the East India Company was formed under Elizabeth I to compete with Dutch traders in the oriental spice trade. The company was given a monopoly on all goods imported to England from Asia. From the 1750s the company became more ambitious, starting to invade and conquer parts of India. It was now the biggest company in the world, and also an unofficial arm of the British government. When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the whole of India was under British rule, and she was made Empress of India. When she died in 1901, the British Empire had expanded so much that it included one fifth of the total population of the world.

As tea and coffee grew in popularity in Britain in the 18th century, the demand for sugar to sweeten them also grew. Sugar plantations in the West Indies owned by European colonists needed more workers, so their owners imported slaves from West Africa. A circular trade developed and islands such as Jamaica and the Bahamas became British colonies. Ships from Britain carried cotton and metal goods to Africa, where they were traded for slaves, who were taken on a three-month voyage to the West Indies. They were traded with the plantation owners for sugar, and the sugar returned to Britain. Georgian Britain, especially the ports of Liverpool and Bristol, grew rich on the profits of the slave trade, turning a blind eye to the cruelty and the suffering involved.


The East India Company also held a monopoly on the import of Chinese tea, which became popular and fashionable in the 18th century. Trading posts around China such as Singapore and Hong Kong soon became colonies. At the same time, people in America, which the British had colonized in Elizabethan times, were protesting about high taxes on the import of common goods from England. A revolutionary group called the Sons of Liberty began turning back British tea ships from American ports, and in 1773 they threw tea worth thousands of pounds into Boston Harbour. The “Boston Tea y” was the first of many acts of rebellion that quickly led to war with England and, in 1776, to American independence. 

Potatoes, originally from Colombia, were introduced to England by Elizabethan explorers. Sir Walter Raleigh grew them on his land in Ireland, which in those days was under British rule. The Irish, poor and constantly at war internally or with the English, began to rely on this crop, witch was easy to grow and produced a good yield. The poorest families ate nothing else. But in the 1840s a fungus infected the crops and more than one million people died of hunger. Another two million emigrated, mostly to North America, and a de-populated Ireland remained under British rule until 1922.

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