Saturday, 29 June 2019

The First Industrial Nation

In the latter part of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, Britain underwent what historians have called an ‘industrial revolution’ with factories pouring out goods, chimneys polluting the air, escalating exports and productivity spiralling upwards. This was an epic drama, of Telford, the Stephensons and the Darbys, Macadam, Brunel and Wedgwood, a revolution not simply of inventions and economic growth but of the spirit of enterprise within an unbridled market economy. This is, however, misleading. Industrial change was not something that occurred simply after 1780 but took place throughout the eighteenth century. There was substantial growth in a whole range of traditional industries as well as in the obviously ‘revolutionary’ cases of textiles, iron and coal. Technical change was not necessarily mechanisation but the wider use of hand working and the division of labour. Changes were the result of the conjunction of old and new processes. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation varied: the ‘dark satanic mills’ were not all conquering. In 1850, factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops, large-scale mining, and metal production. Change also varied across industries and regions.[1]
How did industrialisation occur in Britain 1780-1850?
Why did economic change occur in Britain between 1780 and 1850? Answering this question usually focuses on why industries like cotton, iron and coal expanded and what influence the spread of steam power had. These areas were important but undue emphasis on them neglects the broader economic experiences of Britain. Similarly, the question ‘Why did the industrial revolution take place in Britain rather than France or Germany?’ misses the crucial point that economic change did not occur in Britain as a whole. Growth was regional and industrialisation took place in particular locations like Lancashire, the Central Lowlands of Scotland and South Wales and around Belfast. Explaining the industrial revolution is a very difficult undertaking since economic change had an effect, however small, on all aspects of society. Some circumstances that were present in Britain made change possible and, in that sense, can be said to be causal. Others held back progress but change occurred despite them.
If it is possible to identify a single cause for the industrial revolution, then a strong case can be made for population increase. Between 1780 and 1850, the population of England and Wales increased from over seven to nearly eighteen million. This led to mounting demand for goods like food and housing. Nevertheless, the increase in demand for other goods--more manufactured goods or more efficient means of communication--did not necessarily follow from population expansion. The problem is one of timing. When did population growth occur? When did economic growth occur? Did they correspond? Although historians broadly accept population growth from the mid-eighteenth century, they do not agree when the economy began to grow.
If population growth stimulated demand, you would expect economic and population growth to coincide. However, they did not. Accelerated economic growth was concentrated in the last quarter of the eighteenth century while the maximum rate of population growth on mainland Britain was not achieved until after 1810. Population began to expand after 1750 and some historians argue that this provided the final ingredient necessary to trigger off industrialisation. Berg and Craft have shown that the origins of higher growth rates went back to the early decades of the century. In this scenario, population growth came after the beginnings of economic growth.
The impact of population growth causes problems for historians who argue for economic growth from the 1780s and those who see growth as something that began earlier in the century. It had favourable effects on economic growth in three important respects. Population growth provided Britain with an abundant and cheap supply of labour. Population growth also stimulated investment in industry and agriculture by its effects on demand for goods and services. Urbanisation made it profitable to create or improve services.[2] For instance, the building of the canal from the Bridgewater coalmines at Worsley to Manchester took advantage of the growing demand for domestic coal. The role of population growth in the origins of Britain’s industrial revolution was far from straightforward. Population growth in mainland Britain stimulated an already growing economy. However, in Ireland population growth in the eighteenth century was followed by stagnation in the first half of the nineteenth century and by famine.
Britain was a relatively wealthy country in the mid-eighteenth century with a well-established system of banking. This enabled people to build up savings and provided them with capital to invest. Between 1750 and 1770, there was growing investment in roads, canals, and buildings and in enclosing land. This process continued after 1780 through to the 1850s with continued investment in transport and enclosure and in the expansion of the textile and iron industries, and after 1830 in the development of railways.
The annual rate of domestic investment rose from about £13 million in the 1780s to over £40 million by the 1830s. The ratio of gross investment to the gross national product rose from 6 per cent in the 1770s to 12 per cent by the 1790s at which level, it remained until 1850. Widespread capital investment was largely confined to a small, though important part of the economy. Capital investment rose in farming, communications and textiles, especially cotton and in iron and steel. Other areas of the economy were often undercapitalised relative to these industries.
Capital investment in farming was largely on enclosures, drainage and buildings. Landowners ploughed back about 6 per cent of their total income into the land. This rose to about 16 per cent during the French wars when high wheat prices encouraged investment in enclosure. Investment fell back after 1815 with the onset of depression and did not revive until the 1840s. In the 1780s, a third of investment was in farming. By 1850, this had fallen to an eighth. By contrast, there was a rapid growth of investment in industry and communications. Annual investment in industry and trade rose from £2 million in the 1780s to £17 million by 1850. Between 1780 and 1830, there was an annual investment of £1.5 million on canals and roads and for the improvement of docks and harbours. These figures were dwarfed by investment in railways that peaked at £15 million per year in the 1840s, some 28 per cent of all investment. The increase in the availability of capital to invest allowed economic growth to occur.
Britain was already a well-established trading nation. Colonies were important sources of raw materials as well as markets for manufactured goods. London was a major centre for the re-export trade. The slave trade played a major role in the development of Liverpool and Bristol and its profits provided an important source of capital for early industrialisation. By the 1780s, the export trade was expanding annually by 2.6 per cent. Cotton production depended on international trade and was responsible for half the increase in the value of exports between 1780 and 1830, for just over half Britain’s exports by 1830 and three-quarters of all exports were associated with textiles. This represented a narrow trading base and helps to explain why the British economy underwent depression in the 1830s and early 1840s. British factories were over-producing for European and global markets already saturated with textile goods. The result was some changes in the goods exported with iron exports growing from 6 per cent in the 1810s to 20 per cent by 1850 and the growing importance of coal exports. In the 1780s, Europe was a major market for British goods and this remained the case in 1850.
However, there were important changes in the destination of British goods. The United States increasingly became a focus for exports of manufactured goods and for raw cotton. This process was helped by the opening up of the Latin American markets in the early nineteenth century. India was a huge market for cotton goods. Similar possibilities exited in the Middle East and South America. Britain increasingly shifted trade towards less developed economies that provided growing imports of tropical products to Britain and other industrialised countries like Germany and France. Overseas trade has been highlighted by some historians as a primary cause of economic growth. The growth of export industries at a faster rate than other industries was closely linked to foreign trade.
To what extent was the growth in trade between 1780 and 1850 central to Britain’s economic development? It stimulated a domestic demand for the products of British industry. International trade gave access to raw materials that both widened the range and cheapened the products of British industries. It provided purchasing power for countries to buy British goods since trade is a two-way process. Profits from trade were used to finance industrial expansion and agricultural improvement. It was a major cause of the growth of large towns and industrial centres. The role of British trade must, however, be put into perspective. Changes in the pattern of British trade between 1780 and 1850--the export or re-export of manufactured goods in return for imports of foodstuffs and raw materials--were relatively small and the industrial developments from the 1780s consolidated already existing trends. Exports may have helped textiles and iron to expand but they made little impact on the unmodernised, traditional manufacturing sectors.
By 1750, Britain was already a highly mobile society. Travel may have been slow and, on occasions dangerous but it was not uncommon. Within a hundred years, the British landscape was scarred by canals and railways and traversed by improved roads and the movement of goods and people quickened dramatically. Turnpike roads and the emergence of a sophisticated coaching industry, canals with their barges carrying the raw materials and manufactured goods of the industrial revolution, new harbours and the railways were symbolic of ‘progress’ as much as factories and enclosed fields.
Britain’s road system in the mid-eighteenth century was extensive but under-funded.[3] Just over £1 million was spent annually but this was insufficient to maintain the road system necessary to growing trade and manufactures. Turnpike roads, the first was established in 1663, grew slowly in the first half of the eighteenth century. An average of eight were established each year. From the 1750s, this went up to about forty a year and from the 1790s, to nearly sixty. By the mid-1830s, there were 1,116 turnpike trusts in England and Wales managing slightly more than a sixth of all roads, some 22,000 miles. Parallel to this, there were improvements in the quality of road building associated particularly with Thomas Telford and John Loudon Macadam. What contribution did turnpike and parish roads make to improved communication in Britain between 1780 and 1850? Spending on parish roads did not increase markedly though there was a significant growth in spending by turnpike trusts. This reached a peak of £1.5 million per year in the 1820s. The problem was that improvements to the road system were patchy and dependent on private initiatives. Despite this, there were significant reductions in journey times between the main centres of population. In the 1780s, it took ten days to travel from London to Edinburgh; by the 1830s, 45 hours. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of passengers carried by a rapidly expanding coaching industry. The road system transported all kinds of industrial material and manufactured goods. There was a significant growth of carrier firms after 1780. In London, for instance, there were 353 firms in 1790 but 735 in the mid-1820s and a five-fold increase in the number of carriers in Birmingham between 1790 and 1830. These firms were, however, unable to compete with the canals or the railways and concentrated on providing short distance carriage of goods from canals and railway stations to local communities.
The major problem facing early industrialists was the cost of carrying heavy, bulky goods like coal or iron ore. The solution was to use water, rivers, coastal transport and from the 1760s, canals. The first phase of canal development took place in the 1760s and early 1770s beginning with the construction of the Bridgewater canal. The second phase, in the 1790s, has rightly been called ‘canal mania’ with the completion of several important canals and the setting-up of fifty-one new schemes. By 1820, the canal network was largely completed linking all the major centres of industrial production and population.
Canals dramatically enhanced the efficiency of the whole economy by making a cheap system of transport available for goods and passengers. The price of raw materials like coal, timber, iron, wood and cotton tumbled. The needs of farming, whether for manure or for access to markets for grain, cheese and butter, were easily satisfied where farmers had access to canals. Canals were a means of overcoming the fuel crisis that threatened to limit industrial growth by making cheap, abundant coal supplies available. The building of canals created massive employment and spending power at a time when growing industries were looking for mass markets. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of canals to Britain’s industrial development between 1780 and 1830.
From 1830, railways were the epoch-making transport innovation. Between 1830 and 1850, 7,000 miles of track was laid with railway ‘manias’ in the 1830s and between 1844 and 1847 when investment was at its peak. Their economic importance lay in their ability to handle both major types of traffic--people and goods--that no other single mode of transport had previously been able. They offered lower costs and greater speed attracting passengers, mail and high-value goods. Mail went to new railways within six months and coaches running in direct competition lost out. However, canals were able, by cutting their rates and improving their services, to continue to carry goods for several years. In 1840, the volume of traffic carried by canal from Liverpool to Manchester was more than twice that carried by railway. The Victorians had no hesitation in assuming a direct link between railways and economic growth though historians are today far less convinced. There was increased demand for coal and iron. In the 1840s, 30 per cent of brick production went into railways and between 1830 and 1845, some 740 million bricks were used in railway construction. Towns grew up round established engineering centres at Swindon, Crewe, Rugby and Doncaster. Food could be transported more cheaply and arrived fresher. There is, however, no doubting their social and cultural impact of railways. This is clearly supported by the statistics. 64,000 passengers were in 1843 but 174,000 in 1848 with an increase in the third-class element from 19,000 to 86,000 in the same period.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 reinforced this increased mobility of population.
Between 1780 and 1850, great output was achieved by the transport industry, as in manufacturing industry, by applying a rapidly increasing labour force to existing modes of production as well as using new techniques and applying steam-driven machinery. Historians have emphasised the importance of canals and railways that respectively in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in reducing transport costs. However, coastal and river traffic and carriage of goods and people by road remained important and the horse was the main means of transport well beyond 1850.
Social factors
British society in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was profoundly conservative. How was a society with highly traditional structures able to generate changes in so many areas of economic life? By 1780, British society was capitalist in character and organisation. Its aristocracy was remarkably ‘open’, allowing the newly rich and talented to ‘climb’. The most successful merchants, professional and businessmen in each generation were funnelled off into landed society. Success brought wealth and the ultimate proof of success in business was the ability to leave it. In France, where social climbing was discouraged there was political and social discontent and ultimately political revolution. In Britain, where social climbing was not obstructed, there was an industrial revolution.
Britain was already a highly market-oriented society. Imports, whether smuggled or not, were quickly moved to market. Domestic goods, both agricultural and manufactured, were bought and sold directly at the network of markets or through middlemen, who acted as a channel between producer and consumer. Until 1830, the key to economic growth was growing home demand for consumer goods. Growing consumption influenced trade and economic growth. Possessing and using domestic goods enhanced social status or displayed social rank. Lower food prices after 1780 may well have stimulated a consumer boom: people had more disposable income. There was a dramatic increase in the number of permanent shops in major urban centres and many of the characteristics of modern advertising emerged with circulars, showrooms and elaborate window displays. Changing patterns of consumption created an environment in which manufacturers could exploit known and growing demand.
Finally, entrepreneurial skill and ‘enterprise’ played a major role in the development of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century economy. British society did not prevent entrepreneurs from using their talents and motivation. Entrepreneurs organised production, brought together capital (their own or others’) and labour and selected the geographical site for operations, the technologies to be used, bargained for raw materials and found markets for their products. They often combined the roles of financiers, capitalists, work managers, merchants and salesmen. Three main explanations for the place of entrepreneurs in leading economic change have been identified by historians. There was a change in the ways people viewed social status from one where it was the result of birth to one where it related to what individuals achieved. Status was based on what you did, not who you were. This was a reflection of the openness and mobility of British society. Nonconformity seems to have been a crucial experience for many of the first-generation entrepreneurs encouraging a set of values outwardly favourable to economic enterprise. Entrepreneurs were able effectively to exploit advances in technology and industrial organisation. Most entrepreneurs were not pioneers of major innovations or inventions but realised how best to utilise them. James Watt would not have been successful but for the entrepreneurial skills of Matthew Boulton. This allowed them to manufacture and market goods effectively within a highly competitive consumer society.
There was no blueprint for the ‘industrial revolution’. Population growth stimulated demand that entrepreneurs were able to satisfy. Developments in transport led to reductions in the cost of production making manufactured goods cheaper. Investment in industry often brought good returns. The state made little attempt to control growth. Foreign trade brought raw materials and profits that could be invested in enterprise. The social structure was adaptable and relatively flexible. Each of these factors helped create an environment in which change could occur.
[1] Historians disagree on a number of issues concerning the industrial revolution. It is, however, increasingly clear that the traditional view of the revolution as dynamic and relatively short-lived provides an incomplete picture. We have to consider change ‘in slow motion’ as well.
[2] There were 800 market towns in England and Wales in the 1780s. This reflected the intensity of production and the ability of particular areas to specialise in particular products. These products were then moved to markets across the country often using the turnpike roads. In 1767, 16,000 sheep and 14,000 cattle passed through the Birdlip Hill Turnpike in Gloucester en route from south Wales to London. Imports of coal into London from the north-east rose from one million to three million tons per year between 1720 and 1790.
[3] From the 1550s, the parish had responsibility for maintaining roads. This may have been adequate for dealing with local roads but the major or trunk roads not maintained very well. Local people thought that the people who used these roads should pay for their upkeep. The result was the development of turnpike roads, financed by private turnpike trusts, which people were charged a toll to use.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

How did Palmerston secure British interests 1830-1841?

Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, became the Whig Foreign Secretary in late 1830. Born in 1784, Palmerston ­entered Parliament in 1807. In 1809, he became Secretary at War, without a seat in the cabinet. He remained at the War Office until 1828. He was generally regarded as hard-working and competent but in the late 1820s seemed destined to be only a minor political figure.
Canning brought Palmerston into the Cabinet in April 1827 but his unexpected death in August 1827 led to political disarray. Canningites led by Huskisson and Palmerston remained in office under Goderich and continued under Wellington until May 1828. The five months the Canningites were in Wellington’s Cabinet frustrated Palmerston and, freed from the constraints of office, he vigorously attacked government policy over Greece and Portugal, arguing for an extension of Greek territory and against Wellington’s support for the absolutist Miguel. His speech of 1 June 1829 was a comprehensive denunciation of foreign policy on both these issues, in which he presented his interpretation of Canningite foreign policy.
The speech had little impact at the time. Wellington did not take it too seriously. This was not Palmerston’s view and he circulated copies to the press and later provided a version for inclusion in Hansard.[1] Palmerston saw himself as Canning’s true successor but his emphasis was different. Canning was aggressive in his approach but his policies were cautious. Palmerston was more uncompromising arguing for intervention in support of Britain’s vital interests. He gave the foreign policy debate a distinctly ideological slant, insisting that Britain stood for the defence of constitutional rights in other countries and for the extension of ‘liberty and civilisation’. There is little evidence that Palmerston was making a play for the Foreign Office in preference to any other offices. Grey had considered him as Leader of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary before making him Foreign Secretary.
Palmerston did not take a prominent part in the reform debates in the early 1830s. He had reservations about parliamentary reform though he did believe that ‘piecemeal’ reform could prevent revolution. Grey had a major influence on foreign policy between 1830 and 1834 and his support and often-detailed guidance were central to Palmerston’s success. He did not control Palmerston’s actions but a kind of inner cabinet consisting of Grey, Lansdowne, Holland and Palmerston was largely responsible for foreign policy decisions. Certainly, Palmerston did not have the prestige he enjoyed later but even under Melbourne from 1834 to 1841, he was still engaged in trying to balance often-contradictory opinions.
In the 1830s, Palmerston was faced with the results of a series of challenges to the Vienna Settlement. The July Revolution of 1830 in France was seen by Palmerston, and ironically by Wellington and Aber­deen as a limited political revolution, which the Bourbon king had brought upon himself. He also recognised that the new government of Louis Philippe was not aggressive and that the best way of maintaining stability in Europe was to recognise the fait accompli. Revolution had, however spread from France into Belgium, where riots broke out in August.
The Belgian problem
The decision to unite Belgium and Holland in 1815 under the Dutch House of Orange provided a barrier to French expansion into the Low Countries. The two countries had economies that were complementary and religious and linguistic divisions did not correspond to existing boundaries. However, it proved a difficult union and the Belgians increasingly felt repressed by the Dutch. In early 1830, Wellington had established an ambassadorial conference in London to discuss the problem that Palmerston inherited. The outbreak of revolution in Poland in mid-1830 distracted the eastern powers that would have supported Holland had France intervened and Louis Philippe’s government was too insecure to risk a serious quarrel with Britain.
The Belgians drew up a new constitution and in February 1831 elected the Duke of Nemours, the son of Louis Philippe, as their king. Knowing this would prove unacceptable to the other Powers, Louis Philippe vetoed it and Leopold of Saxe-Coburg became Leopold I of the Belgians. William I of Holland accepted Belgian independence in January 1831 but his claims over the Duchy of Luxembourg led to a Dutch invasion in August 1831. Leopold appealed for aid and while the British fleet blockaded the coast, the French army forced the Dutch to withdraw.
The great powers agreed as early as January 1831 that Belgium should become an independent state and that they should guarantee its neutrality. The details of the agreement were modified in June and again in October 1831. The terms were acceptable to the Belgians but not to the Dutch. William I, who still controlled Antwerp, stubbornly refused to withdraw and the French intervened again in 1832. Palmerston was prepared to accept limited French military intervention but, he had considerable difficulty in persuading both king and Parliament of the policy, which seemed a complete reversal of the ‘containment’ of France, agreed in 1815. A new armistice was agreed in 1833 but a final settlement was delayed until the Treaty of London of 1839.
Revolutions in 1830
Revolution also erupted in Poland, Germany and Italy in 1830. Public opinion in Britain was generally on the side of the Poles and radical groups urged Palmerston to act. In practice, there was little that he could do other than stress that as a signatory of the Treaty of Vienna Britain had the right to be consulted before Poland’s status was changed. By 1832 the Poles had lost their independence and became yet another Russian province. Palmerston did little to support liberal groups in Germany and by 1832, the conservative stability had been restored.
He had little success in his policies over Italy. In 1831-1832, there were a number of unsuccessful risings in the Papal States and in Modena and Parma. Anti-papal feeling in Britain ran high and again the radical groups in Parliament urged Palmerston to take action. From the Foreign Office viewpoint, the important thing was to prevent conflict between France, which showed some gestures of support for the rebels, and Austria, which gave military aid to the recently elected conservative Pope, Gregory XVI. Palmerston argued that moderate reform would stave off revolution. The Pope took no notice and absolutism was re-established throughout Italy. War between France and Austria had been averted but the cause of liberalism here, as in Poland and Germany, had been put back.
The Iberian Peninsula
Palmerston’s reputation was improved by his handling of problems in Portugal and Spain where, as in the Low Countries, Britain had long-established strategic and commercial interests. In Portugal, British support for Maria had collapsed with Canning’s death and by November 1830 Miguel, the conservative claimant was in control of the whole of the country. Maria’s supporters held only Terceira in the Azores. In 1831, the French, with British approval, sent a fleet to Lisbon. This coincided with the French invasion of Belgium and again Palmerston came under attack from the Tory opposition because of his support from France. British opinion was better pleased when he extended his sup­port to Pedro, who abdicated his Brazilian throne to come to the assistance of his daughter. He landed at Oporto in July 1832 and Palmerston made little attempt to stop British volunteers, notably Charles Napier, from enlisting under Pedro. Napier defeated Miguel’s fleet off Cape St Vincent in July 1833 and took possession of Lisbon three weeks later.
Spain was also divided between liberals and absolutists in the 1830s. King Ferdinand VII died in September 1833. The succession was disputed between the supporters of his young daughter, Isabella and her mother Christina who had been proclaimed Regent and the supporters of Ferdinand’s younger brother, Carlos, who argued that the Salic Law forbade the accession of women to the throne. Carlos had the support of conservatives and the Catholic Church while Isabella was supported by the liberals. For Palmerston the attitude of Russia, Prussia and Austria was more disturbing. They had signed an agreement at Munchengratz in September 1833 pledging them to uphold conservative causes and one effect of this was that they provided financial assistance to Carlos. In April 1834, Palmerston countered this by establishing the Quadruple Alliance of Britain, France and the queens of Portugal and Spain. This prevented the intervention of the Eastern Powers and established, in an embryonic form, the idea of two balancing power blocs, the absolutist powers of Eastern Europe and the constitutional powers of the West. Despite this, the conflict between Christina and Carlos continued until late 1839. Palmerston’s influence on Spain was less than in Portugal, but in both countries, he had prevented unilateral intervention by France.
Palmerston’s actions in his early years as Foreign Secretary were domi­nated by either revolutions that had swept Louis Philippe to power in France and then spread to the Low Countries, to Poland, Germany and Italy or by the conflict between ‘liberals’ and conservatives in the Iberian Peninsula. His degree of success was, however, limited to the western edge of Europe where French military and British naval power and influence could be exerted. In Eastern Europe Palmerston could do little more than protest at the suppression of the Polish Revolt while in Italy, Austria and the Pope were able to restore the status quo. In Belgium alone was a solution found that was completely in line with his plans.
The Eastern Question
Palmerston, however, took a more decisive stand on the Eastern Question and here his influence on events was undeniable. The basic questions remained as they had done under Castlereagh and Canning: could the Ottoman Empire survive and, if not what would take its place? Palmerston hoped that the Turks would leave Europe. However, he recognised that this would leave a political vacuum that would benefit Russia and, as a result adopted a policy of support for the empire. In the 1830s, the Turks were under serious attack from rebellious Pasha of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, who had ruled Egypt since 1805.
Mehemet Ali had used his large army on behalf of the Sultan in Greece in the 1820s, aid that would probably have been successful but for the intervention of the great powers. In return for his assistance, the Sultan had promised him Syria and Crete. After the Greek settlement, Mehemet Ali demanded his reward but in view of his limited success, the Sultan refused to give him Syria as well as Crete. In 1831, he invaded Syria and the following year defeated the Turkish army at Koneih. Constantinople was threatened and the Sultan appealed to Britain for assistance. Palmerston would have been willing to provide aid but the Cabinet overruled him. It was the middle in election campaign after the Reform Act and the Whigs were unwilling to accept commitments where British interests were not directly affected. The Cabinet also rejected French offers of joint intervention.
In desperation, the Sultan turned to Russia. A Russian naval squadron entered the Bosphorus, the strait separating the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. Mehemet Ali’s forces retreated and with the worried British and French pressing him to compromise, peace was made at Kutahiya in May 1833. This gave the Egyptians what they wanted in Syria. The Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi in July 1833 formalised Russian influence in Constantinople, an agreement that aroused consider­able suspicion in Britain and France. Though it was essentially defensive, there were secret clauses of which the most important was an Ottoman undertaking to close the Dardanelles, the western end of the Bosphorus to foreign warships if Russia requested it. The three Eastern Powers publicly agreed to maintain the integrity of the Sultan’s dominions and in secret clauses to oppose any further advance by Mehemet Ali.
Central Asia
Russia had established a dominant influence at Constantinople and the revival of the conservative alliance provided sufficient justification for Palmerston’s alarm. Britain was concerned by threats to communications with India. Between 1833 and 1839, Palmerston pursued a policy in Central Asia which aimed at the containment of Russia. In Persia, Britain was concerned to prevent Russia’s advance both on her lines of communication with India and on the frontiers of India itself. In 1809, Britain had secured treaties with Persia, Sind and Afghanistan to hold off the Russian advance but its victories against Persia between 1826 and 1828 upset this arrangement. Russian influence in Teheran was as powerful as in Constantinople further undermining Britain’s previously dominant position in Persia. Both Tories and Whigs were worried by this development. Under Wellington, Grey and Melbourne there was a conscious policy of extending British power into Central Asia to counteract the threat from Russia. As a result, Palmerston gained control of the Khyber Pass linking Afghanistan to India. Palmerston pursued this policy with some vigour, opening up the River Indus to British trade and influence as a counter to Russian advances. Though Britain and Russia cooperated in the Persian succession in 1834, Palmerston remained suspicious of Russian intentions and believed that their representatives were pressing the Shah of Persia to renew his attack on the strategic Afghan fortress of Herat, which he did in July 1837.
By 1836, Palmerston wanted to retaliate against Russian policy but the internal chaos in Afghanistan proved a major difficulty. Despite their encouragement of the Persian attack on Herat, the Russians had also gained ascendancy in Kabul, the Afghan capital. British intervention in support of a favourable candidate occurred in 1839 but it proved impossible to maintain this position and in 1841, the British suffered a series of military defeats in the First Afghan war. It was not until late 1842 that Kabul was reoccupied. Britain eventually accepted a compromise that restored the former pro-Russian candidate to power. The events of 1837-1842 demonstrated the extent of the Russian threat in Central Asia and the difficulty of dealing with it diplomatically and militarily. St. Petersburg had little control over the actions of over-zealous agents in Teheran or Kabul. The real aims of Russian expansionism--whether determined from the centre or locally--was contrary to Britain’s quest for security for India.
The Eastern Question revived
An uneasy peace prevailed in the Near East until 1839. Neither the Sultan nor Mehemet Ali was content to leave things as they were. The former wanted revenge against an ambitious subject while Mehemet Ali continued to press, if not for complete independence, at least for hereditary possession of Egypt under nominal Ottoman sovereignty. By 1839, the Sultan’s army had been reor­ganised and, recognising that he was a dying man, he invaded to drive the Egyptians out of Syria. Mehemet Ali’s son Ibrahim had little difficulty defeating him and once again, the road to Constantinople lay open. On 1 July 1839, the Sultan died and was succeeded by Abdulmejid I, a sixteen-year-old boy. The Ottoman Empire seemed on the point of total collapse and the great powers were seriously alarmed.
Palmerston was in a difficult position. He recognised that the crisis gave Russia further opportunities to strengthen its position in Constantinople but by 1839, he was more suspicious of France than Russia in the Mediterranean. The agreement reached between Britain and France in the 1834 had gradually been eroded. The French had consolidated their bold over Algeria after 1830 and favoured giving considerable concessions to Mehemet Ali who posed a real threat to British economic and strategic interests. He directly threatened British routes to the River Euphrates and the Persian Gulf, which his forces reached in 1838. At the same time, he was also threatened the Red Sea route to India. To offset this, British forces had occupied the important strategic position of Aden in 1839. The means of defending Britain’s interests in the Near Fast and of resolving the contest for supremacy in Constantinople were not to be found in the Western Alliance.
Palmerston attempted to co-ordinate his policy with France, as he had done over Belgium, but during 1839 and early 1840 he moved closer to Russia. Increasing divisions between Britain and France were reinforced by the appointment of Thiers as French Prime Minister in March 1840 and French support for Mehemet Ali now became more open. Palmerston did not hesitate to join with the Eastern Powers and Turkey in an agreement to which France was not a party, the Conventio­n of London, on 15 July 1840. Mebemet Ali was offered the hereditary possession of Egypt and the possession of Syria during his lifetime. He failed to respond in the twenty days given and on 3 November, a British fleet bombarded Acre.
Palmerston again found himself in a difficult position. The French, angered by the attack on Acre, increasingly spoke in warlike terms. However, the French cabinet was equally divided between peace and war parties. Though contemporaries criticised Palmerston for his threatening approach to France, Thiers’ policy in Egypt was a direct threat to British interests. Just before the bombardment, Thiers was replaced by Guizot, who was a more pacific individual and had been recalled as French ambassador to London to head the ministry. Instead of ending the crisis without directly involving the French, Palmerston allowed them to re-join the Concert once Mehemet Ali had submitted in early 1841. The agreement of July 1840 was superseded by the Straits Convention of 13 July 1841 that for­bade the passage of foreign warships through the Bosphorus while the Ottoman Empire was at peace and ended the advantages that Russia had gained in 1833. Palmerston regarded his Near East policy as a triumph He had successfully resolved the crisis in conjunction with the Eastern Powers and had not humiliated France by involving her in the 1841 Convention. The Conservatives were willing to back him but his own party and the cabinet was divided. The press was very critical but the Con­servative Lord Aberdeen persuaded The Times to call off its attacks.
China and opium
The assertiveness Palmerston displayed was not confined to his handling of France in the Near East and Russia in Central Asia. His approach to the Chinese question demonstrated the same approach. Trade with China had always been difficult and was, until the abolition of its monopoly in 1833, under the control of the East India Company. After 1833, the protection of British trade and British citizens fell to the British govern­ment. The result in 1839 was war, though wider issues were involved than opium. Britain was determined to open up the Chinese trade and to compel Peking to adopt normal western diplomatic conventions, but opium smuggling was the flashpoint.
There was a considerable demand for opium in China and the East India Company made good profits by growing it in India and exporting it in return for Chinese merchandise. The Chinese authorities in the 1830s hesitated between banning opium imports or regulating them. In the late 1830s, those calling for a ban won the argument. The authorities in southern China were unable to board British ships to search for opium and placed the small British trading community at Canton under virtual house arrest. They then attacked The Arrow, a British warship and ordered the suspension of all trade with Britain. Banning trade was one thing but the arrest of British citizens and attacks on British shipping another. Palmerston found himself in the position of having to endorse policy being made by British officials in India and China but did so whole-heartedly. The British government in India had already sent naval assistance to Canton, which had little difficulty in defeating the Chinese fleet sent against it.
Palmerston’s handling of the Chinese question was criticised by contempor­aries, though given the limited extent to which he determined the policy much of this criticism was partial. Gladstone raised the question of the morality of the opium trade but his attack was exceptional. To Palmerston the issue was not whether Britain could protect opium smugglers; he did not question the Chinese government’s right to ban the trade. The issue was that British interests in the trading community in Canton, not implicated in the opium trade, were under attack. The Chinese maintained that the community to which criminals belonged should be held accountable for their actions and this notion of collective responsibility was alien to the British concept of individual innocence or guilt. Palmerston did not accept that this gave the Chinese the right to interfere with British subjects. The war was still in progress when the Whigs were defeated in the 1841 election but the incoming Conservative government made no significant change in policy. The war continued until the Chinese made concessions in the Treaty of Nanking of 1842. Five treaty ports were opened up to foreign trade, and not merely to the British, though they did get a special grip on China by the annexation of Hong Kong as a Crown Colony.[2]
Britain and the United States
Britain had several outstanding disputes with the United States of America especially slavery and the slave trade, the Canadian boundary, and the problem of Texas that resulted from the breakup of Spain’s American empire. Britain had declared the slave trade illegal in 1807. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna, under pressure from Castlereagh also outlawed it. Enforcing the ban proved a more intractable problem. Britain had signed a number of ‘right of search’ treaties with the smaller nations of Europe, permitting British ships to arrest slavers flying their flags. Larger nations were more difficult to convince. Palmerston negotiated treaties of this type with France in 1831 and 1833 and in 1838 almost secured the agreement of all the great powers of Europe to one treaty that would have allowed a common right of search over all slavers. French anger at Palmerston’s handling of the Eastern question led them to withhold ratification and the treaty never became as effective intended.
The United States had consistently refused to enter any right of search agreement with Britain. This was partly the result of Britain’s action against American shipping during the Napoleonic War but largely because of the powerful lobby of the slave-owning southern American states. Palmerston accepted that Britain could not in the absence of a treaty, stop and search American shipping but was concerned that slavers of other nations hoisted the American flag to escape capture. He therefore argued for a more limited ‘right of visit’ to check whether a suspected ship was entitled to the flag she was flying. Palmerston inflamed Americans by saying that they would not want slavers to escape simply by hoisting a ‘piece of bunting’.
The most likely catalyst for war between Britain and America, however, was the failure to agree the boundary between Canada and the United States west of Rocky Mountains and in the east between the American state of Maine and Canadian New Brunswick. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent had left the matter to be settled by independent arbitration and in 1831, the disputed territory was arbitrarily divided between the two claimants. As settlers entered the disputed areas clashes were inevi­table. In 1837-1838, there were rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec) caused by local demands for greater political autonomy. This embroiled Britain and America in a series of incidents on the disputed borders. Some Americans ran guns into Canada and the defeated rebels found safe refuge in Maine and Vermont. In the north-east, British and American settlers and trappers clashed violently over the disputed border.
A major crisis was initially avoided by the overtures of the American government, despite warlike pressure from British public opinion and by Palmerston’s preoccupation with the Eastern Question. However, in December 1837 a band of Canadian volunteers crossed into American territory and sank the American steamer, the Caroline, which had been involved in gunrunning and killed an American citizen. In November 1840, a Canadian, Alexander McLeod, was arrested and charged with the murder. Palmerston made it clear that he would regard McLeod’s conviction and execution as an occasion for war. Matters were still uncertain when Lord Aberdeen became Foreign Secretary in the new Conservative government in September 1841 but matters calmed after McLeod was acquitted.
Palmerston also became involved in the problems of Texas that had broken away from Mexico and formed an independent republic in 1836. The Texans, many of whom were American immigrants, initially sought entry into the American Union. This was refused, largely because of the opposition of the northern states. In 1837, the Texans sent agents to all the leading commercial powers in Europe to obtain commercial treaties and loans. Palmerston recognised the value of an independent Texas since she was a major cotton producer and could free Britain from dependence on Ameri­can cotton. British anti-slavery groups hoped that Texas would abolish slavery in return for commercial concessions. In November 1840 Palmerston signed three treaties with Texas: a commer­cial treaty; a treaty offering British mediation between Texas and Mexico which still claimed jurisdiction over Texas; and a mutual ‘right of search’ treaty.
Palmerston 1830-1841: success or failure?
His­torians have generally regarded the period between 1830 and 1841 as the most consistently successful period in Palmerston’s career. He believed that bluff was an essential part of diplomacy and perhaps he not only bluffed his contemporaries into believing his successes were greater than they were but also later historians. This period showed Palmerston more as an opportunist than as a man of principle. His pragmatism gave room for manoeuvre but it also meant that he embarked on policies without seeing where they could lead. He desired, like Castlereagh and Canning, peace and stability in Europe and some sort of ‘balance of power’, though this meant different things at different times. His achievements were modest. He did little for Poland, Germany and Italy. His plans in Spain and Portugal were of limited success. He sought to contain Russia in the Near East and Central Asia. His actions against America could have led to war and in China they did. Only in Belgium was he entirely successful.
[1] Hansard. A written verbatim record of what was said in the two Houses of Parliament
[2] Hong Kong was under British rule from 1841 to 1997 excluding the Japanese occupation of 1941-1945. Although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded to Britain in perpetuity, the New Territories--which made up over 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s land was leased for 99 years in 1898. When the lease expired in 1997, Britain transferred sovereignty of the entirety of Hong Kong to China.