Did Britain benefit from her empire in the eighteenth century?

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To what extent did Britain benefit from her empire in the eighteenth century?

Britain's impact upon the world and the importance of her overseas involvements in the eighteenth century was at least as significant as in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ages normally taken as the epitome of British imperialism. The eighteenth century saw Britain at near constant war with France, and the role of the empire in providing the revenues that could finance the war grew in importance as the century progressed. Unlike in previous centuries, conflict now centred around the colonial possessions of the two countries, and the need to protect such possessions spurred a new era of military thought and strategy. By the end of the period, Britain was a truly global power, with fleets and armies deployed all over the world, a direct result of superior management and employment of her empire. It was clear that the empire had been crucial in Britain's victory over France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, but to assume that this was the sole advantage the Britain gained from her imperial endeavours would be to gravely underestimate the value of the empire.

The most obvious example of the benefits the empire delivered to the mother country are visible in the form of the wealth it supplied that was necessary for the continuation of the wars against France from 1793 to 1815. The conflict had quickly developed into total war in a modern sense. Sustained and effective resistance to France required the greatest ever mobilisation of Britain's manpower and financial resources. Over a tenth of Britain's adult males were drafted into the armed services during the war, and even then the army and navy constantly demanded more. By 1810 there were 145,000 sailors, 31,000 marines and 300,000 regular soldiers under arms. The total cost of the war has been estimated at just over one billion pounds, of which 830 million pounds was consumed by the army and the navy alone. A significant part of this sum came from increased customs and excise duties, which was why it was so important to maintain the flow of British trade. Without an extensive overseas empire with which to trade, Napoleon's Continental Blockade, which prevented British good from being sold on the continent, would have certainly have brought Britain to her knees. The empire allowed the British to wage total war, and at every stage she outmatched her antagonist when it came to raising cash. This meant that when the military situation deteriorated, as it did in 1797 and again after 1806, Britain could continue to fight, even without allies. This ability to continue the war counted for a great deal, as the Franco-British conflict was essentially a war of attrition. Wearing down France through weakening its economy had been central to British strategy since the outbreak of the war. Remembering the triumphs of 1759-63 the British government in 1793 looked to the sea as a means of bringing about the breakdown of France, and the strengthening of Britain. The importance of this strategy was explained to the Commons in March 1801 by Henry Dundas, the Secretary of State for War, when he stated: "...the primary object of our attention ought to be, by what means we can most effectively increase those resources upon which depend our naval superiority, and at the same time diminish of appropriate to ourselves those which might otherwise enable the enemy to contend with us in this respect." The empire was crucial in delivering such resources. By the mid eighteenth century, much of the wood required for the first-rate men-of-war in the Royal Navy came form the great Canadian forests. Hemp and other essential supplies for the Navy also flowed from Britain's overseas possessions. This type of war was an imperial contest, in which Britain picked off her opponent's colonies and swept her merchantmen form the seas at the same time as preserving, even enlarging, her own commerce.

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