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Friday, 18 May 2012

Building the Empire

Oliver Cromwell's ruthlessness was well recognised after his intervention in Scotland, but his subsequent activities in Ireland became legendary even in that age of brutal religious warfare; they were to be cited for centuries after the massacres that he unleashed in captured cities. The subsequent settlement of retired republican soldiers on captured farmland in Ulster, especially in County Down, implanted a population that was to be implacably unionist right through to the twenty-first century. This was directed to keeping the second largest of the British Isles under a London-based government, which had been the situation for four centuries. Ireland provided examples that were adopted - when deemed to be appropriate - by those who began to build the landward extensions of the maritime empire. Systematic settlement of Britons beyond Ireland began with both Puritan and Catholic 'plantations' on the east coast of North America  and was extended by the capture of Jamaica in  1655. The collapse of the English Republic after Cromwell's death [in September 1658] allowed privateers [licensed pirates] to use Jamaica as their base until the most successful privateer, 'Captain' Henry Morgan, was appointed as Charles II's Governor of the island - duly honoured with a knighthood - and by bribery and by force he established a form of governance which enabled the colony rapidly to became rich on the basis of slave labour producing sugar.

Elizabethan sea captains had traded slaves from Africa to the Spanish and Portugese colonists: this appalling trade continued under the Stuart monarchy and the puritan Republic, and after 1660 the restored monarchy facilitated the traffic in humans to Britain's own plantations in the southern colonies in North America as well as to the the Caribbean islands. Colleges, cathedrals and a huge range of commercial organisations invested in slave farming for sugar and cotton, in particular. Marketing and transporting colonial produce to both UK and European markets became massively profitable activities. The ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool grew massively on the basis of colonial trade, which was primarily with the Americas but was also expanding in Asia. Charles II's Queen, Katherine of Breganza, brought as items of her dowry Tangier and Bombay: while Tangier was soon lost, Bombay was the basis for British expansion in India which created an empire [or Raj] which was surrendered only in 1947. Islands were occupied around the world to provide safe havens where British ships could take on water and fresh meat and repair storm damage, which could be developed as coaling stations when steam power was introduced in the nineteenth century. Portuguese, Dutch and British trading posts were established on the coast of Africa, originally as places where slaves could be acquired from indigenous rulers. Gibraltar [an isolated peninsula of the European mainland, which the British have treated as 'virtually an island']] was ceded by Spain under the Treaty of Utrecht [1713] after having been occupied in 1704; Malta was occupied during the Napoleonic War and ceded officially to Britain under the Treaty of Vienna that settled frontiers after the final defeat of Napoleon, and Cyprus was grabbed by Britain from the declining Ottoman Empire under the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Britain retained 'sovereign bases' in Cyprus when the former colony was granted its independence and these have had huge importance for the USA as well as the UK as 'listening posts' in the middle east and the former USSR. Britain's scurrilous expulsion of the native people of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in order for it to become an 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' for the United States [nominally under British sovereignty] and a very similar fate has befallen Ascension Island which is central to the Atlantic.

Now that all the large colonies, protectorates and other 'dominions' have been granted independence, the left-over islands alone remain from the great imperial past. Successive governments, before the present one, have largely regarded the remaining 'dependencies' as a costly nuisance. Such blind stupidity is embarrassing.
The islands [and Gibraltar] remain: they can be engaged to make Britain a leading world power yet again.

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