British Empire—Foundation of Empire

1740 to 1815
War of Jenkin's Ear to Napoleonic Wars

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Foundation of Empire

The first few decades of the Hanoverian reign were relatively peaceful. The initial Jacobite rising was crushed before it could gather momentum, and although the Jacobites were very numerous in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England, London and the major ports of the South were solidly under control of Parliament and the Georges.

Beginning in the mid 1700's however, the United Kingdom embarked on a series of wars that over the next century would solidify Britain's domination of both colonial and commercial expansion the world over. At the beginning of this period, Britain's main colonial holdings were Ireland and the eastern cost of North America, while the colonial empires of both Spain and France were larger and more substantial. In Asia the East India company controlled only a few trading posts and Asian trade was dominated by Holland, Portugal, and Spain (via Mexico).

Wars of the 18th century— By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, however, Britain utterly dominated world trade and colonization and held important colonies on all continents. The War of the Spanish Succession had been fought to limit the influence of the French Empire. Likewise, the common theme of almost all British Wars during the following hundred years was to oppose French influence and expansion both within Europe and in colonial regions. For that reason, virtually every continental war between France and Britain of the 18th century was fought in the colonies as well in Europe. Expanding their commercial and colonial empire at the expense of France and Spain was the primary objective of British foreign policy during the 18th century. The most important international wars of the period were:

William Pitt and the Seven Years War—During the first half of the 18th century, both France and England had been expanding their settlements in North America, and developing their trade in the far east. In both locations, the long term interests of France and England were at odds, and by mid-century, had reached a crisis point. At this time, one of the greatest statesmen in British History appeared on the scene, William Pitt, also known as the Earl of Chatham. He took charge of Britain's foreign affairs at a critical time, reformed its military, and during the course of the Seven Year's War (known as the French Indian Wars in the U.S.), won several enormously important victories with long-lasting consequences for the British Empire. The victory of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec drove France out of North America; Clive's victory at Plassey won the Indian State of Bengal for Britain; and the Battle of Quiberon Bay, under Lord Edward Hawke destroyed French naval power.

The Seven Years' War made Britain the dominant European power in North American and India as well, and gave her uncontested mastery of the Seas. Yet this was only the foundation of her eventual empire, and the struggle against France would not be finally resolved for another half century. For the next fifty years, her politics were dominated by wars and revolutions on four continents, and the beginnings of an industrial revolution at home. In spite of these struggles, Britain grew and thrived during this time, her population, commerce, and agricultural production, all nearly doubling. The reign of George III lasted nearly sixty years, and, although he attempted, much more than his Hanoverian predecessors, to hold power in his own hands, his misguided policies ended up costing Britain her most valuable colonies in North America. This crisis occurred in the first twenty years of his reign, and for much of his succeeding reign, the real power lay with his Prime Minister, William Pitt Jr., whose father had opposed the War against the colonies, and urged Britain to make peace with Americans. Pitt the Younger was almost as effective a statesman as his father, and favored many important reforms to the British government, but could not implement them until the close of the Napoleonic Wars, which he did not live to see.

French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars—The French Revolution, which occurred in 1789 plunged Britain into a complicated series of wars with France, lasting almost a quarter century. At first many people within Britain, sympathized with the rebels, but when the true nature of the revolution became apparent, Britain joined an alliance with most other European powers to oppose the Revolutionary Government. During the first series of battles, lasting from 1793 to 1802, Britain provided arms and support to various coalitions of European powers who fought against France, and won many important naval victories. It was during these French Revolutionary Wars that Horatio Nelson, the greatest naval hero in Britain's history, proved his mettle at the Battles of St. Vincent, Nile, and Copenhagen. In spite of these victories, France was generally victorious in its wars with the European governments, and Napoleon had risen to power. Soon after he declared himself emperor, the European powers agreed to recognize him and enjoyed a short period of peace before he began the conquest of continental Europe, known as the Napoleonic Wars.

For many years Britain was the only check on Napoleon's power, and if he had been able to land an army on her shores, he believed his superior army would prevail against her, but the Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805, destroyed France's naval power, assuring that Britain would remain free from invasion. Though victorious at sea, Britain was unable to stop Napoleon's domination of the continent, and within a year of Trafalgar, most of Western Europe was under his control. Portugal, and to some extent Spain however, was still actively resisting the French powers, so the Duke of Wellington, the greatest general within Britain, rose an army and fought Napoleon's forces in the Peninsular War, on the Iberian Peninsula. This front, which was active from 1808 to 1813, was Britain's main campaign on the continent, but it encouraged smuggling, provided financial support to rebels, and in other ways helped to undermine Napoleon's government, especially following his disastrous campaign in Russia. It was not until the Battle of Waterloo however, in 1814 that Napoleon's power was permanently broken, and France remained in an unsettled condition for years afterward.

Exploration and Colonization—The last half of the 18th century was also a period during which Britain's colonial holdings increased, and much exploration done. Captain Cook, the greatest navigator of his age, not only discovered Australia and New Zealand for Britain, in the 1770's but also much improved the British navy by instituting standards of nutrition and cleanliness aboard ships which greatly reduced the incidence of scurvy and other disease. His explorations of the polar areas, and south sea islands, also much improved geographical knowledge of the time. Other explorers of this age included Mungo Park, who traced the mouth of the Niger, George Vancouver, who claimed Western Canada for Britain, and Alexander Mackenzie, who explored the far regions of Northwest Canada for the Hudson Bay Company, and James Bruce, who discovered the legendary source of the Blue Nile in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia).

The loss of the American colonies in 1783 had the effect of accelerating the settlement of Canada and Australia. In the Americas, Tory sympathizers left the new republic in droves, and settled in upper Canada (now Ontario), and Australia was originally settled as a penal colony, since British felons could no longer be sent to the American colonies. British citizens also began settling in South Africa, which had been won from Holland in 1795 during the French Revolutionary Wars. The British presence in India increased also during this period, still under the auspices of the British East India Company, under the Governorship of Warren Hastings. Unlike Britain's colonies in the west however, India was already heavily populated, and English outposts functioned more as trading centers than expanding settlements. The British also held numerous Island colonies in the West Indies, and continued to import slaves from Africa to work on cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations there, until the slave trade was outlawed in 1807. Slavery was finally made illegal in all British colonies in 1833.

British Literature, Science, Industry, Economics and Culture—The 18th century was a very fertile one for English Literature. There emerged several notable English writers, including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame, and Samuel Johnson, author of the first Dictionary of the English Language. Literary greats of the revolutionary era included the Robert Burns the Poet, Sir Walter Scott, the greatest of Scottish novelists, Edmund Burke, the political philosopher, who was known to be very sympathetic to the American Revolution but was one of the first to condemn the French Revolution; and Blackstone, the famous jurist and author of Commentaries on the Laws of England, the authoritative work on English Common Law.

The British writer of greatest long term importance however, was probably Adam Smith, who published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He advocated the novel idea of free trade and low tariffs at time when much of government revenues, monopolies, and money making schemes were tied up with tariffs and other import encumbrances. Although his ideas took several generations to take full effect, they eventually became the foundation of modern capitalism. The economic ideas of Adam Smith, combined with some of the critical inventions of the era, including James Watt's Steam Engine, Hargreaves' spinning Jenny, Crompton's Mule, and George Stephenson locomotive, eventually set the stage for an industrial revolution in England which had world wide repercussions and changed the nature of international commerce.

Characters—Foundation of Empire

Character/Date Short Biography


George I
First Hanoverian Monarch of Britain. Entrusted government to Robert Walpole
George II
Second Hanoverian Monarch of Britain.
George III
Monarch whose long reign encompassed Revolutionary, and Napoleonic Wars.
William Pitt
Statesman who masterminded the rise of the British Empire during the critical 18th century.
William Pitt Jr.
Son of the Earl of Chatham, served between American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.
Edmund Burke
Very influential Political Philosopher, whose works are a basis of constitutional law.


General Wolfe
Defeated the French at the Battle of Quebec, giving Canada to Britain. Died during battle.
Lord Anson
British naval hero who circumnavigated the globe and wrote a diary about his journey.
Lord Edward Hawke
Hero of the naval Battle of Quiberon during the Seven Years War.
General Braddock
Led a disastrous campaign to Fort Duquesne (Ohio) during the French and Indian Wars.
General Burgoyne
British leader who surrendered with 6000 men to American forces at Saratoga.
General Cornwallis
British leader defeated at Yorktown in Revolutionary War. Later served as governor in India.
Horatio Nelson
Great Naval hero of his age; victor at the Battle of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.
Duke of Wellington
Napoleonic war general who fought in Spain and Portugal. Defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
John Moore
Napoleonic War hero who died at the Battle of Coruna.


Adam Smith
Leading theorist of modern capitalism. Wrote The Wealth of Nations.
Alexander Pope
Eminent poet and Satirist of the enlightenment era. Wrote Essay on Criticism.
John Wesley
Founder of the evangelical Methodist movement in England. Social reformer.
Jonathan Swift
Poet, essayist, and satirist. Best known as author of Gulliver's Travels.
Samuel Johnson
Eminent literary figure in England. Wrote the first British Dictionary.
Angelica Kaufmann
Eminent European Painter, who lived many years in England.


Hannah More
Dedicated her life to helping the poor of England.
Elizabeth Fry
Quaker and prison reformer. Fought for better conditions for inmates.

Timeline—Foundation of Empire

AD YearEvent

Domestic Politics

1727-1760 Reign of George II — Parliament controled by Whig party.
1760-1820 Reign of George III — King sought to control Parliament, favored Tory party.
1757 William Pitt the Elder, becomes Secretary of State, later Prime Minister of England.
1782 William Pitt the Younger becomes Prime Minster of England.
1798 Serious rebellion in Ireland is put down by Britain; Irish parliment dissolved.

Wars and Conflicts

1739-48 War of the Austrian Succession—Britain allies with Austria to fight France.
1745 Young Pretender incites the Second Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland.
1756-63 Seven Year's War in Europe, a.k.a. French Indian Wars in America, Carnatic Wars in India
1757 Clive's victory at Plassey, wins Bengal in India for Britain.
1759 Wolfe's capture of Quebec, wins French Canada for Britain.
1759 Hawke's victory at Qiberon Bay, destroys French Sea Power.
1776-83 American Revolutionary War begins when American colonists Declare their Independence.
1777 France allies with the colonies against Britain following the Battle of Saratoga.
1781 General Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, the last battle of the Revolutionary war.
1792-1802 French Revolutionary Wars France gains territory in Europe but looses control of colonies.
1797 Battles of St. Vincent and Camperdown give Britain control of the sea.
1798 Battle of the Nile destroys Napoleon plans to takeover Egypt.
1801 Battle of Copenhagen destroys French naval power in the North Sea.
1802-14 Napoleonic Wars drag all of Europe into turmoil.
1805 A naval victory at Trafalgar under Horatio Nelson destroys French naval power.
1808 Peninsular War begins in Spain—Duke of Wellington helps drive the French out of Spain.
1814 Wellington and Marshal Blucher defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

Exploration and Discovery

1764 James Hargreaves invents the Spinning Jenny.
1771 Captain Cook discovers Australia, New Zealand.
1784 James Watt invents the Steam Engine—ushers in the industrial revolution.

Arts and Culture

1755 Samuel Johnson publishes Dictionary of English Language.
1776 Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations, revolutionizes ideas about commerce, taxes, and economics.

Recommended Reading—Foundation of Empire

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Marshall - Our Island Story   The Black Hole of Calcutta to The Battle of Waterloo (6)
Gaskoin - The Hanoverians   First Struggle to Waterloo (10)

Supplemental Recommendations

Harding - The Story of England   The First Hanoverian Kings to England and the French Revolution (5)
Synge - The Struggle for Sea Power    entire book
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Plassey to Waterloo (5)
Marshall - English Literature for Boys and Girls   Goldsmith—The Vagabond to Scott—"Wizard of the North" (8)

Easy Reader Selections

Guerber - The Story of the English    Black Hole of Calcutta to The Battle of Waterloo (5)
Haaren - Famous Men of Modern Times   William Pitt to Horatio Nelson (2)
Synge - Great Englishmen   Robert Clive to George Stephenson (5)
Sellar - The Story of Nelson    entire book
Lang - Gulliver's Travels    entire book