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Expanding Britain's Empire


The study of the Napoleonic Wars is often limited to assessments of the conflicts impact in Europe. However, Napoleon’s ventures and expeditions were so far reaching that they greatly shaped the imperialist campaigns of other powerful nations too, such as Great Britain. In response to the rising threat of a French Empire, that appeared to be advancing into territory beyond Europe, Britain increasingly conquered lands in the Mediterranean and Asia. The British Empire grew tremendously across the world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, demonstrating how significant and extensive the impact of the Napoleonic Wars was.

The Napoleonic Wars presented both opportunities and distractions for the expansion of the British Empire. The wars against the French strained their military resources, resulting in Britain’s failed attempts at claiming Saint Dominque, Buenos Aires and New Orleans from the Spanish and Portuguese empires. This precipitated a greater urgency to conquer other corners of the earth, sparking a turning point for Britain. Historians such as P. J. Marshall have noted that Britain's imperial focus underwent a 'shift to the East' during this period. Although, in order to claim the rich Indian lands, the Mediterranean had to be conquered first.

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Henry Dundas 

By Henry Reaburn

Henry Dundas, the minister of Scotland who was committed to India’s commercial monopoly, feared that Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798 was bound for India. India, where Britain had significant and highly lucrative colonies, exported valuable commodities such as tea, textiles and saltpetre. Hence, it had to be seized upon before the French influence could expand further. Dundas immediately acted upon this threat by sending a naval fleet to police the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, and approximately 5,000 troops to India. To further secure Britain’s aim of acquiring India, the British attempted to block French troops from advancing further along the Levant Route into Asia through the Middle East, by pressurising Turkey. A British naval squadron threatened Constantinople, whilst 6,000 troops were sent to defeat the French occupation of Egypt. Although Britain withdrew, the British developed a series of island outposts across the Mediterranean. Malta was occupied in 1800, Minorca followed in 1802, and Corfu was seized in response to French expansion into the Balkans. Ultimately, Britain claimed a series of bases across the Mediterranean, that was pushed by Napoleon’s increasing seizure of lands that were en-route to India.

Henry Dundas’ objective in acquiring India involved economic gain through commercial exploitation – a strategy that became Britain’s preferred method of expansion. One powerful figure who worked alongside Dundas was Richard Wellesley; the Earl of Mornington, Governor-General and the Duke of Wellington’s older brother. To entirely rid India of French influence, Wellesley pushed forward the East India Company Act of 1784, otherwise known as Pitt’s India Act, which brought India closer under the ultimate control and supervision of the British government. Parliament legally agreed here to provide war assistance, financial aid and governance support. Wellesley expelled all foreign mercenaries, many of which were Frenchmen. As a replacement, the East India Company placed sepoys (native Indian soldiers who served in the British Indian Army) in the Indian forces. In return for the Company providing disciplined British troops, the Indian princes agreed to the responsibility of payments for the troops. Ultimately, this meant that the British controlled the Indian princes, since they had absolute control of their troops. Also, not only did the British have entire authority and intervention into the Indian government, but forbade India to having relations with foreign powers without British consent.


East India Company Flag

By R. H. Laurie

Furthermore, under the pretext of the continuing French threat, Wellesley triumphantly persuaded and pressurized various official Indian figures of high authority, to acquire greater Indian territory. For example, following negotiations with the Nizam of Hyderabad, his French officers were replaced with troops from the East India Company, and in 1792 he was able to acquire territory in India without war by bribing the Nawab (a local, native Indian governor); Wellesley outlined to the Nawab that if India was to ‘’…place the exclusive management, control and authority of the Company, in perpetuity, a territory’’ then the Nawab would retain only the territories surrounding his capital, with the rest coming under British control. In 1799, Wellesley went even further, annexing Mysore, which was under the control of the French-backed Tipu Sultan, who was then killed by British forces in 1799. Consequently, the East India Company was given sovereignty of the Malabar Coast, depriving the French of a shore to land upon. Soon, Wellesley conquered the whole of the Carnatic on the east coast by 1761 after a series of wars against the French, and large areas around Bombay around the west coast. However, after the Treaty of Paris was signed following the third Carnatic War, the French reclaimed some power and subsequently established several trading posts in this region of India. Yet, despite this glimmer of hope for a French advancement upon India, the French were under total control of the British in India and were forced to agree to support the British government. Hence, Britain secured her authority in foreign lands, such as India, against her rival Napoleon successfully.

Overall, the Napoleonic Wars not only defined French imperialism, but significantly shaped Britain’s foreign relations and her empire. The British Empire increased at a rapid pace, in response to France quickly securing an empire on the European mainland. Hence, the pretext of Napoleon’s growing domination largely stimulated a growing, rapid imperial expansion amongst other global powers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as demonstrated by Great Britain and her empire.


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