Travel, trade and the expansion of Empire

Travel, trade and the expansion of the British Empire

In the 17th century, London was at the centre of global trade, with goods and individuals arriving in the capital from all over the world. Jim Watt looks at how travel, trade and empire shaped the works of Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Josiah Wedgwood, Oliver Goldsmith and Ignatius Sancho.

In a 1711 paper in the influential periodical The Spectator, Joseph Addison’s persona Mr Spectator describes London as the hub of global commerce and rejoices at the way in which the produce of the world is available to Britons:

Our Ships are loaden with the Harvest of every Climate: Our Tables are stored with Spices, and Oils, and Wines: Our Rooms are filled with Pyramids of China, and adorned with the Workmanship of Japan: Our Morning’s-Draught comes to us from the remotest Corners of the Earth: We repair our Bodies by the Drugs of America, and repose our selves under Indian Canopies. (No. 69, 19 May 1711)

So delighted is Mr Spectator at witnessing the throng of foreign merchants at the Royal Exchange that he declares himself ‘a Citizen of the World’. When people today celebrate modern Britain as a nation that is outward-looking and open to the world (‘global’ rather than simply ‘European’), they commonly do so in terms which Mr Spectator helped to establish.

Maps of the Americas, c. 1687

Maps of The Americas, c. 1687

Dating from around 1687, this map of North and South America demonstrates the extent of European colonial expansion into the ‘New World’ of the Americas at this time. Vast swathes of both northern and southern continents are left blank, or have mythical illustrations, in areas yet to be explored by Europeans.

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East India Company's sales catalogue, March 1704

East India Company's 1704 sales catalogue

A copy of the East India Company's sales catalogue for March 1704, advertising ‘Pepper, Druggs, Calicoes, And Other Goods’ which were imported from China and other parts of Asia to England.

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The global and the individual in Robinson Crusoe

Like The Spectator, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), a key text in the early development of the novel, explores the imaginative horizons of a self-styled ‘island race’. Loosely based on the story of an actual sailor, Alexander Selkirk, Defoe’s novel presents itself as the autobiography of a man who feels impelled to leave the provincial town of his birth and to seek his fortune beyond the nation’s shores. Even when he is back home after spending 28 mostly solitary years on an island in the Caribbean, Crusoe desires to be ‘upon the Wing again’, (Ch. 20) and – note the claim of possession that he makes – states that he ‘could not resist the strong inclination … to see my Island once more’ (Ch. 20).

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

Here, Crusoe lists the pros and cons of isolation on the island, weighing up what is ‘Evil’ against what is ‘Good’.

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Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley, 1703‒14

Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley

In this letter, dated 23 July 1711, Defoe outlines his ‘Proposall for Seizing’ and ‘forming an English Collony’ in South America.

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Crusoe tells us at the outset that he was born in 1632, and his narrative concludes with him sailing to the East Indies in 1694. Defoe’s novel is therefore set before the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, and long before the new nation of Britain would become the dominant European power. As many critics observe, Robinson Crusoe nonetheless provides a powerful mythic sense of Britons’ freedom of movement across the globe, and of their ability to master (and sometimes make property of) alien environments and subjugate other peoples. Crusoe’s narrative is strikingly candid – for example about his initial role as a ‘Guiney trader’, a buyer and seller of enslaved Africans. At the same time, Crusoe’s self-scrutiny encompasses his ethical shortcomings as well as his heroic feats, and he concedes that his companion on the island, the ‘savage’ Friday, is the better Christian of the two men. Crusoe is a notably anxious figure furthermore, especially when he articulates his fears of being dismembered and eaten by cannibals. Jonathan Swift parodied Defoe’s novel in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), presenting his wandering protagonist as a kind of Crusoe gone wrong: by the end of this work Gulliver seems to have experienced a mental collapse, to the point that he prefers the company of horses to human beings.

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

The fictitious lands that Gulliver explores on his voyages were depicted at the fringes of the known world as Europeans understood it: for example, this is a map showing Houyhnhnm Land just off the southern coast of what is now known as Australia.

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Spectacle case probably owned by King James II

Spectacle case probably owned by King James II

Gulliver is preoccupied with the mechanics of seeing, so much so that he fails to glean meaningful insights into his voyages. His reliance on his spectacles within the narrative comes to symbolise his incompetence as an observer.

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Trading and commodities

While Defoe presents Crusoe as an individual making his own way in the world, those with ambitions to make their fortune overseas in this period were commonly affiliated to trading companies created by royal charter, such as the Levant Company, the East India Company and the Royal Africa Company. The latter, for example, was granted a monopoly over English trade with West Africa, where it dealt in gold, silver and slaves. Like Crusoe, these companies used violence or the threat of violence to protect and extend their interests. As in Spectator No. 69, however, the representation of exotic commodities in this period is generally separated from any consideration of the process which made them available to consumers. Mr Spectator refers to tea (‘Our Morning’s Draught’), for example, as being integrated into the everyday rituals of polite society. Although some 18th-century commentators regarded tea as dangerously foreign and liable to corrupt its drinkers, especially those among the lower orders, Addison’s essay shows how tea was already on the way to being domesticated in British culture. Tea was sweetened by slave-grown sugar from the West Indies, and as Mr Spectator notes it was drunk in heat-resistant porcelain cups (imported from China by the East India Company).

East India Company's sales catalogue, March 1704

East India Company's porcelain sales catalogue

This document from 1704 lists a range of the East India Company's newly acquired porcelain (or 'china ware'), including blue and white 'custard cups' and painted chocolate cups 'with handles crack'd'.

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Prints depicting enslaved people producing sugar in Antigua, 1823

Ten Views in the island of Antigua

This 19th-century print shows sugarcane being harvested by enslaved men, women and children on a sugar plantation in Antigua.

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Together with developments in domestic manufacturing processes, as exemplified by the pottery of Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795), the importing of commodities – including novel fabrics and textiles, as well as foodstuffs and household items – helped to create a new ‘world of goods’. The sense of material plenty evoked by Mr Spectator has led some historians to see in the 18th century the origins of a distinctly modern consumer society, where people defined themselves through their purchases – and in doing so sought to emulate or outdo others – in ways that are familiar to us in the present.

The World Described by Herman Moll, 1708‒20

The World Described by Herman Moll

In his map of the ‘East Indies’, Herman Moll shows how South-East Asia was exploited for its commodities.

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Weighing up the ‘world of goods’

Even Spectator No. 69 registers some reservations about the wider implications of this apparent consumer plenty, however. When Mr Spectator states that ‘The single Dress of a Woman of Quality is often the Product of an hundred Climates. The Muff and the Fan come together from the different Ends of the Earth’, he appears to suggest that global commerce is actually driven purely by the desire of fashionable women to distinguish themselves through the clothes they wear. This gendering of consumption is evident in other contemporary texts too. In Alexander Pope's memorable account of Belinda's dressing table in his mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712), for example, the poet presents the beauty of Belinda as artificial rather than natural, and – to use Mr Spectator’s term – as the ‘product’ of the materials that she has at her disposal:

Unnumber’d Treasures ope at once, and here
The various Off’rings of the World appear;
From each she nicely culls with curious Toil,
And decks the Goddess with the glitt’ring Spoil.
This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box. (Canto 1, ll. 129–134)

More so than The Spectator’s ‘Woman of Quality’, Pope’s Belinda symbolises a wider ambivalence about Britain’s commercial prosperity because the description of her alluring appearance shades into a morally judgemental perspective on her vain preoccupation with appearance alone. For some at least in the 18th century, a wealthy society was also a corrupt one, where selfish private interests prevailed over any concern with the public good.

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, with illustrations and epistle to Arabella Fermor

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock

In Du Guernier’s etching of ‘the gloomy Cave of Spleen’, the Queen is attended by handmaidens and observed by ‘living Teapots’ and ‘Maids turn’d Bottles’.

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Territory, nation and identity

In The Citizen of the World (1762), Oliver Goldsmith’s fictional Chinese traveller describes meeting a ‘lady of distinction’ (Letter XIV) who has in effect been consumed by her own acquisitiveness: she is ‘a little shrivelled figure indolently reclined on a sofa’ (Letter XIV). Like Goldsmith, most commentators who expressed concerns about the effects of global commerce primarily addressed its impact on British culture and society rather than thinking about the human cost of producing a commodity such as sugar. When Britain made significant territorial gains (especially in North America and India) as a result of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), this too was mainly understood in terms of what it meant for Britain itself. Victory over the French established Britain as the pre-eminent European power, but the extension of dominion that resulted from this victory generated new problems of responsibility and identity: what did it mean to be British when so many people were now British subjects? A crisis soon developed in America as colonists protested that despite the taxes they paid they were unrepresented in Parliament. American revolutionaries declared their independence in 1776, and their war with Britain eventually resulted in the birth of a new nation.

Thomas Jefferson's Draft of the American Declaration of Independence

Draft of the American Declaration of Independence made by Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one of the Committee of Five appointed to draft justifications for separating from British crown. The final version of the American Declaration of Independence was ratified on 4 July 1776.

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Britain’s loss of its ‘first’ empire in America led some to think that the nation had been cut down to size and reduced to its true status as nothing more than a small island. The three voyages of the explorer Captain James Cook (1768–71, 1772–75 and 1776–79) were widely taken to exemplify an essential truth about a British instinct for adventure, however, and they extended the horizons of Britons, introducing them to the peoples and cultures of Australasia and the Pacific.

Longhouse and Canoes in Tahiti

Polynesian longhouse in Tahiti with trees and plants; Tahitian canoes sailing in the foreground; by Tupai'a

In addition to map-making, Captain Cook's Raiatean navigator Tupaia produced drawings of the Society Islands such as this Tahitian scene.

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The loss of America also made Britons take their Indian Empire more seriously, forcing them for a while at least to think about the relationship between their sense of themselves as a liberty-loving people and their actual conduct on the world stage. The campaign to abolish the slave trade developed out of this period of self-reflection. While many recognised the cruelty and immorality of slavery before this time, it was only from the mid 1780s that a campaign to abolish the trade in slaves began to gather momentum, as supporters of abolition sought to restore the nation’s reputation and to seek redemption for the crimes of the past.[1] The slave trade was finally abolished in 1807, although slavery itself would not be outlawed in British colonies for another three decades after this.

A satirical cartoon showing the wealth made from colonial rule in India, 1788

A satirical cartoon showing the wealth made from colonial rule in India, 1788

In this image James Gillray lampoons Warren Hastings, the governor of Bengal, who extracted finances from Indian rulers and was later impeached for corruption.

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Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding the Bill of Rights and a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’

Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding the Bill of Rights and a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’

Based on an anonymous engraving, this Derby porcelain figurine was one of the many types of object used to promote Wilkes’s cause

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Minutes of the Committee for the abolition of the slave trade

abolition minutes from first committee meeting

‘At a Meeting held for the Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into consideration, it was resolved that the said Trade was both impolitick and unjust’: minutes from the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (22 May 1787).

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The Anglo-African Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729–1780) was a detached observer of the major events of his lifetime, and in his correspondence with others offered commentary on matters including the war in America (which he supported) and the conduct of Britons in India. According to Joseph Jekyll's 1782 biography, Sancho was born on a slave ship en route from West Africa to the West Indies and taken to England as a young boy. In his later life he sought to impress on others the evils of slavery and the slave trade. In a letter to John Wingrave, Sancho identified human greed as the origin of this appalling trade: ‘the grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money…’ (Vol. 2, Letter I). If he sometimes suggested that he was ‘only a lodger’ (Vol. 2, Letter XXXVIII) in Britain, however, he was successful enough as a small businessman to qualify for the franchise, and was the first Black Briton to vote in a parliamentary election. He also contrasted the evils of the slave trade with the possibilities of a more enlightened form of global commerce, and in doing so repeated – without irony, it seems – the language of Spectator No. 69. In a letter of 1778, for example, he wrote that ‘Commerce was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part – to unite mankind in the blessing chains of brotherly love – society – and mutual dependence’ (Vol. 2, Letter I). Sancho kept a grocer’s shop in Westminster, and his trade-card uses an exotic frame of visual reference in order to advertise his role as a purveyor of a popular commodity – tobacco – to British consumers.

First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

In this letter of 21 July 1766, Ignatius Sancho writes to Lawrence Sterne and implores the author to give more ‘attention to slavery’, suggesting that the ‘subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many’.

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Ignatius Sancho's trade card

Ignatius Sancho's trade card

Sancho’s card advertises his ‘best Trinidado’, a special blend of tobacco originating in the West Indies. On this side, a Native American boy relaxes with a pipe and tankard, while an African boy – probably a slave – collects sugar cane or tobacco.

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Even as he often denounced the exploitation of others that was a by-product of global commerce, Sancho demonstrated his own commercial acumen, displaying an instinct for buying and selling which many contemporaries thought to be characteristic of 18th-century Britons.

Footnotes

[1] For further reading, see Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

  • Jim Watt
  • Jim Watt teaches in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. He is especially interested in British identities, in relation both to empire and – as explored by the Gothic – the past. He is the author of Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre, and Cultural Conflict, 1764–1832 (Cambridge University Press), and his British Orientalisms, 1759–1835 is forthcoming with Cambridge. He is currently working on a study of popular Orientalism in this period provisionally titled The Comedy of Difference.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.