THE BRITISH ECONOMY DEPENDED ON THE CARIBBEAN

THE BRITISH ECONOMY DEPENDED ON THE CARIBBEAN

For the British, the American Revolution quickly became a naval war with France over possession of the islands of the Caribbean. With their vast sugar plantations, these were more lucrative to Britain than the American colonies and more likely to remain colonies over the long run. Furthermore, the French had lost key Caribbean possessions to Britain during the recent French and Indian War that had ended in 1763, and viewed the American Revolution as their opportunity to regain them:

“Why this obsession [of the British] with the West Indies? [Lord] Sandwich had predicted that the war aims of France would be to overturn the peace of 1763 and regain her empire and her markets; and that for the sake of the American alliance she would forget her claim to Canada, and look for her reward in the sub-tropics — in India, West Africa and the Caribbean. And he was right. The French navy was to neglect America for the West Indies. There most of the naval fighting took place; and there in 1782 the greatest British victory of the war was won by [Admiral George] Rodney. With the fate of North America in the balance, the maritime Powers of Europe threw their strength and hopes into a chain of small, fever-ridden islands in the Caribbean. ‘The war’, wrote one of Prime Minister Shelburne’s correspondents in the year of Rodney’s victory, ‘has and ever must be determined in the West Indies.’

“A powerful and noisy pressure group represented the West India interest in London. In 1775 the Society of West India Merchants and the Agents for the Planters had joined forces to represent the West India interest as a whole; and they were to exercise some influence over the government’s strategy. But their clamor was not the main reason for the Ministry’s interest in the islands.’ The real issue was concerned with national policy. In the long run England might or might not recover America; but whatever the course of the war in the Caribbean, the Antilles could not sustain an independent existence and would remain colonies of one Power or another. The wealth they produced from sugar and its by-products was still vast. It is said that the West Indies accounted for a third of the overseas trade of France. Much of the British trade passed through Bristol; but into London alone the British islands sent nearly 300 ships in an average year, with a 100,000 hogsheads of sugar and 11,000 puncheons of rum. The West India imports in 1776 had been valued at £4 1/4 millions, compared with the East India Company’s £1 1/2 millions. And for a mercantilist the sub-tropical products of the West Indies fitted much better into the British economy than the products of American farms and fisheries, which were not needed and were generally excluded from the home market. The planters’ produce was needed, and favoured the balance of trade by saving England from the need to buy from foreign rivals. As a market for English manufactures the planters were also more satisfactory than the Americans: with their sugar profits they could at least pay their debts. The sensible Sir Charles Middleton believed passionately in the islands’ importance. ‘The sugar islands’, he wrote, ‘are the best and surest markets for our staple commodities, and the most productive of all our colonies. They are the easiest source of our revenues.’

“There was thus a general belief that the British economy and finances depended on the West Indies. And conversely it could be argued that nothing but their West India commerce had enabled the French to equip the fleet which successfully confronted [Admiral Augustus] Keppel in the course of 1778; and that the conquest of the French islands would ruin the enemy’s finances. And by conquering them all it was argued that England would obtain an economic grip on the American colonies. … For England, the islands held the lure of compensation for her losses in America, finance to pay for the war, a favourable balance of trade, an economic lever to coerce America. For the chance of conquering the French West Indies and ‘avenging the faithless and insolent conduct of France’, the King had said he was willing even to come to terms with America.”

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