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How Britain Made the Modern World

By Niall Ferguson
  • Read in 16 minutes
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Empire by Niall Ferguson

Empire (2003) offers a compelling overview of the highs and lows of the British Empire, from its late-to-the-game beginnings in the seventeenth century, to its ultimate collapse in the twentieth century. Through the many disgraces and unparalleled achievements, you’ll learn how Great Britain came to control close to a quarter of the world, and how we’re still coming to terms with this legacy.

Key idea 1 of 10

The seeds of the British Empire were planted by buccaneers.

When it came to imperialism, England was late to the game. By the early sixteenth century, European powerhouses like Spain and Portugal were already staking claims in the Americas. At this time, England had no empire to speak of.

For a while, England played the role of disruptor. It was highly aware of the gains and riches that Spain was acquiring through overseas conquest, but the early strategy was less about colonizing areas for itself and more about stealing Spain’s booty.

The key message here is: The seeds of the British Empire were planted by buccaneers.

In the sixteenth century, there’s no doubt that England was concerned about Spain. There was of course the success Spain had in plundering the Americas for its untold riches in silver and gold, but there was also the fact that Spain was spreading Catholicism around the world. England would prefer things Protestant. To fight back against the Spanish and disrupt its growing word influence, England turned to pirates.

Officially, it was called privateering, or utilizing private naval warfare. The simple fact was that English vessels traveling to the New World in search of riches were coming up empty. To make the effort worthwhile, they had to steal from the Spanish. As the English crown was struggling to get any real foothold in the Americas, England’s Queen Elizabeth decided to make piracy official policy. The goal of England’s ships was now to clash with, and steal from, Spanish colonies and ships. With this policy, rogue raiders like Henry Morgan and Christopher Newport became official agents of the crown.

It was a lucrative policy. Improvements in artillery, navigation, and maneuverability meant that, by the seventeenth century, English vessels were finally catching up to Spain’s. This helped Christopher Newport make a fortune by raiding a Spanish colony in Tabasco, Mexico in 1599. He lost an arm, but he got away with his riches.

Henry Morgan's raids did more than bring riches – they also laid the ground for what would become some of the first colonies in the Empire. 

Morgan pulled off a series of masterfully executed raids on the Spanish Empire. In 1668 alone he hit colonies in modern-day Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela. Morgan didn’t have a lot of resources at his disposal, but he was effective and he came away with his own riches. But unlike other pirates, Morgan turned out to be a keen investor. He used his plunder to buy land in Jamaica.

When that land proved ideal for growing sugar cane, England began utilizing its resources to fortify and turn Jamaica into an official colony, with none other than Morgan as its official governor.

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