Incredibly, conflicts over humble commodities destroyed history’s greatest empire. Controversies over everyday substances split the British Empire and ultimately brought it down.
British efforts to monopolize and monetize commodities sparked political conflicts that tore the empire apart. These conflicts occurred because British colonialism was economic warfare. That economic warfare created our modern world by giving rise to three great nations, the United States, the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of India.
British leaders sparked conflicts by not realizing that the targets of their economic warfare could retaliate. When colonial subjects fought back against British economic warfare, the Empire fell apart. Here are some examples of that warfare.
Commodities that tore the British Empire apart include:
Legal Documents: the Stamp Tax
One event that triggered the American Revolution was the Stamp Tax Act of 1765. Interestingly, the Stamp Tax was not about postage stamps. They did not invent postage stamps until 1840.
Instead, the Stamp Tax was a Stamp Duty on legal documents in the 13 Colonies. A Stamp Duty is a tax on legal documents. The Stamp Tax hurt ordinary people by increasing licensing fees and raising the price of newspapers and other publications.
In addition, the Stamp Tax was an attempt to restrict real estate speculation by making it harder and more expensive to register land transaction. Hence, one reason for the Stamp Tax Act was to make it harder for colonists to speculate in lands west of the Alleghenies that the Crown had set aside for Native American nations.
Real estate speculation was one of the principal economic activities in Colonial America. Prominent land speculators included George Washington. Washington was a speculator in lands in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Hence, the Stamp Tax was an attempt by the British Parliament and the Crown to seize control of the colonial economy. Colonial leaders understood the Stamp Act’s implications. In particular, the precedent of Parliament passing taxes on Americans without American representation at Westminster.
Colonial leaders feared the British were trying to convert their semi-independent states into formal colonies ruled directly by the Crown and Parliament. To explain, before the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War), the British government ignored the 13 colonies. After the Seven Years’ War, Parliament moved to take direct control over the colonies.
The Stamp Act inspired a resistance movement in the Colonies. The movement included the Stamp Act Congress and organizations such as the Sons of Liberty. By 1766, there were even street protests against the Stamp Act. Resistance to the Stamp Act was so great parliament repealed it on 14 January 1766.
The resistance against the Stamp Act evolved into the Continental Congress, which formed America’s first national government and launched the Revolution.
A more direct act of British economic warfare against the colonies was the Tea Act of 1773.
The Tea Act was Parliament’s effort to bail out the British East India Company. The East India Company conquered enormous areas of the subcontinent by recruiting a massive mercenary army. In the 18th Century, mercenaries demanded payment in cash, which meant gold or silver. Hence, John Company was losing money on its army.
By the 1770s, the East India Company had run out of money and asked Parliament for a bailout. Instead of raising taxes on British voters, Parliament granted the East India Company a monopoly on tea sales to the colonies.
The Tea Act angered Americans because they were being taxed to pay for a private company’s military adventures. Worse, Parliament insinuated that Americans were not British citizens. Instead, Parliament legislated Americans were colonial subjects just like Indians.
The consequence of the Tea Act was to drive Americans from civil disobedience to active resistance to British rule. One result was the Boston Tea Party in which Americans climbed onto East India Company ships in Boston Harbor. Americans dressed as Native Americans dumped the tea into Boston Harbor.
Parliament responded to the Tea Party with the Coercive Acts. The Coercive Acts repealed Massachusetts’ Royal Charter and placed the colony under direct British rule. Other measures included the closure of Boston Harbor to shipping and the occupation of Boston by British troops.
The Coercive Acts drove many moderate Americans to view Britain as an enemy. Within two years of the Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War broke out with open fighting between British troops and colonial militia on the outskirts of Boston.
Ironically, the tea that triggered the American Revolution did not come from India. It came from China.
In the 18th Century, most of the world’s tea came from the Chinese Empire. Tea was one of the most popular and lucrative consumer goods of the era.
The Chinese tea monopoly created a problem for the East India Company because there were no British goods the Chinese wanted to buy. The East India Company had to buy tea with silver or trade the one consumer good Chinese wanted: opium. They grow opium in India.
To pay its Indian mercenary army, the British East India Company began shipping enormous amounts of Indian opium to China. By 1839, opium sales paid for Britain’s tea trade and financed the entire Indian Empire.
The East India Company shipped more and more opium to China. Consequently, opium became cheap and plentiful, and opium addition became an epidemic in China. Like the American opioid epidemic in the 21st Century, the 19th Century Chinese opium epidemic sparked by a backlash.
The Chinese Imperial government, ironically controlled by the non-Chinese Manchus, responded by banning opium. In May 1839, Chinese authorities ordered Charles Elliot, the British Chief Superintendent of Trade in China, to turn over opium for destruction.
Unfortunately, the Chinese did not understand how dependent the British Empire was on opium. In retaliation for the opium destruction, Her Majesty’s government sent a large naval force to the Chinese coast. The First Opium War had begun.
The Royal Navy sank most of the Chinese fleet. In addition, the 26th Regiment of the British Army landed at the mouth of the Pearl River and captured strategic forts. Chinese Admiral Kuan Ti surrendered his forces and signed a piece of Chinese territory, Hong Kong, over to the British.
The war, however, continued and British forces under Lieutenant-General Sir Hugh Gough captured Guangzhou (Canton), Chusan, Amoy, and Ningpo. After a vicious fight at Chapu, British forces captured Shanghai at the mouth of the Yellow River and moved on to Shanghai and Nanjing. Faced with the potential loss of Nanjing, a former imperial capital, the Chinese surrendered.
On 17 August 1842, representatives of the British and Chinese empires signed the Treaty of Nanjing. Under the treaty’s terms, the Chinese opened the Ports of Guangzhou, Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai, and Ningpo to all traders. China was open to the world. The course of events that led to the Chinese revolutions of 1911 and 1949 and the Chinese Economic Miracle of the late 20th and early 21st Century began.
Hence, two humble commodities tea and opium transformed the world by setting the stage for the rise of the two great powers of the 21st Century, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.
Triggering one revolt that cost the British Empire one of its most valuable possessions was not enough for the East India Company. In the 1850s, the East India Company sparked a revolt that almost drove the British out of India.
Ironically, it was grease that triggered the Indian War of Independence or Great Mutiny. Or more precisely, fake news about grease.
In 1857, the Indian Army began upgrading its military technology by distributing the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle to its troops. The Rifle was a state-of-the-art weapon that fired a greased cartridge. Soldiers had to bite the cartridge to load the rifle.
When they distributed the 1853 Enfield Rifle to the Bengal Army, rumors that the cartridge grease was made of beef or pork fat began to spread. These rumors triggered a mutiny because most of the Bengal Army’s troops were Muslims or Hindus. Muslims regard pork as unclean, while Hindus view cattle as holy animals that are sinful to eat.
The grease was not beef or pork fat, but enough sepoys. or mercenary soldiers, believed the rumor to create trouble. There were other problems in the Bengal Army, including low pay, poor morale, and a lack of discipline. The Mutiny began on 10 May 1857 when members of the 3rd Bengal Light Calvary freed 85 of their comrades who had refused to use the cartridges from the stockade.
The next day, the mutineers overran India’s imperial capital of Delhi. The mutiny turned into a war of independence as the mutineers began claiming they were fighting to restore the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II to power.
The Mutiny became a civil war as Indians fought Indians and units of the Indian Army fought each other. The East India Company’s Madras and Bombay armies stayed loyal. As did units of Sikhs, Gurkhas, and Punjabi Muslims.
It took a year of bloody fighting with many atrocities for the British to put down the Mutiny. The revolt failed because it had no unified command or political program. In addition, the Mutineers could not get outside help as the Americans had during the Revolutionary War.
Britain’s main enemy, Russia had suffered terrible losses in the Crimean War. Czar Alexander II had no desire to restart that slaughter. Moreover, Britain’s main continental enemy, the French Emperor Napoleon III, needed a British alliance to counter Prussian and Russian military power. Meanwhile, the growing battle over slavery had become the only issue in United States politics.
The Mutiny forced the British Government to end the fiction of corporate rule in India. They abolished the East India Company and transferred India’s government to the crown. British authorities exiled Bahadur Shah to Burma, ending the Mughal Dynasty. In 1877, they crowned Queen Victory Empress of India.
Thus, India became a formal British colony. The war of independence led to less independence. Irrational rumors about grease triggered a bloody war that transformed the British Empire.
British administrators learned nothing from the events that triggered the American Revolution. In the decades after the Mutiny, British administrators recreated many of the policies that drove American colonists to revolt in India.
For example, the Indian government gave British merchants a monopoly on the salt trade. It was illegal for Indians to manufacture or sell salt. This led to high salt taxes that financed the British Empire in India.
Unlike the British administrators, Mahatma Gandhi seems to have read some American history. On 2 March 1930, Gandhi sent a letter to the British Viceroy Lord Irwin asking for the repeal of the salt tax. When Irwin refused, Gandhi staged his version of the Boston Tea Party, the Salt March, or Salt Satyagraha.
Gandhi led a group of people to the seaside town of Dandi, where they could harvest sea salt on the beaches. Gandhi’s hope was that the British would try to arrest him and create a media spectacle for the newsreel cameras.
By the time Gandhi reached the sea, thousands of people were following him and the event had become a media circus covered by dozens of reporters. Along the way, Gandhi humiliated the British by joking they were ashamed to arrest him.
At the beach, Gandhi picked up a lump of salt-rich mud and said, “with this I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” The statement proved to prophetic.
After the success of Gandhi’s march, hundreds of thousands of Indians harvested salt. Authorities arrested over 80,000 people for harvesting salt. By 5 May 1930, they arrested Gandhi after he announced plans to seize a government salt works.
On 21 May 1930, Indian police attacked protesters marching on the Dharasana salt works. The international media reported the attack exposing the brutal nature of the supposedly civilized British Raj to newspaper readers around the globe.
Gandhi won. 11 months later, in March 1931, Lord Irwin and Gandhi signed the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, which ended the satyagraha in exchange for the release of political prisoners. In 1947, 17 years after the satyagraha, the British left India, giving birth to two new countries, the Republic of India and Pakistan.
Ironically, Gandhi defeated the British Empire partially by waging economic warfare. Gandhi turned the British Empire’s most potent weapon against it.
Thus, conflicts over a few simple commodities destroyed the British Empire and our world.