During the colonial era before the American War of Independence, Britain sent convicts to its North American colonies which eventually became the USA, but did Britain also send convicts to those colonies which became Canada?
Yes. In 1730 and again in 1789, Britain sent convict ships to Newfoundland. However, neither experiment was successful as they found that St. John's could not incorporate the scores of new residents. There were scattered instances of a handful of convicts being sent to Newfoundland for seven-year terms, but no other large-scale attempts to export convicts to Newfoundland (or other Canadian colonies) seem to have been tried.
Eighteen colonies in America received around 50,000 convicts during the 18th century, but 90% went to Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Why? The British government did not designate destinations for convicts, but instead contracted merchants to ship them out. Planters in those colonies paid well, plus the merchants could pick up valuable return cargo while they were there.
Though you ask specifically about Britain, it's worth noting that the first attempt to settle Nova Scotia involved a French convict colony on Sable Island in 1598.
Scots soldiers, transported convicts and Jacobites
The American Revolutionary War began in 1775. When the British were defeated, in 1783, tens of thousands of refugees fled north, seeking safety and peace in Canada.
Among the refugees were Scots soldiers that had fought for the British Crown against George Washington and the American Revolutionaries.
Highland Scots settlers from the Mohawk valley in New York formed a regiment. The Scots were noted as fierce guerrilla fighters. After the war they took their families and headed north, forging the Glengarry Settlement, in Upper Canada, in what is now Ontario. The Glengarry Settlement later attracted Scots immigrants from across the Highlands. By 1832 the population of the Glengarry Settlement had grown to 8500.
Most of the men of 'The King's First American Regiment' were Highland Scots who fought in kilts to the skirl of the bagpipes. The regiment famously defeated Washington's troops at the Battle of Brandywine. After 1783, the regiment was disbanded, and the Scots settled in Canada with their wives and children.
Transported convicts were among the Scots that stayed loyal to the British crown.
British prisons were overcrowded. Keeping prisoners locked up was expensive and transporting them overseas was seen as a good solution to the problem.
Since 1615, British criminals had been transported to the New World. This cut the cost of dealing with prisoners and also sent criminals across the ocean to the far side of the world.
Many condemned prisoners were offered the choice between execution and transportation. Most transported criminals were sent to the American colonies. After the British defeat in 1783, convicts were transported to Australia and New Zealand.
With the Transportation Act of 1718, the British Government arranged to pay merchant companies a fixed amount to ship convicts. The conditions of transport were harsh and prisoners were allowed little freedom.
Upon arrival in the New World, each prisoner would be sold as an indentured servant to a local patron. Convicts rarely had a say in their futures, being little more than slaves for the period of their contract. Most were employed as unskilled labourers on plantations.
Most Scots convicts chose to stay in the New World after they had completed their sentences. Many fought for the British during the American Revolution, then travelled north to Canada to escape persecution after the war.
From 1715 to about 1759, many Scots that emigrated to Canada were Jacobites, fleeing Scotland after the failed Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. Many Jacobites were captured and sentenced, as traitors, to transportation to the American colonies.
After the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and bloody defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Highland Jacobites were hunted men. Lands were confiscated and the 1746 Act of Proscription made it illegal for Highlanders to carry or own weapons, own or wear articles of Highland dress, including bagpipes, or teach Gaelic. A first offender could be sentenced to six months in prison, but a person caught a second time would be transported to the colonies to spend seven years as an indentured labourer or in the service of the British military.
The Jacobite Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fraser, eldest son of 'Old Inverallochy', led the Frasers of Lovett at the Battle of Culloden. As Fraser lay wounded after the battle, the Duke of Cumberland ordered he be shot dead. Fraser's younger brother, Captain Simon Fraser, fought in Canada, in Fraser’s Highlanders, and died of his wounds after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The surrender of New France after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham opened up the Canadian colonies for settlement.
Many Scots chose to leave for the New World to escape the brutal repression of their way of life. They took with them the prohibited articles of Highland dress and culture. In 1773, the Highlanders that sailed on the 'Hector' from Loch Broom landed on Nova Scotia wearing their proscribed Highland dress.
Discover your Scottish roots at Ancestral Scotland and learn about the Scots soldiers that settled in Canada.
Did Britain send convicts to Canada during the colonial era? - History
British Government in the Colonial Era
The AMERICAN COLONIES AND THE EMPIRE
To fully understand the relationship of colonial America with the British Empire, we should keep in mind first of all that the colonists did not question the idea of being part of the British Empire until shortly before the American Revolution began. For the first century and a half of colonial history, the majority of American colonists saw themselves as subjects of the Crown, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that British citizenship entailed. They could not vote, of course, but voting rights in England were restricted. Nevertheless the British people had some influence over who was eleted to Parliament, while the American colonists had no representation in Parliament at all. Most members of Parliament, and the monarch and his or her advisors, believed that they had the right to govern the colonies as they saw fit, and it would have been imptactical to even consider colonial representation in the government.
Furthermore, the colonies prospered under the protection of the British Empire. The ocean highways of the world were dangerous places, where a colonial trading vessel could be set upon by pirates or by the warships or privateers of competing nations. The fact that colonial ships flew the British flag meant that even in remote parts of the world, colonial merchants and traders could reasonably expect to find a British man of war over the horizon to protect them in time of trouble. In addition, colonial ships carrying colonial goods were able to trade widely, and as long as colonial products were desired in the marketplace of the world, good profits were possible.
For most of the 17th-century as the colonies were young and developing, conflicts between colonial interests and those of the Empire were relatively insignificant. But in the 18th century, things began to change. To start with, a series of dynastic wars was fought in Europe among the great powers: Spain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, and various lesser states who aligned themselves with one or the other of the major powers. Since a direct relationship was assumed between the possession of colonies and economic and therefore military power, these wars, though focused on the European continent, or often played out to some extent on colonial turf. The American colonies thus found themselves dragged into conflicts primarily between Great Britain and France and Great Britain and Spain, even though those conflicts may not have had major significance for the colonists themselves. We will discuss those wars in the colonial wars section.
Another factor which entered into the growing divergence of interests between the colonists and the mother country was the fact of colonial prosperity. As the colonists began to prosper, the spread of information through books, pamphlets newspapers and so on infused the Americans with a political sense of that to which they were entitled as British citizens. The educated and well read among the colonists began to examine and question the various theories which guided the government of the British Empire. They gradually became aware that in many ways they were being exploited, and that when their interests conflicted with those of the mother country, they were sold short.
Adding to the theoretical separation of interests was the simple fact of distance. Even as the American colonies clung for the most part to the east coast of North America, they were becoming aware that a vast continent lay before them and that eventually, inevitably, the colonies would outgrow the mold into which they had been cast. The separation of America from the British Empire, therefore, can be seen as virtually inevitable, and so the means by which that separation would take place would be determined by events that began after the middle of the 18th-century. Just as Canada, Australia, and India eventually broke away from the Empire, it is a virtual certainty that America would have done the same. Americans were different from their British cousins almost as soon as they arrived in the New World, and the hope that they might remain British forever was fragile.
The System of Colonial Government: Benign Neglect
At the top of the British system stood the monarchy. Although their specific authority was to some extent subject to negotiation, with the exception of the period known as the Interregnum, their right to rule was not questioned. True, James II was overthrown in the Glorious revolution of 1688, he was was immediately replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange.
Being separated from the mother country by thousands of miles of ocean during the age of sail, the North American colonists felt the hand of government very lightly. Virginia led the way in establishing a governance system that eventually applied to all the American colonies. The first Virginia assembly met in 1619, and it continued to function intermittently until Charles I formally granted the Virginia colony the right to have an assembly in 1639. In those early colonies where the struggle for survival was paramount, the details of governance were not a high priority. Over time, however, systems of government for the colonies developed more formal structures, though they varied significantly because there was no set procedure for managing colonies in the British government system.
The Colonial Governor.
At the head of each colony was a governor, either a proprietary governor or a crown governor appointed by the King or Queen. The proprietary colonies were established under charters from the Crown, and the companies appointed the governors. In the Crown colonies the governors were appointed by the King or Queen and were responsible to the monarch for governing the colonists. The governors who actually resided in the colonies, or their selected deputy or lieutenant governors, although responsible to the crown, were nevertheless dependent upon the goodwill of colonists for pay, support, friendship, and so on. Thus they often found themselves in a middle position where sensitivity to the needs of the colonists might clash with responsibility to the King.
Governors held power over various judicial officers, sheriffs, and other officials, all of whom were royal agents who tended to support the Crown. Although some governed well, the colonial governors were not a particularly impressive lot. Aristocrats with political ambitions competing for prestigious posts within the government would not have considered an appointment as a colonial governor to be a plum assignment. Furthermore, they were subject to the will of the Crown, but they had few resources with which to enforce the mandates they received. Resistance to Royal policies from the colonists, often expressed through their assemblies, could be difficult for governors to resolve.
Colonial assemblies were generally elected bodies, with members coming from the wealthy, landed classes. They often served for long periods. Because the colonial assemblies were quasi-democratic (in the colonies most white males who were free from indentures could vote), officials could not act without reference to public opinion. The assemblies held the purse strings of the government, however, and the governor could not rule without reference to their wishes.
The assemblies could pass laws which had to be signed by the governor and sent to the king for approval. The process could be time-consuming, as bills had to be sent to England, where they might languish for weeks before being reviewed. British monarchs overturned about five percent of colonial legislation&mdashnot much, but it was a constant irritant. Often vetoed laws would be immediately re-passed in slightly different form, and the whole process would begin again, and colonists soon learned to take advantage of loopholes in the system. As a result, the colonists got in the habit of doing things their own way&mdashoften as a result of royal neglect. Theoretically the legislatures did not have much power, as everything they did was subject to review by the crown, but they dominated nearly every colony. Although they were not &ldquolocal parliaments,&rdquo the colonists began to see them as such. As the colonial era moved closer to the Revolution, tension between the colonies and Parliament tended to grow more rapidly.
The court system developed more slowly, and it was not really until the U.S. Supreme Court was created by the Constitution that the governmental triad of executive, legislative, and judicial branches moved toward the coequal powers that we now take for granted.
The Economic System . As we have noted elsewhere, the the economic fortunes of the colonies were heavily controlled by King and Parliament within the context of British Mercantilism. Mercantilism, which has been defined as a form of &ldquostate capitalism,&rdquo was meant to help the entire empire, and although the colonists sometimes felt themselves victims of mercantile practice, the intention of the mercantile laws, which took the form of various navigation acts, was to bolster British trade and therefore the British economy at the expense of other nations. Governing the Empire according to mercantilist principles was supposed to lraise the level of British prosperity with the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.
In reality, however, the interests and needs of British subjects located on English soil had the highest priority, so that when it was deemed practical, the interest of the colonies were subordinated to those of the mother country. And although the colonists sometimes objected to various practices incorporated into the navigation acts that restricted colonial trade, they did not question the theory that the Empire had the right to be governed as its leaders saw fit.
The Colonial Governments. Government in the American colonies starting with the early days of settlement evolved slowly. In the first settlements such as Jamestown and Plymouth, the numbers of inhabitants were so small that no organized government was necessary. In those early colonial structures, government often took the form of a strong leader, a man like William Bradford, John Winthrop or John Smith, perhaps aided by a few trusted advisors. Naturally in the uncertain conditions in which they lived, an iron hand would not have been useful. Thus consent of the governed was implied, if not actually stated. The Mayflower Compact, however, an extraordinary document in that it laid out for the first time a governmental structure based on a written, signed document, was an exception. In general, however, governments took various shapes as the colony grew according to the origin of their legal status, which was based on the terms of their charter.
It is important to keep in mind, first, that each colony was a separate political entity whose relationship was with the Crown, either directly or through a chartered company created by the Crown. Nothing remotely resembling a general colonial government existed until shortly before the Revolutionary War. For most of the colonial era, relations between neighboring colonies lacked any formal structure, and although conflicts between colonies were rare, they did occur when encroachments of territory or religious differences arose. We should also keep in mind that most of the colonies began their existence under charters, and the governments of those colonies where the business of the companies formed to manage them. Although all charters were written in such a way as to require general conformance with English law, they varied in their structure.
As the colonies grew larger, more sophisticated forms of government became necessary. Those forms, however, varied from colony to colony and within each colony, as different towns and nascent cities began to grow and prosper. The general structure was that all colonies had a governor and some sort of legislative entity, whether appointed or elected. Governors generally had a council of advisors, sometimes members of the assembly. Those councils sometimes functioned as part of the legislature—a separate house. Court systems generally functioned around an appointed justice of the peace. Church bodies sometimes performed quasi-judicial functions. Although some colonial assemblies consisted of elected members, it would be wrong to think of them as democratic bodies. Those eligible to participate in elections were generally the elite of the colony, consisting at most of all white male property owners. Because property was so abundant in the colonies, however, it was relatively easy for individuals to become property owners thus those eligible to participate in government might rise to as many as 80-90% of adult white males.
To the Left: Williamsburg Statehouse
All colonial governors were required to conform to the dictates of the Crown, either directly or through the managers of proprietary colonies. While their authority was strong, they could not possibly govern with an iron hand, for they depended upon their fellow colonists for support. They did not live in castles their social needs and desires were met by their fellow colonists, not by a a “court.” They depended upon the assemblies to provide for their financial support. They had the power to veto all laws passed by the assemblies, but the assemblies and their constituents had obvious means of exerting pressure on the governor.
It is probably most important to note that the government of the colonies touched the people very lightly. If government in the different colonies varied, local government varied considerably more. Organized governmental structures were rare. Police forces were haphazard at best. Social institutions of the kind we take for granted today were all but nonexistent. In that regard, the churches in the colonies provided social support to the troubled and the needy. Because of the high demand for employment—almost a able bodied adult could find plenty of work to do—there was very little crime, especially property crime. Even the more prosperous colonists had little real property that could be converted into the equivalent of cash. In other words, there was not much to steal. Life in the colonies was also often quite harsh, meaning that cooperation and mutual assistance among the colonists was necessarily a common phenomenon.
As colonial life moved into the 1700s those fractured forms of government began to take a more modern shape. In the northern colonies, strongly influenced by the Puritan experience, local governments evolved relatively early. Even today in the northern states towns and villages have highly organized governments and operate as independent political entities. Much of that tradition in evolved from the idea of the New England town meeting, as reach settlement governed itself for all practical purposes.
In the South, however, under the Anglican structure, the colonies were organized into parishes modeled on the stricture of the church those parishes often dictated the boundaries of counties. (Even today, in the state of Louisiana, for example, what are called counties elsewhere are still referred to as parishes.) Government in the Southern colonies, then, often took the form of a county government with very little governing authority situated in individual towns and villages.
The important point to remember in all this is that the colonists felt the hand of government very lightly . There were few taxes, few regular requirements of any kind imposed by governments, and except for matters such as gaining title to property or getting married, colonists made few demands on their governments and expected very little in the form of governance. When the British Parliament began to exert pressure on the colonies following the period of colonial wars, it rapidly bred resistance. Until that point the colonists could all but ignore Parliamentary authority. Once they began to feel its heavy hand, discontent grew rapidly.
3. What can I see online?
Records of transportees to Australia, 1787-1879
Convict censuses, musters, pardons and tickets of leave, including series HO 10, HO 11 and CO 209/7, can be searched at ancestry.com.au (£). The New South Wales census (HO 10/21 &ndash HO 10/27) is the most complete. You can often find:
- biographical information
- whether each settler came free or as a convict, or was born in the colony
- the name of their ship and their year of arrival
HO 10 contains material about convicts&rsquo pardons and tickets of leave from New South Wales and Tasmania, 1834-59.
HO 10 and HO 11 can be downloaded free of charge from Discovery, our catalogue however, please be aware that these are very large files, suitable only for download via a fast and unlimited broadband connection.
Index to Tasmanian convicts, 1804-1853
Search the index to Tasmanian convicts (archives council of Tasmania) by name to see some digitised records, including conduct records, indents and descriptions.
Criminal registers for England and Wales, 1791-1892
Search criminal registers for England and Wales (HO 26 and HO 27), 1791 to 1892, on Ancestry.co.uk ( £ ).
Criminals, convicts and prisoners, 1770-1934
Assorted records of criminals, convicts and prisoners can be searched on on Findmypast.co.uk ( £ ), though many do not relate to criminal transportation.
5. Passenger lists
Passenger lists are among the most accessible and straightforward of records documenting emigrant journeys. Our guide on records of passengers contains more information.
5.1 Outward passenger lists, 1890-1960
This is our more comprehensive set of passenger lists. They are held in record series BT 27 and are described in more detail in the &lsquoOnline records&rsquo section.
5.2 Registers of passenger lists, 1906 to 1951
Registers of passenger lists were arranged by port and kept by the Board of Trade. Before 1908 the registers relate only to the ports of Southampton, Bristol and Weymouth.
They provide the names of ships and the month of arrival and departure. After 1920 the precise date of arrival or departure is recorded.
The lists are held in record series BT 32. You can select documents by year range from this list of all BT 32 references.
5.3 Lists of passengers travelling within the Mediterranean, 1831-1834
We hold passenger lists of HM steam packets carrying passengers to, from and within the Mediterranean area between 1831 to 1834. Steam packets were steamships that departed from a port on a regular schedule.
The convict era
These structures include Fitzroy Dock – both the earliest graving dock commenced in Australia and the only surviving example, nationally, of a dry dock constructed by convicts. Other landmarks from this period are Cockatoo Island’s Guardhouse, Mess Hall, Solitary Confinement Cells, Grain Silos and Biloela House, all constructed from sandstone quarried by convicts.
On 31 July 2010, Cockatoo Island Convict Site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with 10 other heritage sites nationwide. Collectively known as the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property, these sites feature outstanding examples of convict era structures. The island has also been inscribed on the National Heritage List since August 2007, and several of its convict structures are included on the Commonwealth Heritage List. Since 2001, the Harbour Trust has sought to deliver heritage conservation works and public programs that reveal and amplify the island’s convict legacy.
The solution to London’ prison problem
In the late 18th century, London’s prison system came under strain as the crime rate rose. To reduce congestion and deter criminal behaviour, the British Government resolved to send convicts to the ‘Great Southern Land’. Between 1787 and 1868, approximately 166,000 convicts – men, women and children – were transported to Australia and dispersed across 3,000 different sites nationally however, convict transportation to NSW ended in 1840. Although most arrived from Britain, several thousands were sent from Canada, America, Bermuda, and other British colonies.
In early 1839, the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, advised the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies that he would establish a penal colony at Cockatoo Island for re-offending criminals to alleviate overcrowding at Norfolk Island Prison. He reasoned that Cockatoo Island was surrounded by deep water to prevent escape but was easily accessible from the main settlement, meaning prisoners could be easily supervised by the colonial administration.
On 21 February, that same year, Cockatoo Island received an initial contingent of sixty convicts from Norfolk Island. They arrived under military escort and were initially housed in tents. At the time, the island was described as “without water and. abound with snakes”. Before long, the newly arrived convicts were put to work quarrying the island’s sandstone for use in the construction of prison buildings as well as public works, including Sydney’s Semi-Circular Quay.
As the island had no naturally occurring supply of drinking water, the convicts manually excavated large water tanks into the sandstone plateau. Somewhat controversially, they also excavated twenty grain silos between 1839 and 1941. The colony had been suffering chronic grain shortages and, to prevent the situation reoccurring, Gipps had sought to store grain on Cockatoo island for use during times when the harvest was poor. Cockatoo Island’s convicts were a source of free labour to undertake the excavation work and the remoteness of the penal establishment meant the stored grain was secure. However, the British Government saw this as unnecessary interference in the free market and ordered that grain stored on Cockatoo Island be released for sale.
Charles Ormsby and Gother Kerr Mann
On 1 October 1841, Charles Ormsby became Superintendent of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment. His appointment, by Gipps, was controversial due to his recent suspension from the administration of another gaol. Ormsby’s brief tenure as Norfolk Island’s Assistant Superintendent and Magistrate concluded after he stood trial for arranging the culling of sheep by convicts. Although acquitted of the charges, Ormsby was found morally guilty by the Governor of Norfolk Island.
As Cockatoo Island’s superintendent, Ormsby oversaw the construction of solitary confinement cells and employed leg irons and the cat-of-of-nine-tails to keep convicts in line. He also gained a reputation for treating the island as his personal fiefdom. In 1849, he was reprimanded for running private enterprises from the island. This included keeping pigs, poultry and goats, fed from prisoner rations, and using convict labour to grow cabbages. In addition to pork and eggs, he had been selling up to 40,000 cabbages per year.
Ormsby continued as Superintendent until being ousted in 1859. By this time, there had been five inquiries into his management of Cockatoo Island. The final inquiry, in 1858, revealed widespread corruption and illegal undertakings. These included the pervasiveness of alcohol and other contraband, convict boxing matches, and the poor discipline of prisoners.
Ormsby was succeeded as Superintendent by Gother Kerr Mann, one of Australia's foremost engineers during the 19th century. Mann had served as the island’s Engineer in Chief since 1947. In that role, he had been responsible for designing all civil and corrective buildings on the Island. Mann had also designed and overseen the construction of Fitzroy Dock. The completion of this graving dock in 1857, following ten years of construction, signalled the beginning of Cockatoo island's storied maritime era (1857 to 1991).
During the 1850s, the island’s dual use as a prison and a dockyard led to management conflict between Mann and Ormsby. Mann’s promotion to superintendent effectively resolved this issue as he became solely responsible for every aspect of island life. Mann continued to run Cockatoo Island until his retirement in 1870, a year on from the penal establishment’s closure.
The legendary escape of Frederick Ward
Cockatoo Island’s most infamous convict is arguably Frederick Ward. In 1856, he was sentenced to several years’ hard labour on the island for moving stolen horses. Four years into his sentence, Ward was released from Cockatoo Island, having received a ticket-of-leave for good behaviour. His pardon was conditional on him checking in for muster at the police station in Mudgee every three months.
Soon after his release, Ward fell in love with and married Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg. Later, he accompanied Bugg to her father’s farm near Dungog for the birth of their child. In doing so, he missed his muster. Consequently, Ward’s ticket-of-leave was revoked and, owing to changes to the penal regulations in 1863, he was required to serve out the remaining six years of his sentence. For attending muster on a ‘borrowed’ horse, Ward’s sentence was extended by three years.
On 11 September 1863, Ward cemented his place in Australian folklore when he escaped Cockatoo Island with fellow convict, Fred Britten. According to one legend, Bugg was instrumental in this feat. Namely, she swam to the island from Balmain and left a file for Ward and Britten to remove their chains. After a swim through shark-infested waters, Ward made it to shore where Bugg was waiting with a horse and they rode to freedom. Ward subsequently gained notoriety as the outlaw Captain Thunderbolt and embarked on a bushranging spree that culminated in his death in 1870.
The conditions endured by convicts
Cockatoo Island’s convicts lived in a cramped, poorly ventilated, and foul-smelling quarters. Wards intended to accommodate up to 300 prisoners were, at times, occupied by nearly 500. Further, the communal tubs that functioned as toilets were often left standing for hours. This lack of hygiene led to bed bugs, fleas, rats, and disease. On top of this, convicts were required to complete backbreaking work, such as excavating sandstone, to earn two meals a day. Breakfast was a serving of bland porridge, and dinner consisted of meat and bread. If a convict didn’t complete their work, they went to bed hungry.
On 1 June 1858, new regulations came into effect, making it mandatory for prisoners convicted from that date to work the entire period of their probation to qualify for tickets-of-leave. Consequently, some prisoners gained nothing by their work while others could earn remission. This situation led to insubordination amongst convicts and, by the end of 1860, many refused to work.
Subsequently, Cockatoo Island was subject to an investigation by a Select Committee into the public prisons of Sydney. Chaired by Henry Parks, the inquiry brought to light the appalling prison conditions as well as the grievances convicts had about the 1858 regulations. Despite the committee’s unfavourable assessment of the penal establishment, no discernible improvements were made.
The prison’s closure and revival
In the years leading up to the closure of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment in 1869, the prisoner population declined significantly. When the penal establishment ceased operating, the remaining prisoners were transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol however, Cockatoo Island’s prison buildings weren’t vacant for long. In 1871, they were repurposed for an industrial school for girls and a separate reformatory.
In 1888, the former prison buildings at Cockatoo Island reverted to housing criminals to alleviate overcrowding at Darlinghurst Gaol. By the time of the prison’s closure in 1908, it housed only female prisoners. When all remaining prisoners were relocated to Little Bay, that year, the island’s function as a gaol ended for good.
[Note: The video on this page was produced by the Australian Convict Sites Steering Committee and is reproduced here with their permission.]
Colonial Trade Routes and Goods
The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.
From the book The Making of America, published by National Geographic Society © 2002
For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.
If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.
Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.
Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.
Thirteen British Colonies
The British began their invasion of North America in 1587 when the Plymouth Company established a settlement that they dubbed Roanoke in present-day Virginia. This first settlement failed mysteriously and in 1606, the London Company sent a ship full of people to establish a presence. They named the area Jamestown. From there, other groups crossed the ocean to start new lives in this &ldquoNew World.&rdquo Some groups arrived to pursue religious freedom and others economic opportunities. Over time, they formed the thirteen British colonies up and down the East Coast. Learn more about the thirteen British colonies with these classroom resources.
Population Distribution 17th-19th Century
The total number of people on Earth has been increasing for centuries, and it looks as though that trend will continue into the future. The first big growth spurt for the world population occurred in the mid-20th century. However, prior to this population boom, in the 17th to 19th centuries, the population demographics were considerably different than those of today. Globally, this time period was defined by movements of colonization, conquest, trade, industrialization, and the transatlantic slave trade. These events redistributed people on the eve of one of population&rsquos biggest booms. Looking back at where and how people lived in these centuries can help us learn more about why the world population is the way it is today. Teach students about the history of the world population with this curated collection of resources.
Economics of the Thirteen British Colonies
The British arrived in North America in 1587 through the sponsorship of the Plymouth Company, which established a short-lived settlement called Roanoke in present-day Virginia. Then in 1606, the London Company established a presence in what would become Jamestown, Virginia. These companies pursued the economic opportunities afforded by the natural resources abundant in this &ldquoNew World.&rdquo The economy in the colonies, which varied regionally, was mostly centered around agriculture and exporting materials back to England. The southern colonies had large plantations that grew tobacco or cotton and required slave labor, while northern colonies had small family farms. Learn more about the economics of the 13 British colonies with these classroom resources.
Did Britain send convicts to Canada during the colonial era? - History
Red Coat (also Redcoat) is the historical term given to the British non-commissioned men who served during the American Revolution, between 1775 and 1783. The British Army soldiers between 1760 and 1860 wore red uniforms and fought in the Wolfe’s war, the defeat at Quebec, the Wellington’s Peninsular War, the Waterloo conflict, the Kabul retreat, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Georgian war, and also in the Victorian England conflict.
In the American Revolution, the Red Coats fought against the American rebels, militia and their Spanish and French allies of North America in the battles at Canada, New England, New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, and also in Florida and the West Indies. Apart from the British Regular Army units, the Red Coats included German Auxiliaries, militia, West Indian Forces, Local Volunteer Corps, and Provincial Units assembled from the Loyalists and Canadians.
The Men of Red Coats
The Red Coats of the Revolutionary War was a semi-professional force, trained only for conventional European warfare. The British Army was relatively small in stature by European standards, but supposedly superior to the inexperienced militia forces of the Continental Army initially available to the Patriots. In the beginning of American Revolution, the British army was about a total of 48,000 men composed of around 39,000 infantry units, 7,000 cavalry units, and 2,500 artillery men. These numbers looked large enough, but America was different than Europe and the Red Coats suffered from in-effective recruiting methods. The vast countryside, trackless wilderness settlements, non-existent roads to little villages made it difficult to effectively control the entire colonial area.
Most of the Red Coat soldiers forced into this unfamiliar environment were professional men, enlisted in the army for life. They came from the lowest social order, and most of them were ex-convicts with no prior civilian life and referred as “scum of life”. Their regiments were their homes, and they were asserted by harsh discipline. Apart from the convicts, the British government had high difficulties in recruiting regular soldiers, because the cause and terms were not appealing enough. They tried various different ways to recruit during the revolution at Britain only in vain. Their only recruitment success came by hiring German mercenaries for the war. Though the Red Coats were disciplined and superior in maneuvering, their skills were wasted by in-effective war strategies facing the American militia who had been drilled to work in the harsh environment. While the British Army tried to enforce strict discipline, the Red Coat men had little self-discipline in themselves. Gambling, pandering and fighting over local women, corruption and heavy drinking were very common. The Red Coats also had to endure out-of-place logistics, food supplies and artillery replenishment.
Many Red Coat officers during the revolution came from the upper class purchased their promotions and commissions using family connections instead of valor on the battlefield. Most senior officers often drank too much on occasions like Christmas. Their strategy was good while expanding the Victorian empire, but once settled as colonies, they had difficulties containing the conflicts with their own brethren. Generals of the Red Coats were usually members of the ruling elite or politicians with an aristocratic background. Many big names like General Burgoyne, Cornwallis, Clinton, and Howe were all senior members of Parliament gaining them both Political reliability and military capability.
After the French and the Indian wars, a major portion of the British garrison remained in America. They had to replenish supplies and continue recruiting, which was not an easy job in the 18th Century America. They often used enforced strict practices and fraudulent recruitment methods. The Red Coats were very unpopular in the towns and small villages of New England and ‘Old’ England both. The French was put a strain on the relationship between the Red Coats and their provincial colleagues. These small bickering were the spark for Generals like George Washington to start revolting against the Royal Army.
Fighting in the American Revolution
The Red Coats had serious difficulties fighting the Revolution. Compared to the American militia, the British had no major local supporters of the war, and their only troops were provided German Hessians. Inexperienced officers who had no military capability who had purchased their commissions diluted the effectiveness of their responsibility. Distance was also a major problem for the Red Coats, both on the continent and across the Atlantic. Although the British Royal Navy was at its peak during the American Revolution in terms of strength and experience, they usually took about two months to supply fresh troops which made them out of date with the completely different military situation by the time they arrived on land. Their artillery also proved to be inferior when compared with the improvised American munitions.
Even when the British were winning some initial conflicts over the Continental soldiers, the Red Coats had difficulty in occupying the captured areas due to lack of numbers spread over the vast areas. Thus suppressing the rebellion in America posed major problems for their strategy. Though they had the local Loyalist support in some regions, they were often packed away by the Patriot militia men because of the absence of armed British regulars and Army men. The arrival of French, Spanish and the Netherlands Armies forced the British Army to spread further instead of focusing on one task. Waning Loyalist allegiance to the war, neutral colonies drifting towards independence and an uninspired British Army made the retreat much quicker.
North America’s first humans migrated from Asia, presumably over a now-submerged land bridge from Siberia to Alaska sometime about 12,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age it has also been argued, however, that…
Both Britain and Canada stationed their troops in Afghanistan’s south, where fighting had been most intense. More than 20 other countries also lost troops during the war, though many—such as Germany and Italy—chose to focus their forces in the north and the west, where the insurgency was less…
…of 1775 the Americans invaded Canada. One force under Gen. Richard Montgomery captured Montreal on November 13. Another under Benedict Arnold made a remarkable march through the Maine wilderness to Quebec. Unable to take the city, Arnold was joined by Montgomery, many of whose troops had gone
Richard Montgomery invaded Canada in the fall of 1775, captured Montreal, and launched an unsuccessful attack on Quebec, in which Montgomery was killed. The Americans maintained a siege on the city until the arrival of British reinforcements in the spring and then retreated to Fort Ticonderoga.
17, 1961), agreement between Canada and the United States to develop and share waterpower and storage facilities on the Columbia River. The treaty called for the United States to build Libby Dam in northern Montana and for Canada to build dams at three locations in British Columbia. Hydroelectric power…
When the United States and Canada became industrialized, they used coal, oil, iron, other metals, and wood with extravagance and often with great waste. The waste products of the factories of these countries started to pollute air, land, and water, and, as cities with enormous populations began to appear, most…
…called Canada Act, (1791), in Canadian history, the act of the British Parliament that repealed certain portions of the Quebec Act of 1774, under which the province of Quebec had previously been governed, and provided a new constitution for the two colonies to be called Lower Canada (the future Quebec)…
United States and Canada that could detect and verify the approach of aircraft or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from the Soviet Union.
…the upper Yukon River in Canadian territory in 1896. The rush was in full sway by 1898 and the new town of Dawson sprang up to accommodate the miners. Though it would serve as the setting of some of the most memorable novels and short stories of Jack London, the…
…course of developing events in Canada, it was decided that the functions of the governor-general should be limited to representation of the crown, unless any dominion preferred that the governor-general should also perform any functions on behalf of the British government. In 1930 the Imperial Conference declared that appointment of…
…informal, his interpretation of French-Canadian history as a struggle for survival against the continuing dominance of British Canada had wide and prolonged influence. He published two novels (1922 and 1932) under the pseudonym Alonie de Lestres. His most important work was the four-volume Histoire du Canada français depuis la…
…1773, its extensive landholdings in Canada were transferred to the British government, with any revenues derived from them to be applied to educational programs. Popular demand for the educational and missionary services of the Jesuits forced Pope Pius VII to restore the order in 1814. In 1842 a number of…
The Métis resisted the Canadian takeover of the Northwest in 1869. Fearing the oncoming wave of settlers from Ontario, the Métis established a provisional government under the leadership of Louis Riel (1844–85). In 1870 this government negotiated a union with Canada that resulted in the establishment of the province…
Canada’s earliest legal traditions can be traced to both France and England. Quebec city followed the early models of French cities and created a watchman system in 1651. Upper Canada, later renamed Ontario, adopted English traditions and established both a constabulary and a watch-and-ward…
Another early station appeared in Canada when station XWA (now CFCF) in Montreal began transmitting experimentally in September 1919 and on a regular schedule the next year. (The first commercially sponsored stations in Canada appeared in 1922.) The first British station offered two daily half-hour programs of talk and music…
By the 1990s Canada’s government had severely cut funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), thereby weakening the role of that network and making commercial stations with their advertiser-supported music formats more important to Canadian listeners.
For example, the Canadian government, building upon a history of regulation, passed broadcasting acts in 1991 that required a certain percentage of programming to be exclusively Canadian and in turn restricted the importation of foreign (usually meaning American) radio programming. Designed as part of a larger process of…
Canada’s huge landmass, relatively small population, and proximity to the United States combined to create a struggle for those seeking a separate identity for Canadian radio. The eventual result was a four-way system of commercial, government, and both French-speaking and English-speaking stations. By the…
The first Canadian FM stations were developed as part of a continued expansion of the CBC. In the late 1950s a dedicated service to indigenous people in Canada’s north was begun, and in the next decade it was expanded to use shortwave. Resisting American commercial counterpressure in…
…War, a Confederate raid from Canada into Union territory the incident put an additional strain on what were already tense relations between the United States and Canada.
…geographic expansion under way in Canada and the United States that would be more quickly advanced by steamboats than by land transportation. North American transportation before the late 1850s was by river in most regions. This was not a unique situation: most areas subject to 19th-century colonization by Europeans—such as…
…augment his meagre regular and Canadian militia forces with Indian allies, which was enough to confirm the worst fears of American settlers. Brock’s efforts were aided in the fall of 1811, when Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison fought the Battle of Tippecanoe and destroyed the Indian settlement at Prophet’s…
The region from the Bering Strait northward and east to the Mackenzie River was untouched by Russians, but after the mid-19th century it was visited by great numbers of European and Euro-American whalers, who imported both disease and alcohol the native…
…itself in what became northwestern Canada from the 1670s on. The East India Company began establishing trading posts in India in 1600, and the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Labuan) became British through an extension of that company’s activities. The first permanent British settlement on the African continent was…
…America—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada—were united as “one Dominion under the name of Canada” and by which provision was made that the other colonies and territories of British North America might be admitted. It also divided the province of Canada into the provinces of Quebec and Ontario and provided…
…the British Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Eire, and Newfoundland. Although there was no formal definition of dominion status, a pronouncement by the Imperial Conference of 1926 described Great Britain and the dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status,…
…and the then dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Newfoundland.
Wolseley was then sent to Canada to improve that colony’s defenses in case of war with the United States. In 1870 he led the Red River expedition through 600 miles (950 km) of wilderness to suppress the rebel Louis Riel, who had proclaimed a republic in Manitoba. Success in the…
…make the French colony of Canada a province of the British Empire in North America. Among these were whether an assembly should be summoned, when nearly all the inhabitants of the province of Quebec, being Roman Catholics, would, because of the Test Acts, be ineligible to be representatives whether the…
…and lord high commissioner of Canada, Durham arrived at Quebec in May 1838 in the aftermath of political rebellion. Faced with French-Canadian hostility, virtual anarchy in Lower Canada (the modern province of Quebec), and possible expansion of the United States into Canada, he was given almost dictatorial powers.
… in 1759, British control of Canada was effectively secured. The island of Guadeloupe was captured in the same dramatic year, as were French trading bases on the west coast of Africa.
…also is credited with naming Canada, though he used the name—derived from the Huron-Iroquois kanata, meaning a village or settlement—to refer only to the area around what is now Quebec city.
…name (1609) and made other explorations of what are now northern New York, the Ottawa River, and the eastern Great Lakes.
…a parallel with Vancouver [Canada], to seek the Northwest Passage back into the Atlantic. Bitterly cold weather defeated him, and he coasted southward to anchor near what is now San Francisco. He named the surrounding country New Albion and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth.
…strait, and a bay in North America are named for him.
…in 1666 set out for Canada to seek his fortune. With a grant of land at the western end of Île de Montréal, La Salle acquired at one stroke the status of a seigneur (i.e., landholder) and the opportunities of a frontiersman.
…passing between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The pact effectively created a free-trade bloc among the three largest countries of North America. NAFTA went into effect in 1994 and remained in force until it was replaced in 2020.
members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway
…of the United States and Canada disenfranchised most Northern American tribes of their land and sovereignty. Most indigenous individuals were legally prohibited from leaving their home reservation without specific permission having thus confined native peoples, the two countries set about assimilating them into the dominant culture. Perhaps the most insidious…
For the indigenous peoples of the Canadian West, the 19th century was a time of rapid transformation. The fur trade and a variety of large prey animals were in decline, and, with the elimination of government tribute payments, this created a period of economic…
Instead, Canada’s 1868 Act Providing for the Organisation of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada and for the Management of Indian and Ordnance Lands (sometimes referred to as the first Indian Act, although an act by that name was not passed until 1876)…
…the dominant colonial cultures of Canada and the United States.
Canada’s attempts at promoting these goals tended to focus on the individual, while those of the United States tended to focus on the community.
…creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The new Canadian government quickly stated its intent to annex the northern Plains, most of which had until then been part of Rupert’s Land, a territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company annexation proceeded without consultation with the area’s resident tribes.
…hand, and Great Britain and Canada, on the other, over the international status of the Bering Sea. In an attempt to control seal hunting off the Alaskan coast, the United States in 1881 claimed authority over all the Bering Sea waters. Britain refused to recognize this claim. In 1886 the…
…formation of the Dominion of Canada. In 1864 a conference was planned to discuss the possibility of a union of the Maritime Provinces. The Province of Canada (consisting of present-day Ontario and Quebec) requested and received permission to send a delegation. Consequently the conference, which convened at Charlottetown, P.E.I., on…
…from their Punjab homes to Canada but who were denied permission to disembark in that country because of their colour. As British subjects, the Sikhs had assumed they would gain entry to underpopulated Canada, but, after wretched months aboard an old Japanese freighter (the Komagata Maru) in cramped and unsanitary…
World War II
In addition, Canada built naval and air bases in Newfoundland. By the fall of 1941, the Americans were fully engaged in escorting shipping in the northwest Atlantic alongside the Canadians and British, and the U.S. Navy fought several battles with U-boats west of Iceland, where it had…
…invasion), by units of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, who took heavy casualties in the first wave but by the end of the day succeeded in wresting control of the area from defending German troops.
Let's end the myths of Britain's imperial past
I n his speech to the Conservative party conference this month, David Cameron looked back with Tory nostalgia to the days of empire: "Britannia didn't rule the waves with armbands on," he pointed out, suggesting that the shadow of health and safety did not hover over Britain's imperial operations when the British were building "a great nation". He urged the nation to revive the spirit that had once allowed Britain to find a new role after the empire's collapse.
Tony Blair had a similar vision. "I value and honour our history enormously," he said in a speech in 1997, but he thought that Britain's empire should be the cause of "neither apology nor hand-wringing" it should be used to further the country's global influence. And when Britain and France, two old imperial powers that had occupied Libya after 1943, began bombing that country earlier this year, there was much talk in the Middle East of the revival of European imperialism.
Half a century after the end of empire, politicians of all persuasions still feel called upon to remember our imperial past with respect. Yet few pause to notice that the descendants of the empire-builders and of their formerly subject peoples now share the small island whose inhabitants once sailed away to change the face of the world. Considerations of empire today must take account of two imperial traditions: that of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Traditionally, that first tradition has been conspicuous by its absence.
Cameron was right about the armbands. The creation of the British empire caused large portions of the global map to be tinted a rich vermilion, and the colour turned out to be peculiarly appropriate. Britain's empire was established, and maintained for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence, brutality, conquest and war. Not a year went by without large numbers of its inhabitants being obliged to suffer for their involuntary participation in the colonial experience. Slavery, famine, prison, battle, murder, extermination – these were their various fates.
Yet the subject peoples of empire did not go quietly into history's goodnight. Underneath the veneer of the official record exists a rather different story. Year in, year out, there was resistance to conquest, and rebellion against occupation, often followed by mutiny and revolt – by individuals, groups, armies and entire peoples. At one time or another, the British seizure of distant lands was hindered, halted and even derailed by the vehemence of local opposition.
A high price was paid by the British involved. Settlers, soldiers, convicts – those people who freshly populated the empire – were often recruited to the imperial cause as a result of the failures of government in the British Isles. These involuntary participants bore the brunt of conquest in faraway continents – death by drowning in ships that never arrived, death at the hands of indigenous peoples who refused to submit, death in foreign battles for which they bore no responsibility, death by cholera and yellow fever, the two great plagues of empire.
Many of these settlers and colonists had been forced out of Scotland, while some had been driven from Ireland, escaping from centuries of continuing oppression and periodic famine. Convicts and political prisoners were sent off to far-off gulags for minor infringements of draconian laws. Soldiers and sailors were press-ganged from the ranks of the unemployed.
Then tragically, and almost overnight, many of the formerly oppressed became themselves, in the colonies, the imperial oppressors. White settlers, in the Americas, in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Rhodesia and Kenya, simply took over land that was not theirs, often slaughtering, and even purposefully exterminating, the local indigenous population as if they were vermin.
The empire was not established, as some of the old histories liked to suggest, in virgin territory. Far from it. In some places that the British seized, they encountered resistance from local people who had lived there for centuries or, in some cases, since time began. In other regions, notably at the end of the 18th century, lands were wrenched out of the hands of other competing colonial powers that had already begun their self-imposed task of settlement. The British, as a result, were often involved in a three-sided contest. Battles for imperial survival had to be fought both with the native inhabitants and with already existing settlers – usually of French or Dutch origin.
None of this has been, during the 60-year post-colonial period since 1947, the generally accepted view of the empire in Britain. The British understandably try to forget that their empire was the fruit of military conquest and of brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination.
A self-satisfied and largely hegemonic belief survives in Britain that the empire was an imaginative, civilising enterprise, reluctantly undertaken, that brought the benefits of modern society to backward peoples. Indeed it is often suggested that the British empire was something of a model experience, unlike that of the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese – or, of course, the Americans. There is a widespread opinion that the British empire was obtained and maintained with a minimum degree of force and with maximum co-operation from a grateful local population.
This benign, biscuit-tin view of the past is not an understanding of their history that young people in the territories that once made up the empire would now recognise. A myriad revisionist historians have been at work in each individual country producing fresh evidence to suggest that the colonial experience – for those who actually "experienced" it – was just as horrific as the opponents of empire had always maintained that it was, perhaps more so. New generations have been recovering tales of rebellion, repression and resistance that make nonsense of the accepted imperial version of what went on. Focusing on resistance has been a way of challenging not just the traditional, self-satisfied view of empire, but also the customary depiction of the colonised as victims, lacking in agency or political will.
The theme of repression has often been underplayed in traditional accounts. A few particular instances are customarily highlighted – the slaughter after the Indian mutiny in 1857, the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, the crushing of the Jamaican rebellion in 1867. These have been unavoidable tales. Yet the sheer scale and continuity of imperial repression over the years has never been properly laid out and documented.
No colony in their empire gave the British more trouble than the island of Ireland. No subject people proved more rebellious than the Irish. From misty start to unending finish, Irish revolt against colonial rule has been the leitmotif that runs through the entire history of empire, causing problems in Ireland, in England itself, and in the most distant parts of the British globe. The British affected to ignore or forget the Irish dimension to their empire, yet the Irish were always present within it, and wherever they landed and established themselves, they never forgot where they had come from.
The British often perceived the Irish as "savages", and they used Ireland as an experimental laboratory for the other parts of their overseas empire, as a place to ship out settlers from, as well as a territory to practise techniques of repression and control. Entire armies were recruited in Ireland, and officers learned their trade in its peat bogs and among its burning cottages. Some of the great names of British military history – from Wellington and Wolseley to Kitchener and Montgomery – were indelibly associated with Ireland. The particular tradition of armed policing, first patented in Ireland in the 1820s, became the established pattern until the empire's final collapse.
For much of its early history, the British ruled their empire through terror. The colonies were run as a military dictatorship, often under martial law, and the majority of colonial governors were military officers. "Special" courts and courts martial were set up to deal with dissidents, and handed out rough and speedy injustice. Normal judicial procedures were replaced by rule through terror resistance was crushed, rebellion suffocated. No historical or legal work deals with martial law. It means the absence of law, other than that decreed by a military governor.
Many early campaigns in India in the 18th century were characterised by sepoy disaffection. Britain's harsh treatment of sepoy mutineers at Manjee in 1764, with the order that they should be "shot from guns", was a terrible warning to others not to step out of line. Mutiny, as the British discovered a century later in 1857, was a formidable weapon of resistance at the disposal of the soldiers they had trained. Crushing it through "cannonading", standing the condemned prisoner with his shoulders placed against the muzzle of a cannon, was essential to the maintenance of imperial control. This simple threat helped to keep the sepoys in line throughout most of imperial history.
To defend its empire, to construct its rudimentary systems of communication and transport, and to man its plantation economies, the British used forced labour on a gigantic scale. From the middle of the 18th century until 1834, the use of non-indigenous black slave labour originally shipped from Africa was the rule. Indigenous manpower in many imperial states was also subjected to slave conditions, dragooned into the imperial armies, or forcibly recruited into road gangs – building the primitive communication networks that facilitated the speedy repression of rebellion. When black slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the thirst for labour by the rapacious landowners of empire brought a new type of slavery into existence, dragging workers from India and China to be employed in distant parts of the world, a phenomenon that soon brought its own contradictions and conflicts.
As with other great imperial constructs, the British empire involved vast movements of peoples: armies were switched from one part of the world to another settlers changed continents and hemispheres prisoners were sent from country to country indigenous inhabitants were corralled, driven away into oblivion, or simply rubbed out.
There was nothing historically special about the British empire. Virtually all European countries with sea coasts and navies had embarked on programmes of expansion in the 16th century, trading, fighting and settling in distant parts of the globe. Sometimes, having made some corner of the map their own, they would exchange it for another piece "owned" by another power, and often these exchanges would occur as the byproduct of dynastic marriages. The Spanish and the Portuguese and the Dutch had empires so too did the French and the Italians, and the Germans and the Belgians. World empire, in the sense of a far-flung operation far from home, was a European development that changed the world over four centuries.
In the British case, wherever they sought to plant their flag, they were met with opposition. In almost every colony they had to fight their way ashore. While they could sometimes count on a handful of friends and allies, they never arrived as welcome guests. The expansion of empire was conducted as a military operation. The initial opposition continued off and on, and in varying forms, in almost every colonial territory until independence. To retain control, the British were obliged to establish systems of oppression on a global scale, ranging from the sophisticated to the brutal. These in turn were to create new outbreaks of revolt.
Over two centuries, this resistance took many forms and had many leaders. Sometimes kings and nobles led the revolts, sometimes priests or slaves. Some have famous names and biographies, others have disappeared almost without trace. Many died violent deaths. Few of them have even a walk-on part in traditional accounts of empire. Many of these forgotten peoples deserve to be resurrected and given the attention they deserve.
The rebellions and resistance of the subject peoples of empire were so extensive that we may eventually come to consider that Britain's imperial experience bears comparison with the exploits of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun rather than with those of Alexander the Great. The rulers of the empire may one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity.
The drive towards the annihilation of dissidents and peoples in 20th-century Europe certainly had precedents in the 19th-century imperial operations in the colonial world, where the elimination of "inferior" peoples was seen by some to be historically inevitable, and where the experience helped in the construction of the racist ideologies that arose subsequently in Europe. Later technologies merely enlarged the scale of what had gone before. As Cameron remarked this month, Britannia did not rule the waves with armbands on.