why was the british empire so powerful
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It left one king and countless of his subjects -- 800,000 by the latest tally -- dead. It also changed dramatically the political landscape of England. This latest volume in Simon Schama's ''History of Britain'' ends with another civil war, but this time between Britons on one side of the Atlantic and Britons -- or British-Americans -- on the other. In the years between these two wars lay countless other domestic conflicts and foreign struggles: the so-called ''Glorious Revolution'' of 1688, in which the Roman Catholic king, James II, was replaced by his daughter Mary and Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange; the slaughters in Scotland, at Glencoe, the ''weeping valley,'' in 1692, and then most horribly at Culloden, in 1746; the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-14; and the Seven Years' War of 1756-63, which has sometimes been called the first world war and which led directly to the American War of Independence. These years transformed all the peoples -- the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh -- of which Britain is made up. In 1603 England was still a small if rising nation, poorer than Venice, less powerful than Spain or France. Britain was only the dream of a Scottish king, James VI (later James I, king of England).
By 1776, Britain had become a reality, if a sometimes unsteady one. It had risen to become arguably the most powerful nation in Europe, and although it was in the process of losing one empire across the Atlantic, was poised to acquire another, which, as its champions never tired of repeating, would encircle the globe. These are perhaps the most crowded, most picked over, years in British history, and Schama has done a remarkable job of synthesis. The Victorians saw in this era the origins of the freedom that would make first Britain, and then its liberated American colonies, the creators of a new kind of society: individualistic, tolerant and ultimately secular. Today few historians accept this view, and Schama is similarly skeptical of the Victorian account. But he offers something of a grand political narrative of his own. It focuses on the central role played by Scotland in the emergence of the modern British state. In this story, the attempt to force together England and Scotland -- two cultures, divided by law, custom and religion -- was the great tragedy of the early modern British Isles. In their desire to avoid the embrace of England and safeguard their own extreme form of Protestantism, the Scots were instrumental in stoking the tensions that led to the English Civil Wars. ''Britain,'' says Schama, ''killed England.
And it left Scotland and Ireland hemorrhaging in the field. '' This was in the 1640's. Later Britain would attempt to kill Scotland. Ireland would remain hemorrhaging still until 1920, and in the north does so to this day. Scotland, however, did not die. Instead it went overseas. The ''second'' British empire -- the empire that grew up in India and Asia and then in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries -- was overwhelmingly a Scottish creation. The only trouble was that the Scots went as soldiers and settler-farmers, and in the process contributed to the creation of what Schama calls the ''wrong empire. '' For the empire that Britain should have had -- and perhaps England could have had -- was the ''Empire of Liberty. '' This was to have been an empire based on commerce and the benign instruction of natives in the ways of what in the 18th century was called ''commercial society,'' and what we would call capitalism. It was to have relied upon neither conquest nor coercion. If not exactly a union of equals, it had been intended to benefit all those, colonizers and colonized alike, who belonged to it.
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