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After the American Revolution, the British Empire appeared to be doomed. Yet it grew to become the greatest, most diverse empire the world had seen. Then, within a generation, the mighty structure collapsed, a rapid demise that left an array of dependencies and a contested legacy: at best a sporting spirit, a legal code and a near-universal language; at worst, failed states and internecine strife.The Decline and Fall of the British Empirecovers a vast canvas, which Brendon fills with vivid particulars, from brief lives to telling anecdotes to comic episodes to symbolic moments.
Piers Brendon is the author of The Dark Valley, among other histories and biographies. He is the former Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He lives in Cambridge, England.
1 The World Turned Upside Down The American Revolution and the Slave Trade
At about ten o’clock in the bright morning of 17 October 1781, a lone drummer boy dressed in shabby bearskin and red coat scrambled on to the ruined earthworks outside Yorktown and beat for a parley. From their trenches, which encircled the little tobacco port like a noose, George Washington’s forces could see him through the smoke of battle. But they could not hear him because of the thunder of their hundred guns. Firing incessantly were 24-pound siege pieces which smashed the fortifications, 8-inch howitzers which dismembered their defenders, lighter cannon whose balls splintered the clapboard houses along the bluff overlooking Chesapeake Bay and sometimes skipped over the water like flat stones, and heavy French mortars whose 200-pound projectiles—black bombshells clearly visible in daylight, blazing meteors after dark—made the whole peninsula shake. Then, behind the boy, a British officer appeared, waving a white handkerchief. He bore a message from Lord Cornwallis, whose battered army had no means of escape, proposing to end the bloodshed. The barrage ceased, the emissary was blindfolded and the terms of the British surrender were negotiated. Washington, unbending in his role as the noblest republican of them all, administered a severe blow to imperial pride. Cornwallis’s 7,200 troops were to become prisoners of war. They were to march, flags furled, between the ranks of their foes drawn up along the road from Yorktown, which passed through fields white with ripe cotton bolls, and lay down their arms.
It was a “humiliating scene,”1 watched in dead silence by the Americans, clad in ragged homespun, some “almost barefoot,” and their French allies, plumed and often mustachioed, immaculate in white uniforms and black gaiters, their pastel silk banners decorated with silver fleurs-de-lis. King George III’s German mercenaries marched past steadily but the British “lobsters” (as the Americans called them) were less dignified. Some were the worse for rum—the largest single item of expenditure borne by the British Army during the war. Others were disdainful, others defiant. A few flung down their heavy, smooth-bored Brown Bess muskets as though to smash them. Lieutenant-Colonel Abercromby, who had led the only serious sortie from Yorktown, chewed his sword in impotent rage. According to an American witness, the British officers behaved like whipped schoolboys. “Some bit their lips, some pouted, others cried,”4 hiding such emotions beneath their round, broad-brimmed hats. Cornwallis himself remained in Yorktown, pleading indisposition but perhaps unable to face the triumph of revolution. Meanwhile, the bandsmen of his captive army played a “melancholy” tune on drums and fifes. It was the dirge of the British Empire in America, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
The Old World did regard the New World’s victory as an ominous inversion of the established order. It was an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority—the first successful rebellion of colonial subjects against sovereign power in modern history. How could a rabble of farmers in thirteen poor appendages, with a population of only 2.5 million, defeat the trained might of the mother country? Americans were divided among themselves and thinly spread along an underdeveloped eastern seaboard which shaded gradually into isolated pioneer settlements and virgin wilderness. They were opposed not only by white loyalists but by black slaves and “Red Indians.” Washington’s recruits, in a spirit of democratic “licentiousness” (his word), were disinclined to take orders without discussion: as one senior officer complained, “The privates are all generals.” Their auxiliaries, until the advent of the French, were wholly undisciplined. The militia consisted of summer foot soldiers on furlough from the plough and, wrote one witness, a cavalry of round-wigged tailors and apothecaries mounted on “bad nags” who looked “like a flock of ducks in cross belts.” These were supported at times by tattooed and buckskinned frontiersmen with tomahawks in their belts, bear grease in their hair and coonskin hats on their heads.
Yet this motley array often proved effective, particularly in guerrilla fighting. After the “shot heard round the world”9 which had opened hostilities at Lexington in 1775, the redcoats made such a “vigorous retreat,” quipped Benjamin Franklin, that the “feeble Americans could scarce keep up with them.”10 On other occasions British generals proved dauntlessly incompetent. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne distinguished himself less as a professional soldier than an amateur dramatist—when his play The Bloodbath of Boston was performed the audience at first thought that American shelling was part of the show—and in 1777 his histrionic recklessness led to the British capitulation at Saratoga. By contrast, George Washington, though by no means a military genius, was a great leader. Tall and stately in his familiar buff and blue uniform, with a long pallid face dominated by a jutting nose, a broad mouth and steely grey-blue eyes, he looked the part. And he played it with courage and canniness. Formidably self-possessed, ruthlessly single-minded, incomparably tenacious, he made small gains and avoided large losses, staving off defeat until he could achieve victory.
Before Yorktown, after six years of war, that outcome still appeared remote, despite the support of Spain and Holland as well as France, which the Earl of Chatham described as a “vulture hovering over the British Empire.” Redcoat bayonets dominated the battlefield and Britannia still ruled the waves. General Clinton had an iron grip on New York. From there he wrote to Cornwallis in March 1781:
Discontent runs high in Connecticut. In short, my Lord, there seems little wanting to give a mortal stab to Rebellion but a proper Reinforcement, and a permanent superiority at Sea for the next Campaign without which any Enterprize depending on Water Movements must certainly run great Risk.
Cornwallis himself was subjugating the south. He was assisted by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who boasted of having “butchered more men and lain with more women than anybody”—he should have said ravished, remarked the playwright Sheridan, since “rapes are the relaxation of murder.” Washington’s forces had scarcely recovered from their winter agonies at Valley Forge and Morristown, where, as one soldier wrote, “It has been amazing cold to such a Degree that I who never flinched to old Boreas had t’other day one of my Ears froze as hard as a Pine gnut.” In the spring of 1781 Washington wrote,
our Troops are approaching fast to nakedness and . . . we have nothing to cloath them with . . . our hospitals are without medicines, and our Sick without Nutriment . . . all our public works are at a stand . . . we are at the end of our tether . . . now or never our deliverance must come.
It came with French men-of-war.
In August, Washington heard that Admiral de Grasse was sailing with a fleet of twenty-eight ships of the line and bringing three thousand more regular soldiers to reinforce the five thousand commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau. Washington seized his opportunity. In great secrecy he disengaged from Clinton and marched his army south through New Jersey. When he heard that de Grasse had reached Chesapeake Bay, cutting Cornwallis off from outside help, Washington abandoned his usual reserve. He capered about on the quay at Chester, waving his hat and his handkerchief, and embraced Rochambeau as he arrived. The young Marquis de Lafayette was even more effusive when he met Washington at Williamsburg. He leapt off his horse, “caught the General round his body, hugged him as close as it was possible and absolutely kissed him from ear to ear.”16 The news was a tonic to the whole army—it even cured General Steuben’s gout. For everyone except the British believed that Cornwallis would be “completely Burgoyned.” “We have got him handsomely in a pudding bag,” wrote General Weedon. “I am all on fire. By the Great God of War, I think we may all hand up our swords by the last of the year in perfect peace and security!”
Washington personally ensured that his “mouse-trap”19 snapped shut. He made meticulous preparations, even going so far as to pay his troops (with French gold). He surveyed Yorktown’s defences from an exposed position where “shot seemed flying almost as thick as hail.”20With a pickaxe he broke the ground for the opening trench and he put a match to the first gun in the cannonade. Washington pressed forward fast, puzzled by the sluggishness of the enemy. Although erratic, Cornwallis was an able commander. He was brave, tactically adept and adored by his men, whose hardships he shared. But apart from shooting starving horses and expelling hungry slaves (many of them ill with malaria, smallpox and dysentery), he took few initiatives at Yorktown. This was because, as he told Clinton, his army could only be saved by a successful naval action. However, de Grasse had seen off the British fleet in an indecisive battle on 5 September and Washington persuaded him to remain on guard. By the end of the month Clinton informed Cornwallis: “I am doing everything in my power to relieve you by a direct move and I have reason to hope from the assurance given me this day by Admiral Graves that we may pass the Bar by the 12 October if the winds permit and no unforeseen accident happens.” But the Royal Navy was in no state to break the French hold on Chesapeake Bay.
It was ill led by Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, who, the philosopher David Hume complained, spent several weeks trout-fishing at Newbury with “two or three Ladies of Pleasure . . . at a time when the Fate of the British Empire is in dependance, and in dependance on him.” It lacked necessities: in the West Indies Admiral “Foul-weather Jack” Byron had “a fleet to equip without stores, to victual without provisions, to man without men.” It also suffered from less obvious defects. Among them was a hidden canker caused by the new system of sheathing the bottoms of wooden vessels in copper. This eliminated marine growth, crustacea and plants which slowed ships down, and the teredo worm which honeycombed their oaken keels in tropical waters. However, until a technical solution was found to the problem (as it was in time to defeat the French during the The Decline and Fall of the Briti sh Empire 1790s), the copper rapidly corroded underwater iron fastenings. This sometimes led to sudden disasters: merely by firing her seventy-four guns during the action against de Grasse, the Terrible almost shook herself to pieces and the following day she had to be scuttled. So for a time England was evicted from “the throne of Neptune.”