Room 14: Britain becomes a World Power

See the portraits currently on display in Room 14 here

Room 14

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

Britain emerged in 1713 from a long war with France as a leading financial power but with few overseas possessions. By the end of the eighteenth century, thanks to her sea power and to trade, Britain had overtaken the old colonial powers, including France and Spain, in America, the West Indies and India and had made great new discoveries in the Pacific.

Britain lost much of its influence in North America following the Declaration of American Independence in 1776 but gains were being made elsewhere. The younger Pitt set India and Canada on the road to further development. The story of British involvement in Africa and the growth of Australia and New Zealand were to lie mainly in the future, but James Bruce had reached the source of the Blue Nile about 1770 and Arthur Phillip landed with the first settlers in Australia in 1788.

The displays in this room are divided into four themes: India and the East India Company, George III and Politics, The Struggle for America and Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific.

India and the East Indian Company
India and The Far East were the scene of rivalry between European companies trading in commodities such as spice, cotton, precious stones, tea and coffee. The British East Indian Company, formed in 1600, made little headway against the Dutch in Java and Sumatra (now Indonesia), but was far more successful in India.

It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that Robert Clive in command of the company's army made substantial advances against the French in India, leading to his appointment as governor of Bengal in 1758. Despite opposition from the Dutch, the French and from the Indian peoples themselves the East India Company's power continued to grow until the 1770s when the British Government began to take over the Company's responsibilities for administration in India, with Warren Hastings as governor general.

As India became the hunting ground for many a young fortune seeker, the assumption was often made that the British were ordained to rule the peoples of India for their own good. But to Edmund Burke and the Whig party in Parliament, it was morally wrong to impose on India and it was absurd to allow a company, set up for trading, to wield imperial power. The East Indian Company was not formally abolished until 1850 after the Indian Mutiny.

George III and Politics
'I AM SURE I CAN SAVE THE COUNTRY, and nobody else can', proclaimed William Pitt the elder, later Earl of Chatham, at the gravest moment in the Seven Year War (1756-63). His subsequent success in the prosecution of the war with France was driven by two related aims: supremacy at sea and the capture of french trading post in North America, the West Indies, Africa and India. But George III, who came to the throne in 1760, wanted the war brought to an end, and the Treaty of Paris in 1763 restored many of the French losses, much to Pitt's dismay.

In the early years of George III's reign two events assumed particular significance. At home one of Pitt's more radical supporters, the M.P. John Wilkes, was imprisoned for attacking the King's Speech to Parliament on the peace treaty; he went on to fight a series of legal battles so that 'Wilkes and Liberty' became a rallying cry for those opposed to the unrepresentative nature of parliament and interference in politics by the Crown. Abroad George III faced major problems in America where he exercised his influence through Lord North, his Prime Minister from 1770; his heavy handed approach contributed to the eventual loss of the American colonies.

The final defeat of British forces in North America in 1781 and the collapse of North's administration the following year led to a period of political instability, which lasted until the emergence of Pitt's son, William Pitt the younger, as Prime Minister at the age of 24 in 1783. He sought to restore the nation's finances following the American war and he reformed the government of India and Canada. But for a short break in office he remained Prime Minister until his death in 1806.

The Struggle for America
North America with its wealth of natural resources and demand for imported materials was the jewel in the crown of Britain's first empire. There was constant rivalry with France for power, dating from the early years of colonisation around 1600. The first major shift came in 1713 when the French yielded Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Hudson's Bay to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht.

But it was not until the Seven Years War, with Wolfe's victory at Quebec in 1759 and the ceding of Canada, Eastern Louisiana, Cape Breton and the Isle of St Lawrence under the Treaty of Paris in 1763 that British power was consolidated. These gains left major financial issues about the defence of the colonies. The imposition of taxes on the colonists led to resentment and ultimately to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. Britain lost the American colonies, the nucleus of the present United States of America, but retained possession of Canada.

Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific
Captain Cook's voyages were carefully prepared, equipped and staffed, and may be described as the first scientific explorations of modern times, but their purpose was also strategic. It was widely held that in the Pacific between New Zealand and South America there must lie a great uncharted continent.

He made three voyages:

1768-71: He took the Royal Society's expedition to Tahiti to observe the transit of the planet Venus in the Southern Hemisphere but also had secret instructions to search for a continental land mass. Travelling from East to West he reached Tahiti, circumnavigated New Zealand, and sailed along the coast of New South Wales (Australia). He was accompanied by the naturalist Banks and the botanist Solander.

1772-5: The primary objective now was to search for the Pacific continent. Like the third voyage, the second was made from West to East. Cook three times crossed the Antarctic Circle, the first European to do so, and made extensive voyages in the South Pacific, proving that there was no great land mass. The Sandwich Islands and Southern Georgia were discovered.

1776-80: Setting out via Tasmania, New Zealand and Tahiti, Cook sailed up the north-west coast of Canada, later explored by Vancouver, and entered the Bering Strait before he was killed in Hawaii, February 1779.

The voyages yielded a mass of scientific information and charted the Pacific. Where a continent was expected, Cook found only Islands, but he had in fact charted the whole of the east coast of the continent of Australia.