Book Review

Don’t Forget the Butterfly Effect

The best thing about reading lively narrative histories is the realization that we do not, in fact, live in uniquely strange times. The last few years have been unsettling, to say the least; but as Matthew Lockwood reminds us in his new book To Begin the World Over Again, so were the 1770s, ’80s, and ’90s.[1] In his lengthy, leisurely study, he takes his readers from the eye of the storm in North America and London to the myriad lands that were affected by the American War of Independence, demonstrating that “a local protest over taxes in a remote corner of North America would end on the streets of Dublin, the mountains of Peru, the beaches of Australia, and the jungles of India.” Lockwood draws a moral from this spectacle and lays it out in his introduction:

Examining the revolution from a truly global perspective, both geographically and thematically, forcefully reveals the often tragic interconnectedness of the world, compelling us to contemplate ourselves in an entangled world rather than as an isolated, excep­tional chosen people. Removing the blinkers of a narrowly national political point of view opens new horizons of understanding, allow­ing us to realize the most urgent lesson taught by America’s founding moment: American actions have, and have always had, unforeseen, unimagined global consequences.

Well, this should come as a surprise to no one; any reader with the educational level and attention span to peruse this hefty tome will probably not imagine that events on the North American continent have ever occurred in a vacuum. Reflective Americans are in a self-hating mood right now, with some justification; nevertheless, it is more than a stretch for us to conclude that “the American Revolution Devastated the Globe,” as Lockwood claims in the title of his book. More correctly, one might say that the American Revolution had certain ripple effects that caused certain portions of the globe to be devastated, or at any rate radically altered; but the same could be said for any major historical crisis. One is immediately reminded of the so-called butterfly effect, according to which the tiniest action, let’s say the flapping of a butterfly’s wing, can set in motion a series of actions that might result in a typhoon. But then of course the American Revolution and the global war it engendered were themselves the result of earlier butterfly wings flapping, most notably between 1756 and 1763 when the Seven Years’ War roiled the world and reset the European balance of power strongly in Britain’s favor, creating a spirit of bitter revanchism in France and Spain. In fact the American Revolution can best be seen as part of a series of political, social and economic changes that began in the mid-eighteenth century and continued well into the nineteenth, causing a wave of revolution, creative rebuilding and, yes, devastation across the globe. Some historians have dubbed this period the second Hundred Years’ War between France and Britain.

While not an elegant writer, Lockwood can certainly spin a yarn, and he provides fascinating accounts of individuals whose lives were dramatically uprooted by the effects of the Revolution. Boston King, for example: born a slave in South Carolina, he joined the Loyalist army during the Revolution, since the British had promised slaves their freedom should they fight on their side; after the war he was settled with other ex-slaves in Nova Scotia; finding that his situation there was hardly better than it had been in slavery south of the border, he emigrated to Sierra Leone, where he helped found Freetown and became a Methodist missionary. Or the unlucky Eliza Fay, a young Englishwoman who arrived in India with her barrister husband after extraordinary travel adventures only to be captured and imprisoned by Haidar Ali, raja of Mysore. Or Bennelong, a native Australian captured by the British in the new settlement of Sydney Cove who eventually traveled to London and became something of a cultural link between the Aborigines and the conquering British. Or Micaela Bastidas, the Peruvian woman who masterminded the great rebellion against the Spanish and helped her husband establish himself as Tupac Amaru II, the last Inca, before they and their family were executed by the Spanish in a barbaric act of revenge and example. These people indeed lived in turbulent times—even more turbulent than our own—and Lockwood’s narrative gifts do their stories justice.

It’s one of the great ironies of history that Britain, apparently the ignominious loser in the American War of Independence, proved ultimately to be the global winner. Lockwood demonstrates how this happens. France was still smarting over her defeat to Britain in the Seven Years’ War, in which she lost most of her possessions in North America and India. The American colonists’ struggle for independence provided her with an opportunity to redress the balance, and the Comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, apparently acted on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” when he agreed generously to subsidize the rebelling colonists. Silas Deane, who preceded Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France, sweetened the pill by assuring Vergennes that after an American victory “a great part of our commerce will naturally fall to France,” and France entered the fray with high hopes. She was soon joined by Spain, which also desired to see Britain humiliated and stripped of her American spoils. France and Spain, both ruled by the house of Bourbon since 1714, were joined in a “family pact,” and in 1779 they signed the so-called Convention of Aranjuez, pledging cooperation against Great Britain.

With the cessation of hostilities in 1783, it appeared that France and Spain had made the right bet. But appearances were very deceptive. France, which had spent the equivalent of two years’ annual revenue on the war, was now effectively bankrupt, and the hollowness of Silas Deane’s promises was revealed when the new United States turned back to its natural trading partner, Britain, at the expense of her one-time ally France. France’s empty coffers would result in revolution and the fall of the French monarchy only a few years later. Spain, in 1783, seemed triumphant, but her military victories would prove costly and unsustainable. For example, the Spanish had successfully fought off a British attack in Nicaragua and had managed to seize Florida, but Britain ultimately benefited from her own failures: “The expenditure necessary to protect and govern such unproductive colonies from the inevitable Spanish and American attacks would be better spent elsewhere. Both were Spain’s problem now. . . . By securing its empire Spain was now set on a collision course with the new United States.” The Count of Aranda, Spain’s ambassador to France at the time, could already foresee the disaster that would ensue in the long run: the new American republic, he wrote,

has been born a pygmy . . . and it needed the support and power of two states as powerful as Spain and France to win its independence. The day will come in which it grows and turns into a giant, even a frightening colossus, in that region. It will then forget the benefits it has received from the two powers, and it will only think of its own expansion . . . And within a few years we will see with real dismay the tyrannical existence of this colossus of which I am speaking. The first step for this power . . . will be to take over Florida, in order to dominate the Gulf of Mexico. After harassing us and our relations with New Spain in this way, it will aspire to conquer this vast empire, which we will not be able to defend against a formidable power established in that very continent and a neighbor of it.

All of his predictions, of course, came true. Spain would learn the hard way, as Britain did a bit earlier—with the loss of her American empire, in fact—that land empires were expensive and difficult to maintain.

It is instructive to look (though Lockwood does not do so) at Adam Smith’s attack, written exactly at the beginning of the American uprising, against the inefficiency and waste of the imperial system as exemplified by the thirteen colonies, and of the mercantilist system in general. Smith is often seen as advocating a particular system, and to a certain extent he does, but his Wealth of Nations is for the most part a description of a process that was taking place as he wrote: the birth of modern capitalism. Smith was brutal in his assessment of the imperial, mercantile project as it stood in 1776:

[C]ountries which contribute neither revenue nor military force towards the support of the empire, cannot be considered as provinces. They may perhaps be considered as appendages, as a sort of splendid and showy equipage of the empire. But if the empire can no longer support the expence of keeping up this equipage, it ought certainly to lay it down . . . The rulers of Great Britain have, for more than a century past, amused the people with the imagination that they possessed a great empire on the west side of the Atlantic. This empire, however, has hitherto existed in imagination only. It has hitherto been, not an empire, but the project of an empire; not a gold mine, but the project of a gold mine; a project which has cost, and which, if pursued in the same way as it has been hitherto, is likely to cost immense expence, without being likely to bring any profit; for the effects of the monopoly of the colony trade, it has been shewn, are, to the great body of the people, mere loss instead of profit.

Britain, he snidely concluded, should “endeavor to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.”

Britain did learn some lessons from the American disaster, if not precisely the one Smith had endeavored to teach. One of them was authoritarianism, which increased in her manner of government both at home and in the colonies. While Britain had initially been “arrogantly sure that an easy victory over America was foreordained,” she quickly became “suffused with fear, paranoia, and panic. The mood of the country changed. Attitudes toward dissent and disloyalty, crime and disorder hardened, precipitating the worst violence in London’s history.” Here Lockwood refers to the Gordon Riots of 1780. The need for more and more soldiers to fight in America had made Ireland a prime recruiting ground for the British, who realized the need to ease up on the discriminatory penal laws against Catholics in Ireland, their oldest colony. The subsequent Catholic Relief Act of 1778 raised a panicky bigotry among Protestants throughout the British Isles, culminating in the terrifying Gordon Riots, during which anti-Catholic mobs looted and pillaged London in a weeklong spree; several hundred people were killed. Both ideologically (with its assertion that all men are created equal) and politically (with Britain compelled for practical reasons to offer a few rights to the oppressed Irish Catholics) the American war offered “a clear, if fleeting, opportunity for [Irish] independence.” Leaders of the so-called Volunteer movement, allied with the English Whigs, pushed for legislative reform and the lifting of trade restrictions, and to some extent they succeeded. But a period of reaction set in in England with the end of the American war, and greater reaction upon the beginning of hostilities with revolutionary France a decade later. “The lesson [the British government] took from the American Revolution was not that British rule had been overly strict and selfish, but that it had in fact been too weak. In the years after the war, Britain became more conservative and authoritarian.” The 1798 Irish rebellion was brutally quashed, and two years later the Act of Union with Great Britain was passed and the Irish parliament ceased to exist. The new conservatism and authoritarianism had, it goes without saying, at least as much to do—more—with the French Revolution as it did with the American. But of course the French Revolution was enabled by the American. Which was enabled by the Seven Years’ War. Which was enabled by the War of the Spanish Succession. . . . Oh dear! Once we start thinking about the butterfly effect, we can establish no point of origin. Again, Lockwood’s purported thesis—“How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe”—is thin, to say the least.

Lockwood devotes a good deal of attention to India, where British control had become as unsustainable, by the 1770s, as it had in America. At that time, as Lockwood points out,

India was a geographical expression, not a focus of common identity or national cohesion. The British were not seen as imperial oppressors of some nascent united India, but rather as simply one in a long line of overlords that had ruled parts of the subcontinent for centuries. Indeed, before the reforms of the late eighteenth century, the British had consciously modeled their rule on indigenous precedents, adopting native law, finance, and administration . . . It should come as no surprise that many people in the Hindu majority of India thus saw little practical difference between the British ruling class and the Persianate ruling classes that had held sway in Bengal or Benares, or still ruled in Mysore, or Hyderabad.

The parts of India under British control were ruled not by the crown but by the British East India Company, a monopoly trading company that had over the years taken on most governmental functions, including its own army. In an attempt to bring the activities of the Company under a bit of government scrutiny, Parliament passed a Regulating Act in 1773, appointing a Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, and beginning the process of centralization. But these measures didn’t begin to fix administrative confusion on the subcontinent. As the American Revolution progressed, it became evident that the British Empire in India, like that in America, was overstretched and underfunded. Indian states were taxed at punitive rates and often quite openly robbed to foot the bill for Britain’s trading shortfalls and insatiable demand for armies and manpower. In Whitehall, there was little agreement on how the Indian possessions were to be governed and what role the East India Company should play in that government, though William Pitt’s 1784 India Bill made a more extensive attempt at untangling affairs.

Eventually Hastings was impeached for mismanagement and corruption and made the fall guy for all the skullduggery perpetrated by the East India Company administration. His trial, which began in 1788 and lasted a full seven years, could justly be said to be the trial of the century, and as well as judging Hastings the man it judged the entire system of exploitation that had developed over the course of nearly two centuries. Edmund Burke gave a lurid description of Company officials in one of the many famous speeches he made before the tribunal: “animated with all the avarice of age, and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another; wave upon wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless, prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting.” Lockwood describes the trial, probably with some justice, as “a spectacle of histrionic oratory, vicious invective, and a stubborn refusal to conciliate or bend.” But the rhetor­ical heights struck during the trial by the leaders of the prosecution —Burke, Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—were of unexampled brilliance, and would set the political and emotional stage for reformist zeal throughout the nineteenth century. Perhaps inevitably, though, Hastings was acquitted. By that time Britain was hard at war with revolutionary France, and political reaction had set in; chaos could not be allowed to rule in India lest the subcontinent go the way of the American colonies. Lord Cornwallis, fresh from his drubbing at Yorktown, was appointed Governor-General. Having witnessed “the disastrous consequences of American separatism first-hand,” Cornwallis “feared that British India was well on its way to repeating the mistakes of British America. To prevent the growth of a distinct political class in India, Cornwallis passed measures intended to divide British officials from India and Indians,” laying the legal foundations, with his Cornwallis Code, for what would become the rigidly hierarchical, race- and caste-based British India of the nineteenth century.

The most fascinating part of Lockwood’s narrative, for me, was the section on the haphazard, tragic settlement of Australia. This settlement did indeed occur as a direct result of the American War, since with the loss of her American colonies, Britain found herself lacking sufficient dumping grounds for the many convicts and prostitutes who were overflowing England’s inadequate prisons and prison hulks. The east coast of Australia, explored by Captain Cook in 1770, was deemed a suitable spot, and the first convict ships arrived at Botany Bay in 1788 under the command of Arthur Phillip, the colony’s first governor. The anecdotes Lockwood provides about first contact with the Aborigines are unbearably poignant, for Phillip came with good intentions. King George III had urged him to “endeavor by every means possible to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections,” and Phillip tried his best: “The authorities in Britain, and Phillip himself, had been concerned to learn from the mistakes of North America, and had taken steps to ensure that the violence that consumed the Atlantic colonies was not repeated in the Pacific.” Attempts were certainly made to establish warm relations, and many of the new arrivals took to the natives: “They laugh when they see us laugh,” noted one settler, “and they appear to be of a peaceable Disposition, and have a Generosity about them, in offering You a share of their Food. If you meet with any of them, they will readily offer You Fish, Fire, & Water.” There were numerous attempts to gain knowledge about the land and how to survive on it from the Aborigines, but there were frustratingly few opportunities to do so, so eventually Phillip simply kidnapped a few. And some of the more thuggish convicts inevitably committed violence against the Eora settlements. But as in America, the great killer was smallpox; just a year after the colonists’ arrival, 70 percent of the local population had died.

The settlement of Sierra Leone, too, was a result of the American War, which gave birth in Britain to a new awareness of the plight of the former slaves, quite a few of whom showed up in Britain, rootless and desperate, after the Revolution. The nation’s conscience had already been shocked by the horrific fate, in 1781, of the slave ship Zong (subject of the famous Slave Ship painting of J. M. W. Turner): finding themselves in mid-ocean with insufficient supplies, crew members pushed the less valuable women and children slaves out through the portholes to die—as many as 150 of them. This tale might not have been publicly known had the slaving syndicate not tried to make an insurance claim on the murdered slaves! The outrage that ensued did much to shift the social conscience of Britain. “Many began to see a link between slavery and a corrupt political system, between the act of denying the liberty of slaves, and the trampling of the liberties of British subjects. The American War, and its discourse of imperial critique, provided room to debate and reimagine the British Empire on a new moral foundation of free labor and free trade.” The Sierra Leone Company, an attempt to resettle former slaves in West Africa, was one result: “In the years after the American War, familiar criticisms of an immoral empire were replaced by a more supportive public sentiment as the empire was portrayed as a force for good around the world.” Of course, public sentiment and the new portrayal of empire hardly matched the reality of what we nowadays would call the colonized peoples’ “lived experience,” and Lockwood’s descriptions of life in Sierra Leone are, like life in many other British colonies, quite appalling. In the end the Company failed, and Sierra Leone became a crown colony, part of Britain’s quickly expanding African empire.

In 1792, the first official embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China set out on its mission. This, too, was a result of the American Revolution: with the loss of its previous “triangle trade”—England to Africa, Africa to the Americas, the Americas back to England—British merchants began to conceive of a new triangle trade, England-India-China. China produced lots of things that England wanted, but there appeared to be only one Chinese demand that England could fulfill—opium, from its vast poppy fields in India. “In the wake of Britain’s American debacle, [the China mission] was nothing less than a mission to save Britain’s soul. The expansion of British trade in Asia provided the possibility of resetting the terms and conditions of British imperialism. In the place of territorial Atlantic empires built on the backs of slaves, a new empire of free labor could be constructed in the east. . . . That it sought to do so on the back of an expanded opium trade seems not to have troubled them overmuch.” Thus began the policy that would eventually lead to the terrible Opium Wars.

Here, abruptly, Lockwood’s narrative comes to a close: without any sort of conclusion or attempt to restate and assert his central thesis. It’s a long book; one gets the feeling he might simply have become exhausted by his task. In the end, he’s left us with a great deal of information, a lot of loose ends, and an inconclusive and incoherent thesis he does not trouble to summarize. Plenty of readers who enjoy narrative history will get pleasure from this book, but whether it really advances our understanding of historical causation is dubious.
[1] To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe, by Matthew Lockwood. Yale University Press. $30.00.