Thursday, 22 March 2012

Around the World in 1762

Madame de Pompadour - Francois Boucher

It’s been quite a while since I warmed up the old time machine in the garden shed for a quick trip around the world. High time, therefore, to power up the motors, check the dials, make sure that all the screws and bolts are secure and take a look at the way things were. After all, any machine will rust up if it’s not used every now and again. We’ve already looked at 1810 and 1911. I thought this time we’d go a little further back, turning the main dial back a quarter of a millennium, to 1762.

The machine is programmed to follow the rising sun, so we begin over the Pacific. Though some European explorers have made contact with the various groups of Pacific islands, their influence has been small; indigenous Polynesian peoples still live their various diverse forms of life, largely undisturbed. The same can be said for Australia and New Zealand. This isolation will not, however, last much longer. Interest in the Pacific area is growing in Europe, and in six years time the Royal Society will send an expedition, under the command of James Cook – who in 1762 is charting the coasts of eastern Canada and Newfoundland – to observe the transit of Venus on Tahiti and explore large amounts of the New Zealand and Australian coastlines.

Japan is still a largely closed country, the Tokugawa Shogunate strictly controlling very limited trade with the gaijin western foreigners following the sakoku (“locked country”) policy. In China, the Manchus are at the height of their power, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who reigned for almost sixty years, almost until the end of the century, exercising control over an area more or less contiguous with the modern Peoples Republic. There is increasing trade with Europeans, particularly in tea, which is becoming ever more popular in Europe, especially in Britain and its colonies. The British and Dutch East India Companies are competitors in the tea business. The Portuguese maintain their trade colony in Macao, but it is in decline. Hong Kong is an unimportant island, inhabited by a few thousand fishermen and charcoal burners.

Farther south, however, Europeans are more present, the Spaniards controlling the Philippines and the Dutch firmly ensconced in what is now Indonesia. There is no love lost between the Protestant Dutch, on the one hand, and the Catholic Spaniards and Portuguese on the other, they have been rivals for lucrative trade and influence in Eastern Asia for a hundred and fifty years now.

Clive with Family - Joshua Reynolds
To the west, the Seven Year War, which is still raging in Central Europe, has taken on a global aspect with a world-wide struggle for power and influence between France and Britain having far-reaching consequences for India. By 1762, the British – in the form of the East India Company and its brilliant, ruthless military and administrative genius, Robert Clive – has managed to basically wipe out French influence in the subcontinent and to majorly expand its power (and profits) in the increasingly moribund Mughal (Mogul) Empire. It is no exaggeration to claim that the British Empire in India was basically founded in the 1750s and 60s.

Africa at this time is haemorrhaging people, both from the east and west coasts, in the ghastly form of slavery. A majority of the slaves have originally been captured by other Africans as a result of raids or wars – in East Africa they are sold to Arab traders who sell them on throughout the Middle East and the Orient; in West Africa it is the Europeans who have an insatiable thirst for labourers to use in their American colonies, above all in the Caribbean, where the vastly lucrative cultivation of sugar demands huge amounts of human workers for its brutally hard cultivation, harvesting and processing. By the middle of the 18th Century, the entire economies of islands like French Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Martinique and Guadaloupe and British Barbados and Jamaica are almost totally based on sugar, making vast profits for a small group of unbelievably rich sugar barons. But slaves from West Africa are also being shipped in their hundreds of thousands to Portuguese Brazil and the more southerly British colonies in North America, to work on the growing tobacco and cotton plantations.

Europe is at war, though the Seven Year War is winding down and will end next year. On the continent, the major struggle is between Prussia, supported by Britain and some other German allies, on the one side, and France, Austria and Russia on the other. After initial serious setbacks, Frederick the Great of Prussia has basically fought the Austrians and Russians to a standstill – the borders following the end of the war will show few differences to those at the beginning. The struggle between France and Britain rages globally, with the French suffering major losses in India and, above all, Canada. As such, the Seven Year War can reasonably be called the first real World War. Though the short-term costs for Britain are high, the war definitively establishes Britain as one of the foremost world powers. But the administration of global empires frequently involve difficult policy decisions and some of those made by Britain with relation to her American colonies (particularly taxation policies and the prohibition of settlement west of the Appalachians) will have fateful consequences.

Europe and its colonial offspring in the Americas have already begun to cast a longer shadow, one which will grow to dominate the entire globe, for better or worse, in the next two hundred and fifty years, and as such demand our particular attention. It is the century of absolutism, where kings and emperors believe in their divine right to rule and rule accordingly (with the exception of the eccentric Britons, who had severely restricted the power of their monarch to the advantage of Parliament at the end of the 17th Century). But it is also the Century of the Enlightenment, where great minds in Europe and America are thinking about humanity and society in new and radical ways and reaching radical conclusions. In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes two of his most influential works, Emile and The Social Contract. David Hume, in his dry, somewhat cynical art, has managed to call almost everything into question. Voltaire is one of the most admired figures in Europe and has even spent a number of years in Berlin, at the invitation of the Prussian monarch, Frederick the Great – though they soon fell out. For, though the monarchs believed in their absolute right to rule, many of them were open for the ideas of the new thinkers of the Enlightenment – ideas like tolerance and rationality. The Empress Elizabeth of Russia, who dies at the beginning of the year, takes pride in the fact that not a single Russian has been executed during her twenty year reign.

Though it is a time where women are regarded, almost universally, as inferior to men, in 1762 women are in charge of some of the most powerful empires in the world. Elizabeth will be succeeded this year, after a few months of rule by her son, Peter III, by her daughter-in-law, the German born Catherine the Great. The Austrian Empire is ruled by the firm hand of Maria Theresa. And even in France, where the king is Louis XV, it is no secret that the real power behind the throne is his mistress, Madame de Pompadour.

The young Mozart
In art, it is a period where, it seemed, everyone who was anyone wanted to have their portrait painted – if you had enough money, you could visit London and have your image preserved for eternity by Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough. In music, a golden age is dawning. Joseph Hayden, who has just become Kapellmeister to the immensely wealthy Esterházy family, will write his 9th Symphony. In Salzburg Leopold Mozart, having discovered that his daughter, Nannerl, and especially his six-year-old son, Wolfgang, are musically gifted, has resolved to use their talents to secure his family fortunes and will embark with them this year on a musical tour of Europe. The Jackson Five of classical music.

While South and Central America remain under Spanish or (in the case of Brazil) Portuguese control, Britain, with the enthusiastic help of its colonists, has succeeded in throwing France out of most of North America. Wolfe’s defeat of Montcalm at the siege of Quebec in 1759 paved the way for British sovereignty over Canada. But the high costs of the war would lead Britain to increase taxation in its American colonies. In so far as the British felt obliged to justify this at all, they argued that the colonists were the ones who had benefited most from the victory, saved as they were from the undoubted horrors of French rule. But the one great advantage the colonists had hoped for, the right to expand westwards beyond the Appalachians, was denied to them by their British overlords, who had given the native tribes (many of whom had allied themselves with the French in the war) assurances that there would be no white settlement in Trans-Appalachia. The seeds of the American Revolution were sown, seeds which would be watered by the ideas of the Enlightenment. And practical experience in the French and Indian War (as the Seven Year War was known in America) was also significant for the future – one of the major American military talents to cut his teeth in the conflict was the young Virginian, George Washington.

But for all the sprouting ideas of the Enlightenment, all the signs of the changes still to come, life, for most of the world population in 1762 (around 850 million), goes on as it had always done. Most people still wrestle an uncertain, insecure life from the land, are illiterate (or poorly educated at best), living often short lives of brutally hard work, sickness, hunger, exploitation at the hands of the rich and powerful, and often violent death. In Britain, the transformation which will become known as the Industrial Revolution has already begun; in two years time James Hargreaves will build his first Spinning Jenny and the new “Factory System,” where relatively lowly skilled workers are gathered in larger numbers to use increasingly complex technology to produce large quantities of manufactured products, is starting to make a mark in various areas of production. One of the most successful early entrepreneurs to make his name and fortune in this manner, is the pottery manufacturer, Josiah Wedgewood (the grandfather of Charles Darwin), who set up the first true pottery factory near Manchester in the 1750s. But the widespread growth of new, immensely more productive methods of production– as well as political and many other changes – which will transform the world, are still a few decades in the future.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. Immensely vivid and interesting - that's how History should be taught in school (and most of the time isn't, alas). Thanks for this great trip on board of your Time Machine and best spring greetings from Paris!

  2. Although I daresay life will not seem so enlightened if you live in one of London's rookeries one of the places that makes Hogarth's Gin Lane look like the Elysian Fields!

  3. Wonderful post. So lively! Haydn and Mozart are a pure delight to learn, to play, and to listen to.

    The god were so gracious to Canada. The French-French had never liked the New World. "Quelques arpents de neige." (A few acres of snow), had said Voltaire, with disdain. La mère patrie neglected its new land. It sent holy missionaries to evangelise the Natives, some stubborn peasants, some adventurers and some scoundrels. Poor Montcalm had practically no soldiers, no arms, no ammunitions. Blissfully he died, in the battle, before the English walked in his beloved Quebec.

    What happened to the French colonists, now totally deserted by France (so busy with its 1789 Revolution?) They grew stubborn and determined. They kept their religion, they created their own traditions, they added rich, unique expressions to the language. And they had babies, dozens and dozens of babies! They called it "The cradles'revenge" (La revanche des berceaux). They became so numerous and so strong that the English colonists had to invite them to join and form the new country that will be called Canada. They accepted as long as the country would also accept the French language as an official language, equal to the English.

    I am a proud descendant of those French Canucks. We owe nothing to France except the seed. We survived defeat, and remained masters in our own house: "Maitres chez-nous". Quebec motto is "Je me souviens!" (I remember). Sometimes, we're a thorn to the country. But we're also a colourful, vibrant element. No prime minister would ever be elected in Canada, unless he also speaks the French language. And a few times, one of us became the country's leader. Vive le Canada.

    Thank you, Francis, for allowing me that space.

  4. I've spent years reading books trying to figure out exactly where and when the world was a perfect place for people and conversely, just who it was we can fault for our current predicament. In the period about which you write the aim of Europe was simply to succeed by the standards of the day, those of the pre-industrial world. Territorial states, colonial expansion, and capitalist economies were by then strong enough to be recognizable as the basis of our own and that was before the development of industry.


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