I have just begun reading Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made The Modern Word, and I know that it will be a finisher, so to speak. Here is his description of how the British Empire got started:
In December 1663 a Welshman called Henry Morgan sailed five hundred miles across the Caribbean to mount a spectacular raid on a Spanish outpost called Gran Grenada, to the north of Lago de Nicaragua. The aim of the expedition was simple: to find and steal Spanish gold – or any other movable property. When Morgan and his men got to Gran Grenada, as the Governor of Jamaica reported in a despatch to London, ‘[They] fired a volley, overturned eighteen great guns . . . took the serjeant-major’s house wherein were all their arms and ammunition, secured in the great Church 300 of the best men prisoners . . . plundered for 16 hours, discharged the prisoners, sunk all the boats and so came away.’ It was the beginning of one of the seventeenth century’s most extraordinary smash-and-grab sprees.
It should never be forgotten that this was how the British Empire began: in a maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft. It was not conceived by self-conscious imperialists, aiming to establish English rule over foreign lands, or colonists hoping to build a new life overseas. Morgan and his fellow ‘buccaneers’ were thieves, trying to steal the proceeds of someone else’s Empire.
The buccaneers called themselves the ‘Brethren of the Coast’ and had a complex system of profit-sharing, including insurance policies for injury. Essentially, however, they were engaged in organized crime. When Morgan led another raid against the Spanish town of Portobelo in Panama, in 1668, he came back with so much plunder – in all, a quarter of a million pieces of eight – that the coins became legal tender in Jamaica. That amounted to £60,000 from just one raid. The English government not only winked at Morgan’s activity; it positively encouraged him. Viewed from London, buccaneering was a low-budget way of waging war against England’s principal European foe, Spain. In effect, the Crown licensed the pirates as ‘privateers’, legalizing their operations in return for a share of the proceeds. Morgan’s career was a classic example of the way the British Empire started out, using enterprising freelances as much as official forces.