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The Eighteenth Century Maritime World



This page consists of lecture notes and supporting links for a class I give in my HIST 112 "The Modern World" course at the University of Alberta. The purpose of the lecture is to introduce the history of European expansion in the eighteenth century, including its political and economic motivations.My lecture revolved around two big questions: Why did Europe, rather than another region of the world, make a global maritime impact? and Why did Britain become Europe's leading maritime power?


To help answer the first question, we need to review some historical background:

By the eighteenth century several parts of the world featured large regional maritime networks and had launched far-flung exploring expeditions. Websites for the following examples will tell you more:

By the eighteenth century some of these countries or regions had turned inward, and were no longer launching long-distance exploration voyages or trade contacts: Polynesia and China are good examples of this. Other areas saw the devastation of indigenous populations through European contact; especially the transmission of European diseases like smallpox. Some areas always remained important, especially the commercial networks of southeast Asia, India and the Middle East.

But the main point to remember is that all of these non-European networks were regional. Some of the regions were enormous, as in the Pacific, and some countries' explorers ventured far afield, as Arab and Chinese mariners did. But none of these maritime networks expanded on a global scale.

Europe, on the other hand, was already beginning to make a global impact by the eighteenth century. During the "first age of discovery", Prince Henry ("The Navigator") of Portugal had launched exploration voyages that led to Portuguese settlements and trade in Africa and India. In the wake of Columbus' discoveries, Spain's empire stretched across the Atlantic to the West Indies and Americas, and across the Pacific to the Philippines. Other countries, notably the Netherlands, France and England all had colonies or trading outposts on at least two other continents.


Why did Britain dominate the "second age of discovery" in the eighteenth century?

  • Britain enjoyed the political luxury of choosing between continental and overseas operations during the eighteenth century. Unlike the continental maritime powers of Europe, Britain was not forced to concentrate its attention on land-based warfare.
  • The British government extensively taxed overseas commercial operations, and as a result, could finance the building of more and better naval vessels for exploration and defence.
  • A larger state navy needed to pay, feed and care for the health of large numbers of seamen. The Marine Society was founded in 1756 to help train, educate and support British sailors.
  • Navigation technology underwent drastic changes in the eighteenth century. The accurate measurement of a ship's longitude had been a longstanding problem at sea, making early navigation difficult and dangerous. Some scientists tried to use astronomical measurements to calculate these time differences, but John Harrison, a British clockmaker, invented a portable timepiece called a chronometer which ships' captains could take to sea. The chronometer kept track of the time in England, and by comparing this with local time, a captain could find the longitude of his ship. Solving the "longitude problem" produced a revolution in European exploration and mapping.


    Where did Britain choose to explore?

    Almost all of the Pacific region, except for parts of the American and Chinese coasts, remained unknown to Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Spain kept its geographical knowledge about the Americas a closely guarded secret. The Dutch began to explore the north and western coasts of Australia in the seventeenth century, but little else was known about the south Pacific. The Russian emperor Peter the Great had launched exploring expeditions to northeast Asia, and Vitus Bering had discovered the strait bearing his name that separates Asia from North America. Most of far northern North America, however, was still unexplored by Europeans.

    British geographers were curious about the Pacific, especially about the possibility of a wealthy, undiscovered Southern Continent or the fabled Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the top of North America.

    But Britain also wanted to challenge Spain's domination of the Pacific, and to increase its trade with Asia. This trade was the preserve of the East India Company, which was especially interested in finding new trade routes to China.

    Britain also had French competition to consider. France established its own Compagnie des Indes in the eighteenth century, and began launching exploration voyages to the Pacific in the later part of the century; the Comte de La Pérouse's voyage was one of the most famous of these.

    All of these factors formed the background to Captain James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific in 1768. Cook also benefited from the scientific developments we discussed earlier, especially in navigational technology. During his first voyage, he used the "lunar distances" method to calculate his ship's longitude. On his second voyage, however, he took along a copy of John Harrison's famous chronometer, and his journal is full of praise for "the Watch". Finally, the publication of Cook's voyage narratives promoted the commercial possibilities of the Pacific in whaling, sealing and fur trades.

    Cook's third voyage was of particular importance for Canadian history. Apart from Bering and a handful of other Russian-sponsored explorers, no other Europeans had ever visited the far north Pacific. Maps of the coast of what is now British Columbia and the Yukon did not yet exist. Look at a copy of Cook's north Pacific chart to see how much he accomplished on that third voyage before his death in 1779.


    The idea of "global consciousness"

    The European explorations of the "second age of discovery" meant that, for the first time in human history, the whole globe could be mapped and its oceans navigated, using a consistent technological method. This happened at a time when other important developments in world history were taking place:

    • The increasing importance of Asian markets
    • The rise of industrialisation in Europe
    • The expansion of global trade networks

    Britain was especially anxious to protect its existing trade routes in Asia, and to expand markets for its manufactured goods. It was also importing increasing amounts of tea from China and needed new products - like seal and sea otter fur from the Pacific - to pay for it. The exploration of the Pacific was crucial to these plans, and to the development of what we now call the Asia-Pacific trade region. In fact, the foundations of the modern world system were put in place in the eighteenth century and its maritime world.


    For more about exploration and maritime history:


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    Site updated on 1 January, 2004.
    © Jane Samson, 2004.