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An Enlightened World

The Americas

The British colonisation of the Americas began in 1606 with the chartering of the Colony of Virginia. Establishing overseas colonies was of strategic importance to England and other European powers. It allowed them access to land, trade routes, defensive positions and, perhaps most sought after, resources such as wood, cotton, furs and labour.

The British also found the Americas a convenient location for penal transportation. British jails of the 17th and 18th centuries were overcrowded and, with a severe justice and sentencing system, were continuing to fill rapidly. To ease the pressure on jails in England, the Transportation Act of 1717 was introduced. Crimes such as larceny, burglary and horse theft were punishable by transportation. Convicted felons were banished to the American colonies for a period of up to 14 years. Returning before their sentence was complete was a capital crime.

Between 1765 and 1783, the British colonies in North America staged a revolt against the British Crown. The revolt stemmed from unhappiness with the administration of the colonies. In particular, the North American colonies objected to the fact that they were being taxed and legislated against, but had no representative in the British parliament who could speak on their behalf. Following the imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765 (see below) the British colonial authorities convened a congress to address these grievances. However, the British ultimately refused to negotiate.

The American revolt began with acts of civil disobedience and debate among colony leaders, but soon erupted into all-out war between the patriots and the British. The American Patriots, as they styled themselves, along with their major allies France and Spain, were ultimately successful in defeating the British and gaining their independence.

In 1783 in France, representatives of the British government and soon-to-be United States government signed the Treaty of Paris. This document outlined the conditions for peace that would end the American Revolution. The first point stipulated that Britain acknowledge the United States as an independent nation and successor to the former colonies and that Britain relinquish claims to all territory east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada.

Some historians have argued that the Treaty of Paris favoured the United States. Others suggest that the British prime minister, the Earl of Shelburne, recognised that the United States had the potential to become a major economic partner for Great Britain. Shelburne thought that ceding vast tracks of land and allowing the new nation to grow would open lucrative trade options. He was proved right. Britain now had access to the resources of the Americas without the administrative or military costs associated with maintaining a colony. This was both profitable for the United States and convenient for the British government. The war had financially drained Great Britain. It is estimated that the British government spent £12 million a year during the course of the conflict. By 1783 it had a national debt of £250 million—approximately £28.6 billion or A$51.3 billion in today’s currency.


The 18th century in China was marked by the two longest reigning emperors in Chinese history: the Kangxi Emperor (who ruled for 61 years, from 1661 to 1722) and his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor (who ruled for 60 years, from 1735 to 1796). During this time, the Qing dynasty was at the height of its powers, ruling over 13 million square kilometres. To put this into perspective, China today covers 9.6 million square kilometres; Russia 17.1 million square kilometres; and Australia 7.74 million square kilometres.

During the 1700s, the Chinese government launched several ambitious projects to reform the country and expand and secure its borders. When Emperor Kangxi died in 1722, his son Yongzheng quickly implemented new laws that reversed many of his father’s edicts. In an effort to minimise Western and foreign influence within China’s borders, he aggressively promoted Confucianism and, in 1723, expelled Christian missionaries and outlawed Christianity. He executed a number of anti-Manchu writers who had previously been pardoned by his father.

Yongzheng also expanded his father’s system of Palace Memorials—direct messages between local officials and the emperor—bypassing government staff and the wider bureaucracy. This allowed Yongzheng to receive uncensored information and better understand the true state of the country. But it also meant he could ignore official regulations and impose his will directly.

Overpopulation was one of China’s most pressing problems during the 18th century. Its population had stayed relatively stable in the preceding century due to internal conflict and epidemics. With the prosperity and internal stability brought by the Qing emperors, the population began to increase. Over 100 years, China’s population grew from 100 million to 300 million people. The introduction of new crops, such as potatoes and peanuts, from the Americas also contributed to population growth by providing a more stable food supply. However, it was not long before all arable land had been used up. Farmers had to work increasingly smaller plots more often. This led to soil degradation and decreasing crop yield.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Europe began taking a greater interest in China as a strategic trading partner. The British and Dutch had been granted rights to trade in China under a strict system known as the Canton System. This allowed the Chinese to regulate where foreign merchants could trade, as well as the flow of goods. It also gave them the right to impose fixed prices on imports and exports. The Chinese government further restricted foreign trade by issuing the Five Counter-Measures against the Barbarians.

By the late 1700s, the French and British had become troubled by what they saw as the imbalance in the trading relationship with China. China was unwilling to trade goods for goods. Instead, it forced foreign merchants to buy Chinese wares for silver and to pay merchant taxes imposed by the Canton System. Many of the major European nations found this a drain on their dwindling silver supplies. However, they still needed to meet their countries’ increasing demands for Chinese goods.

In 1793, Lord George Macartney, a representative of the British East India Company, was sent to China to push for a free trade agreement and bring balance to the trading relationship. The British saw foreign trade as crucial to the success of their economic strategy. For China, however, foreign trade was of less importance. China did not rely on foreign trade for financial stability and found very little value in trading their wares for foreign goods. The Qianlong Emperor told Macartney in their meeting that ‘the kings of the myriad nations come by land and sea with all sorts of precious things’ and that ‘consequently there is nothing we lack’. 



  1. The American colonies revolted against the British for many reasons, but they were particularly incensed by their lack of representation in the British parliament.
    1. Why would this have angered them so much? What would the advantage/s have been of having a representative in the British parliament? Discuss the importance of having adequate representation in the parliament.
    2. What could the British have done to minimise the risk of the revolution yet retain robust administrative control of the colonies?
    3. What other historical or modern parallels can you find for this lack of representation? Are there any people or groups that have no or inadequate representation in local, state or federal government in Australia and around the world?
  2. ‘The European Enlightenment had repercussions for the world.’
    1. Choose a country or region outside of Europe. Conduct your own research and discuss the validity of the above statement.
  3. In groups, chart a timeline of milestones in the Enlightenment. Have one group chart influential people, another scientific advances, another conflicts, etc.
    1. As a class, develop your own criteria for what is an influential or ‘worthy’ inclusion in the timeline.
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