Thursday, January 15, 2009

It’s 1759 and all that ... or the history you never learnt at school

1066 is more famous, 1415 (the year of Agincourt) more Shakespearean and 1939 more globally significant. But there is another year whose impact on every area of British life is becoming ever more apparent: 1759.

Its legacy echoes through today’s headlines, with the collapse of the ceramics firm Waterford Wedgwood (founded 1759). The latest Guinness’ advertising campaign (“17:59. It’s Guinness time”) refers to the date when Arthur Guinness built a brewery for stout in Dublin.

One of the salient achievements of an extraordinary year will be celebrated at the British Museum, which opened 250 years ago today. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew were also new in 1759.

The most obvious advances were on the battlefield. There were British military successes around the globe in “the year of victories”.

The City was emerging as the financial centre of the world on the back of its importance to shipping and trade. And the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution were encouraging Josiah Wedgwood and Arthur Guinness to begin building their empires.

The historian Frank McLynn, author of 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World, believes that the year should “be as well known in British history as 1066”, the year of the Norman Conquest. In comparison, Magna Carta in 1215 changed nothing, he said. Other armadas followed the one in 1588 that Drake and Raleigh destroyed. Trafalgar and Waterloo in 1805 and 1815 were great victories but, set against the broad sweep of developments in 1759, “changed little”.

So what forces meshed in Britain halfway through the 18th century to remould the world?

The German-speaking monarch George II had little to do with it. By 1759 he had withdrawn from the world. He died on his toilet a year later. Government was steered by William Pitt the Elder, who was loathed by the King, but had a visionary conviction that trade backed by naval superiority could make Britain a world power.

The combatants of the Seven Years War were all European (Britain and Prussia on one side, France, Russia and Austria on the other) but that year British forces won crucial victories in India, the Caribbean and North America as well as near Düsseldorf and off the coast of France. The best known was probably the taking of Quebec, secured by Major-General James Wolfe, who died in the battle.

The defeats that France suffered in 1759 were a significant contributor to the vast debts that led to the French Revolution 30 years later. They gave the East India Company a freer hand in India and also determined that the 13 British colonies in America felt safe enough from French conquest so that they could demand independence from the Crown.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, sees the opening of his institution and Kew as “the first coherent intellectual response to globalisation”. The British Library and the Natural History Museum were also important. These were civic collections, not collections belonging to royalty or to universities.

“What you have, available for free for everybody for the first time, is the whole concept of the world: what’s grown, what’s been made, what’s been written and what’s been thought. This is the beginning of the whole notion of citizen access to information.”

The trusteeship structure of the British Museum, enabling government to fund the institution but not to control it, became the model not just for every museum in the English speaking world “but for the BBC, the Open University and the internet, because Tim Berners-Lee [the father of the world wide web] is so much part of this British tradition of free access.”

That was the year

— George and Martha Washington are married: a union that helps to beget the Union in North America

— Lacking a port in which to refit and resupply, the French Navy leaves the coast of India after a series of minor engagements with the British and never returns

— Robert Burns is born and will go on to inspire a uniquely Scottish literature. “Arise to deck our land!”

— Adam Smith publishes The Theory of Moral Sentiments, providing an ethical underpinning to his later work The Wealth of Nations

No comments: