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American War of Independence
Crossing-the-delaware.jpg
Period Late Modern Ages
Dates 1763-1789 AD
Chronology
Preceded by
Early Industrial Revolution
Followed by
French Revolution
I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

–Patrick Henry

The era of the American War of Independence lasted from about 1763 AD until 1789 AD. It began with the end of the Seven Years’ War, that removed the French as the main military threat to the existence of the American colonies, and left Britain on the verge of financial crisis. It then ended with the independence of the United States of America, on the eve one of the most dramatic social upheavals in history; the French Revolution.

The conflict arose after more than a decade of growing estrangement between the British crown and the Thirteen colonies. Patriot protests against taxation without representation culminated in 1773 with the Boston Tea Party. From the initial skirmishes between British redcoats and colonial militiamen in 1775, the war quickly descended into a full-scale civil war independence. From the beginning, sea power was vital, lending to British strategy a flexibility that helped compensate for her comparatively small troop numbers. The Patriot victory at Saratoga in 1777 proved the major turning points of the war, prompting France and others to enter the war on the side of the colonists. Ultimately, it enabled the Americans and French to bring about the final British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Independence saw the application of Enlightenment ideals to the United States Constitution, none of which were unheard of but were unique and extraordinary in their combination. For the British, the loss of the Thirteen colonies would bring a change in direction for the British Empire, with the Pacific becoming new targets for expansion.

The American War of Independence began the Age of Revolutions (1774-1849), in which a great wave of revolutionary movements swept the Western world: the French Revolution, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the Haitian Revolution, the Greek War of Independence, the Latin American Wars of Independence, and culminating in the upheavals throughout Europe of the Year of Revolution in 1848. Even relatively liberal countries like Britain would not escape its effects, albeit less dramatically. It was the result of the complex interplay of two revolutions: the Industrial Revolution, and the French Revolution and its aftermath. During the decades of economic and social transformation, the West also experienced massive political change from absolutist monarchies, to constitutional states and the complex modern political world. Disappointment at the bourgeois character of the revolutions, would give rise to another revolutionary movement; Marxism.

History[]

Built-up to the American War of Independence[]

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In the aftermath of her triumph over the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756-73), British imperial power in North America was at its height. Yet the British faced two problems: how to ensure the security of Britain's colonial holdings; and how to deal with the enormous debt accrued from the war. The question of security entailed both pacifying the native Indian tribes formerly allied with the French, and containing the colonials hunger for land, while maintaining the peace of 1773. It was decided that a line of British forts would be permanently garrisoned from Canada to Florida, and forbade settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains towards the sparsely populated Spanish frontier of the Mississippi; the region reserved for the native Indians. However, to the men and women of the thirteen colonies this rang ominous. The stationing of standing armies in peacetime had long been considered the tool of despotism; it had been a major bone of contention between the king and parliament in the run-up to the English Civil War. The second question of dealing with the British national debt proved even more controversial. The burden of taxation was already heavy in Britain itself, so the government naturally expected the colonists to pay a proper share to contribute to the cost of the war and the cost of their own defence; taxation in British North America at the time was actually remarkably low. This was the background to a series of taxes and trade legislation imposed on the American colonies between 1764 and 1767: the Sugar Act covering imported molasses; the Stamp Act establishing a duty on legal documents; and the Townshend Acts taxing imported glass, lead, paper, paint, and tea.

The Liberty Bell visits Bunker Hill in 1903.

A number of factors fed into the dramatic American protests that ensued. One was the work of radical politicians and propagandists like Sam Adams and Paul Revere, who came up with the philosophical basis for the protests, “No taxation without representation”, informed by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. Another factor was that British imperial policy toward her colonies had up to this point been extremely light handed. Finally, the colonies were feeling increasingly self-confident, now that the main military threat to their existence had been removed; the French. In the British colonies, after all, there were already more colonists than there were subjects in many sovereign states of Europe. The American war effort for the French and Indian War had resulted in greater political integration between the usually disunited colonies that ever before, and a shared sense of identity, that was strongly independently minded. The idea of independence dates back at least as early as 1752 when the iconic Liberty Bell was commissioned.

Iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of the "Boston Tea Party"

In response to the British taxes, the colonists retaliated with highly organised mob violence and effective boycotts of British goods. By 1770, London was inclined to compromise, and lifted almost all the Acts. The British governments response to the growing crisis in the American colonies would often oscillate between harsh crackdowns and abject surrender. The only tax not lifted was on imported tea, considered too insignificant to prompt resistance, while maintaining the precedence that the British parliament could levy taxes on the colonies. For almost two years, both Britain and America enjoyed a period of productive and profitable normalcy. Then in 1773, the British parliament began allowing the East India Company to import tea directly into the colonies, both subsidising the indebted Company and undercutting the growing trade in illegally smuggled tea. The colonial leaders seized on this as an unbearable provocation to radicalise American politics, painting the actions of the British government in the worst possible light, and making the colonists believe that the practical liberty they already enjoyed was in danger; even though the only group truly affected were smugglers. On 16 December 1773, a mob, crudely disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded three Company ships in Boston Harbour, and dumped 350 chests of tea overboard; the famous Boston Tea Party. The British government reacted to this act of open defiance with outrage, feeling that the Americans were complaining too hard about too little. The time for compromise was over, and a succession of draconian acts were passed in London to bring Massachusetts to heel; the so-called Intolerable Acts. Essentially Boston was put under martial law, a policy which could only inflame the already volatile situation. It's hard not to see hypocrisy in the British crack-down and their unwillingness to work through the colonial assemblies, considering the wave of protests in the run-up to the English Civil War at Ship Money, and the protests prior to the Glorious Revolution to an edict of religious tolerance. Meanwhile in response, fifty-six delegates from the thirteen colonies convened in Philadelphia, with George Washington representing Virginia; the first Continental Congress. The message that they agreed to send to Britain was uncompromising, announcing a joint boycott of goods imported from Britain and the British Caribbean, to be followed by a similar block on exports. It was clear that the Congress had made war almost inevitable. This was welcome news to most of the American colonists, who became known as the Patriots. Those who still hope to find an accommodation with Britain, some 25%, acquired the name of Loyalists.

American War of Independence[]

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

The first shots of the American War of Independence (1775–83), also known as the American Revolutionary War, came in a brief skirmish at Lexington and Concord, some twenty miles from Boston, where both the British redcoats and Patriot militiamen sought to seize the local stockpile of weapons and gunpowder. This was the famous “shot heard around the world” immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. By the time the Continental Congress reconvened in May 1755, volunteer militias were being mustered all over the colonies, transforming the assembly into the de-facto government of the united colonies. George Washington was the natural choice for commander-in-chief of the Patriots army, not only for his past military successes in the French and Indian War, but also because he was from the south; the more populous and prosperous northern colonies must cooperate with their southern cousins in common cause. The first major battle of the Revolution was the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775), for a height overlooking Boston which was garrisoned by British redcoats. Although a British victory, the Patriot forces inflicted heavy casualties on the British. By March 1776, Washington had brought up artillery, captured at Fort Ticonderoga in New York, placing them on the hills overlooking Boston, and the British were forced to evacuate the city. The subsequent imposing of a British naval blockade on the American coastline, emboldened the hitherto weak support for outright independence in the colonies. The American Declaration of Independence was issued on 04 July 1776. Meanwhile, the British were regrouping in British Canada, which had remained loyal to the crown. The vast majority of the population there were still French Catholics, who had been periodically fighting wars against their southern neighbour for the last century, and had also been granted religious tolerance by the British and distrustful the Puritan Protestant American colonials. In July, the British counter-offensive duly arrived in the form of 30,000 troops who landed near New York and duly drove the American forces out of the city in defeat, with heavy Patriot losses; New York became the main British base of operations in North America for the rest of the war. Nevertheless, Washington retreated southwards to Pennsylvania in good order. While the British settled-in over the winter, Washington launched a surprise attack across the Delaware River and, after the recent defeats, delivered a moral boosting victory at Trenton, New Jersey.

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There is no more striking example of the challenge the British had in running a war from three-thousand-five-hundred miles away than the year 1777. The British strategy for the year involved cutting-off New England from the other colonies, and taking them out of the war. A two pronged attack was launched, with one army moving north from New York and another south from Quebec. However, General William Howe in New York disagreed with the strategy, instead arguing to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress and of great symbolic importance. Howe defeated Washington badly at the Battle of Brandywine (September 1777), and the British entered Philadelphia in triumph. Yet the victory proved hollow. Howe’s move had left the British army moving south from Quebec dangerously isolated and short of supplies. After suffering two defeats against the Patriots in battles near Saratoga (September and October 1777), the entire British army surrendered. Although just 6,000 British troops were captured, Saratoga proved one of the major turning points of the American War of Independence. It prompted the French, who had secretly been financially aiding the Patriots since 1776, to openly enter the war against their colonial rivals in February 1778. Britain would find herself without friends in Europe, in part due to her own half-hearted support of her allies in the War of Spanish Succession, War of Austrian Succession, and Seven Years’ War, while instead pouring her resources into her colonial ambitions. The Spanish joined the French against the British a year later, and Washington also benefited from Prussian military officers who helped train and discipline his troops.

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The first dramatic example of how this transformed the war was the sudden British withdrawal from Philadelphia in June 1778, no longer able to guarantee resupply by sea. After this British setback, the war in the northern colonies descended into a stalemate, prompting a new British strategy focused on the south where the Loyalist support was stronger. In December 1778, a British expeditionary force of 3,500 men landed in Georgia under Major-General Charles Cornwallis, and quickly captured the capital Savannah. During 1779 the British won control of the whole of Georgia, and then moved into South Carolina, capturing Charleston in May 1780. There were numerous bitterly fought skirmishes here, often in the nature of a civil war, with Loyalists very active in the region in support of the British. Meanwhile, the British pressed on into North Carolina on the way to Virginia, the key to isolating the southern colonies. By May 1781, the British were at Petersburg, Virginia, but facing increasingly stiff opposition. Exhausted and isolated deep in enemy territory, Cornwallis retreated with his British army to Yorktown, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, in order to await reinforcement and re-supply by sea from New York. However by this time in the war, the combined French and Spanish fleets held a decisive advantage at sea, fighting off the British fleet and cutting-off Cornwallis. The French had long since concluded that only a joint operation with Washington's Patriot army could bring the war to a successful conclusion. However, Washington had become fixated with his preferred attack, New York, and it was only after considerable effort that the French persuaded him that the decisive confrontation would be a Yorktown. Some 9,000 Patriot troop under Washington, and 5,000 French soldiers under the Comte de Rochambeau marched south. By the end of September 1781, they were besieging the redcoats at Yorktown, while the French fleet blockaded the port by sea. With no practical hope of any relief from New York, Cornwallis and the entire army of 8,000 men surrendered on 19 October 1781.

The defeat proved decisive, with the British losing all desire to continue the war. The treaty signed in Paris in 1783 brought an end to the American War of Independence. The American commissioners in the negotiations, with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams among their number, won extremely good terms for their new nation. The independence of the United States of America was acknowledged without reservation, as far west as the Mississippi and as far north as the Great Lakes, beyond which was British Canada. Florida, which had been occupied by the Spanish during the war, was ceded back to Spain. In explaining the outcome of the war, historians point out a number of reasons. Firstly, British military blunders, failures to cooperate, excessive caution, and a lack of an overall strategy to winning. While Washington learned slowly and only moderately well the art of generalship, he proved an absolute rock in adversity. Secondly, the Patriots won the propaganda war, and the British counted too heavily on Loyalist support they did not receive. And finally, the supplies and funds furnished by France early in the war were invaluable, while French military and naval support after 1778 was essential. The war was not the unmitigated defeat for the British. In the wider war, she had withstood repeated attempts by the Spanish and French to take Jamaica and Gibraltar. It changed the focus of the British Empire, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, especially India, Australia, and New Zealand. Meanwhile within a decade, the old colonial relationship had been restored in economic terms, with the Britain exporting manufactured goods, and the United States exporting cotton for her flourishing textile industry. Britain would gradually recover from her debt crisis under one of her most talented Prime Ministers in William Pitt the Younger. This was in sharp contrast to the French, who for no considerable gain beyond the humiliation of a rival, added yet another layer to her spiralling national debt, which ultimately begat the French Revolution.

United States Constitution[]

Declaration of Independence, a painting by John Trumbull depicting the Founding Fathers presenting their draft to the Congress on June 28, 1776.

In the aftermath of the American War of Independence, the weaknesses of the new nation were often more apparent than its great potential: the states were divided and many expected them to fall to quarrelling and disunion; a widespread post-war economic depression and run-away inflation due to the over-eager issuing of paper money; and a general mood of unrest and anarchy. It’s a testament to the Founding Fathers who deserve immense admiration for shepherding the infant Republic through these challenges as it grew into adolescence; John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Yet the Americans also had great advantages as they set about nation-building: their remoteness was a crucial blessing, allowing them to work out their problems virtually untroubled by foreign intervention; much of the poison of the division between Patriots and Loyalists was drawn by the mass emigration of the defeated; they faced the future unencumbered by Europe's deep class division, and with a highly literate population; and they were able to draw of the strong and stable British political experience.

The Constitution of the United States of America

The peace brought a growing acceptance that the first constitution ratified by the thirteen states under the title Articles of Confederation (1781) was unsatisfactory. The articles treat each colony as virtually a sovereign state, making the task of the federal government almost impossible. Reluctant though many of the states were to accept any restraint on their powers, it was eventually agreed that an assembly should convene in Philadelphia in May 1787 to draft a new United States Constitution. George Washington was unanimously chosen as the chairman of the convention, and during four months of deliberation, a mood of compromise was shown in many areas. The Founding Fathers took the British model of government and combined it with the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. The United States was to be a Republican government, entrenched with the doctrine of the separation of powers, consisting of three branches: legislative (Congress), executive (the President), and judicial (headed by the Supreme Court). They instituted a bicameral legislature on the British model: an upper Senate, in which each state would be represented by two senators; and a lower House of Representatives, in which the number of delegates would be apportioned based on state population. A strong president would give the country the leadership, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, and with the powers to appoint judges and veto legislation. Under a system of checks-and-balances, each branch of government had the ability to check the powers of the others. For example, Congress could override any presidential veto through two-thirds majority vote. The constitution passed formally into law when it was ratified by the nine of the thirteen states on 21 June 1788. In the election that followed, voters from every state chose George Washington as the first president. The constitution of the United States was of huge historic significance. Firstly, in the eighteenth century, Europe's experiments with the republican form of government were rare and unpromising, but with the later success of the United States, advocates of political change soon began to look to America for inspiration. And secondly, in the opening words, "We the People", the principle of popular sovereignty was enunciated clearly from the start, a fundamental departure from British constitutional practice.

A plaque of the BIll of Rights at Potter Stewart Courthouse, Cincinnati, Ohio.

The United States Constitution was to prove capable of spanning a historical epoch, in part because of the provision for conscious amendment. The first ten amendments to the constitution were ratified in December 1791, becoming collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Unlike the British Bill of Rights which outlined the rights of parliament in relation to the king, the American equivalent provided safeguards for the inalienable rights of the individual against oppressive authority. The first amendment guaranteed freedom of religion and of speech. The second amendment, controversial today, guaranteed the right to carry arms. Others protected citizens from state intrusion on their private property, or specify their rights in a court of law. In the constitution, the Founding Fathers provided an admirably flexible manner in which the nation could adjust to the times, while retaining a bedrock of shared values.

Neither the new Constitution nor the Bill of Rights addressed one of the most controversial issues; the question of slavery - an important part of the Southern economy, but relatively few in the Northern states. Instead a series of temporary compromises were reached. Slavery became a particularly contentious political issue whenever a new state was admitted to the Union, and the question of whether slavery would be allowed, or not, in new states became the running political battle, that eventually exploded in the American Civil War. If the inalienable rights of African American slaves were ignored, then so were those of the native Indians. The Northwest Ordinance (1787) that eventually incorporated Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, can only be read today with dark irony, "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them."

Russia of Catherine the Great[]

It’s an extraordinary fact that after Peter the Great Romanov, the Russian empire was ruled for almost all the next seven decades by women. The first was Peter's widow, Catherine I (1725-27), well-endowed with common-sense and strength of character, but with only two years on the throne before her death. Her reign blazed the path for other women, because the death of their teenage grandson after a brief three year reign, rendered the male Romanov line extinct. This brought Peter's niece, Anna (1730-40), to the throne, who proved the only weak character among the four women; only interested in the sumptuous amusements of the day. She was succeeded in a coup against her infant successor by Elizabeth (1741-62), a legitimised daughter of Peter. Elizabeth brought back the vigorous mood of Peter the Great, particularly in opposition to Prussia in the early stages of the Seven Years’ War.

Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fedor Rokotov (1763)

As an unmarried and childless empress, Elizabeth chose as her heir her nephew Peter III, who proved totally unsuited to the task, feeble in mind and body. However, his intelligent and ambitious German wife more than made up for his inadequacies. Catherine watch Peter blunder from one alienating act to another, beginning with his decision to end Russia’s participation in the Seven Years' War, which sat ill with the Russian people. Within six months, Catherine the Great (1762-96) had acquired her husband’s throne through a bloodless coup; a few days after Peter's forced abdication, he was murdered, almost certainly with her connivance. Catherine was both brilliant and passionate. Her many lovers provided rich material for scandal in the courts of Europe; several of her most talented advisers and generals featured on the list. Lurid stories with no truth would follow her even to the grave. Catherine devoured the writings of French Enlightenment political philosophers, corresponding regularly with Voltaire, like her contemporary Frederick the Great. After seizing the throne, she rapidly adopted the reforming and modernising role of an Enlightened Absolute Monarch. The power of the Orthodox clergy was reduced the powers of the clergy, with vast swathes of church land nationalised; at the same time replenishing the national treasure after the Seven Years' War. The Russian education system was reformed and secularised, and extended to girls; the Smolny Institute was the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe. In 1764, she founded the Hermitage in St Petersburg, one of the oldest and largest museum of art and culture in the world.

Cossacks appealing to the Ottoman Turks for support during Pugachev's Rebellion, the largest peasant revolt in Russia's history.

Yet, in the most difficult field of Russian social reform, Catherine failed. She herself favoured the emancipation of the Russian peasant serfs, on whom the Russian economy was based. Some 95% of the Russian people were serfs, the property of the master, and a noble's wealth was evaluated by the number he owned. In 1767, she outlined a programme of reform that was so radical its publication was banned in France, and thus would never be tolerated by the Russian nobles, who resisted any changes. Dependent on their for support, Catherine very quickly abandoned her plans. Ironically the lot of the peasants actually deteriorated during Catherine's reign, and she would later have to successfully face-down Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-75), which spread from the Ural Mountains to the Caspian Sea and along the Volga; the largest peasant revolt in Russia’s history. It would be almost a century before the eventual Emancipation of the Russian Serfs (1861).

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Frustrated in her failed efforts at internal social reform, Catherine turned to foreign policy with great success. Her first aim was to expand Russia's toehold on the Black Sea, achieved by Peter the Great in the Azov campaigns. Thus she favoured stability on her western border, preserving friendly relations with Prussia, Russia’s recent enemy, as well as with Austria and France. Catherine added a new element to Russia's long enmity with Ottoman Turkey, presenting Russia as the natural political patron of Orthodox Christians within the territory of the old Byzantine Empire; she dreamed of one of her successors ruling Constantinople, even naming one of her grandsons named Constantine. In the First Russo-Turkish War (1768-74), the Russians bellied expectations, delivering the Ottomans a series of crushing defeats on land. Even at sea, where the Turks considered themselves virtually unopposed, the Russians sailed the Baltic fleet all the way around Europe to surprise the Ottomans from the rear at the Battle of Chesme (July 1770). The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) that ended the war, secured and expanded Russia's long-sought goal of a warm water port on the Black Sea, to the whole of the Crimea. Moreover the Turks granted Russia the ill-defined right to protection all Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire; a useful pretext for future Russian intervention in the Balkans. The settlement was only reconfirmed a few years later in the Second Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792), thus legitimising the Russian claim to the northern coast of the Black Sea and freedom of shipping through the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean.

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Meanwhile, over a period of a quarter of a century, Russia, Prussia, and Austria found excuses to dismember and consume the entire territory of Poland in piecemeal fashion; the Partition of Poland (1772- 96). Poland–Lithuania (1569–1795) experienced medieval struggles between the nobles and the kings for political dominance, like to many countries. But here, the nobility (Szlachta) was completely successful, affirming their right to elect the Polish kings in the 15th-century. From the start, this experiment with an elected monarch was disastrous. For each royal election, foreign powers promoted their own candidates by bargaining and bribing voters. As its neighbours - Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Austria - Poland languished, losing the Baltic areas to Sweden and Ukraine to Russia. Under the able military leadership of John III Sobieski (d. 1696), Polish troops were key to the defeat of the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna (1683), but Sobieski could not use these military successes to reassert the power of the monarchy or to reform the Polish parliament (Sejm). The 18th century saw a string of devastating wars on Polish soil, some involving foreign combatants and others primarily civil wars, with foreign powers intervening on the side of one faction or another. Catherine's string of victories against the Ottoman Turks alarmed Austria, which began making preparations to invade Russian-held territory. Fearing a resumption of Europe-wide fighting just five years after the Seven Years War, Frederick "the Great" of Prussia proposed that instead of gaining land from the Ottomans, Russia should be given part of Poland. This expansion of Russian holdings would be balanced by similar expansions in Prussia and Austria, as they also  would take parts of Poland. The deal was agreeable to all three powers in 1772, and Poland lost a third of its territory and half its population in this partition, with the Polish king and parliament unable to do anything about it. Poland reacted to this first partition by agitating for liberal reform and political revolution. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, Russia, Prussia and Austria - perhaps Europe's most conservative and autocratic states - could not tolerate such dangerous calls for democracy on their very doorstep. There followed two further partitions in 1793 and 1795, and Poland disappeared from the map of Europe until the aftermath of World War I. The lion’s share of these latter annexations went to Russia; some 60% of Polish territory. Catherine the Great died in 1796. Her reign of thirty-four years is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, reminiscent to the Elizabethan and Victorian eras in England. Though a German and a usurper, even the Soviet Russians admired her as a source of national pride. Her grandson, Nicholas I would take Russia down a far more reactionary and oppressive path that would ultimately lead to the rise of the Bolsheviks.

Exploration of the Pacific Ocean[]

James Cook made an unprecedented contribution to European knowledge of the Pacific Ocean. He displayed both superb seamanship, and cartographic skills. He also discovered that eating citrus fruit kept his crew from getting scurvy, though he did not know why it worked. This view of him as an Enlightenment figure, stands in contrast to views of him as contemptuous of indigenous cultures, bringing European diseases, and opening the Pacific to colonial exploitation. Cook’s death is also debated. The traditional view, based on several paintings, sees him as a peacemaker. Most historical accounts sees him as the aggressor.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, European merchants sailing the vast Pacific Ocean often made unexpected landfall, raising hopes of unknown territories rich in gold or spice. The discoveries reduced the area where Terra Australis Ignota (Latin, "the unknown land of the south") could be found; a hypothetical continent that Europeans expected would be in the southern hemisphere to balance all the continents in the northern hemisphere. It showed up on maps throughout the 16th -century, and, in 1606, Europeans got their first glimpse of what was soon named Australia. A Dutch merchant, Willem Janszoon (d. 1630), sailing to and from the Spice Islands, sighted stretches of the western Australian coast. In 1642, the governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Antonio van Diemen, dispatched Abel Tasman (d. 1659) on a voyage of exploration with two small vessels. Tasman left Jakarta in August, sailing first for Mauritius before continuing east into the unknown. He made landfall on an island in November, which he called Van Diemen's Land, after the governor who had appointed him; it was not renamed Tasmania, in honour of its discoverer, until 1856. After some exploration, he continued eastwards, and reached New Zealand in December, where an attempt to land resulted in a clash with the Maori that left several dead. On his return journey to Jakarta, he discovered Tonga and Fiji. Remarkably, in his ten-month voyage, Abel Tasman had sailed all the way round Australia without noticing it. It would be another century before the continent was properly discovered and charted. During the 18th century, the English, Dutch, and French made an increasingly coherent effort to fill in the map of the Pacific; Easter Island was reached by the Dutch in 1722. The most important of these Pacific voyages were those under Captain James Cook (d. 1779). Cook had been apprenticed as a young man in the merchant navy, volunteered in the British royal navy, and served in the Seven Years War in North America, primarily as a surveyor. His surveying skills brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society, which hired him to command a scientific voyage in the Pacific. The actual purpose was to record a transit of Venus across the Sun, which, when combined with other observations, would help determine the distance of the Earth from the Sun. On this first voyage in 1768-71, Cook sailed south around South America, made the planetary observation, and then explored and mapped both islands of New Zealand. He sailed to Australia, landing at several points to collect botanical specimens, including one bay later named Botany Bay. Cook made contact with several groups of indigenous people, and communicated well enough to adopt an aboriginal word for the most distinctive animal he had seen, a kangaroo. He confirmed the existence of the Torres Strait, separating Australia from New Guinea before continuing around the world back to Britain. The original astronomical purpose proved the least significant part of the voyage; the data proved inadequate for the intended purpose. Australia was huge, but still not large enough to be the fabled southern lands, so on his second voyage in 1772-75, Cook explored far south in the Pacific, crossing the Antarctic Circle at several points, and proving to all but the most adamant that there was no habitable continent south of Australia. On his third voyage in 1776–9, he dashed more hopes, exploring the Pacific coast of northern America and failing to discover a Northwest Passage. On his outward journey, Cook had discovered the Hawaii, and he was killed there on a return visit later in the trip. Cook’s first two voyages like most explorations also had political and economic impacts. After the American War of Independence, Britain could no longer send prisoners to North America as indentured servants, and a few years established the first penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia.

By the end of the 18th-century, then, the coastlines and islands of the world’s seas had been explored and mapped. European interests, in the 19th-century, would turn to continental interiors, especially Africa, which would become the main focus for European conflicts over empire-building.

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