Unseen Hand in British History - Ian D. Colvin


Those who study our past without being innocent of our present must have felt a certain discontent with the stock reasons of history. They know that the motives attributed to the men of yesterday would not be sufficient to move the men of to-day. The student of politics would be considered a fool if he accepted the explanations of politicians for present events. Why then should the student of history accept the explanations of politicians for the events of the past?

The ruling motive in politics, as intelligent men know very well, is interest. Those resounding cries and plausible principles on which to the young and innocent the battle appears to be fought are usually the pretext, the flag, the color of action; men, and especially politicians, seldom avow their true motive, but nearly always wrap it up in some virtue, faith, or plausible abstraction. It is true that there are other motives which occasionally move men. And they may even seem for a moment more powerful than the more material incentives. But even where they are sincere they are not constant. It is constancy of pressure which gives strength and influence to organized interest. A few men on great occasions work for a cause: most men all the time work for their own ends. If we quarrel with this truth we quarrel with human nature. After all, men and nations must first of all live, and livelihood must therefore remain the basis of human action.

We are in danger if our statesmen look for motives higher than the interest of the nation, for the statesman is a trustee and has a crooked view of morality if he indulges his private convictions at the public expense. The director of a brewery who used his position to further his pet cause of teetotalism would hardly have the sympathy of the judge when his company came into the Bankruptcy Court.

It is probable, then, that as long as human nature remains as it is and has been, the unseen hand of organized interest will make history, and the most that a nation may hope for is that this unseen hand should be native and friendly and not alien and hostile. And it is the purpose of this book to show, by examining a segment of our history, that England is most happy when the national interest and the Government work together, and least happy when our Government is controlled by the unseen hand of the foreigner.

My book on The Germans in England, although it had a more modest intention, was in some sort an essay upon English history in the Middle Ages. For it attempted to show that the main plot of our story was the struggle between a national interest and a foreign economic tyranny. The Hanseatic League, according to its own agent in London, at one time held England "under its thumb." And the revolt against this German domination was only brought to a successful issue, after a struggle lasting three hundred years, in the reign of Elizabeth. That great Queen headed a National Party which expelled the German, and established the economic and, therefore, the political independence of England.

The Spanish marriage was part of the design of the Hanseatic League to re-establish its supremacy in England, a supremacy shaken in the tragically short reign of Edward VI. Here again evidence recently published confirms my view.

In the Calendar of State Papers (Spain) for the year 1553, edited by Mr. Royall Tyler, the archives of Vienna, Simancas, Besancon, and Brussels furnish a full account from the Imperial side of the marriage negotiations. While they are proceeding, a Hanseatic Embassy is in London negotiating the restoration of the Hanseatic privileges. The two negotiations go hand in hand. On June 13 the Emperor writes from Brussels to the Imperial Ambassador in London, Jehan Scheyve, that

". . . as the men of Cologne and the other towns are our subjects of the Empire," "he must assist the ambassadors those towns are sending to England to solicit for the re-establishment of the ancient privileges and liberties enjoyed of old in England by their inhabitants."

Lord Paget, Master of the Household, who, according to Mr. Tyler, "had specialized in Imperial affairs" and was "anxious to recoup heavy losses suffered under Northumberland," was the willing tool of the German Ambassador. Dr. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, the Lord Chancellor, was less willing, but assented to the restoration of the privileges, which was confirmed on October 24, 1553:

". . . the said Towns shall continue, the said decree notwithstanding, to bring into and carry out of England all manner of goods, and carry on their trade according to the privileges they enjoyed before the publication of the said decree."

Simon Renard, Scheyve's successor, reports to the Emperor his arguments with Gardiner concerning the marriage. The Chancellor agreed it was "a great offer, a great match, an earnest of great affection," but he had his doubts:

"He did not know what the merchants of England would say to it, except that it was intended to enrich foreigners by opening the gates of the country to them and impoverish its unfortunate inhabitants. When the privileges of the Stillyard were . . . restored . . . the English merchants had complained and displayed dissatisfaction. I made answer that if the Queen approved of delay I would not be able to disagree. . . As for the objections that might be made by the merchants, I thought the alliance would mean riches and advantages for them rather than poverty, because navigation would be safer and trade freer."

The sly Renard goes on to report how he immediately informed Paget, who informed the Queen, of the Chancellor's objections, with the result that "the Queen was very angry with the Chancellor." Thus was the interest of England betrayed, and thus did Mary to gain the affections of a Prince lose the affections of her subjects.

Here, then, we see, not for the first nor the last time, the secret hand in the affairs of England. "We are betrayed by what is false within." The interest of the nation is sold by a needy courtier and surrendered by a weak statesman. Yet it is of good cheer to know that England had the power to free herself from this dependency upon a foreign economic system; that after long travail she gave birth to a National Government and a National Party which together raised her to economic and political freedom.

What were the forces which inspired that saving power? I am content to enumerate two: patriotism, or the spirit of nationality, and interest coinciding with patriotism. As to which of these two forces is the stronger in history I do not feel competent to decide. A friend who despises my material views suggests that none have died in this great war for interest, whereas millions have died for patriotism. It is a plausible point, and yet let us remember that this war is in itself a great national emotion, which is the reaction against injuries to the national interest. National hatreds and national antagonisms are the expression of economic rivalry. But if this be denied, it remains true that while men upon a great occasion are willing to die for patriotism, they live and work as a general rule for interest. It is a motive which never sleeps and never dies, but operates silently and secretly behind all the pretexts and pretensions of human action. When interest is in conflict with patriotism the State strikes feebly and uncertainly, and is found willing to betray. But when interest and patriotism unite in the Government, then it is resolute and bold: it fights with energy, power, and skill, and is terrible and unrelenting towards its enemies.

Thus we find England in a war with Spain acting with the whole force of her national strength, swiftly, resolutely, with the success that comes from whole-hearted action. The contrast between the action of England and Spain was marked by a shrewd contemporary. Giovanni Gritti, Venetian Ambassador in Rome, reports a conversation with Pope Sixtus V to his Doge and Senate:

". . . The King," said His Holiness, "goes trifling with this Armada of his, but the Queen acts in earnest. Were she only a Catholic she would be our best beloved, for she is of great worth. Just look at Drake! Who is he? What forces has he? And yet he burned twenty-five of the King's ships at Gibraltar and as many again at Lisbon; he has robbed the flotilla and sacked San Domingo. His reputation is so great that his countrymen flock to him to share his booty. We are sorry to say it, but we have a poor opinion of this Spanish Armada, and fear some disaster. The King should have sailed when we told him, in September of last year. Rapidity is of prime importance; what can the King do? He has no money," etc.

Now what was the secret of this contrast? In Spain the economic and military organizations were separate and hostile. The Spanish trade was financed from Flanders and Germany. The Hanseatic League supplied Spain with ships, naval stores, and munitions of all sorts at ruinous prices. Yet Germany was neutral in the conflict, and at least one Hanseatic city (Stade) had been bought by England and was acting in her interest.

The Spaniards hated the German and Flemish merchant, and with good reason: on the one side there was exploitation, on the other resentment, and with such relations there could be no harmonious action between the military and the economic organizations.

Contrast the position in England. Her Merchant Adventurers were a national organization two thousand strong, conducting almost the whole foreign trade of the country. They were all natural-born Englishmen, not allowed so much as to marry a foreign wife or hold real property abroad. They were bound by solemn oath to act as the secret agents of their country, and to report to their Government everything that seemed to threaten the national interest.

By operations on the Continental bourses they stopped Spanish credit, and delayed the sailing of the Armada for a whole year. And when the Armada did sail the Company sent out a fleet of no less than a hundred armed ships as its contribution to the national defences. In the one case interest and patriotism pulled together; in the other an unsound economic system was reflected in wasteful and inefficient preparations.

There are people who affect to believe that the sentiment of nationality is a modern growth, and hardly existed before railways, the post, and the Press brought all parts of a kingdom into touch with one another. I think, upon the contrary, that the sentiment of English nationalism was stronger in Elizabethan days than in our own. We find it expressed in letters of State, in the national drama, and even in mercantile correspondence with a passion which leaves no room for doubt.

We see it in the letters of the Queen. When the Duke of Anjou is proposed as her husband, she seeks an assurance that the Duke will not accept the offer of the sovereignty of the Netherlands:

"I dare not," she writes, "assure Monsieur how his greater matter will end till I be assured what way he will take with the Low Countries. For rather will I never meddle with marriage than have such a bad covenant added to my part. Shall it ever be found true that Queen Elizabeth hath solemnized the perpetual harm of England under the glorious title of a France's heir? No, no! It shall never be."

And we find this national spirit expressed in the policy of the great merchant companies, which set before themselves as their chief end the economic strength and independence of their country. This policy is so well expressed by the merchant Thomas Mun, who wrote his famous England's Treasure by Forraign Trade between 1630 and 1640, that I may take him as representative of the Elizabethan tradition.

"The Merchant," he begins, "is worthily called the Steward of the kingdom's stock, by way of commerce with other nations; a work of no less Reputation than Trust, which ought to be performed with great skill and conscience, that so the private gain may ever accompany the publique good."

The whole purpose of his book, as we see in every page, is the economic strength and independence of his country by manufactures and a profitable trade. But for our immediate purpose it is only necessary to display the spirit by one noble passage:

"If we duly consider England's Largeness, Beauty, Fertility, Strength, both by Sea and Land, in multitude of warlike People, Horses, Ships, Ammunition, advantagious situation for Defence and Trade, number of Seaports and Harbours, which are of difficult access to enemies, and of easie outlet to the Inhabitants, wealth by excellent Fleece wools, Iron, Lead, Tynn, Saffron, Corn, Victuals, Hides, Wax, and other natural endowments, we shall find this Kingdome capable to sit as master of a Monarchy. For what greater glory and advantage can any powerful Nation have than to be thus richly and naturally possessed of all things needful for Food, Rayment, War, and Peace not only for its own plentiful use, but also to supply the wants of other Nations, in such a measure, that much money may be thereby gotten yearly, to make the happiness compleat . . . and indeed our wealth might be a rare discourse for all Christendome to admire and fear, if we would but add art to nature, our labor to our natural means. . . ."

The country, in fact, is to base itself upon its own wealth and manufactures: it must have "wares" with which to trade, lest, like Spain, it loses its treasure by exchange. National industry is the only true basis of a sound economy.

The national principle, then, inspired both the Government and the commerce of Elizabethan England, and it is this principle which underlies what is called the Mercantile system. The main object of the Mercantile system was not, as some suppose, a favorable balance of trade; it was nothing less than the independence and strength of the kingdom. In the dark ages from which England was emerging, England had been weak and dependent owing to her lack of shipping, of munitions, and of treasure. The source of naval power was the Baltic: it contained all those commodities without which sailing ships could not be built and rigged, and this source of naval power was commanded by the Hanseatic League. Again, in metals, in gunpowder, and in arms Germany commanded the market. Even the long English bow was brought from the north in Hanseatic ships.

The currency of Europe throughout the Middle Ages was the silver of the Empire, mined in Bohemia, the Tyrol, and elsewhere by powerful German-Jewish syndicates. When Spain discovered the mines of the new world this financial power extended its operations so as to exploit the discovery, and the Spanish fleets depended upon German finance. The mint and currency of England were operated by Germans; German capitalists underwrote our national loans, and England's financial dependence was one of the main reasons of her political dependence on the Imperial system.

All these wants it was the design of Elizabethan policy to supply. The national aim was to substitute a "well-grounded dependence" for a dependence upon foreigners. With this object Burghley brought over the Hochstetters and other German metallurgists who prospected for ore in the north of England and in Ireland; with this object the mineral and battery works were founded as a national enterprise; with this object also a whole series of statutes were passed into law for the protection of those "exquisite knowledges" of the handicrafts upon which the arming and equipment of soldiers and sailors depended.

To discover independent sources of "treasure" was one of the main objects of Elizabethan exploration; but another main object was to find a new Baltic free from "the badde dealings of the Easterlings" from which England might draw pitch, tar, masts for ships, flax, hemp, turpentine, salt fish, and all things necessary to shipping. Newfoundland, our first English colony, was hailed with enthusiasm as an English Baltic, and our Bristol fishermen laid the foundations of England's naval power by making themselves "lords of the harbors" of that island.

The exploration of Virginia had a kindred purpose. The staple trade of England, the cloth trade, required an independent supply of dyes: our Elizabethan economists were not content to be at the mercy of France, of Spain, and of Turkey for woad, logwood, lac, indigo, and the rest of those coloring materials without which the "exquisite knowledges" of English dyeing would have been in vain. Hakluyt is full of references to the search for these materials, a search evidently inspired by the master-minds which controlled the operations of our sailors.

Just as the North Cape route to Archangel was England's reply to a Hanseatic monopoly in the Baltic, so her first voyage to India was forced upon our English grocers by the hostility of Spain and the Empire in the Mediterranean and the Levant. The Muscovy Company cherished the grandiose idea of a river and caravan route from Archangel to the Caspian, opening a way to the East through Persia and Turkestan. But this route proving costly and dangerous the national enterprise of the East India Company was somewhat unwillingly undertaken.

It was undertaken unwillingly for several reasons. The national resources in shipping and seamen were small, and it was feared they might be wasted upon a costly and doubtful enterprise. Spices, and especially pepper, were then more important to our national economy than they are now, for England lived through the winter on powdered and pickled meats. But as India was a tropical country which, moreover, manufactured cloths and fabrics of all kinds for its own necessities, it was feared with some justice that there would be no "vent" in that quarter for English cloth, and that we should have to export our hard-won and much-valued "treasure" to buy goods which although important were costly and not of vital necessity.

Our grocers argued, on the other hand, that the monopoly, which the Dutch had wrested from Spain and Portugal, was forcing pepper to famine prices, and that the money invested in this trade would return like a spaniel "with a duck in its mouth." The enterprise was therefore permitted upon conditions. The number of ships engaged and amount of treasure to be exported were limited, and the Adventurers were bound to carry with them a certain quantity of English cloth to be marketed in the East. These conditions indicate how clearly understood and firmly held were the lines of our national policy at the opening of the seventeenth century.

But while these spacious and romantic world-enterprises fascinate the student, we should not forget that the chief interest of England in foreign policy lay nearer home. England's staple trade, as we have seen, was cloth suitable for wear in a cold climate, and her chief market was the Empire. To keep open the mouths of the Rhine and Hamburg to the English cloth fleets was the main object of English policy. Here we find the true explanation of our interest both in the balance of power and the independence of the Netherlands. Any Power which controlled the greatest entrepot of British trade threatened the very life of England. From the time of Burghley and indeed long before to the time of the younger Pitt and of Sir Edward Grey the independence (or the "neutrality") of the Netherlands has always been one of the master-keys of England's foreign policy.


Our history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will be found to ring the changes upon these main themes. The Elizabethan harmony is changed to discord with the Stuarts, not because of religious and constitutional differences as some suppose, but because of deep-rooted economic causes which worked for change and revolution under the surface. James I and his courtiers were notoriously under the control of the unseen hand of Gondomar; English merchants could find no remedy against the corruption and tyranny of Spain; they had a Government which they could no longer trust.

But Gondomar's was not the only unseen hand which worked against the interest of England in the Stuart Court. The Dutch were suspected of a secret understanding with Spain; they had supplanted the Hanseatic League in the control of the Spanish foreign trade. Dutch ships had not only a monopoly of the Spanish coastal traffic, but had even become the carriers for Spanish America. In Russia and the Baltic, by a system of national corruption, Holland was engaged in closing both Archangel and the Sound to the English merchants. In Asia the massacre of Amboyna was only one of the many acts of violence by which our English grocers were driven out of the spice trade. For these grievances our merchant companies could obtain no remedy from the Stuarts.

Both James and Charles were suspected of being in Dutch pay, and the close correspondence between Holland and the Royalist cause was manifest in the Civil Wars. And the early Stuarts not only failed to protect English interests abroad, they were committed to a policy of hostility to the merchant companies at home. This quarrel between the Stuarts and the organized trade of England I have examined in some detail, as I take it to prove that the greatest calamity which can befall a country is discord between her economic and political organizations. The civil wars were financed by the merchants of England because Charles followed his father in robbing them both of their trade privileges and of their capital, while failing to give their trade any adequate protection abroad.

Holland, like Spain, neglected her manufactures: against the advice of her greatest statesman she came to depend more and more upon her carrying trade and her banking business. Cromwell, on the other hand, followed the Mercantilist policy of Elizabeth, being inspired thereto, no doubt, by the City companies on whose financial support his power was first founded. His war with the Dutch and his alliance with Spain have puzzled those historians who look for the springs of his policy in religious and constitutional grounds. If we stoop to more "sordid" considerations the puzzle is solved. England had long supplied the unfinished cloth which was worked up in Holland and sold to Spain for the gold of the Indies. Dutch ships carried English cloth to Spain; England was the journeyman, Holland the capitalist. In Cromwell's time Spain was no longer to be feared as a naval Power, but to be courted as a profitable market for English trade, and the Dutch commercial system interposed itself between England and Spain.

When the neediness and fanaticism of Cromwell led him to break with Spain he broke also with the City of London, and from that time the Mercantile interest worked for the Restoration. Charles II came back on the Mercantile ticket; and his national policy is evidently inspired, like the policy of Elizabeth and of Cromwell, by the great Merchant Companies. For a time we see the harmony of political and economic organization restored, and England as happy and contented as in the days of Elizabeth. But a new factor has begun to work, a new unseen hand begins to influence the policy of the Court against the interest of England.

France had imitated England in founding herself upon the power of production. Henri IV, Richelieu, Colbert, all worked for the industrial and naval independence of France. They organized trade, planted new industries, encouraged shipbuilding; both at home and throughout the world the political and military power of France supported her commercial power. From Italy she gained the "exquisite knowledges" of the silk manufacture; from England she smuggled over both weavers and wool; from Holland she attempted to wrest both the linen manufacture and the shipping trade; she formed alliances in the Baltic to secure herself in naval stores, and organized a shipbuilding industry superior in speed of production to those of England and Holland. Her geographical position and military power opened for her manufactures the feebly protected markets of Spain, the Empire, and Italy, and her port of Marseilles was used to give her command of the Levant and Constantinople. Gaining strength from home production she aspired to a world-commerce, and both in Asia and in North America her agents and explorers prepared the foundations of an empire.

It was the hidden hand of this new and aggressive Power which seduced the later Stuarts from the national interest. The methods of Louis XIV were simple and primitive. He provided Charles II with a French mistress and a French pension; and these practices were gracefully extended to embrace as many statesmen, politicians, and courtiers as were thought necessary to French policy.

Excuses have been made for Charles. His most cogent and most spirited defender is Dr. Shaw, the learned editor of the Treasury papers. Dr. Shaw's case is that Charles was forced by the niggardliness of his Parliament "to look abroad for means to square his income"; that in turning to Louis for help "Charles did nothing per se immoral or inimical to English interest," because "in Charles's day the enemy in the path (of our naval expansion) was not France, but Holland."

Now it may be possible for the moralist although it is impossible for the statesman to agree that it is no worse for a monarch to offer than to accept a bribe. But, in fact, Dr. Shaw is wrong. By 1672 Holland was already a declining Power; the declension had been noted even in the days of Cromwell, when the "mountain of gold" had been shattered by the "mountain of iron." And as England was conscious of the failing strength of Holland, so she was conscious of the growing power of France, a power founded, like England's, in wise navigation laws and the protection of industry. The English Parliament was niggardly because Charles was suspect. If the Government had been true to the pole-star of English interest, the English Parliament would probably have been generous. Thus both the Pitts, whose fidelity to the English interest was unquestioned, had only to ask and their needs were supplied.

However that may be, the dependence of the later Stuarts on a trade rival proved their ruin. The French Power extended until it embraced Spain and a great part of Italy, overran Southern Germany and threatened the mouths of the Rhine. The balance of power and the "vent" of English cloth were both threatened, and England was forced into a system of alliances to save Northern Europe from becoming a monopoly of the French cloth manufacture.

The choice of Hanover was popular both because it seemed sufficiently remote from French influences and because it covered Hamburg, now the greatest entrepot of the English cloth trade. A Hanseatic city which had at one time held England "under its thumb" was now contemptuously maintained as an English quay for the North European market.

The struggle between the manufacturing and maritime Powers of France and England forms the balance of our story. In this struggle we see an England reduced thrice to an inconclusive peace; thrice betrayed by lawyers and politicians, yet returning again and again to the true bent of a national policy which was in the end victorious. That policy was to strike at the sources from which the enemy drew his power, and it was for this reason that a war begun in Europe spread to the ends of the earth.

Both France and England drew a great part of their naval and economic power from North America and the West Indies. Cape Breton and the Newfoundland Banks were the nurseries of their seamen. From there France drew the supplies of fish with which she traded in Spain and the Mediterranean, where Bourbon influence and military power gave her command of the markets. From Canada France drew the timber to supply her marvellous shipbuilding yards, of which the organization and celerity were the wonder and despair of England and Holland. From Canada also she drew the peltries which gave her the Continental monopoly of the vastly profitable hat trade. Her plantations in the West Indies enabled her to supply Spain, Holland, and Germany with sugar, and thus from those great sources she commanded the most valuable trades in Europe, and supplied the armies which dominated the Continent.

Against such a Power England was sometimes tempted to despair, yet those politicians, like Bolingbroke and Bute, who were suspected of lukewarmness in the struggle she never forgave. Although France supplied the Continent with her commodities and manufactures, they were never allowed to enter the English market. England preserved her sugar-supply by maintaining the English market as the monopoly of her West Indian planters, and prohibited France from breaking into the British commercial system. Even when Bolingbroke seduced an exhausted country to the stalemate peace of Utrecht he was defeated in his design of opening the British market to French wines and brandies, for English trade being then organized upon a national basis had power to defend itself and the national interest against political betrayals. If the Mercantile system failed in Ireland and New England, owing to its egotism, it nevertheless succeeded in protecting England against that commercial penetration which is the most dangerous of all attacks upon the integrity of a State.

The commercial union with Scotland, until then an outpost of French commercial power, and the Methuen Treaty with Portugal were well-calculated blows in this economic struggle. But the master-strokes came when the master-mind of the elder Pitt brought the Government and naval power of England into complete harmony with her economic power. We shall not understand the policy of Pitt unless we realize that that statesman worked in co-operation with the merchants and city companies of London. The blows which he aimed at the Bourbon Power had their origin, not in his own mind, but in the minds of his advisers, the merchants of London. Cumming, the Quaker, prompted the capture of the French West African Empire, on which France depended for the labor which produced her sugar; and William Beckford drew up plans of campaign for Canada and the West Indies.

Pitt, like Marlborough, was betrayed by the politicians, yet his work established the supremacy of England's naval power and decided in advance the ultimate issue of the struggle.

If we examine the political economy of Adam Smith in the light of these historical considerations we see clearly the fallacies of his system. The factor of national power decided these great economic struggles; trade is seen to be, not a peaceful exchange to the mutual advantage of individuals, but a struggle between organizations and whole nations. One nation attempts to exploit another and to prevent its rival by force from access to a market or to a supply of raw material. Although Adam Smith writes of the wealth of nations, this question of the use of national power has almost no place in his system. He imagines an ideal world modelled upon a poetic conception of Tahiti, not a real world in which England fought with France for control of the sugar trade, or the Newfoundland Banks and drying stations. Where these national considerations force themselves upon him, as in his famous reference to the Navigation Laws, it is as an admission which threatens his whole system. Adam Smith imposed on generations which granted his premises because, like him, they were imperfectly acquainted with history. His premises being granted, his logic is invulnerable; but the whole structure falls to the ground when its foundations are examined in the light of history.

First France, as we shall see, and then England, allowed her policy to be guided by these Free Trade ideals. In the former case the result was the French Revolution; in the latter, the rise of the new German Empire to industrial and therefore to political power. Owing to the tyranny of space and time, I no more than glance in my last chapter at this latter development, which has its fruits in the present war.

It does not concern us that these struggles between nations are sordid, cruel, and immoral. Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not; but the fact remains that they form the staple of history; that they have always been waged in the past and, therefore, presumably will continue to be waged in the future. No statesman has the right to assume that human nature and the nature of nations, which have remained constant since history began, will change fundamentally in his day and generation. If he so presumes he will end by betraying his trust. The only safe rule is fidelity to a national policy founded upon national interest. What this policy is must be gathered from history and experience, not from morality and metaphysics. And if we look at the course of the present war, and then at the practice of a Chatham or a Burghley, we must conclude that England is best served when her rulers have the clearest conception of the relations between the economic interest and the national strength of their country.