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'A sure defence against the foe '? : maritime predation & British commercial policy during the Spanish American Wars of Independence, 1810-1830

McCarthy, Matthew John


Matthew John McCarthy


David J. (David John), 1954 Starkey

Richard, (Richard Christopher), 1971 Gorski


The following study investigates the British government’s response to maritime predation in the period 1810-1830 and evaluates the effectiveness of the measures implemented to protect British trade and shipping. A necessary prerequisite for this task is to establish the impact of commerce raiding activity on the British mercantile marine, which has thus far eluded historians. Chapters one and two of the following study are dedicated to this purpose. In chapter one, the key findings of previous works with regard to the organizational and operational features of commerce-raiding activity are synthesised and the extent and nature of the threat posed to British trade and shipping is established. The ways in which this threat became a reality for British merchants is the subject of chapter two. The impact of predation on the British mercantile marine is identified through the use of quantitative and qualitative data. A database of prize actions, which can be defined as encounters between British merchant vessels and maritime predators, has been constructed for this study from the intelligence contained in contemporary newspapers and government correspondence. The database provides statistics on the number of British vessels affected by maritime predators, the annual frequency of prize actions, and the perpetrators responsible for their initiation. Adding depth to these statistics are the letters, petitions, memorials and claims certificates received by the British government, which give detailed breakdowns of the losses incurred by merchants in individual prize cases.

In chapter three the wider political context within which the British government received merchant appeals for assistance is established, providing a framework with which to identify and explain the measures implemented to tackle the problems being experienced at sea and to evaluate their effectiveness. Chapters four through to seven thematically analyse the British government’s response to maritime predation. British countermeasures against the depredations of independent Spanish American commerce-raiders are addressed in chapter four. The British government’s response to Spanish predation is the subject of chapters five and six, while chapter seven provides an analysis of British policy towards Cuban-based piracy. These four chapters draw heavily upon government correspondence when identifying the measures implemented by British statesmen to counter the threat of maritime predation, while the public debates and the proceedings of the Anglo-Spanish claims commission underpin appraisals of the effectiveness of these measures. Given that commerce-raiding activity during the Spanish American Wars of Independence has never been examined from a British perspective, this study will add a new dimension to the existing literature. In doing so, this study will provide a platform from which to reassess the arguments of previous works with regard to the character of predation in the early nineteenth century, the motivation of those individuals who participated in the activity, and the contribution of commerce-raiding to the outcome of the independence conflict. However, the following study also has the potential to raise points of wider significance and make contributions to knowledge and understanding of other aspects of history. The focus of the current study on the effectiveness of British policy in protecting the interests of British merchants from the threat of predation therefore to shed light on wider social, political and economic changes occurring within Britain during the early nineteenth century

The upsurge in commerce-raiding activity during the Spanish American Wars of Independence occurred at a time of profound change in the direction of British economic policy. Cain and Hopkins have outlined the nature of this change and explained the rationale with which it was underpinned. They argue that between 1688 and 1850 Britain was ruled by a gentlemanly elite made up of an alliance between the landed aristocracy and financiers in the City of London. This alliance sought to service the national debt, fund patronage and manage the political system in ways that preserved privilege, civil peace and the constitution. In the period prior to 1815 the pursuit of these objectives saw the British government play a protectionist role in the economy. However, following the Napoleonic Wars it became clear that fundamental changes were needed to restore the health of the economy, maintain civil order and deflect growing criticism of the patronage system that had begun to circulate in the late eighteenth century. Consequently, the ruling class embarked on a process of redefining its role and purpose and gradually began to introduce reforms of the constitution, of the patronage system, of social legislation, and of economic policy.

In the economic realm following the Napoleonic Wars, forward-looking members of the Tory government, who were inspired by Adam Smith’s attack on mercantilism in the Wealth of Nations, adopted a laissez-faire outlook and began to progressively withdraw the government from direct participation in the economic process.57 By 1850 the transition was effectively complete and mercantilism had given way to an era of free trade. As D.C.M. Platt has demonstrated, for the remainder of the nineteenth century the British government maintained an urgent official interest in the general welfare of British commerce overseas but exhibited a distinct prejudice against promoting individual financial and trading interests. This study promises to shed further light on early nineteenth-century British economic policy by providing a case-study with which to view this transition in action and with which to assess its significance to the lives of British subjects.


McCarthy, M. J. (2011). 'A sure defence against the foe '? : maritime predation & British commercial policy during the Spanish American Wars of Independence, 1810-1830. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 15, 2011
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords History
Public URL
Additional Information Department of History, The University of Hull
Award Date Jan 1, 2011


Thesis (1.2 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2011 McCarthy, Matthew John. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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