How the American Revolution created a global storm

Matthew Lockwood explores the surprising, far-reaching consequences of the 18th-century fight for independence…

(Illustration by Davide Bonazzi for BBC World Histories Magazine)

Peru, 1781: Micaela Bastidas, a leader of the Quechua people, stands in a pool of her son’s blood as she stoically awaits torture and execution for rebellion against Spanish rule.

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Srirangapatna, south-west India, 1782: James Scurry, a 16-year-old sailor from Devon, looks out from his prison cell on the day of the coronation of Britain’s most formidable Indian enemy, Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’. In the coming years the jail, already crammed with British soldiers, will be further packed with Mangalorean Christians and Kodava Hindus in their tens of thousands, captives of a conflict that had begun a world away.

Crimea, 1787: Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, processes through her newly conquered, cleansed and Christianising territory, sailing past towns and villages stripped of their Tatar names and emptied of their Muslim inhabitants.

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1800: Harry Washington, a former slave of George Washington who saw his chance for freedom in the American War, is banished from the free colony he helped to build, after insisting on independence from British rule.

The American Revolution tends to conjure up images from a familiar series of stories and scenes: British tea hurled into Boston harbour by the Sons of Liberty, some dressed in Native American garb, in 1773; redcoats and minutemen clashing at Lexington and Concord in 1775; high-minded founding fathers declaring their nation’s independence from imperial despotism in Philadelphia on 4 July 1776; stoic survival at snowy Valley Forge in 1777–78; and unlikely triumph at Yorktown in 1781 – a highlights reel of selfless heroism and noble perseverance.

British General John Burgoyne surrendering to US General Horatio Gates
John Trumbull’s 1821 painting shows British General John Burgoyne surrendering to US General Horatio Gates after defeat at Saratoga in October 1777. This turning point in the Revolutionary War prompted Britain’s rivals to back the colonial Americans. (Image by Alamy)

As appealing as these iconic images might be, they represent only small fragments of the full story. When considered from a global perspective, the stories of Micaela Bastidas, James Scurry, Harry Washington and thousands of other overlooked individuals are as intrinsically linked to the history of the American Revolution as those of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. The American War of Independence was not simply an event of national significance. In the interconnected world of the 18th century, the impact of events in one corner of the globe could never be so narrowly restricted. As the shockwaves of the American Revolution swept out across the globe, civilisations crumbled, once-mighty empires teetered on the brink of collapse, and countless lives were forever altered.

Looking out from his London home in 1779, Ignatius Sancho – an African, once enslaved, now a celebrated man of letters – was one of many who saw the world around them utterly transformed. “I awake to fears of invasion, to noise, faction, drums, soldiers, and care. The whole town has now but two employments – the learning of French – and the exercise of arms… What’s to become of us? We are ruined and sold, is the exclamation of every mouth,” he wrote.

Out of control

The British world, it was clear to Sancho, was spinning out of control. Early promises of a quick suppression of the restless colonials had rapidly evaporated in the face of determined American resistance, domestic internal unrest and foreign menaces. The American War had crossed the Atlantic almost immediately, and now appeared to be poised to bring Britain to its knees. In this febrile atmosphere of fear and paranoia, Britons saw enemies abroad and in their midst: conspiracies of pro-American, anti-government radicals to bring down the government, plots by American terrorists and their British allies to kidnap the king and to raze shipyards to the ground, cities plagued by crime and disorder, and hovering above it all the grim spectre of French invaders and Irish fifth columnists.

As the shockwaves of the American Revolution swept across the globe, civilisations crumbled and empires teetered. Lives were forever altered

France, still licking its wounds from its defeat in the Seven Years’ War and the accompanying loss of imperial holdings in North America and the Caribbean, was the first to realise the opportunity provided by its bitter rival’s imperial civil war. When, after the patriots’ victory at Saratoga in 1777, it became clear that Britain’s colonies had a real chance to win their fight for independence, France aligned itself with the patriots, hoping not just to recover power and prestige lost during the previous war, but also to cripple Britain badly enough to gain lasting predominance in the contest for global supremacy. France’s entrance into the American Revolutionary War in 1778 greatly expanded its scope and scale, transforming a north Atlantic conflict into a world war waged not just in North America but also in Europe, India, Asia and the Caribbean.

Spain, too, had reason to cheer the rebellion in British America. Over the 18th century, Spain had lost colonies in Florida, Menorca and Gibraltar to the ever-expanding British empire. When Spain joined France in the fight against Britain in 1779, it hoped to recover these lost possessions and, in the process, to blunt Britain’s imperial ambitions in the Americas.

With almost every other major state in Europe swept into the American war, Catherine the Great’s Russia seized an opportunity to expand its own empire and gain a much-needed warm-water port. Aligning with other non-combatants, Russia formed a League of Armed Neutrality, ostensibly to protect the shipping of neutral nations. In reality, Catherine used the League, and its potential to tip the balance of the war, as leverage to prevent France or Britain from interfering with its seizure of Crimea from the Ottoman empire in 1783. France and Britain, previously defenders of the Ottomans, were alarmed by Russia’s gambit, but neither was in a position to intercede. As the other powers of Europe looked on helplessly, Russia proceeded to cleanse its new territory of its Muslim population, transforming it into a secure bridgehead for future incursions into the Ottoman empire. The so-called ‘Eastern Question’ was raised for the first time.

Catherine the Great of Russia
Catherine the Great of Russia, who seized Crimea in 1783 while European powers were focused on America. (Photo by The Art Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The war in India

With global imperial supremacy once more hanging in the balance, the theatre of war could not be contained within the Atlantic world or even confined to Europe. Much of the fiercest fighting took place not in Massachusetts or Virginia but in India, where France and the Dutch Republic, as well as several powerful Indian states, were eager to check the steady expansion of British territory. The ambitious, ferociously anti-British kingdom of Mysore was foremost among them. Under its dynamic rulers Haidar Ali (or Hyder Ali; reigned 1761–82) and his son Tipu Sultan (r1782–99), Mysore self-consciously expanded and modernised until it dominated much of southern India, rivalling any other power, Indian or European, in the subcontinent. When the American War spread to India, Mysore seized the chance to eliminate the greatest threat to its own imperial designs. Allied with France, Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan blazed a path across the south of India, nearly driving the British into the sea. To ensure that his kingdom remained secure during the fight with Britain, Tipu imprisoned tens of thousands of Mangalorean Christians, Kodava Hindus, and British soldiers and sailors, young James Scurry among them.

With almost every other major state in Europe swept into the American war, Russia seized an opportunity to expand its own empire

Back in Britain, fear of Franco-Spanish invasion, and the inexhaustible need for troops to fight what had become a global war, forced parliament to grant concessions to disenfranchised Catholics in 1778. In 1780, angry Protestants led by the eccentric Lord George Gordon descended on Parliament in the tens of thousands to make their opposition to Catholic relief known. In the combustible context of wartime London, the anti-Catholic protests spiralled out of control, sparking the worst riots in Britain’s history – eight days of uncontrolled mayhem that left prisons smashed, officials threatened, huge swathes of the city in ruins, and more than 300 men and women dead. In the days and years that followed, Britain instituted a new, authoritarian regime to ensure that the crime and disorder of the war years would never again place the country on the precipice of destruction.

In Ireland in 1778, fears of French invasion led the ruling Protestant Ascendency to form volunteer militias to repel foreign incursions. No such invasion materialised, but the volunteers, and their reform-minded allies in the Patriot Party, quickly realised the potential political power of a nation in arms. With Britain in no position to ignore their demands, Irish reformers blackmailed Britain into addressing long-standing grievances. In a moment celebrated as the re-birth of the Irish nation, Ireland was granted free trade within the British empire, Catholic relief and an independent parliament.

As its empire seemingly unravelled before its eyes, across the channel and around the world, Britain’s enemies licked their lips and sharpened their knives. Britain’s defeat in North America, however, proved to be a mirage. It may have lost 13 of its American colonies but, when considered globally, Britain won the American War of Independence.

On the surface, France appeared to have chosen its moment well – it was, after all, the actions of French soldiers and sailors that proved decisive in the British defeat at Yorktown. But it was a pyrrhic victory. The global war was ruinously expensive for France – it spent 1.3 billion Livres (equivalent to many billions of euros) in North America alone – and any hopes that its staggering debt would be offset by a combination of imperial gains and increased trade with the newly founded United States were quickly dashed when American merchants returned to their old British routes and relationships after the war. Abroad, France saw its hopes of rivalling the British empire in Asia and the Atlantic dashed for good. At home, rampant debt, high taxes and financial crises would set France on the path to revolution. Victory proved very costly indeed.

It may have lost 13 of its American colonies but, when considered globally, Britain won the American War of Independence.

Spain’s war went only slightly better. Menorca and Florida were successfully retaken, but Britain held off a prolonged and expensive siege of Gibraltar, ensuring that British access to the Mediterranean was secured. Despite some significant gains, the war effort cost Spain dearly. Its reconquest of Florida put Spain on a collision course with the very power it had just helped in its fight for independence.

Spanish forces attack Gibraltar
Spanish forces attack Gibraltar during the long siege of British positions from 1779. The siege lifted in 1783, securing British access to the Mediterranean. (Image by Bridgeman)

Farther south, the consequences were even more drastic. To pay for its war with Britain, Spain was forced to implement a series of imperial laws that alienated many in Spanish America. In South America, resistance to these new measures coalesced into two major rebellions. An anti-Spanish revolt erupted in Peru in 1780, led by Túpac Amaru II, an indigenous leader claiming descent from the last Inca ruler who had died two centuries earlier. In Columbia at around the same time, tax protests turned to open rebellion. Both uprisings were brutally crushed; as many as 80,000 rebels died during the rebellion in Peru, including Túpac Amaru II himself and his wife, co-leader of the uprising, Micaela Bastidas. Though they ultimately failed, these rebellions and their violent suppression exposed and cemented both a widening gulf within Spanish colonial society and a growing division between Spain and its colonies. In this way, the uprisings served as inspiration for and causes of the successful independence movements that emerged in South America in the 19th century.

The rise of the Irish nation would also prove short-lived. The concessions gained by the Patriot Party satisfied few and served only to sow deep divisions in Ireland. For Irish Catholics under Protestant rule, and for political radicals hoping for complete independence from Britain, the wartime reforms did not go nearly far enough. Britain saw parliamentary sovereignty as a slippery slope potentially leading to full separation, so blocked such moves. Sectarianism, revolution and union with Britain followed closely on the heels of the Irish nation’s stillbirth.

The Revolution was not simply a national phenomenon. Rather, it was a world war – a global struggle over and between empires

By 1784, Mysore appeared to have the upper hand in India. But that year an unwelcome peace was forced upon Mysore by its beleaguered French allies, who were bankrupt; without French armaments and naval support, Tipu Sultan’s kingdom was left vulnerable to eventual defeat and conquest by the resurgent British. The last best chance for independent Indian powers to halt Britain’s rise to domination of the subcontinent had been thwarted as a result of the American War. In India, the result was a series of imperial and religious conflicts that would plague the subcontinent for generations to come.

Century of humiliation

Few areas of the globe were spared. In China, the British need to address a huge trade imbalance, and American desires to establish independent commercial networks, led Britain and the United States to flood the Chinese market with opium. What followed was an unprecedented public-health crisis, a violent suppression of subsequent Chinese protests, and the ushering in of China’s ‘century of humiliation’. In Australia, a penal colony was founded as a new dumping ground for British convicts who had been sent to America before the war, displacing and devastating the continent’s indigenous peoples. In Sierra Leone, the war precipitated the creation of Britain’s first formal colony in Africa: a colony for Black Loyalists and former slaves at Free-town. Though born of a promise made to those who threw off their shackles to fight against their former masters for the British cause, Sierra Leone never became the independent haven its founders hoped it would be. Instead, it would serve as the first bridgehead into a new continent for the Christian imperialism of the century to come.

The American Revolution was not simply a national phenomenon. Rather, it was a world war – a global struggle over and between empires that created the conditions for the drastically altered world of the 19th century. It accelerated the decline of the Spanish empire, the Dutch empire, the Ottoman empire, the Qing empire, the Mughal empire and the French empire, and spurred the rise of the empires of Britain, Russia and the United States. It set the stage for the ‘Eastern Question’, the ‘Irish Question’, the Chinese ‘century of humiliation’, and British dominion in India and Australia. It exacerbated religious and ethnic tensions in Ireland, Crimea, India and South America, and led to a global obsession, both domestically and imperially, with order, hierarchy, centralisation and authoritarianism. The American Revolution did not simply usher in the birth of a new nation – it forged an entirely new world and a new world order.

Matthew Lockwood is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama, and author of To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe (Yale University Press, 2019)

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This article was first published in issue 19 of BBC World Histories Magazine