The Not Yet “Special Relationship”

Seeing how Conventions: The Garden At Paris has been doing (probably because of its temporary “99p” price, I know) at pleases me because I think it could be interesting to British readers. Yes, the main character is an American. However, the tale would not be what it is without its British characters, British perspective(s), and occasional British locations.

The United States had won British recognition of its independence in 1783. But with a population of around “10 million” (England, Scotland and Wales had nearly 11 million residents in the 1801 census), Great Britain had over twice the population of the new United States. It was still by far the world’s greatest naval power and richest country.

In plotting the novel, I felt myself drawn into addressing Americans and British interacting less than a decade after U.S. independence. I believed it would be intriguing ground to cover within the context of the wider tale. The novel became a “triangle” of 1780s-90s America, Britain and France…

[Excerpt from “Conventions” on Kindle for iPad. Click to enlarge.]
[Excerpt from “Conventions” on Kindle for iPad. Click to enlarge.]
[Excerpt from “Conventions” on Kindle for iPad. Click to enlarge.]

Reactions in Great Britain to the American revolt of 1775-76 were varied, but overwhelmingly initially supported crushing the rebels by force. A small minority supported American grievances and even independence: they, with hindsight more forward-thinking than others, had felt it would be better just to let the Americans go and maintain a friendly alliance with them – especially to counter the French. Most British, however, had seemed to agree with the King and his Government on the necessity of thrashing the rebels: most Americans, they believed, were loyal to the Crown and the rebels were a trouble-making minority.

So the war went on and on: 1775, 1776, 1777, 1778…

The French military, and especially its navy, joining the fight in early 1778 changed the picture dramatically. Suddenly what had started out as trying to put down a revolt by some annoying Boston, Massachusetts residents, had within a few years turned into a war possibly for British national survival. Americans today aren’t generally aware of the fact that after France entered on the American side (and Spain later joined as a French ally), the American conflict became especially unnerving at one point for Great Britain.

Having been defeated in North America in 1763 in large part because they could not match Great Britain at sea, France built up its navy in the later 1760s and early 1770s while post-war British governments simultaneously cut navy funding. Having constructed several of what were then the strongest warships – the super aircraft carriers of the 18th century – in the world, by the late 1770s the French had come close to matching the Royal Navy to the point France’s fleet in 1779-80 appeared (with Spanish help) capable of wresting control of the Channel just long enough to be able to land a French army in England.

“With much of our overstretched navy engaged far away in blockading those infernal rebels…a fleet is gathering in French ports! We’re outnumbered in the Channel! The French are going to land at Portsmouth! They’ll come ashore at Dover! They’ll take the Isle of Wight!”

Suddenly who controlled Hackensack, New Jersey over 3,000 miles away did not seem nearly as important in London.

So it is little surprise that the British effort to win the war in America began to diminish from 1779 onwards amidst increasing calls to find a way out of the American mess. Having already learned the French had been engaged in a huge naval expansion, in the 1770s the British government belatedly began throwing money again at the Royal Navy. While hammering together new ships in a hurry and now fighting yet another war in America, the navy also sought to find lots of new sailors. Sometimes they just impressed them: “Now that you have finished that ale, lad, you are in the Navy, in the service of our King. The French are coming…”

France managed to use some of its fantastic new ships to help George Washington defeat the British at Yorktown in 1781. In April 1782, however, much of that same French fleet got surprised by the British in the Caribbean and was wiped out in a huge victory for the Royal Navy. The French never managed to get across the Channel and were reduced safely to naval inferiors again. Britannia ruled the waves once more.

Although paying lip service to American independence, the British government did not fully treat the U.S. as a true sovereign equal in spirit until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, which ended the unfortunate War of 1812, a conflict that was, in many ways, a second war of American independence. With that war, it became clear in London that there was no longer any realistic chance for Britain either to drag the Americans back into the empire or that they might rejoin it willingly. But “Robert,” “Sir Samuel,” “Carolina,” “Henry” and others, knew nothing about that in “1787,” of course…

Have a good day, wherever you are in our own world of the early 21st century. 🙂