In his book, Empire, Jeremy Paxman says, “Britain was undoubtedly the pre-eminent power in the world in the eighteenth century”.
One glance at the map of the world in 1789, in our TimeMap of World History, will show the Chinese Empire was much larger than the British Empire at that time. And in terms of population it would have been much larger still. Beijing was the largest city in the world, and China was almost certainly wealthier than the British Empire in terms of GDP, although this wealth was not so concentrated in one small area. In fact, according to recent studies, China was on a par with the British Empire in terms of GDP per head, let alone total GDP. Militarily the Chinese army vastly outnumbered the British, and in the eighteenth century acquitted itself well against Russian forces. It did not really have a navy to speak of, but then, what could the Royal Navy have accomplished against the huge landmass of China?
This all changed in the first part of the 19th century. Imperial expansion brought most of India under British power, and Industrialization boosted both Britain’s wealth and its military power. When Britain and China clashed in the First Opium War (1839-42), it was a one-sided affair – though not without a significant land-based success for the Chinese. This episode sparked the unravelling of Chinese imperial power, which ended in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
But in the eighteenth century, China was undoubtedly the largest and most powerful empire in the world; and it behoves us to remember that, so far as world history is concerned, the West’s dominance has up to now only lasted a moment.
By Peter Britton