King's College London
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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

George Canning

Engraved portrait of George Canning.Engraved portrait of George Canning.George Canning (1770-1827), twice foreign secretary between 1807 and 1827 and briefly prime minister in the year of his death, was more responsible than any other British politician for inaugurating a successful relationship between Great Britain and the newly independent Latin American states. He was one of the most intellectually able politicians of his day; he had started his political career as a Whig but, frightened by the French Revolution, had become a Tory by the close of the 18th century.

His most famous literary production was the journal The Anti-Jacobin (1797-8), which mocked the supporters of the French Revolution and the Whig opposition to the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, aiming to stiffen support for the government's prosecution of the war against Napoleon and the repression of domestic dissent. The microcosm, first published in 1786, was Canning's first publication. It is a collection of light satires, in the manner of Addison and Steele. For the most part, literature was a recreation for Canning, and his only one.

In 1808 Canning's insistence that the Portuguese king flee to Brazil, as Napoleonic armies were invading Portugal, helped to ensure that Brazil became independent without social revolution, although independence was not Canning's intention, and that the divorce of Brazil from Portugal was relatively smooth.

From 1824 onwards Canning had two diplomatic and strategic objectives in recognising the independence of the Spanish colonies. First, he wanted to ensure that British commercial ties with Latin America, which had been greatly strengthened by the collapse of Spanish power following the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, were maintained.

Second, he wished to prevent the French, which under the restored Bourbon monarchy were occupying Spain in order to support Louis XVII's cousin, Ferdinand VII, against domestic political challenges, from using this opportunity to annex the Spanish empire. This is what he meant when he asserted that he had 'called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old'.

However, he had to fashion his policy against determined opposition from the Duke of Wellington and King George IV, both of whom feared the example set by freshly minted republics. Latin America was one of a number of questions on which Canning took a more flexible and pragmatic view than many of his ministerial colleagues.

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