The Militia of Great Britain were the principal military reserve forces of the Kingdom of Great Britain during the 18th century.
In 1707, the Acts of Union united the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain. The English and Welsh Militia and the Scottish Militia became part of the framework of the new British armed services. The Royal Scots Navy was incorporated into the Royal Navy, and the Scottish military (as opposed to naval) forces merged with the English, with the regular Scottish regiments maintaining their identities, although the command of the new British Army was from England.
The Militia Act 1757 had effect only in England and Wales and aimed to create a professional national military reserve. Records were kept, and the men were selected by ballot to serve for longer periods. Uniforms and weapons were provided, and the force was 'embodied' from time to time for training.
The threat of Ireland's belligerent all-Protestant militia to copy the American colonists and seek to free their country from British control if Ireland's demands for free trade were not met, and the inability of the British, after years of war overseas, to police Ireland easily, would later lead to the Union of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.
The militia was embodied at various times during the French and Napoleonic Wars. It served at several strategic locations and was particularly stationed on the South Coast and in Ireland. A number of camps were held at Brighton, where the militia regiments were reviewed by the Prince Regent, the origin of the song "Brighton Camp". The militia could not be compelled to serve overseas, but it was seen as a training reserve for the army, as bounties were offered to men who opted to 'exchange' from the militia to the regular army.
In the late 17th century, while the Kingdom of Scotland was still an independent country sharing a monarch with England, there were calls for the resurrection of the country's militia, with the understated aim of protecting the rights of Scots from English oppression.
Following the merger of Scotland into the new Kingdom of Great Britain, the British Militia Act of 1757 did not apply in Scotland. There, the old traditional system continued, so that militia regiments existed in some places and not in others. This was resented by some, and the Militia Club, soon to become the Poker Club, was formed in Edinburgh to promote the raising of a Scottish militia. This and several other Edinburgh clubs became the crucible of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The Militia Act of 1797 empowered the Lord Lieutenants of Scotland to raise and command militia regiments in each of the "Counties, Stewartries, Cities, and Places" under their jurisdiction.
The Parliament of Ireland passed an act in 1715 raising regiments of militia in each county and county corporate. Membership was restricted to Protestants between the ages of sixteen and sixty. In 1793, during the Napoleonic Wars, the Irish militia were reorganized to form thirty-seven county and city regiments. While officers of the reorganized force were all Protestants, membership of the other ranks was now opened up to members of all denominations, including Roman Catholics.
The English had raised militia forces in their settled colonies in the New World immediately upon establishing them in the first decade of the 17th century. Whereas militias in England remained little used during the following century, those in the North American colonies were to play significant roles. In many actions fought with Native Americans, the militia were the primary English force in the field, as professional full-time military forces were usually far away. Even when the English colonies around the world became the British Empire, and regular forces began to become available for garrison duty, militias were still a vital part of Great Britain's military power in the Americas, and British victory over Spain and France during the Seven Years War, and its resulting hegemony in North America, could not have been realised without the colonial militias and their Native allies. It was the presence of their militia that allowed thirteen American colonies to launch the secessionist American War of Independence.
In Bermuda, settled in 1609, with no native population, the Militia followed a trajectory more like that in Britain, finally becoming moribund after the American War of 1812, by when the build-up of regular forces had removed the demand for the militia. Nevertheless, during the first century of its settlement, Bermuda's militia had remained the colony's sole defence, manning its fortifications and coastal batteries and calling up all available manpower in times of war. This included slaves and indentured servants, among whom were Irish and Scottish Prisoners of war (POW), forcibly removed from their homelands following the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland and the invasion of Scotland by England during the Third English Civil War and sold to the highest bidder.
Large numbers of Irish POWs and civilians were sold in Bermuda, where they were highly antagonistic to the English majority. In 1661, the local government alleged that a plot was being hatched by an alliance of Blacks and Irish, one which involved cutting the throats of all the English. The Irish were perceived as the chief instigators of this plot. Governor William Sayle prepared for the uprising with three edicts: The first was that a nightly watch be raised throughout the colony; second, that slaves and the Irish (defined by the government as indentured servants, though imported and sold against their will) be disarmed of militia weapons; and third, that any gathering of two or more Irish or slaves be dispersed by whipping (a ban was also placed on the further importation of Irish to Bermuda).
Enslaved Bermudians continued to serve in the colony's militia, however, which was to lead a unique judgement on their rights as British subjects. By the 18th Century, virtually all Bermudian men were engaged in the maritime trades, including building and crewing ships. The colony's dependence on its seamen was such that the Royal Navy excluded them from impressment, to which all other British seamen were liable. Perennially short of manpower, the crews of Bermuda's merchant fleet (most of which turned to privateering whenever war broke out) were required, by local law, to contain a percentage of black sailors, most of whom were enslaved. British law at the time required that all crewmen of British vessels be British subjects, which slaves were not generally considered to be. Following the arrest of a Bermudian vessel by the Royal Navy due to its enslaved crewmembers, Bermudian ship owners protested to the courts that their service in the Militia meant that Bermuda's slaves should be considered British subjects, and this view was upheld by the courts.
Bermuda's seasonal occupants of the Turks Islands also raised militias there, as their lucrative salt trade invited attacks from enemies, foreign (France and Spain) and domestic (the Bahamas). The fortifications built in Bermuda by the militia (including the Castle Islands Fortifications), starting in 1612, remain the oldest English new world structures, as well as the first stone fortifications, the first coastal artillery, and the oldest surviving fortifications built by the English in the New World. The Militia manned these fortifications with standing bodies of artillerymen 'til the fortifications were taken over by the regular British Army following the American War of Independence, with some, like Fort St. Catherine's, used well into the 20th Century.
- A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias, Andrew Fletcher (1698) ISBN 0-521-43994-9
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