British Empire Research Paper

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Britain played a major role in the globalization of world trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as in the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and thus exerted an unprecedented amount of power in different parts of the world well into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the empire became difficult to maintain due to financial woes and the rise of the United States as a global power.

At least five British empires rose and fell between the early seventeenth century and the beginning of the last one-third of the twentieth century. These empires were in different parts of the world and were run on different principles. The one constant was Great Britain’s disproportionate ability to project its power abroad. Although none of the five empires remains, their power is still felt in the wide extension of the English language and of the Anglo-American legal tradition around the world.

Sources of British Power

When most societies were still in the second stage of human development (farming), British society entered the third stage (urbanization, world trade, and industrial development.

No longer were the British limited to what their arable land could produce. As in most countries, the farms and forests had provided the foodstuffs, textiles, building materials, means of transport (in the form of horses and their fodder), and burnable fuel. To an ever greater degree as the eighteenth century progressed, however, the British could meet each of these basic economic needs through massive imports—and in the case of building materials, transport needs, and fuel, major parts of the needs could be met through mining, without taking up any arable land in Great Britain or abroad.

Great Britain’s ability to free much of its labor force from the land and shift it into trade and manufacturing allowed for the projection of British power to the ends of the Earth. By 1800 the British navy ruled the waves. The profits and raw materials that poured into the British Isles because of Great Britain’s unique place in international trade accelerated the modernization of the domestic marketplace; this modernization in turn further magnified British power.

The First Three British Empires

Great Britain’s first empire flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The East India Company was given its Royal Charter and its monopoly on trade with India in 1600. Imperial expansion in India long took the form of coastal trading posts called “entrepots” or (in an old-fashioned sense of the word) “factories”—where the factors of production (from trading goods to stockpiles of food and materials for repairing ships) were warehoused in areas leased from local powers. The entrepots also contained the offices and homes of local European agents and native legal experts, translators, and go-betweens (called “compradores,” from a Portuguese word). From these entrepots the East India Company acquired local influence, especially in those areas of India where the East India Company provided weapons or soldiers-for-hire for Indian governments. But no large-scale settlement of British people took place in India.

At the same time, settlement colonies had been established in Virginia in 1607 and Massachusetts Bay in 1620. Through the Committee on Trade and Plantations (a committee of the Privy Council), the British government tried to maintain a policy of mercantilism, buying only raw material from the colonies and allowing them to buy their finished goods solely from the mother country. This arrangement was designed to maintain the flow of precious metals into Great Britain. Indeed, some evidence indicates that the captive market for British manufactures that was the eastern seaboard of North America may have helped to give the British economy its push into full modernization.

Meanwhile, France’s rival imperial tradition was destroyed in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763, called in the United States the “French and Indian War”), which was fought largely over trading opportunities. The British victory stripped the French of their North American colonies and their position in India. The French revenge was to bankroll the American Revolution against the British (1775–1781), a war fought over the tax and mercantile policies that were stifling colonial development. (French support for America’s successful revolution, in turn, helped bankrupt the French state and prepared the way for the French Revolution that began in 1789.)

With the loss of the American colonies and the step-by-step expansion of British military and political control in India, British imperial attention turned to India itself and the slave-worked sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Thus began the second British Empire, which lasted from the 1780s to the 1830s. It coincided with the beginnings of the Evangelical Movement—the development of a more personally committed, morally stringent form of Protestantism than the Anglican Church of the eighteenth century had been providing for its adherents—and the rise of mass middle-class political involvement within Great Britain. Many people, having it better than ever before, looked around them and found to their shock that many other people were being ground into the dust. Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, two East India Company Governors’ General in India, were questioned by Parliament in London over how they had enriched themselves at the expense of the Indian people. Clive committed suicide in 1774 and Warren Hastings was impeached in a major state trial that lasted from 1787 till 1795—at which point he was acquitted. Meanwhile the military conquest of whole Indian provinces continued.

The first great middle-class reform movement after the expansion of the voting franchise among the richer sectors of British society in 1832 was the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s (the original act abolishing slavery, later modified, was passed in 1833). The result of abolition was to permanently injure the economies of the sugar islands of the Caribbean—and make England a more humane nation.

Another result was the third British Empire. The Caribbean was now of only marginal concern. The focus shifted to a new set of settlement colonies, so that mid-nineteenth- century England exported its parliamentary procedures (although usually on a more democratic franchise) to Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa (the first two countries had been claimed from nonwhites in 1788 and 1840, respectively; southern Africa, originally Dutch, had been taken from the French emperor Napoleon as a stopover on the way to India).

Self-governing institutions were in place in most settlement colonies by the end of the 1850s. Yet smaller outposts, and those without many European settlers, did not have such institutions. In no two colonies were the institutions the same. Until 1859, furthermore, India was the possession of a private company that was merely under British government regulation. In short, no imperial “system” existed, merely the Colonial Office (and after 1859 the India Office), which sent out governors and reviewed local regulations or laws. Rather than any imperial system, instead a diverse imperial heritage existed.

The Fourth and Fifth British Empires

By the late nineteenth century Great Britain’s economic superiority was being lost to competition from the newly industrializing areas, chiefly continental Europe, North America, and Japan. Still, the British retained two key advantages. First was the city of London, the world’s financial center. The city was the source of England’s continuing balance-of-payments surplus (in the form of the profits on “invisible” financial dealings) long after England was running a trade deficit in tangible goods. Second was England’s head start in developing a disproportionate, superpower-scale military establishment, with a worldwide network of coaling stations and a tradition of imperial and military service among the upper and middle classes.

The fourth British Empire was the result of the scramble among Great Britain, France, and the newly Unified German Empire, among others, for Africa (and other tropical colonies) during the 1880s and 1890s. During the twentieth century many people assumed that Great Britain had seized these colonies in order to make money. But modern scholarship suggests that it was never profitable to administer the interior of Africa or isolated islands in the South Pacific. Three other explanations exist for the scramble for Africa, or at least for Great Britain’s share in the scramble: (1) the desire to freeze out other European powers or to avoid being frozen out by them; (2) the recurrent instability of frontiers with less-developed, less-industrialized societies; and (3) the wish on the part of governments for cheap victories to impress the newly enfranchised common people (four-fifths of British men could vote after 1884–1885).

The fifth (and final) British Empire was what was gained through League of Nations mandates during the twentieth century. The British took these mandates, such as Palestine, and yet after the Second Boer War (1899–1902), many British people doubted the justice of Great Britain’s imperial activities.

Imperial affairs after 1918 were dominated by the questions of how and when Indian independence would come (it came in 1947). The status of the white settlement colonies was also a question (namely Canada, a federation since 1867; Australia, federated in 1901; the Union of South Africa, set up as a federation under the rule of the defeated Afrikaans-speaking Boers in 1910; New Zealand, which had governed itself since the 1850s; and eventually Ireland—after the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty). The other powers at the Versailles Peace Conference (ending World War I) in 1919 had denied that any of these colonies were independent states. The representatives of the colonies had to sign the Versailles Treaty not as independent powers but underneath the British signature, and with an indentation to show that they were subparts of the British Empire.

The Statute of Westminster in 1931, which created the British Commonwealth of Nations, granted full independence and the right to maintain independent international diplomatic relations to self-governing colonies. Under the Statute of Westminster, government by a local parliament with a prime minister who effectively chooses the monarch’s representative (the governor-general)—a model that had originated in the mid-nineteenth century—was now formalized. Under this model the newly independent states that left the British Empire during the 1950s and 1960s were organized, although many of these states would soon abandon their British-style constitutions and the institution of governor-general in favor of their own presidents. These states nonetheless tended to remain members of the Commonwealth, whose head was the British monarch.

Ideologies of British Imperialism

The British nawabs (rulers) who, working for the East India Company, ruled India during the late eighteenth century maintained no pretense that they were in India for any noble purpose or that they had any cultural superiority to the Indians. The nawabs were there to make money, and on those frank terms they mixed equally in the wealthier reaches of Indian society. Many cross-cultural marriages and affairs occurred.

After the Evangelical Movement in the first one third of the nineteenth century had accustomed the British to asking themselves the moral groundings of their actions—and after the violent suppression of the Indian “Mutiny” of 1857–1858—people developed the idea of a British mission to bring order and economic progress to peoples who, it was now assumed, would kill each other without the pacifying hand of British oppression. The British rulers stopped mixing with the Indian ruled and developed a self-image of stoicism and suffering.

In Great Britain itself the spread of literacy and education during the mid-nineteenth century led many people to ask why their country was in front of the world in so many ways. That Great Britain was in front of the world was plain to see from the halls of the Great Exhibition (1851): half the products on show were from one island off the northwest coast of Europe, and half were from the rest of the world, combined—and this was a fair sampling of who was producing what.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1859) and others looked to the economic effects of English political freedom for an explanation of Britain’s global power. After publication of the English naturalist Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), however, many writers began to work out ideas of racial or biological superiority. Later generations simply took British power and racial superiority for granted. The statesman Winston Churchill, for example, stayed loyal throughout his life to his sentimental attachment to the Empire that had painted all the schoolroom maps “British Empire Red.” As he wrote his associate Anthony Eden in 1944, “hands off the British Empire is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue” (Cain and Hopkins 2002, 628).

After World War II, fewer British people would share this view. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in his “Winds of Change” speech in South Africa in 1960, proclaimed the coming of African independence—which had actually become inevitable with Great Britain’s U.S.-mandated withdrawal from Suez in Egypt in 1956. In an egalitarian age, Great Britain found itself the junior partner of the new superpower, the United States, which was against British imperialism. Plus, for some time after World War II Great Britain was financially strapped. For both reasons, the British Empire could not be maintained. Most of the colonies were given their independence by 1970. Except for the Falkland Islands and a few other outposts (the largest in population, at 65,000, is Bermuda, a colony since 1609), the empire of the world’s first industrial country has ceased to be—although it continues to exert its cultural influence in a world dominated by the English-speaking powers and the English language itself.

Empire of the English Language

After 1492, when newcomers from the Old World found themselves in the New World among natives who had not been exposed to the diseases of the Old World of Afro-Eurasia—Africa, Eurasia, and their environs—the natives tended to die in large numbers, often with the active help of the newcomers (as in the case of the cholera-infested blankets given to the native North Americans during the eighteenth century and the random shootings of Australian Aborigines during the nineteenth). The population of the New World was reduced by 90 percent during the thirty years after 1492 and by 50 percent in the remainder of the population during the ninety years after that. During the nineteenth century the population of Tasmania disappeared completely.

Thus, ample room for British settlers seemed to exist. They included poor people looking for a better life, but they also included involuntary settlers, people whose sentences of death were commuted to transportation (a practice abolished in 1868). Room also existed for carefully selected poor families, who were offered subsidized fares in order to create socially balanced colonies and to remove the poor from Great Britain itself. This form of social engineering was most strongly advocated in the writings of the English colonialist Edward Gibbon Wakefield, starting with A Letter from Sydney (1829). Settlers cheated the natives out of their land and fought battles with them when cheating would not work (as in New Zealand in the period stretching from the Treaty of Waitaingi in 1840 through the Maori Wars of the 1860s). In Australia, cheating the natives with unequal or broken treaties on the New Zealand (or North American) model was not necessary, for the Australian settlers denied that the natives had the cultural or human worth to own land at all; land was simply taken without formality or fuss.

Until the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, slaves were dispatched around the world at British command. During the nineteenth century Chinese “coolies” and Indian peasants were similarly dispatched. These slaves and peasant workers contributed to the repopulation of much of the world by peoples of Afro-Eurasian stock. This result is visible in today’s United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and the Caribbean.

The importance of these resettled countries, seen together with the British-influenced countries of South Asia and Africa and with the continuing importance of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, has led to the domination of the English language in world trade, mass media, and science, at least since the beginning of the twentieth century, when English eclipsed French in diplomacy.

On the other hand, the African interior, which had already been weakened by centuries of slave-trading, was deliberately subordinated to the Western economic system in the early and middle twentieth century—through the imposition of taxes that could be paid in British currency and earned in British-controlled factories and plantations. Meanwhile the plantation economies of the British Caribbean, of much of Africa itself, and of many Pacific islands, were trapped in a boom-and-bust cycle that prevents a society from moving beyond poverty. This cycle characterizes those societies that function economically as the specialized exporters of raw commodities rather than of manufactured goods. Many societies are overly specialized in this way largely because of the activities of the traders and planners of the period of British overlordship.


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