While researching the legacy of the British Empire, I realized that I had connections to various aspects of the topic. These provide a limited and perhaps biased way to assess the legacy. I began to research the issues through the lenses of relatives and places I have visited and the reasons for my visits. These include most continents and especially the UK, Canada, the USA, several Caribbean countries, Guyana, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.
The choice of countries means that the issues discussed are selective making it difficult to assess the Empire as a whole. A second proviso is that my background in economics means that I tend to look at issues in a certain way. I find this helpful. Others may not.
In the following I provide a brief outline of the growth, evolution and decline of the British Empire. This is followed by a summary of my connection to each place and a discussion of selected issues. In sum, the research question revolves around the functioning of the empire and whether it was a force for good or evil. Perhaps evil is too strong a word. Alternatively it can be phrased as the contribution made to humanity by the British Empire.
In 2010, fourteen territories make up remnants of the Empire, mainly a collection of islands, rocks and a base in Cyprus. The fourteen territories are “ Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. Claims in Antarctica, including that of Britain, are not recognised by all nations. Collectively these territories encompass an approximate land area of 667,018 square miles and a population of approximately 260,000 people (Wikipedia).”
Aside from these fourteen territories there exists an intergovernmental organisation, The Commonwealth, formerly The British Commonwealth, made up of 54 independent member states, all but two of which, Madagascar and Rwanda, were formerly part of the British Empire. The Commonwealth Games is the organization’s most visible activity. The 54 subscribe to a framework of common values and goals including democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace. Acceptance and implementation of these values within and beyond those countries that were part of the British Empire is one measure of its impact, if there is agreement that these objectives are worth pursuing. Doubtless detractors would have another list of actions undertaken by the mother country, such as support of the slave trade until 1807 and slavery until 1834.
The 54 Commonwealth members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, about a third of the world population, of which 1.17 billion live in India and 94% live in Asia and Africa combined. After India, the next-largest Commonwealth countries by population are Pakistan (176 million), Bangladesh (156 million), Nigeria (154 million), the United Kingdom (61 million) and South Africa (49 million). Nauru is the smallest member, with about 10,000 people.
The land area of the Commonwealth is 21% of the total world land area. The three largest nations by area are Canada at (3,900,000 sq mi), Australia (2,970,000 sq mi), and India (1,270,000 sq mi). The combined GDP of Commonwealth members (measured in purchasing power parity) is $10.6 trillion, 66% of which is accounted for by India, UK, Canada and Australia (Wikipedia).
Until 1783, the eastern part of the US (the thirteeen colonies) was part of the British Empire. This is seldom discussed when tracing the legacy of the British Empire, although its democratic institutions and judicial system stem from British practice modified to suit conditions in the US such as a break with the monarchy.
The empire’s origins date from the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, competed with Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and France. One of the questions that historians have asked is how this small island in north-western Europe managed to gain such widespread influence from about 1500, and then lose it in a relatively short period of time starting in 1900.
The contribution of the British navy and of London as a financial centre are two factors used to explain its growth. Imperial over-reach and the difficulties of financing the administration and protection of far-flung territories help to explain its demise. Meanwhile, a political, economic, linguistic and cultural legacy remains with English becoming a universal language.
“The growth of Germany and the United States eroded Britain’s economic lead by the end of the 19th century. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its Empire. The conflict placed enormous financial strain on Britain, and although the Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after the war, it was no longer a peerless industrial or military power. The Second World War saw Britain’s colonies in South-East Asia occupied by Japan, which damaged British prestige and accelerated the decline of the Empire, in spite of British victory. Within two years of the end of the war, Britain granted independence to its most populous and valuable colony, India.” (Wikipedia).
At its peak around 1922, the British Empire included a population of 458 million people, about 25 % of the worlds’s total. It covered more than 13 million square miles or approximately a quarter of the Earth’s total land area, the distribution of which gave rise to the statement that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”
Henry Hardinge, First Viscount Hardinge of Lahore (1785-1856) was Governor General of India 1844-1848: he was great grandfather to my mother, and my great great grandfather. During the war with France in 1815 after Napoleon escaped from Elba, Hardinge was present at the Battle of Ligny (Belgium) on June 16, 1815 where he lost his left hand and was not present at the Battle of Waterloo two days later. The Duke of Wellington later presented him with the sword that had belonged to Napoleon. (Charles, the second Viscount Hardinge of Lahore (my mothers’ grandfather) married Lavinia Bingham daughter of the third Earl of Lucan: the seventh Earl of Lucan went missing after the murder of his nanny in 1974.)
Charles Hardinge (1858-1944), First Baron Hardinge of Penshurst, was Viceroy of India 1910-1916: he was my mother’s uncle, and my great uncle. He is credited with improving relations with the Indians which made it possible , during the First World War, to deploy almost all the British troops in India and many native Indian troops to areas outside of India. Later, during the Second World War, some Indians sided with the Japan and Germany. In 1916, Hardinge returned to his post as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office and was Ambassador to France 1920-22.
“In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England. (Indian Summer, Alex Von Tunzelmann, 11).”
British colonization of the Indian subcontinent, unlike that of North America and Africa, involved interaction with a highly developed civilization, the Mughal Empire. The interaction was mainly economic with the British East India Company representing the British presence and providing military as well as a commercial presence until 1858 when control was taken over by the British government.
The caste system which prevailed in India paralleled in some ways the class system in England. As a result, upper class Indians travelled to the UK to study at private schools and universities and to play British sports. Some such as cricket, tennis and golf were then introduced in India as well as other parts of the Empire.
Because of the many dialects spoken in India, English evolved as the common language of administration and business between different parts of the country and with the mother country. The relatively small number of British civil servants and military which controlled the country was made possible in part by the presence of educated Indians who were able to undertake administrative responsibilities during the colonial period and after independence in 1947 when India and Pakistan separated.
The Indian army and regimental system is also part of the British legacy both during the period when the UK ruled India and when Indian troops contributed substantial numbers to the allied forces during both world wars. Ghurka regiments have played prominent roles in other combat situations as well.
While the colonial experience of India was unlike that of North America and Africa because of pre-existing conditions in the different parts of the world, the road to independence had linkages. The example of American independence from the UK in 1783 was familiar to Indian politicians eager to follow the same route and later on was supported by US administrations especially during and after the second world war. While Indian troops served with allied forces during both world wars, there were those Indians who supported Japanese actions in Asia in the 1940s. They believed that Japan would support Indian independence if the British were defeated.
The British legacy also includes the political situation left behind in the Indian subcontinent. At the time of independence in 1947, two states were created India and Pakistan based on religious differences. India was largely Hindu and Pakistan Muslim. Pakistan was divided geographically between west and east Pakistan, the latter now Bangladesh. The division of Kashmir remains unresolved and the western borders of Pakistan meld into Afghanistan where tribal rulers prevail rather than the Pakistani government. Today, the Muslim population of Pakistan is 174m, India 161m and Bangladesh 145m.
An excellent treatment of the factors leading up to independence in 1947 is “Indian Summer” by Alexa von Tunzelman (2010). Controversy rages regarding how the independence process was managed by the British government. From the vantage point of 2010, some degree of bloodshed seems to have been inevitable and perhaps something the respective leaders could not have controlled under any circumstances. Thus the British were dammed if they stayed and dammed because they left…. and dammed by some for going there in the first place.