Archive for September, 2011

Globalization, Immigration and the British Empire

September 26, 2011

How does the British Empire relate to globalization today?

While it had been on the decline since the early 1900s, WW2 coincided with the final days of the UK and the British Empire as a major world power and the rise of the USA and Soviet Union. These two would be at loggerheads during the Cold War up to 1989. The postwar period has also seen passage through Friedman’s three stages of globalization, the growing interdependence between states, organizations and now individuals. Since the events of 9/11, the world has also witnessed the growth of terrorist activity, much of it non-state based, and more recently political uprisings in Arab states around the Mediterranean, and a global financial crisis starting in 2008 and continuing in 2011.

Globalization today is shaped by these events and contrasts with the first age of globalization from around the 1500s when European countries started to build their empires through a combination of conquest, trade, investment and missionaries spreading their respective brands of religion. While different in timing and many other ways, the two are linked. The question asked here is what if any of today’s economic, political and socio-cultural events can be traced back in some way to the former British Empire?

Many of today’s countries, and there are about 200 of them, have some connection past or present with the British Empire. The Queen is head of State of 16 sovereign countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand; she is head of the Commonwealth group of 54 countries including the above; the union jack appears on the flags of a number of countries; and the English language is spoken as the first language of an estimated 400 million (6%) of the world’s population of 7 billion, and as the second language by estimates which range from 200 million to 1.4 billion. Thus English could be the first or second language of 26% of the world’s population. The spread of empire from the first age of globalization has had something to do with this.

One way to look for connections to the BE is again to use a world map and show the places which geographically were part of it. Fortunately there are many maps available (check the web) which do this. One shows the empire for 1603, 1713, 1763, 1837 and 1905. With time, more of the world is coloured red while the US loses its rosy complexion after 1776. Today there are 14 remnants of the empire, and 54 countries of the present day Commonwealth of Nations, two of which, Mozambique and Rwanda were not formerly part of the empire causing The British Commonwealth to drop British from its title. For membership, see Wikipedia. Past members aside from the 13 colonies of the US include Burma and some other countries which for various reasons exited the empire. In looking for effects today, these should be included.

While geography may help in deciding where to look for imperial influences, what does one look for in order to suggest linkages between the present and past. This is more difficult because it depends on the interest of the reader. I may be interested in economic influences while others choose sports, the arts, politics, history and other topics. None has priority in my view and so I will proceed with issues in which I am more interested and which have resonance today such as immigration, the global financial crisis, trade and investment flows, conflict situations, events arising from 9/11. I start with immigration.


In Moving Millions (Wiley, 2010), Jeffrey Kaye has written about the factors fuelling global migration today. Some of those on the move can be linked directly or indirectly to influences associated with the former British Empire. Current stories of immigration in general are on the front pages of newspapers and TV news shows in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. While some stories like the migration from the Middle East and Turkey into Europe, and Vietnamese boat people sailing in leaky boats towards Australia and Canada have no direct BE connection, others do.

In 1958, Enoch Powell, a British MP, gave his “rivers of blood” speech in which he warned against immigration to the UK from former colonies in the West Indies and Africa. In fact his actual words did not include this phrase but was a quote from Virgil – Powell was a classical scholar before becoming a MP,

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now.”

Powell’s reference was to the bloody American Civil War fought largely over slavery, which itself was a byproduct of imperial trade and conquest.

In the case of the UK in the 1950s, the migrants came from the colonies. Having been told for years that they were a part of the mighty British Empire, they decided to move to the mother country, which in the course of time they changed. The empire’s founding fathers like Curzon, Cromer, Rhodes and Kipling probably never anticipated that this might happen, but it did when those in the colonies saw opportunities for their families and moved to the UK. Integration was probably accomplished better than Powell had predicted, but it created pockets of ethnic minorities in cities such as Liverpool and Bradford, and especially in certain city neighbourhoods. Measures were introduced to integrate these newcomers and today some are members of parliament, for example Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP elected in 2010, was born in the UK, the child of Ghanaian parents who had emigrated there. Multiculturalism has since become a topic for academic study and further policies introduced to assist newcomers to integrate into British society. There are also lobby groups in the UK which argue for control of future migrants from all countries not just from former colonies. One is Migration Watch UK which states:

“However, the essence of the problem remains – namely that governments have lost control over our borders during the past fifteen years. This has resulted in immigration on a scale that is placing huge strain on our public services, housing, environment, society and quality of life.”

In Canada, Chinese migrants came from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s – some had come from China much earlier to assist in railway building – a British territory which was handed back to China in 1997. Many invested in Canada, especially in real estate, and now parts of the lower mainland of British Columbia have a high proportion of Chinese living there. Immigrants have also arrived in Canada in recent years from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. In 2009, 20% of immigrants to Canada were from India, Pakistan, the UK and colonies and the US; an additional 12% came from the People’s Republic of China, some of whom may have been from the former Hong Kong.

Reports of ethnic tensions and multiculturalism are part of the daily news cycle in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US. Not all have imperial connections but many do and immigration and multiculturalism are sensitive topics in public discourse. Empire building in the first age of globalization in part gave rise to this issue and linkages still occur. While in earlier times, millions emigrated from the UK, Ireland and other parts of Europe, as well as the later flow from the colonies to the UK noted above, another movement is now taking place. Reports in 2011 from Portugal (never part of the BE) indicate that well educated and trained Portuguese are emigrating to Brazil, Angola and Mozambique due to poor economic times at home and better opportunities abroad. This is similar in many ways to those who emigrated from the UK to Canada, Australia and New Zealand especially in the postwar years, and it is likely that there will be further migration from the UK to former colonies. With the end of apartheid, many white South Africans moved to North America, Australia, New Zealand and the UK

While migrants from the UK to the colonies transferred various British customs and practices to the imperial outposts, including sports such as cricket, tennis, croquet, soccer and rugby, other customs and practices were imported including polo. World cricket championships involve England, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, all countries previously part of the empire. Rugby includes some of these countries and others like France, Italy, Rumania and Georgia. Soccer has become the most international of all sports and was played throughout the empire.

Among the words originating in the Indian subcontinent and in current usage in the west are bungalow, cheetah, chutney, dinghy, gymkhana, khaki, pyjama and shampoo. Today migrants to the UK also bring their music, songs and literature as well as ethnic foods. On the shelves of supermarkets and corner stores throughout the UK, Canada and other former colonies are foods and drinks from all parts of the world. Restaurants and stores specialize in selling different ethnic foods. This is not to suggest that all these aspects of globalization are the result of previous imperial connections but some of them assuredly are.

Ghosts of Empire, Kwasi Kwarteng

September 25, 2011

Kwasi Kwarteng, Ghosts of Empire, Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2011).

One of several recent books on aspects of the former British Empire, Kwasi Kwarteng brings a well researched and highly readable account of events in Iraq, Kashmir, Burma (Myanmar), the Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong. He states (p.7) the focus is on the colonial empire and not the white dominions, and writes (p.3) “I have not written one of those books that purport to show that the empire was a good thing or a bad thing. I have tried to transcend what I believe to be a rather sterile debate on its merits and demerits.” He takes issue (p.6) with Niall Ferguson’s views which describe the British Empire as the champion of ‘free-market liberalism’ and democracy. Kwarteng writes, “Notions of democracy could not be further from the minds of the imperial administrators themselves. Their heads were filled with ideas of class, loosely defined, of intellectual superiority and paternalism. ‘Benign authoritarianism’ would be a better description of the political philosophy that sustained the empire.” His concluding remarks (p.391-7), while noting that “the British Empire did bring justice and order to often anarchic parts of the world,” provide a negative judgment about its overall functioning and achievements. I concluded that Kwarteng does not have a favourable view of the empire as a whole, even though he contends that the book is not about making such a judgment.

Ghosts of Empire contains six detailed case studies of the places listed above. Each is extremely well researched and highly readable, the latter not always found in someone with a PhD in history. I learned a great deal from it as will others with a particular interest in either the places or in how they were administered while part of the empire. Each tells a different story but with common elements about the people who administered these places and the political decisions made in London.

Iraq was only under British control for about 20 years and many may not associate it with having an imperial connection. Burma was part of India (1880-1948), occupied by the Japanese, and granted independence after the war. Nigeria was a country cobbled together to include three tribes who continue to dislike each other. Hong Kong is the latest place (1997) to be separated from the UK and returned to China. The inside stories of what happened in each is fascinating. My only quibble with the book is that based on limited coverage of the imperial connections, it is not possible to make the overall judgment which the book and its subtitle to my reading contains.

Other recent publications include Stephanie Williams, Running the Show, Governors of the British Empire, 1857-1912, (Penguin, 2011) which I have yet to read, Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer, The secret history of the End of an Empire (McClelland and Stewart, 2007), and Peter Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, (Penguin, 2007) – reviewed on this blog Sept.10, 2011. A more complete bibliography is found in each of these books.

The author of “Ghosts” was born in the UK and is the son of Ghanaian immigrants to the UK. He won a scholarship to Eton, attended Trinity College Cambridge where he received a PhD in history and is now a Conservative MP in the government of Prime Minister Cameron. Further details on Kwarteng are found on the web.

The British Empire – a personal view

September 19, 2011


I consider myself a product of the British Empire but am unsure what that means. I was born in England, emigrated to Canada and have visited other parts of the empire. I am interested in what it means to be a product of it, and how the empire relates to today’s discussion of globalization. I have read reasonably widely, and am familiar with most of the alleged positive and negative effects.

Much has been written about different aspects of the empire and some historians have spent their careers writing about it, but there are always new books coming out – Kwasi Karteng, Ghosts of Empire (2011), Peter Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (2007), Stephanie Williams, Running the Show (2011) – where researchers have tapped new materials. These and other books, some noted here, provide a bibliography for this topic and it would be a waste of space to reproduce one here.

Those writing in a general positive vein include amongst others Niall Ferguson in Empire, (Basic Books, 2002), although he reviews the criticisms made by others. The recent book by Kwasi Kwarteng, Ghosts of Empire, takes an opposing view stating, “It is simply misleading to describe the British Empire, as one historian (Ferguson) has done, as the champion of ‘free-market liberalism’ and democracy…..Notions of democracy could not have been further from the minds of the imperial administrators themselves. Their heads were filled with ideas of class, loosely defined, of intellectual superiority and of paternalism. ‘Benign authoritarianism’ would be a better description of the political philosophy that sustained the empire (pp.6-7).” Kwarteng’s assessment is based on a series of detailed case studies of Iraq (not often considered part of the BE), Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria, the Sudan and Hong Kong

A strong criticism is made by Vivek Chibber, a sociologist at NYU in a review of Ferguson’s book (Boston Review (Feb – March 2005).
“The calamitous results of British rule should not surprise us. Colonialism was rule by an alien, despotic power, lacking local legitimacy, and utterly unaccountable to the local population. In such a situation, it was predictable that the rulers would use administrative instruments to weaken potential resistance, rather than to tutor in civic norms, and mask their assertions of power in the guise of ‘good governance.’ Postcolonial pathologies were a natural consequence of normal colonial rule.”

The foregoing is intended to give a flavor of conclusions reached by those who have studied the topic. At this stage, I tend to subscribe to an overall favourable view of the BE but realise there can be no definitive answers. The empire touched on so many aspects of life in different countries that controversy is bound to continue as writers probe the various nooks and crannies. It is like comparing the writings of those who are asked to describe an elephant but only view it from one vantage point.

One reason for opposing views is that the empire included both the largely white areas of the US, the Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and parts of South Africa, as well as colonies in the West Indies, parts of Africa and Asia, and various outposts in places like Gibraltar, Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands. The inclusion by one writer of Iraq is because of British rule of the country for a number of years after WW1.

Since there is no standard metric to measure the empire and its effects, my approach is to ask and try to answer a series of fairly general questions, including:

1. What is an empire?
2. Why and how did the British Empire (BE) emerge?
3. How was it organised and managed?
4. What caused it to grow and decline?
5. What has been its effects in social, political and economic terms?

(I address the first two questions here and leave the others to a later posting.)

1. What is an empire?

An answer is best left to the experts as reported in Wikipedia:
“The term empire derives from the Latin imperium (power, authority). Politically, an empire is a geographically extensive group of states and peoples (ethnic groups) united and ruled either by a monarch (emperor, empress) or an oligarchy. Geopolitically, the term empire has denoted very different, territorially-extreme states — at the strong end, the extensive Spanish Empire (16th c.) and the British Empire, at the weak end, the Holy Roman Empire (8th c.–19th c.), in its medieval and early-modern forms…. An imperial political structure is established and maintained in two ways: (i) as a territorial empire of direct conquest and control with force (direct, physical action to compel the emperor’s goals), and (ii) as a coercive, hegemonic empire of indirect conquest and control with power (the perception that the emperor can physically enforce his desired goals). The former provides greater tribute and direct political control, yet limits further expansion because it absorbs military forces to fixed garrisons. The latter provides less tribute and indirect control, but avails military forces for further expansion. Territorial empires (e.g. the Mongol Empire, the Median Empire) tended to be contiguous areas. The term on occasion has been applied to maritime empires or thalassocracies, (e.g. the Athenian and British Empires) with looser structures and more scattered territories. (”

In this context, the BE is a hegemonic empire. Political control was exercised from the centre. Conquest occurred in a number of places while in others the colonial authorities in London worked with the local authorities and in the case of the Indian subcontinent the rulers of the Mughal Empire. Alex Von Tunzelmann, in Indian Summer (Simon and Schuster, 2007, 11) contrasts the two:
“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.”

The Indian subcontinent contrasts with what happened in North America, the West Indies and Africa, where colonial outposts were established and the local inhabitants experienced both conquest and death from diseases imported from abroad. For example Kwarteng’s conclusions are based on detailed case studies of Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria, and Hong Kong, leaving out a big swathe of countries with different social, economic and political characteristics.

2. How did the empire emerge?

It would be nice to think that it was a result of some well thought-out plan. Historians have concluded this was not the case but there were a series of linked events. One approach to answering this question is to view a map of the world showing the extent and location of the BE at different dates. I have one on my wall purchased from the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum located in Bristol which opened in 2002. As an aside, the museum is now closed pending relocation to London in 2012. However in March 2011 the museum director was dismissed on the grounds that he may have flogged some of the artifacts for his personal benefit. He denies it. Latest details are reported in the Independent newspaper for Sept. 3, 2011. It is a story which empire followers will enjoy.

The study of a world map at different dates shows where the empire evolved. Marked in red, more land area appears with time. In 1600, it is Great Britain and Ireland; by 1713, there are parts of North America, the West Indies and outposts in south-east Asia added; by 1763, more of present day US and Canada is shaded red; and by 1837, all of Canada, India, Australia and South Africa are included and the US has lost its rosy hue following the Declaration of Independence in 1776. By 1905, more of Africa is included, such as Egypt, the Sudan, East Africa, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and southern Africa stretches northwards. As well there are a number of smaller countries and outposts such as the present day Guyana, Malaysia, Singapore and other islands.

These locations reflect how trading opportunities rather than conquest motivated imperial expansion, although in some instances such as India, trade required a degree of conquest or a working relationship with existing communities. While well organized societies operated in parts of South America and India, the inhabitants of most of North America and Africa were splintered into tribal groupings. When brought into contact with Europeans, these people were often decimated by fighting and disease. Many types of societies were encountered and flexibility was required by the colonial administrators headquartered in London with their officials posted abroad, and by some local officials provided with training by the mother country.

The 1905 map suggests that the spread of the BE would require good transportation and communications, the counterpart to air travel and the Internet today. For example, in the early days travel by ship and the transmission of messages across the Atlantic would take several weeks each way. With the laying of cable from the 1860s, messages took minutes. By 1880 almost 100,000 miles of cable linked Britain, India, Canada and Australia. Wireless and years later satellites brought a further technological advance increasing the speed and volume of communications.

The evolution of British naval power for military and commercial purposes was also important in acquiring and administering these far flung places. “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves,” sung annually today at the last night of the Proms in London is a reflection of the naval connection to the imperial past. Also sung is “Land of Hope and Glory,” with its imperial overtones. Both can be seen and heard on YouTube today, and similar concerts are held annually in places like Australia and Canada. The relative size of European fleets is indicative of British military and commercial influence. By 1810, Britain’s total tonnage of vessels above 500 tons was almost 700,000 tons in contrast with 200,000 tons for France, and less than100,000 tons for Spain and the Netherlands (Empire, 50).

Britain’s navy had expanded from Elizabethan times so that Britain could break into the trading opportunities exploited first by the Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch in North, Central and South America, in the Indian subcontinent and in the spice islands of Asia. Britain was a late entrant to imperial expansion relative to its European neighbours, but then overtook them by various means some fair and others less than fair. The Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa today are following patterns of former piracy which included British plunder of Spanish and Portuguese ships returning from central and South America. It was much less costly to loot the ships than mine and process these minerals and deal with the local inhabitants.

In the past, the Pope in Rome was a player in this game. In return for converting the locals to Catholicism, he allocated trade in part of the Americas to Spain and part to Portugal, as well as trade in Asia to Portugal.

“When Columbus returns to Spain in 1493, with the first news of the West Indies, Ferdinand and Isabella are determined to ensure that these valuable discoveries belong to them rather than to seafaring Portugal. They secure from the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, a papal bull to the effect that all lands west of a certain line shall belong exclusively to Spain (in return for converting the heathen). All those to the east of the line shall belong on the same basis to Portugal.”

Portuguese is now spoken in Brazil and skilled workers from Portugal are emigrating today (2011) to Brazil, Angola and Mozambique where there are better work opportunities than in Portugal and other parts of Europe. Instead of migration from poorer to richer countries, since 2008 there is now a reverse flow with the flows linked to earlier colonization. This is a situation which Enoch Powell in his “rivers of blood” speech (April 1968) about commonwealth immigration from former British colonies to the UK could not have imagined.

What items were part of empire trade? Again a look at the map suggests answers. Sugar, tobacco and cotton were grown in the West Indies and in the colonies of North America. Linens and cloths came from the Indian subcontinent and spices from the spice islands of Asia. Demand in Britain and western Europe for these items determined the trade patterns and Britain was adept at making sure the trade took place through British ports and in British ships. The methods of production including slavery will be discussed in a subsequent posting.

“The English Navigation Acts were a series of laws that restricted the use of foreign shipping for trade between England (after 1707 Great Britain) and its colonies, a process which had started in 1651. Their goal was to force colonial development into lines favorable to England, and stop direct colonial trade with the Netherlands, France and other European countries. The original ordinance of 1651 was renewed at the Restoration by Acts of 1660 and 1663, and subsequently subject to minor amendment. These Acts also formed the basis for British overseas trade for nearly 200 years ( Wikipedia).”

Ports like Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London were beneficiaries of these policies. While today, the UK and other developed countries lobby in the WTO for the removal of trade restrictions by other countries, they conveniently forget that restrictions in earlier years worked to their economic advantage.

In the early days of empire, the corporate form of organization evolved to accumulate capital and spread risk among multiple investors. The Dutch probably lead in developing this form of organization but it was taken up and improved by England. Corporations such as the The East India Company, incorporated in 1600, played a major role in trade with the east (India and the Spice Islands), using Cape Town and other ports on the African coast. Egypt later on became an important part of the network with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869 known as the “highway to India.” The Muscovy Company was incorporated in 1555 for trading with Russia; a Levant Company was formed in 1592, a Guinean company in 1618, the company for Royal Adventures into Africa in 1660, the Hudson bay Company in 1670, the south Sea Company in 1710. These firms were incorporated as monopolies for trade in certain areas but since other countries set up their own so-called monopolies, such as the Dutch East India Company in 1600, exclusive market power could not be enforced.

These companies had power to administer the areas where they traded and so were granted political influence by the Crown. In 1858, the British government ended the East India Company’s powers to rule India and transferred to the British government with the appointment of a Viceroy. (More on this later).

The early years of the BE coincided with the emergence of both democratic institutions and capitalism as described by Edmund Phelps, a Nobel prize-winning scholar of capitalism:
“As a matter of history it’s crucial to distinguish between what I have taken to call ‘mercantile capitalism’ and what I like to call ‘modern capitalism’. Mercantile capitalism I think of as prevailing in Britain, Holland, Spain and elsewhere from around 1500 to 1800 or so. The American colonies were, of course, part of that. Following this, thanks to a number of antecedent developments; political and economic- by the early years of the nineteenth century, Britain was able to put all the ‘bricks in place’ for a prototype of modern-capitalism that launched with the end of the Napoleonic wars in around 1815. Then I see America as joining that list in around 1830… and one must give recognition to France within this story- even though they never became as strong an example as Britain and America. In the 1860′s and 70′s, Germany joined the group- and things began to become complex.

Fundamentally, modern capitalism was a system for indigenous innovation- while mercantile capitalism didn’t have much innovation at all. Perhaps more importantly- the innovations that did occur during the mercantile period were, in essence, applications of scientific and navigational discoveries outside the economic system. What was striking about the modern economies is that they were internally creative. I don’t just mean creative in the sense that you may refer to an individual’s potential creativity before they have done anything… I mean that they [participants in modern capitalism] actually delivered. They delivered new products and new methods with stunning frequency- ultimately every day! This occurred right through the early nineteenth century, and some countries went through this journey again- the United States, for example- during the inter-war period between around 1921 and 1941- it was an extraordinary time. This happened again between 1955 and 1975 and then disquieting things began to develop.”

This brings us to the present global financial crisis and remarks by those who suggest Marx may have been right about the demise of capitalism but still wrong about the triumph of communism. In the BBC News Magazine Sept 3, 2011, John Gray writes:

“As a side-effect of the financial crisis, more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right. The great 19th Century German philosopher, economist and revolutionary believed that capitalism was radically unstable.
It had a built-in tendency to produce ever larger booms and busts, and over the longer term it was bound to destroy itself.
Marx welcomed capitalism’s self-destruction. He was confident that a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.
Marx was wrong about communism. Where he was prophetically right was in his grasp of the revolution of capitalism. It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.
More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring. But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.He viewed capitalism as the most revolutionary economic system in history, and there can be no doubt that it differs radically from those of previous times.”

The BE was part of the growth of capitalism. Whether it provided seeds for the latest woes of capitalism is a question to consider. Here I leave draft comments on the first two questions and will return in a later post to the last three. Meanwhile I look forward to comments by others.

Last 1000 Days by Peter Clarke

September 10, 2011

The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke, Penguin 2007.

The author of this outstanding study, Peter Clarke, reckons he was conceived around the time of Pearl Harbour in 1941, making him now 69. His earliest memory with links to the British Empire is the London VE-day parade in 1945 when forces of the member countries of the Empire marched together along with American, French and Soviet bands. The country list is impressive including (original names used here) the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand followed by South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and Newfoundland, then India and Burma, from Africa, Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, Zanzibar and British Somaliland, Aden, Bermuda, Ceylon, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malaya, eight islands of the West Indies, Fiji, Tonga, the British Solomon Islands, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Mauritius, North Borneo, Labuan, Sarawak, Palestine, St Helena, the Seychelles, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Malta.

Today, the territorial remnants of the British Empire are 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).” Today contrasts with the familiar statement referring to 1922 that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” which at its peak included 458 million people, 25% of the world’s population, and 13 million square miles, nearly one quarter of the world’s land area in contrast with 1.3% today.

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. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, about a third of the world’s population, of which 1.2 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. These countries view themselves as sovereign states which for a variety of reasons have chosen to join the Commonwealth club.

Today, 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).

Based on land area and population the British Empire has shrunk since the 1920s and especially since the end of WW2 when first India and Pakistan received their independence, followed by Burma and Palestine, and many others after 1947. Peter Clarke has chosen to focus on the 1000 day period from September 1944 to September 1947. This covers momentous events. D-Day had occurred in June 1944 and the allies were advancing in Western Europe; a peace treaty was signed in Europe in 1945; the war in the Pacific ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945 followed by the surrender of the Japan.

During this time Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met several times, including in Potsdam and Yalta, to negotiate their spheres of influence and occupation especially in Europe, as well as to decide on membership and voting in the proposed United Nations organization. For example, the bargaining lead the US receiving one UN vote, the USSR three including Belarus and the Ukraine, and the UK six with Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. The USSR would have liked the Empire to be considered as one voting entity and used this to negotiate votes given to two states of the USSR.

The UK’s global influence continued to decline not only as member countries of the Empire gained independence, but due to the debts which the UK had incurred during the war. At first it had fought alone against Germany but was financed in large part by Lend-Lease arrangements and loans from the US, both before and after the US entered the war subsequent to the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941. At this time Germany somewhat surprisingly declared war on the US. In fact, even in the early wartime period the UK was not alone as the countries of the Empire participated in the fighting with Germany, for example, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and other member countries. While the Empire was of considerable importance to the UK at this time, it became less so when Germany attacked the USSR and the US joined the allies. The war then had three allied armies with the military contribution of the USSR and the US becoming greater than that of the UK. The later fighting in the Pacific was undertaken almost solely by the US against Japan.

Two things took place during last 1000 days. The Empire was dissolving due both to pressures by countries for political independence, and to the Empire’s contribution to the war effort which declined relative to that of the US and USSR. In addition, UK influence was weakened by having to mortgage its future recovery due to loans especially those made by the US, Canada and India. By the end of the 1000 days, major personalities had also changed. In 1945, Roosevelt died and Churchill was defeated in the general election of 1945. A Labour government came to power in the UK with Clement Attlee as prime minister and Ernest Bevin as foreign secretary. Labour policy was more supportive in granting independence and dissolving the formal imperial connections, although all sides wanted to retain preferential tariff arrangements. Opposed to these was the US which while favouring political independence wanted to end the preferential tariffs.

Peter Clarke notes that research for the book allowed him to learn more about the history that framed his life. I had the same experience when reading his carefully organised and documented study. I was born in the UK six years earlier and was eleven at the end of the 1000 days. I recall the war reasonably clearly, attended the VE-Day celebrations in London and the later VJ-Day celebrations. The classrooms where I went to school had maps of the world generously coloured in red to denote countries of the Empire, even after some had received independence. I have a map on my wall showing the geographical extent of the Empire from 1603 to 1905. With time, the area shaded red increases. As a child, my reading included Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and the empire stories by G.A.Henty, all of whom wrote favourably about England’s imperial connections.

Taught in English schools, my impression was that the UK had won the war, with the assistance of its allies. Little attention was given to the fact that Soviet contribution to winning the war was much greater in absolute and relative terms measured by military and civilian deaths. If noted, it was accompanied by the fact that Britain stood alone at the start of the war when the Soviet Union was allied with Germany and before the US entered the fray. The UK was deemed to have fought in the early years on behalf of the US and other countries and thus it was argued could reasonably expect to forego repaying its debts to the US, Canada and India. The lenders had different views.

The estimates of country losses – total military and civilian deaths and as a percentage of country population in 1939 – show the absolute and relative contributions of the three allies and their main opponents:

UK 450,900 and 0.9%
US 418,500 and 0.3%
USSR 23,400,000 and 13.9%
Japan 3,120,000 and 4.4%
Germany 8,680,000 and 10.0%

For Canada, the respective figures were 45,400 and 0.4%. The USSR made by far the largest absolute and relative contribution among the allied forces. These figures are reported in Wikipedia showing how the estimates are calculated (

There are a number of questions about the British Empire which historians examine: what factors lead to the creation and expansion of the Empire; what caused it to decline; what was its impact in social, political and economic terms? Clarke’s book places a magnifying glass over 1000 days of the second question, namely its decline. In the process he provides background to political and economic events of today. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel and neighbouring countries of the former Palestine, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa and countries in west and east Africa are all in today’s news for different reasons, some empire related. For example, Hong Kong, which was turned over to China in 1997, has today a special economic and political relationship with China which allows it to have a flourishing economy and more political freedom than found on the mainland. Office space in Hong Kong per square metre is $1750, the highest in the world, in contrast to New York at $750 and Toronto at $500 (Economist Sept. 3, 2011, 93).

While parts of the former empire get media attention today because of political and economic problems, there are other parts such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa which have developed flourishing societies, albeit with particular issues which need to be addressed. Seldom is there discussion of the USA as being part of the former British Empire, but at least the 13 colonies which revolted against control from England and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were originally governed from London. Today, US political and judicial institutions are modeled on those prevailing in the UK.

It is not easy to make an assessment of the net benefits (benefits less costs) of the British Empire as there is no agreed upon metric. But what can be done is to list the total imagined benefits and costs and for each to make his or her judgment. The Last 1000 days adds immensely in my view to an understanding of a short but crucial period in the decline of the Empire. It focuses on key personalities, especially Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin and their senior advisers such as Lord Keynes in Churchill’s case, and on the financial transactions which were put in place to finance the war especially loans, lend-lease and the Marshall Plan.

I learned a great deal from reading this book and realized how my own life had empire connections – born and educated in England, military service in Kenya, emigrated to Canada where I attended university, married in Gibraltar, sabbatical leaves in Australia and Washington, visits to Singapore, Malta, Egypt, New Zealand, the West Indies, India, Malaysia and South Africa. Two relatives were respectively a Governor General and a Viceroy of India. Their statues have been unceremoniously dumped in an Indian scrap yard, which doubtless reflects one view of the Empire. My own is somewhat more generous.

Franklin and Lucy – Book Review

September 1, 2011

Franklin and Lucy (by Joseph Persico, Random House 2008) is a biography of FDR with a focus on his relationships with his wife and other women. The book also provides a social and political portrait of the times. FDR lived from 1882 to 1945. He contracted polio in 1921, diagnosed when he was visiting his summer home on Campobello Island, NB, before his first election as President. He served as Governor of new York from 1929-31. His four (democrat) presidential terms were with three different VPs – Landon, Wilkie and Truman. His first term was from 1933-37, then 37-41, 41-45 and 45-. He died shortly after the Yalta meeting with Stalin and Winston Churchill where the boundaries of Europe were carved up between the USSR and the West. Neither Roosevelt or Churchill were in good health at this time. While Roosevelt died, Churchill was defeated in a General Election later in 1945 by Clement Attlee and the Labour Party.

From 1921 on Roosevelt could only move either in a wheel chair or with the aid of canes which allowed him to stand up but always with assistance. He had a special car designed so that it could be driven with hand controls

He was born into the famous Roosevelt family and his wife Eleanor was from another part of the family, a niece of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. He attended Harvard, was a C student and was known for his charm and ability to persuade people through public speaking. He was editor of the Crimson student newspaper. The Roosevelt family were wealthy as a result of large profits from the opium trade with China.

The book details his life long affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford and involvement with other women. It is well researched and written but would benefit from photos of the main characters and a family tree of the main characters some of which were related.