The British Empire – a personal view


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.


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