There are books written on the organization and management of the BE such as Mandy Banton, Administering the Empire, 1801-1968, London, 2008. I am unlikely to add anything new but will look at the subject through the lens of the economics of organization with special reference to how corporations are administered.
While the empire is not a corporation, it did have a type of head office in London with a chair person, the monarch, and a staff of bureaucrats in Whitehall who oversaw various functional activities. In the dominions and colonies there were overseas or foreign subsidiaries which were managed by a combination of local officials and appointees from London. It is not exactly clear what services this organization delivered. Some writers have more favourable views than others. In addition there were commercial and military interest groups as well as missionaries, the equivalent of today’s NGOs, which provided administrative services.
British monarchs from the time of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) had a strong hand in promoting what was to become the empire. She was followed by, amongst others, King Georges I to, IV and William IV all of whom reigned while the empire grew and at times shrank. George III (1760-1801) was on the throne during the breakaway of the 13 British North American colonies in 1776. The pinnacle of empire probably occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria 1837-1901; she was named Empress of India by Prime Minister Disraeli in 1876, a title (emperor) last held by George VI. While the various monarchs had no direct administrative responsibilities they acted as Chairman (person) of the Board of Directors directing overall policy for imperial endeavours. Other board members included the prime minister and the cabinet ministers.
Below the monarchy were the elected and appointed politicians and the bureaucracy which engaged in direct administration. Because the BE at its pinnacle consisted of so many different territories, administration was shaped to particular circumstances. The white Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, while tied to the mother country, over time gained a high degree of independence, including the conduct of foreign policy. India was a special case because British administration was imposed on an existing Mughal administration, while in West Indian, African and other colonies more hands on management was required with appointees sent from London.
The administrative structure in London was housed in departments whose titles changed. The original Foreign office was formed in 1782 and the India Office in 1858, the latter to oversee India, Bangladesh, Burma, and Pakistan and headed by the Secretary of State for India. It was also responsible for other territories in South East Asia. In 1925, the Dominion and Colonial Office split and in 1947, the Commonwealth Relations Office was formed from a merger of the Dominion Office and the India Office. And in 1966 the Commonwealth Office was formed as a merger of the Colonial and Commonwealth Relations office. Today there is a British Minister, the Foreign Secretary, in charge of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office known as the Foreign Office or FCO. These titles provide clues as to where to look for the administration of empire policy at different points in time.
Direction from London was implemented by those posted from England to different parts of the Empire. Here the study by Stephanie Williams, Running the Show, Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912, (Penguin 2011) is revealing. The book is based on reports made by those on the ground back to London as well as the directions they received and communications they had with friends and relatives. It is an enormously revealing study and a must read for those interested in the history of the BE.
Another aspect of organization relates to the commercial and missionary activities undertaken within the empire. The corporate form of organization evolved to accumulate capital and spread risk among multiple investors. The Dutch probably lead in this development but it was taken up and improved by the English. Corporations such as 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 Adventurers Trading into Africa in 1660, originally given the monopoly to conduct the English slave trade, the Hudson Bay Company in 1670, and the South Sea Company in 1711. These firms were granted 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. The East India Company was also given the power to administer areas around the Indian subcontinent until 1858, when it continued as a commercial corporation but with its political powers reverting to the government in the UK.
A role was also played by the various missionary societies such as the London Missionary Society, a nineteenth century NGO, with the aim of spreading Christianity to the heathens, and at times to promote the abolition of slavery. For example, David Livingstone was trained as a doctor and became a missionary who went to Africa in 1840.
Administration of the Indian subcontinent was conducted differently than in most other parts of the BE. In India, the British had to work with an existing administration which had been a part of the Mughal Empire and so the British officials had to adapt their procedures to those already in place. Whereas in many other parts of the Empire, North America, the Caribbean, Australasia and Africa, officials worked with tribal societies unused to the niceties of British public administration and military procedures.
In many parts of the empire the officials sent from England were the product of English public (actually private) schools and a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. About twelve public schools accounted for the majority of officials, one of which Haileybury was originally the East India College.
“In 1806 the Honourable East India Company commissioned William E Wilkins … to plan the buildings for its new training college for civil servants for India.
On an area of empty heath, not far from the manor of Hailey, Wilkins created his buildings in a neo-classical style round a large grass quadrangle (still said to be the largest academic quadrangle in the land) and here the East India College flourished for 50 years.
It was one of the country’s most distinguished centres of scholarship and teaching and the training ground for generations of those destined to govern British India.”
Clive Dewey (1993) states that “in their heyday they [Indian Civil Service officers] were the most powerful officials in the Empire, if not the world. A tiny cadre, a little over a thousand strong, ruled more than 300,000,000 Indians. Each Civilian had an average 300,000 subjects, and each Civilian penetrated every corner of his subjects’ lives, because the Indian Civil Service directed all the activities of the Anglo-Indian state.”
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1935, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said of the ICS that it was “the steel frame on which the whole structure of government and of administration in India rests”. At about the same time, Jawaharlal Nehru, later the first Prime Minister of India, wrote “I think it was Voltaire who defined the “Holy Roman Empire” as something which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Just as someone else once defined the Indian Civil Service, with which we are unfortunately still afflicted in this country, as neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.”
In the Sudan the country became known as the “Blacks ruled by Blues.” Blacks referred to the Arabic name for the Sudan while Blues to those who gained athletic distinction at either Oxford or Cambridge. Administrative advantages were claimed if officials with a similar background worked together. Note also, George Orwell was a product of Eton and in 1922 went on to give service to the Indian Imperial Police in Burma.
One further aspect of administration relates to the means used to communicate between the colonies and London. Prior to the 1860s messages were sent either overland or by sea. Thus the answer to a message sent from London to Calcutta would take several months. After the laying of underwater cables and overland wires, a message could be answered in the same day. Even with telegraphic communication Lord Cromer in Egypt was adept at ignoring telegrams and continuing to rule as he wished as British Controller General in Egypt, the equivalent of Viceroy.