British Empire – reasons for growth and decline

What caused the growth and decline of the British Empire?

This is an enormous topic which others such as Paul Kennedy and Niall Ferguson have studied in depth. I note here a number of issues, some of which relate to contemporary topics such as globalization. Again a world map provides a starting point. The empire was spread around the world and had to be reached by water, at least until the invention of the telegraph in the mid 1800s and later wireless communication.

Geography encouraged Britain to develop its naval capability as did Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands all of which pursued imperial ambitions. Being a small island with all locations less than a hundred miles from the sea, most Britons had some knowledge of maritime life. Offshore fishing was an occupation for some and press gangs were active in forcible recruitment of others when seamen were needed. England thus had the human resources available to man ships and reach distant places.

Once other European powers started to expand overseas in the 1400s, especially in South America and Southeast Asia, British investors and entrepreneurs, aided by the monarchy, decided to get into the act – see J.H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World, Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Yale 2006). At first they specialized in piracy, finding it cheaper to plunder Spanish ships returning from central and south America than actually going to purchase or mine for gold and other treasure. Similar activities took place on trade with the Spice Islands where English and Dutch ships regularly attacked each other. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton (1999) gives a good description of what went on and how an agreement was eventually reached whereby the Dutch gained a small spice island in today’s Indonesia in return for granting Manhattan to the British in 1674.

Maritime operations required financing. The Dutch pioneered the development of corporations which pooled risk capital from numerous investors. While the risks were high so were the returns when and if realized, and the English aided the development of a capital market with London as the financial centre for both banking and insurance.

Communications were another element which aided imperial administration. The laying of undersea cable starting in the 1860s allowed for the coordination of commercial, military and political activities. In later years wireless communication supplemented cable linkages. These elements combined to assist the British to manage their trading relationships throughout the empire and to promote British business.

Trade and shipping also favoured England with the introduction of the Navigation Acts which directed trade from the empire in British ships even if the final destination was Europe for example.

“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).”

In sum, if commerce was a main aim of imperial expansion, it was aided by a combination of maritime power, financial risk taking arrangements and developments in communications. Why then did the British Empire, like previous empires, decline until today the fourteen territorial remnants are a collection of islands, rocks and a base in Cyprus? In 1922, around its peak, the empire consisted of about a quarter of the world’s population and a quarter of its land area; today it consists of less than two percent of the land area. 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 decline after 1922 is well covered in Peter Clarke’s book, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (Penguin 2007) which focuses on the three years up to Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947. (I have reviewed this in a previous posting). Clarke shows how a combination of indebtedness, especially to the US, and nationalistic pressures throughout the world, often supported by the Americans, made it economically and politically impossible to continue managing the empire as in earlier times. Much of the debt was incurred during the two world wars. Imperial overreach leading to decline is also discussed by Paul Kennedy in the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (London, 1988).

Two questions emerging from this overview interest me. How is the globalization which we discuss today linked to that which took place in this first globalization wave? And what aspects of life today are influenced by the British Empire?


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