Globalization and the British Empire

One meaning of the term globalization is the growing interdependence between countries, organizations and individuals. In The World is Flat, Tom Friedman suggests that we are now entering the third stage involving individuals. In the following I discuss what globalization means and in a later posting examine the extent to which the British Empire (BE) has been part of this process past and present.

How did globalization start?

Some trace the origins to the first migration of humans to different parts of the world. Research based on archaeological evidence shows that human beings migrated out of eastern Africa 130,000 years ago reaching North America about 25,000 years ago – see world map of migratory patterns at

Travel depended on the initiative of individuals subject to various incentives such as the availability of agricultural land and changes in climactic conditions. For example, during these millennia there were several ice ages which covered parts of the world and then retreated. Originally people moved with their families and tribes, probably because of adverse conditions where they lived and the opportunities which they thought existed elsewhere. Those with initiative often showed the way.

While these may be the seeds of globalization, I start centuries later with discoveries and trade resulting from the trans-Atlantic voyages of Columbus and Cabot, and the Asian voyages of others starting in the 1400s. Both explorers were born in Italy. Columbus’ trips were funded by the Spanish monarchy, while Cabot migrated to England where he is thought to have received financing from an Italian banking house in London. Global finance existed centuries ago.

First wave

This first wave of globalization which emanated from Europe was trade related. It also involved missionaries whose religious masters were keen to enlarge their flocks throughout the world, thus the title Gold and God, Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World (Knopf, 2007) by Walter Russell Mead. Protestants and Catholics were in competition and conflict with each other to grab global market share of believers. They were also interested in the wealth which could be gained from precious metals and other commodities, as were their secular backers. Missionaries, similar to NGOs today, along with monarchs, bankers and traders played a part in promoting this first period of globalization.

In competition with other European empires, the BE rose to dominance from the late 1700s up until WW1. The empire was a type of conglomerate with different activities in different parts of the world. The thirteen colonies in North America were settled and then spun off after 1776 to become America and later the USA. They acquired people, customs and commercial links with England, Scotland and Wales plus immigrants from Ireland and other parts of Europe. America then spread westward to establish its own Anglophone empire, the other 37 states of the USA.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa became self governing dominions within the empire populated at first by migration from the UK and continental Europe. The Indian subcontinent, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar) together with Malaysia and Singapore formed another grouping. And then there were the various colonies dispersed throughout the world in places like the West Indies, Guyana, east and west Africa, and the Falkland Islands.

The BE had to administer a variety of societies spread throughout the world. In this they were unlike China, another major empire, whose land mass was much more concentrated making it easier to manage. The BE can be thought of as a conglomerate with a variety of interests, commercial, political, military and religious spread throughout the world. Each required administration but the nature of the administrative process and the responsibilities of those required to manage it differed. A list of empire locations is shown in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1.
Geographical extent of the British Empire about 1919

The Americas, especially North America (the USA and Canada) and the West Indian colonies
The dominions of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
The Indian subcontinent of today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo.
Egypt and colonies in east and west Africa.
A miscellany of colonies and outposts many of which remain part of the British Empire today.
These include a collection of islands, rocks and a base in Cyprus:
“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’s shrunken empire 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 25% of the world’s land area, in contrast with 1.3% of the land area today. This shrinkage took place over about 50 years compared with a build-up of about three centuries. While it is remarkable that the British managed to administer this widely spread conglomerate, it is not surprising that the cost weakened the control which could be exercised from the UK, especially while having to fund two world wars after 1914.

“The Rise and Fall of the First Great Globalization,” is Chapter 2 of Dani Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox (Norton, 2011) and should be read for more complete coverage of this period of globalization.

Second wave

A second wave of globalization covers the period 1919 to around 1990. This includes the post WW1 recovery followed by the depression years in North America and Europe, WW2, and the economic boom years after the war in which world trade and investment grew with moderate cyclical expansions and contractions and reasonably stable inflationary pressures. The European and Japanese economies recovered, and multinational firms invested in North America and Europe as well as in the developing countries. Japan became integrated into the world economy with trade and foreign outward investment but limited inward investment.

Third wave

The third wave from about 1990 coincides roughly with revolutionary changes associated with communications technology, computers, the Internet and the multitude of applications which have been and are being developed. At the same time, transportation costs have declined while the world population has increased from 2.5bn in 1950 to 7bn today, with forecasts of a peak of 9.3bn about 40 years from now, a fourfold increase in one hundred years. In earlier times world population had grown much more slowly from an estimated 500 million in 1650, 1 billion in 1804 and 1.6 billion in 1900.

Today, more people are on the move across national borders because there are more people, more states (there were 51 member states of the UN in 1945 and 193 today), and travel costs are lower. Not only has this third wave coincided with increased trade, investment and communications flows, but the crossborder movement of people has accompanied increased instances of terrorist activities which are seen as more of or a different threat to nations and citizens than traditional conflicts. Overall however instances of violence are on the decline as Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard writes:

“In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion. Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.”

Religion and the invisible empire

Mead’s thesis in God and Gold is that the birth and rise of the global political and economic system which shaped the modern world was created by Britain and is sustained now by America. (Mead wrote before the financial events starting in 2008.) Niall Ferguson in Empire, The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (Basic Books, 2002) calls this “Angloglobalization”. Like Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People, Mead focuses on the combined impact of England and the USA in shaping the modern world. English occupation and conquest influenced conditions in North America and then, once combined, the UK and America have influenced conditions in today’s world, not all of the world but large chunks of it.

During the first and second waves, the empire’s head office in London connected to the empire’s outposts through a combination of trade, investment, migration, appointment of colonial administrators, army and navy personnel, and the work of missionaries, the equivalent of today’s NGOs.

Mead and Ferguson both examine the impact of commerce and religion on the earlier waves of globalization with Mead giving more attention to religion. Of the main three branches of Abrahamic or monotheistic religions, Christianity in the form of Catholicism and Protestantism, often in conflict with each other, was a major factor in the expansion of European empires and especially the British Empire. The other two monotheistic religions are Judaism and Islam. Today, 54% of the world’s population has Abrahamic roots, while an estimated 30% belong to other religions and the remaining 16% is non-religious.

While Catholics and Protestants often fought over the division of the new world especially in North and South America, the BE did have dealings with other religions in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt as well as in the Indian subcontinent. China and Japan received less attention from European empire builders because both chose to be self-contained, although the British traded with China especially in exports of opium produced in India, and trade opened up with Japan after the visit of Commodore Perry in 1854.

The British Empire also had what Mead calls an invisible empire where it had influence but did not rule including Brazil.

“Britain’s invisible empire covered more of the world than Latin America. The networks of investment and trade that centered on London spanned the globe, and in places like Beijing, Constantinople, Tehran, and Bangkok, the voice of the British ambassador and the business leadership of the British community was heard very clearly. Some governments were more independent of British influence than Brazil, others were very much less so, but no country could match Britain’s worldwide influence (p.124).”

Once the invisible empire is added, a map of the world becomes redder still.


In any discussion of the BE, slavery is the elephant in the room. Globalization was associated with the use of slaves in the production of cotton, tobacco and sugar in the West Indies and in the southern American states. Historians have written reams on the triangular trade from Africa to the Americas, from there to the UK and other parts of Europe and from Europe to West Africa. Europeans purchased commodities from the plantation owners, many of whom had migrated from Europe; these owners purchased the slaves from west African suppliers and associated shipowners, and the west African slave traders purchased items from European producers.

Writers have paid most attention to the horrific conditions of the slaves in the transatlantic crossing and while at work on the plantations. Less has been written about what the west African suppliers of slaves purchased, what they did with their purchases resulting from the money they received from the sale of slaves. No great economic development took place in west and central Africa, the source of many slaves. In a somewhat similar situation involving piracy off Somalia today, a new study (Pirates of Somalia by Jay Bahadur, 2011) found that the pirates used the money paid as ransom for the purchase of Kif, a narcotic plant that is not even produced in Somalia. Thus while piracy generates revenues, little benefit accrues to the local economy by way of development.

While these were the people, places and organizations involved in the BE, especially during the second wave of globalization, Ferguson (xxv) lists the items transmitted as including:

“The English language
English forms of land tenure
Scottish and English banking
Team sports
The limited or ‘night watchman’ state
Representative assemblies
The idea of liberty”

To these could be added democracy and human rights. How and where the BE resonates in the world today will be the topic of a future posting in terms of the items listed above, as well as the role of pirates, planters, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and bankrupts, also suggested by Ferguson.


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