Legacy of the British Empire

Legacy of the British Empire and globalization today

In order to assess the impact today of the British Empire (BE), it is necessary first to describe its extent and second to look for its legacies. This turns out to be a bit like describing an elephant by looking through a spyhole in a wall. What you see depends on where you sit and what part you see. Once there is some accounting of its legacy, we can attempt to link it to today’s globalization.

Where was the empire?

A territorial legacy consists of the fourteen territories which make up remnants of the Empire, mainly a collection of islands, rocks and a base in Cyprus. The fourteen 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, the Queen is monarch of the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Belize and eleven islands in the South Pacific and the Caribbean. 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 BE. The Commonwealth Games is the organization’s most visible activity. These 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. South Africa was banished from the Commonwealth in 1961 because of its apartheid policies; it rejoined in 1994. Fiji was also banished in and has yet to be readmitted.

The legacy also includes Britain’s invisible empire where it had from time to time considerable influence such as n Brazil … “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 (Mead,124)”.

Iraq, Palestine (Transjordan and Israel) and Egypt are also places where for a time the British had influence over the country’s politics and administration. Parts of the world which Britain did not attempt to colonise, although it fought wars there, were mainland Europe, Russia and large parts of Asia and South America except for Guyana (British Guyana). Those regions of the world not coloured red can be as revealing as those which are.

Geographically the BE differed from most other major empires in that it was spread around the world, while others were consolidated or contiguous such as the: Roman Empire 27BC – 477AD, Mongol Empire 1206 – 1368, Ottoman Empire 1294 – 1923, Mughal Empire 1526 – 1858, Russian Empire 1721 – 1917, and Quing Dynasty 1890 – 1912. The spread of the BE also points to the importance of shipping and naval supremacy which England enjoyed for several hundred years relative to the Spanish, French and Dutch navies. Naval supremacy is now held by the US which has the only blue water fleet operating around the world.

Other empires tended to be empires of control while the BE was an empire of settlement as in North America (the original 13 colonies and Canada), Australia and New Zealand, and mainly of control as in India and other parts of the world. South Africa represented a mix of settlement and control. The skills required for managing settlement differed from those concerning control. A common aspect of both was the undertaking and administration of commerce. Thus we would expect the legacies to include language and administrative procedures and laws for governing and commerce. These are reflected in the first three items listed by Niall Ferguson as areas of legacy: “The English language, English forms of land tenure, Scottish and English banking, Protestantism, Team sports, The limited or ‘night watchman’ state, Representative assemblies, The idea of liberty.” To these could be added democracy and human rights. I use this list as a rough guide to discussing the imperial legacy.

English language

According to the British Council, “English has official or special status in at least seventy-five countries with a total population of over two billion, (about 30% of world population). English is spoken as a native language by around 375 million and as a second language by around 375 million speakers in the world. Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language. One out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. Demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.”

What people use English for?

The British Council states, “English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music and advertising.
Over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English. Three quarters of the world’s mail is written in English. Eighty per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. Of the estimated forty million users of the Internet, some eighty per cent communicate in English, but this is expected to decrease to forty per cent as speakers of other languages get online.”

One benefit of the internet is that it allows groups of people, such as speakers of minority languages, to create communities worldwide and speak to each other. To some extent, this will decrease the importance of major language groups, but when minority languages wish to interact with each other, English will remain the preferred language.


Soccer, rugby, and cricket are team sports which spread from the UK, as did the individual sports of tennis, squash and golf. In return polo originated in Asia and was transmitted to the UK. In 1868, an aborigine cricket team toured England. In 1877, an English team visited Australia and was beaten in the first recorded international test match at Melbourne. And in 1882, an Australian team beat England in London giving rise to an obituary notice for the cremation of English cricket and for the “Ashes” to be taken to Australia. Since then test match competition between the two countries is played for the “Ashes”.

Today, there is a world competition for soccer, the World Cup, involving countries from all continents, an international cricket competition with mainly ex-empire countries, and a world rugby competition with both ex-empire and other countries. New Zealand was the venue for 2011 rugby competition. Tennis was an Olympic sport and will be reintroduced in 2016 along with seven aside rugby which was never previously included. Olympic winter sports include ice hockey, skating and skiing, all of which find competitors from a variety of countries. Canada has produced first rate hockey players and teams over the years. Some Canadians play for teams in other countries.

The modern game of golf “originated in Scotland, where the first written record of golf is James II’s banning of the game in 1457, as an unwelcome distraction to learning archery. To many golfers, the Old Course at St Andrews, a links course dating to before 1574, is considered to be a site of pilgrimage.… The world’s oldest golf tournament in existence, and golf’s first major, is The Open Championship, which was first played on 17 October 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club, in Ayrshire, Scotland.” Today, golf is played in many parts of the former empire as well as in other countries, and attracts competitors to open championships throughout the world.


Many of those who served in the British colonial service as administrators, or in the British armed services as officers received their education from one of England’s public (in fact private fee paying) schools. Upon graduation, some would go on to university where Oxford and Cambridge were considered the pinnacle of education providing the background preferred by colonial administrators. There were two levels of fee paying school, the preparatory school for ages 7 to 13, and the public school for the remaining years to about 18. Haileybury founded in 1862 is an example of a public school which was established as the East India College (up to 1858) to provide recruits for the British East India Company. It exists today in the UK.

Public schools were replicated in parts of the empire, both in the dominions and in the Indian subcontinent and many examples are found today in the US and elsewhere. Education for boys was seen to be more important than for girls of the same class who might receive tuition from a governess at home if they were lucky. Boys were often sent back from the colonies to attend schools in the UK. For example, Rudyard Kipling born in Bombay in 1865 was sent at age five to England to live at a boarding house and attend school. He went on to the United Services College in 1878 where the emphasis was preparation for army service. Not considered bright enough to attend university, Kipling returned to India in 1882 and began his journalistic and writing career in Lahore. George Orwell was born in India in 1903, the son of a British civil servant working in the opium department of the Indian Civil Service. He went to England in 1904 and to English public schools including Wellington and then Eton on a scholarship. Orwell did not see his father again until 1912. The team sports played at these schools were considered part of the training for colonial service where one was expected to work and play with others posted abroad, as well as to introduce these sports to the local population.

While education in general is not an imperial legacy, the institutional arrangements developed in the UK were replicated abroad especially in countries of the former empire. At the same time, inhabitants of the colonies travelled to the UK to receive education and training there. It is sometimes said that disputes in former colonies are lead by political leaders educated at the London School of Economics opposed by military leaders trained at Sandhurst.

Cecil Rhodes

It would be amiss to describe the educational legacy without mentioning the awarding of Rhodes Scholarships to study at Oxford. Funded by the Rhodes Trust set up by the will of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), awards went originally to those in the British colonies, the US and Germany. The last was excluded during both world wars. Today scholarships are awarded to residents of 14 geographical constituencies including the US, but no longer Hong Kong. Among the over 7000 recipients are former US president Bill Clinton and George Ignatieff, a distinguished Russian born Canadian diplomat who was president of the UN Security Council 1968-69. Women originally excluded from these awards became eligible for scholarships in 1977 by an act of the UK parliament.
Cecil Rhodes went to South Africa first in 1870, and later attended Oriel College Oxford. In South Africa, he and his brother staked mining claims which were later consolidated into De Beers Consolidated Mines with financing from the London based Rothschild banking interests. A staunch believer in the BE, he established the scholarship trust in his will:

“To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonization by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia (Crete), the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible, and promote the best interests of humanity.”

The Trust appears to apply to most of the world except the polar regions, mainland China, mainland Europe and Russia. Rhodes is a notable character in his own right, not just because of his commercial success and political involvement. His interest in the British Empire was fostered by John Ruskin while at Oxford; and his view of empire always included the USA, similar to Walter Mead today.

Judicial system

Here I refer to the Wikipedia entry for English law:
“English law is the legal system of England and Wales, and is the basis of common law legal systems used in most Commonwealth countries and the United States except Louisiana (as opposed to civil law or pluralist systems in use in other countries). It was exported to Commonwealth countries while the British Empire was established and maintained, and it forms the basis of the jurisprudence of most of those countries. English law prior to the American Revolution is still part of the law of the United States through reception statutes, except in Louisiana, and provides the basis for many American legal traditions and policies, though it has no superseding jurisdiction.” (Wikipedia).

A mix of common and civil law is practiced in Louisiana and Quebec.

Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Lee Kwan Yew are among prominent members of the British Empire who studied law in the UK. Gandhi (1869- 1948) travelled to England in 1888 to attend University College London where he studied Indian law and jurisprudence and then trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple. Jinnah (1876-1948) went to London to study law with one of the legal societies in 1892 and was called to the bar in 1895. Lee Kwan Yew (1923 – ) was prime minister of Singapore from 1959 – 1990. He attended the London School of Economics after the war before moving to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he studied law, graduating with First Class Honours. In 1949, he returned to Singapore to practice as a lawyer, and in his autobiography and subsequent writings he speaks positively about the British judicial system which is adapted for use in Singapore. Many others from the colonies and dominions studied law and other subjects in the UK helping to transfer British customs and traditions throughout the world. For example, Pandit Nehru (1889-1964) was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Authors of the empire

A number of authors became popular and remain so today writing about or around the empire – Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan (later Lord Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada), G.A Henty, Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nevile Shute, Cecil Woodham Smith, George Orwell, John Masters, E.M.Forster and H.V.Morton amongst others. Their writings not only inform us about the empire in fictional and non-fictional form but form part of the written legacy.

Conan Doyle, for example, served as a volunteer doctor during the Boer War and later wrote a report for the British government on the incarceration and death of Boer women and children in South Africa, a situation which today is often referred to as being the original concentration camp. The pamphlet entitled The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, justified the UK’s role in the Boer War and was widely translated.

While not excusing what happened, there is a story to be told of the circumstances which gave rise to these camps which helps explain why things like this happen in conflict situations. In historical perspective, the camps were neither the first nor the last of similar cases, but the South African experience is used by those portraying a negative view of the empire.

Other writers pen fictional stories which often depict conditions in the various colonies, some of which became the script for plays, films, and television series. E.M.Forster wrote Passage to India in 1924; it was made into a film in 1984. In 1964, Paul Mark Scott wrote the Jewel in the Crown which was to become the first part of his Raj Quartet and a television series. Scott won the Booker prize in 1977. Other films include Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1983), and The Far Pavilions (1984).

I am sure if I was familiar with films made in different parts of the former empire, especially India, Pakistan and Nigeria, all of which have active film industries, they would not portray as favourable a legacy as some of the aforementioned. Even the BBC has broadcast a mock serial, a spoof entitled The Jewel in India’s Passage, and the Monty Python series used imperial trappings for comedic skits such as the Australian faculty meeting where all the professors are called Bruce and each teaches multiple subjects.

Democracy, politics and corruption

One measure of imperial legacy is to look for various political dimensions of countries which were colonies. Here I consider the current members of the Commonwealth less Madagascar and Rwanda (54-2), but add in countries which were for a time British protectorates and mandates but never became members of the Commonwealth – Egypt (independent in 1922), Iraq (1932), Transjordan (1946), British Palestine (part of which became the state of Israel in 1948), Sudan (1956), British Somaliland (which became part of Somalia in 1960), Kuwait (1961), Bahrain (1971), Oman (1971), Qatar (1971), and the United Arab Emirates (1971). I also include Ireland, Britain’s first colony, and the USA, although perhaps one should include only the original 13 colonies.

At the end of World War II, the BE was gradually dismantled to the 14 British overseas territories mentioned above and still ruled by the United Kingdom today. In April 1949, the word “British” was dropped from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect its changing nature. Burma (1948) and Aden (1967) were the only states which were British colonies at the time of the war not to have joined the Commonwealth upon post-war independence.

Today, the Commonwealth comprises fifty-four countries (including one currently suspended member, Fiji, and Rwanda and Madagascar which were not members of the empire), spread across six continents. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, of which 1.17 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). Tuvalu is the smallest member, with about 10,000 people.

The land area of the Commonwealth nations is about 31,500,000 km2 (12,200,000 sq mi), or about 21% of the total world land area. The three largest Commonwealth nations by area are Canada at 10,000,000 km2 (3,900,000 sq mi), Australia at 7,700,000 km2 (3,000,000 sq mi), and India at 3,300,000 km2 (1,300,000 sq mi). The member countries have a combined gross domestic product of over $10 trillion, 50% of which is accounted for by the three largest economies: the United Kingdom ($2.2 trillion), India ($1.7 trillion), and Canada ($1.5 trillion). These figures are provided figures by the Commonwealth of Nations Secretariat members list and found in Wikipedia.

Different sources calculate indices of democracy, corruption and press freedom – see Wikipedia under these headings. These provide a measure of political conditions today in countries which were once part of the empire. What they tell us is another issue.
The democracy index ranges from 0 for least to 10 for most democratic; for corruption the index goes from 0 for most corrupt to 10 for least corrupt; and for press freedom countries are rated as having either a free press, partly free or not free press. Not all countries receive a ranking for each index but most do.

• For democracy, 69% of people live in Commonwealth countries today which receive a rating of 6 or more, and 31% with a rating of less than 6. For the seventeen other countries which were for a time protectorates or mandates of the British plus Ireland and the USA, fourteen have a rating of less than 6.

• For the corruption index, 92% of people live in Commonwealth countries with a rating of 4 or less, that is a high level of corruption, while 60% of the other countries (protectorates, mandates, the USA and Ireland) have a rating of less than 4.

• For press freedom, 7.6% of people live in Commonwealth countries with a free press, 80.3% in countries with a partly free press, and 12.1% in countries with a press which is not free. For the protectorates, mandates, USA and Ireland, eleven of the seventeen countries are rated as having a press which is not free, three as partly free and three as free.

How these countries compare with the rest of the world, a total of 7bn people and a nearly 200 countries, would require further analysis. The existing ratings suggest that a high degree of democracy exists in former British colonies. Many of these have parliamentary forms of government which too represents an imperial legacy.

The corruption ratings do not indicate a pretty picture, but when one considers today the criminal actions identified in the US, UK and other financial markets of developed countries – Bernie Madoff in the US, British MPs wrongful use of expense accounts, the Gomery inquiry in Canada and new inquiry about to start in Quebec – corruption appears to be widespread throughout the world in former colonies and non-colonies.

Similar to democracy, over time, press freedom has improved both for former colonies and non-colonies. Here the ratings show a mixed but probably improving situation. More countries are becoming democratic and more press freedom is occurring. If social media is included via Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and e-mail, then as traditional mass media lose market share, far more press freedom is being experienced throughout the world to the distress especially of dictatorial regimes.

Commerce, finance, land tenure, welfare state, religion, slavery past and present (topics to be completed in future postings)


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