Archive for November, 2011

Decline of the American Empire?

November 22, 2011

Are we seeing the decline of the American empire? Not long ago, historians said we were experiencing the end of history with the ending of the Cold War and the Soviet Empire, and with the USA becoming the sole superpower. Within a decade much has changed. Historians (I am not one) should be able to explain what is happening, based on the demise of other empires like the Roman, Ottoman and British, but the lessons have proved hard to extract and each decline appears to be a somewhat unique case.

I am interested in the rise and fall of the British Empire, and from this case suggest the following to note about today:

1. The British Empire spanned the years 1500 to approximately 1965. Rapid growth occurred from 1800 to 1914, at which time the empire reached its pinnacle but in a weakened state. Decline took place over the next half century.

2. The decline started in the late 19th century as the UK was forced to compete with other European powers for colonies in Africa and other places. It was weakened further economically as a result of WW1, the depression of the 1930s, WW2, and increased debts owed to the US and other countries.

3. Politically, the loss of empire was aided by widespread pressure for decolonization and independence for countries of the empire, promoted strongly by the US, which in the 18th century had been a revolting colony – or 13 of them.

4. A bipolar world evolved after 1945 with the USSR and the USA as the two superpowers. This lasted until the meltdown of the USSR after 1989 leaving the US as the sole imperial power, although it would not have called itself an empire.

5. Two questions are, what has happened over the past decade, and can the US be said to be in imperial decline? A third asks whether this is in any way similar to what happened to the British Empire?

First some observations: the USA is itself an outgrowth of the British Empire. The thirteen colonies which revolted were part of the that empire, as arguably is the remainder of the US on the mainland and overseas. The Americans took over from the British as imperialists and have continued to behave as such with overseas excursions into, amongst others, Afghanistan, Cuba, Granada, Haiti, Iraq, Panama, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The US has become the major economic world influence with the dollar as the sole global currency, at least for the moment, and a large foreign trader and investor. The US is also a major player in world institutions like the UN and its organizations such as the WTO, and in NATO.

In the same way that the UK suffered from imperial overreach, as Paul Kennedy and others have shown, the US is now experiencing similar pressures. Its budget is hugely in deficit. Its debt is rising. A serious recession is being experienced, with well paying jobs being lost and high unemployment experienced. Although 91% of the workforce remains employed, much higher unemployment exists among young and poor people than the average of 9% reflects. Income inequality has also reached a level which causes political unrest at home; the “occupy” movement reflects these circumstances.

The military budget of the US of $698bn, or 4.7% of GDP, is equal to that of the next largest 23 countries. (Saudi Arabia has a budget of 11.7% of GDP; the 24th largest country, Iran, has a budget of $9bn, 1.3% of the US budget.) Arguably, the US acts as the global police force for the world and in its own interest, but in the process may bankrupt the country, or cause its own sovereign debt crisis if investors ever become reluctant to buy US government debt. Towards the end of the British Empire, the UK at times found it increasingly expensive to borrow from abroad.

Domestically in the US, we are witnessing a political comedy in the workings of Congress and the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. To outsiders, the nine Republicans presidential contenders provide more amusement than Jim Henson’s muppets or reruns of Monty Python. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show delivers a scathing but accurate account of domestic US politics. The operations of Congress are, as Stewart shows, pathetic to observe, but wonderful material for a new Gilbert and Sullivan opera. In the New York Times, David Brooks espouses a similar view. This is what respected commentators in the US are saying about themselves, as the approval rating for Congress sinks to an all-time low of 9%. This is scary for both allies and enemies of the US, because no one knows what the elected members will do next, and how other countries will react. Social media provide mass distribution around the world for both the good and bad news.

The future is always uncertain but perhaps more so today. Twelve months ago, there were no predictions of the Arab spring in North Africa and today’s fall out in Syria, or for what might emerge in places like Saudi Arabia which has already sent troops into Bahrein. Now China is making noises about its role in the South China Sea which, added to its relations with Taiwan, could cause instability in this part of Asia. While the UK decline took place in a world with different postwar conditions, many of the unknowns and circumstances then have similarities to those we are now observing.

In sum, it appears that today the US is experiencing similar but not identical domestic and foreign forces to those experienced by the UK in its declining years. Well before its supposed peak in the 1900s, the UK’s European neighbours were testing its position, and there was a severe economic recession in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Today reveals similarities for the US, and it may already be in decline. If so, what comes next? Many point to China. Maybe, but be prepared to be surprised by what no-one foresees at present. Political and economic forecasting is about as good as the weather forecast for the next 48 hours. Beyond that, all is unknown. Finally, if the US Empire is an extension of the British Empire, then we may be witnessing the final death throws of the British Empire.

Globalization and The British Empire (new)

November 21, 2011

Linking globalization today with the British Empire is like trying to isolate the flavor of carrots in minestrone soup. There are so many ingredients in the soup that separating any one and then asking what difference it makes overall would be a daunting task. Such is the case with globalization today which deals with the interaction between states, organizations and individuals. Trying to identify the impact of any one factor, the former British Empire in this case, and deciding what difference it made or makes today is a comparable challenge.

Two of many ways to approach the task is either to focus on different geographical areas or to examine the imperial content of events taking place in the world, such as wars, terrorism, economic factors such as development, lack of development, and crises, as well as socio-cultural and political factors. While these have geographical settings, the approach and emphasis will differ. A combination may help to throw light on the matter.

This subject is of some interest today with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary in the British government pressuring for the inclusion of more content on the history of the empire in the UK school curriculum. In Canada, the present federal government has revived the word Royal in describing the Canadian navy and airforce, requiring portraits of the Queen to be hung in embassies abroad, and revising the citizenship exam to include more historical content. In Australia, a referendum on replacing the Queen as head of state was voted down a few years ago, but the issue is not dormant, nor will it be in Canada at the end of Elizabeth II’s reign, although William and Kate may well be welcomed if and when their time comes.

1. Geography and the empire


We start with the UK, the empire’s birthplace and centre and then proceed around the world. The Queen remains monarch of 16 countries and the head of the 54 Commonwealth countries. The British parliamentary and legal systems prevailing in the UK are replicated in some form in many of these and other countries. While republicanism exists in places like the US, their governing institutions are modified forms of those prevailing in the UK, established in order to ensure that a democratic electoral system prevails with various checks and balances which vary by country. In the USA, an elected president replaces the monarchy as head of state, the US Senate is elected as opposed to an appointed and hereditary House of Lords, and a federal system contrasts with a unitary form of government.

Many aspects of the UK today are in so many ways empire related that it is not feasible to note all of them. An overview would examine materials found in the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, opened in Bristol in 2002 and now being relocated to London; statues of Queen Victoria, Cecil Rhodes, Stanley and Livingstone and other imperial figures; National Trust houses like Kipling’s Batemans in Burwash, Sussex; literature by British authors such as Joseph Conrad (born in Poland and lived in England), Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, G.A.Henty, Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham and George Orwell; and words in the English language originating in the empire, especially India, like ashram, bandanna, bungalow and gymkhana. Details on the website lead to many more opportunities to detect the empire in today’s UK. It is hardly surprising that strong traces would, about 50 years after its demise, still exist in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But the empire has bitten back as people and influences from the former colonies are present today in the UK. Citizens of the former colonies and dominions have migrated back to the mother country changing the racial composition of the population, especially in certain cities. Some, such as Asians in Africa, had ancestors who had themselves previously migrated. Naturally these people have brought their relatives, customs and mores with them. This is evident in the accents and dialects spoken in the UK, but especially in neighborhoods where these immigrants live, and in the restaurants and types of food available in super and other food markets. Fifty years ago there might have been an Indian or Chinese restaurant in one of the larger UK cities; now there are more such restaurants and more countries represented throughout the country.

Continental Europe

While England never colonized Europe, its dealings with countries like Portugal, France, Spain and Holland had much to do with competition between these countries for commerce and colonies in places like South America, India and the Spice Islands of today’s Indonesia. Today, the UK is an ally of these European countries, but in the past they were often either at war or allies. WWI and WWII were fought against Germany, and Italy in the case of the latter. Today these countries are members of the European Community as well as organizations like NATO. Hitler’s original aim was to gain land in eastern Europe and Russia in order to provide living space (lebensraum) for the German people. He admired the British Empire and wanted an equivalent for Germany. Much of what has evolved politically and economically in Europe in the postwar period is a result of decolonization around the world by the UK and other countries, and the formation of organizations like the UN and the EC to create a more stable international political and economic environment.

We will visit Europe again after circumnavigating the world and arriving at Turkey and the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which were swept up by the British and French at the end of WWl in the Treaty of Paris of 1919.

North America

Reaching westwards across the Atlantic, the former glory of the British navy as well as its present reduced tonnage reflect the empire’s maritime heritage and the fact that it was known as a “salt water empire”. Because it was so spread out, as any map around 1910 will show, communications were initially carried by ship, and later by underwater cable, first laid across the Atlantic in the 1860s and followed by wireless communications and satellites. There are numerous maps showing the present trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cable linkages involving the UK and former colonies as well as non-colonies. Communications services are not a uniquely imperial phenomenon but many of the present providers originated with services related to the UK and its possessions.

Across the Atlantic, Canada is an obvious result of imperial initiatives, first by the French and then the British. Initially, these were the product of commercial interests in fishing and fur, the latter through the Hudson Bay Company, which today operates as a department store, recently sold to Target. The 13 US colonies were also part of the empire until their separation after the revolution in 1776. English political and economic relationships were then modified to deal with the interests of the revolutionaries who became the founding fathers of the USA. Whether one considers the later colonies part of the imperial inheritance or the creation of a new empire is a moot point. They became part of a country as a result of the revolution, with the US then creating its own empire called “opening up the west.” This meant acquiring lands from native Americans as well as from Spain, France, Russia and Mexico either by war or purchase, and the signing of commercial treaties with China, and with Japan after Admiral Perry’s arrival in1853-54.

This “opening up the west” extended overseas to include Hawaii, and the annexation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, part of Samoa and the Johnston, Palmyra and Wake Islands in the north Pacific, plus gunboat diplomacy involving Cuba and the Panama Canal Zone. The USA became both a land based and saltwater empire, part of it previously belonging to the British Empire.

Moving south, many Caribbean countries were founded as colonies associated with the production of sugar and later cotton. Many remain part of the Commonwealth today and use Westminster-type parliamentary institutions. Central and South America were offsprings of Portuguese and Spanish imperial designs. Their traders were the object of attacks by English privateers seeking a cheap way to obtain precious metals found in South America. Here there is a link to today’s maritime piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and in the straits of Malacca. These pirates are doing what all pirates (thiefs) have always done, acquire by force valuable goods and sometimes persons who can be sold elsewhere. It’s one way to make a living, even if not widely approved of.


In China, the entrails of empire might be found in the country’s opium dens originally supplied from production in India and shipped in British boats. Whether the dens still exist, I do not know. While today China’s trade surplus is used to finance the deficits of US and European countries, China has less of a direct connection today with the former empire than for many other countries in Europe. Reverse flows are occurring. Originally the UK was investing in Asia, now Asian, especially Chinese funds are flowing to the UK.

Hong Kong is a special case in that it was returned to China by the UK in 1997, but today operates with a different set of political and economic rules than those practiced in mainland China, rules which are influenced by its previous imperial linkages. Today, Hong Kong has some of the highest per square foot real estate prices in the world and high population density, a reflection of its commercial success dating from imperial times.

India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are former colonies which have British style governing systems and remain Commonwealth countries. Their economies reflect their resource endowments and all have inherited cricket as one of their national sports introduced originally from the UK. Students from these countries study in schools and universities in the UK and other parts of the Commonwealth, and the UK focuses its aid primarily on former colonies now part of the developing world. Singapore is another former colony reflecting strong British influences, partly due to Lee Kwan Yew’s time spent training as a lawyer in the UK.

Political tensions between India and Pakistan erupted at the time of Independence in 1947 and remain today, especially over the division of Kashmir and events in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan was never colonized and is currently fighting its third war, again quite successfully against the UK and NATO allies, events in Afghanistan are tied to the previous division of Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent. In the current Afghan war, the Indians are aiding some Afghans in the hope of having influence there once the American and other NATO forces leave. Pakistan views this as being surrounded by hostile neighbours on both western and eastern borders, and in preparation are providing support to the Taliban so that they have allies in Afghanistan once foreign troops leave.

Middle East

This brings us to the area containing Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Many of these countries were part of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 to the early 1900s, and were divided up between England and France after WW1 at the Treaty of Paris in1919.

England had control via mandates or protectorates over Iraq (1920-32), Palestine (1920-48), Transjordan (1920-46), Oman (1800-1970) and Quatar (1916-1971), as well as over Egypt and the Sudan (more on these later). France had similar arrangements with present day Syria and Lebanon. Palestine and Transjordan were converted into Israel, Palestine and Jordan as a result of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.

These countries were not part of the empire in terms of settlement. British interests were twofold, first, the area contained an overland route to India, which became of lesser importance after the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, and second the region contained large petroleum reserves, especially important once the British navy changed from coal to oil in the early 1900s. This passage to India also explains the British presence in Cyprus (1878-60), Malta (1814-1964), and Gibraltar (1713- ). Gibraltar was previously important in order to control the French based Mediterranean fleet.

Along with North Africa, the Middle East is a region of almost continuous conflict today. The imperial legacy may be partly responsible, but there is a wider set of issues revolving around the two r’s, religion, especially the interaction of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and resources. The region is a major source of oil with shipments by ship and pipeline to many countries.


Our circumnavigation has brought us to Africa which contains a variety of places and reasons for imperial interest by the UK and other European nations (Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and Germany). In part these countries were in competition with each other for land and resources for their own empires – today China is investing in African resources. Some European nations worked with religious organizations, whose missionaries saw Africa as a place to promote their brand of Christianity. The religious factor was important for the British Empire in other parts of the world and requires more treatment than noted here.

Moving from North to South, the Arab spring starting in late 2010 began with an uprising in Tunisia and then spread westwards to Egypt and Libya and northeastwards into the Middle East (discussed above).

Egypt had some measure of British control from 1882 to 1954. It is often shaded pink rather than red on the map. Its importance was, as mentioned, as part of a maritime gateway through the Suez Canal to India. Before that shipping was routed around South Africa, and Cape Town acted as a provisioning stop between England and the Far East.

The recent (2011) division of the Sudan between north and south includes real estate which was a British protectorate from 1898 to 1956, and where the British were in conflict with the Mahdi and his forces, an Osama Bin Laden type leader who opposed the British, and who eventually was killed along with a massacre of his followers by a British expeditionary force. Today the Sudan is split between north and south with oil reserves being in contention between the two parts. These were not an issue in the Mahdi’s time.

In West Africa, imperial interests arose at first because of the slave trade and later due to the discovery of oil in and around Nigeria. Development did not occur in countries which received monies for the supply of slaves, while in Nigeria the population increased and monies flowed in from the sale of oil. However a combination of tribal rivalries and corruption in government has meant that the benefits of export revenues have not spread throughout the population. The domestic rivalries in Nigeria result from the boundaries drawn around the country by the British which included tribes that had no love for each other, a situation which has lead to a series of civil wars.

Across the continent in East Africa, colonies were established for reasons of a combination of settlement and some commerce. British and other Europeans settled mainly in Kenya and took the best arable lands for growing and exporting sisal, tea and coffee. Together with Uganda and Tanganyika, Kenya has had some commercial success including international tourism in a few places. Fresh cut flowers are now one source of export revenues from Kenya. Many of the Asians forced out of East Africa in recent years moved to the UK, Canada and other parts of the former empire.

South Africa is the final main location on this continent. Initial interest was its setting as a provisioning place for ships en route to India and other Asian destinations. Settlers from Holland then arrived followed by British and other European and Indian migrants to work the land. Once diamonds, gold and other minerals were discovered after 1870, the commercial attraction of South Africa predominated, and the British lead by entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes played a major part in developing the South African economy. Of course apartheid was the political issue which quarantined South Africa from the Commonwealth until 1994. Ghandi worked in South Africa for a while and was an early challenger of the apartheid system before becoming a leader for independence for India.

The foregoing is a quick circumnavigation of the world today highlighting evidence of British imperial connections. Now to a second approach, what does globalization mean today and how is it related to the empire? Necessarily, there will be some overlap of issues presented.

2. Characteristics of Globalization Today

If globalization means the increased interdependence of states, organizations and individuals, I am interested in two questions. What aspects of today’s world illustrate this interdependence, and what, if any, is the legacy of the British Empire part of the mix? As noted above, this is like trying to isolate the flavor of carrots in minestrone soup. It is undoubtedly there but how do you detect it?


Interdependence arises from the interaction between people and organizations around the world. This results from the technology of communications and transportation. Today, there are not only more people in the world, but more people are travelling as well as more goods, services, money and information crossing borders. Social media is one example. It is a product of the technology associated with internet applications. Lower telephone costs and email have also reduced communications costs and increased the volume of messages transmitted. The content of these messages is one aspect of globalization. Some of this technology was pioneered by individuals and corporations in the UK. Its use allowed for colonial administration as well as for use by many other groups. Note the Catholic Church managed a multinational religious enterprise long before modern communications technology.


In the economic sphere, increased flows of trade, investment, and all forms of money transfers like remittances, plus the crossborder movement of people, whether as tourists, immigrants, or refugees are a reflection of interdependence. Associated with these flows are institutions like the World Bank, IMF, WTO, ILO and other UN organizations, regional economic organizations like the EC, APEC, OECD, NAFTA, national central banks and many others. Organizations also deal with the environment, and other international issues like use of the air waves, flight routes, and shipping lanes. Many of these organizations grew out of decolonization and the independence of a growing number of countries since WWll. When the UN was founded there were about 50 countries, now there are almost 200.

In order to detect possible ties by way of trade, aid and investment today between the UK and former dominions and colonies, a detailed study would be required. A quick glance at one of these, foreign direct investment (FDI) for 2009, shows that 37% of the stock of outward FDI from the UK was invested in the US, Canada, Hong Kong, the Irish Republic, the UK offshore Islands and India, all of which were at one time part of the empire. For inward FDI in the UK in 2009, 30% of the stock came from the US, Canada and the Irish Republic. Through the Commonwealth Secretariat, much of the UK’s aid activity is directed to countries which were formerly part of the empire – see . Because of the different ways in which aid is given to these countries, it is difficult to show the share of UK aid to former empire related countries.

Major economic events, like the global downturn starting in 2008 and continuing today with the sovereign debt crisis, affect individual countries and relations between countries which hold each other’s debt. In the past there might be a recession in Japan, Europe, North America or Asia at different times, but today the linkages by way of trade, investment and immigration are such that all regions are affected simultaneously. Contagion, a word previously associated with the spread of human diseases, is now used to describe economic events. There is of course a more positive side when economic prosperity in one region spreads to others, as happened during much of the postwar period from North America to Europe, Japan and numerous developing countries.


In the political sphere, aside from the normal diplomatic relations between countries, a number of regional wars have taken place in the post WW2 period and some continue today, for example in Afghanistan and Iraq. In North Africa and neighbouring countries, the Arab spring involves Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Other countries in the region feeling the effects are Saudi Arabia, other Gulf States, Iran, Algeria and Morocco. The supply and export of petroleum resources is a major reason for the interdependency of many of these countries with the rest of the world. Israel and Palestine are a special case with a history dating from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the exodus of Jewish peoples from Russia and Europe at the end of WW2. Strong financial and military support for the Israel has continued so far from the US.

International terrorism is part of the current international scene affecting a number of countries throughout the world including, the US, UK, Spain, France, Ireland and Italy. Terrorist activity results both from the crossborder movement of persons, and, domestically, from home-grown terrorists who commit atrocities within their own countries. The demonstration effect from one country travels to others, and particular concern rests with the possibility of nuclear weapons being used by terrorist groups which have no state affiliation. It would be suicidal for Iran to undertake a nuclear attack, but less so for Iran to sponsor some terrorist group located in a failed state, providing no connection with Iran could be established.

Not all the political accounting is as grim. Democracy, human rights and press freedom have spread throughout the world with national rankings published annually. Countries are also ranked according to an index of corruption which is showing positive results overall, but with corruption in developed countries being detected as well – Bernie Madoff comes to mind as do the falsified expense accounts of British MPs, and the Gomery inquiry and construction scandals in Canada. The political dimension of globalization has many facets. Strong traces of empire are found in today’s world.


The political merges into socio-cultural features of interdependency. The media and artists of all kinds have adopted and adapted to the new technologies. Old forms of communications including the traditional mass media have had to change or die, but new creative talent has found the technology a means to enter the market using the internet to publicise their works and to develop new art forms. The media in its evolving forms promote interdependency throughout the world. While the English language predominates in many places, members of small language groups scattered across the world can now easily speak to each other in their particular languages. If they want to connect to other groups then English tends to be the preferred language. Films are produced in different languages but receive wider distribution with the use of dubbing and subtitles, not a new phenomenon but now more widely used.

Sport is a first cousin of art and several sports have international appeal with global competitions. The Olympic Games combines a number of sports, while soccer, tennis, rugby, golf, boxing, equestrian events, sailing and baseball are among those which sponsor international events, attracting competitors from a number of countries and being televised. For some countries sporting contests act as a substitute for more lethal combat, as in the case of cricket between India and Pakistan.

3. So-what?

This brief overview of places, people and events provides examples of where and how interdependence is occurring today and in what economic, political and social-cultural areas. This is the minestrone soup of globalization. How then to detect the flavor of carrots in the soup, or in this case the parts which link back to the British Empire?

Walter Russell Mead in God and Gold contends that the birth and rise of the current global political and economic system or the modern world was first sustained by Britain and now by America. If this is the case, then Britain initiated the forces leading to today’s globalization, first in North America, the Caribbean, and then in and around the Indian subcontinent, Australasia, and Africa. The US itself is a legacy of the British Empire, at least the 13 colonies, and arguably the remaining North American states as well as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and countries like the Philippines which for a time were American colonies. (Note, an alternative approach to modern times is taken by Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order, Farrar, 2011, in explaining how we moved from tribal and familial connections to organized states and governments.)

Britain used its navy to promote and maintain British rule and settlement in many parts of the world. The signs remain by way of language, and political, legal and social institutions such as clubs and sports. English is used as the official language in many countries and is the second language of many others. (No longer is the British navy the largest blue-water fleet. Now the US has that label and the Chinese would like to acquire it.)

World trade and investment has grown so much in the postwar period that it is difficult to identify which is empire inspired but much of it is, especially for the UK with its former colonies in North America, the Caribbean, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries and with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Britain also had an invisible empire where trade was important but no settlement or direct rule took place, such as with Brazil and Argentina, and with port cities in China where opium was an important traded item.

British people have migrated to different parts of the world including the US, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and to some extent South and East Africa. In some cases, the inhabitants of these countries have migrated back to the UK, so that the composition of its population has changed as a result of imperial feedback. This has lead to the introduction of multicultural policies in the UK, US, and elsewhere. In a number of countries, multiculturalism today is an aspect of globalization with imperial connections. With the migration of people have gone their languages, sports and other customs. These can be identified, some more easily than others, in the globalization soup.

The foregoing is not an attempt to label the British Empire as a good or bad thing (although I have views on this), but to identify where the entrails of empire can be found today in what is referred to as globalization. The dark side of empire includes conflict, wars including civil wars, terrorism, famine, disease, and abuse of human rights including slavery. Aspects of the bright side are contained in the issues presented above. The legacy is some mix of the two.

Slavery is one topic which always arises in the discussion of empire; it remains an aspect of globalization today. Slavery was practiced by the British as a commercial endeavour, abolished as trade in 1807 by the British and later as a practice. Today it flourishes with no British connection. Writing in the New York Times, Nov. 12th and 16th, 2011, Nicholas Kristof notes the following:

“A U.N. agency estimates that more than 12 million people are engaged in forced labor including sexual servitude. Another U.N. report has estimated that in Asia alone, “one million children are involved in the sex trade under conditions that are indistinguishable from slavery.”

“Srey Pov, Lithiya and Somaly (three women in Asia) encountered a form of oppression that echoes 19th-century slavery. But the scale is larger today. By my calculations, at least 10 times as many girls are now trafficked into brothels annually as African slaves were transported to the New World in the peak years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
So for those of you doubtful that “modern slavery” really is an issue for the new international agenda, think of Srey Pov — and multiply her by millions. If what such girls experience isn’t slavery, that word has no meaning. It’s time for a 21st-century abolitionist movement in the U.S. and around the world.”

British Empire – Some Recent Views

November 5, 2011

Discussing the British Empire is like discussing religion. There are many questions to ask and those writing about the empire examine a range of topics many of which address different aspects, although at the same time the authors are likely to present strong views about each other’s work. In recent years, there have been a number of books, articles and discussions rehashing imperial issues. Authors include Niall Ferguson, Richard Gott, Kwasi Kwarteng, Bernard Porter, Alex von Tunzelmann Jeremy Paxman, Stephanie Williams; Michael Gove, Education Secretary in the UK is interested in the topic. Most line up on one side or the other, that the empire was a good or a bad thing.

One question debated concerns the legacy of the empire, what is it good or bad. What was the empire, how did it get there and where do we see it now are further questions. In the UK, Canada and the other 52 Commonwealth countries the fall-out from the empire is a current topic in terms of deciding whether a female can be a successor to the crown if she is the first born, and how to treat member countries which do not respect widely acclaimed human rights. This is a legacy issue for the British Empire because the Commonwealth countries, except for Rwanda and Madagascar, were all former colonies ruled or administered by the UK. In 16 of these countries, the Queen remains the head of state.

In the following, I summarise what the empire was, how it arose and declined, what it did, what its legacy is and where we see it now. Some of these questions overlap. Having read only a small part of a massive literature on the subject, my impression is that those with a favourable view stress aspects like democracy, human rights, a transparent legal system and the protection of property rights or similar terms which refer to these aspects of society. Those with an unfavourable view look at how the empire evolved, often by force with slavery, the transmission of diseases and the deaths of the native population in places like the Sudan, Kenya, South Africa, North America, Tasmania and the Indian subcontinent.

There is plenty to assess. No simple cost benefit analysis is possible, but an interpretation of the legacy needs to recognize all these factors. Debate will continue. Of interest is the extent to which current world events and globalization today have connections to the former British Empire. Discussion at the 2011 meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government in Australia is one illustration of these linkages to the past. Prepared for this meeting was a document entitled “A Commonwealth of the People, Time for Urgent Reform.”

What was the empire?

World maps help to describe the extent of the empire. Marked in red, the dominions and colonies at the height of the empire, around the start of the 20th century, are scattered throughout the world. Large red areas appear in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent, South Africa and parts of east and west Africa, as well as smaller patches representing islands and enclaves elsewhere in the world. A map for 1776 would include the 13 American colonies. Any discussion of legacy should refer at least to these 13 and perhaps to all of what later became the USA, although the acquisition of the remaining states resulted from imperial conquest by the US as an independent nation.

Other parts of the world were mandates or protectorates of the British for a period of time especially after WW1. These include Egypt (before WW1), Iraq, British Somaliland, Palestine and Transjordan (later to become Israel, Palestine and Jordan), and several small countries in the Gulf of Arabia. Ireland and Scotland are also former territories which were under British rule for awhile. Scotland joined England in 1707 and the Republic of Ireland seceded from the UK in 1922 and became an independent republic in 1949.

At its peak, the empire was incredibly spread out and needed good communications to be administered. Some call it a “salt water empire” supported by a first class navy. England could only acquire a territorial empire by sailing abroad once Scotland and Wales were in the fold. Another aspect is to note those parts of the world which were not red, such as continental Europe, Russia, China, Japan, parts of Africa and South America. Britain had interests in these places, but they were not chosen as areas of settlement as in North America and Australia, or of administration as in the Indian subcontinent. Extensive trading interests existed in China, especially with the opium trade, as well as in Brazil and Argentina.

Bernard Porter describes the empire as consisting of four types of colonies, India or the Indian subcontinent, the plantation economies of the Caribbean and for a time the southern states of America, the “settlement” colonies of Australia, New Zealand, the Cape in South Africa and the colonies in North America, Canada, plus for a time the 13 American colonies, and finally the collection of trading posts and naval stations spread throughout the world. Some east and west African countries do not fit easily into these categories.

How did the empire arise and decline?

The extensive literature on the British Empire is one place to start answering this question, including the five volume Oxford History of the British Empire, the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire and many other well reviewed studies. A timeline of the empire is published by a British teacher at , a site which includes extensive relevant material. In fact it contains a reading list for the topic.
To answer this question, the following issues, which have an economic bias, provide background material:

1. There was no overall plan to create and expand the empire at the outset. Actions evolved with time. This does not mean that it was acquired “in a fit of absence of mind” (Sir John Seeley, 1883), but the first 300 years from 1500 saw the empire grow as a result of a variety of economic and political forces. From 1850 onwards, when significant growth took place, more direction was given from the head office in London.

2. Following Porter’s four types of colonies, the Indian subcontinent became of interest because of commercial interests which were at first given to the East India Company, chartered in 1600. The company undertook trade, organized its own military and shipping, and administered the area in cooperation with local rulers, many of which were part of the Mughal Empire. More direct rule from London occurred after the Indian Mutiny in 1858.

3. The plantation colonies were of direct economic interest to London because of the products produced there and shipped to the UK. In the case of the 13 American colonies, and what was to become Canada, these became colonies of settlement providing opportunities for further trade. Some production involved slave labour, but others items were produced by settlers who in turn needed goods manufactured in as well as capital inflows from the UK.

4. The fourth type of colony, the trading posts and naval stations, were occupied and administered as a means to service the operations in the other three types of colony. Some remain today such as Bermuda, Gibraltar, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands, although their functions have changed.

5. A non-economic issue concerns the role of religion. Missionaries, the equivalent of today’s NGOs, spread throughout the empire doing mainly good works but often coming into conflict with local beliefs. At times the missionaries helped their political and commercial countryfolk, and at other times made everyone’s life more difficult.

This fourfold classification emphasizes trade, finance and human settlement as factors explaining imperial growth. Decline comes about through a combination of economic and political factors. Imperial overextension, as discussed by British born Yale historian Paul Kennedy in the Rise and Fall of Great Powers, weakens the financing capability of the British, especially following a series of conflicts – in the Sudan, the Boer wars in South Africa, WW1 and WW2 which create indebtedness both to the US as well as to Canada and other former colonies. Politically, the rise of nationalist -independence movements around the world lead to imperial downsizing. Starting in 1776 with the loss of the 13 American colonies, the UK subsequently grants independence to a whole slew of colonies, especially in the post WW2 period, until finally Hong Kong is handed back to China on July 1st, 1997.

How did the empire function?

This is where critics of the empire have a field day because each can be selective in what they choose to discuss. There are good news and bad news stories and no simple cost-benefit analysis is possible for what becomes an evaluation of the history of a large part of the world over several centuries. Those with an adverse view dwell on slavery and the slave trade, the Amritsar massacre, the Indian Mutiny, conditions on plantations even where there was no explicit slavery, deaths of native populations due to lack of immunity from imported diseases as well as from armed conflicts, famine in India and elsewhere which is claimed to have been avoidable, killings in Kenya, Tasmania, incarceration of Boer women and children in South Africa and the opium trade forced on China. They also point to the expulsion of native populations from their lands and their replacement by settlers in circumstances where systems of land ownership conflict between nomadic peoples and those who claim title to specific properties. There is no shortage of horror stories which can be documented leaving the reader with and adverse view of the empire.

Richard Gott in Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, (2011) takes this position. According to one of the reviewers,

“This revelatory new history punctures the widely held belief that the British Empire was an imaginative and civilizing enterprise. Instead, Britain’s Empire reveals a history of systemic repression and almost perpetual violence, showing how British rule was imposed as a military operation and maintained as a military dictatorship. For colonized peoples, the experience was a horrific one, of slavery, famine, battle and extermination.”

Other reviewers on are less complimentary abut Gott’s research and conclusions.

In contrast, those with a more favourable and at least a balanced view of the empire emphasise the spread of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, judicial systems, banking and other financial arrangements together with development of a trained bureaucracy to administer the functions of the state. Among such writers are Bernard Porter, Niall Ferguson, Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Roberts. Each recognises what Monty Python would call “the naughty bits,” but each presents the positive side as well. This ongoing debate is receiving renewed attention in the UK where Michael Gove, The Secretary of Education in the Cameron government is asking for the school curriculum to be revised to point out the beneficial legacy of the empire, along with the recognition of its shortcomings and how it evolved.

In Canada, similar forces are at work with a Conservative Government, supported by historians such as Jack Granatstein, arguing to include greater knowledge of all aspects of Canadian history, and not just issues which are currently deemed to be politically correct. This would include studying how the legacies of the British and French colonial experiences resonate in Canada today. The present government has taken various actions including the reinsertion of Royal in the titles of the Canadian navy and air force, the posting of pictures of the Queen in embassies abroad, the inclusion of knowledge of Canadian history in citizenship tests, and the celebration of anniversaries like the war of 1812, a war which pitted the former 13 British colonies against the UK on the soil of Canada, an existing colony.

At least one can say that in the UK the legacy debate is alive and well. Seumas Milne in the Guardian (June 10, 2010) wrote the following about the proposal to reform the school curriculum:

“The British empire was, after all, an avowedly racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing, enslavement, continual wars and savage repression, land theft and merciless exploitation. Far from bringing good governance, democracy or economic progress, the empire undeveloped vast areas, executed and jailed hundreds of thousands for fighting for self-rule, ran concentration camps, carried out medical experiments on prisoners and oversaw famines that killed tens of millions of people.

When British colonialists arrived in Bengal, it was one of the richest parts of the world. Within decades it had been reduced to beggary by the deliberate destruction of its economy through one-way tariffs. In late 19th-century and early 20th-century India, whose economy barely grew in two centuries of British rule, 30 million died of hunger as colonial officials enforced the export of food in the name of free market economics – as they had earlier done in Ireland.

And far from decolonising peacefully, as empire apologists like to claim, Britain left its colonial possessions in a trail of blood, from Kenya to Malaya, India to Palestine, Aden to Iraq. To this day, Kenyan victims of the 1950s campaign of torture, killing and mass internment are still trying, and failing, to win British compensation during a “counter-insurgency” war that, by some estimates, left 100,000 dead.

No wonder Hitler was such an enthusiastic admirer of Britain’s empire, which he described as an “inestimable factor of value”. The echoes of Nazism in the colonial record are unmistakable. But while there is of course no plan to amend textbooks to include a balance sheet of positive and negative features of the Third Reich, that’s exactly the approach favoured by Ferguson, Roberts and Gove when it comes to the swashbuckling “island story” they want to construct out of colonial barbarism.”

In Canada, the debate has yet to reach this level but will resurface when the monarchy passes from Elizabeth to Charles. Those like Andrew Cohen who see the monarchy in Canada as an anachronism and argue for a move towards republicanism will have to explain how a replacement head of state will be named. If elected, the head will have political power rivaling both the House of Commons and a real anachronism in the unelected Senate. If appointed, there will be claims by each region of the country, major and minor linguistic and ethnic groups, gender and whatever politically correct group is the flavour of the month to have their turn at playing head of state, without any power or duties except to welcome other heads of state. In comparison, the present system works pretty well and will likely remain popular once William and Kate sit on the throne.

Jane Taber (an Ottawa Citizen writer, Nov. 4th 2011, A14) states that the Canadian Prime Minister is a closet anglophile supporting neo-colonialism. Such views reflect the use of labels to give a knee jerk reaction rather than an attempt to understand and explain both the current situation and differing points of view. Canada’s parliamentary and legal systems are modeled on the UK. Visible daily in Ottawa is the flag of Ontario with the Union Jack on it. Other provinces also use the Union Jack. English is one of the two official languages. Streets and bridges are named after Wellington, Elgin, Richmond and Pretoria. It would be unwise to throw out something that works by replacing it with what some consider multicultural correctness.

Where is the empire today?

The empire’s legacy has connections to globalization today. In general, I think Walter Russell Mead in God and Gold has it right, that the modern world (global political and economic system) was sustained first by Britain and now by America. Mead wrote this in 2007, prior to the global economic downturn which now conditions what can now be said about the Anglo-American legacy, since much of the meltdown is associated with parts of the former British and present American empires. Some thoughts on globalization and the empire will be the subject of a further posting… be continued.

Slavery and the British Empire

November 4, 2011

There are two types of slavery, freehold and chattel. Each has particular economic features. Freehold slavery is for a limited time period and often associated with repayment of a debt. It has similarities to indentured labour where the person agrees to work for an employer for a certain period, after which the person is free. Chattel slavery occurs when someone is the property of another person for an unlimited time period. Any child of a chattel slave is also a slave, unlike the child of a freehold slave.

The slave trade

The trans-Atlantic slave trade, dating from the 16th century and formally ending in 1807, involved chattel slavery. Was it a legacy of the British Empire? Yes and no. Slavery was part of the economic transactions which took place involving empire trade from the 16th century up until the abolition of the slave trade by some countries in 1807, and the banning of slavery by many but not all countries some years after that. But Slavery has a long history stretching back centuries before the trans-Atlantic slave trade and continues today in some places. Indentured labour, which is a form of freehold slavery, is also common today in a number of countries. Illegal migrants are often involved in this form of slavery with a commitment to repay a loan with either money or work. Slavery involving the British Empire did occur, but it is part of a process which has existed throughout recorded human history. Slavery today is the legacy from all of yesterdays not just one period.

Chattel slavery deals with obtaining and using labour for certain economic purposes. It characterises certain types of labour markets. Similar actions, however, occur in markets for land, capital equipment and intellectual property. Confiscation or expropriation of land, buildings and equipment without fair compensation, and theft of patent and copyright property are similar features of market and political transactions. These too took place during imperial times but also before and afterwards.

Of relevance to the slave trade in imperial times (1500-1900) is how it was conducted. The how and why have been the subject of books, pamphlets, films, television shows and numerous speeches. Today, the subject is of interest because it is considered morally wrong in most countries, and depicts the appalling way in which some people treat others. By this measure, it has similarities to current views in many countries on the death penalty, the lash, racial and religious discrimination, polygamy, family violence, and the treatment of women and children. All these practices have a long history and continue to this day. They are the legacy of many times, peoples and places.

Conduct of the slave trade

Historians depict the trans-Atlantic slave trade as being triangular between Africa, the Caribbean/North America and the UK. A driving force was the demand for cheap labour for the production of sugar, tobacco and cotton which was shipped for consumption in the UK and continental Europe. Port cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Rotterdam flourished due to this trade. Slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Caribbean and North America, and produce from there to the UK and Europe. The last leg of the triangle, from the UK and Europe to Africa, brought goods used to purchase the African slaves. This part of the triangle and the related transactions, mainly barter, gets less attention.

Who supplied the slaves and what form did the payments take? African tribal chiefs supplied the slaves either from their own tribes or by capturing those from other tribes. One observation is that well before the 16th century the slave trade was a pattern of life, especially from west and central African regions to the north and east of the continent, and that when the opportunity arose traders diversified their business to the west coast and across the Atlantic with the aid of European shipping. Others argue that the earlier slave trade was in the form of freehold slavery unlike the chattel slavery which was later to occur, and blame still rests with the European countries.

“The African tribes who did engage in trade with the slavers could have no way of knowing how the Europeans would use the captives. Chattel slavery and the associated denial of human rights was unknown to them. The terrors that were visited on the kidnapped Africans is solely credited to the slavers themselves.
Remember: Freehold slavery was the form used in Africa, Greece, Eastern Europe, etc. Chattel slavery was a NEW form invented by Western Europeans to control enslaved Africans and “Native Americans” and propagated through the Trans-Atlantic Slaving War.
The African concept of “slavery” did not include or appear to consider the complete horror that Chattel slavery would become. So, to say that Africans “sold their own”, while historically factual, is conceptually inaccurate. They had no idea what those captured Africans were in for.
See for a complete view of the argument made.”

At the time, I suspect that there would have been little understanding of the difference between types of slavery and concepts of human rights. It is hard to imagine that those involved as perpetrators or subjects of so-called freehold slavery were unaware of the denial of some form of human rights.

A different view is expressed in Africa Economic Focus at by Tunde Obadina, an African who appears now to be living in Nigeria. It argues that part of the cause of underdevelopment today in Africa is the action undertaken by African leaders past and present including slavery.

“From the outset, relations between Europe and Africa were economic. Portuguese merchants traded with Africans from trading posts they set up along the coast. They exchanged items like brass and copper bracelets for such products as pepper, cloth, beads and slaves – all part of an existing internal African trade. Domestic slavery was common in Africa and well before European slave buyers arrived, there was trading in humans. Black slaves were captured or bought by Arabs and exported across the Saharan desert to the Mediterranean and Near East.

When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers but also from African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain. African slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued.

African slavers acted out of their own volition and for their self interest. They took advantage of the opportunity provided by Europe to consume the products of its civilisation. The triangular slave trade was a major part in the early stages of the emergence of the international market. The role of slave-trading African ruling classes in this market is not radically different from the position of the African elite in today’s global economy. They both traded the resources of their people for their own gratification and prosperity. In the process they helped to weaken their nations and dim their prospects for economic and social development.
Europeans built empires, Africans drunk gin
While Europe invested profits from the trade in laying the foundation of a powerful economic empire, African kings and traders were content with wearing used caps and admiring themselves in worthless mirrors while swigging adulterated brandy bought with the freedom of their kinsmen. Virtually all the items imported during the nefarious business were for consumption or weapons for waging wars. A slave ship’s manifest published in 1665 listed items carried for sale to Africans as old hats, caps, salt, swords, knives, axe-heads, hammers, belts, sheepskin gloves, bracelets, iron jugs and even “cats to catch their mice.” One African trader calling himself Grandy King George was quite specific in his demand. He wrote to a slave captain: “send me one lucking-glass, six foot long by six foot wide.” He also asked for an armchair, a gold mounted cane and a stool.” The more common imports were alcohol, guns and gunpowder, salt and textiles. The quality of the items shipped to Africa was inferior – the spirits were adulterated and the guns designed for the African market.”

A similar situation exists today in Somalia where the monies earned from maritime piracy are used mainly to purchase “kif” a plant with narcotic properties which is imported from other African countries. Little if any benefit from piracy operations appears to flow to the Somali economy, except by way of bigger houses and better boats.