British Empire – Some Recent Views

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.


One Response to “British Empire – Some Recent Views”

  1. Thos. Says:

    Good article. It is nice to read a balanced view on this topic for a change.

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