Globalization and The British Empire (new)

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requiring portraits of the Queen to be hung in embassies abroad, and revising the citizenship exam to include more historical content.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.”


One Response to “Globalization and The British Empire (new)”

  1. Larry Willmore Says:

    Interesting thoughts, but I would like to correct a small error. Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) does operate as a department store, but it was never purchased by Target. What Target recently purchased was not HBC, but rather leases for the Zellers discount stores operated by HBC. It is true, though, that HBC is no longer Canadian-owned. It was sold to U.S.-based NRDC Equity Partners in 2008 for C$1.1 billion. NRDC also owns the Lord & Taylor chain of department stores in the US.


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