Now and Then – Empire and Globalization

I was born in England in 1934, migrated to Canada in 1955 and have lived there except for short periods abroad to teach and study in the UK, the US and Australia, as well as visits to a number of countries which were part of the British Empire now called by some the anglosphere. Common elements of the anglosphere are use of the English language, parliamentary institutions, the rule of law, human and property rights, and certain sports, clothing and customs.

Looking back two things strike me, first, many aspects of the British Empire are embedded and recognizable in the world today, and many things which are in vogue today from migration to social media had their counterparts in former times, or “everything old is new again.” Whether conditions today are better or worse than in the past is a judgment call.

The same is true when narrowing the focus to assess the impact of the British Empire. There are beneficial aspects to its legacy, and there are horror stories associated with famines, slavery and the miscarriage of justice. Each can make an evaluation. I am inclined to give it a positive rating, in the light of what I consider a reasonable set of counterfactual of conditions of what might have happened in its absence. This is implied, as one might expect, in a British Home Office Citizenship booklet (Dec. 2004) which states that “For many indigenous peoples in Africa and elsewhere the British Empire often brought more regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order than many had experienced under their own rulers.”

What might the counterfactual have been? In India, the French might have colonized the region. In Africa, European powers other than the British might have occupied different parts, the Dutch or Germans perhaps in southern Africa, the Italians in East Africa. And in North America, the French, Spanish or Mexicans might have settled in different parts of the continent; possibly the Russians would have moved southwards from Alaska. The alternatives are numerous with some more probable than others. But it is unlikely that, after Vasco da Gama sailed east in 1492 and others crossed the Atlantic around the same time, those areas colonized by the British would have remained unaltered in these earlier years of globalization.


The term globalization is frequently used as describing a new phenomenon. Historian John Darwin gives it a broader meaning, as a process characterized by the growth of global “connectedness” which has been going on for a long time. He summarizes globalization as: – [the following six points are paraphrased from Darwin, “After Tamerlane, The Global History of Empire,” (Penguin, 2007), 7-8]:

1. The growth of a single global market.
2. The interaction between states that may be distant but whose interests are global not regional.
3. The interpenetration of cultures by global media.
4. Large scale migrations and the establishment of diasporas.
5. Change from the 1945-89 bipolar age to the predominance (at present) of a single power.
6. The economic resurgence of India and China.

Of concern for nations today is the trade in goods and services, investment, short and long term, the crossborder movement of people and the existence of local diasporas, the transmission of information of all types – political, cultural, criminal etc., environmental and security concerns that cross borders, and the relationship of states to major players such as the US, China, Russia and other countries which can affect a nation’s economic and political security.

British Empire and Globalization

The British Empire was a major part of this process of globalization, especially for the 450 years from about 1500, leaving behind a footprint which can be seen today, some in unlikely places. The obvious places to look are North America, the Indian sub-continent and Africa with a focus on the US, Ireland, Canada, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, South Africa and parts of East and West Africa.

Some of the less likely places, those which in the past were not coloured red on maps of the world, include Russia, the Middle East, Japan and South America, but Bernard Porter shows that these too were touched by the empire. Britain had a formal empire covering those parts of the world which it administered or governed, and an informal empire where trade and investment were major areas of interest, for example in parts of South America and China. The opium trade, for example, lead to the control of Chinese ports.

The Arab Spring and Empire

Consider one aspect of globalization today, the events connected with the Arab Spring in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean, especially the North African countries on the southern shore, and at the eastern end, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and extending to Iran and Iraq. Since the establishment of the East India Company in 1600 and trade with India, Britain has been involved in this region.

For example, Britain has had a long standing interest in Egypt because of its location on the trade route to India, both before and after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. One place to start is with the French loss of their North American colonies, Quebec and Louisiana. Napoleon then tried to enlarge French imperial influence in India and around the Indian Ocean. In 1798, he invaded Egypt with 40,000 troops and defeated the Egyptians on land. However in the same year Nelson destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir Bay known as the Battle of the Nile. Three years later, British and Indian troops captured Cairo ending Napoleon’s ambitions in this area. The finale came with Nelson’s defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, and the army at Waterloo in 1815.

Subsequently, at various times, Russia also posed a threat to trade with India, forcing Britain in 1882 to make Egypt a British protectorate which lasted until 1952. In order to prevent Russia threatening the Indian trade route, Britain fought three costly wars with Afghanistan in 1838-42, 1878-80 and in 1919, and in the Crimea, 1853- 56, in order to block Russia’s southward expansion. The Crimean War pitted the Russian empire against the combined British, French and declining Ottoman Empires.

Thus, by WW1, Britain had fought in a number of different places around the Middle East in defense of its empire. After the war, Britain received a League of Nations mandate to control Iraq which it held until the country received independence in 1932. At the same time, Britain received a mandate to administer Transjordan, an area roughly covering today’s Jordan, Israel the Palestinian West Bank and Ghaza. Jordan received independence in 1946 and Israel in 1948, the latter after fighting between British troops and Jewish settlers. France obtained a similar League of Nations mandate to control Syria and Lebanon as protectorates from 1920, ending in 1936. The boundaries drawn up by the League of Nations delineate the geographical areas where conflict occurs today.

Another imperial vestige relates to petroleum resources. Once the British navy changed from coal to oil after 1911, the Middle East and especially Iran became of strategic interest. Fearful that Iran would ally itself with Germany, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran in 1941 in order to maintain access to the petroleum supplies. In 1951, the Iranian prime minister was assassinated and his successor nationalized the country’s oil industry and reserves. With the aid of the US in 1953, the British deposed Mosaddeqh, the prime minister of the democratically elected government. A subsequent coup saw the Iranian government becoming independent again in 1979. Current (2012) events in Iran result in part from the size of Iran’s oil reserves and the world’s growing demand for energy including petroleum.

In sum, while a case can be made for identifying a footprint of the empire today in the anglosphere of the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as in the Indian subcontinent, it also exists elsewhere. Earlier imperial actions have influenced the boundaries, alliances, institutions and culture of some of the countries at the forefront of the Arab Spring.


2 Responses to “Now and Then – Empire and Globalization”

  1. Henri M. Vandermeulen Says:

    the Jesuit establishment where I did some of my university studies had a ‘museum’ Salle Napoleon’.
    One of the history lesson topics was,”describe possible geopolitical evolution should Napoleon have subjugated Russia”. One went as far as having French influence established in India!
    This article reminded me of that ‘exercise’.

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