Where is the British Empire Today?

My initial research question was what has been the impact of the British Empire (BE)? I soon became mired in the writings of those who emphasized either the good or bad parts, and had little time for opposing views. So I revised the question to ask what aspects of the British Empire remain with us today?

The approach became pseudo-anthropological, namely to search for what exists today which can be traced to the empire? That too became a large topic if the whole world was included, since the BE was the largest empire in terms of population size and probably geographical spread. So the starting point became a focus on the place most familiar to me, Ottawa in particular and Canada in general.

The Queen remains head of state in Canada, represented by an appointed Governor General, previously from the UK, now from Canada. The Queen presides over a parliamentary system consisting of an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate, a counterpart to the British House of Lords. Many of the acts and customs performed in these two chambers are patterned on British experience, such as the role of the Speaker and Question Period.

Located next to  parliament is the Supreme Court, the apex of the country’s judicial system which follows English practice, even down to dress. The military  is a third major element of a state and here too army regiments have British associations in terms of names, and recently the term Royal has been returned to the Canadian navy and airforce.

Canada has had it’s own maple leaf flag since 1965, instead of the red ensign which incorporates  the Union Jack, as do a number of provincial flags today – BC, Manitoba and Ontario.

Numerous place names have a British association such as the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, the cities and towns/districts of Victoria, Vancouver, Prince Albert, Regina, New Edinburgh, Perth, Halifax, and so on. The name Victoria, for example, is assigned to streets, parks, bridges, schools etc.

Sports played in Canada include soccer, rugby, cricket, and tennis – Government House in Ottawa has both a tennis court and cricket pitch. English is one of the two official languages in Canada. French is the other one as a result of arrangements made in earlier years when the British and French were vying for control of North America in the early days of empire.

The Anglican and Catholic religions have churches and particular school boards throughout the Province of Ontario, a reflection of how English and French interests competed for the continent in earlier imperial times. A recent Ontario election was fought in part on the future funding of religious school boards.

In commercial terms, the Hudson Bay Company exists today as a department store, a descendant of the original fur trading company established by England. Railroads and communications systems were developed during the 1800’s in association with the expansion of British imperial reach around the world. Canada took part in these new developments with companies such as the CPR and Bell Telephone.

Canada is perhaps too easy and obvious an example of a country subject to imperial influence. The same could probably be said of Australia, New Zealand and parts of South Africa, also the original 13 American colonies  spreading to the rest of the present day USA. In countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and islands like Mauritius, Cyprus and the West Indies other factors would come into play.

African countries north of South Africa, have empire connections in various ways, as  do countries like Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea, and the informal empire of South American countries. Just listing these countries suggests where to look for evidence or clues of imperial association, opium and trading companies like Jardine Matheson in the case of Southeast Asia.

One place to continue this search is the present membership of The Commonwealth, 54 countries all of which except for Rwanda and Madagascar were members of the BE. All would provide the empire anthropologist much material for examination.


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