1815-1914

The British Empire

An Introduction to

Conflict in the British Empire

A Scene from the film ‘Gandhi’ portraying the Amritsar Massacre

The British Empire was a force for good

The Victorians saw their Empire as a force for good - a moral and improving empire that was different from all other empires. Even foreigners came to believe that the British Empire was different. Baron de Coubertin believed that the British Public School system prepared its students for duty and work in the Empire in a way that no other empire could manage.


The Myth and Reality of the British Empire

Subsequent British generations well into the 20th century have accepted this view of the Empire as an improving force and that we left colonies well placed to cope with the late 20th century, and that wherever the British went they were welcomed not as conquerors but as people who devoted themselves to the civilisation of others. The view that the British established colonies to civilise the world  is largely myth. There were large numbers of missionaries all over the world working for various missionary organisations and they believed they were working to improve the lives of local people but when it came to a divergence of view between local colonial authorities and the wishes of missionary groups it was the colonial authorities who usually got their way as when the British government gave Cecil Rhodes a private charter to govern and control the land of the Matebele.



The belief that Britain had a ‘Mission to Civilise’ came about because of the industrial and economic ascendency that Britain enjoyed in the middle of the Victorian period and the importance of  the evangelical movement which was so influential at the time. Britain was the workshop of  the world at the time of the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851 and this feeling of superiority led the British to believe it was their divine duty to found colonies in order to develop backward peoples, whether native peoples wanted to adopt British imperial values and systems or not.


Why a ‘Mission to Civilise’?

The belief that Britain had a ‘Mission to Civilise’ came about because of the industrial and economic ascendency that Britain enjoyed in the middle of the Victorian period and the importance of  the evangelical movement which was so influential at the time. Britain was the workshop of  the world at the time of the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851 and this feeling of superiority led the British to believe it was their divine duty to found colonies in order to develop backward peoples, whether native peoples wanted to adopt British imperial values and systems or not.


The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the brainchild of Victoria’s husband, Albert, and was constructed between May and October 1851. It’s 13,000 exhibits were seen by 6.2 million people and for the nation signified Britain’s industrial ascendency and what could be achieved by peaceful social progress.

Violence accompanied every aspect of the British Empire

The annexation of land and the creation of colonies was nearly always accompanied by violence which did not stop once a territory had been conquered militarily. Once a British administration had been formed there was nearly always resistance to the changes that were introduced. Colonies existed mainly to support and enhance the British economy and this meant adapting to alien economic structures. Agriculture had to become efficient and produce for export. This often meant local cultures had to change and with the change new laws were introduced together with a new judicial system. Such change often brought continual resistance.


Types of Resistance

Resistance took many forms. There was resistance against any influx of European settlers who usually wanted to take the land of local people and then continuing resistance against the introduction of a new culture. There was resistance in colonies with little European settlement against the rule of the metropolitan power as in India. There were cases of resistance by white settlers against the direct rule of London for colonial authorities usually had different views on how relations with local people should proceed. the demand for more and more land was a constant source of conflict between colonial authorities who wanted more land for incoming settlers and the metropolitan power not wanting to have to pay out money to defend colonies against rebellions by local disaffected people.




Resistance also accompanied decolonisation although that aspect of resistance does not concern us here as we will focus on those rebellions that took place between 1815 and 1914. Some of these rebellions are well known like the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Maori Wars of New Zealand and the Opium Wars but there were numerous  other examples of resistance to the British Empire and consequent violence used to suppress the resistance.

 The Maori Wars dominated the middle years of the c19th in New Zealand  as resentment over infringements to land rights and breaches of the Waitangi Treaty.