Historians' Views on the British Empire - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
1815-1914
Go to content


What have been the Views of Historians on the British Empire?

Three Phases of the Empire
There have been three broad phases of the British Empire. Firstly, the empire which began with the settlement in Virginia in 1606 established to provide the raw materials and luxury goods for the home population. This phase lasted until the Napoleonic Wars by which time the American colonies had been lost to the Empire and a new empire was developing in the east.  The second phase of empire lasted from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the Great War and saw a huge extension of the territories of empire. The third phase was from the Great War until de-colonisation in the 1960s and was characterised by the move towards a Commonwealth of independent nations.

Colonies were expected to supply the Homeland with wine and fruit
When James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company in April 1606, it was in the expectation that the colony would soon be able to provide Britain with those raw materials that she relied on from other countries. The settlers who sailed into Chesapeake Bay  in 1607 and founded Jamestown hoped to find a climate that was temperature enough not just to provide the timber to build ships in the dockyards of Britain but to provide the mother country with wines and fruits.

Mercantilism
In these early times of the British Empire, the prevailing economic orthodoxy was Mercantilism - the idea that world trade was limited, and your share of world trade determined a nation's power. If you increased your share of world trade it would be at the expense of someone else. Countries did all they could to give themselves as many advantages as they could. Colonies were important as they could provide a country with raw materials and a market for their own goods, but it was essential to ensure that your colonies only traded with the mother country. To achieve this countries passed all kinds of laws to prevent other countries from participating in the trade from your colonies.
The 1606 charter to establish the Virginia provided by James I
A 180 ship navy by 1698
Much was  done to assert Britain's dominance over colonial commerce . The navy was expanded and the colonies had to conduct their trade in British owned ships. Non-British ships were banned from carrying any goods between Britain and the colonies, or between colonies. To police this system the Royal Navy was given the role to support British trade and the vessels which conducted that trade and was therefore an instrument of colonial and commercial policy. With the Royal Navy getting ever larger, a British merchant abroad was never far away from the military support of the Royal Navy. By 1679 the Navy had 86 ships and within ten years had doubled that number.

Mercantilism was out of date
In the period after the Napoleonic wars, there was a growing consensus that the prevailing economic orthodoxy of mercantilism was out of date and holding back industrial development and limiting Britain's ability to sell abroad.
An artist's impression of the Jamestown colony, 1607
In the years after 1815 there was growing pressure on Parliament to abandon the laws enforcing mercantilism and free up trade. The argument was that if duties on imported goods were abolished raw materials would be cheaper and so the exports of manufactured goods would be cheaper. This in turn would encourage other countries to buy more from Britain. The Anti-Corn Law League argued for the abolishment of the Corn Laws which protected landed interests and domestic corn. They believed that with the importation of cheaper grain from America and Europe the price of food would fall. With the support of  the Anti-Corn Law League, economic theorists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and financiers and bankers in the City of London, government policy began to change.
The beginning of mutual trade
In the 1820s, William Huskisson at the Board of Trade allowed foreign countries to trade with colonies, then lowered duties on a number of imports and also relaxed shipping regulations to allow foreign ships into Britain's and the colonies' ports. In the 1830s deregulation continued under the Whig government and in the 1840s the Conservative government of Peel reduced import duties on a wide range of products and then following the famine in Ireland repealed the corn laws. In 1849 the Navigation Acts were repealed and in the 1850s Gladstone removed the remaining tariffs on imported goods.

New markets
With trade being freed up by the deregulation of duties  and with Britain having a commanding lead in the manufacture of factory made goods, Britain's industrialists sought new markets and expanded production. In the 45 years following the end of the Napoleonic Wars Britain was responsible for 60% of the world's trade with Britain producing 50% of the world's trade in coal, cotton and iron. Despite the repeal of the Navigation Acts, a third of the world's trade was carried in British ships. Much of this increase in trade for Britain was with the USA and Europe which accounted for over 60% of the £50 million earnt in 1827. The pattern of trade for Britain continued for much of the century with new markets being found not in the British Empire but in Latin and South America, the Middle East and China. In 1867 when exports from Britain amounted to £181 million, exports to non-Empire territories amounted to £131 million.

This period of economic expansion coincided with a period of imperial expansion as the empire increased form just over 2 million square miles in 1837 to over 12 million square miles in 1901. The connection between the economic expansion and the expansion of the empire has been much debated by historians.

Hobson's view of empire
In his seminal study of 1902, Imperialism, J.A.Hobson claimed that the period after 1870 was different to the period before it and was characterised by the British government acting to support the interests of finance capitalists. Hobson had been sent to South Africa during the Boer War and what he saw made a huge impression. He concluded that the war had happened due to the influence of capitalist mine owners  like Cecil Rhodes who  had used their influence in London to persuade the British government to wage war against a Boer government that was standing in the way of industrial expansion. Governments were therefore the puppets of financiers.

Lenin's view
Lenin's interpretation of the reasons for empire were not too dissimilar to Hobson's. He believed that in the search for economic  expansion, empires were established alongside a protective economy with tariffs established to protect national trade. Again he characterised governments as being the puppets of capitalism.

Robinson and Gallagher in the 1950s
Robinson and Gallagher, writing in the 1950s, argued that the British government did not want formal direct control of territories which could be expensive in terms of the  manpower needed to maintain and defend ones interests and in the taxation that would have to be levied at home. They maintained that the government preferred to encourage less formal arrangements, either through private chartered companies like the Imperial East Africa Company or through trade without the formal control that a colony entailed. Informal control would be extended through encouraging free trade and if necessary supported by diplomacy, coercion and gunboats. Formal empire would only be established when informal arrangements broke down. Gallagher and Robinson gave the invasion and annexation of Egypt as an example. The government only sent in General Wolseley with an imperial army  when there arose the possibility of a complete breakdown in law and order which threatened to affect British trade through the Suez Canal. Robinson and Gallagher maintained that the empire was like  an iceberg with the formal empire above the water and the the greater expanse of informal empire below the water.
The Suez Canal became vital to British strategic and economic interests
A major criticism of the theory of informal empire though is that most of British trade was not with the Empire but with other countries. Although Britain in 1900 was dependant on trade for 75% of her cereals and 40% of her meat, her major suppliers were USA, France, India, Germany, Holland and Australia. Apart from India and the settler colonies the Empire had little economic significance. Informal empire suggests an amount of control but there was no influence or control over most of these trading partners.
Hopkins and Cain
In the 1980s and 1990s a major publication by Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins, Gentlemanly Capitalism and British Expansion Overseas argued that finance and capital were the motivating forces for empire. They argued that there existed in London 'gentlemanly capitalist elites' which had close ties with the aristocratic elites in government and Whitehall.

All of the above historians argued about how and why the British Empire expanded. They differed over the relative importance  of money, capitalists, migration or geopolitics in bringing about change but they agreed that it was the metropolitan power that was largely responsible for the expansion of the empire and the nature of that empire.

More focus on encounters with local people
With decolonisation following on from the achievement of Indian independence in 1947, there began to be greater focus by historians on the experience of settler groups and their interaction with native people. The narrative now focused on the importance of settler efforts in expansion and development of the empire. This went on to examine the importance of ‘The Man on the Spot’ in which men like Bartle Frere, Frank Swettenham, Hugh Clifford took the initiative along with local settles  in promoting change. Many of the annexations of the Victorian period were made by these ‘men on the spot’, often without any government prior approval. Sind, Punjab, Zululand were all annexed following local decisions, however none of the decisions were revoked by London.

Post-imperial studies of empire have focused on the policies of conciliation and resistance in bringing about change, and the role that violence played. The British Empire was now being  seen as a temporary period of subjugation in which local culture, political structures and economic systems were  destroyed to produce an economic model that saw colonies as mere providers of raw materials and the recipients of imports from the mother country that was central to the whole economic system forced on an unwilling population.
John Darwin
In his recent book, 'Unfinished Empire', published in 2012 John Darwin argued that no official mind ever existed in London. There was a recognition for Darwin that the London government wanted the empire to be more dynamic and that might mean being more productive and self-sufficient, but there was an acceptance that this  should be achieved through free trade and capitalism but imposing western ideas of property rights, enforcing a free market in land and giving a free rein to settlers to create a modern economy all came with a certain risk. It was often up to the local official  to decide whether local elites would accept change or whether there would be a reaction which might require enforcement which central government was always loath to provide.
Bartle Frere was sent to South Afria to bring about federation but ended up going to war
Gender, class and race
In more recent years a number of historians have taken a new approach to the study of empire and have emphasised the role of gender, class, race and culture. Such studies have focused on the impact of empire on local civilisation and have often used a wider range of historical sources. Using oral testimony where it is available and newly discovered documents, the stories of native people have been told. British atrocities have been unearthed and discussed in detail.
Much has been written in recent yera on the impact of the legacy of slavery
Recent editions of History Today has had articles on the servants who kept the Raj cool and the Amritsar massacre whilst the Historical Association has had an article on John Chilembwe who led an uprising in Nyasaland against injustices caused by the Europeans in taking all the best arable land. Many of the historians who write about the impact of slavery on those taken into slavery write of the need for redemption and compensation. It is therefore quite appropriate that the historical Association is having a ‘Great Debate’ on whether we should judge historical figures using the values of the society in which we live today.

In his introduction to his book on ‘Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire’, David Cannadine outlines how each group of historians have had their critics. Those who advocated the metropolitan view have been criticised for seeking to ignore the periphery. Those who stressed the constitutional benefits of empire have been criticised for having too Whiggish a view and seeing the narrative of empire as planned. Those who see the empire form the point of view of the indigenous peoples are accused of providing a too simplistic account and seeing imperial history as them versus us, and for trying to fight the nationalist struggle all over again.
There was no simple them and us
Cannadine reminds us that when studying the British Empire, we should not forget what was happening at the time in Britain or indeed the world, for often the national and international context are crucial to understanding the bigger picture. Nor should we forget that rather than the colonies being a struggle between us and them, the history of any single colony would have to include how British government often brought local elites in to government or governed through them. Indirect rule was a means by which the London was able to have empire on the cheap.

No history of India and the struggle for independence could leave out the role of the princely states, accounting for 40% of Indian territory, who remained loyal to the British until the late 1930s. The British could not have ruled India without them, and indeed many of the Princes were regarded (and they were proud to be so) as ‘Honorary British Gentlemen’. The British Empire was made up of over a hundred colonies ruled over by different types of men who governed in often very personal ways. Bargains were struck with local leaders and sometimes force was used to ensure that agreements made were kept. The beliefs of those who governed could be quite different from one another, and the treaties made by the British with local leaders depended  very much on the resources the British had at their disposal. There was no handbook on empire and different territories were rules in different ways and  the reaction of local peoples depended very much on their relationship with the British. The empire was complex as were the relationships between the different groups that inhabited it.

 
 
Peter Crowhurst, August 2019

 
Further reading:
 
The Age of Empire by Hobsbawn, E, 1989
 
Britain’s Imperial Century, Hyam, R, 1993
 
The British Empire by McDonough, F, 1994
 
British Imperialism by Johnson, R, 2003
 
British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion by Cain, PJ and Hopkins, AG, 1993
 
Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire by Cannadine, D, 2001
 
The Undivided Past by Cannadine, D, 2013
 
Unfinished Empire by Darwin, J, 2012
Back to content