The Key Features of the c19th British Empire
Work by Ford Madox Brown, 1865
The British Empire at a crossroadsIn 1815 few could have predicted what was to happen to the British Empire . The country may have been celebrating the triumphs of Wellington and Nelson but the nation was at a crossroads and experiencing economic and social change that for many meant the very real possibility of imminent revolution. The existence of the British Empire had been threatened by the American revolution but since the loss of the American colonies in 1783 and the destruction of France's military and naval might, Britain stood at the threshold of a new era which would be dominated by Britain's monopoly of the techniques of steam power and the existence of a group of entrepreneurs who existed in a political and economic climate that encouraged innovation. In 1815 British industry was based on the textile industry but within a few decades the United Kingdom was regarded by the British as the 'Workshop of the World' and the growing empire, both formal and informal, provided the market and raw materials for this growing economy which was not challenged until the turn of the twentieth century.
Victoria's InheritanceAt Queen Victoria's accession in 1837, the empire consisted of about 2 million square miles and 100 million people. Some of the territories were relics of the old c18th empire: India ruled by the East India Company and in 1837 no longer the trading company it had once been, the West Indian islands, now in economic decline, the colonies in Canada – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, French settlements in Quebec and British settlers in Ontario. There were four settlements in Australia and closer to home, Ireland, the oldest colony having been ruled for 700 years. Recent acquisitions included the Cape of Good Hope, and Malta whilst trading stations had been established at Singapore, Penang and Arakan. Throughout this scattered empire lived 1,200,000 Britons including 56,000 soldiers part of the army which existed mainly to maintain and control the empire.
Victoria's imperial LegacyWhen Queen Victoria died in 1901, the empire was the largest the world had ever seen. It covered 11 million square miles and had a population of 372 million subjects found in every corner of the world. This huge territorial empire, which occupied a quarter of the world's surface, was achieved as a result of a huge expansion in the c19th when Britain had an unrivalled control over the world's shipping lanes and her military forces seemed to be able to cope with any threat. Britain was the arbiter of the world and such was this control that the British people came to believe that it was their destiny to use empire as a vehicle for civilising the world. Alongside the trader and the soldier were British missionaries, settlers, administrators, planters and engineers and all played their part in producing the largest empire the world had ever seen.
The British Empire consisted of territories acquired for a variety of reasons. Some were the spoils of victory, some were settlements of British people looking for a new life or imprisoned from their old life. The largest territories in India were run by a private company that had its own civil service and its own private army. The central government had acquiesced in the steady growth of the empire but had not masterminded what had happened. During Victoria's reign this pattern was to continue but the expansion was on an enormous scale.
The motives for this expansion and the way it did so may have been varied but the desire for trade was central to the expansion . The American and Caribbean empire of the c16th to the c18th and India and the slave colonies of West Africa had been founded on trade and trade remained the most important motive for the empire and its extension in Victoria’s reign but other reasons were to play their part.
During the c19th one acquisition inevitably led to another as geopolitics played more a more a part in imperial politics. The hinterland of a colony had to be prevented so it was annexed. Exploration led to settlement and that settlement had to be protected so its hinterland was annexed. In the fight against slavery naval bases were established and that led to annexations of ports which led inexorably to the annexation of nearby lands. As rival powers emerged in the late c19th, Empire was seen as the measure of being a great power and imperial possessions became the pawns in a power game with land being taken to prevent it being taken by another power.
Slaves at work on a Caribbean plantation
As well as trade and geopolitics, colonies were established for settlement or sometimes as in the case of New Zealand to provide some kind of civil administration to arbitrate between competing interests and local people. As British manufacturing came to dominate the world, the investing of finance around the world led to London becoming capital of the world’s money market and the export of money was another important reason for the spread of imperial influence although much of the money made from industry was invested outside the British Empire. Throughout the c19th the British Empire had a moral dimension as missionaries spread throughout the empire intent on converting local people and in the last quarter of the century an ideology developed which regarded Empire as providing the British with a divine purpose, its Mission to Civilise.
If Britain had the expertise and the men to organise empire it was the population growth of the 19th century that provided the impetus for the growth of the empire and the industrial revolution which made it possible. The increase in population (from 10 million in 1801 to twenty two million in 1871) provided a market for industrial goods but only if prices were low. For this to happen, the old mercantilist system which was the basis of the eighteenth century empire had to be replaced with Free Trade.
The old mercantilist system had been a self contained imperial system protected by tariffs, producing Britain’s raw materials and shipping all its products in its own ships. In the 1820s the Navigation Acts were abolished and tariffs reduced. Later in the 1840s Peel's government abolished the Corn Laws which had kept the price of corn high for farmers. With Britain having a monopoly in industrial production and control of the trade routes of the world provided by the Royal Navy, free trade would mean cheap food for the British factory worker and plenty of work in the factories. However, free trade meant that Britain would be dependant for overseas suppliers for her food. Wages though were deliberately kept low as outdoor relief had been abolished and people had the choice of working for a low wage, entering the workhouse or emigrating. The factory owners wanted to maximise profits which they invested in the development of foreign economies. As industry developed new markets were needed. This led to the empire, both formal and informal, expanding in the Pacific, North America and the East. In 1825 the values of British exports was £38.9 million, in 1845 it was £60.1 and in 1869 £190 million. Britain was the 'workshop of the world' however although the empire had expanded, most exports went to Europe and the US which together accounted for two thirds of British exports. In 1867 when British exports totalled £181 million, £131 million went outside the empire, including over £10 million to the South American counties of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.
The Informal EmpireThe second half of the c19th saw Britain increase the size of its empire through many annexations, particularly in Africa and Asia. These annexations came at a time when European countries were trying to establish their own empires and successive British governments found they were under pressure to defend British interests and did so by annexing territories that bordered existing colonies or establishing firmer control over territories with which there had been a long tradition of trade but more control was deemed to be needed to secure continuing trading rights. During the earlier part of the century when there had been little or no competition from other powers, the British government was happy to encourage business men to establish trading contacts abroad and did provide military support if necessary. The government though did not want the cost of annexation and administration.
The British Empire in 1914
The countries in which Britain had an informal relationship without the need for annexation were many and indeed British trade with countries outside the empire was much greater than with colonies inside the empire even in the period of greatest competition with Europe. In the period 1865-1914 British capital investment to America and Europe amounted to 64% of total investment and the figures for British exports were similar. Being the centre of the world’s banking system and the largest investor in the world gave Britain enormous influence without the need for territorial annexation. Increasingly as the century wore on, more and more trade went to non-imperial countries. The expansion of the British Empire from 9.5 million square miles in 1860 to 12 million at Victoria’s death in 1901 came at a time when Britain was losing its industrial pre-eminence with its share of world trade falling but her control of the world’s money markets still enabled Britain to wield enormous influence in the world. British Imperialism was not just about establishing formal control.
Just as important was the ability to influence the values, attitudes and institutions of countries outside the empire. Egypt was never a formal colony of the British Empire but British investments there were huge, especially in the Suez Canal which was integral to the success of India. In 1881 there was a coup in Egypt bring a nationalist to power. Gladstone, who had publicly declared himself an opponent of imperial annexation previously, ordered an army into Egypt and Arabi Pasha removed from power. British officers acting as advisers took over effective control over Egyptian affairs and Egypt became a virtual colony of the British Empire .
Having an informal empire was a cost effective way of increasing British influence but should the need arise the government was always ready to use force to maintain British trading interests. Palmerston more than any other British politician of the Victorian era was determined to extend Britain's political influence in the world and he saw extending Britain's commercial interests as the way to achieve this. He believed that free trade would increase the efficiency of any state and was prepared to support British citizens around the world in their quest to extend Britain's markets and sources raw materials and essential commodities.
The British destory Chinese ships off Canton
In 1839, when Palmerston was Foreign Secretary the Chinese government wanted to reduce the impact of the opium trade on its people so expelled the British community in Canton, the main trading port for opium, and then seized 20,000 cases of illegal British opium. A fleet of gunboats and 3,000 troops was sent by Palmerston to the area. It took over Hong Kong and then shelled the cities of Chungking and Shanghai causing the Chinese to agree to a treaty by which Canton and other ports were opened up as well as the acquisition of Hong Kong being confirmed. Within fifteen years the British were at war again with the Chinese when the Governor of Hong Kong, Bowring, authorised a force to shell Canton (see image right) following the boarding of a British registered vessel, the 'Arrow. Canton was later occupied and looted. This war led to the Treaty of Tientsin which opened up China to missionaries and granted the transfer of Kowloon to Hong Kong.
Until the late c19th, there was little in the way of central control as the government did not possess the means or the money or indeed a coherent policy. Within the government there were various persons that had some responsibility for aspects of colonial rule – the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of War, the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary for India – making it difficult to bring about any kind of continuous policy. The Colonial Office had only been given a seat in the Cabinet in 1854 and the department of state did not interest most politicians at all. Its role was to administer the colonies as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.
Reporting to and responsible to the Colonial Office were the 300 governors, lieutenants governors, administrators, high commissioners and presidents who ruled their colonies on behalf of the British government. Most were from the ranks of the middle classes who had connections and were able to use the patronage of the day to secure an appointment. In most cases they operate on a limited budget and did their best to rule efficiently and justly and act as referee between different competing interests. Often it was the colonial governor who acted to protect the local people or indentured workers from businessmen who sought to exploit them.
These governors, the men on the spot, acted on their own initiative, and sought to improve their colony by introducing aspects of British civilisation – roads, railways, hospitals and institutions of education and government. Men like Frank Swettenham in the Malay States and William de Voeux in St Lucia and later Hong Kong, were men of integrity who worked hard to do his best to improve the condition of the local people although in doing so it usually meant introducing western capitalism and British values and customs.
The imperial government struggled to exert its authority, even after the telegraph had been introduced, and imperial administration owed much to the men on the spot to do their imperial duty as they had been brought up to do. These men on the spot understood the realities of the local situation and needed to gain support and admiration from local elites. They were a particular feature of the British Empire that made it different from other European empires. Rather than there being one empire it could be said that there existed a hundred empires, each one administered by a British civil servant running his territory in the best way that he could.
Although the British were to justify their conquests by claiming that there was a philanthropic motive, there is no doubt that war was crucial to the way in which the British Empire expanded, particularly in the Victorian period. Wars in Afghanistan, India, China, Burma, Egypt, Sudan, New Zealand, Canada, west Africa, south Africa were all important in establishing British control and influence. To establish a colony and then control it required the subjugation of the local people. Sometimes the local population were not necessarily a martial race and did not possess the resources or knowledge to fight a British invasion force and annexation was relatively easy without great loss of life, but a martial race like the Maori in New Zealand or the Xhosa in south Africa had to be persuaded to give up their sovereignty. This was usually done by signing an agreement which allowed the British certain rights which the British would later ignore once a British settler population had been established. Even after the British had established nominal control of a territory, there was always the possibility of resistance to the way the British governed. The British government was not in a position to have garrisons in every colony so compromises had to be negotiated with local elites but if the British alienated the local elites who the British relied upon, there was the possibility of violence.
The 'Mission to Civilise'In the late 18th century there was an evangelical revival which led to the formation of the anti-slavery campaign and also the development of a missionary movement in Britain which developed throughout the 19th century. In 1807 the Slave Trade was abolished within the British Empire and this was followed by the Abolition of Slavery throughout the empire in 1833. Being the first to ban slavery and having a technological and naval superiority along with the possession of a large and growing empire led many British people to believe that they were a chosen race and it was their duty to take the British model of civilisation to areas of the world that were undeveloped.
Queen Victoria became Queen in 1837 as the British Empire was developing a moral dimension. As the country moved towards democracy and a fully industrialised society, the one thing that was generally agreed on about the empire was that the empire was a powerful force for the spread of civilisation through trade and the imposition of superior codes of behaviour. There was debate about how territories should be run and how natives should be treated but universal agreement that native peoples could benefit from being part of the British Empire.
The idea of the mission had been present from the 1740s but foreign missionary work was controversial for much of the c18th as it was thought that native peoples had to acquire elements of civilisation before they could be converted to Christianity. By the 1790s though, a more optimistic view of missionary work had been accepted. It became accepted that salvation was available for all and only depended on receiving the word of God. How could one deny sharing the knowledge of God and leaving millions in a state of ignorance?
With this view becoming prevalent a Protestant missionary movement was established in the 1790s at the same time as the campaign to abolish the slave trade was gaining strength. An early missionary society was the Baptist Missionary Society founded in 1792 followed by the London Missionary Society, established in 1795. See below right for an image of its London HQ
Missionaries believed in the power of the word of God and that all they had to do was to reveal God's word through preaching. With the expansion of the empire into the Pacific and Africa, and the opening up of India to missionaries, these societies opened up numerous missions around the world at the beginning of the c19th. Native peoples were regarded as heathens and providing opportunities for missionaries to achieve their own salvation through the saving of others. Conversion was the highest form of service and as the empire expanded more opportunities became available for those wishing to find redemption and salvation. Development of the missionary movement accelerated during the 1830s following the freeing of slaves in the empire and by the end of the century there were ten thousand men and women missionaries working throughout the world. It was this ideology – the Mission to Civilise - that led the British to believe that their empire was different as unlike the other European empires, the British Empire benefitted the people they governed.
In the period after 1870 a new aggressive form of Imperialism termed New Imperialism developed as a response to the emergence of European rivals and the USA. Following the emergence of unified countries in Italy and Germany in 1870-71 and the ending of the American Civil War, the USA and European countries began to rapidly industrialise. They used tariffs to protect their own industries and began to look for colonies to secure new markets and sources of raw materials. Gradually Britain began to lose the dominance she had in world trade. The reliance on food imports and the raw materials for her industries, particularly cotton, meant that Britain ran a trade deficit in visible goods. The overall trade balance was only kept in the black by invisible earnings from financial services and shipping.
The HQ of the Church Missionary Society in London
Britain responded to this global challenge by strengthening its control over states with which it had informal trading arrangements and annexing territories that it believed were in danger of being annexed by a rival European power. Governments became more sensitive to the dangers rivals might pose to British strategic interests and were more prepared to use force to maintain its control as when the French threatened British control of Egypt in the late 1890s when there was a stand-off at Fashoda involving General Kitchener. Private companies were given the authority to establish British control in various parts of Africa to forestall the expansion of French and German influence (Nigeria, Bechuanaland, East Africa and Rhodesia).
Imperial Federation, first advocated in the 1870s by Disraeli and Lord Carnarvon, was seen as a way of strengthening the links between colonies of the British Empire, and in 1884 an Imperial Federation League was founded. There were those who wanted to abandon free trade and perhaps introduce imperial preference but Britain’s global links in trade and investment made it very difficult for any government to move forward on this. Instead efforts were made to improve imperial defence at a time when both the Royal Navy and the army were heavily criticised for being inefficient and not up to the job of defending Britain should Britain come under military threat.
British migrants on board a ship bound for Canada at the end of the c19th
In the period 1815-1914 over 22 million migrants left the shores of Britain to seek a new life abroad. Of these 13.7 million went to the USA, 4.2 million went to Canada (see image right of British migrants to Canada) , 2.5 million went to Australasia and 500,000 went to South Africa. Most went for economic reasons leaving in times of economic hardship and most went to the USA because it was closest and easiest to settle down. Some migrants were turned off their land (especially in Scotland and Ireland) and others were affected by the introduction of the factory system. The introduction of free trade meant that manufacturers could keep their prices low by keeping wages low. With the alternative to low wages of the workhouse or emigration, many chose migration.
At times of greatest hardship there were schemes to help migrants, usually privately organised, or assisted passages. The difficulties with settling in to a land with an alien climate and land and the possibility of conflict or tension with native people meant that of the 22 million who migrated a third returned.
White settlement often meant the subjugation of indigenous people either by forcing them off their land, by buying their land or by killing them and taking their land. Settling in to a new land was difficult and the remoteness of colonies encouraged self reliance and self determination. By the end of the century though the settler colonies were making a significant contribution to Britain's economy and two thirds of the English speaking people living outside Europe.
Until the British Empire began to become a focus for politicians and the general public after1870, the British had little concern or appreciation of the Empire or for those who had settled within it. Yet migration was a crucial part of British Imperialism. In 1882 Sir John Seeley, Professor of History at Cambridge wrote a bestselling book, 'The Expansion of England' in which he argued that the empire was the source of Britain's strength and its expansion was vital for Britain's continuance as a great power. Writing not long after Darwin and Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase 'The survival of the fittest' Seeley argued that if Britain continued to expand her colonies then Britain could hold her own.
The Illusion of Power
One of the achievements of the British Empire was that it disguised the real state of British economic, military and naval power. The Empire gave the illusion of power yet the reality was quite different. From the time the US Civil war ended in 1865, Britain gradually lost her pre-eminent position as the world's major economy so that by 1914 both Germany and the USA had overtaken Britain in industrial production. By the end of the century people were debating whether the Empire was a burden or not. Few colonies contributed towards the cost of their defence and although millions from the colonies fought in the trenches of the First World War, ideas of greater Imperial solidarity were rejected in favour of greater independence for the white settler dominions. As for the majority of the colonies, there may have been talk of a mission to develop the colonies but the reality was that colonies were only developed to enable the British to increase its own trade. The nation that talked of 'a mission to civilise' found that there was never a time when it would be appropriate to grant independence. Although the Empire continued to exist for many years after the First World War, the call by the peoples of the empire for a greater say in their own government got ever louder and it was only when it was realised that the cost of maintaining the Empire was not a cost it could realistically bear, that the British government began to dismantle the Empire after 1945.