Prime Minister during the age of imperial expansion
During the last quarter century of the c19th the British Empire was at the very centre of politics and cultural affairs. Imperial affairs grabbed the nation's attention as European rivalries came to dominate the new popular press and the nation went wild over the victories and defeats of Imperial heroes. The Victorian Empire grew to cover 12.8 square miles by the time of Victoria's death in 1901 and included 60 dependencies and dominions. The Empire served not just merchants and industrialists but also settlers, missionaries, explorers, financiers and those seeking service within the Colonial Office and the armed forces. Prime Minister during much of this time and associated with this period of imperial expansion was Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury.
He preferred foreign affairs
Although Salisbury was Prime Minister of three cabinets during the period 1886-1902 when the Empire acquired vast new territories especially in Africa and the Far East, he was a reluctant expansionist and viewed with distaste the grand designs of imperialists like Chamberlain, Rhodes, Lugard and Milner. Salisbury did not share the high minded idealism of men like Gladstone or those who talked about Britain civilising and developing less well of territories. He denounced missionaries as vulgar radicals and believed the empire existed just to advance the wealth and power of Britain.
Salisbury was unusual in British politics in that as Prime Minister, he served as his own Foreign Secretary for twelve of the fourteen years he was Prime Minister. He much preferred foreign affairs and international diplomacy for he believed he was better able to control matters. He resented the politics of democracy (the extension of the franchise in 1867 and 1884 included the majority of the working classes) and believed that an ill informed and emotional electorate had too much influence over policy so that politicians were forever looking over their shoulders at whatever the people wanted and afraid to do what their heads told them. He preferred to deal in international diplomacy because he could conduct policy on a personal basis without constantly referring himself to Parliament. Salisbury also has a distaste for what he called the 'sham ' of politics, having to do back room deals to ensure he had support for his policies in Parliament.
With regard to his foreign policy, Salisbury preferred not to meddle in international affairs unless there was a clear benefit to Britain. He preferred to achieve his objectives by diplomacy and persuasion if possible and use force only if it was absolutely necessary. He realised there were limitations to what Britain could do and although he believed the empire to be vital to Britain's future he did not want to expand its frontiers or follow a forward policy. When there was pressure in the late 1880s to annex territory beyond India to forestall a possible threat to India from Russia, Salisbury resisted.
Salisbury knew that Britain had to cut its cloth according to the armed forces available to him. He hated war and regarded it as the final evil and the failure of diplomacy. He had nightmares about the decline and disintegration of the British Empire and was wary of over committing Britain leading him to adopt a cautious policy in Africa in his early years as a Prime Minister and consider returning Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. He disliked pro-consuls who wanted to annex adjoining territories or generals who had too large an appetite for conquest.
Bartle-Free was typical of the diplomats who annexed territory without the express permission of the imperial government
Salisbury took a Darwinian view of the world in the late c19th believing there existed a death struggle between nations. He told the Primrose League that 'You may roughly divide the nations of the world as the living and the dying. On the one side you have great countries of enormous power, growing in power every year, growing in wealth, growing in dominion, growing in the perfection of their organisation.....By the side of these are communities which I can only describe as dying..In them misgovernment is on the increase. decade after decade they are weaker, poorer and less provided in men or institutions in which they can trust...' He therefore did not accept the idea that it was Britain's role to take up the 'White Man's Burden' and bring civilisation and development to the poorer nations of the empire. Nor did he believe in creating stronger bonds between the territories of the empire. He thought that the cohesion of the empire would evolve through improved cooperation and not through schemes of federation.
The policy of Splendid Isolation
Salisbury is associated with a policy of splendid isolation. This is a rather simplistic analysis of his policy. He was not averse to making alliances with foreign powers if he believed they benefitted Britain and indeed he did make such alliances with the central powers and even contemplated an entente with Germany. For him foreign affairs was about strategy and making decisions on the basis of whether they benefitted Britain or not, but politics at the end of the c19th was a complicated business and with Salisbury preferring to keep matters close to his chest his advisers often had no idea what policy he was pursuing and with whom.
When Salisbury took office as Prime Minister for the first time in 1887, Britain had lost its dominance of the world. The major European powers were wanting to carve out their own empires, mainly in Africa. France was seeking revenge for her defeat at the hands of Germany in 1871 and wanted to establish an empire in north Africa to re-establish her status and prestige as a great European power. Similarly the newly created Germany and Italy saw Empire as providing them with not only prestige but the raw materials and markets to sustain their programme of industrialisation. In 1873 there was an economic depression in Europe which continued off and on until the turn of the century. With these European powers adopting tariffs as a way of protecting their growing economies and seeing colonies as potential markets Britain saw her exports to Europe fall. Empire was seen as necessary for economic growth and the last quarter of the c19th saw a European power scramble to acquire colonies in the largely unconquered continent of Africa. Salisbury and Bismarck also saw the acquisition of colonies as a way of settling European disputes for colonies could be used as makeweights in diplomatic negotiations - Bismarck had acquired south west Africa for Germany in 1884 to put pressure on Britain in that part of Africa.
The original man associated with a railway from the Cape to Cairo was the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Edward Arnold, in 1874, but it was Rhodes who did mot to realise the project as this cartoon from 1892 showss
From the Cape to Cairo
Within a year of becoming Prime Minister, Salisbury had come to the conclusion, with the help of explorer Harry Johnstone, that Britain should seek to create an area of influence that stretched from the Cape to the Nile delta. Salisbury recognised the importance of India to Britain and maintaining control of the route to India. He also realised that the French -Russian entente meant that he could not control Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean so it became imperative for Britain to keep hold of Egypt if the route to India was to be held.
He had tried to negotiate a treaty arranging for Britain's withdrawal from Egypt in 1887 but this had failed making him realise that Britain needed to keep hold of Egypt. It became his policy to extend British interests from the Cape northwards into central Africa, from the Nile delta southwards into the Sudan and from Zanzibar westwards to control the headwaters of the Nile.
Expanding the British Empire on the cheap with private companies
With the French seeking to establish an empire from the Niger to the Nile and German soldiers of fortune operating in east Africa independently of the German government, and King Leopold of Belgium seeking to create a huge colony in the Congo region, Salisbury found it difficult to achieve his objectives especially as the British taxpayer did not want to foot the bill. However through a policy of allowing the work of conquest and commerce to be conducted by independent capitalists, and then using diplomacy to remove the military obstacles put in their way by foreign powers Salisbury achieved a great deal.
The Prime Minister used the idea of the private chartered company which had been used to run India, to achieve his objectives in Africa. In July 1886 the Royal Niger Company had been granted a charter by the Gladstone government to control trade in the Niger region and then in 1888 Salisbury granted a charter to Mackinnon's Imperial East African Company to operate in the area between the coast and Lake Victoria. The Niger Company was in constant conflict with French traders and although Salisbury was able to sign an agreement with the French in 1890 recognising north Africa as an area of French influence, it took until 1898 before he was able to sign an agreement with the French to end the conflict over the Niger. He was more successful though in dealing with German ambitions in east Africa. The two countries in 1890 signed an agreement by which in return for Heligoland, Britain was given Zanzibar, Uganda and Witu.
Perhaps Salisbury's greatest use of the chartered private company was when he granted a charter to Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company in October 1889. Rhodes and his associates controlled £13 million in assets and had supporters in society, the City and in Parliament and it made economic sense to allow Rhodes to extend British influence north from the Cape into Matabeleland, Mashonaland and beyond. Without Rhodes' help the area would possibly pass into the hands of the Boers, Germans or the Portuguese. Rhodes' money was also used to fund Harry Johnstone's venture to establish British influence in Nyasaland which he did by persuading local chiefs to accept presents and sign blank treaty forms. Using men like Rhodes, Mackinnon and Goldie of the Royal Niger Company the British Empire acquired two million extra square miles of territory at little cost to the taxpayer.
When Salisbury returned to office in 1895, he was not to be as effective as before. His health was failing and his wife was dying from cancer. Moreover, he had in the Colonial Office Joseph Chamberlain one of the most charismatic politicians of the day. Chamberlain was to use the Colonial Office to further his ambitions of creating a stronger Empire bound in a federation. The final scramble for Africa would take place in this Salisbury's third administration but he was not controlling events as much as he had formerly done.
The Battle of Omdurman
Conflict continued with France over its attempts to create an empire from the Niger to the Nile and Salisbury contemplated war to resolve the disputes. When in 1896 Italy, an ally, was defeated by the Mahdists in Ethiopia, Salisbury ordered (in 1898) Kitchener with his Egyptian army to move south from Egypt into the Sudan. On 2 September 1898 50,000 spearmen, swordsmen and riflemen of the Khalifa's army faced 25,000 Egyptian and British soldiers. The ensuing battle at Omdurman was the most unequal in history, as smokeless Lee-Metfords and Maxim guns tore into the advancing Mahdists leaving 10,800 bodies scattered in the desert and 16,000 wounded.
Following his victory Kitchener was ordered to proceed up the White Nile with a small force to repudiate all foreign claims. He was to come face to face with a French expedition led by Captain Marchand and it was here that Anglo-French rivalry would reach its conclusion. The matter was referred to the respective governments. Salisbury met with the French ambassador and began to put pressure on the French. The Reserve Fleet was manned and war orders drafted for the Home and Mediterranean Fleets. Amid riots in France during the Dreyfus Affair the French government, realising the British were intent on war and that Salisbury meant business had to climb down. Salisbury had used the threat of war as a last resort and gained an important diplomatic victory.
The Boer War
In 1899 the threat of war was again used by Salisbury to achieve Britain's objectives in South Africa, the creation of a British dominated area through persuading the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State to join a federation of white territories. In this situation Salisbury was bullied by Chamberlain against his better judgement to believe the Transvaal President, Kruger, would agree to the demands of the British government. Kruger though was not to be bullied.
Ever since the failed Jameson Raid of December 1895, the Kruger government had prepared for war believing that Britain was intent on destroying the Transvaal. When in March 1899 the ' uitlanders' in the Transvaal ( the mainly British foreign mine workers) appealed to Victoria to support their claim for better political rights, Chamberlain used their claims as a way of putting pressure on Kruger. In September 1899 the pressure increased with the Cabinet sending 10,000 troops to Natal. Salisbury believed in private that Kruger would not surrender to the British but Salisbury knew that Britain could not flinch from war - that would mean giving up any pretensions to dominate South Africa. He realised too late the hold that Milner, High Commissioner in South Africa, and Chamberlain held over public opinion and when Kruger issued an ultimatum to Britain in October 1899 that was all those clamouring for war needed to justify sending additional troops to destroy the Boers.
Britain's preoccupation with the Boer War weakened Salisbury's hand in the China crisis which broke out in 1900. He was losing his grip on foreign policy and the Cabinet had to exert considerable pressure on Salisbury to get him to appreciate the seriousness of the crisis. Eventually he agreed to send British reinforcements to China and called upon the USA and Japan to provide troops.
Boer guns at the siege of Mafeking
The events in South Africa, particularly the three defeats in a week in December 1899, called into question the ability of the army to defend Britain in a European War and led to demands for Britain to abandon her policy of not entering into any entangling alliances. The Boer War also showed up the noble motives for empire - being about the civilising of nations - to be a sham. The nation began to fall out of love with the notion of empire and with the election of the Liberal government in 1906, the aggressive nationalism that was a feature of the New Imperialism became a thing of the past.
Salisbury left office in July 1902 following the conclusion of a treaty with the Boers. Office had become distasteful to him and the world of a popular press, the telegraph and a popular franchise was a world he did not understand. He did though expand the British Empire and was instrumental in establishing a line of British influence stretching from the Nile Delta to Cape Town. He had done this at a minimal cost to the taxpayer and had only taken the country to war in 1899 after he had lost control of the Cabinet. He had done everything he could to maintain the strength of the British Empire and maintain British dominance of the African continent. Whether control of the whole continent was necessary to defend British interests is questionable but whether he liked it or not he had to be aware of the public mood and the wishes of politicians and writers who wanted a stronger Empire than he did.