Was the British Empire Racist? - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content

Was the British Empire racist?

Christian missionaries went to India as part of the 'Mission to Civilise'
The empire was a force for good
At Queen Victoria’s accession the British Empire consisted of about two million square miles and 100 million people. When she died in 1901 the British Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen, covering eleven square miles and including a population of 372 million subjects. The expansion had happened at a time when Britain had been the first country to industrialise and have unrivalled control over  the world’s shipping lanes and her military forces could cope with any threat. With this expansion of the empire and the improvement in travel, there began to be more contact between peoples at different levels of development to the British. Travellers like Mary Kingsley would return from adventures in Africa or Asia  and pack lecture halls with stories of their encounters. This increased familiarity with the native peoples of the empire helped to intensify the debate in Britain about the nature and relevance of race.

 There was general agreement in Britain in the c19th that the empire was a very powerful force for good and that the empire through the development of trade and the spread of Christian values and beliefs, was a crucial factor in the economic and cultural development of subject peoples. There were though strong differences in opinion as to whether subject peoples possessed the abilities to develop in the way envisaged by missionaries, philanthropists and  radicals many of whom believed that native peoples were capable of developing to the same level as Europeans. Many settlers, soldiers, entrepreneurs though took the view that the differences between subject peoples and Europeans were so inherent that development to European levels was impossible. Throughout the century there was debate and disagreement about the very basic notions of what constituted race and it remained a vague concept until the early c20th.
Violence was a part of empire
Although the British people  saw their empire as a force for good, subject peoples did not surrender their territories to imperial countries without a fight.  Violence was always a key means by which native peoples were subjected to the new rule of an imperial country. Empires therefore were nearly always vehicles for oppression and exploitation. This oppression is nowadays seen by many historians as being racial in nature, but it can also be seen as the oppression of class, nation and culture.
Resistance to British territorial annexation was part of imperial rule. Here aborigines resist British expansion in the Murray River region
Until the c17th race was an insignigicant part in explaining conflict
The British Empire was to a large degree an empire created by private business with the government playing a minimal part. The Imperial government had no masterplan for the empire. Few politicians took an interest in the empire until the last quarter of the century, and the Colonial Office saw itself as an umpire between the often conflicting interests of settlers, business, native people and an imperial government that wanted to limit expenditure on the military and keep native people relatively happy.

The British Empire lacked any coherence. It consisted of territories scattered throughout the world with little in common. There were various motives for the expansion of the empire in the c19th and sometimes these motives were in conflict. Territories were annexed to provide new settlements for those wanting to construct a better life, to house prisoners, to exploit natural resources, to provide strategic bases and to maintain control of an area that was of crucial interest to Britain. Missionaries operated in different parts of Africa and Asia seeking  conversions. Some of these groups clashed as they had different attitudes to native peoples.

To suggest that the British Empire was racist is to suggest firstly it had a coherence it did not possess. Throughout the c19th there were people who expressed racist ideas and there were racist acts perpetrated but equally there were others who believed in the development of native people.

In coming to a conclusion on this question it is important to define our terms but also remember as I will outline later that there was in the c19th no accepted view as to what constituted racism. We would now accept that a race is a group of people united by a common descent, skin colour and physiology and having a common culture and outlook although in the c19th there was no such understanding of what constituted race. Many people used the terms race, people and nation without differentiating between them. For me racism is the belief that some races are inherently inferior and are to be treated differently. The key here is the word ‘inherent’.  I think it is also important to understand that there is a difference between racism and paternalism.  A paternalist in the c19th would believe in a universal humanity and the idea of monogenesis and believe that native peoples were capable of developing to the same level as all other races.

In his book ‘The Undivided Past’ David Cannadine looks at race and how important it is as a form of identity, compared with other
identities (religion, class, nation, gender and civilization). He gives a survey of the relative role of race in world history and makes the point that until the c17th race was of little significance. The Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman Empires were built on slavery, but slaves were not determined by colour but by geography. In the Roman Empire slaves were the property of their owners who could buy and sell them. Slaves were treated appallingly at times – they could be killed at any time, were whipped and generally mistreated. Slaves worked everywhere and were fundamental to the success of the Roman economy, but colour was not a factor in their selection.

The Christian belief in a shared humanity was a barrier to racial thinking
Successive empires were based on slavery or used slaves but invariably these slaves were white. The Christian belief in a shared humanity and the doctrine of monogenesis (the similarity of different races indicated a common origin) were a strong barrier to any racial thinking until the Enlightenment, when  the traditionally accepted doctrine of monogenesis and the idea of a common humanity was challenged. The experience of discovery of new lands and the observing of different groups of people and how they lived their lives led to the spread of ideas about polygenesis, where the different human races are held to be sub-species of homo sapiens.

The development of the Atlantic slave trade and of Africans being used as slaves began to establish in people’s minds a connection between freedom, whites and superiority on the one hand and blackness, servitude and inferiority on the other hand. The early plantation workers in the West Indies and the southern colonies of the American mainland were initially white who had entered into a contract or indenture which said they had to work an agreed number of years before they were free, or their freedom was bought by family already in the Americas. If their family did not redeem them they would be sold into servitude. Such was the system until around 1700 when whites were gradually  replaced by negro slaves. The first black slaves had arrived in Virginia in 1619 but there was just a trickle until 1670 when the importation of slaves rose quickly.
Slavery caused writers to question traditional beliefs
With the development of negro slavery, writers began to question the long held doctrines of monogenesis. David Hume wrote how negroes were inferior to whites and Immanuel Kant believed that whites and blacks were two separate races. It was not long before writers were creating hierarchies of races. The Swede, Carolus Linnaeus in 1775, ordered and ranked humanity into four races whilst others of the period ranked the world’s population into five or six races. Thomas Jefferson himself concluded that the differences between black and white people were fixed in nature whilst the American Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to ‘free White persons of good character.’
The c18th saw a huge increase in the number of slaves being transported across the Atlantic to North America and the West Indies to work on the tobacco and sugar plantations. By the 1790s as many as 480,000 slaves were working on British plantations in the Americas. At the same time as the Slave Trade was developing, there was an evangelical revival in the Anglican Church and the establishment of Methodism which led eventually to the creation of a movement to abolish the slave trade.

At the beginning of the c18th there was conflict within the Anglican Church over the place of non-conformists within the Church. This encouraged the Wesley brothers to found the Methodist movement, so called because of the method of prayer and study used. The idea of the mission was a central part in the evangelical revival of the century. It was crucial to the culture of evangelicalism which saw individual salvation at the heart of missionary work. What better way to achieve salvation than by the conversion of others? As missionary culture became more and more important, it became a part of British national identity.

There was some debate among evangelicals as to whether according to the older John Rylands, conversion of ‘heathens’ would occur when God was  ready, and that missionaries should not interfere in this process but by the late c18th, Rylands objections to missionary work abroad was seen as anachronistic. By the 1790s a more optimistic view of missionary work prevailed which held that salvation was available to all and depended only on being willing to receive God. With the argument won, many missionary societies were formed to work abroad in the 1790s. The Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792 followed by the London Missionary Society, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society.
There existed the belief among all Christians in Britain that non-Europeans were different from Europeans in their morality, law and religion but that all humans were part of the same human race and non-Europeans were just at different stages of development. There was universal belief in Britain that the ‘barbaric practices’ of non-Europeans could be eradicated, and all could become Christian. Europeans and especially the British believed they were superior to non-Europeans, but this difference was based on morality, culture and religion and not colour.


The evangelical revival led to the abolition of slavery
The establishment of missionary societies was one result of the evangelical revival in the late c18th, the other was the creation of the campaign to abolish the Slave Trade led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. As if to emphasise societies’ belief in the ability of the negro to develop, both men became sponsors of an experimental colony, Sierra Leone in 1787, which was to introduce civilisation to the native West African. Sierra Leone did well and in 1808 became a crown colony. As a result of the campaign of Wilberforce and Clarkson, the Slave Trade was abolished in 1807. The campaign had produced thousands of tracts with stark images of the slave trade, stories of the horrific trade in slavery and details of the legal arguments which won the support of people from all over Britain. Petitions were used to persuade MPs of the horrors of the trade and well attended meetings helped to galvanise support from the general public.

Abolition of the Slave Trade in British ships became a source of pride for the British nation but was much easier to achieve than the abolition of slavery itself. This only came about when MPs were convinced that slavery was not viable. MPs may have been convinced to abolish the slave trade on moral and humanitarian grounds but it was more difficult to get them to abolish slavery throughout the Empire. Plantation owners had some success in convincing parliament that the plantations were humane places but with the increasing number of slave uprisings together and the growth of missionary work, the campaign eventually succeeded in persuading Parliament to abolish slavery altogether in the British Empire. By the 1830s many of the plantations in the West Indies were not financially viable and this made it easier for Parliament to make the decision to abolish slavery.
By the time that slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, missionaries were working around he empire in ever greater numbers and this helped to promote ever more discussion about the nature of race, ranking of race and racial identity. This came at a time when intermarriage amongst races was common in the Spanish Empire in Central and South America and also in India, administered by the East India Company. The campaign by missionaries to spread Christianity though led to mixed marriages in the British Empire being frowned upon. Increasingly from the 1830s, British servants abroad looked to find wives from amongst the white European women they encountered during the course of their work or from their spells of leave back in Britain.

Slavery in the British Empire was abolished in 1833 to be implemented over the following years. At this time the Colonial Office was headed by the evangelical Lord Glenelg with James Stephen, as his under-secretary. It was Stephen who had written the 1833 Act and who was a committed evangelical. These two men helped to establish the idea of trusteeship – that it was the British government’s responsibility to ensure the interests of native peoples were paramount in the administration of colonies. This principle was upheld in the Buxton Report produced by the House of Commons report on Aborigines (1837) which asserted that it was the imperial duty to safeguard the rights of natives and suggested a share of colonial revenues be set aside for their education and religious instruction. The report concluded that Britain’s main concern in annexing territory should be to develop civilisation and humanity, peace and good government and to spread the knowledge of God. It asserted that converts wanted the advantage of a civilised life and commercial benefits would inevitably follow.
Lord Glenelg, head of the Colonial Office in the 1830s
Under the leadership of Glenelg, the Colonial Office tried to protect the interests of native people
Under Glenelg’s influence the incorporation of Queen Adelaide province in South Africa was rejected in 1836 in order to prevent the exploitation of native people and when in 1840 British settlers were on the verge of forcing native tribes to sign disadvantageous treaties the Colonial Office, ordered the annexation of New Zealand and the signing of a treaty with the Maori tribes.
Following Glenelg and Stephen leaving the Colonial Office the idea of trusteeship and humanitarian policies declined in importance. With communication with far away colonies difficult and settlers confronted by constant threat of violence, the Buxton Report was largely ignored. This does not mean though that the interests of native peoples were ignored completely. The Aborigine Protection Society was founded in 1837 and worked to support the interests of native peoples around the world and the influence of the evangelical movement remained strong. Lord Russell himself defined the imperial purpose as to encourage religious instruction, preserve internal order and encourage native peoples to believe that wherever the British flag flew, there was a protector who would check oppression and provide impartial administration.
Attitudes towards the possibility of converting native people began to change from 1850
The idea of trusteeship and what became the ‘Mission to Civilise’ remained at the heart of British Imperialism throughout the c19th. Much of it was mere rhetoric and used to justify the annexations of the late Victorian period when Britain saw the Empire as the means to deal with the threat from the USA and new European nations like Germany. The idea of Britain having a ‘Mission to Civilise’ arose out of the superiority which British people felt which came from their having abolished slavery, their technological superiority, the very existence of a global empire and the military dominance which was the legacy of Trafalgar and Waterloo. This global dominance led to a feeling of arrogance and smugness amongst the British people which made them believe they were superior not just to native peoples but to other Europeans as well.
In a lecture given in 2011, Professor Richard Evans of Gresham College, describes what he sees as ‘the innate sense of the superiority of the British over the inhabitants of other countries’. Evans writes how Punch regularly satirized the British traveller for his arrogance, his lack of awareness of foreign customs and his failure to master foreign languages. As Britain industrialised, as trade and British cities grew, British travellers thought they were stepping back in time when they went to Germany and Italy  which were seen as dirty, smelly and unhygienic. Henry Mayhew, author of a classic book on the poor of London, found Germany extremely backward and a century behind Britain in the refinements of civilisation. At least Europe was Christian and if Europeans were backward, at least they would eventually develop. No such hope could be expected of the Chinese and Africans who were regarded as barbaric - a word often used to describe the peoples the British army came up against.

Views held by the British about the capability of native peoples to become civilised began to change from the middle of the c19th. Writers and missionaries began to discuss the nature of race and the British began to question the commonly held views about the universality of the human race. In attempting to spread Christianity though, the British often   destroyed local traditions and religions and this lack of concern for local customs was a crucial cause of the Indian and Jamaican rebellions.

The idea of there being a universal humanity had been largely accepted in Europe until the mid-c19th but with the gap between the developed world and the undeveloped increasing, people began to question previously held beliefs. Missionaries had gone to India and Africa believing that it was possible to Convert, Christianise and Civilise local indigenous peoples, but when the rate of conversion was not what had been hoped, missionaries began to doubt what they were doing. Livingstone himself had little success in converting natives in South Africa and soon turned to exploring the land.

The uprisings in India and Jamaica  caused many in Britain to question whether native people could be converted and whether they were as grateful as they ought to have been. The British in India felt that Indians had betrayed then. It was believed that Indians had been the beneficiaries of a humane system of government that was helping to improve India and with the rebellion had rejected progress. The rebellion strengthen racism in India and resulted in the British creating separate areas in which they lived.

The rebellion in Jamaica showed how divided opinion was in Britain. The Governor of Jamaica launched a campaign of terror with hundreds being killed. For many in Britain he had saved the lives of many in the white community but for others he represented a racist tyrant. The Governor was sacked by the government but he was not tried.
The Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica led to a huge debate in Britain in the late 1860s on the nature of race
Attitudes towards native people began to change
In the late Victorian era, attitudes towards native peoples changed and the writings of Knox and the interpretation given to Darwin’s books convinced many that native people were incapable of advancement. Races were increasingly ranked with the Victorians assigning rank on the basis of economic and social progress – a ladder of civilisation which led to a society based on the European model. Social Darwinist ideas on race struggle reinforced the views of those who were now turning to polygenesis as an explanation for race.
One of the first writers in Britain to write about race was Robert Knox who is perhaps better known as the doctor associated with Burke and Hare, the body snatchers from Edinburgh. Knox had been an army surgeon in South Africa where he was to see for himself the relationship between the Boers and native peoples. As a result of his time in South Africa Knox published in 1850 a best-selling work, The Races of Men, in which he argued that race was everything and the main determinant for human behaviour. He produced crude stereotypes for different races and his views contributed to the British seeing themselves as superior to other races and particularly to the discussion about polygenesis. Knox was one of the first to rank order races and his views would remain a strong influence of the writings about race for the next hundred years.
Darwin and Spencer
The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) and the subsequent debate about the nature of race polarised the debate about race. Darwin had left unresolved the question as to whether human races were sub-species of homo sapiens or whether they had a common origin. This was the era of New Imperialism when imperial questions began to dominate the political stage as emerging European countries began to see the creation of empires as necessary to a successful economy. Britain’s economic and industrial hegemony began to be challenged and politicians and commentators began to promote the growth of empire as the answer to the challenge from the USA, Germany, France and Italy and the justification for imperial expansion came from those who wrote about  Social Darwinism and what Herbert Spencer termed the ‘Survival of the Fittest’.

The development of ideas on Social Darwinisn provided the evidence that the British needed to support the view that the British were a chosen race, chosen to bring development to the undeveloped world they administered. If Britain was to prepare colonies for independence, and this had to be the logical outcome of Britain’s claim to be civilising countries, there was a complete silence on the question of when Britain would hand over the responsibility of government. There was a generally held view that the Empire was a good thing and that the peoples of the empire benefitted from British administration, but it was also generally accepted that if Britain withdrew from the colonies then chaos would ensure.
In India when there was an attempt in 1883 to develop the range of Indian judges’ jurisdiction, in the Ilbert Bill, there was an outcry that Indian judges might preside over cases involving Europeans. There were reforms in the colonies, especially in India, but the reforms were just a form of appeasement designed to dampen down the fires of discontent. Reform went hand in hand with repression.

By the 1880s, the intellectual ascendency had been won by those advocating racial difference and racial stereotyping. Typical of the writers contributing to the debates about race was Augustus Keane who although a believer in monogenesis was regarded as a racist. Not only was race being debated by pseudo- academics but politicians themselves were adding their thoughts. Harry Johnstone, a famous explorer, expressed doubts over whether the negro would ever advance beyond savagery. Lord Milner, who became the High Commissioner for South Africa in 1897 was a self-declared race patriot who believed in the hierarchy of races. Robert Seeley, Professor of History at Cambridge and author of the best-selling ‘Expansion of England saw the British Empire as an expression of the special genius of the Anglo-Saxon race. Cecil Rhodes talked of how the British were the finest race in the world whilst Kipling advocated Anglo-Saxon nations doing their duty and helping to develop the less developed parts of the world.

There were those who advocated what we might term today as racist views believing that certain native groups were inherently inferior, and that the empire was an expression of Anglo-Saxon superiority but there were also those who used native labour (and treated them appallingly) because cheap, local labour was needed for the economic success of local industry. Were these people chosen because of their colour or because they happened to be living nearby?
There were plenty of people prepared to argue against those who advocated racial difference
Those advocating racial difference and the superiority of the British may have been in the ascendency but there were plenty of others who disagreed with their views. The discussion on race continued well in to the c20th and remained vague with few agreed conclusions. Academics discussed how to define race and the general public continued to conflate race and people, so it is not surprising that there were no conclusion on the great issues.
At all times there were plenty of people and organisations prepared to defend native peoples. Queen Victoria, always interested in the Empire warned against colour prejudice as likely to break up the British Empire. The Aborigines Protection Society worked throughout the century to further the interests of native peoples after its founding in the 1830s and had a number of successes, including the prevention of the incorporation of the Bechuanaland protectorate into South Africa which was demanded by the Cape Colony’s Prime Minister Rhodes in 1895. In India, Viceroy Lord Ripon  worked to reform India and was successful in reorganizing the Forest Department in Madras and developing forest conservancy, but his efforts were limited. Another Viceroy, Lord Canning helped limit the extreme retaliation following the Indian Rebellion. Mary Kingsley was an African explorer who travelled around Britain giving lectures about her exploration in west and central Africa and helped dispel views on African savagery. She defended aspects of African culture  and also criticised British missionaries for their attempts to convert native people, preferring to emphasise the importance of local culture. There existed in parliament a group of MPs always willing to bring any imperial massacre or maltreatment of native people to the attention of the British public. Chief amongst these was Henry Labouchere who criticised the imperial expansion of the late Victorian period and the excesses of British officials who he claimed mistreated native people because of their love of domination and their greed.

By 1900 there was general support in Britain for the British Empire and most thought its civilising mission was of benefit to those who were part of that Empire. There were no established  views on what constituted racism but there was debate over how native people should be treated and governed. In the absence of a United Nations, Britain felt it her responsibility to help develop colonies under her control although there was never an agreed timetable for independence.
There were many who were genuinely committed to the improvement of local people although all too often it came at the cost of local culture and the destruction of local religion. This wasn’t always the case and as shown by the case of Mary Kingsley there were those who deplored the antagonism and conflict that sometimes existed between races. This antagonism usually existed because setters felt threatened by an alien landscape, climate and an indigenous people they did not understand.
The British Empire produced colonies in different types of climate and landscape and ruled in a variety of ways. The people who lived in these colonies had travelled for many different reasons and their attitudes to local people varied from those who felt threatened and fought to defend and expand their territory to those who had sympathy for local people and worked hard to help them.
Mary Kingsley worked hard to improve understanding of African peoples
There were those who were prejudiced and held racist views but there were others who worked with and for native peoples to help them develop.
By the end of the c19th, the British Empire was based on the use of violence and racial division. Acts of violence were regarded as out of the ordinary but when we look at the reaction of the British to events like the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 it becomes clear that the repression of native people with whatever level of violence was regarded as necessary to maintain the security of the empire, and that violence was very much the norm. Repression and conciliation were the guiding principles of an Empire that was run on a limited budget with limited manpower. Indeed, empires throughout history have used violence to establish authority and then maintain it. Empires and indeed nations have put the interest of the mother nation first. How many times have we heard politicians say, ‘British jobs for British people’. Are nation states and empires therefore racist concepts or is violence perpetrated against people on the basis of whether they conform to the rules of the nation or not and race is not necessarily a factor?

The British Empire included those who believed that the British Empire was an expression of Anglo-Saxon superiority and that certain races were inherently inferior and were never going to develop to the same stage as European nations. These people we would define as racist but those who openly declared the inferiority of native peoples were relatively few in number. There were many more who believed that the native peoples of the Empire were capable of advancement and that it was Britain’s duty to help them advance. They believed that Britain was superior to all other nations but in believing that others were capable of development to the level that Britain had advanced to, I would categorise them as paternalists and not racists.

The British Empire produced those who worked amongst native people and had a strong sense of duty to the Empire and believed they were helping those they lived amongst but there were many others who worked out of self-interest. There were those who were prejudiced and held racist views but there were others in Britain and around the Empire who had great sympathy and understanding of the lives of native people.
Back to content