what was the ideology of the British Empire? - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content
Missionaries in India

What was the ideology of the British Empire?

A Private Enterprise Empire
The British Empire that Edward VII inherited in 1901 was a private enterprise empire created by merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries with the government acting in a support role. Each of these groups had their own needs and interests and vision for how they wanted colonies to develop and often their interests clashed. Migrants wanted to colonise, civil servants in London wanted to civilise, missionaries wanted to convert and merchants wanted to make money and officials in the Colonial Office had to act as the umpire between often conflicting interests. The Empire included people of many different religions and languages living in very different parts of the world governed, all with very different cultures. The British Empire was described by John Seeley, author of the best selling 'The Expansion of England'  as having grown in 'an absence of fit of mind' for it had grown over the c19th century with little public support except for the last quarter century and was just a 'rag bag of territorial bits and pieces' as the historian Ronald Hyam describes the Empire. There had never existed a government plan for the empire or even an overall vision of what the Empire was and who it served. The Empire lacked coherence and with different groups working to achieve different ends there was no overall ideology.
From the time that the empire was established in the Americas in the early c17th until the First World War, the dominant motive was trade and  the pursuit of wealth, but alongside these constant objectives there was always a moral or religious motive for empire. The East India Company was the first private company created (in 1600) and existed to trade with spice suppliers in the East Indies in 1600 but just twenty years later a charter was given to Calvinists to create a colony where they would be free to worship in their own way. The moral element was a constant influence on the making of Empire and in the c19th the Mission to Civilise became an important justification for the territorial expansion in Africa in the last quarter of the century.
East India House London
Another constant feature of the British Empire was the lack of any effective central imperial control. The imperial government acted to provide military support to support British trading ventures and to mediate between competing interest groups but with communications poor until the late c19th, colonies had to deal with threats to their existence in their own way. Throughout the first two phases of the British Empire, the imperial government was kept aware of the changing geopolitical arena and policy was often made to deal with potential threats as seen by political officers on the ground. In the period before the Napoleonic Wars the imperial government had to be aware of threats to British territories from Spain, France and then the independent United States. Later in the c19th the main threat to the empire was seen to come from the rise of Russia in central Asia. Predicting a future threat was difficult and in the Great Game British spies would travel deep into Asia to try and ascertain the viability of the Russian threat.

The pursuit of trade, religion and geopolitics were all important in the first phase of the British Empire. 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.

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 this end the Navigation Acts of 1649, 1660, the Staple Act of 1663 and the Plantation Act of 1673 sought to ban non-British ships from carrying goods of any kind between Britain and her colonies or between colonies. British carriers were also given the protection of the Royal Navy by an Act of 1649. To enable the Royal Navy to support and protect British trade the government began a ship building programme from 1650 so that by 1679 the navy had 86 ships and twice that number within another thirty years. The government recognised the importance of trade to Britain's wealth and security and was prepared to protect it from outside forces. Such a policy would remain at the heart of Colonial policy until the end of empire.
The Royal Navy protected the world's seas for British trade
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.
Britain was the entrepot for the world's trade
At the end of the eighteenth century, virtually all of the products of the non-European world flowed through Britain: products such as coffee, sugar, rum, cotton, silk. The American Revolution did nothing to change Britain's stranglehold on world trade. London was the centre of world finance and ports like Bristol and Liverpool flourished from the flow of raw materials through them. London was the home of the East India Company and Britain was the home base of the slave trade. As Britain embraced the industrial revolution the skills and experiences of the eighteenth century were to be put to good use as Britain built an empire that was to have a lasting impact on those who lived in it. Having made British ports the centre of world trade through the mercantilist legislation, Britain would remain at the centre of world trade right through the c19th even after the mercantilist laws had been revoked.

These early chartered companies had the full support of Parliament. There existed the hope that in time settlements in the Americas could make Britain self-sufficient. The Americans could replace Scandinavia as the source for tar and timber for ship building and given its latitude,  the same as the Mediterranean, could provide wine, fruit, salt and even silk but it was none of these goods that would be the salvation of these new colonies - it would be tobacco that was first planted in Virginia, the Jamestown colony in 1617. Mass imports from Virginia would make smoking a universal habit and no longer the luxury it had been.

By 1700 thirteen British colonies stretched along the North American coast and a number of colonies existed in the West Indies. The Barbados Company had received a charter from Charles in 1627. They hoped to make money from tobacco as Virginia was now beginning to but it wasn't profitable and they tried switching to cotton before eventually in 1643 planting sugar which saved Barbados. Within fifty years sugar plantations covered four fifths of the island and this sugar revolution transformed the economies of the West Indies. The success of Barbados quickly led to the occupation of other islands by settlers but not without bringing conflict between native people and other European powers.

The moral imperative was an important motibve for empire
The pursuit of wealth was always the prime motive for establishing new colonies but from the beginning of the Empire in the Americas until the end of empire in the 1960s there was a moral imperative. The Pilgrim Fathers who settled in Massachusetts in 1620 had come to America to find a place where they old follow their religion in the way they wanted. The settlers  were Calvinists who wanted to be separate from the English Church. Quarrels over the level of religious freedom that should be tolerated continued in the established colonies so that by 1660 there were settlements of about 30,000 in New England, many of whom left as a result of arguments about their own beliefs. Rhode Island and Maryland were both settled by religious refugees.

God having made the world for the use of men….ordained them to replenish it
Religion was not just the cause of further colonies being established: it was used by the early settlers to justify taking over land from native peoples. America was described in a sermon in 1609 as a 'land which had been  wrongly usurped by wild beasts and unreasonable creatures'. The view that America was a richly endowed virgin awaiting a husband was a commonly held view at the time and at the heart of the English justification for taking America. John Milton wrote that 'God having made the world for the use of men….ordained them to replenish it'. It became the duty of settlers, as they saw it, to make best use of America's abundant resources if native people failed to recognise their won inheritance. It was to be a feature of much of the British Empire that recourse was made to God to justify the extension of the empire by taking the lands of native peoples. In the late c19th this was to become a virtual ideology of the empire - the Mission to Civilise and the way that the British saw themselves as having been ordained by God - to civilise the lands it held.
Between 1790 and 1830 the British Empire was transformed as a number of elements came together to create the conditions for the rapid expansion of the empire. The American colonies had fought a War of Independence to free themselves from Britain in 1783 yet this had little impact on trade with Britain. But what did change was that Britain was to create a second empire in the east with India as its focal point. With population increase in Britain acting to encourage rapid agricultural and industrial change, an evangelical revival which led to the development of mission stations abroad and the military and naval dominance of Britain made possible by the victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo, the conditions were created for Britain to develop the larges empire in history.

Free trade became the economic orthodoxy in the c19th
There was also 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. 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.

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.
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. It had come about through the efforts of private investors and businessmen. The imperial government had deviated little from the policy of minimum interference. One of the constraints of being a Parliamentary democracy was the need to keep a close watch over the purse strings. There was not the money to establish large overseas establishments with civil servants manning the administration and soldiers keeping order from their purpose-built barracks. The imperial government did not encourage the annexation of foreign territories and the sending of military forces around the world. If trading links could be established with countries without the cost of conquest and the establishment of a colonial regime so much the better. As it happens the informal empire was just as important as the formal empire, if not more important. Even if it were deemed important for trade and the acquisition of raw materials to establish control over a territory, the government 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 need only be established when informal arrangements broke down. Egypt was a good example of how this policy worked.  The British had established good links with eh government of Egypt after Disraeli had bought a controlling interest in the Suez Canal. When a nationalist revolt threatened that relationship, the government sent in General Wolseley with an imperial army to conquer Egypt and then establish a pro-British regime with British ‘advisers’
During the 19th century though, the empire acquired a moral dimension, which defenders of the empire claimed made the British Empire different from any other empire in history. The moral element was used to justify the extension of the Empire which expanded from just over two million acres in 1837 to nearly twelve million acres by 1901.

This moral element arose out of the massive confidence which the British felt about their empire at a time when Britain was workshop of the world and at a time when there had been an evangelical revival. As N Ferguson has said 'The 18th century was amoral. the Victorian empire was quite different as the Victorians saw their duty to redeem the world and to improve other races.'
The HQ of the Church Missionary Society in London
Palmerston  said of the British  and their empire in 1848, 'Our duty  -our vocation is not to enslave, but to set free; and I may say without any vainglorious boast, or without great offence to anyone, that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations.' The idea of moral improvement of the people of the empire together with their commercial improvement had been followed by the missionaries that were sent all over the world by the various missionary societies but by the middle of the century the idea that Britain's role was to civilise the world and ordained by God was accepted by the majority of the population. This belief was used to justify territorial annexation and wars against countries that tried to prevent the advance of British trade around the world.

The 'Mission to Civilise'
This 'Mission to  Civilise' the world arose out of the evangelical revival of the late 18th century which produced the political campaign to abolish first the slave trade and  then slavery itself.  The evangelical revival became more urgent in the last decade of the 18th century as the end of the century drew near and with the possibility of invasion by the French imminent.  The evangelical revival stressed the need for individual salvation and personal redemption, holiness and a purposeful life. Central to evangelicalism was the study of the bible and translating it for native people abroad. It was thought that the bible held the truth about the human race. This establishment of a missionary revival became an important part of national  identity.

During the early 18th century the idea of missionary activity abroad was criticised as a waste of energy when there were so many heathen souls to be saved at home but by the 1790s an optimistic view prevailed about humanity. It was then accepted that all individuals were capable of salvation and it just required being  introduced to  God. It was possible for all mankind to  receive salvation  for  their wickedness. With this view prevalent, it became  acceptable to establish missions abroad. With the voyages of Captain Cook having  opened up the world  to the British people in the 1770s, there were plenty of souls abroad that could be  saved by missionary activity and the British began a century of sending missionaries abroad to convert native peoples.

William Carey, who almost singlehandedly founded  the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 with a mission in India, was at the time criticised for his  views on foreign missions  but following the founding of his society other missionary societies soon followed. In 1795 the London Missionary Society was founded and focused its activity in southern Africa. A year later the Scottish Missionary Society, an interdenominational society, was founded and also focused its work in Africa. In 1799 the Anglican society, the Church Missionary Society, was founded and established missions in  southern Africa. The work these organisations did  around the world together with the campaign to abolish the slave trade helped to produce an attitude that Britain held the moral high ground. Following the abolition of slavery in the empire in 1833, Britain established a naval patrol in west African whose job  was to catch slave traders. Britain also tried to persuade other countries to  abolish slavery and allow their ships to be stopped by the Royal Navy.

With the development of the industrial revolution after 1815, the British nation felt a confidence about themselves and their role in the world that bordered on arrogance. the British began to feel they were a chosen race ad that it was their destiny and humanitarian duty to combat ignorance, alleviate suffering and brig western civilisation to the world. One of the earliest missionaries, the Reverend Marsden, said of the Maori that the spread of the knowledge of the works of Christ would be the making of the Maori and the development of them as a great nation. For some missionaries, their work was seen as an atonement for the slave trade.

Letters about the work of missionaries were sent home and helped to raise awareness among the general public about the work of missions and the necessity of their work. Missionary work became the focus of many churches and chapels and money was raised to further the work they did. When missionaries returned from India and Africa they held meetings to talk about their experiences and to generate further interest and by the middle of the century there existed an army of helpers that supported those working in the field.

In the late Victorian era, attitudes towards native peoples changed and the question of race began to be discussed. 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. To justify the annexation of new territories and the subjugation of indigenous people, writers like Herbert Spencer wrote of the ‘Survival of the Fittest'.

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.

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. The publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and its interpretation by Social Darwinists like Spencer challenged the traditional views about native people held by missionaries. Many began to question ideas about the universality of humanity, particularly after the Indian Rebellion and the Jamaican Uprising, during which a number of white settlers were killed bringing huge reprisals by Governor Eyre. The missionary work in Africa and India had failed to bring the number of conversions that the missionary societies had hoped for. David Livingstone himself was to leave missionary work for exploration of central Africa.

Interpretations of Darwin's work suggested that racial differences had existed for millions of years prompting a discussion about the importance of race as a determinant of human progress and raising doubt about whether missionaries would be able to civilise native peoples. Anthropologic societies were founded all over Britain. Dr James Hunt openly said that some races could never be civilised. The explorer Richard Burton went as far as suggesting that the African needed to be removed from Africa to experience improvement. Many missionaries became disillusioned with their work and in areas like Nigeria and New Zealand, little was achieved by missionaries for several decades.

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
The British in India
The British began to trust native peoples less than they had done as attitudes hardened. In India the Raj developed with the British creating enclaves which were recreations of little England with houses, customs, entertainment and food giving a feeling of being at home. what the British did not do was to question their attitudes. The feeling that the British were a superior race by virtue of what they had achieved economically and culturally if anything grew stronger and became an important part of the New Imperialism of the last quarter of the century.
Whereas Christian communities had been behind the spread of British values in the earlier part of the century, it was now left to the secular world to promote the notion of it being the role of the British to export their way of life. It was John Ruskin in 1870 who declared it was the role of the British to found colonies and then send her best men to teach colonists to be faithful to Britain. Two years later Disraeli put the empire at the centre of politics when he said that the British could remain comfortable and insular or become a great nation, an imperial nation that commanded the respect of the world.

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.

An Empire of Liberty
An idea at the heart of the British Empire was the idea that it was an empire of liberty, especially when compared with empires that existed then and previously. Britain had a liberal Parliamentary constitution which was able to impose constraints on the actions of colonial authorities and residents, and Britain governed in a way that allowed for a degree of local self-government. The widening of the franchise in the c19th also resulted in enlightened MPs sitting in the House of Commons and with the widening of the franchise after 1832, politicians had o take into account the views of the electorate.

The British believed their empire was a liberal empire. They saw it as a force for good, bringing development and civilisation, if even at times British forms of government and her preferred trading system had to be forced on indigenous populations. Free trade was seen as  morally good , and a form of trade that was linked to the spread of free speech, ideas and free movement.

The British Empire had developed through the efforts of private enterprise but when the privileges accorded the private company were abused parliament was ready to step in. In the 1770s, Parliamentary investigations into the East India Company (HEIC) conclude that a despotic form of government had been established by the nabobs and elite with the HEIC that went right ot th heart of the administration in India .Huge amounts of money were being made by the Company’s servants, often through the extortion of local people. Eventually parliament passed the Regulating Act, to make clear the imperial government’s right to oversee the running of British held India. This was the first in a number of Acts that restricted the power of the HEIC which eventually in 1858 had all its power taken away and ceased to exist.
The influx of evangelical MPs from the 1790s also resulted in the abolition of first the Slave trade and then Slavery in the Empire. Having abolished slavery the House of Commons set up a committee to oversee the treatment of indigenous people in the Crown colonies.

The American Revolution had taught the imperial government the dangers of not allowing a degree of self-government so when there were a series of uprisings in Canada in the 1830s, Lord Durham was sent out to report on the situation and produce a report with his recommendations. The Durham Report of 1839 concluded that the rebellions were born out of political frustration and consequently self-government was accorded to Canada in a federal structure that was introduced in 1867. This became the model for the white settler dominions  although the Crown Colonies and India were not accorded the same democratic rights. In India the government did all it could to avoid giving away any kind of democratic but pressure on the local government did result in political reforms , but only when the alternative was possible widespread rebellion.
Men on the Spot
Frererick Lugard

William des Voeux

The Crown Colonies were usually governed by an official appointed by the Colonial Office who was able to rule more or less as he wished. In many cases Governors of Crown Colonies rules in a benevolent way and sought to introduce reforms to improve living and working conditions although sometimes as with the case of William des Voeux, the pressure from local businessmen was such that to defend the rights of local native workers became difficult.

William des Voeux was forced to leave his job as a magistrate in British Guinea because he tried to improve local working conditions against the wishes of local plantation owners. He went to St Lucia where he worked hard to introduce reforms to benefit local people and was later a successful Governor of Hong Kong. There were many other Governors or local officials like des Voeux but there were also colonial officials that worked to use their position to destroy local culture and the power of indigenous people.
Such a man was Bartle Frere who having been sent to South Africa at the end of his career sought to destroy the power and the culture of the Zulu people, and engineered a war against them which led to the British disaster at Isandhlwana in 1879. Cecil Rhodes did much the same in 1893 to destroy the Matabele people, and much of the blame for bringing about the Second Anglo-Boer War can be laid at the door of the ‘man on the Spot’, High Commissioner Milner.
Back to content