What was the Role of Violence in the British Empire?
Fifteen wars between 1857 and 189
In his excellent book on Empire, 'Unfinished Empire' John Darwin begins his chapter on 'Resorting to War’ by referring to a War Office report of 1902 which stated that there had been fifteen wars between 1857 and 1899. This tally only included the conflicts which involved more than 3,000 British troops. It did not include all the minor conflicts and skirmishes. It did not include the Boer War which involved the use of up to 450,000 troops from the empire. The British Empire in the Victorian era claimed that it was an empire of liberty that brought civilisation to native peoples. The empire did bring benefits for some but the changes imposed on the many often brought resistance.
Conquest, resistance and indirect violenceThe empire increased in size from over 2 million square miles to some 12 million square miles during the Victorian era and this was done largely through the use of war or the threat of war. After territories had been conquered through the use of violence then the violence did not stop there for often there was resistance which had to be put down, often the result of rulers realising what were the realities of signing treaties with the British. Even after resistance had been put down and a native people had been taught that there was little hope of success in resisting, the violence continued either directly or indirectly.
War was expensive
It is the case that all empires are brought about and sustained by the use and threat of violence, and dealing with resistance is expensive. In an age of free trade and few direct taxes, war was an expensive option for the British government. To keep the cost of war down the British resorted to a number of policies. Where possible they tried to appease local settlers by granting self rule but where this was not desirable and there was more likelihood of resistance they used local militia or local natives in the army. For much of the c19th communications between the Colonial Office or the War Office and far away colonies was difficult so that decisions were often made by the men on the ground - the local Governor appointed by the Colonial Office or the Commander-in-Chief of the local forces. Consequently many of the wars of conquest were the result of decisions made by the men on the spot with London being told afterwards and having to defend a decision made for them. Sometimes there would be fierce opposition within Parliament as a result of decisions taken by far away officials as when Parliament condemned the attack on Canton in 1857 and Cobden's motion of censure was won but usually decisions made by Governors and generals were accepted.
Conquest of Sind and Punjab ordered by men on the spotIt was during the early part of Victoria's reign that India was expanded and came under the total control of the British. In 1843 the Governor General Ellenborough sent General Napier to Sind, a neighbouring territory to negotiate an agreement to allow a British presence to remain. Napier was a bible thumping evangelist who wanted to rid Sind of its rulers. He managed to negotiate a treaty which included the handover of land but was not satisfied and invaded Sind with a force of 3,000 men won a one sided contest. Napier imposed annexation on Sind. The action did not please Prime Minister Peel who survived a motion of censure but then dismissed the Governor General.
Two years later, in 1845, the new Governor General Hardinge declared war on the Punjab following a period of unrest in the territory. There followed two wars with the Sikhs of the Punjab in which there was heavy fighting. The Sikhs had 50,000 well trained men whilst the British forces were scattered. The First War lasted over a year and resulted in a British victory and a strict peace imposed on the Sikhs involving the loss of land and the reduction of their army. The second war was the result of unrest amongst unemployed solders and led to the annexation of the Punjab, something which the new Governor Dalhousie had wanted. A huge amount of territory had therefore been acquired without the direct orders from London.
Hong Kong and Kowloon
The government may not have had much to do with the expansion of India, but Palmerston as Foreign Secretary did authorise the expedition which led to the annexation of Hong Kong. In 1839 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 used to take Hong Kong and then shell 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.
The bombing of Canton in the 1840s
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 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.
Wolseley and the Ashante
The government would always act to protect a strategic interest that was threatened or to protect a trading interest and this was seen in several actions in Africa. In 1874 General Wolseley, arguably the best Victorian general, was to make his reputation with his destruction of Ashante, a kingdom in the interior of what is now Ghana. The Ashante were a sophisticated people with a capital at Kumasi that was well designed with avenues of trees and the provision of clean toilets and running water. they also had a powerful army that resented the presence of the British on the coast and their allies the Fante. In 1863 the Ashante invaded the lands of the Fante and so the government sent a regiment from the West Indies and 100 marines who fell sick. Wolseley was sent with a few dozen officers and he decided the situation required regular British troops. Wolseley got his troops and in a carefully planned operation in the jungle with his men regularly taking quinine and lime juice and lighting fires to keep miasma at bay and with short rifles and special clothes for the jungle he finally captured and destroyed Kumasi. This was the first colonial war in Africa and saw the natives being portrayed as ignorant and backward - a portrayal that would continue and be used to justify violence against native communities.
Egypt and Sudan
The opening up of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought British interest in the region and a number of government interventions. In 1882 to ensure the continued use of the Suez Canal at a time of unrest inside Egypt, the Gladstone sent an army of 31,000 troops under Wolseley to bring down Urabi Pasha who himself had overthrown the previous pro-British ruler. Wolseley destroyed Pasha's army at Tel-el-Kebir and Egypt became a British protectorate. Britain now had a responsibility not just for Egypt but also for the Sudan which Egypt ruled. In 1885 British and Egyptian forces were forces out of Sudan by the Mahdi during which General Gordon was killed. In 1898 Kitchener was sent to Sudan to retake the territory and gain revenge for Gordon. Empire had now been armed with the Maxim gun and this was used with great effect. Kitcheners forces lost just 48 dead to the 10,000 that the Mahdist forces lost.
The conquest of Zululand as another annexation promoted by the man on the spot, in this case Sir Bartle Frere, who had been sent to South Africa as High Commissioner and came to the conclusion that the power of the Zulus had to be destroyed. Against the explicit orders of his government, Frere made certain demands on the Zulus and when they refused to implement the demands which included breaking up their military system, waged war. Initially the invasion of Zululand in January 1879 went badly wrong with the defeat at Isandlwana. The gallant defence at Rorke's Drift provided some solace to Frere and his general Chelmsford before Cetewayo's impis were beaten by traditional tactics at eh Battle of Ulundi. Wolseley was then given the task of breaking up the Zulu kingdom which he did with Zululand becoming a British protectorate in 1887.
10,000 kingdoms become 40 states
In the period after 1880, Africa was to be divided between five European powers with Britain ending up ruling a third of the continent. 10,000 kingdoms became forty states, many of them British. The British land grab was a response to the new imperial ambitions of France and Germany at a time when Britain had lost its dominance of the world. The British conquests were achieved by resorting to the methods used in the c17th. Private chartered companies were set up and like the East India Company were given the powers to raise armies and make treaties with local rulers. These companies acquired land by negotiating treaties with local rulers and then sought settlers to buy land to farm or mine. With the aid of the maxim gun, any resistance to the companies' militia could be easily overcome as when in 1893 Rhodes invaded Matabeleland with a volunteer force of 700 to confront Lobengula's force of 3.000. The Battle of Shangana River saw one of the first uses of the Maxim gun and the destruction of Lobengula's men who never got nearer than 100 yards. Men like Rhodes in South Africa, Goldie in Nigeria and Lugard in East Africa advanced the empire or dealt with local resistance with the aid of this new weapon. In this way Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia and Nigeria were formed.
One invasion in which Rhodes is believed to have played a part was the Jameson Raid which was designed to overthrow President Kruger of the Transvaal. The invasion in December 1895 was a failure with all the men being rounded up by Boer commandoes. The failure of this expedition worsened relations between the British government and the Transvaal and the worsening relations led to the Boer War of 1899. This war came about after the Boers sent an ultimatum to the British government but was a war not wanted by prime Minister Salisbury and his Colonial Secretary Chamberlain. They had been pushed into war by the actions of High Commissioner Milner in South Africa. the war lasted until 1902 an resulted in the British annexation of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
General Garnet Wolseley was military commander during the wars against the Ashante (1873/4), the Egyptians (1882) and the capture of Cetewayo (1879)
There were wars of conquest to expand the empire as described above but there was as much violence resulting from dealing with resistance to British rule. Throughout the empire in New Zealand, Australia, India, Africa and Canada there were uprisings that the British authorities had to deal with. Some of these wars were frontier wars to establish real authority that a treaty did not do as borders were vague or the signatories had not full authority to give away land. Some were the result of local rulers suddenly being confronted with the reality of a treaty by which they had unknowingly ceded sovereignty to the British. Some wars or uprisings were the result of settlers or local people not accepting the terms on which the colony was being ruled.
Canadian uprisingsVictoria came to the throne at the same time as there were two separate uprisings in Canada. There existed resentment at the governments policy of allocating land to local elites to maintain the power of the Anglican church, especially in Lower Canada which was French speaking and resented the power in Parliament of the English speaking minority. The uprising in Upper Canada (Ontario) petered out quickly but a force of 1,000 soldiers was needed to quell the uprising in Lower Canada. At the time of federation in 1867 there was resistance to the extension of British control into Manitoba and a 1,000 man force under Wolseley made its way from Lake Ontario to the site of a independent republic established by Louis Riel in 1869. Wolseley put down this revolt bloodlessly but again in 1885 Riel established another republic in northern Saskatchewan. This time twelve mounted police were killed and a force of 8,000 was required to capture Riel who was later hanged.
WaitangiIn New Zealand the government had signed the treaty of Waitangi with a number of Maori chiefs but not all and resistance against the growing numbers of settlers led to a series of wars that went on until the 1860s. The selling of musket to the Maoris also encouraged wars between those Maoris who had sold land to the white settlers and those that wanted to stem the flow of white settlers.
The British may have established their nominal control over the whole of present day India and Pakistan by 1850 but there were continual uprisings against the nature of British rule, particularly the attempts of successive Governor generals to reform Indian religion and customs including the caste system. Between 1836 and 1919 the impoverished farmers of south east India known as the Moplahs rose on more than thirty occasions, mostly out of frustration against local rule. The major rebellion of the Empire and which had a huge impact on attitudes towards empire and its peoples was the Indian rebellion of 1857. The spark for this may have been the rumours about having to use a new rifle which would have broken the caste of those sepoy s who fired the gun but the wide spread grievances in India at the time at how the British were ruling the country meant it was not just 40,000 sepoys of the Bengal army who rose u against the British. The British lost just 2,600 men in battle but they were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indians as they wreaked their revenge in the years that followed. There were frequent public hangings of rebels to demonstrate what happened to those who rebelled.
Wars with the XhosaThere was often resistance to British rule when treaties had been signed or land claimed but without the agreement of all tribes. In South African after the British annexed the Cape in 1806, they established the border of the Cape Colony at the River Kei which lay in the land of the Xhosa who had no intention of giving up their land peacefully to the British. Between 1811 and 1853 there were five wars. One official declared that the elimination of the Xhosa was needed as the only outcome of the contest for land.
First Boer WarThe Boers had left the Cape Colony to avoid British rule but having established their own republic of the Transvaal, the British annexed the republic in 1877 at a time when the Boers were threatened by the Zulu nation. Once the British had defeated the Zulus in 1879, the Boers had nothing to fear from them and so in 1880 rose up against the British who occupied their territory. The Boers beat a British army at Majuba Hill in 1881 in the First Boer War to re-establish their independence which lasted until their defeat at the hands of the British in 1902.
Everyday violenceAs well as the violence of war and resistance there existed always in the empire the threat of everyday violence being used if natives infringed codes of behaviour and laws introduced by the British. These laws were part of a judicial system that usually favoured the white elite and often justified the takeover of territory. Natives could be denied justice as in Kenya where only white Europeans were allowed trial by jury whilst corporal punishment, whipping and flogging was reserved for blacks. The use of colonial police and military patrols made the threat of violence very real and public hangings bought home what happened if one broke British law.
The Moplah Uprising of 1921 followed a series of uprisings in the c19th.
The last resort of the government in the face of local resistance was the use of the army. The British army was a colonial army and existed mainly to control the colonies however its small size meant that it could only be used in rare occasions. In the last quarter of the c19th the government began to reduce the garrisons abroad to save money and to ensure that the home country was adequately defended but at the time of the Zulu campaign there were still just fifty nine battalions at home to the eighty two abroad, making a total of about 130,000 men. Where possible local militia or native forces were used to quell rebellions but were not always up to the job. In the months leading up to the Second Boer War in 1899 the War Minister continually refused the Commander-in-Chief's (Wolseley) requests for reinforcements. Had they been available when Wolseley wanted them it is unlikely the war would have gone on as long as it did. It might not even have begun.
ConclusionThe use of violence was therefore very much a part of the British empire. It was used to conquer countries or force rulers to sign away their land and if there was a subsequent rebellion, the British could point to the treaty signed to justify their response. The resources available meant that the British had to do what they could to avoid conflict and so where it was possible, in the white settler colonies, they introduced self government as soon as possible. Elsewhere the body and the mind were disciplined to accept the changes that the British brought. Those who did rebel were portrayed as ungrateful and criminals and not deserving of British justice.
The Xhosa Wars were a series of wars in the c19th between settlers and local people in the lands between the Cape Colony and Natal.