British Empire

British Empire
   The British Empire was the archetypical colonial empire, the empire to which other aspiring empires often looked as a model. The British Empire was for both imperialists and anti-imperialists the epitome of a modern empire. It was at its height the largest of the colonial empires, in some ways the most successful, and certainly the most influential. The United States grew out of British imperial history, and Americans argue at length and in English about such topics as free trade, constitutional rights, and the proper place of religion in society, all issues inextricably linked to the history of the British Empire. And yet a legal pedant could argue that the British Empire never existed. With the possible exception of the British crown itself, there was never a unified legal structure or institution called “The British Empire,” and the late Victorian idea of institutionalizing the empire was, in the inimitable words of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, a project better suited to peroration than to argument.
   The empire covered at its height a quarter of the earth’s surface and included a similar proportion of its population. And yet, for most of the last 500 years, it consisted of a motley collection of islands, ports, and hinterlands. The empire was at the height of its power in the late nineteenth century and reached its greatest territorial extent in the wake of World War I. But as little as a century earlier, Britain’s possessions in India had been half the size, most of Australia was unsettled, and claims to what became Canada had been uncertain. As Edmund Burke wrote in the eighteenth century, “the settlement of our colonies was never pursued upon any regular plan; but they were formed, flourished and grew as accidents, the nature of the climate, or the dispositions of private men, happened to operate.” Or, one might add, they rebelled, fell away, or failed to flourish for similar contingent reasons.
   British Seaborne Trade
   The British Empire was always a seaborne empire; however, the earliest seaborne empires were those of Portugal and Spain. English seaborne trade in the fifteenth century largely looked eastward to the Baltic and the Hanseatic League of northern Germany, and the domestic instability during the Wars of the Roses of the fifteenth century and the Reformation of the sixteenth century militated against hazardous or expensive overseas voyages. John Cabot, or Caboto, a Genoese living in Bristol, made a westward voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, but was lost at sea in a subsequent venture. The Newfoundland fishery was widely known and exploited at the time by the Portuguese, the French, and the Basques, as much as by the English. The slave trade had its origins in mid-sixteenth-century gold-trading voyages to the Guinea coast of West Africa by Sir John Hawkins and many others. Hawkins initially obtained African slaves by means of piracy on Portuguese slave traders, but then moved to trading directly with African chiefs. He then sold slaves in the Spanish dominions in America, which was like slavery an illegal activity, at least under Spanish law. The Elizabethan adventurer Francis Drake continued the tradition of interloping among the Spanish Caribbean colonies and preying on Spanish trade.
   During his famous circumnavigation of 1577, a feat not repeated by an English sailor until George Anson’s voyage of the 1740s, Drake plundered Spanish shipping. To an extent, the English war on Spanish trade in the era of the Spanish Armada of 1588 was a war of self-defense. In this period, piracy, slave trading, commerce-raiding, and naval warfare were not distinct. Most enterprises involved a combination of private and royal vessels, and both crown and merchant hoped for a windfall. There was little idea of securing permanent colonies until the end of the century. In the sixteenth century, maritime trade was usually pursued through joint-stock companies, in which a number of merchants pooled resources under a royal charter. The East India Company was formed on the pattern of other trading enterprises of the time, such as the Levant and Muscovy Companies. The intent was to pool capital and share risk among a number of traders rather than to colonize or conquer the country into which they traded. The Levant Company secured extraterritorial privileges from the Porte (the Turkish government) in 1583, but it had no thought of conquest; likewise the Muscovy Company of 1555 aimed only to trade with the Russia of Ivan the Terrible.
   The East India Company was founded on a similar pattern in 1600. During its first century and a half of existence, it made no extensive territorial acquisitions, limiting itself to trading forts and surrounding territories. In India, these included Fort St. George, later Madras, and Bombay, acquired from the Portuguese in 1660. The East India Company was not without competition, chiefly from the French, the Dutch, and, in early years, the Portuguese, as well as from English “interlopers,” violating the company’s monopoly of trade with India. Disorder created by the breakdown of the Mogul Empire in the eighteenth century and consequent opportunities for plunder and mercenary warfare drew the East India Company and its army deeper into Indian politics. The company made significant conquests in southern India, but its most notable conquest was Bengal, with Robert Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757. At that point, the company became a large Indian landowner.
   Colonial Wars
   Wars in India customarily reflected, and at points anticipated, those in Europe. Between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the consequent wars with Louis XIV’s France and the end of the Napoleonic Wars over a century later in 1815, Britain and France were at war almost every other decade, and these wars provided both the motivation and the opportunity for imperial expansion in India and elsewhere. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the rapid expansion of Britain’s territorial holdings in India. The decline of the Mogul Empire, traditionally a British ally, led the British to assume many of the functions of government and of territorial sovereignty, once performed by that empire. At the same time as the East India Company’s power was expanding in India, the company and its growing wealth became the subject of controversy in England. The India Bill of 1784 imposed a London-based Board of Control on the Company, and successive bills further regulated its conduct, restricting its role to that of administering, rather than trading in, India. By the nineteenth century, a widespread view had developed that rule by a chartered company was anachronistic. An 1857 rebellion by sepoys - native Indians in the Company’s army - was put down only with great bloodshed. It led to the end of company rule in 1858 and the creation of an Indian government responsible to a Secretary of State in London. Since the time of Clive, British rule in India had expanded to encompass the entire subcontinent. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 created Queen Victoria Empress of India, marking the new and larger place that India, and the empire as a whole, occupied in the British imagination. The viceroyalty of George Curzon, Lord Curzon, and the imperial Durbar at the accession of Edward VII in 1901, marked the height of British prestige in India.
   The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) took place in Europe, in India, and at sea; but its most notable result was in North America, where the French colony at Québec was conquered by a British expeditionary force, giving Britain an exclusive claim to North America north of Florida. The first English attempt to colonize the mainland of North America was Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed settlement at Roanoke, Virginia, in the 1580s. Two further colonies were founded in 1607, one that survived at Jamestown, Virginia, and another failed colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Numerous other small colonies, usually of a single ship’s company of settlers, were established in this period throughout the Americas; there was no sense that those in the future United States were in any way special. The famous arrival of the Mayflower in New England in 1620 opened the way to more extensive settlement by English Puritans. By the end of the century, there were substantial cities at Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, the latter taken from the Dutch in 1664. Britain also acquired signifi- cant holdings in the Caribbean and small toeholds in South and Central America. Jamaica was taken from the Spanish in 1660, and became a rich sugar colony worked by slave labor. By the end of the eighteenth century, Jamaica and related Caribbean sugar islands were among the richest imperial holdings, and the influence of the planter class in London was considerable.
   By the mid-eighteenth century, the British-American colonies had 10 times the population of New France, but they were still hemmed in behind the substantial barrier of the Alleghenies. The British conquest of New France removed the threat from the French and their native allies, but it also removed the apparent need for British forces. The British demand that Americans pay taxes to help pay the costs of their own defense led to the American rebellion and subsequent declaration of independence in 1776. In the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), Britain lost most of its American empire, but retained its colonies in Canada. Historians of the eighteenth century have been inclined to speak of a first British Empire lasting until 1783, and a second British Empire rising afterward. This makes sense in the American context, but not in India, where British power, or rather the power of the East India Company and its traders and soldiers, continued to grow steadily despite its setback in the Americas. Ten years after the conclusion of the War of American Independence, war with France broke out again, and the war would last, with the slight interruption of the 1802–1803 Peace of Amiens, until 1815. During the wars of the French Revolution and Empire, the foundations of the so-called second British Empire were laid. That empire consisted of dependent territories throughout the littorals of Asia and Africa, and settler colonies - the future Dominions - in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa.
   Britain in the Scramble for Africa
   Britain’s original holdings in Africa were acquired to support the slave trade. The Royal African Company was founded in 1672 to exploit the West African slave trade on a more systematic basis than had the buccaneers of the previous century. At the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1713), Britain retained Gibraltar and Nova Scotia, and won the right to sell African slaves in Spanish America, an enormous market. Forts, notably Cape Coast Castle, were acquired along the West African coast. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery itself in the British Empire in 1833, these bases were used by the Royal Navy in its long campaign to suppress the slave trade. The colony of Sierra Leone was established in 1787 to settle liberated slaves and North Americans of African origin, in the optimistic but never realized hope that other trades would displace the slave trade and bring peace and prosperity to Africa. With the decline of the slave trade, Britain’s bases in the region became increasingly less necessary, and it was even proposed in the 1860s to abandon them entirely. Substantial territorial holdings were only acquired in tropical Africa in the 1870s and 1880s, when imperial competition with other powers became acute. Although Mungo Park’s explorations of the Niger River in the 1790s had significantly expanded knowledge of that region’s interior, and trade to the “oil rivers” - the oil being palm oil - expanded throughout the century, it was not until the end of the century that Sir George Goldie’s Royal Niger Company began to assert territorial control in the area; it was only in 1899 that the colony of Nigeria was formally brought under British rule. British expansion in East Africa followed a similar pattern, with explorers such as David Livingston, Richard Burton, and John Speke leading the way, a chartered company professing philanthropic purposes following him, and the formal declarations of East African protectorates occurring only in 1895.
   The British acquired Cape Colony in South Africa in 1795, during the wars of the French Revolution. Although the colony was briefly returned to the Dutch at the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the British retained the Cape at the peace of 1815. This colony presented the British with a number of difficulties, including a disaffected Dutch Creole (or Afrikaner or Boer) population and poorly defined frontiers confronting numerous African tribes. The eastern boundaries of the Cape Colony saw in the nineteenth century by one authoritative count nine frontier wars, or “ Kaffir Wars, ” in the language of the time, in most of which British frontiers advanced in the hope of pacification. Afrikaners discontented with British rule and specifically with the abolition of slavery migrated into the interior, the most significant movement, the Great Trek, beginning in 1837. Rapidly coming into conflict with the Zulu, the Afrikaners founded independent republics, the most prominent of which were the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which were conditionally recognized by Britain in 1852 and 1854, respectively. British traders had in the meantime arrived at the port that became Durban, and the colony of Natal was annexed by the empire in 1843, creating another set of frontiers with both Africans and Afrikaners. The discovery of diamonds in the northeast Cape led to the annexation of the area in 1873, the cause of a diplomatic dispute between Britain and the Orange Free State. Further trouble with the Afrikaners resulted from the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. Two years later, the Zulus, no longer threatened by the Boers, became a threat to the small British colony at Natal. The 1879 Zulu war resulted in a bloody British defeat at Isandhlwana before the British finally broke Zulu military power. A Boer rebellion in the Transvaal led to another British defeat at Majuba Hill in 1881 and the restoration of conditional sovereignty to the Transvaal. Gold was discovered in the Rand region of the Transvaal in 1886, leading to an influx of primarily British miners. Disputes about their legal status, combined with ambiguities about the status of the Transvaal and a determination on the part of some British imperialists, including Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner, to force the Boer republics into a union with the British colonies, led to the outbreak of the South African War, or Anglo-Boer War, of 1899–1902. After a series of initial defeats, the British were able to occupy the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, but it took another two years of guerilla warfare to suppress the Boers entirely. South Africa became a self-governing dominion in 1910. One condition of the Boer surrender, however, was the provision that Africans would not be enfranchised before the grant of responsible government, with the result that the Boer majority among the white South African minority was able to impose the apartheid regime of the twentieth century.
   British expansion north from South Africa resulted in considerable holdings in southern Africa. Concern about the incursions of other powers, chiefly Germany, and the idea that large and prosperous colonies might be founded in central Africa, led in 1885 to an expedition into what is now Botswana, for the purpose of preserving control of the route north. In 1889, The ambitious diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes obtained a charter for his British South Africa Company, which established a colony in Rhodesia in 1890, and shortly thereafter fought and won two brief wars with the Matabele, a tribe related to the Zulu. Rhodesia included not only the current Zimbabwe but also the mineral-rich territory of northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. In 1915, during World War I, a South African expedition conquered German Southwest Africa, resulting in a British-dominated southern Africa. In the Mediterranean, British trade and the need for protection from pirates dated to the sixteenth century. Britain established an unsuccessful colony at Tangier in the seventeenth century. Gibraltar, seized during the War of the Spanish Succession in the early eighteenth century, was kept as a permanent base afterward. During the French wars of the eighteenth century, Britain at points held the islands of Minorca and Corsica. Malta, seized in 1800, was retained after the Napoleonic Wars, as, for a generation, were the Ionian Islands. Britain acquired Cyprus from Turkey in 1878, for use as a military and naval base directed at Russia and at the protection of the route to India. The Mediterranean had assumed increasing importance as the route to India after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; although the canal was built with French capital, most of the ships using it were British.
   In 1882, British troops occupied Egypt, nominally a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, as the result of a nationalist rebellion against the Khedive and of fears that the rebels would renege on Egypt’s substantial foreign debts and endanger the route to India. At the time, the objective of the government of Prime Minister William Gladstone was only a temporary occupation to restore order; as it was, Britain and British officials, most notably Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, became increasingly implicated in ruling Egypt. The occupation of Egypt resulted in Britain being sucked into war in the Sudan, where the Egyptian government had claims. General Charles Gordon, sent to evacuate the province, was killed at Khartoum in 1885, creating outrage in Britain, and leading ultimately to the 1898 conquest of the Sudan. A protectorate was declared over Egypt when Britain went to war with Turkey in 1914. It was a result of war with Turkey that Britain allied itself with Arab nationalists, most famously as a result of the adventures of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and acquired the rest of its short-lived empire in the Middle East, including Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan. Britain had long had interests in the Persian Gulf, largely as a result of trade between that region and India. In the early years of the century, competition with Russia for influence in Persia led to a 1907 agreement on spheres of influence; the subsequent discovery of large oil deposits led to the formation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to provide fuel for the Royal Navy. British influence in Persia or Iran lasted until the nationalization of British oil interests in 1951.
   Imperial Governance
   Historians of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries - the age of selfconscious, programmatic imperialism - have also tended to divide the empire into two, in this case the dependent or autocratically ruled Colonial Office empire on the one hand, and the self-governing dominions or Commonwealth on the other. This division also has its uses, but it tends to apply primarily to the Victorian empire and its twentieth-century successor. In the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, the Colonial Office concerned itself primarily with the emigrant colonies, but toward the end of that century those colonies were in most cases self-governing, and Colonial Office attention was directed toward the management of colonies not merely under British sovereignty but under British rule. Defenders of the British Empire have often emphasized its liberal character, and in so doing have directed attention to the emigrant colonies, or Dominions as they became. Responsible government, which meant colonial government in which a colonial ministry was responsible to the legislature and the London-appointed governor was bound to accept the advice of the ministry, was introduced by stages in Canada, but it is generally reckoned to have been permanently established in 1848. Shortly thereafter, responsible government was extended to most of the Australian colonies in 1853, and became effective in New Zealand in 1856. It was granted, under a property franchise that largely but not completely excluded Africans, to the Cape Colony in 1872. The liberal institutions established throughout the settler Dominions customarily excluded natives. However, they created a series of pro-British white Dominions that contributed materially to the empire’s strength during the world wars.
   Ireland has been viewed by some historians as England’s first colony. The Norman kings had claimed the island in the twelfth century but did not succeed in imposing direct authority beyond the pale of Dublin. Schemes of “plantation,” in the language of the time, under Elizabeth I in the late sixteenth century offered incentives for English settlers to colonize Ireland, the aim being to create populations loyal to the English crown. By the end of the seventeenth century, most of Ireland was in Protestant English hands. The Irish parliament set up in 1782 was abolished by William Pitt ’s Act of Union, which brought Ireland into a legislative union with England, Wales, and Scotland, the aim being to prevent further Irish rebellions by assimilating the Irish into the British state. The policy was hindered by the fact that most Irish, even those few meeting the property qualifications for the franchise, were Catholic. The Catholic Emancipation of 1829 followed by the successive reforms bills of the nineteenth century enfranchised increasing numbers of Irishmen and led to a rising demand for Home Rule. In 1886, the Gladstone government proposed to meet this demand, thereby splitting the Liberal Party and putting the Conservative Party, or Unionists, in power for most of the next 20 years. The idea of separate status for Ireland was an affront to the legal egalitarianism of many Liberals; to the Conservatives, breaking up the union presaged the fragmentation of the empire that they wished to unite. Ireland was granted Dominion status in 1922 as a result of civil war, a process notably divergent from the gradual assumption of selfgovernment in the other Dominions. Although British contemporaries saw Ireland as a poor and disorderly part of Britain, in the eyes of Irish nationalists and many current scholars it was in fact not merely the first colony conquered but the firs to obtain independence.
   The most powerful and influential successor state to the British Empire is of course the United States. American nationalism originally defined itself against the empire, although at the same time, it derived many of its core characteristics, including its hostility to the state and to centralized authority, from the British constitutional tradition. The Anglo-American War of 1812 heightened anti-British opinion in the United States. In the same period, however, Anglo-American trade and cultural links grew rapidly, trade having rapidly doubled its pre-War of Independence volume after the peace of 1783. Anglo-American tensions bubbled to the surface throughout the nineteenth century, but neither country had an interest in war. The seizure of Confederate representatives from a British ship almost led to war between Britain and the Union during the American Civil War in the 1860s, but the United States backed down. In the 1890s, Britain gave way as a result of Anglo- American tensions in British Guyana and Panama. Throughout the era of imperialism, Anglo-American trade grew, and Britain became the largest investor in the United States. Anglo-American ties reached their closest point during World War II, but the United States in this era had a profoundly ambivalent attitude to the British Empire, being in theory anti-imperialist but at the same time needing a strong ally.
   The Legacy of British Imperialism
   Explanations of the extent and influence of the British Empire have run the gamut from celebrations of the maritime genius of the British people, of the farsightedness of English statesman, and of the adaptability of the British constitution, to denunciations of the imperialist and irresistible character of capitalism. All have an element of truth. The island nation did have the material basis and the ships and sailors to eventually best the Dutch, Spanish, and French. After the disasters of the American War of Independence, British statesman had the foresight never again to tax a colony, and never for long to deny self-government to a British population. Imperial possessions, notably the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean and the trading forts of India, contributed materially to British wealth in the eighteenth century, and, it has been argued, enabled the Industrial Revolution. The strength of the British domestic economy allowed Britain to dominate world trade and provided both the material basis for the rapid expansion of the nineteenth century and the motivations for the acquisition of many imperial territories. The “man on the spot,” in the Victorian phrase, had much to do with many imperial acquisitions, from the Indian conquests of Clive and Lawrence to the later African acquisitions of Rhodes. The self-conscious imperialism of the late nineteenth century, characterized by systematic programs of imperial expansion and rationalization, lasted for only a generation and, although it created pressures for expansion in Africa, was not responsible for creating any of the main imperial holdings. As David Lloyd George said, with characteristic cynicism, “the British empire has done very well out of side-shows,” an observation that is both true and provocative of the further question of how and why divergent events and motivations led to the acquisition of the largest and arguably most influential empire the world has ever seen.
   The decline of empire is susceptible to the same variety of explanations. Economic growth created an Indian and an African middle class able to confront the British on their own terms. The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, was closely linked to the Fabian society in England, and was able to make effective use of anti-imperial ideologies created by British liberals such as J. A. Hobson. The decline of British economic power after, and in part as a result of, the world wars undermined Britain’s ability to maintain a large empire, and the unprofitability of large parts of that empire reduced the incentives to resist its decline. The myth of Britain’s liberal empire - containing, like most myths, an element of truth - and the precedent of the gradual evolution of the settlement Dominions to full selfgovernment undermined the justifications for imperial rule, and provided a path from empire to Commonwealth. Britain fought colonial campaigns in Kenya, Cyprus, and Malaya, but none were as bloody and traumatic as those of the French or Portuguese empires. The one attempt that Britain made to reverse imperial decline by military means, the Suez intervention of 1956, lasted 24 hours and split the British political nation.
   The historiography of the British Empire is enormous. No focus or approach has been ignored. Older histories spoke of great men and the acquisition of enormous wealth. More recent histories have also addressed topics of current concern, such as the relation of masculinity to imperial conquest and of discourses of race and alterity to the justifications of empire. The evolving, and it must be said rapidly expanding, state of British imperial historiography is perhaps best captured by the two great multivolume histories produced by England’s ancient universities: The Cambridge History of the British Empire, in eight volumes, is a comprehensive survey of the acquisition and rule of the British Empire. Published from 1929 forward, it is quite Whiggish in its emphasis on the export of British constitutional practices yet is an invaluable reference work, based as it is on primary sources, full of names and dates, facts, and details. The more recent Oxford History of the British Empire, in six volumes from 1998, is more postcolonial in its sensibilities, more diverse in its topics, and concerned to leave out no perspective. So much has been published that its survey necessarily becomes less historical than historiographical, and it is irreplaceable as a survey of current scholarship. Various short surveys of the world the British made, and the process by which they made it, are listed in the Further Reading section.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>, Duke of Wellington; <>.
    Benians, E. A. et al., eds. Cambridge History of the British Empire. 8 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929–59;
    Black, Jeremy. The British Seaborne Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004;
    Cain, P. J., and A. G. Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688-2000. London: Longman, 1993.
    Ferguson, Niall. Empire. New York: Basic Books, 2003;
    James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus, 2001;
    Louis, William Roger, ed. Oxford History of the British Empire. 6 vols. Oxford: University Press, 1998;
    Marshall, P. J. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996;
    Porter, Bernard. The Lions Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-2004. New York: Longman, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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