Pax Britannica

Pax Britannica
   Pax Britannica, the concept of a “British Peace” facilitated by the creation of the British Empire, was consciously modeled on the Pax Romana of the ancient Mediterranean world. The Pax Britannica was, paradoxically, upheld by almost continuous warfare on the peripheries of Britain’s colonial empire yet accompanied by relative lack of Great Power conflict in Europe, 1815–1853, by virtue of the Congress System. The era overlapped with the reign of Queen Victoria ( 1837–1901), especially its first half, a period of remarkable British prosperity and imperial confidence. It was made possible by several factors: first, the establishment of industrial and commercial primacy; second, the possession of the largest empire in history, consisting of both formal colonies and extensive spheres of influence; third, the maintenance of British naval high seas supremacy; and fourth, a capacity for the projection of military power, provided mainly by the Indian Army. It is important to recognize that the Pax Britannica was also a cultural edifice underpinned by a number of ephemeral advantages, which eroded toward the end of the nineteenth century. The actual and potential challenges of emerging European and non-European powers produced an anxious ruling elite in Britain and its colonies by the turn of the twentieth century. The British had a sense of imperial mission to bestow the benefits of their civilization upon native peoples of its overseas possessions. There was a particular desire to civilize the “Dark Continent.” British missionaries began work in West Africa as early as 1804, and were not easily deterred by tropical disease or the hostility of indigenous peoples - a determination that made many of them martyrs to their cause. Missionaries sought not only to Christianize indigenous peoples but also to civilize them, by teaching them English and changing their mode of dress, standards of hygiene, and housing. British missionaries were also active in India yet had consciously refrained from interfering with Indian customs during the eighteenth century. There was therefore widespread discontent when missionaries prevailed on the British authorities to legislate against traditional Indian practices such as sati. The imposition of British norms of law and order was a prevalent feature of the Pax Britannica but was not always acceptable to colonial societies, as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 demonstrated.
   The Pax Britannica was partly a result of the industrial revolution, which took off first in Britain from the middle of the eighteenth century and was firmly established by the time that Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain produced about half the world’s commercial cotton cloth, while heavy industrial output was even more impressive, accounting for around two-thirds of the world’s coal production, half its iron, and almost threequarters of its steel. Britain was also the world’s leading investor, banker, insurer, and shipper. The returns on overseas investments increased from £10.5 million per annum in 1847 to £80 million in 1887, by which time Britain had more than £1000 million invested abroad. Britain was the primary world carrier, and consolidated this lead in the mid-nineteenth century with the switch from sail to steamships, which was another advantage conferred by early industrialization. The progressive adoption of a free trade policy in the1840s and 1850s underpinned British economic dominance because, as the world’s leading manufacturer, Britain could produce and sell commodities more cheaply than its competitors. If foreign governments attempted to exclude British merchants from markets, the Royal Navy opened them up at gunpoint. By 1890 Britain had more registered shipping tonnage than the rest of the world’s carriers combined. The City of London was the center of most international financial transactions, including private and public loans, currency exchange, insurance, and the sale and purchase of commodities.
   The possession of colonies was an obvious sign of the Pax Britannica. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was unquestionably the most dynamic of the European imperial powers. Throughout the nineteenth century Britain continued to add new territories to its empire and by the early twentieth century, it covered one-quarter of the earth’s land surface and encompassed roughly the same proportion of the world’s population. The formal empire is often divided for analytical purposes into three elements: the areas of white settlement, the Crown colonies, and India. The white territories of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and later, South Africa, acquired self-government and became known as the Dominions. In 1815, the total white population of the empire was just 550,000; but by 1911, this had risen to almost 19 million, and trade with the Dominions was worth £175 million annually. The Crown colonies, such as Trinidad, Ceylon, and Hong Kong, were governed directly from London and are therefore sometimes described as the dependent empire. The value of trade with many Crown colonies diminished dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century: for example, in 1815, the West Indies provided 17.6 percent of Britain’s trade, worth £15.4 million per annum, but a century later the figures were just 0.47 percent and £6.6 million. India was administered by a combination of Crown officials and representatives of local British interests in an arrangement known as “double government.” In economic terms, India was by far the most valuable individual part of the formal empire. By 1911, the Indian population was more than 300 million, which provided Britain with a huge market, and the value of annual trade was £120 million. India was also strategically significant, and Britain acquired many colonies during the nineteenth century simply to protect communication routes to India. Yet the formal Empire was only one component of British imperialism in the nineteenth century. As the historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson argued, equating the size and character of the empire solely with those areas over which Britain exercised formal jurisdiction is like judging the extent of an iceberg according to the part that shows itself above the waterline. It is notable that almost 70 percent of British emigrants between 1812 and 1914, more than 60 percent of British exports between 1800 and 1900, and more than 80 percent of British capital investment overseas from1815 to 1880 went to British spheres of influence as South East Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. Britain’s informal presence in Africa developed into formal rule in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as a result of competition from other colonial powers, particularly France.
   The Royal Navy discharged a number of vital functions that underpinned the Pax Britannica. It kept the British Isles free from the threat of invasion, protected and extended Britain’s overseas commerce, and projected military force overseas from garrisons in Britain and India. The Royal Navy was powerful partly because of its sheer size. By the mid-nineteenth century it consisted of around 240 ships, crewed by 40,000 sailors. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 established the two-power standard, by which the Royal Navy was supposed to be maintained at a strength that was equivalent to the next two biggest navies combined. Another factor that contributed to Britain’s naval power was its technical development. When France began launching armored warships in 1858, the British responded by constructing ironclads like HMS Warrior, with superior speed and firepower. Finally, a global network of strategic bases and coaling stations extended the reach of the Royal Navy to deal with many actual or potential threats to British interests. When China attempted to restrict trade with British merchants, it suffered crushing naval defeats in the Opium War of 1840–1842 and the Arrow War of 1856–1860. As a result of the Treaty of Nanjing, China ceded Hong Kong to Britain and opened five ports to trade, with a resident consul in each, although full diplomatic recognition was withheld until the Treaty of Tientsin in June 1858. Yet the Royal Navy could also be used for humanitarian purposes. By 1847, for example, 32 warships of the West African squadron were engaged in the suppression of the slave trade.
   Traditionally, Britain did not field large armies, but its control of the Indian Army provided a significant military reserve of around 180,000 troops, which accounted for more than 60 percent of total manpower in British garrisons overseas in the 1880s. The Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury once remarked that India was “an English barrack in the Oriental Seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying for them.” Indeed, the Indian Army served in more than a dozen imperial campaigns in Africa and Asia during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Indian Army was therefore a significant element of the Pax Britannica, for without it the cost of maintaining imperial control would have been much higher. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, went so far as to proclaim in 1901 that “as long as we rule in India we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straight away to a third rate power.” It is tempting to identify the Pax Britannica as shorthand for British global dominance during the nineteenth century, but contemporaries perceived it differently, as a cultural edifice rather than a political relationship. The extent of British power during the nineteenth century can also be easily overstated, for it was always limited to those areas in which the Royal Navy could operate. Further, the economic and strategic platforms on which Britain’s international lead rested after 1815 were temporary. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century competition from other European powers - France, Germany, Italy, and Russia - and non-European powers - the United States and Japan - challenged Britain’s commercial, naval, and imperial preeminence, which caused considerable anxiety about the future of the empire. Yet despite this anxiety the empire continued to grow, and when it did finally vanish during the two decades after World War II, its legacy included widespread use of the English language, belief in Protestant religion, economic globalization, modern precepts of law and order, and representative democracy. In these respects traces of the Pax Britannica are still very much in evidence today.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Chamberlain, Muriel. ‘Pax Britannica’? British Foreign Policy, 1789–1914 . London: Longman 1988;
    Eldridge, C. C. England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli, 1868–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974;
    Gallagher, John, and Robinson, Ronald. “The Imperialism of Free Trade.” Economic History Review 6/1 (1953): 1–15;
    Hyam, Ronald. Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815–1914 . New York: Palgrave, 2002;
    Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery . London: A. Lane, 1976;
    Morris, Jan. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire . London: Faber, 1968;
    Perris, Henry Shaw. Pax Britannica: A Study of the History of British Pacification . London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1913;
    Porter, Andrew, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire . Volume III: The Nineteenth Century . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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

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  • Pax Britannica — (Latin for the British Peace , modelled after Pax Romana ) was the period of relative peace in Europe when the British Empire controlled most key naval trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power. It refers to a period of British imperialism… …   Wikipedia

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