The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The British Empire

Category: 19th century

The British Empire in the 19th centuryThe growth of the British Empire was due in large part to the ongoing competition for resources and mar­kets which existed over a period of centuries between England and other European countries — Spain, France, and Holland. During the reign of Elizabeth I, England set up trading companies in Turkey, Russia, and the East Indies, explored the coast of North America, and established colonies there. In the early seventeenth century those colonies were expanded and the sys­tematic colonization of Ulster in Ireland got underway.

Until the early nineteenth century, the primary purpose of Imperialist policies was to facilitate the ac­quisition of as much foreign territory as possible, both as a source of raw materials and in order to provide markets for British manufactured goods. Britain im­ported food and raw materials for her factories from all over the Empire, while selling back manufactured goods. A profitable balance of trade, it was believed, would provide the wealth necessary to maintain and expand the Empire.

After ultimately successful wars with the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish in the seventeenth cen­tury, Britain managed to acquire most of the eastern coast of North America, the St. Lawrence basin in Can­ada, territories in the Caribbean, stations in Africa for the acquisition of slaves, and important interests in India. The loss in the late eighteenth century of the American colonies influenced the so-called “swing to the East” (the acquisition of trading and strategic ba­ses along the trade routes between India and the Far East).

In 1773 the British government was obliged to take over for the financially troubled East India Company, which had been in India since 1600, and by the end of the century Britain’s control over India extended into neighbouring Afghanistan and Burma.

Australia was the last continent to be discovered and developed, and its development was very slow until it had become of sufficient importance in itself to be the terminus of regular trade roads to and from the Old World. This isolation was no disadvantage for the first use to which Australia was put, that of a convict settlement. Since 1786 it served as a penal colony, and between 1786 and 1840, thousands of the British con­victs were transported there. In spite of the brutal treatment, many of them became self-supporting farm­ers and artisans when their sentences expired. Other escaped into the interior to become bandits and bushrangers.

Originally there had been a scheme for the cre­ation of a country of small farms, on which the сonvicts might settle after their release. This plan, how­ever, was presently abandoned in favours of one for the formation of huge sheep ranches. These were planned deliberately on a large scale during and after the Napoleonic Wars when the British factories had great difficulty in obtaining sufficient supplies of wool. Vast tracts of land were made over to rich capitalists who owned tens and thousands of thousands of sheep. These “squatters” soon became a powerful Australian aristocracy, and bitter conflicts grew up between them and the poor settlers who found much of the best land appropriated by the squatters who often owned more than they were able to use.

The struggle of the mass of the Australian colo­nists against the squatters came to a head in 1854. The discovery of gold at Ballarat in 1851 attracted thou­sands of diggers from all over Europe. The squatters who saw in these immigrants a menace to their vast holdings of land, and found that the rush to the gold-fields made it hard to obtain shepherds and sheep shearers used their influence with the British government to have heavy taxes and all kinds .of irksome police restrictions placed upon them.

A Gold Diggers’ Union was formed which put for­ward both economic demands and a democratic polit­ical programme almost identical with that of the Char­tists. This programme was actually won to a very considerable extent, which accounts for the early de­velopment of an advanced form of political democracy in Australia. The government was forced to reduce taxation, and in 1858 a new constitution with univer­sal manhood franchise was conceded.

The gold deposits gave out after a few years, but the population continued to increase from about 200,000 in 1840 to 2,308,000 in 1881. Sheep farming and mining continued to be important, but with the growth of railways considerable industries developed in Australia.

With the end, in 1815, of the Napoleonic Wars, the last of the great imperial wars which had dominated the eighteenth century, Britain found itself in an ex­traordinarily powerful position, though a complicated one. It acquired Dutch South Africa, for example, but found its interests threatened in India by the southern and eastern expansion of the Russians. (The protection of India from the Russians, both by land and by sea, would be a major concern of Victorian foreign policy). At this time, however, the empires of Britain’s tradi­tional rivals had been lost or severely diminished in size, and its imperial position was unchallenged. In addition, Britain had become the leading industrial -nation of Europe, and more and more of the world came under the domination of British commercial, fi­nancial, and naval power.

This state of affairs, however, was complex and far from stable. The old mercantile Empire was weak­ened during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by a number of factors: by the abolition in 1807 of slavery in Britain itself, a movement led by the Evangelicals; by the freeing in 1833 of slaves held elsewhere in the Empire; by the adoption, after a rad­ical change in economic perspective (due in large part to the influence of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Na­tions”), of Free Trade, which minimized the influence of the old oligarchical and monopolistic trading corpo­rations; and by various colonial movements for greater political and commercial independence. The Victori­ans, then, inherited both the remnants of the old mer­cantile empire and the more recently acquired com­mercial network in the East, neither of which they were sure they wanted, since Smith maintained that under the existing system of management Great Brit­ain derived nothing but loss from the dominion which she assumed over her colonies.

During the Victorian Age, however, the acquisi­tion of territory and of further trading concessions continued (promoted by strategic considerations and aided or justified by philanthropic motivations), reach­ing its peak when Victoria had been crowned Empress of India. Advocates of the imperialist foreign policies justified them by invoking a paternalistic and racist theory which saw Imperialism as a manifestation of “the white man’s burden”. The implication, of course, was that the Empire existed not for the benefit — economic or strategic or otherwise — of Britain itself, but in order that primitive peoples, incapable of self-government, could, with British guidance, eventually become civilized. The truth of this doctrine was ac­cepted naively by some, and hypocritically by others, but it served in any case to legitimize Britain’s acqui­sition of portions of central Africa and her domination, in concert with other European powers, of China.

At the height of the Empire, however, growing nationalist movements in various colonies presaged its dissolution. The process accelerated after World War I, although in the immediate post-war period the Em­pire actually increased in size as Britain became the “trustee” of former German and Turkish territories (Egypt, for example) in Africa and the Middle East. The English-speaking colonies, Canada and Australia, had already acquired dominion status in 1907, and in 1931 Britain and the self-governing dominions — Can­ada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free State — agreed to form the “Commonwealth of Nations”. The Dominions came to the aid of Britain during World War II, but Britain’s losses to the Japa­nese in the Far East made it clear that it no longer possessed the resources to maintain the old order of things. The Americans were in any case ready, and indeed anxious, to replace British influence in many areas of the world.

Britain’s hold on India had gradually loosened. In­dia achieved qualified self-government in 1935 and independence in 1947. Ireland, which had at last won dominion status in 1921 after a brutal guerrilla war, achieved independence in 1949, although the northern province of Ulster remained a part of Great Britain. The process of decolonization in Africa and Asia accel­erated during the late 1950′s. Today, any affinities which remain between former portions of the Empire are primarily linguistic or cultural rather than political.

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