How did the British Empire grow?
After they were invaded by Frenchified Norsemen (1066) the next conquest was in Ireland. The landless second sons of French-speaking Norman barons crossed the Irish Sea and joined in the conflicts of the Irish kings, setting up new Norman lordships - feudal estates - where the main languages spoken were probably Norman French and Irish Gaelic. However, king Henry the second invaded Ireland in 1171 and claimed it for the English crown (with the authorisation of the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear (Hadrian the fourth), who wished to bring the Irish church under Papal control). Thus Ireland was the first state that could be regarded as an English colony. In the same period other Normans conquered large parts of southern Italy and Sicily. Was it their habits of conquest that eventually led to the Empire? The techniques used in Ireland in the numerous wars there were employed in other areas of the world.
A similar process occurred in Palestine where the Crusaders set up European feudal states in the area they had conquered from the Arabs (or the Turkish states) - but these were mostly French.
The Angevin Empire in France
The First British Empire
Some of the settlers hoped to practice their religion without interference from the royal government and church (not the same as looking for Religious Freedom for others, which most of them opposed). Others wanted to farm new land and escape from the landowners in England. Merchants hoped to make money from trade. Others, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, were deported criminals. The result was a series of colonies along the eastern coast of what is now the United States and Canada.
After the union with Scotland, Scottish people also settled in these colonies and the Empire could be described as British.
The American colonies were a mixture of Royal and Proprietorial colonies. That is, some of the Governors were appointed by the Crown; others by Proprietors. The second type was a 17th century version of the feudalism that had occurred in Ireland. The King granted land to his favourites as a cheap way of paying them. In all those colonies local assemblies developed which disputed powers with the Governors - the earliest stage of the evolution that resulted in democracy and independence. There was no civil service appointed from Britain other than customs officers and Navy and Army. Until 1768 the colonies were part of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State of the Home Department. There was no government colonial office in London responsible only for the colonies. However, from 1768 there was a Secretary of State for the American colonies - a bit late in the day - abolished in 1782.
The Royal Navy became essential to maintain connections with the colonies and was the main instrument of government connecting them. But the American colonists built civilian ships for trading along the coast and to hunt for whales in all the world's oceans. They also traded with the East India Company.
The end of the Seven Years war (1756-1763), and the defeat of France in north America, seemed to make the American empire secure. However, the desire of the British government to tax the colonists to pay for their defense caused a tax revolt, that grew into a demand for independence. The colonists used the slogan of the English Civil War - No Taxation without Representation - and the ideas of political scientists: Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu. The subsequent war resulted in the formation of the United States, leaving only the nucleus of what was to become Canada.
At the same time as the north American colonies were being settled, English people settled in the Caribbean and developed slave-worked sugar plantations (see Barbados for a useful book on the history of sugar). The profits from these helped fund the industrial revolution and the huge country houses built by the owners of the plantations (see the novels of Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park) - and paid for the navy and army that defeated Napoleon.
When Charles the second married Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess) in 1662 her dowry included the Portuguese colony in India of Bombay (now Mumbai) (and also Tangier, now part of Morocco but this colony remained British only from 1662 until 1684 when the Moroccans made it untenable - see Linda Colley). The formation of the East India Company began the British influence in India, which started with trade in 1613 at Surat in Gujerat. The custom then was to build a fortified trading center known as a Factory, with soldiers to protect the merchants. They recruited local people as soldiers. Gradually the Company treated these bases as sovereign territory - though in every case their occupancy was based on a permission from a local ruler. In the northeast of India the Company founded the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), and occupied Madras (Chennai). From these bases they spread their power into the lands of the decaying Mogul Empire. The East India Company changed from being just a trading company to being partly a government. Added to its profit from buying and selling were the taxes it collected, in theory on behalf of the local rulers, in practice for its own benefit.
The managers and governors of the Company made huge sums of money (those that survived the diseases of India) and built palaces in England. This money too was available to invest in the new industries in England.
The area of India ruled by the company expanded as the Company's armies (Indian and British soldiers, commanded by British officers) conquered Indian kingdoms and provinces. The French were trying to do the same but were outmaneuvered until, as in Canada, they were confined to a token colony, at Pondicherry, on the close of the Seven Years War.
A revolt in 1857 by Indian soldiers against the Company's rule (sparked off by new cartridges, rumored to be greased with pig and beef fat - offensive to Muslim and Hindu soldiers, respectively) led to an attempted uprising (war of resistance) and the British government's taking over the Company's land as a formal British colony. A British Governor General was appointed with his capital in Calcutta, and subsidiary governors in the provinces. The revolt was suppressed with great brutality - what would now be considered war crimes on a huge scale.
After Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli declared Queen Victoria Empress of India (successor to the Mogul Emperors, whose office was terminated after the Revolt - Indian Mutiny or War of Independence), the governor was renamed Viceroy and moved from Calcutta to Delhi, formerly the seat of the Mogul emperor.
The Indian empire had to be supplied by sea. This led to a series of Company bases along the route to India. One of these was at the southern tip of Africa where Cape Town and its surrounding land was taken from the Dutch (who were also building an empire, in Indonesia). After the Suez Canal was built in Egypt the Canal Zone was a British base to protect it and Egypt itself became a protectorate, and Aden at the southern tip of Arabia was a fueling point for steam ships passing from Suez to India and a Naval base for patrolling the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. To protect Aden a protectorate was declared over the surrounding area, which became the Aden Protectorate (south Yemen). The government of India was also interested in keeping order in the borders of India. To the west they exercised control over both shores of the Arabian Gulf, Baluchistan to the north and Trucial Oman to the south. To the north they attempted to control the fringe states of Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and Afghanistan. The last was never conquered (but Cricket has been taken up by the people).
From the Dutch they had taken Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
To the east British conquest extended into Burma, a kingdom of people with a different culture and language. To the southeast the East India Company also extended to Singapore, where a trading post was built that became a city, like Calcutta. From here British traders extended to the island of Borneo where two colonies were formed in the north: one the quasi-feudal state of Sarawak, ruled by the so-called White Rajahs of the Brooks family on behalf of the Sultan of Brunei, the other North Borneo (now Sabah). North of Singapore the British came to rule the Malayan peninsula (called the Straits Settlements at that time). This area was important for tin mines and later for rubber.
A colony in Hong Kong grew out of the opium wars with China.
China was not
formally ruled as a colony but British and other European traders
forced immunity from Chinese courts and controlled such governmental
functions as the Customs and
the navigation on the Yangtse. The Opium trade and wars undermined the
Chinese state (but China as a whole was never a British colony).
After the independence of the United States it was no longer possible to send criminals into exile in North America. To continue the policy a new destination was needed. The chosen destination was Botany Bay (Sydney) in what became known as New South Wales in Australia. The whole continent was declared British land. The inhabitants were ignored as though they were animals (the land was declared "terra nullius" = belonging to no-one and therefore free for settlement). Like North America this was a colony of settlement rather than merely of rule and exploitation, as in India.
New Zealand was also seen as a colony of settlement, though of free workers rather than convicts. Wars against the native Polynesians resulted in conquest and parcelling out of the land to mainly British farmers.
British farmers and business men settled in some of them: Kenya, Rhodesia and South Africa.
The last major conquest of the British was South Africa, where their armies fought not just the "natives" but the descendants of the Dutch settlers at the Cape. The wars with the Boers created dissension at home, where many saw the conquest as greed and imperial over-reach. The conquest of the Sudan in 1895 was one of the last wars of expansion - Winston Churchill took part in the last British cavalry charge there. This war derived from Britain's control of Egypt. The Egyptian ruler claimed Sudan and Britain was making good that claim. Sudan was therefore ruled as a joint British-Egyptian territory - a Condominium.
After the first world war those African colonies that had been awarded to Germany were mostly given to Britain - Namibia (South West Africa to South Africa), Cameroon (parts), and Togo (part) and Tanganyika (German East Africa).
At its height the Empire as an economic community was also influential in areas not formally ruled by Britain. After China the most important of these was Argentina. Britain was the source of capital for developing the country, especially the railways, which were owned by London investors and there were many British managers in Argentine businesses. Britain gained by importing the beef from the Pampas. British capital also built the railways in Colombia (though to too small a gauge). (Compare with the way modern China proposes to build a railway in Colombia and many other territories).
Jan Morris - Pax Britannica
Films by Alexander Korda
Propaganda for the ethos of empire - the aristocratic officer class.
The Drum (1938)
about the Northwest Frontier (UK version)
The Four Feathers
DVD The man who would be king - satire on the empire's conquests from a story by Rudyard Kipling
Der Mann, der König sein wollte
Dan Snow - Empire of the Sea - how the navy built the empire
George Orwell - Burmese Days
A novel based on his experiences of being a colonial policeman
Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)
See also his essay "Shooting an elephant" in his collected writings.
More literature about the empire. See the works of : W. Somerset Maugham; Joseph Conrad;
Fawn Brodie - The Devil Drives, life of Richard Burton
The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton
A man who spoke up to 40 languages and was interested in what is now called anthropology and oriental literature and customs.
E J Hobsbawm - Age of Capital
The Age of Capital, 1848-75
Die Bluetezeit des Kapitals. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Jahre 1848 - 1875
How the western economy affected the whole world, whether colonised or not.
Thoughts on numbers
The world population as the British and other European empires grew was less than 1000 million. Britain itself was no more than 5 million. This certainly makes it remarkable that such a small country has had such an effect on the world.
When considering the history of the empire these figures must always be in mind. For one thing it explains why Britain's military forces were always limited and why mercenaries were employed so much - for example the German troops who fought much of the American war of independence. Quite a large proportion of the population was drafted into the navy, via such means as the Press Gang.
The Indian Empire was conquered by Indian troops with British officers.
How was the British Empire ruled?
In the territory there was a civil service. In the provinces or districts there were British officials - District Officers or Commissioners (In Nigeria the local officials were District Officers; in other African colonies they were District Commissioners). In India the civil service showed its origin in the East India Company. The local commissioners were known as Collectors, showing that their original function had been to collect the taxes for the Company. The lowest level of administration in Africa were the Chiefs and sub-chiefs who headed Locations. In some other colonies the lowest government employee might be the Village Headman. (See Chinua Achebe Arrow of God for the difficulties these appointments caused local people).
British colonial civil servants were encouraged to learn local
languages, and received extra pay on passing competence tests.
They were expected to study carefully the needs of their subjects.
One result of the intensive
study of Latin and Greek in the Public Schools was a much greater
proficiency with other languages than modern students have.
Very early in the development of colonial administration the Governor appointed a group of officials to assist him in making laws for the colony. This was the Legislative Council (LegCo). It was from this organisation that the parliaments of the states grew. Once the decision was taken to evolve the colony towards self-government the LegCo began to include "native" members, at first appointed, later elected. There was usually a period when members appointed by the governor (official members) outnumbered the elected members. Later the elected members became a majority. At this point the governor would appoint local members as Ministers.
The next stage was Responsible Self-government when the governor ceased to exercise day to day control but had the power to suspend or abolish the assembly, dismiss the government and in general act as a back stop. In such colonies the Governor would retain control of the army and police, and would continue to deal with London. The best example of the use of this power was in British Guiana (Guyana) where the governor refused to allow Cheddi Jagan to become Chief Minister on the grounds that the United States believed he was a communist, (illustrating the fact that the British Empire had become subordinate to the United States).
The final stage was complete independence when the Assembly became an imitation of the British House of Commons and the title of the Governor changed to Governor-General, representing the Monarch, but acting only on the advice of the local government. This was the process originally devised for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa (the so-called White Commonwealth). On independence in the early Dominions the head of state was still the Monarch represented by a Governor General. Nowadays this official is always a native Australian, Canadian or other and has the same powers as the Monarch (that is, almost none). The same method was applied to India and the African colonies. Almost all of these colonies declared themselves Republics, with the head of state becoming a President. In India the President has a similar role to the Governor-General - ceremonial head but not head of government. In former African colonies the President is usually also head of government.
But in subsequent history many African ex-colonies abandoned the Parliamentary system and became ruled by military dictators who came to power by means of a military coup.
In India there were two types of territory: those ruled directly by the British (British India); those ruled Indirectly. Indirect Rule was the system by which the local ruler (Maharajah, Rajah, Nawab, Sultan etc.) continued in place but after making a treaty with the British had agreed to follow British policy on the "advice" of a British Resident official. This method was also used in other territories, such as Uganda and Nigeria - in both these cases by Sir Frederick (later Lord) Lugard who set up the administrations.
In most African former colonies the local agents of the government continue to be known as District Commissioners but are now answerable to the local government.
About 1000 British civil servants of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) ruled the whole of India (about 300 million people). Of course they also had a large military force to enforce their rule. This consisted of British troops and a much larger Indian Army of locally recruited troops under British officers. The same was true of all other colonies. Thus in Africa there were local armies, known as the King's African Rifles.
David Gilmour - The Ruling Caste:about the Indian Civil Service
The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj
Linda Colley - Captives
The growth of the British empire and the English and Irish slaves of the north African pirates
Replenishing the earth - the Settler Revolution
Richard Gott - Britain's Empire
Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
Review by Richard Drayton
How did the British Empire end?
The Empire grew originally because the British had better weapons than the "natives". This was mainly because Britain had more advanced technology - Europe in general began to surpass the rest of the world from about the 17th century. It was also because the British state was better organised than those states where the British were trading.
Some parts at least of the lands occupied by the British were immensely profitable: especially the sugar islands and India. Those with the better weapons could decide the terms of trade. That is, they could control the prices in such a way that the producers in India were paid less than they would in a free market. Wealth passed from India to the home country (and of course from the slave-worked Sugar Islands).
See this article on the opium trade.
By the beginning of the 20th century the European technological advantages were diminishing fast. Weapons for resistance were getting cheaper. Guerrilla war was becoming easier. The subjects were becoming educated (missionaries and government itself encouraged modern western schools). Undisturbed rule of such an empire needed acquiescence on the part of the ruled. Gradually that acquiescence was withheld. In India from the time of the Amritsar Massacre (1919) the educated group ceased to accept British rule as inevitable.
Organisations to resist British rule started in Ireland as well as in India - indeed Ireland had resistance from early in the 18th century. The Indian National Congress was the first of the non-Irish movements. In Africa resistance started later, and first in South Africa soon after the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910). In the other African colonies it began with the end of the second world war when the African soldiers returned home, bringing with them their experiences of helping the British fight other Europeans and losing their awe of the "white man". Moreover, in Britain itself there were always people opposed to the empire, even as it was being established.
Perhaps equally important was the fact that the Empire was no longer profitable. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries when the plunder was at its most profitable. After that the costs of ruling the territories rose and the wealth available to extract diminished in comparison with the wealth produced by the new industries in Britain, except perhaps in South Africa and other territories with important mines, such as Malaya.
Incidentally, there is the question of whether the British people who worked in the later Empire grew rich. In fact, from the 1890s onward, salaries of ordinary British people in India, were little more than they could earn in Britain. India was no longer the source for building palaces like those in the 18th century.
By 1945 the home country itself was bankrupt from having fought the second world war. The costs of the empire were rising, not least because of the threat of guerrilla wars. India, the core of the empire, was by 1945 nearly ungovernable. The Indians had been promised self-government (Dominion status) during the war, to encourage recruitment into the Indian Army and support for Britain's side of the second world war.
In the years after 1945 there was a series of colonial wars. In Malaya the British retook control of the country from the Japanese occupiers but the local people no longer accepted the right of the British to rule them. The Chinese community imitated Mao Tse Tung and formed a guerrilla army. In Kenya there was an uprising mainly over land ownership. In both cases the wars led to independence in the 1960s. But another result was that the British governing group realised the Empire was now too expensive to hold and policy changed towards preparing rapidly for independence for all the colonies.
The last colonial war was in Aden where the British had to leave by helicopter, leaving no state behind.
"Small wars" as the empire ended.
In the 19th century Britain had been the source of capital for investment. In 1945 there was no such source. Thus the drive for making the colonies independent was a mixture of financial necessity, military necessity and idealism. The last came from those in Britain who campaigned for the "natives" to have the same democratic rights as British citizens at home.
There was also the rise of the Superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. By comparison Britain was a medium power.
In Africa more independences occurred with Sudan first (1954) at the insistence of Egypt which shared the sovereignty. The first Black African state was Ghana (1957) formerly the Gold Coast, used as a model for the rest. After that all the west African states went, followed by East and Central Africa. Rhodesia, because of its settlers, was the most trouble, as the settlers refused to accept majority rule - much as the French settlers in Algeria behaved. But the settler state of Kenya followed, after a war of independence. The process finished with Hong Kong (1997). There are no plans for the remaining territories (scroll down) unless they demand independence.
The result was the loss of British influence in the Middle East - especially the loss of control of Iraq where a revolution against the king installed by the British occurred, leading to the Baath party victory. Sir John Glubb had to give up his command of the army of Jordan, the Arab Legion. The leading western power became the United States which took over some of Britain's influence.
in the Crown
Passage to India
Charles Allan - Plain tales from the Raj
Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century
Harry Hobbs - Indian Dust Devils
After the British Empire
Our modern world is similar. It is the post-British Empire world and the common language is English, which continues to be used as the language of government in many of the successor states, along with the procedures of the British Civil Service. As with the break up of many other past empires there have been numerous post-Imperial wars and disputes. All of the countries in the list below have the British Empire as part of their past.
1922 was the peak of the territorial spread of the British Empire when the League of Nations mandated territories, the former colonies of Germany and Turkey, were added. The first independences, Ireland and Egypt, were about to occur.
Most of these joined the Commonwealth on their independence.
Those which didn't are: Burma, Egypt, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, South Yemen and all the Gulf protectorates: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Trucial Oman (UAE).
The Commonwealth is an organization of former British colonies. Its main institution is a regular meeting of heads of government. There is a Secretariat in London. They share the experience of having been colonized, the English language and English law and civil service methods. But they do not all share democracy or human rights. Many are or have been dictatorships in which the colonial style of government is continued with suspensions of habeas corpus and censorship.
in November 2008, although never ruled by Britain,
perhaps motivated by the desire of the president to distance
himself from France.
South Africa rejoined at the ending of Apartheid . Fiji was suspended after adopting a racially exclusive constitution. Zimbabwe has been suspended because of its lack of democracy. Pakistan has been a member, and a non-member and is at present in.
The remaining territories have been renamed British Overseas
Territories (like those of France). Although the people have
no representation in the British Parliament they now have full
citizenship rights (from 21 May 2002) and the right to visit
Britain. Each one, except Ascension and BIOT, has an elected
How did the British Empire differ from ancient Rome?
Whereas the British empire was not so much like Rome it was more like Venice which had been a trading empire and its influence had grown with the money its merchants made from trading with the eastern Mediterranean. Venice of course declined when trade shifted to the Atlantic after Columbus. Britain left its empire when it was no longer profitable.
Having said that one must remember the brutality with which the Indian uprising was suppressed - as bad as many of the atrocities committed by the Romans. The behaviour of the British at the end of the Kenya occupation was bad.
What would ibn
Khaldun have had to say about the British Empire?
In the 19th century the Group Feeling perhaps was propagated in the educational system. Most of the administrators and military leaders came from that group of people who went to the specialised boarding schools in Britain known as the Public Schools. The elite went on to the universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Thus they were known to each other from an early age.
Was it a consequence of the end of empire, or a cause, that this group feeling seems to have dissipated at the end? The people in the colonies wanted an end to British rule and the rulers themselves largely agreed. The first world war damaged this ruling group in two ways: many were killed in the slaughter of the battles, especially at the Somme (1916); the masses ceased to respect them because of the incompetence shown in these battles. Perhaps in the 1920s and 1930s the absence of the brightest and best was shown by the low quality of the rulers of that period.
The last time that old ruling group - Churchill was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough - controlled things was in the second world war, but that war killed off the empire and they seem to have consciously handed on the responsibility to the United States.
Thus there is something in common with the Ottoman Empire which began with a small clan of Turks that also transmitted its group feeling to larger and larger populations until it ruled much of the Middle East, north Africa and eastern Europe and then decayed in the 19th century.
At the height of the empire many people liked to think that "god" had encouraged the British to rule the world. But Rudyard Kipling, even at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897 - 50 years before the Independence of India) when the empire seemed eternal, warned that all empires are ephemeral with his poem: Recessional. Now, in 2012, we can see he was right.