10 US cents or
  8 euro cents or

 British Empire 1922
and other empires



 European Hegemony






 Other Web sites



 Excellent map and summary

 Hobsbawm article

 Useful information

 Excellent web site

 Atlas of empire

How did the British Empire grow?
The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes, entered Britain from the Angle between modern Germany and Denmark after the Romans withdrew their troops. They expanded their area of settlement from the footholds or bridgeheads of the first period, gradually settling in the whole of England. The language changed from Celtic to Germanic. By stages the kingdoms they set up amalgamated and were absorbed into the kingdom of Wessex. After defeating Norsemen - mostly Danes from the same area the Angles had come from - Wessex became the only kingdom and was renamed England.

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 Norman kings were succeeded by the Angevin or Plantagenet family when Henry the second came to the throne in 1155. As he was also the owner of several feudal domains in France he actually controlled more land there than the French king. However, most of this was lost by his son John (except for the Channel Islands and Aquitaine). Later attempts to conquer France, with a claim to the French throne in 1337, were the Hundred Years War. However, all the lands that were conquered in this war were lost, and the last English foothold was Calais, lost by Queen Mary in 1558.

The British Empire was not built by government action. Instead it grew from chartered companies. These were given a Royal Charter to trade in certain areas as a monopoly, in return for taxes paid to the Crown. The earliest of these were the Merchants of the Staple - the woollen industry that traded with Flanders in the medieval period, and was the main source of England's wealth in those days. Later there were the Merchant Venturers. In the time of Queen Mary (1555) was the Muscovy Company to trade with Russia. The most successful was the East India Company (1600) which grew into the government of India, only being replaced by a colonial government in 1857.

But there were other Companies of this kind. The Hudson's Bay Company was the ruler of large parts of what became the Dominion of Canada. The British South Africa Company was Cecil Rhodes's vehicle for developing Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). There was also an Imperial British East Africa Company that was influential in developing Kenya and opening up Uganda before being replaced by direct rule from the Colonial Office.

Notoriously, the South Sea Company provoked an early stock market Bubble and Crash in the 18th century.

To those who experienced the activities of these Companies they might have seemed like very big and well organised Pirate Bands. But for the mainly younger sons of country gentlemen and the aristocracy the Companies were the road either to riches or death - much the same as what had happened in the Crusades.

In the 18th century the East India Company was the largest business in London and was an important source of government revenue. People who ask 'how did the Empire grow?' should study the details of the history of this company - often known as "John Company". It employed thousands of people, owned hundreds of ships, and operated in many parts of the world, from St Helena in the west to China in the east. It started at Surat in Gujerat in India and various depots in Indonesia. It traded spices, cotton cloth, tea and coffee, both of which it introduced to the world markets. It was the Company's tea that sparked off the revolt in north America that led to the setting up of the United States.

In India it became a government, taking over the lands of the Mogul Empire as that empire declined - partly because it had to fight the Company's troops. It founded cities: Calcutta (Kolkata), Singapore and Hong Kong. It ruled in Aden (South Yemen) and had influence in the Persian Gulf.

It may have been the model for all later Joint Stock companies (shareholder owned corporations), which shared its financial structure, and also its lack of ethics.

John Keay - History of the Honourable East India Company
essential reading for the details of how the Company came to rule India

The Honourable Company: History of the English East India Company

Nick Robins - The Corporation that changed the world

The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational

First use of the term British Empire
John Dee

When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, Dee became her trusted advisor on astrological and scientific matters, choosing Elizabeth's coronation date himself. From the 1550s through the 1570s, he served as an advisor to England's voyages of discovery, providing technical assistance in navigation and ideological backing in the creation of a "British Empire", a term that he was the first to use. Dee wrote a letter to William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley in October 1574 seeking patronage. He claimed to have occult knowledge of treasure on the Welsh Marches, and of ancient valuable manuscripts kept at Wigmore Castle, knowing that the Lord Treasurer's ancestors came from this area.[15] In 1577, Dee published General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, a work that set out his vision of a maritime empire and asserted English territorial claims on the New World. Dee was acquainted with Humphrey Gilbert and was close to Sir Philip Sidney and his circle.[14]

references in Wikipedia

John Dee is a very controversial figure as he believed in "magic" more than science at a period when what we regard as modern science had not yet separated from astrology and alchemy.(See Frances Yates - Rosicrucian Enlightenment).

Nor should we ignore Richard Hakluyt

Quote from wikipedia

In the preface to this he announced the intended publication of the first terrestrial globe made in England by Emery Molyneux. Between 1598 and 1600 appeared the final, reconstructed and greatly enlarged edition of The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation in three volumes. In the dedication of the second volume (1599) to his patron, Sir Robert Cecil, he strongly urged the minister as to the expediency of colonizing Virginia. A few copies of this monumental work contain a map of great rarity, the first on the Mercator projection made in England according to the true principles laid down by Edward Wright. Hakluyt's great collection has been called "the Prose Epic of the modern English nation" by historian James Anthony Froude.

Hakluyt was also an investor in the East India Company, thus was one of the founders of the British Empire as it became.

Does this mean the British Empire can be said to have been a project of a small group of people in the time of Queen Elizabeth? This of course makes us think about the nature of historical change and how events come about.

The Queen did invest in the voyages of captains like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh - whose activities from the point of view of Spain were piratical.

John Dee
Benjamin Woolley - The Queen's Conjuror

The Queen's Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr. Dee: The Science and Magic of Dr.Dee

Hakluyt's text on Kindle

The First British Empire
After Ireland the next major expansion was to America. In the 16th century English people began to settle on the northeast coast of North America (Newfoundland, now part of Canada). In 1583 Queen Elizabeth claimed the Sovereignty for the English Crown. That is, by a form of words they annexed the land without regard for the people living there at the time. This procedure, which must seem to us now rather bizarre (and illegal under International Law), led to the whole Empire being considered the property of the English (and later the British) Crown. It had first been used in Ireland.

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.

The Second British Empire
After the independence of the United States the British continued to rule Canada, including the former French settlements in Quebec and the Caribbean Islands.

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).

 Why didn't the British do to China what they had done to India?

When the British arrived India was in theory unified - at least the northern parts - under the Mogul emperors, in Delhi. In practice the emperors had lost control of the provinces which were in reality more or less independent under the governors supposedly appointed by the emperor.

Beginning with Bengal the Company's forces displaced the Nawabs (governors) one province at a time. In the absence of a central government the Indians were unable to resist the encroachments of the British and the French.
We can remember that the Britons had not been united against the Romans when Rome invaded ancient Britain, nor the Romano-Britons against the Anglo-Saxons.

China remained a unified state under a functioning government. While it is true that its technology was stagnant in the face of the European developments - such as in Naval warfare - the central government did not lose control of the provinces until the late 19th century.

The Company never tried to rule any part of China (except Hong Kong and Weihaiwei) but wanted to trade, especially with Opium which it provided via a number of middlemen (some of them the ancestors of modern "respectable" companies such as Jardine Matheson).

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.

The empire in Africa started as slave trading depots in Ghana (Gold Coast) and other parts of the West African coast. Then when Britain ended its slave trade - having become rich enough from industry to do without its profits - there was a need for bases for the Naval patrols trying to prevent other countries carrying on a slave trade. In Sierra Leone there was also a base at Freetown to land freed ex-slaves - some of whom had fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and were taken from Nova Scotia. Then there were bases for "legitimate" trade. These grew from Lagos in Nigeria (a former Portuguese base), Accra in Ghana and Gambia. In many cases the coastal base was declared a Colony (sovereign British territory), and the interior lands were declared a Protectorate. In the 1890s British troops pushed inland using the new technologies of steam, telegraphs and machine guns (and Quinine to prevent Malaria) until they reached the borders of the French territories. The Berlin Conference (1884) on Colonial matters carved up Africa and gave each of the European powers their own sections. Thus Britain ended with territories in East, West and Southern Africa.

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).

The Royal Navy and East India Company ships visited many small islands in all the oceans. Many of these too were declared Sovereign British territory or signed treaties making them Protectorates. Some of them were useful as supply bases for water and food. A British presence there also denied their use to other empires - mainly the French. During the wars with the French several islands were conquered from the French. Mauritius is the best example

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).

Interesting Reading

Jan Morris - Pax Britannica

John Newsinger - The Blood never dried

Arundhati Roy - The Ordinary person's History of empire

Niall Ferguson - Empire (Right wing interpretation of empire)

Review of this book.
Rudyard Kipling Plain Tales from the Hills


Simples contes des collines

George MacDonald Fraser -
the Flashman novels
The late author wrote well-researched history about the wars fought to increase the empire (and in other areas)

The Flashman Papers

Patrick O'Brian books
The Royal Navy in the early 19th century

Les Aventures de Jack Aubrey

Feindliche Segel

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
(1939) about the conquest of the Sudan and the heroism of the "Officer Class". Preposterous plot but good for atmosphere.

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.

History of population

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 each territory there was a Governor, representing the Crown (the monarch), that is the British government. He was appointed by and answerable to a British cabinet member: the Secretary for India; or the Colonial Secretary. In London there were two ministries: the India Office; the Colonial Office (founded in 1801, by splitting it off from the Home Office). The India Office replaced the Honourable East India Company after the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

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.
 Rory Stewart
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators (the UN representatives in such places as Afghanistan) of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth century colonial officer. Colonial administration may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn't their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly the population would mutiny.

(see the footnote 59 of Rory Stewart The Places in Between, his book about walking across Afghanistan).

(He says the UN people seldom understand the people they govern, and don't stay long enough).

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 colonies of settlement went first. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were given local governments based on the British pattern, with a locally elected House of Commons and local ministers, answerable to the Governor. They were labelled the Dominions. The process of independence was completed after the first world war with the Statute of Westminster (1930), which recognised their independence but some of them, Australia for example, had signed the Versaille Treaty in 1919. Even in the second world war they cooperated closely with Britain and sent troops in both world wars. After 1945 their interests diverged from Britain, though there continued to be regular meetings of Heads of Government, in what has since become an institution of the Commonwealth (CHOGM = Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting).

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.

"The Plain fact is that we have got
the Gatling gun and they have not."
Hilaire Belloc (from "The Modern Traveller")Gatling gun in Afghan war

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).

All the European Empires were to some extent the result of drug trades. The first substance traded was nutmeg, used by the rich in medieval times; the second was sugar, a substance that humans can live perfectly well without, or with very small amounts. The next was tobacco whose bad effects were only fully recognised in the 20th century (though James the first of England wrote a pamphlet against the smoke). Finally, the British found the trade in opium from their Indian lands very profitable when sold in China. To some extent this trade was replaced by tea. Perhaps coffee is also a drug trade - said to have been discovered by Sufi mystics in the Yemen, wishing to stay awake. By the end of the 20th century the newer drug trades - Cocaine and Heroin, though still immensely profitable, were conducted not by states but by criminal organisations.

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.

Burma was the first to become independent. India was next (1947) being split into four states: India, Pakistan (later itself split when Bangladesh left) and Sri Lanka.

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.

Suez War
The event that showed the British Empire was at an end was probably the 1956 Suez War. Britain, France and Israel had conspired to invade Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal. They were stopped by the United States (and Egyptian resistance), proving that only decisions by the Superpowers were important. But the resistance also showed that the "natives" could not now be ignored as Kalashnikovs were cheap and easy to obtain.

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.

Jewel 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

Reminiscences of life in India.
Reference to Hobbs here

Hilaire Belloc - The Modern Traveller

The Modern Traveller (Classic Reprint)

After the British Empire
The Roman and Near Eastern world of 2000 years ago is known to historians as the Hellenistic world. The common language among many different peoples was Greek, following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

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.

List - How many countries were ruled by Britain?
  Colonial name   Modern name   Year of independence   Colonial name   Modern name   Year of independence
 Aden  Yemen  1967  Kuwait    1961
 Ascension Island    Not yet  Malaya  West Malaysia  1965
 Anguilla    Not yet  Maldive Islands    1976
 Australia    1901  Malta    1964
 Bahamas    1973  Mauritius    1961
 Bahrain    1971  Montserrat    Not yet
 Barbados    1966  Newfoundland  Canada  1949
 Basutoland  Lesotho  1966  New Hebrides (with France)  Vanuatu  1980
 Bechuanaland  Botswana  1966  New Zealand    1947
 Bermuda    Not yet  Nigeria    1960
 British Cameroon  Cameroon (part)  1961  North Borneo  Sabah  1965
 British Guyana  Guyana  1966  Nyasaland  Malawi  1963
 British Honduras  Belize  1981  Oman    Never formally a protectorate
 British Somaliland  Somaliland  1960  Papua New Guinea   1976
 British Solomon Islands  Solomon Is.  1978  Palestine  Israel  1948
 Brunei  Brunei  1984  Pitcairn Island  Not yet
 Burma  Myanmar  1948  Qatar    1971
 Canada    1926  Rhodesia  Zimbabwe & Zambia  1979
 Cayman Islands    Not yet  Sarawak East Malaysia 1965
 Ceylon   Sri Lanka  1948  St Helena    Not yet
 Cook Islands    NZ assoc.  St Kitts  St Kitts/Nevis  1983
 Cyprus    1960  St Lucia    1979
 Egypt  1922?  St Vincent    1979
 Falkland Islands and dependencies    Not yet  Seychelles    1976
 Fiji    1970  Sierra Leone    1961
 Gambia    1965  Singapore    1963
 Gibraltar    Not yet  South Africa    1910
 Gilbert and Ellice Islands  Kiribati & Tuvalu  1979
 Sudan    1954
 Gold Coast Ghana  1957  Swaziland    1968
 Grenada    1974  Tanganyika  Tanzania  1963
 Guernsey  Channel Is.    Tonga    1970
       Transjordan  Jordan  1948
 Hong Kong  China  1997  Trinidad  Trinidad & Tobago  1962
 India  Pakistan & Bangladesh)  1947  Tristan Da Cunha    Not yet
 Iraq    1932  Trucial Oman  United Arab Emirates  1971
 Ireland    1922  Turks and Caicos Islands    Not yet
 Jamaica    1963  Uganda    1962
 Jersey  Channel Is.    Western Samoa    1962
 Kenya   1963  Zanzibar  Tanzania  1963

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.

Cameroon and Mozambique have since joined. Ireland may rejoin on settlement of the Northern Ireland problem (probably never).

Rwanda joined in November 2008, although never ruled by Britain, perhaps motivated by the desire of the president to distance himself from France.
Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Israel and the Palestinian territories are said to be seeking to join in November 2007 too.

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 local government.
These are:

Ascension Island
British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT)
Cayman Islands
Falkland Islands
St Helena
Tristan da Cunha
Turks and Caicos Islands

 BBC and Cricket

One of the legacies of Empire is perhaps the British Broadcasting Corporation's World Service, founded in 1932 as the Empire Service, which may be one of the most influential post-Imperial institutions. It provides a news service independent of the individual former colonial countries - often the only source of impartial news.
Another is the game of Cricket, now spreading into some other areas, including Afghanistan and Cuba. The British Council as a cultural and educational organisation is also influential, within the former empire and elsewhere, too.


 Some neo-conservative people in the United States are beginning to talk of "the Anglosphere". Is this an embryonic English-speaking Empire - the merger of the British Empire and the United States that George Orwell imagined in his novel "1984"? Perhaps it is a passing short time idea, the result of the 2003 war in Iraq when France, Germany, Russia and many other countries refused to support the US-led invasion of Iraq, without the agreement of the United Nations.

Clearly, Britain and the United States have been close allies since the second world war when Winston Churchill realised the survival of Britain needed the support of the United States to defeat Nazi Germany. However, in recent years, especially since the Iraq war, many people in Britain protest that the British government appears to be subordinate to the United States rather than protecting British interests.

Since the independence of the former British colonies Britain itself has become a medium sized European power, and in comparison to the United States, much less powerful. Other English speaking states, such as Australia, have also become close allies with the US. Australia has US bases on its territory. Thus militarily the US has replaced the British Empire as the only power with military forces in every part of the globe. Will it last? Have the enthusiasts for having an empire in the US noticed the new conditions that make it much harder to rule people against their will, perhaps demonstrated by the difficulties the US has in controlling Iraq? They forget that during the period of all the European colonial Empires force, often brutal, was needed to keep power. (A good example is the ferocious response of the British to the Indian Mutiny - war crimes on a huge scale were committed.) The American wars in Vietnam and Iraq show that brutal military force remains the only method to hold an Empire - but that it no longer "works". In any case the declining relative economic power of the US does not suggest now is the time for an empire as Western Hegemony itself may be coming to an end, to be replaced by global cooperation in a world of equals - or possibly domination by new powers such as China. The US clearly cannot afford both civilian investment and its extremely expensive military.

Will Britain move closer to the other members of the European Union?

The Climate Problem is likely to have huge political effects.

 Was the Empire a good thing?

The historian cannot answer questions like this but only attempt to describe what happened. Nor can the historian explain why the Empire occurred - unless perhaps with the aid of Ibn Khaldun's insights.

It's not historians who can discuss such questions, but Moral Philosophers - a discipline taught in French schools but not usually in British or American schools.

In its favour perhaps one can say that the common experience of being ruled by the British inadvertently prepared many peoples for the world we now live in - of contact between peoples and a common world culture, something inevitable from modern technology. Also English has become a common language of an area greater than any other language in history. Along with the language went the procedures of the British Civil Service. A blessing, or a curse?

Review of two books.

One might add of course that the answer to such a question is bound to differ according to the experience of the questioner. For example, people of British descent may well feel that, as the prosperity of Britain - or at least its upper classes - in the 18th century and after was largely due to the profits made from the Empire, therefore from their point of view it was a good thing. But the descendants of those from whom the profits were made may feel differently about that. The profits were made by slavery, especially in the West Indies, and from driving down the price of local produce in India and the Far East. The experience of the empire in India was to demote India's position in the league of worldwide prosperity as its industries atrophied in favor of, for example, Lancashire's cotton industry. The main purpose of any empire is to drive down the prices in the colonised areas in favor of the "Home Country". See this article for some details.

Here are two articles about the legacies of Empire:
Nostalgia for empire?
Ruins of empire?

But even British people might wonder whether in the long run Empire was a good thing for Britain. In the 20th century it has been suggested by some economists that easy access to not very demanding markets made British industry complacent and reluctant to innovate. According to this point of view only the independence of the colonies made Britain more competitive again - though the later disappearance of British manufacturing industry suggests the loss was quite damaging. Now, such businesses as the British Steel industry and Landrover have come into the ownership of companies based in India. Is the former Empire now reversing the relationship?

More serious than the economic effects may have been the cultural effects. British people liked to believe that they had brought the benefits of "western civilisation" to the "natives". But many of the colonised peoples found their own cultures denigrated and even destroyed. For example, in Africa, society was organised around polygamy, to cope with the greater death rate of males. The Christian missionaries, protected by the imperial power, almost always condemned the practice (despite its being common in the Old Testament), leaving the extra wives unsupported, and probably giving rise to the current sexual promiscuity that causes a high rate of HIV infection. In Botswana, the missionaries caused the king to suppress the initiation schools by which the young were taught the customs of the people. The loss of this means of education is probably a contributor to the collapse in sexual morals, as the western type schools did not deal with these subjects, that included control of fertility. (Migrant Labor to South Africa by which the men went off to semi-slavery in the mines was also a contributor.)

In respect of India the claim of superior civilisation was also rather dubious. M.K.Gandhi, notoriously replied when asked a daft question by the Press on his arrival in Britain for negotiations: "What do you think of western civilisation?" (Although a qualified Middle Temple Lawyer, trained in London, he was wearing traditional Sadhu's clothing). He said: "I think it would be a good idea". Perhaps he had a point.

How far did the cultural changes caused by empire make possible the world ecological crisis of runaway population growth and destruction of the forests and other natural resource systems?

Some of the colonial people migrated to Britain so that there are now communities of people from India, Pakistan, the West Indies and in fact every former British territory. This has affected the culture of Britain itself, probably as much as Britain affected its colonies.

Take a look at Doris Lessing's account of the European expansion in her SF novel "Shikasta" (History of Shikasta vol. 3012- the Century of Destruction) and also her novel in the same series: "The Sentimental Agents..." about the theory of empires. Her "Sirian empire" appears to be based on the British Empire.

Doris Lessing - The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire

Alex von Tunzelmann - Indian Summer

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Jeremy Paxman - Empire: what ruling the world did to the British

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British

Wars of the British Succession

Rule by the British suppressed many local conflicts, and their departure released many of these. The states formed from some colonies were inhabited by people who had had few common interests before the colonial period. Some of them had been traditional enemies. Post-colonial wars have occurred in:

 How did the British Empire differ from ancient Rome?
British statesmen of the 19th century liked to think of themselves as Romans. Their statues tend to be dressed in Roman togas. At school they had studied Greek and Latin as the main subjects. They began to think of the wide area of the planet under their rule as a sort of re-birth of the Roman empire. But nevertheless the British Empire was different in important ways. Rome had been conquered by direct military force. When a new city or province was conquered by the Roman army the conquered people were made into slaves to work for Romans for nothing. The lands of the conquered cities were given to Romans - at first to all citizens, but later, as with the conquered Carthage, land and slaves going only to the ruling aristocracy. The main weakness of the Roman empire had been that it collapsed when its military forces failed and the Romans failed to trade with the wider empire. The core of the empire was not an economic and trading enterprise. Its central economic fact was tribute - theft at the threat of the military. The British empire had been the result of trade. Although the slave trade was essentially theft, trade in other areas did have some elements of mutual benefit.

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?
I think he would notice that it was the work of a fairly small group - the oligarchy that formed the governing group of England, and then Britain, from the 17th century onward. These were the landowners and aristocracy and the financiers of the City of London. They had the "Group Feeling" Khaldun proposed, and transmitted it to the population as a whole. Those who made money in India and from the slave plantations of the West Indies built large country palaces, now exhibited as the "Stately Homes". They also helped finance the Industrial Revolution. During the existence of the Empire many people shared in the group feeling, expressed as patriotism, and a feeling of superiority, and the belief that the empire was a Good Thing. To some extent this group feeling was also transmitted to the people ruled in the colonies. This was part of the motivation of the West Indians who migrated to Britain during the 1950s and 60s.

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.

Far-called our navies melt away -
On dune and headland sinks the fire -
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Written by a former Education Officer in Kenya, Botswana and Nigeria.
The author has also studied in Uganda and travelled in Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Ghana. He has worked in Iraq and South Yemen. Other travels in Australia and Canada.

Last revised 29/07/12


World Info


Return to the top

Since 8/01/11

eXTReMe Tracker