This has come up in debate time and time again in the UK, ‘was the British Empire good or bad?’ And hopefully this blog post will shed light on what the British Empire achieved during its time of dominance and how it has affected the world of today.
Firstly for a bit of history. The British Empire comprised of dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and territories which were ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It’s origins date back to between the late 16th and early 18th centuries in which time England began establishing overseas possessions and trading posts. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and for over a century was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire governed over 458 million people, one fifth of the world’s population at the time. The empire covered more than 33,700,000 km, almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, the empires political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire because its expanse across the globe meant the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
So lets get to the point, was the British Empire bad or good? Well technically nothing that labels itself an Empire can be good, the idea of an empire is to command, conquer and then benefit from the rewards of victory. Britain explored the oceans, discovered distant lands and claimed them for King/Queen & Country regardless of the pre-existing native population. The reasoning behind this Empire building, and there are many - expansion, profit, pride & power are some of the key reasons but also very importantly a European race. Countries like France, Spain & Germany were also in the Empire building business, and they were booming. So you could say that if Britain hadn’t done it, then France, Spain or maybe even Germany would – and therefore there was no escape from this period of rule. What I think we also need to take into account is the circumstances in which the British Empire was developed, this was a world that had not yet been fully explored, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand all had yet to be discovered and when they were found it was very much ‘finders keepers’.
So once Britain had established its control of a region how did it govern? On the credit side, first of all, the British Empire was a liberal empire. It was founded on principles classically enunciated by Edmund Burke, who maintained that colonial government was a trust. It should to be exercised for the benefit of subject peoples, who would eventually attain their natural right to self-rule. As Burke famously declared, ‘The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other.’ More or less sincerely, Britons reiterated this claim over the next two centuries. The Tory Primrose League took as its motto, Imperium et Libertas. In 1921 Lloyd George told the Imperial Conference that the British Empire was unique because ‘Liberty is its binding principle.’Whitehall mandarins said that the evolution of Empire into Commonwealth after the Second World War completed the process whereby colonial territories came to stand on their own feet.
But of course, subject people often did not accept that the Empire aimed at their advancements. So much so however that you could say the British Government treated inhabitants of dominions as children, being nurtured for the freedoms and responsibilities of maturity – the Empire felt obliged to put its principles into practice. Often Empire builders saw it as a matter of subduing ‘barbarism’ and ‘savagery’. Thus in India they did their best to eradicate thuggee and suttee, General Sir Charles Napier rejecting cultural relativism and promising to act according to the custom of his own country: ‘when men burn women alive we hang them.’ In Africa they endeavoured to put down slavery, Christian missionaries following the example of David Livingstone, who was said to have sacrificed his life ‘to heal this open sore of the world’. In New Zealand they suppressed cannibalism and the traffic in tattooed Maori heads – traders had taken to bidding for them when they were still attached to shoulders. In Hong Kong they tried to stop foot-binding and infanticide.
Empire builders from Britain also laboured to promote positive welfare. For example, Lord Curzon worked endlessly as Viceroy to give India measures of justice, reform and social improvement. He aspired to give India the best administration it had ever had. He fostered commerce, expanded communications, developed irrigation, relieved famine, encouraged education, restored monuments, strengthened defence and promoted efficiency. He even ordered the removal of pigeon droppings from Calcutta’s Public Library. Furthermore, Curzon resisted Britain’s ‘Shylock’ exploitation of India, writing to Whitehall as though he were the ruler of a foreign power. The unpublished memoir of an Irish lawyer, Manus Nunan, who was usually scathing about the English, contains nothing but praise for the District Officers he met in Nigeria during the 1950s: ‘Their concern for the native people they governed was wonderful. That scourge of imperial wrong-doing, made the same point: such civil servants were ‘strong in their sense of justice, keen in their sense of right, firm in their sense of duty’. They were honest, brave, responsible and, above all, industrious.”
District Officers could hardly avoid their work. They collected taxes, presided in court, supervised the police, oversaw public works, advanced agriculture, promoted health, inspected schools, fostered sport, encouraged Boy Scouts, arbitrated in disputes and fulfilled endless social functions. Usually imperial civil servants had to operate in small numbers. Yet in prosperous colonies such as Malaya, they took direct action, every Resident being, as one official put it, ‘a Socialist in his own state.’ They constructed roads and railways. They erected buildings and created enterprises, notably the tin smelting industry. They invested in education, sanitation, irrigation and power generation.
Even George Orwell, who had seen colonial dirty work at close quarters in Burma in the 1920s, acknowledged that the British Empire was much better than any other. It was vastly superior, in moral terms, to the French, German, Portuguese and Dutch empires. And it bore no resemblance to the ‘vampire empire’ created by King Leopold of the Belgians in the Congo, which was responsible for perhaps 10 million deaths, let alone the genocidal Nazi empire.
After the Second World War Britain could no longer rule the Empire. Territories were requesting independence, beginning with India, the diamond in the crown of the Empire. However thanks to pragmatic policies formulated in London, the Empire experienced what Ronald Hyam recently called ‘a quiet and easy death’. Thomas Babington Macaulay had famously reckoned that the passing away of the imperial sceptre would be ‘the proudest day in English history’. For he hoped his compatriots would leave behind an empire that was immune to decay, ‘the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws’. Wherever the map was painted red Britain had disseminated its culture, language and technology, its ideals of democracy, good governance and free speech, its fondness for sport and fair play, its enlightened values and Christian civilization. According to Alan Massie, writing after the handover of Hong Kong, the British Empire had been ‘a force for good unrivalled in the modern world’. Western Europe lived on the legacy of Rome, he said, and ‘our Empire leaves at least as rich a legacy to the whole world.’
However resistance to the Empire resulted in an evidently licensed disproportionate retaliation, for example when crushing opposition in Ceylon in 1818, the British killed over one per cent of the population. The catalogue of gross imperial wrongdoing is not hard to extend. It includes instances of exploitation such as the slave trade and the indentured labour traffic; cases of acquisitive aggression such the opium wars and the rape of Matabeleland; acts of vandalism such as the burning of the Emperor’s Summer Palace in Beijing and the destruction of the Mahdi’s tomb at Omdurman; squalid fiascos such as the Jameson Raid and the Suez invasion; crimes such as the use of dum-dum bullets and poison gas against ‘uncivilized tribes’ (Churchill’s phrase); massacres such as occurred at Amritsar in 1919, Batang Kali in Malaya in 1948 (the ‘British My Lai’) and Hola Camp in Kenya (1959). One should also list evils, such as torture and looting, which were endemic throughout the Empire. Prize items of pillage, incidentally, were sent to Windsor Castle and, despite some restitution, most of them evidently remain in royal hands. Least among the treasures Queen Victoria received from Emperor Hien-Feng’s Summer Palace was a Pekinese dog, which she called Looty.
Britain’s conquests were necessarily violent and its subsequent occupations were usually repressive. Imperial powers lack legitimacy and govern irresponsibly, relying on force, collaboration and propaganda. But no vindication, even that formulated by Burke, can eradicate the instinctive hostility to alien control. Edward Gibbon said: “A more unjust and absurd constitution cannot be devised than that which condemns the natives of a country to perpetual servitude, under the arbitrary dominion of strangers.” Imperial territories with majority white population favoured better off during and after the Empire.
So does the good outweigh the bad? What do you think?..