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The British Empire

Replica of Drake's ship Golden Hinde at Brixham Harbour, Devon

Empires throughout history have risen and fallen, and even the biggest eventually pass away. In the sixteenth century Britain was nowhere in overseas empire terms. At that time Spain was the world power. Following the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 Spain developed a huge empire, which grew from small settlements in the Caribbean to include Mexico, central America, most of south America, and areas in south western north America. Meanwhile in England, Henry VII showed interest in the possibilities of overseas exploration and trade. But progress came to a standstill during the reign of Henry VII's son, Henry VIII. Henry VIII wasted his time with silly European wars, and it wasn't until the reign of his daughter Elizabeth I that overseas exploration became important once again. Realising the importance of shipping Elizabeth established Trinity House, the organisation which still runs Britain's lighthouses today. Sponsored by Elizabeth, Sir Francis Drake completed a circumnavigation of the world 1577 - 1580, making his queen a lot of money. Failed attempts were made to establish colonies in America, but at the beginning of the reign of James I in 1607 a colony finally established itself at Jamestown Virginia. Virginia was named in honour of Elizabeth the Virgin Queen.





"England Expects" flag message on HMS Victory at Portsmouth Dockyard

Into the seventeenth century Oliver Cromwell had global ambitions for Britain. Cromwell's naval forces took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. The island of St Helena was taken in 1659 as an outpost on the Cape of Good Hope route to India. Compared with the vast Spanish and Portuguese empires, these little outposts did not amount to much, but important changes were occurring which would eventually allow Britain to establish a huge empire. Firstly the Royal Navy was becoming more powerful. The seventeenth century naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys did much to modernise naval administration and organisation. In1677 Pepys forced through his most revolutionary reform. He proposed that no one should be appointed lieutenant until he had served three years, received a certificate from his captain and passed an examination in navigation and seamanship at the Navy Office. Having experience and training before taking on a senior role seems an obvious requirement now, but it wasn't in the seventeenth century. As Pepys' biographer, Claire Tomalin, says: "Pepys had made history at a stroke, bringing about a revolution in the way the navy was run, fired by his belief that education and intelligence were more useful to the nation than family background and money" (Samuel Pepys P303). Naturally this new meritocracy had its limits. Horatio Nelson the famous vice admiral at Trafalgar, was born in relatively humble circumstances as the son of a curate. While Nelson made much of being a "young man of friendless merit," he was an inveterate self promoter who was good at burnishing his own image. He was not in fact a young man of friendless merit. Nelson's uncle, Maurice Suckling was comptroller of the Navy Board, one of the most influential men in naval administration, and was actually on the three man panel which interviewed Nelson for his position as lieutenant in 1776. Not surprisingly young Nelson got his promotion (see Nelson, The Man And The Legend by Terry Coleman P17-19). There were all kinds of ways in which ambitious men could work the navy system to get on, or promote those they favoured. James Cook for example put his young sons on his crew rosters to make it appear as though they had years of service when they didn't. This would help them fulfill the requirement for length of service for promotion to lieutenant. Practices such as this were widespread and quietly accepted. Nevertheless, admitting all these provisos, it can still be said that a relative sense of meritocracy was a revolution for the navy, and a social milestone generally. James Cook, may have fiddled crew rosters to favour his sons, but Cook was the son of a farm labourer, and he would have not have been able to reach the position he did in a navy that did not favour merit. Imperial Britain may have been known for its class system, but it was on a meritocratic basis that the navy grew ever more powerful, and was used to create the largest empire in history.



Statue of Wellington outside the Bank of England - the Bank was vital in allowing the military success which created the Empire

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also a time when England led the way in industrialisation and technology. For reasons still argued over today, the Industrial Revolution occured first in Britain, giving the Royal Navy a massive advantage. At the same time important developments in banking and lending were taking place, once again primarly in Britain. P.G.M. Dickinson writes of the crucial advantage of public borrowing during the Napoleonic Wars: "more important even than alliances... was the system of public borrowing... which enabled England to spend on war out of all proportion to its tax revenue, and then throw into the struggle with France and its allies the decisive margin in ships and men..." (The Financial Revolution in England P9). These advantages allowed Britain to quickly recover from the huge setback of losing the American colonies in 1781. The subsequent period of war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France was a time of great colonial expansion, as the following list of colonial additions illustrates: 1793 - Tobago and part of San Domingo, Pondichery, St Pierre and Miquelon; 1794 - Maia Galante and Deseada; 1795 - Ceylon, Malacca, and the Cape of Good Hope; 1796 - Dutch possessions in East and West Indies; 1797 - Trinidad; 1798 - Minorca; 1799 - Surinam; 1800 - Curacao and Malta. Then in 1801 the Wellesley brothers greatly extended British power in India.

The British Empire was generally speaking a maritime empire, held together by the navy. The navy's cost meant Britain's army had to be small. This largely set the tone of an empire where, characteristically, a few British officials would win over local leaders and then work through them, rather than trying to order people about directly. This is not to say that the British Empire was all politeness and fair play. The British could be as ruthless as any other colonial power. This was illustrated right at the beginning of the time of empire in the English reaction to Scotland's Darien expedition of 1698. The Darien adventure was Scotland's big effort to set up a major colony in central America, and many thousands of Scots invested heavily in it. This was an adventure that the English wanted to see fail. When the expedition ran into difficulties the English refused to help, and this refusal of aid even extended to not taking in starving survivors of the expedition who managed to make it to England's colony in Jamaica. The governor of Jamaica met the captain of the last Scottish ship at his house, offered him a glass of wine and a pipe of tobacco, and told him that unfortunately he could offer no further assistance. The sick were brought ashore to die, while the rest of the survivors sold themselves into slavery on plantations, or joined pirates, or ironically, the Royal Navy. Norman Davies in The Isles suggests that such was the financial loss caused by the Darien disaster that it contributed to Scotland having to agree with the Act of Union in 1707. Whether this is true or not is highly debatable, but it was probably because Scotland saw the financial benefit of being part of England's growing empire that the Scottish government voted for the Act of Union. After this date an English empire could become the British Empire.

The nineteenth century was to be the era of Pax Britannica when Britain was the most powerful country in the world. A world wide maritime empire was naturally reflected in a powerful navy. In 1883 the number of British battleships almost equalled the total number of all other powers combined - the British had thirty eight compared with forty for the rest of the world. But then following quite rapidly on from this peak of empire other countries with larger populations, and greater natural resources started to catch up. By 1897 Britain was beginning to lose the ability to produce a navy which outclassed all others. 1897 saw the ratio of battleships shift to sixty two British battleships to ninety six for the rest of the world (figures quoted in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery by Paul Kennedy). Towards the end of the time of Empire, arrogant delusions were setting in. In Africa Cecil Rhodes actually thought that Britain could rule the world, and such arrogance led to one of the darkest episodes in Britain's imperial adventure. A group of Dutch farmers in South Africa struggling against British rule, found themselves facing concentration camps, a terrifying innovation introduced by Kitchener. Over 20,000 Boers died in the camps. By the beginning of the twentieth century the system of empire had began to unravel as desire for independence grew. Britain liked to think it ruled with the consent of the people, but in India Mahatma Gandhi set out to show that this wasn't so. Gandhi wanted peaceful protest, but many of his followers had no time for quiet resistance. There were riots, and a heavy handed British response. In Amristan in 1919 Brigadier General Reginald Dwyer ordered his men to fire into a demonstration. Three hundred and seventy nine Indians were killed. Dwyer was dismissed, but the damage was done.



HMS Invincible, veteran of the Falkland conflict, being decommissioned at Portsmouth in 2005

After the end of the Second World War preparations began for orderly withdrawal from the empire. Thankfully Britain now accepted its changing status and withdrawal was largely peaceful. The French and the Portuguese were demonstrating the hopelessness of trying to hold onto an empire at any cost in their ferocious wars in Indo China, Angola and Mozambique. The British did fight some rear guard actions against the possibility of communist governments in a number of former colonies. Of these "emergencies" Malaya in 1948 and Kenya in 1952 - 1954 are the best known. The Suez Crisis of 1956 saw Britain make an ill advised attempt to intervene in Middle Eastern politics when the Canal Zone was nationalised. The ensuing debacle only served to confirm that the age of empire was over. The Falklands War of 1982, was an anomaly, with Margaret Thatcher ordering a vigorous and successful defence of the Falkland Islands, invaded by neighbouring Argentina. But generally speaking the empire was given up in a peaceful fashion. In 1997 Chris Patten, last British governor of Hong Kong, cried as he handed over the Union Jack to the new Chinese administration. He then sailed away on the Royal Yacht Britannia. This was a symbolic end of empire, even though Britain is still responsible for 150,000 people in "dependent territories," most of whom live in Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Now of course the idea of empire is deeply unfashionable, and ideas of freedom are linked with democracy. But you could argue that democracy is only another imperfect and potentially dangerous way to arrange things. Acting in the name of the people is all very well, but first you have to decide who the people are. As democracy rests on majority rule, the "people" by definition does not include everybody. A.N. Wilson has written: "In an Imperium, different racial and religious groups have to coexist in order to survive. Not so for the democratic nationalist, who actually asserts his 'freedom' by the right to be a fully independent Hindu or Muslim, Indian or Pakistani. The inevitable concomitant is that the 'alien' in the nationalists midst will, by democratic will of the majority, be expunged" (After The Victorians P30). Perhaps British tolerance, in so far as it existed, was encouraged by empire. An empire is not an extended state taken over by invasion. The British Empire was an empire in the sense that individual countries within it retained their identity. No attempt was made to make countries such as India into Britain. A British style civil service may have been set up, but India was still India. And while it is a sad truth that concentration camps were a British invention, the fact that the British Empire was a scattered maritime empire held together by a navy generally helped maintain the identity of its constituent pieces. The maritime nature of the British Empire may have saved it from at least some of the more widespread problems that have beset land based empires. The world has to hold a lot of different people. The British Empire, while it endured, had to do the same.



Bateman's - home of the poet of Empire Rudyard Kipling

So perhaps there is something in A.N. Wilson's claim that true empires might actually contribute to tolerance. It might also be true that countries generally do better economically as a part of some big grouping, than they do alone. Now that Britain has no empire, the question has to be asked if it is in Britain's best interests to remain as a small isolated country in northern Europe. Sometimes small countries do well - Switzerland and Monaco are obvious examples. On the other hand it would be difficult to see how Rhode Island, for example, would be better off if it decided to leave the United States and proclaim its proud independence. Now that empires are out of fashion, the idea of a voluntary coming together of countries into a wider community might be the obvious way forward. This idea of course has to compete with nationalistic feelings, which are not always rational. Hopefully we can rely on the fact that after some inevitable chest beating countries tend to do what makes economic sense. Scotland did this in the eighteenth century in joining with England. The future might demand that Britain as a whole enters into a wider European community. The advantage of an international community over an empire is that a single country is less likely to take a disproportionate part of the accruing benefit. It all depends on people being sensible enough to join in a grouping voluntarily, without the need for some powerful country attempting to create a grouping by force.







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