Imperialism-Doomed to Collapse under Its Own Weight? Essay

The British Empire was the world’s foremost global authority and the biggest empire in history. It was a creation of the European Age of Discovery that began with the global maritime empires of Portugal and Spain in the late 15th century. By 1921 the British Empire held over a population of about 470–570 million people—roughly a quarter of the world’s population—and covered about 14.3 million square miles (more than 37 million km²), almost a third of the world’s total land area (British Empire, 2006). The larger portion of the British Empire lies within the temperate zones, and is appropriate for white settlement. The noteworthy exceptions are the southern half of India and Burma; East, West and Central Africa; the West Indian colonies; the northern portion of Australia; New Guinea, British Borneo and that portion of North America which extends into Arctic regions. The differences in of time and seasons of these territories, and the variety of soils and climates, are believe to have an ever more significant effect upon the material and industrial, as well as upon the social and political expansion of the British Empire (British Empire, 2004). Although the British Empire has since almost completely disappeared, its tough influence all over the world, such as in economic practice, legal and government systems, the spread of many traditionally British sports (such as cricket) and also the spread of the English language still remains (British Empire, 2006).

The rise of the British Empire

The failure of English territorial ambitions in continental Europe impelled the kingdom’s rulers to look further afield, creating the foundations of the mercantile and colonial network that was later to become the British Empire. The chaos of the Reformation entangled England in religious wars with Europe’s Catholic powers, particularly Spain, however, the kingdom preserved its independence as much through luck as through the skill of charismatic rulers such as Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s successor, James I was already king of Scotland (as James VI); and this personal union of the two crowns into the crown of Great Britain was followed a century later by the Act of Union 1707, which formally unified England, Scotland and Wales into the Kingdom of Great Britain. This later became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801 to 1927) and then the modern state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1927 to present) (England, 2006). The overseas British Empire — in the sense of British oceanic exploration and settlement outside of Europe and the British Isles — was rooted in the revolutionary maritime policies of King Henry VII, who reigned 1485–1509. Building on commercial links in the wool trade promoted during the reign of his predecessor King Richard III, (British Empire, 2006). The fundamentals of sea power, having been laid during Henry VII’s reign, were slowly extended to defend English trade and open up new routes. King Henry VIII founded the modern English navy (though the plans to do so were put into motion during his father’s reign), more than tripling the number of warships and constructing the first large vessels with heavy, long-range guns. He initiated the Navy’s formal, centralized administrative apparatus, built new docks, and constructed the network of beacons and lighthouses that greatly facilitated coastal navigation for English and foreign merchant sailors. Henry thus established the munitions-based Royal Navy that was able to repulse the Spanish Armada in 1588, and his innovations provided the seed for the imperial navy of later centuries (British Empire, 2006).

In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the island of Newfoundland as England’s for Elizabeth I, reinforcing John Cabot’s prior claim to the island in 1497, for Henry VII, as England’s first overseas colony. Gilbert’s shipwreck prevented ensuing settlement in Newfoundland, other than the seasonal cod fishermen who had frequented the island since 1497. However, the Jamestown colonists, led by Captain John Smith, overcame the severe privations of the winter in 1607 to found England’s first permanent overseas settlement. The empire thus took shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of the eastern colonies of North America, which would later become the original United States as well as Canada’s Atlantic provinces, and the colonization of the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Barbados (British Empire, 2006).

The sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean, where slavery became the basis of the economy, were at first England’s main essential and lucrative colonies. The American colonies producing tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval materiel and furs in the north were less profitable, however had large areas of good agricultural land and fascinated far larger numbers of English emigrants (British Empire, 2006). In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht firmly established England’s commercial and colonial superiority, for it gave her new possessions in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Minorca as well as Gibraltar and the sole right to supply slaves to Spanish colonies. Britain’s interests in the New World had begun early. As an evidence of its eventual triumph in Virginia had been the founding of the College of William and Mary in 1693 (Williams, n.d.).

Meanwhile, England’s American empire was slowly extended by war and colonization, England gaining control of New Amsterdam (later New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The growing American colonies pressed ever westward in search of new agricultural lands. During the Seven Years War the British defeated the French at the Plains of Abraham and captured all of New France in 1760, giving Britain control over the greater part of North America (British Empire, 2006). Later, settlement of Australia (starting with penal colonies from 1788) and New Zealand (under the crown from 1840) created a major zone of British migration. The entire Australian continent was claimed for Britain when Matthew Flinders proved New Holland and New South Wales to be a single land mass by completing a circumnavigation of it in 1803. The colonies later became self-governing colonies and became profitable exporters of wool and gold (British Empire, 2006).

The Business of Empire

By 1793, debates had begun in Britain about managing Britain’s ‘Asiatic possessions’ in the national interest, something Adam Smith never considered (Sewell and Debrett, 1793).  Two basic principles emerged. First, the empire must pay for itself. The East India Company fell foul of this principle, forcing the British parliament to assume direct control over Indian finance. Secondly, British business had to benefit. The Company ceased to serve this purpose adequately and imperial policy shifted onto laissez faire lines. In 1813, the British parliament ended the Company’s monopoly to allow private merchants freer access to British territories overseas. In 1833, Britain opened India further by making English the official language of state law, administration and education (Barber 1975; Ludden, 2005). The administrative expression of Empire with British business interests moved ahead evidently in 1833, when the abolition of slavery encouraged protest from Caribbean sugar planters, who were lacking in slave labor, spurred the Indian government to send shiploads of indentured workers from Calcutta to English sugar plantations in the West Indies. By 1833, tariffs against Indian cloth were protecting Lancashire industrialists, who sent cloth virtually free of tariff to British India, driving countless weavers into destitution. English merchants sold Bengal opium in China to buy porcelain teacups and tea for English housewives and factory workers to sweeten with sugar from Caribbean plantations. Meanwhile, English businessmen came more often to work in India and displaced Indians from commercial partnerships with British firms, as India’s overseas trade moved more and more into British hands (Ludden, 2005). A new round of imperial globalization, attached to industrial capitalism, had thus begun by the mid-19th century. With it emerged a modern development regime, whose preliminary construction began piecemeal during the decades between 1823 and 1854, when the real value of taxes in British India rose swiftly, as prices in India dropped progressively. During this prolong price depression; it became more cost effective to invest Indian taxes in India, where tax money could buy more in real terms than if remitted to England. At the same time, British businesses find ways to invest state money overseas to perk up the supply of raw materials and consumer goods. In the 1840s, as parliament considered how to invest state money to improve cotton supplies, government in British India began building infrastructure to cheapen imports and exports, to expand military operations, to increase revenue, and to extend the field of British private capital investment (Ludden, 2005). So began the endorsement of state infrastructure investments in economic development. It focused primary on plantations, railways, cities, roads, ports, shipping and irrigation. In the 1840s, an irrigation engineer, Arthur Cotton, led the way by arguing that Indian crop production could increase manifold with state irrigation that would pay for itself with higher taxes on more valuable land (Cotton, 1968). In 1853, governor general Dalhousie announced a plan to build an Indian railway with state contracts that guaranteed English companies a minimum 5 per cent return, and to secure that return, government kept control of railway construction and management. In 1871, the government of India obtained authority to raise loans for productive purposes, and large irrigation projects began, following earlier success raising revenues from small projects (Ludden, 2005).

The Growth of Empire
 United in their Protestantism more than anything else, the Welsh and Scots and English thought of themselves as British; it was their Protestantism (and perhaps their representatives in Parliament) that held them together; they thought of themselves as a united, religious and moral people. Therefore, it was only appropriate for them to go out as crusaders of enlightenment, mainly through the conflicting aims of trade and religious conversion (the latter always second to the former) to the far corners of the earth. The disorder and perplexity that existed in France during its Revolution were looked upon disgust in England, who has to come to realize its loss of American colonies and having become more of a united kingdom in the painful process (Williams, n.d.). A growing population which had hitherto been regarded as one of the strengths of the nation now found itself looked on as something of a curse. There simply were too many people to feed (and control). Increasing pauperism and distress, along with monstrously bad harvests, massive unemployment and public debt, severely strained the limited resources available, and drastic remedies were sought by the folks in Westminster (Williams, n.d.). Perhaps the easiest solution was emigration. In 1822, an article by James Mill on “Colonization” in the “Encyclopedia Britannica” offered emigration as a remedy for over-population. It was eagerly read and avidly discussed by M.P.’s such as Robert Horton, who spent quite a few years of his time in the House of Commons trying to convince his colleagues of the merits of his emigration schemes. In the years 1823- 25, attempts were made to put his plans into practice, especially because the Government wished to settle British people in new lands that could be contested by other nationalities. Though most of the emigrants chosen for government-assisted passages in these early years were Irish (one way to get rid of those troublesome Catholics) many Scots were attracted by the offers of free land overseas (Williams, n.d.).

The decline of the British Empire

Although the liquidation of empire occurred rapidly, no single event marked the end of the British Empire. Some scholars pointed out that World War I provided a turning point, even though it extended the empire’s territories and demonstrated its importance for Britain (Hay, 2004). However, the old British colonial system began to decline in the 18th century. During the long period of continuous Whig dominance of domestic political life (1714–62), the Empire became less significant and less well-regarded, until an ill-fated attempt (largely involving taxes, monopolies, and zoning) to reverse the resulting “salutary neglect” (or “benign neglect”) provoked the American War of Independence (1775–83), depriving Britain of her most populous colonies (British empire, 2006). This period is often referred to as the end of the “first British Empire”, indicating the transfer of British expansion from the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries to the “second British Empire” in Asia and later also Africa from the 18th century. The loss of the Thirteen Colonies showed that colonies were not inevitably chiefly beneficial in economic terms, since Britain could still control trade with the ex-colonies without having to pay for their defense and administration (British Empire, 2006). Mercantilism, the economic doctrine of competition between nations for a finite amount of wealth which had characterized the first period of colonial expansion, now gave way in Britain and elsewhere to the laissez-faire economic liberalism of Adam Smith and successors like Richard Cobden (British Empire, 2006). During this period, Britain also outlawed the slave trade (1807) and soon began enforcing this principle on other nations. By the mid-19th century Britain had largely eradicated the world slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in the British colonies in 1834, though the phenomenon of indentured labor retained much of its oppressive character until 1920 (British Empire, 2006). The end of the old colonial and slave systems was accompanied by the adoption of free trade, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws and Navigation Acts in the 1840s. Free trade opened the British market to unfettered competition, stimulating reciprocal action by other countries during the middle quarters of the 19th century (British empire, 2006). Some argue that the rise of free trade merely reflected Britain’s economic position and was unconnected with any true philosophical conviction. Despite the earlier loss of 13 of Britain’s North American colonies, the final defeat in Europe of Napoleonic France in 1815 left Britain the most successful international power. While the Industrial Revolution at home gave her an unrivalled economic leadership, the Royal Navy dominated the seas. The distraction of rival powers by European matters enabled Britain to pursue a phase of expansion of her economic and political influence through “informal empire” underpinned by free trade and strategic pre-eminence (British empire, 2006).


There is nothing mismatched between representative governments or democratic, institutions, and the great organization known as the British Empire. British Imperialism and representative democracy are complementary and not contradictory terms. Some think that the term “Empire” is inconsistent with the term “Democracy.” Among all human polities of which there are records, there are few whose history is more generally honorable than the history of the British Empire. There are few whose work in the world has been more largely for the benefit of mankind. There are few whose power and influence have been more widely exerted for the uplifting and safeguarding of the deepest interests of humanity. However, none stands to Britain as a rival in this. That Empire has stood and still stands for peace, for freedom, for justice, for equality before the law, for health and wealth and religion and humanity. It has been the nursery of self-government among backward peoples. It has been the protector of the slave. It has been the guardian of the oppressed (Cody, 1922).


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Cotton, Arthur Thomas. (1968). Lectures on irrigation works in India; Delivered at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham, Autumn Session, 1874, Collected and Published by Uddaraju Raman, Vijayawada.

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Sewell, J and J Debrett. (1793).Historical View of Plans for the Government of British India and Regulation of Trade to the East Indies and Outlines of a Plan of Foreign Government, of Commercial Economy, and of Domestic Administration for the Asiatic Interests of Great Britain, London.

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