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The British Empire

by John Welford 3 months ago in history

How does modern Britain regard its colonial history?

Every year, in September, the series of Promenade Concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall reaches its last night and Britain suddenly rediscovers its patriotism. These days, we Brits are not much given to flag waving, but on the Last Night of the Proms (which is now extended to simultaneous events around the country and is broadcast live on TV and radio) there are flags a-plenty and enthusiastic renditions of patriotic songs including these lines from “Land of Hope and Glory”:

“Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set / God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet”.

Anyone from overseas who saw the crowds of mainly young people belting out these lines to the music of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No 1” might imagine that the British people continue to be imperialist and jingoistic, nostalgically longing for the revival of Empire and seeking world domination once more. However, nobody should take these celebrations too seriously, because today’s Brits have a very different world-view from that of their great-grandparents who were around when those words were written back in 1902.

The red map

The British Empire was at its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was when maps of the world showed the largest proportion of the world’s territories coloured red. To the top left was Canada, to the bottom right, Australia. Other large red blocks included India and huge swathes of Africa. Island chains strung across the Pacific ensured that this was truly an empire “on which the sun never set”. At the centre of the map was the relatively tiny island of Great Britain, from which this whole enterprise was run. It is hardly to be wondered that the vast majority of the British people once took enormous pride in being the most powerful country in the world.

An important element of this pride, and one that is often forgotten, is that the Victorians regarded the Empire not only as proof of their superiority but as something that it was their sacred duty to maintain and extend. In 1893, Lord Rosebery, who was Foreign Secretary and would become Prime Minister, said in a speech that:

“We have to consider what countries must be developed … and we have to remember that it is part of our heritage to take care that the world, as far as it can be moulded by us, shall receive an English-speaking complexion and not that of other nations. [We must not] decline to take our share in a partition of the world, which we have not forced, but which has been forced on us.”

In terms of Africa and India, Britain was shouldering the “white man’s burden” of rescuing benighted peoples from the despair of being primitive, savage, un-Christian, and black-skinned. Seen from a modern perspective, this attitude was deeply racist, patronising and indeed hypocritical, in that the purpose of Empire was to receive as well as give.

Pros and cons of Empire

However, many British people at the time would not have regarded the Empire as being anything other than a force for good. They genuinely believed that their Christian religion required them to make converts of all the races of the world, and also that the white races were inherently superior to the black ones. (It is probably worth bearing in mind that there are still plenty of people around today who think the same way.) Through the Empire, the Victorians and Edwardians were able to put these beliefs into practice. Their God, together with their finely-tuned Protestant work ethic, required them to serve, and the Empire gave them the opportunity to do so.

The Empire therefore affected the British people in very practical ways. Many thousands of Brits from the higher strata of society went out to remote parts of the world as colonial civil servants, military leaders, engineers, teachers, missionaries, doctors and merchants. Novels such as E. M. Forster’s “A Passage to India”, and the stories of Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, give very vivid portrayals of the lives these people led. There was also plenty of work for people from the lower classes, most notably as the foot soldiers who fought a long series of colonial wars right through the reign of Queen Victoria. Most of these people came home after a few years of service, but others settled permanently in the colonies, such as the owners of vast agricultural estates in Africa and tea plantations in India.

On the home front, many thousands of British people owed their livelihood to the Empire. The city of Birmingham became known as the “workshop of the world” for its manufacture of machinery and other goods that were exported largely to the colonies. New industries sprang up to process the raw materials and foodstuffs that were imported, such as rubber from Malaya and tea from India. Thousands of sailors, dockers and merchants made the import/export trade possible, and thousands more built the ships that carried the goods.

However, the British Empire was always a two-edged sword. Along with the benefits of Empire there were many reasons why Britain now looks back on it with shame as well as pride. It cannot be denied that massive injustices were done in the name of the Empire, and millions died in military actions, acts of genocide, and epidemics introduced to populations that had no defence to Western diseases. In the later Empire, the British governed without slavery, but servitude took its place, often harshly imposed. That said, British rule tended to be less brutal than that of some other colonial powers, most notably Belgium in the Congo.

The morality of Empire

This leaves aside the moral dimension of colonialism. Setting out to populate an empty land and wrest a living from a place that had never previously supported human life is one thing, but is it justifiable to, in effect, steal someone else’s country, maybe fighting the native people and killing many of them in the process? If you then impose your rule on the natives, insist on them adopting your religion and culture, and make them subservient to a monarch thousands of miles away, how can that possibly be justified?

In many cases, that is precisely what the builders of the British Empire did, and this process had an effect on the people back home as well as those in the new colonies. When you, as a nation, consider yourselves to be superior to other peoples, and to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth, you begin to think not only that you can do no wrong, but that you are a better human being than the colonized natives, who become seen as a sub-species of humanity who deserve the oppression that you are meting out to them. You begin to believe that these people can be enslaved because that is, after all, how they would treat each other, and that it is God’s will that you do so. In time, you, as the superior human, will become corrupted as your immoral acts and attitudes turn into moral ones in your own eyes.

Multicultural Britain

Today’s Brits look back at the days of Empire with mixed emotions. Apart from the fake patriotism mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is still a certain amount of pride in some quarters, but shame in others. The consequences of Empire are still with us today, in the form of the millions of our citizens whose parents or grandparents reversed the process and settled in Britain, mainly for economic reasons. Many of our cities have large non-white populations, and some will soon have a majority of their population who are not genetically native.

Multiculturalism has led to tensions and problems, and even riots at times. Most “natives” are happy to live in a rainbow nation, and to eat Indian takeaways and take part in the festivals that the immigrants have brought with them. However, others find this difficult, and there is therefore a considerable amount of racial prejudice that has led to race-hate crimes and accusations of “institutional racism” on the part of the Police and other organizations. Political parties that are racist, whether they admit it or not, enjoy periods of considerable support (although this is by no means the case at all times). Had the British Empire never existed, it is highly unlikely that Britain would be a multicultural nation today.

The Commonwealth

Although the British Empire as such has long gone, the Commonwealth that succeeded it is still in existence, presided over by Queen Elizabeth II. It still has some influence on world affairs but, apart from the spectacle of the four-yearly Commonwealth Games, it has little impact on the life of the average Briton. There is still a handful of colonies left, such as Pitcairn Island and St Helena, and we have even fought a colonial war in living memory, to defend the Falkland Islands against Argentina in 1982. However, apart from these occasional reminders of Empire, the effect of the British Empire on today’s British people is indirect. The same could hardly be said of past generations.

John Welford
John Welford
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John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

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