The British Empire: Making an Omelette

Should Britain be apologetic for having carved out the largest empire in history? Certainly the process could not have taken place during the past century or more. Its limit was reached before the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the new and powerful Germany demanded its ‘place in the sun’ and, together with other European countries, started the Scramble for Africa.

It is surely pointless to try to impose modern values upon history. As my book makes clear, the nations of Europe were locked in almost continuous strife for centuries before and after the formation of Great Britain with various pretexts and causes, but at the core of all conflicts was the need to gain or maintain prestige. Following its victory in the War of the Spanish Succession and its territorial gains from France and Spain at the subsequent Treaty of Utrecht, there was no question as to which country’s prestige was highest among the established nations.

Prestige meant power

Prestige meant power and this was usually related to territory, of which Britain had very little, but in the next pan-European conflict, The Seven Years War, Britain gained sovereignty over Canada at the expense of her perpetual enemy, France. Soon after, though, she overplayed her hand by attempting to impose harsh measures upon her North American colony of Massachusetts, drawing her into the ultimately unwinnable American War of Independence.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorkstown
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorkstown

This unaffordable and bloody war lasted seven years when, with both sides close to exhaustion, France intervened on the side of the emergent United States with large army and navy reserves, which settled the issue, and Britain ate humble pie.

In India both Britain and France had established commercial concerns, Britain through its East India Company (EIC), France similarly established, each with its own autonomous volunteer army.

The two armies clashed over the occupation of the city of Madras. The EIC was victorious, due in no small part to the leadership of a former company clerk, Robert Clive. There was much internecine fighting between the provincial moguls, maharajahs and princes in which the EIC army often took sides and were also aided by them in conflict with the French.

The Indian Mutiny against the British signalled the end of mutual accommodation and led to the imposition of direct rule from London, which marked the establishment of the British Raj. The French were finally defeated at their stronghold in the seaport of Pondicherry, bringing to an end their future ambitions in the subcontinent.

In the same era, the explorer Captain James Cook dropped anchor in Botany Bay and established a small settlement in the region he named as New South Wales.

Captain James Cook lands at Botany Bay
Captain James Cook lands at Botany Bay

The settlement, initially populated by transported victims of Britain’s harsh penal system, grew to become its capital, later named Sydney. There were significant initial problems arising from the 20:1 discrepancy between convicted men and women, but voluntary immigration gradually resolved this fundamental issue.

Following the discovery that Cook’s landfall was, in fact, a continent to be named Australia, New Zealand was found and settled. Admittedly, the ‘aboriginals’ in both countries had to be suppressed in order to accommodate the colonists but, as with the Indians in North America, fighting over conflicting claims in large tracts of almost virgin land was considered legitimate within the ethos of those living at the time. Retrospectively, it could be argued that the omelette was made and that eggs were certainly cracked in the process.

At this point it is significant to point out that every one of the countries appropriated thus far immediately and willingly came to Britain’s aid at the outbreak of both twentieth century world wars, suggesting that partial rule through Governors General and High Commissioners was not oppressive. Without them it is highly unlikely that this country would have emerged victorious.

It cannot be denied that Britain expropriated the previously unknown or untapped resources discovered in its opening up of countries and hinterlands. To name but a few, there were the rubber, oil and tin discoveries in Malaya, the hardwoods and gems of Burma and, above all, the rich mineral deposits of Africa.

Dark and reprehensible trade of slavery

The dark and reprehensible trade of slavery in that continent stands as, by far, the worst example of exploitation for which there can be no justification or escape from shame.

All that can be salvaged from this inhumane activity is the acknowledgement that men and countries of the time did not possess the moral compass which was to follow. In this the lead was taken first by Doctor David Livingstone, who not only provided the early mapping of southern and central Africa, but also wrote and presented his abhorrence of the trade to learned bodies and institutions which in turn lobbied the British Government to press for its abolition.

Abolitionist Doctor David Livingstone
Abolitionist Doctor David Livingstone

This resulted in the insistence of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, that the trade be discontinued and pledged that the Royal Navy would enforce this on the high seas.

For as long as it continued though, there was a pressing demand for slaves from the cotton and tobacco plantations of America, the sugar cane fields of the West Indies, through to the middle class and stately homes of Britain, America and Europe.  It was not only the colonists who were blameworthy.

It is entirely true that Britain helped itself to the mineral riches of those parts of Africa where its flag was planted. An Englishman, Cecil Rhodes, was an arch-imperialist and entrepreneur whose twin aspirations were to grow rich and to see the day when a railway would run from Cape Town to Cairo without leaving British territory.

His first ambition was quickly achieved from his investment in the diamond mines of Kimberley, where he became the co-founder of the de Beers diamonds firm. He later attempted to wrest control of the newly-discovered Wittwatersrand goldfield from the Transvaal Afrikaners by an armed raid, which was thwarted, and himself discredited.

Cecil Rhodes Alfred Beit
The controversial Cecil Rhodes (left) with fellow mining magnate Alfred Beit

From being Prime Minister of the Cape Colony he was obliged to take a back seat in its public life, but his influence had spread northwards to the eponymous North and South Rhodesia colonies. He did not live to see the fulfilment of his vision whereby Britain bestrode the continent.

The goldfields however were prospected by more than 50,000 foreigners, mainly British, but these were legitimate claimants, although much resented and denied rights by the Afrikaners, a policy leading eventually to the (second) Boer War.

There were, though, many other minerals valuable to Britain and its increasingly sophisticated industries, mainly metals from iron ore to platinum and these were simply mined by British specialist companies who took this harvest simply because it was there for the taking.

What would have happened had they not done so? Either the minerals would have remained where they were, since the indigenous populations knew nothing of them or what to do with them, or, sooner or later, they would have been taken by another industrialised country when it caught up with Britain’s capability.

Subsequently, these resources were traded with Britain and were left intact as the basis for each country’s economy after they gained independence. It should also be noted that all but two of the 54 former colonies willingly joined what was then called the British Commonwealth, latterly the Commonwealth of Nations.

It is instructive to examine the aftermath of British rule in its African possessions. There is no doubt that colonial rule was often overbearing but it was, to a greater or lesser extent, relatively benign by comparison with the rulers who thrust themselves forward to govern in the post-colonial era.

Hastings Banda, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Milton Obote, Idi Amin and, most recently, Robert Mugabe were just a few of the one-party oppressors who, together with numerous military coup leaders, have wreaked murder and starvation upon millions of their ‘freed’ peoples since independence was granted.

South Africa voluntarily joined the British Empire a few years after the end of the Boer War and was a staunch ally through the two world wars but elected to leave and become a republic soon after World War II. From 1948 until 1991 it was ruled by a succession of National Party presidents under the banner of ‘Apartheid’, arguably the most odious regime to hold power in a civilised country since the defeat of the National Socialist, or Nazi Party, in 1945.

Perhaps the period of British colonial rule in Africa has been unduly condemned and deplored in recent times by the more politically correct faction of commentators.

Postscript by the author:  I should add that in the process of colonialism we also, if only incidentally, gifted the world its most expressive and widely used language.

To read more about the history of Great Britain, here’s where you can buy my book, There Was a Time.

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