1815-1914

The British Empire

Introduction to the British Empire in the c19th, Part 2

The 'Mission to Civilise'

The British justified their conquests by claiming that there was a philanthropic motive, that they were embarked on a 'Mission to Civilise'. The British people believed that  they were doing God's duty by annexing territories and 'civilising' its people.  The main motive for Empire remained the accumulation of trade and wealth for British interests and war was crucial to the way in which the British Empire expanded, particularly in the Victorian period. Wars in Afghanistan, India, China, Burma, Egypt, Sudan, New Zealand, Canada, west Africa, south Africa were all important in establishing British control and influence.


The Rise of Germany, France and the USA

From 1870 the Britain Empire was being challenged by the rise of the USA, Russia and Germany. The USA had got over its civil war and was rapidly expanding and creating its own empire, initially by extending its own boundaries, by from the 1890s by creating its own overseas empire. Russia was beginning to industrialise following the reforms of Alexander II and extended its empire into central Asia where there were raw materials. The Emancipation of the Serfs encouraged the flow of free labour into the cities and stimulated the growth of industry. The creation of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War led to Germany becoming a major industrial power and with the coming to power of William II in 1888 Britain's predominant position in world affairs was coming to an end.

Politicians take up the Banner of Empire

With Britain's position in the world being challenged, politicians began to take a keener interest in imperial affairs. Disraeli was keen to capitalise on the threats to the Empire and in a speech delivered at the Crystal Palace in 1872 linked the values and the objectives of the  Empire with the Conservative Party and then in 1876 created the title of Empress of India for Victoria. The Crystal Palace speech had come just a couple of years after John Ruskin's lecture at Oxford University where he said the Empire should be at the centre of politics and that the youth of the country should see it as their duty to help found colonies and thereby advance the power of England. One of those who would have leant about this speech was Cecil Rhodes who began his studies at Oxford in 1873 and went on to devote much of his life to the advancement of the British Empire in Africa and the creation of an empire that stretched from Cairo to the Cape. The ideas of Social Darwinism were gaining ground at this time and many saw the possession of an Empire as reflecting the power of a nation and this led to a more aggressive form of imperialism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century - New Imperialism- as European nations sought to establish stronger and larger Empires of their own at a time when there were fewer  and fewer territories to colonise. As countries sought to establish colonies and the navies and armies to defend them this inevitably caused tensions.

New Imperialism

The New Imperialism began to capture the public's attention with the publication of books and newspapers for a mass audience that was becoming more and more literate as a result of educational reform. Authors like George Alfred Henty and Henry Rider Haggard wrote adventure stories often given an imperial setting with colonial heroes. Colonial wars were now being reported and successful Generals were feted as national heroes. Events like the Relief of Mafeking created an outpouring of national patriotic fervour and until the defeats of the Boer War, the people of Britain felt as if they were a chosen race.

The Scramble for Africa

With European countries seeing the establishment of empires as a way of improving their economies and giving themselves increased status, Britain found that in the last quarter of the c19th, it had to act to defend its economic and strategic position in the world. With  European countries seeking to increase or establish empires Britain had to establish firmer control over territories that hitherto it had had loose relations with act to prevent the presence of European powers in areas crucial to its interests. Nowhere was this change in policy more apparent than in Africa. When Britain acted to establish firmer control over Egypt and sent General Wolseley to secure Egypt as a British protectorate in 1882, this greatly annoyed the French who had previously  worked with Britain to advise the Egyptian government. For the rest of the century there was an imperial rivalry between the countries and in 1898 there was almost war. Similarly when Germany settlers in South West Africa threatened to join forces with the Boers and establish control over Bechuanaland, Britain decided to forestall this possible move and established a protectorate thus creating a rivalry with Germany. At this time (1884) there were about 10,000 tribal kingdoms in Africa but by the end of the century hardly an African kingdom remained as Africa was divided between the European powers. Most of this division was achieved with little loss of European lives but at the cost of the destruction of African culture, lives and most tribal kingdoms.

A crisis of confidence

The value and the purpose of the Empire though was already being questioned even before the Boer War showed up the limitations of the British Army and the fitness of the nation. Britain stood alone in splendid isolation and had made potential rivals of all the major powers in the world. The efficiency of both the army and navy had been questioned in the last years of the nineteenth century and Britain had lost the naval superiority it enjoyed. Britain's army was not equipped for a continental war and the colonies were doing little to fund their defences. By 1900 Britain had been overhauled by the USA who was producing more coal and steel whilst Germany was about to overtake Britain. More faith had to be put in to diplomacy to make the country secure and in the years before 1914 the policy of Splendid Isolation was abandoned as treaties were made with first Japan and then France and Russia. The Alliance system though far from bringing security to Britain was a major factor in bringing about WW1.

Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations

On June 22nd 1897 Victoria celebrated sixty years on the throne. Throughout that time she had been a keen supporter of the expanding British Empire, especially during the period of New Imperialism when she had become Empress of India. The celebrations that June day were a celebration of Empire and 50,000 troops from around the empire had been brought to London to take part in the processions. Before she set out on her Jubilee procession that morning Victoria sent a telegram to all her peoples scattered around the globe. She pressed an electric button to send the message ‘From my heart I thank my beloved people’ around the world before setting out for St Paul’s cathedral escorted by her imperial troops.

Victoria had always professed an interest in the empire. She had put pressure on Gladstone to send a relief force to rescue Gordon and had Rhodes visit her on several occasions when he boasted of having added more colonies to Victoria’s empire. Among better informed people though the Jubilee evoked mixed feelings and Kipling captured their mood with his poem ‘Recessional’ in which he warned of a complacency that had come over Britain. He warned the nation of not fully understanding the empire or those who ran it. Kipling thought that despite the patriotic swagger and the pomp and ceremony of that June day Britain was not devoting enough time and money on its defences and given its isolation from foreign powers was dangerously positioned.

The British people wanted the prestige of an empire at minimum cost. The Boer War would force people to face up to this reality gap as the empire needed 450,000 troops and three years to defeat 50,000 Boer guerrilla fighters in South Africa. The problem of imperial defence and the efficiency of the British people and their fitness to run an empire and defend the British Isles would be faced in the years after Victoria.





Robert Peel was responsible for repealing the corn laws, seen as the last obstacle to free trade. With food now cheap, industrialists could now invest more of their profits in foreign investments, helping to make London the financial centre of the world.

The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir secured British financial interests in Egypt and control of the Suez Canal, vital for British communications with India and the Far East.

Hong Kong was acquired following the Treaty of Tientsin which ended a short was in which Britain ensured its trade in opium with China continued.

Lord Carnarvon advocated a policy if imperial federation to bring stability to South Africa

A stand off between Sir Herbert Kitchener and Captain Marchand resulted in a French retreat and Britain securing her position in the Sudan.