The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

Expansion of the Empire was linked to trade

The expansion of the British Empire in Victoria's reign was very much linked to an expansion in trade and to the development of the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines to power the textile industry had been invented in Britain in the late c18th, but from the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, a number of factors came together which brought a rapid expansion in British manufacturing industry.


There was a population boom in the years after 1810 with the population growing from nine million in 1810 to 18 million in 1851.

Minimal wages ensured that there were profits to invest

This ensured there was a sufficient labour force and with the introduction of the workhouse with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a labour force that had to work for minimal wages allowing profits to be invested.


The creativity of the British inventors meant that machines were being invented which allowed for the mechanisation of many industries so that with ample supplies of coal and iron, huge amounts of manufactured goods could be produced. They could not be sold within Britain as the workforce was too poor to buy many of them so more markets had to be found abroad.


Developments in communications transformed the world bringing people closer to each other. The steamship and the telegraph meant that journeys were cut by weeks and information could be sent in hours.


A growing consensus that mercantilism was out of date

There was a growing consensus among a number of groups that the prevailing economic orthodoxy of mercantilism was out of date and holding back industrial development and limiting Britain's ability to sell abroad. In the years after 1815 there was growing pressure on Parliament to abandon the laws enforcing mercantilism and free up trade. The argument was that if duties on imported goods were abolished raw materials would be cheaper and so the exports of manufactured goods would be cheaper. This in turn would encourage other countries to buy more from Britain. The Anti-Corn Law League argued for the abolishment of the Corn Laws which protected landed interests and domestic corn. They believed that with the importation of cheaper grain from America and Europe the price of food would fall. With the support of  the Anti-Corn Law League, economic theorists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and financiers and bankers in the City of London, government policy began to change.


Duties were gradually repealed

In the 1820s, William Huskisson at the Board of Trade allowed foreign countries to trade with colonies, then lowered duties on a number of imports. He also relaxed shipping regulations to allow foreign ships into Britain's and the colonies' ports. In the 1830s deregulation continued under the Whig government and in the 1840s the Conservative government of Peel reduced import duties on a wide range of products, and then following the famine in Ireland repealed the corn laws. In 1849 the Navigation Acts were repealed and in the 1850s Gladstone removed the remaining tariffs on imported goods.


With trade being freed up by the deregulation of duties  and with Britain having a commanding lead in the manufacture of factory made goods, Britain's industrialists sought new markets and expanded production. In the 45 years following the end of the Napoleonic Wars Britain was responsible for 60% of the world's trade with Britain producing 50% of the world's trade in coal, cotton and iron. Despite the repeal of the Navigation Acts, a third of the world's trade was carried in British ships. Much of this increase in trade for Britain was with the USA and Europe which accounted for over 60% of the £50 million earnt in 1827. The pattern of trade for Britain continued for much of the century with new markets being found not in the British Empire but in Latin and South America, the Middle East and China. In 1867 when exports from Britain amounted to £181 million, exports to non-Empire territories amounted to £131 million


The Impact of Free Trade on the Empire


With the expansion of trade in the mid-c19th, there were those who argued that there was no need for an Empire. Britain had developed her economy and this had largely happened as a result of exports to non-Empire countries. There was though still the feeling that the mother country could exert a level of control over colonies and that the attachment that existed between Britain and her colonies would ensure that they remained an important source of trade for Britain. The introduction of free trade though was not always beneficial to the colonies. Although the white settler colonies were gradually given control of their own economies and could impose duties on imports if they wished to protect their own industries, it was not the same for Crown Colonies which were run from London. The West Indian sugar producers not only had to contend with the problem of finding and paying for a labour force after the Abolition of Slavery, they had to compete with countries like Brazil and Cuba that still had slaves. For this and other reasons the West Indian sugar industry collapsed. Similarly in India the HEIC had been founded in order to trade mainly in textiles, but the importation of cheaper textiles from the factories in Lancashire meant that India no longer had Britain as an export market and the HEIC turned more and more in the Victorian period to the opium trade with China.


Free trade was good for Britain

Free Trade was good for Britain because Britain had the advantage of having industrialised first and dominated every aspect of trade but was not necessarily adopted by other countries. The British supported her merchants as they sought new markets - if necessary with the Royal Navy's gunboats. Where countries were reluctant to open up themselves  to British trade, representatives of the government  might be sent  to persuade foreign rulers of the benefits of British trade and culture. This persuasion backed up by force was a common feature of British government policy at this time and was used to ensure British access to markets in China, West Africa and the West Indies.


 China was forced to accept free trade

In China Britain fought three wars to ensure that opium could continue to be imported into China. Using the full might of her military machine China was no match for her men o'war and well armed armies. Following the bombardment and occupation of cities like Canton, China was forces to sign unequal treaties guaranteeing access to five treaty ports as well as ceding Hong Kong and Kowloon in perpetuity and the New Territories for a hundred years.


Gunboats were used in the West Indies

In the West Indies, Commander Loraine commanded the gunboat, Niobe based at Jamaica in the 1870s and used the gunboat on many occasions to support British interests and ensure that actions were being taken by local rulers which accorded with the wishes of the British government. When in 1873 the Governor of the Dominican Republic broke in to the British consulate to arrest some asylum seekers, Lorain ordered the Governor to personally release the prisoners and then give a 21 gun salute to the Niobe. When in 1874, a local commander in Honduras looted British property, Loraine bombarded his fortress until the loot was handed over. Again in 1874 a number of British subjects had been murdered in Cuba. The Niobe  sailed in to Santiago harbour and Loraine announced that if another British subject was executed he would sink a Spanish ship  -there were six in the harbour. Such was the esteem of the Royal Navy that Loraine's demand was met. Men like Loraine could be found all over the empire, either in the armed forces or more likely acting as Governors or residents in a faraway place.


Military force was used to control the Ashanti

In West Africa when the Ashanti began to hinder British trade in 1873, a military expedition was sent to enforce free trade under the command of General Wolseley, the outstanding imperial General of the era. The Ashanti were defeated and their capital, Kumasi was destroyed.


The debate on tariff reform

In the late c19th with the competition from the USA, Germany, France and Italy there was political debate about whether to abandon Free Trade and adopt protectionist measure to protect the colonies but there was strong support to retain free trade and it was only following the Wall St Crash that preferential tariffs were used to protect the colonies.



The Repeal of the Corn Laws and Free Trade

The Repeal of the Corn Laws signified the move from Mercantilism to Free Trade

Repeal of the Corn Laws 1846 was prompted by the potato famine in Ireland which led to large scale evictions

William Huskisson

British people were encouraged to buy goods from the Empire yet in reality 60% of British trade was with non-imperial countries like those from Europe and the USA

HMS Niobe

Canton was bombarded and occupied several times during the three Opium Wars 1839-1860