New ideas on Empire
In the last quarter of the c19th, as the British Empire expanded to meet the threat posed by rival European powers, the nature of the empire changed. There was huge public interest in the Empire as it took centre stage in British politics and this was accompanied by new ideas on what the Empire stood for and what constituted its future. Two authors in particular had stimulated a debate about the nature of empire.
Charles Dilke and John Seeley both offered hope for the future amidst concerns about
Britain's position in the world. For Seeley whose book, 'The Expansion of England'
was a best seller the empire was Britain's main source of strength, and its expansion
was vital for Britain's continued survival as a great power. For Seeley, the British
Empire was an expression of the Anglo-
The Improving Mission
The idea of Empire providing Britain with a mission to improve its inferior territories gave the Empire a moral dimension and the justification for the British to feel proud about what it was doing. Kipling
was to be regarded as the Imperial prophet when in 1898 he published his 'White Man's
Burden' in which he claimed it was the mission of the white race to improve and develop
the less fortunate races of the world. His poem exhorting the Americans to take
on the responsibility in the Philippines of improving the native people typified
the view of most people in Britain at the time -
Dilemmas of Empire
Kipling typified in popular verse and in his stories of life in the Raj the commonly held views about the role of the Empire, whilst men like the colonial governor Hugh Clifford adhered to these views in his everyday administration. The notion of the British Empire existing to provide benevolent government so to develop its territories had a number of inconsistencies and it was the failure of Clifford and the Empire to resolve these inconsistencies with this view that eventually brought about the end of Empire. The first dilemma for the British was that the Empire had to be run with the cooperation of its native peoples but if there was opposition there was always the threat of violence and sometimes the use of violence to maintain British rule. How could British use of violence against subject peoples be good for them? Secondly, the question of future responsible government for colonies was left to one side yet native peoples would at some time want responsible government.
Hugh Clifford's entry in to the Colonial Service
Hugh Clifford believed totally in the improving aspect of British rule but like so many colonial rulers was forces to compromise his principles whenever practical politics demanded. Clifford was typical of so many colonial officers in that he was from an impoverished middle class family who in 1883 got him a position in the colonial service through a family connection, in his case at the age of seventeen. He was sent to Malaya where he served for a few months as a junior officer for his uncle the governor of Singapore, before being sent to Perak to become the secretary to the resident, Hugh Low. Residents were merely advisers to local princes but used their influence to ensure British interests were taken into account. It was a cheap way of extending British influence without the expense of annexation which was often opposed by the Colonial Office.
Clifford sent to Pahang
In 1887 Clifford was given his first real opportunity to show his qualities as a colonial officer when he was asked to go to Pahang on the eastern coast of the Malay peninsula to prepare the ground for a British resident. He had a good command of the local Malay language and after three weeks of ingratiating himself with the Sultan was to get the letter he wanted. His success earth him the right to negotiate a treaty with the Sultan and then become the British agent in Pahang. As the agent he hardly saw another white man and had to live entirely with the local Malay people, adapting and accepting their way of life and their culture. Life was lonely and he missed the comforts of a more civilised existence but if he was to gain the confidence of the local people he had to abandon any prejudices he had and immerse himself in their life. Eventually the Governor of Singapore decided that there needed to be greater British control of the area and a British Resident who would more closely direct local policies was appointed. The Sultan briefly considered resistance but decided against it when reminded of the nature of British force as used in other nearby states.
Dealing with Rebellion
Clifford was too young to be considered as the resident and he was not healthy enough
to be considered. He returned to Britain for a year's sick leave. He did though return
in 1890 to become assistant resident and in 1891 became Resident just as a rebellion
was breaking out. The rebellion lasted until 1895 and Clifford like so many colonial
leaders now found that he had to become a military leader as well as a civilian
one. He seemed to relish the opportunity to lead men in to battle, taking control
of Malay irregulars from the western side of the peninsula thus relying on a well
established principle of the Empire -
Exploitation of local labour in Borneo
In 1899 after three years in Pahang, Clifford was sent to North Borneo as Governor and was to discover another side to the British Empire. The mission to civilise was an ideal that many colonial officers like Clifford aspired to but in many colonies the purpose of Empire was not so altruistic. Many imperial territories by 1900 were run by trading companies that had been given charters which allowed them to develop the territories' resources and do so by using the local people as labour to be exploited. In such territories governors were expected to run the colonies in the interests of the local chartered company and not in the interests of local people. The Colonial Office often turned a blind eye to the exploitation of local people unless such exploitation was so extreme as likely to affect the public perception of empire. When Clifford found that he was to be the agent of the British North Borneo Company he left and returned to Pahang. His return was short lived for he became ill through an attempt to poison him with ground glass. He may have thought that he had the confidence of the local people but he was to learn an important lesson that there might be shown courtesy and kindness towards him but this was a deference that would be withdrawn once an opportunity presented itself. He must have realised that the British ruled only with the threat of violence being ever present.
Clifford's views on the Paradoxes Empire
Clifford like so many colonialists at the time claimed the Empire was a force for
good but must have known that it existed only with the threat of violence not far
from the surface. Empire was justified and consciences appeased by the thought that
before the British the local people led a semi-
Clifford regarded the British Empire as providing a permanent administration. He like so many others of the time could not conceive of local people as being able to govern themselves. Like Kipling he regarded natives as essentially children needing to be looked after by representatives of a Colonial Service that had their best interests at heart. He could not bring himself to consider the implication of his own policies that once local people had reached a certain level of education they would demand to have self government. This was a paradox that men like Clifford could never confront and would mean that the end of empire would be a fraught process.