Captain  Cook claims Australia, 11th June 1770


The British Empire

What was the ideology of the 19th century British Empire?

The British Empire was founded and maintained for purposes of trade and done so by private interest with the government providing support and encouragement where and when needed. During the 19th century though, the empire acquired a moral dimension, which defenders of the empire claimed made the British Empire different from any other empire in history. The moral element was used to justify the extension of the Empire which expanded from just over two million acres in 1837 to  nearly twelve million acres by 1901.

This moral element arose out of the massive confidence which the British felt about their empire at a time when Britain was workshop of the world and at a time when there had been an evangelical revival. As N Ferguson has said 'The 18th century was amoral. the Victorian empire was quite different as the Victorians saw their duty to redeem the world and to improve other races.'

Palmerston  said of the British  and their empire in 1848, 'Our duty  -our vocation is not to enslave, but to set free; and I may say without any vainglorious boast, or without great offence to anyone, that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations.' The idea of moral improvement of the people of the empire together with their commercial improvement had been followed by the missionaries that were sent all over the world by the various missionary societies but by the middle of the century the idea that Britain's role was to civilise the world and ordained by God was accepted by the majority of the population. This belief was used to justify territorial annexation and wars against countries that tried to prevent the advance of British trade around the world.

This 'Mission to  Civilise' the world arose out of the evangelical revival of the late 18th century which produced the political campaign to abolish first the slave trade and  then slavery itself.  The evangelical revival became more urgent in the last decade of the 18th century as the end of the century drew near and with the possibility of invasion by the French imminent.  The evangelical revival stressed the need for individual  salvation and personal redemption, holiness ad a purposeful life. Central to evangelicalism was the study of the bible and translating it for native people abroad. It was thought that the bible held the truth about the human race.was the establishment of a missionary revival which became an important part of national  identity in Victorian identity.

During the early 18th century the idea of missionary activity abroad was criticised as a waste of energy when there were so many heathen souls to be saved at home but by the 1890s an optimistic view prevailed about humanity. It was then accepted that all individuals were capable of salvation and it just required being  introduced to  God. It was possible for  all mankind to  receive salvation  for  their wickedness. With this view prevalent, it became  acceptable to establish missions abroad. With the voyages of Captain Cook having  opened up the world  to the British people in the 1770s, there were plenty of souls abroad that could be  saved by missionary activity and the British began a century of sending missionaries abroad to convert native peoples.

William Carey, who almost singlehandedly founded  the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 with a mission in India, was at the time criticised for his  views on foreign missions  but following the founding of his society other missionary societies soon followed. In 1795 the London Missionary Society was founded and focused its activity in southern Africa. A year later the Scottish Missionary Society, an interdenominational society, was founded and also focused its work in Africa. In 1799 the Anglican society, the Church Missionary Society, was founded and established missions in  southern Africa. The work these organisations did  around the world together with the campaign to abolish the slave trade helped to produce an attitude that Britain held the moral high ground. Following the abolition of slavery in the empire in 1833, Britain established a naval patrol in west African whose job  was to catch slave traders. Britain also tried to persuade other countries to  abolish slavery and allow their ships to be stopped by the Royal Navy.

With the development of the industrial revolution after 1815, the British nation felt a confidence about themselves and their role in the world that bordered on arrogance. the British began to feel they were a chosen race ad that it was their destiny and humanitarian duty to combat ignorance, alleviate suffering and brig western civilisation to the world. One of the earliest missionaries, the Reverend Marsden, said of the Maori that the spread of the knowledge of the  works of Christ would be the making of the Maori and the development of them as a great nation. For some missionaries, their work was seen as an atonement for the slave trade.

Letters about the work of missionaries was sent home and helped to raise awareness among the general public about the work of missions and the necessity of  their work. Missionary work became the focus of many churches and chapels and money was raised to further the work they did. When missionaries returned from India and Africa they held meetings to talk about their experiences and to generate  further interest and by the middle of the century thee existed an army of helpers that supported those working in the field.

After 1857 and the Indian Rebellion, attitudes to native people changed. The events of the Indian rebellion were reported fully in the papers and there was much revulsion at the outrages that were committed by Indians who took up arms against the British. There existed a feeling that the Indian rebels had betrayed Britain and demonstrated a lack of gratitude. However one of the reasons for the rebellion was that many in the Anglican church, including many missionaries, wanted to destroy Hinduism and convert the Indian people to Christianity. The claims to superiority in matters of religion by the British had clearly been rejected by the Indian people.

The publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and its interpretation by social Darwinists like Spencer challenged the traditional views about native people held by missionaries. Many  began to question ideas about the universality of humanity, particularly after the Indian Rebellion and the Jamaican Uprising, during which a number of white settlers were killed bringing huge reprisals by Governor Eyre. The missionary work in Africa and India had failed to bring the number of conversions that the missionary societies had hoped for. David Livingstone himself was to leave missionary work for exploration of central Africa. Interpretations of Darwin's work suggested that racial differences had existed for millions of years prompting a discussion about the importance of race as a determinant of human progress and raising doubt about whether missionaries would be able to civilise native peoples. Anthropologic societies were founded all over Britain. Dr James Hunt openly said that some races could never be civilised. The explorer Richard Burton went as far as suggesting that the African needed to be removed from Africa to experience improvement. Many missionaries became disillusioned with their work and in areas like Nigeria and New Zealand, little was achieved by missionaries for several decades.

The British began to trust native peoples less than they had done as attitudes hardened. In India the Raj developed with the British creating enclaves which were recreations of little England with houses, customs, entertainment and food giving a feeling of being at home. what the British did not do was to question their attitudes. The feeling that the British were a superior race by virtue of what they had achieved economically and culturally if anything grew stronger and became an important part of the New Imperialism of the last quarter of the century. Whereas Christian communities had been behind the spread of British values in the earlier part of the century, it was now left to the secular world to  promote the notion of it being the role of the British to  export their way of life. It was John Ruskin in 1870 who declared it was the role of the British to found colonies and then send her best men to teach colonists to be faithful to Britain. Two years later Disraeli put the empire at the centre of politics when he said that the British could remain comfortable and insular or become a great nation, an imperial nation that commanded the respect of the world.

As Britain entered a period of relative decline after 1870 empire was seen as the key to Britain retaining her position as a great world power. To administer the empire, Britain's public schools reformed, seeing themselves as now having the responsibility to administer those going out to the colonies as governors, soldiers and lawmakers. The public schoolboy replaced to a certain extent the missionary as the agent of British civilisation.

The Crystal Palace showed the superiority of British industry to the world.

Prime Minister Palmerston believed that Britain ‘stood at the head of moral, social and political civilisation’.

Captain, above, opened up the world to the British and helped to open up an era of missionary work overseas by showing that there were plenty of souls abroad to be saved.

Herbert Spencer believed in ‘the survival of the fittest’.

The Headquarters of the Church Missionary Society in Islington, London.