1815-1914

The British Empire

What were the Key Features of the 19th century British Empire?

The British Empire at a crossroads

In 1815  few could have predicted what was to happen to the British Empire . The country may have been celebrating the triumphs of Wellington and Nelson but the nation was at a crossroads and experiencing economic and social change that for many meant the very real possibility of imminent revolution. The existence of the British Empire had been threatened by the American revolution but since the loss of the American  colonies in 1783 and the destruction of France's military and naval might, Britain stood at the threshold of a  new era which would beBottom of Form dominated by Britain's monopoly of the techniques of steam power and the existence of a group of entrepreneurs who existed in a political and economic climate that encouraged innovation. In 1815 British industry was based on the textile industry but within a few decades the United Kingdom was regarded by the British as the 'Workshop of the World' and the growing empire, both formal and informal,  provided the market and  raw materials for this growing economy which was not challenged until the turn of the twentieth century.


Victoria's Inheritance

At Queen Victoria's accession in 1837, the empire consisted of about 2 million square miles and 100 million people. Some of the territories were relics of the old c18th empire: India ruled by the East India Company and in 1837 no longer the trading company it had once been, the West Indian islands,  now in economic decline, the colonies in Canada – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, French settlements in Quebec and British settlers in Ontario. There were four settlements in Australia and closer to home, Ireland, the oldest colony having been ruled for 700 years. Recent acquisitions included the Cape of Good Hope, and Malta whilst trading stations had been established at Singapore, Penang and Arakan. Throughout this scattered empire lived 1,200,000 Britons including 56,000 soldiers part of the army which existed mainly to maintain and control the empire.

Victoria's imperial Legacy

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the empire was the largest the world had ever seen. It covered 11 million square miles and had a population of 372 million subjects found in every corner of the world. This huge territorial empire, which occupied a quarter of the world's surface, was achieved as a result of a huge expansion in the c19th when Britain had an unrivalled control over the world's shipping lanes and her military forces seemed to be able to cope with any threat. Britain was the arbiter of the world and such was this control that the British people came to believe that it was their destiny to use empire as a vehicle for civilising the world. Alongside the trader and the soldier were British missionaries, settlers, administrators, planters and engineers and all played their part in producing the largest empire the world had ever seen.

The Motives for Empire

The British Empire consisted of territories acquired for a variety of reasons. Some were the spoils of victory, some were settlements of British people looking for a new life or imprisoned from their old life. The largest territories in India were run by a private company that had its own civil service and its own private army. The central government had acquiesced in the steady growth of the empire but had not masterminded what had happened. During Victoria's reign this pattern was to continue but the expansion was on an enormous scale.

The motives for this expansion and the way it did so may have been  varied but the desire for trade was central to the expansion . The American and Caribbean empire of the c16th to the c18th and India and the slave colonies of West Africa  had been founded on trade and trade remained the most important motive for the empire and its extension in Victoria’s reign but other reasons were to play their part.

During the c19th one acquisition inevitably led to another as geopolitics played more a more a part in imperial politics. The hinterland of a colony had to be prevented so it was annexed. Exploration led to settlement and that settlement had to be protected so its hinterland was annexed. In the fight against slavery naval bases were established and that led to annexations of ports which led inexorably to the annexation of nearby lands. As rival powers emerged in the late c19th,  Empire was seen as the measure of being a great power and imperial possessions became the pawns in a power game with land being taken to prevent it being taken by another power.

As well as trade and geopolitics, colonies were established for settlement or sometimes as in the case of New Zealand to provide some kind of civil administration to arbitrate between competing interests and local people. As British manufacturing came to dominate the world, the investing of finance around the world led to London becoming capital of the world’s money market and the export of money was another important reason for the spread of imperial influence although much of the money made from industry was invested outside the British Empire. Throughout the c19th the British Empire had a moral dimension as missionaries spread throughout the empire intent on converting local people and in the last quarter of the century an ideology developed which regarded Empire as providing the British with a divine purpose, its Mission to Civilise.

Trade and Industry

If Britain had the expertise and the men to organise empire it was the population growth of the 19th century that provided the impetus for the growth of the empire and the industrial revolution which made it possible. The increase in population (from 10 million in 1801 to twenty two million in 1871) provided a market for industrial goods but only if prices were low. For this to happen, the old mercantilist system which was the basis of the eighteenth century empire had to be replaced with Free Trade.

The old mercantilist system had been a self contained imperial system protected by tariffs, producing Britain’s raw materials and shipping all its products in its own ships. In the 1820s the Navigation Acts were abolished and tariffs reduced. Later in the 1840s Peel's government abolished the Corn Laws which had kept the price of corn high for farmers. With Britain having a monopoly in industrial production and control of the trade routes of the world provided by the Royal Navy, free trade would mean cheap food for the British factory worker and plenty of work in the factories. However, free trade  meant  that Britain would be dependant for overseas suppliers for her food. Wages though were deliberately kept low as outdoor relief had been abolished and people had the choice of working for a low wage, entering the workhouse or emigrating. The factory owners wanted to maximise profits which they invested in the development of foreign economies. As industry developed new markets were needed.  This led to the empire, both formal and informal, expanding in the Pacific, North America and the East. In 1825 the values of British exports was £38.9 million, in 1845 it was £60.1 and in 1869 £190 million. Britain was the 'workshop of the world' however  although the empire had expanded, most exports went to Europe and the US which together accounted for two thirds of British exports. In 1867 when British exports totalled £181 million, £131 million went outside the empire, including over £10 million to the South American counties of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

The Informal Empire

The second half of the c19th saw Britain increase the size of its empire through many annexations, particularly in Africa and Asia. These annexations came at a time when European countries were trying to establish their own empires and successive British governments found they were under pressure to defend British interests and did so by annexing territories that bordered existing colonies or establishing firmer control over territories with which there had been a long tradition of trade but more control was deemed to be needed to secure continuing trading rights. During the earlier part of the century when there had been little or no competition from other powers, the British government was happy to encourage business men to establish trading contacts abroad and did provide military support if necessary. The government  though  did not want the cost of annexation and administration.

The countries in which Britain had an informal relationship without the need for annexation were many and indeed British trade with countries outside the empire was much greater than with colonies inside the empire even in the period of greatest competition with Europe. In the period 1865-1914 British capital investment to America and Europe amounted to 64% of total investment and the figures for British exports were similar. Being the centre of the world’s banking system and the largest investor in the world gave Britain enormous influence without the need for territorial annexation. Increasingly as the century wore on, more and more trade went to non-imperial countries. The expansion of the British Empire from 9.5 million square miles in 1860 to 12 million at Victoria’s death in 1901 came at a time when Britain was losing its industrial pre-eminence with its share of world trade falling but her control of the world’s money markets still enabled Britain to wield enormous influence in the world. British Imperialism was not just about establishing formal control. Just as important  was the ability to influence the values, attitudes and institutions of countries outside the empire. Egypt was never a formal colony of the British Empire but British investments there were huge, especially in the Suez Canal which  was integral to the success of India. In 1881 there was  a coup in Egypt bring a nationalist to power. Gladstone, who had  publicly declared himself an opponent of imperial annexation previously, ordered an army into Egypt and Arabi Pasha removed from power. British officers acting as advisers took over  effective  control over Egyptian affairs and Egypt became a virtual colony of the British Empire .

Having an informal empire was a cost effective way of increasing British influence but should the need arise the government was always ready to use force to maintain British trading interests. Palmerston more than any  other British politician of the Victorian era was determined to extend  Britain's  political influence in  the world and he saw extending Britain's commercial interests as the  way to achieve  this. He believed that free trade would increase the  efficiency of any state and was prepared to support British citizens around the world in their quest to extend Britain's markets and sources raw materials and essential commodities.  In 1839, when  Palmerston was  Foreign Secretary  the Chinese government wanted to reduce the impact of the opium trade on its people so expelled the British community in Canton, the main trading port for opium, and then seized 20,000 cases of illegal British opium. A fleet of gunboats and 3,000 troops was sent by Palmerston to the area. It took over Hong Kong and then shelled the cities of Chungking and Shanghai causing the Chinese to agree to a treaty by which Canton and other ports were opened up as well as the acquisition of Hong Kong being confirmed. Within fifteen years the British were at war again with the Chinese when the Governor of Hong Kong, Bowring, authorised a force to shell Canton following the boarding of a British registered vessel, the 'Arrow. Canton was later occupied and looted. This war led to the Treaty of Tientsin which opened up China to missionaries and granted the transfer of Kowloon to Hong Kong.


The Development of Steam Power in Britain led to her becoming the Workshop of the World

The Empire in 1815

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The Crystal Palace exhibition from May to  October 1851 was a demonstration of British industrial and commercial superiority

By the Treaty of Waitangi, a number of Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Victoria in return for retaining their land and for Britain’sprotection.

A cartoon produced the campaign to repeal the corn laws

This map was produced in the 1880-s to promote the idea of Imperial Federation at a time when Britain’s industrial and  political dominance was being challenged.

During the Opium Wars, Britain forced China to accept  opium from India as the trade was crucial to Britain’s financial position