The British Empire

Key Questions

Debates on the British Empire

No other subject in British history generates as much debate and passion today as the British empire. Not only are academic topics like the role of government , the links between money and the empire, and the legacy discussed but moral issues like the role of violence, the place of slavery and the question of compensation and apologies for past deeds now considered to be a stain on British history.

Imperialism is nowadays associated with racism and is condemned for the exploitation and subjugation of peoples around the world. Yet just over a hundred years ago the British people were fiercely proud of their imperial heritage and many in Britain still point to the positives they see in what the Empire Empire achieved and brought to the rest of the world.

It is certainly true that the world would be a very different place had there been no British Empire. Many of the boundaries of modern day countries were determined in the colonial era and the globalisation of the world as we know it might well have its origins in the system of trade the British established in the c19th.

In the late c19th Imperialism was portrayed by the British as a policy of enlightenment. It was Britain’s destiny to bring ‘civilisation’ to its colonies and spread Christianity. Britain’s empire was said to have inspired a pride in Empire, but there are debates today about the involvement and support for empire by the working class in Britain at a time of economic depression and reports of deep poverty in the industrial cities that produced the products for export to the empire. Seeley argued at the turn of the c19th that investment abroad was achieved by ‘the forced under-consumption of the working poor’. The Empire meant different things to different people. To many Liberals imperialism meant exploitation and subjugation of native peoples. Even supporters of new Imperialism had different views about the way forward. Some like Chamberlain wanted investment in less developed colonies whilst others wanted to focus on the white settler colonies and encourage migration to the vast open spaces of these colonies.

Many claim that the British Empire brought economic and cultural benefits that outweighed any negative impact the empire had. There was economic growth, law and order, civil liberties, improved communications, a government free of corruption. Yet this is a simplistic view. Every colony had a different experience of empire. Local economies had to adjust and in some cases local industries were destroyed. In introducing British codes of justice, often local legal traditions and ways of resolving disputes were banned as were local customs. Imperialism acted as a catalyst for migration which led in some cases to the dispossession of native populations.

Imperialism also changed Britain. There were those who made their fortunes through the empire and those who were provided with work either in the factories producing for the Empire or in administering the Empire. Yet there were those who through free trade were made redundant as was the case with many working in agriculture. Seeley argues that the working class were kept poor in order that profits could be invested in foreign schemes.


What was the legacy of the British Empire?

What was the Raj? How did the British rule India?

How important was violence to the 19th century British Empire?

What were the causes  of the Boer war?

Why did Britain go to war with Germany in August 1914?

What were the main causes of the Indian rebellion?

What are the theories about the British Empire?

Should the British government pay compensation to the victims of British Imperialism?

What was the importance of sport to the Empire?

How was the British Empire run?

What was the importance of the ‘Mission to Civilise’?

Should the Rhodes statute at Oriel College, Oxford be taken down?

What were the Motives for the 19th century British Empire?

What was the importance of Trade to the British Empire?

What was the New Imperialism of the late c19th?

How important was violence to the 19th century British Empire?

How important was Migration to the British Empire?

How important was violence to the British Empire?

How Important was Sport?

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