What was the Legacy of the British Empire?

The largest empire ever

The British Empire in 1901 was the largest empire the world had ever seen. It had an impact not just on Britain but vast areas of the world - an impact that remains with us today. As a result of the Empire, Britain became a net importer of food and raw materials, and therefore dependant on trade whilst every country that was part of the Empire was affected by it. Boundaries, settlement, economic development, cultural change, legal systems were all affected by the British Empire.  Wandering around our cities today, it is not difficult to see some of the legacies of empire. Pubs, statues, memorials and streets named after colonial heroes like Napier and Wolseley and buildings like Sezincote and the Royal Pavilion, Brighton showing the fascination with the exotic east.

From 10,000 kingdoms to 40

In 1880 there were 10,000 kingdoms in Africa. By 1900 there 40 states of which 36 were European with Britain controlling one third of the continent. Much of this division amongst the European nations had been accomplished peacefully at Berlin in 1884 when it was agreed that civilised powers had a right to seize, govern and civilise any part of Africa which was not already imperialised. Where necessary local tribes were controlled with the Maxim gun thus introducing the use and continual threat of violence that was to become an essential feature of imperialism. Not only were local tribes subdued by violence but the continual threat of violence should there be resistance to the  new legal codes and customs introduced by the British brought a psychological feeling of inferiority.

Local traditions destroyed

In order to subdue a people the British sometimes resorted to destroying features of the local culture in order to demonstrate British superiority and contempt for local traditions. In 1860 a British-French expedition destroyed the Old Summer Palace in Beijing and in 1860 General Wolseley destroyed the city of Kumasi, the Ashanti capital which was as modern as many European cities. Local cultures were portrayed as pagan, barbaric and showing little respect for human life in order to justify colonisation and the mission to civilise.

The boundaries of the European states took no account of tribal boundaries. In Africa the division often meant boundaries followed lines of longitude and latitude thus leaving local tribes in two different states. Sometimes as with Kashmir, land was given to a local ally (in this case to a Hindu) which was fought over once the British left. Historians argue over who was to blame for what happened following the granting of independence to India and Pakistan but partition left millions dead.

Part of  British imperialism was the mission to civilise. This meant westernising the local culture. The learning of English was introduced and local customs banned. The introduction of English gives former colonies like India an advantage on the world's trading stage but for those in India who do not have access to an education in English, they are possibly condemned to a second class existence. The introduction of English also served to devalue local culture and languages. British culture and the legal system gave men a dominant position in society. This was not always the case in pre-imperial societies. Women could therefore find themselves with an inferior role in some colonial societies, resulting in physical abuse. The introduction of a western culture also could leave local communities with a sense of their own inferiority.

The motives of empire

The main motives for annexation throughout the history of the Empire was the acquisition of land suitable for agriculture or for potential raw materials. To transform economies the British built railways, roads and a telegraph system. The teaching of English was introduced into schools so that there was a section of the population that could help administer the country. Local economies might find their own subsistent economies being transformed into cash crop capitalist economies. This could leave local people without land as the terms of land ownership were often changed by the British. In the post 1945 world many former colonies have not been able to compete on the world market. In Jamaica for example the EU provides subsidies to enable EU countries to produce beet that undercuts the sugar Jamaica produces. If local people were deemed unsuited to the production of new crops or the mining of minerals the British imported labour which has had a huge impact on the world. The sweet tooth of the  British saw the West Indies transformed into slave plantations and even after the abolition of slavery, indentured servants from India were introduced. Indentured servants were also brought in to South Africa and East Africa often resulting in a legacy of conflict between Indian communities and local peoples especially in Fiji, Kenya and Uganda.

An empire based on racism

The British Empire was based on an element of racism which has produced a legacy of racism amongst the British community. Immigrants from the West Indies and Africa were subjected to discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s and as late as the 1970s migrants from South Asia were subjected to virginity tests, a legacy of  imperial attitudes to sexuality. The British Empire was portrayed from the end of the Napoleonic Wars as an empire of liberty yet there was an intrinsic contradiction between this contention and the reality which was that non-white communities were subjected to discrimination. Self government only ever came easily to the white dominions. The law was often more harshly applied to native peoples than to white communities, be they British administrators or white settlers. At the end of the Second Anglo-Boer War there was an opportunity to enfranchise native peoples. This was not taken as the British did not want to alienate the Boer population of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The result of this decision was the policy of apartheid introduced in 1948.

The contradictions of empire

The contradictions of the British Empire were most apparent during the Cold War when the western world was told that there existed a conflict between the Soviet forces of oppression which had enslaved eastern Europe and the forces of freedom led by Britain and America. Franklin Roosevelt had wanted the European powers to dismantle their  empires as they were not compatible with a post war democratic world but the perceived threat of the Soviet union persuaded the Americans that France and Britain were needed as allies in the Cold War. Britain and France could set their own agenda for decolonisation.

Britain tried to maintain its dominant position in the world by creating the Commonwealth, a neo-imperial institution which as Churchill set out in his Fulton speech of 1947, could with a special relationship with the Americans, contain the power of the Soviet Union. Dean Acheson was to refute this idea in his famous speech at West Point in 1962 when he said that 'Great Britain had lost an empire and has not yet found a role.' Given Britain's continued ambivalence with the European Union, it would seem that Britain is still looking for the leadership role it lost with the decolonisation of the British Empire.

The Summer Palace of Peking which was destroyed by the French and the British in 1860.

The Asante capital of Kumasi which was destroyed by Wolseley in 1874.

The Treaty ending the Boer War was signed here in Melrose House, Pretoria.

Swezincote, in Gloucestershire, was built for John Cockerell, formerly of the East India Company by Samuel Cockerell in a neo-Mughal style.

Mumbai Station, built by the British


The British Empire