What was Salisbury’s contribution to Britain’s Imperial Expansion in the late c19th?

During the last quarter century of the c19th the British Empire was at the very centre of politics and cultural affairs. Imperial affairs grabbed the nation's attention as European rivalries came to dominate the new popular press and the nation went wild over the victories and defeats of Imperial heroes. The Victorian Empire grew to cover 12.8 square miles by the time of Victoria's death in 1901 and included 60 dependencies and dominions. The Empire served not just merchants and industrialists but also settlers, missionaries, explorers, financiers and those seeking service within the Colonial Office and the armed forces. Prime Minister during much of this time and associated with this period of imperial expansion was Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury.

A reluctant imperialist

Although Salisbury was Prime Minister of three cabinets during the period 1886-1902 when the Empire acquired vast new territories especially in Africa and the Far East, he was a reluctant expansionist and viewed with distaste the grand designs of imperialists like Chamberlain, Rhodes, Lugard and Milner.

 Salisbury did not share the high minded idealism of men like Gladstone or those who talked about Britain civilising and developing less well of territories. He denounced missionaries as vulgar radicals and believed the empire existed just to advance the wealth and power of Britain.

Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary

Salisbury was unusual in British politics in that as Prime Minister, he served as his own Foreign Secretary  for twelve of the fourteen years he was Prime Minister. He much preferred foreign affairs and international diplomacy for he believed he was better able to control matters. He resented the politics of democracy  (the extension of the franchise in 1867 and 1884  included the majority of the working classes) and believed that an ill informed and emotional electorate had too much influence over policy so that politicians were forever looking over their shoulders at whatever the people wanted and afraid to do what their heads told them. He preferred to deal in international diplomacy because he could conduct policy on a personal basis without constantly referring himself to Parliament. Salisbury also has a distaste for what he called the 'sham ' of politics, having to do back room deals to ensure he had support for his policies in Parliament.

He preferred diplomacy

With regard to his foreign policy, Salisbury preferred not to meddle in international affairs unless there was a clear benefit to Britain. He preferred to achieve his objectives by diplomacy and persuasion if possible and use force only if it was absolutely necessary. He realised there were limitations to what Britain could do and although he believed the empire to be vital to Britain's future he did not want to expand its frontiers or follow a forward policy. When there was pressure in the late 1880s to annex territory beyond India to forestall a possible threat to India from Russia, Salisbury resisted.

Salisbury knew that Britain had to cut its cloth according to the armed forces available to him. He hated war and regarded it as the final evil and the failure of diplomacy. He had nightmares about the decline and disintegration of the British Empire and was wary of over committing Britain leading him to adopt a cautious policy in Africa in his early years as a Prime Minister and consider returning Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. He disliked pro-consuls who wanted to annex adjoining territories or generals who had too large an appetite for conquest.

A Darwinian view of the world

Salisbury took a Darwinian view of the world in the late c19th believing there existed a death struggle between nations. He told the Primrose League that 'You may roughly divide the  nations of the world  as the living and the dying. On the one side you have great countries of enormous power, growing in power every year, growing in wealth, growing in dominion, growing in the perfection of their organisation.....By the side of these are communities which I can only describe as dying..In them misgovernment is on the increase. decade after decade they  are weaker, poorer and less provided in men or institutions in which they can trust...' He therefore did not accept the idea that it was Britain's role to take up the 'White Man's Burden' and bring civilisation and development to the poorer nations of the empire. Nor did he believe in creating stronger bonds between the territories of the empire. He thought that the cohesion of the empire would evolve through improved cooperation and not through schemes of federation.

Splendid isolation a simplistic analysis

Salisbury is associated with a policy of splendid isolation. This is a rather simplistic analysis of his policy. He was not averse to making alliances with foreign powers if he believed they benefited Britain and indeed he did make such alliances with the central powers and even contemplated an entente with Germany. For him foreign affairs was about strategy and making decisions on the basis of whether they benefited Britain or not, but politics at the end of the c19th was a complicated business and with Salisbury preferring to keep matters close to his chest his advisers often had no idea what policy  he was pursuing and with whom.

European rivals

When Salisbury took office as Prime Minister for the first time in 1887, Britain had lost its dominance of the world. The major European powers were wanting to carve out their own empires, mainly in Africa. France was seeking revenge for her defeat at the hands of Germany in 1871 and wanted to establish an empire in north Africa to re-establish her status and prestige as a great European power. Similarly the newly created Germany and Italy saw Empire as providing them with not only prestige but the raw materials and markets to sustain their programme of industrialisation. In 1873 there was an economic depression in Europe which continued off and on until the turn of the century. With these European powers adopting tariffs as a way of protecting their growing economies and seeing colonies as potential markets Britain saw her exports to Europe fall. Empire was seen as necessary for economic growth and the last quarter of the c19th saw a European power scramble to acquire colonies in the largely unconquered continent of Africa. Salisbury and Bismarck also saw the acquisition of colonies as a way of settling European disputes for colonies could be used as makeweights in diplomatic negotiations - Bismarck had acquired south west Africa for Germany in 1884 to put pressure on Britain in that part of Africa.

An empire from the Cape to the Nile delta

Within a year of becoming Prime Minister, Salisbury had come to the conclusion, with the help of explorer Harry Johnstone, that Britain should seek to create an area of influence that stretched from the Cape to the Nile delta. Salisbury recognised the importance of India to Britain and maintaining control of the route to India. He also realised that the French -Russian entente meant that he could not control Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean so it became imperative for Britain to keep hold of Egypt if the route to India was to be held. He had tried to negotiate a treaty arranging for Britain's withdrawal from Egypt in 1887 but this had failed making him realise that Britain needed to keep hold of Egypt. It became his policy to extend British interests from the Cape northwards into central Africa, from the Nile delta southwards into the Sudan and from Zanzibar westwards to control the headwaters of the Nile.

Read part 2

Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary in Salisbury’s 3rd cabinet

Harry Johnstone, the explorer who is thought to have given Salisbury the idea of creating a British sphere of influence stretching from the Nile delta to the Cape.

The German Chancellor Bismarck with whom Salisbury worked to reduce Anglo-German tensions in east Africa

Lord Salisbury


The British Empire