Captain  Cook claims Australia, 11th June 1770

1815-1914

The British Empire

What was the Motivation for the 19th century British  Empire?


For reasons of cost, lack of any bureaucracy and distance the British Government did not keep a close eye on what was happening in the colonies. t did though want to ensure that the agents of empire acted as citizens of the British government and obeyed its laws. The c18th politician understood that although the British Empire was rarely debated in parliament and the people took little notice of colonial affairs, the Empire was a source of wealth and that Britain derived a certain military and naval status from the possession of colonies. Although the empire was an important source of wealth, money was never the only reason for empire. Trade and wealth may have been a constant motivation for empire but other reasons such as the moral dimension, migration strategic interest and geopolitics all played a part in the expansion of the empire at some time. Indeed from the earliest settlements there existed a moral dimension to the British Empire which by the end of the c19th constituted an important part of what became an ideology of empire. Even before the first colony was established in the early years of the c17th, Richard Hakluyt produced a tract on the purposes of British colonisation. Colonies, he said, would buy English manufactures, make England self-sufficient in colonial products, offer homes to the surplus population, provide bases for attacking the Spanish and enable the gospel to be brought to the native peoples of the Americas.


A constant theme of the British Empire is that it was empire on the cheap. The government budget for the colonies was minimal until the c20th. There was not even a Colonial Office until the 1850s and even then it saw its job as to act as the arbiter of the various interests in the colonies and ensure that the colonies were ruled with the minimum of cost and threat to Britain's position in the world. It was for this reason that the earliest colonies were run by Joint Stock Companies which were given charters by the government which outlined what the company could do and where its geographical boundaries were. This would ensure that all the risk and the cost would be borne by private individuals but the government would reap a financial benefit through the imposition of duties and various taxes, and that the colonies would be linked to the crown.


In 1600 Elizabeth granted a charter to the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) which over the next two hundred years would dominate the trade with the east and make a fortune for the crown and the company's servants. By 1800 the HEIC was making more money through the running of territory in India than it made through trade and it was acting as if it were a sovereign government.


Just a few years later in 1606, James I granted a charter to two groups of merchants, the London Company and the Plymouth Company who had the right to colonize territory between the 34th and the 45th parallels. Neither company at the time envisaged establishing agricultural communities but aimed to establish trading bases from which fur, fish and timber, tar, pitch and potash would be sent back to Britain in the hope of making Britain self sufficient. The Plymouth Company's settlement in Maine lasted just a few months but the London Company's settlement in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia did a little better avoiding extinction albeit with a heavy loss of life. The company expected to be able to convert Indians, find gold, discover the north west passage and produce all the commodities that were grown in France and Italy - as the colony shared the same latitude as the Mediterranean. In 1609 one ship from a fleet of nine ships bringing food to Jamestown (as the settlement was named) was wrecked on the coast of Bermuda which was claimed and remains Britain's oldest colony. The settlement was reduced to just fifty men following the harsh winter of 1609-10 but under the strict leadership of Captain John Smith and then Sir Thomas Dale the colony recovered and became an agricultural community with the settlers being given land to cultivate. What saved Virginia was tobacco which was planted for the first time in 1617 and which became the backbone of the economy. With smoking becoming a habit of all classes by 1700 Britain was importing 13 million pounds of Virginia tobacco for domestic consumption and 25 million pounds for re -export to Europe.


In September 1620 another group of migrants left Britain for America. These were the Separatists or Pilgrims who sought somewhere where they could follow their form of Puritanism without any interference from the Church. They left Britain voluntarily and with the King's permission to establish a home under the charter granted to the Plymouth Company. They landed further north than the lands of the Plymouth Company but they remained where they landed, at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and eventually became part of the Massachusetts bay Company that was granted a charter in 1629. Intolerance of any deviation from the way that the leaders of the Bay Company wanted people to worship, encouraged settlement elsewhere. Rhodes Island was founded by religious refugees from Massachusetts and New Hampshire was also founded as a religious refuge. Maryland too was founded partly for religious reasons to provide a refuge for Catholics. So we can see that although the search for trade and wealth was an important motivation for the establishing of colonies it was by no means the only reason.


With the success of tobacco growing on the American mainland, British entrepreneurs began looking for opportunities to grow the plant in the West Indies. In 1627 a charter was granted to a group of merchants to 'plant' Barbados and although they were to fail with tobacco they were successful with sugar which was first planted in 1643. The 'sugar' revolution led to the colonisation of St Kitts, Antigua, Nevis, Montserrat and Jamaica by 1660. The success of sugar and tobacco and the anarchic state of government in the West Indies led to the British government taking steps to ensure that this vital trade would not be lost and that Britain's overseas empire would be preserved and enlarged.


Following the establishment of the Commonwealth after 1649, legislation was passed to assert British dominance over all aspects of colonial commerce and a programme of naval rearmament ensured that the Royal Navy would be used to protect British commerce at a time when the prevailing economic theory was Mercantilism. This was the view that there was only a finite amount of trade and wealth in the world and the only way to increase one's own wealth was at the expense of a rival country. It was considered important for country's wealth for a nation to be self-sufficient.


Between 1651 and 1673 Parliament put these ideas into practice through a series of Trade and Navigation Acts which established an English monopoly of the trade from the colonies. All cargoes to or from the colonies had to be carried in ships built in England and owned in England or the colonies, and manned by predominantly British crews. In addition, certain commodities (sugar, cotton, indigo, dyewoods, ginger and tobacco) could only be exported directly from the colonies to England, even if the final destination was elsewhere. European goods from the American colonies had to be exported into England and then re-exported. British ship owners were also given the protection of the Royal Navy following an Act of 1649 and to achieve this, the Royal Navy was expanded. By 1679 it had 86 ships and by 1688 over 170 ships. With this enhanced fleet the navy was able to protect British merchantmen in the Mediterranean from pirates, protect fisheries and patrol the Caribbean. This economic theory of Mercantilism was to protect and enhance the wealth of the country but existed also to promote self sufficiency to ensure that in times of war the country had sufficient food and commodities.


Politicians by now accepted that colonial assets should be coveted and protected and if possible be extended.  The expansion of the navy now allowed naval expeditions to extend the range and location of colonies. In 1655 a naval expedition against Jamaica resulted in its capture and just four years later St Helena was taken to protect the route to India.


The pursuit of profit was the driving force behind the establishment of the British Empire, but from the establishment of Virginia in 1607 there existed a moral dimension to the empire, and as the empire got bigger and bigger  in the c19th that moral dimension  became an important factor in justifying the existence of the Empire. Much was made in Virginia of plans for the conversion and education of native Indians but as the colony grew the need for land produced conflict between natives and colonists which led to war. This was to be a theme running through the history of the British Empire. The British claimed that their empire was different because it had a moral dimension but when it came to conflict with natives over land, the colonists always found a way of justifying their actions.


In the c17th many colonists believed in the divine ordering of the world and Man's place in it. Milton wrote that 'God having made the world for the use of man ordained them to replenish it'. Early colonists believed that God had provided plentiful resources in America and it was man's duty to work the land to replenish what God had provided. Where Man did not do God's duty and replenish the land then that land was forfeited to be taken by others. Gradually as more and more land was needed by the American colonists native Americans were depicted as inferior and degenerate.


Religion was used to justify the taking of land from native peoples.  It was also a reason for the spread of colonies all along the American eastern seaboard. By 1660 the New England colonies numbered around 30,000 of whom many were refugees who had challenged and then fled the orthodoxy of the earliest colonies. The intolerance of the Massachusetts Bay colonists led to the founding of a colony in Rhode Island by those who had been expelled from Massachusetts. New Hampshire also became a refuge for colonists who had been expelled for their religious views whilst New Jersey became a refuge for Quakers. William Penn wanted a colony for his own co-religionists  and was granted a charter by Charles II in 1681 after which Pennsylvania was founded. In 1674 Lord Baltimore was granted a charter to found Maryland for Catholics from England.


The c18th saw radical changes in politics in Britain which led to a common view among the politically active classes that it was necessary for Britain to go to war to become richer and to assert her mastery of the seas. There had been a change in the balance of power between Crown and Parliament so that the voice of Parliament could no longer be ignored. With money readily available to the government to build ships through the use of the national debt wars were fought against France in 1689-97 (the Nine Years War), 1702-14 (the War of the Spanish Succession), 1739-48 (the War of the Austrian Succession), 1756-63 (the Seven Years War) and 1775-83 (the American War of Independence in which France intervened). These wars saw Britain establish mastery of the world's seas and dominance of the Caribbean, Canada and India. With such dominance Captain Cook was able in three voyages around the world between 1768 and 1779 not only to acquire knowledge about possible future cash crops e.g. breadfruit but to extend the empire through his declaration of the sovereignty over Australia. Cook was very much an agent of the national commercial and strategic ambitions of the British. He took with him on his voyages a mandate to declare British sovereignty over any territory found to be unpopulated or whose inhabitants were not making good use of the land.


The creation of the British Empire and its expansion may have been the result of the private sector's determination to seek out new business opportunities but by the end of the c18th the government was playing its part in supporting commerce through the use of the navy in protecting British interests but also in seeking out new opportunities for wealth creation.


The mercantilist policy remained in place until after the Napoleonic wars which led to the demise of all of Britain's imperial rivals and Britain's naval and economic dominance. The rapid industrialisation of Britain and the adoption of the factory system in the 1830s led to a new culture of consumerism and economic forces which included cheap and longer term credit, cheap manufactures and a steady flow of migrants. With control of the seas, a monopoly in the production of manufacture goods and an increased presence in India, there grew a demand by the industrial classes for Free Trade to facilitate commerce. This led to the repeal of the Navigation Acts and all other acts that restricted trade by 1850. From this time although commerce remained the dominant factor in maintaining and expanding the empire, other factors began to assume an importance. The gradual rise of European powers and the USA in the last quarter of the c19th led to geopolitics becoming an important factor in Britain's acquisition of land, particularly in Africa whilst the impoverishment of the British working class led to an increase of the numbers leaving the British Isles to seek a better life overseas.


The moral dimension, always a factor in the justification of empire began to assume a greater importance. Britain's economic and military dominance of the world and  the rise of evangelism in the early c19th led to a feeling of self confidence and the idea that the British was a chosen nation given the task of spreading civilisation around the world. Ruskin, Disraeli, Seeley and Rhodes were all calling for an extension of the empire as a means of spreading civilisation and how it was Britain's 'Manifest Destiny' to do so. Britain's most famous missionary and explorer, David Livingstone,  talked of Christianity, commerce and civilisation and it seemed that the British Empire was now the most virtuous empire in history and its main motive was the development of Human Kind. However where the interests of native peoples clashed with the interests of British colonists there was only one likely winner despite the efforts of an increasing number of people fighting to protect the interests of native peoples. When Cecil Rhodes came to London in 1889 to secure a charter that would enable his British South Africa Company to take over the lands of the Matabele and the Mashona, he was able through bribery and force of argument to persuade the British cabinet to grant him his charter and the Matabele and Mashona were destroyed as a result. The motive of spreading British commerce around the world was still the most important factor in the expansion of the British Empire.


In the last twenty years of the c19th, empire assumed an importance that it had never had in Britain. With the empire under threat from the growth of the USA and the major European powers,  politicians queued up to play the imperial card. With stories of daring do, both fiction and non-fiction, being read by an increasingly literate nation, the empire was seen as a way of maintaining Britain's greatness. Writers like Seeley and Dilke promoted the idea of settling colonies as a way of maintaining British power and colonies were now acquired for geopolitical reasons. Land was now being annexed, not just for purposes of trade but to improved Britain's strategic position around the world and to prevent other powers from strengthening their own empires. It seemed that if you wanted to be a great power you had to have an empire. After all, the most powerful country in the world had the largest empire the world had ever seen. The Scramble for Africa in the last years of the c19th saw Britain annex territory to secure the hinterland of existing colonies and to secure economic interests. When a coup in Egypt in 1881 led to the rise of a nationalist leader, Britain sent General Wolseley to destroy Arabi Pasha, the nationalist leader and take over Egypt to secure British interests in Egypt, particularly the Suez Canal.


Following the Scramble for Africa, Britain in 1900 had the largest empire the world had ever seen. It had been acquired largely for purposes  of trade and largely by private interest but in the second half of the century the government was increasingly prepared to step  in to secure what was being recognised as a crucial asset.



The British Empire was established in the c17th and early c18th in India and the Americas and by the end of the Napoleonic Wars consisted of about two million square miles. The expansion from just a few colonies in the West Indies and the eastern seaboard of North America was not directed or planned by government ministers but reflected the willingness of many sections of British society to seek opportunities for trade, plunder and land.


Those who made the British Empire were responding to different motives at different times.