Captain Cook claims Australia, 11th June 1770
The Battle of Isandlwana
The Crystal Palace exhibition 1851
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi
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
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 -
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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.