The British Empire

What was the Nature of the British Empire?

The Largest Empire in History

When Queen Victoria died in January 1901 her son Edward VII inherited the largest empire in history. The British Empire covered 11.4 square miles which had a population of 372 subjects found in every corner of the world. The Empire included people of many different religions and languages living in very different parts of the world governed, all with very different cultures. The British Empire was described by John Seeley, author of the best selling 'The Expansion of England'  as  having grown in 'an absence of fit of mind' for it had grown over the c19th century with little public support except for the last quarter century and was just a 'rag bag of territorial bits and pieces' as the historian Ronald Hyam describes the Empire. There had never existed a government plan for the empire or even an overall vision of what the Empire was and who it served. Hyam went on to describe the British Empire as ' at best only a dominion of opinion and a grand anomaly, and at worst a temptation to illusions of grandeur and a gross abuse'. Adam Smith went as far as to say that the British had never really possessed an Empire, except in their imagination. These comments on the nature of the British Empire reflected the lack of interest of the government and the British public in the British Empire for much of its history. It was only in the closing years of the c19th when  Britain's place in the world was being challenged that people and politicians turned to the Empire.

A Private Enterprise Empire

The British Empire was a private enterprise empire created by merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries with the government acting in a support role at best. Each of these groups had their own needs and interests and vision for how they wanted colonies to develop and often their interests clashed. Migrants wanted to colonise, civil servants in London wanted to civilise, missionaries wanted to convert and merchants wanted to make money and officials in the Colonial Office had to act as the umpire between often conflicting interests. Every application for a government charter to trade and administer a territory was challenged and resulted in government ministers being lobbied. When Cecil Rhodes travelled to London in 1889 to get a Charter for his British South Africa Company he was opposed by a delegation from the Matabele tribe  as well as the South Africa Committee of the House of Commons and the Aborigines Protection Society. Powerful members of the London elite were opposed to Rhodes getting a Charter but within three months Rhodes was to deal with all the opposition lined up against him, buying many of them off with gifts of money or shares.

The founding of the East India Company

Granting a Royal Charter to a  group of merchants to trade was a means used throughout the history of the British Empire by governments to impose their authority on the actions of British subjects wherever in the world they might be and to extend British influence and control at a minimal cost. In 1600 Elizabeth granted a charter to a group of merchants to trade directly with spice suppliers in the East Indies. The company (the Honourable East India Company, the HEIC) was small and initially just sent out an annual fleet  but following the success of the 1617 mission when the Globe and Peppercorn returned with full holds,  it was clear there were good profits to be made in the East. When in 1614 two company ships beat off a number of Portuguese ships, the Portuguese, who had hitherto been the dominant European power in India, were forced to allow the East India Company to set up factories (supply and trading bases) on the Indian coast. The beginning of trading companies acting as military powers had begun and within two hundred years the East India Company would be the dominant military and civil power in India as well as having a monopoly on trade between India and Europe.

Colonies in North America

Just six years after Elizabeth had granted a Charter to the HEIC,  her successor James I granted  charters to the London Company and the Plymouth Company to settle a part of the American coast between the 34th and 45th parallels. Neither group envisaged establishing agricultural communities but hoped to establish trading posts to provide England with tar, pitch potash and various precious metals. The Plymouth Company's first colony lasted just a few months whilst the London Company faced early problems. The site chosen in Chesapeake Bay was swampy and the would be settlers had neither the skills nor the attitude to establish a self sufficient community until provided with better leadership and more support from the company. Eventually in 1624 the colony was brought under royal control. Most of these early settlers came from yeoman stock or were the sons of wealthy merchants, wanting quick wealth. Jamestown would become though the first English colony  in North America.

The growth of the Empire in North America

These early chartered companies had the full support of Parliament. There existed the hope that in time settlements in the Americas could make Britain self-sufficient. The Americans could replace Scandinavia as the source for tar and timber for ship building and given its latitude,  the same as the Mediterranean, could provide wine, fruit, salt and even silk but it was none of these goods that would be the salvation of these new colonies - it would be tobacco that was first planted in Virginia, the Jamestown colony in 1617. Mass imports from Virginia would make smoking a universal habit and no longer the luxury it had been.

The c17th saw a steady stream of explorers, traders and settlers travel to North America and the West Indies seeking new found wealth and a new life.  By 1700 thirteen British colonies stretched along the North American coast and a number of colonies existed in the West Indies. The Barbados Company had received a charter from Charles in 1627. They hoped to make money from tobacco as Virginia was now beginning to but it wasn't profitable and they tried switching to cotton before eventually in 1643 planting sugar which saved Barbados. Within fifty years sugar plantations covered  four fifths of the island and this sugar revolution transformed the economies of the West Indies. The success of Barbados quickly led to the occupation of other islands by settlers but not without bringing conflict between native people and other European powers.

The moral imperative

The pursuit of wealth was always the prime motive for establishing new colonies but from the beginning of the Empire in the Americas until the end of empire in the 1960s there was a moral imperative. The Pilgrim Fathers who settled in Massachusetts in 1620 had come to America to find a place where they old follow their religion in the way they wanted. The settlers  were Calvinists who wanted to be separate from the English Church. Quarrels over the level of religious freedom that should be tolerated continued in the established colonies so that by 1660 there were settlements of about 30,000 in New England, many of whom left as a result of arguments about their own beliefs. Rhode Island and Maryland were both settled by religious refugees.

Religion justified the taking of land

Religion was not just the cause of further colonies being established, it was used by the early settlers to justify taking over land from native peoples. America was described in a sermon  in 1609 as a 'land which had been  wrongly usurped by wild beasts and unreasonable creatures'. The view that America was a richly endowed virgin awaiting a husband was a commonly held view at the time and at the heart of the English justification for taking America. John Milton wrote that 'God having made the world for the use of men..ordained them to replenish it'. It became the duty of settlers, as they saw it, to make best use of America's abundant resources if native people failed to recognise their won inheritance. It was to be a feature of much of the British Empire that recourse was made to God to justify the extension of the empire by taking the lands of native peoples. In the late c19th this was to become a virtual ideology of the empire - the Mission to Civilise and the way that the British saw themselves as having been ordained by God - to civilise the lands it held.


Conflict and rivalry between various European  powers competing to establish empires was partly the result of the views about economics. The prevailing economic theory of the 17th and 18th centuries was  Mercantilism. Countries believed there was a finite amount of wealth in the world and you could only increase your share of the world's wealth at the expense of another country's wealth. It was important to secure stable and reliable sources of raw materials and goods not available at home, and to control trade between colonies and England. To this end the Navigation Acts of 1649, 1660,the Staple Act of 1663 and the Plantation Act of 1673 sought to ban non-British ships from carrying goods of any kind between Britain and her colonies or between colonies. British carriers were also given the protection of the Royal Navy by an Act of 1649. To enable the Royal Navy to support and protect British trade the government began a ship building programme from 1650 so that by 1679 the navy had 86 ships and twice that number within another thirty years. The government recognised the importance of trade to Britain's wealth and security and was prepared to protect it from outside forces. Such a policy would remain at the heart of Colonial policy until the end of empire.

The Man on the Spot

British government involvement in the expanse of the Empire was always as minimal as possible. The government was always reluctant to follow a policy of aggrandisement and extension of its borders. It preferred to provide the support for traders to go about their business and only to annex a territory to secure a British interest when no alternative existed. Where the Empire did expand its territories it was often the result of decisions made by men on the spot. Consequently the Empire consisted of territories run in a number of ways and by different kinds of men. At different times in the c19th the Gulf Coast was run despotically by British officials, Canada had self government, Nigeria was controlled by a commercial company, Sierra Leone had a Governor, Sarawak had a hereditary Rajah, South Africa had a High Commissioner, New Zealand has a naval captain, Egypt had a Consul-General and India until 1858 was run by a commercial company.

Bargains had to be struck with local elites

No single form of government existed throughout the Empire nor a single code of laws. Rather would the local administrator appointed by London seek to strike a bargain with local natives or their elites as to how the territory was to be run and how land was to be distributed. Such agreements and eventual reform made between local elites and British officials were subject to constant revision as events, the result of both internal and external events. When rebellion took place in India in 1858 with vast numbers of sepoys joining the rebellion against British rule, there was a debate in Parliament about the causes of the rebellion and as s result the East India Company was wound up and the government took direct control over India. Henceforth there was a Viceroy who ran India for the Queen, now the Empress of India but with just 1000 civil servants could only run the country with the acquiescence of Indian princes.

The Man on the Spot was left to run his own little empire as he saw fit. He was appointed by the Colonial Office  but once living in a colony he was subject to the lobbying of white settlers, businessmen, humanitarians or missionaries to run the colony in the way that they wished. Most officials wanted to improve conditions for settlers and natives alike but there were usually compromises that had to be made and many officials were subject to the prejudices of the time.

The ability of the British Empire to adapt

That the British Empire could adapt to changing circumstances was largely the result of the liberal constitution which Britain possessed. Politicians in the age of the secret ballot,  mass political parties and mass circulation newspapers had to listen to what the electorate was saying. In the c19th the British Empire had to adapt to the religious views of the time and geopolitical change. Given the nature of historical change when little can be predicted,  the British were able  to respond because there was no master plan that had to be adhered to. The fact that the British Empire was a rag bag of territories run in many different ways serving different kinds of people was a strength and enabled it to exist for as long as it did.

Victoria at the time she became Empress of India in 1876

Cecil Rhodes hoped to use his British South Africa Company to create a vast extension of the British Empire in Africa

The emblem of the East India Company

The American colonies

The Plymouth Company,1620

John Milton

Frank Swettenham was the man on the spot in the Malay States

The Waitangi Treaty was made by Captain Hobson representing the British Government and some Maori chiefs.