The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914


New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa

In 1870, art critic, social reformer and the Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, John Ruskin, made a speech in which he announced a new role for Empire. He introduced the theme of Imperial Duty as Britain's destiny and how Britain had a mission to found colonies and settle them with young men who would advance the power of the home country. 'There is a destiny now possible for us, the highest ever set before a nation...This is what England must do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far  she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every bit of fruitful waste ground she can set  her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be  fidelity to their  country and their first aim is to  advance the power of England...


What Ruskin was doing was to introduce a new ideology for Empire and adding a new justification for the annexation of new territories.


Two years after Ruskin's speech, in 1872, Disraeli made a very famous speech at Crystal Palace, putting  Empire at the very centre of British politics. Disraeli claimed that the British had  a choice before them. They could  be subjects of a comfortable England, insular and ordinary or of a great country, an imperial country which commands the respect of the world. Disraeli was appealing to the newly enfranchised working man in the cities and claiming that the Tory Party was the party of Empire. He was making Empire out to be exotic, glamorous, exciting, glorious and infused with a certain morality. Disraeli was positioning himself against Gladstone, the Liberal leader, who often saw Empire as exploiting native peoples and getting involved in unnecessary wars. For all of their bluster about the British Empire though, there was little to  choose between the two men when it came to them taking action as Prime Minister. In 1879 Gladstone made his famous Midlothian campaign attacking the very idea of empire yet when he became Prime Minister in  1880, he  was the Prime Minister who sent Wolseley to Egypt which resulted in Egypt becoming  a virtual British protectorate.


Patterns of trade were changing and Britain lost the predominance she had enjoyed since Victoria had come to the throne. Britain's economic rivals were building their  own navies and using import duties to protect their own industries. Britain began to lose markets as the world  entered a period of economic recession  dotted with occasional  booms yet the government refused to consider the abandonment of free trade.  It was thought that normal economic conditions would return but as France, Germany, the USA, Italy and Russia dropped free trade in favour of protection, Britain's exports to these countries fell dramatically.

In the 1880s exports fell from an average of £234m at the beginning of the decade to £226 by the end of the decade, leaving Britain with a falling share of world trade. From having 23% of world trade in 1880, by 1910 Britain had just 17% compared to Germany's 16% and the USA's 35%.


The last twenty years  of the century saw interest in  the Empire soar. There was a new interest in the Empire, not just in Britain but  around the world. The question of empire was not just debated in Parliament but  talked about by all classes. It became the subject of music hall and the new popular literature. A more literate population was  taking  a greater interest in what was happening in  the Empire and victories in the colonies won by the colonial forces received huge support. The generals responsible for these victories  became popular heroes as did the missionaries and  explorers pushing  back the frontiers  of the Empire. Empire came to be seen as fundamental to Britain's success but this new interest came at a time when Britain was no longer the power it  had once been. Other  European powers were industrialising and building navies and large armies. Foreign  ships now were found around the world's oceans and European powers were beginning  to establish empires of their own.


With world trade  in a permanent slump, Empire was  seen  as a way of alleviating the impact of recession. It  was thought that Empires could provide raw materials and a  captive market and also an outlet for  an underused population. This produced the rivalry amongst European  powers to acquire and increase their  empires which was  a feature of international politics  in the last quarter of the century. The  so called Scramble for  Africa was the result of this increased rivalry between  the powers.


The term ' New Imperialism' might  suggest something new was happening.  For those countries seeking to establish empires like Germany, this was  a new direction  but for Britain, the 'New Imperialism' did not  mean a new direction in  policy but  merely an increase in  pace of policies already in existence. In fact the term policy was a misnomer  as far as Britain  was concerned. There was never a policy established  and enunciated by government to  establish more  colonies. The government had always reacted to economic or international events, or to the actions of their own  servants. With France, Germany and Russia extending their empires in  the late c19th Britain  found it had to react. The more territory that  became part of the empires of foreign powers meant less territory with which to trade.


The added interest in Empire proved the opportunity for a number of  commentators to give their thoughts on the importance of the Empire to  Britain. In 1869 Sir  Charles Dilke in his book Greater Britain argued for British Imperial domination  whilst Sir John  Seeley in his  book The Expansion of England 1882 claimed that the Empire was the source of Britain's strength, and that its  expansion and  survival was essential for British power. These books together with  Mahon's made a powerful case for empire. Seeley believed that the  future of Britain lay with the white colonies which he believed  were an  extension of Britain. These ideas on the Empire came at the same time as Herbert Spencer was espousing his ideas on Social Darwinism. It was Spencer who coined  the term the  survival of the fittest and went on to propose'  that society was the product of change from lower to higher forms, just as in the theory of biological evolution, the lowest forms of life are said to be evolving into higher forms'.


Ideas on racial superiority came together with ideas on  imperial unity to produce an ideology of empire which became the justification of empire and its expansion in the last quarter of the century. The most significant advocate of this new Imperialism was Joseph Chamberlain who advocated the spread of civilisation to the world as justification for new colonies in Africa and development of economically moribund  colonies in  the West Indies.


In the last quarter of the century the main focus of the empire was on Africa and specifically south Africa. In 1880 there were 10,000 kingdoms in Africa. By 1900 there were 40 states of which 36 were European with Britain controlling one third of the continent. The late 1880s and 1890s saw the European powers divide Africa up between themselves. Part of this was to try and secure valuable raw materials but the most important reason for Britain's part in the scramble was to prevent the dominance of European rivals in Africa and to protect Britain's strategic interests.


Britain already had a number of trading interests in the Gold Coast and the Niger coast and of course South Africa but the expansion of Britain's interests was due to her reaction to the moves of other powers.  To prevent the European states from falling out over Africa  there was an attempt by the European nations to arrange the division of Africa peacefully among themselves when in 1884 the Chancellor of Germany called a conference to be held in Berlin to discuss the partition of Africa among the nations of Europe that already had an interest there. Twenty four nations were invited and fifteen came. No Africans were asked. They laid down the rule for partition. It was agreed that the civilised powers had a right to seize, govern and civilise any part of Africa which was not already imperialised. Those nations which already had coastal strips were authorised to take over the hinterland. It was agreed that African kings were not kings in a European sense, bound by treaties. The idea of Empire had become vulgarized and tainted as a result. There was no pretence of any honourable motive other than avarice. British policy towards the Boers in south Africa was already causing criticism that it was being determined by the needs of the capitalist Randlords running the gold mines on the Witwatersrand.


The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 led to a series of events which changed the character of the young Boer republic and  changed forever the economic and political relations between Britain and the Boer republics and eventually led to the war of 1899.


The 1886 discovery of gold ushered in an influx of largely British labour and capital which established an industrial economy centred on Johannesburg where the uitlander (foreigner) was soon seen as a threat to the Afrikaner way of life.  By 1891 the number of whites in southern Africa had grown from the 250,000 that lived there in 1870 to 600,000 and the increase was largely the result of migrant miners .

The gold on the Witwatersrand was difficult to mine yet the price of gold was controlled and did not reflect the difficulty and expense of extracting it. As huge amounts of capital were needed to extract the ore, the industry came to be run by a dozen or so 'Randlords' like Cecil Rhodes who brought his diamond industry expertise to Johannesburg. The owners of the deep mines wanted a government sympathetic to their needs for  low wages and easily available capital and resources like dynamite at a decent price  but President Kruger saw the Randlords and their European labour force as a threat to the way of life of the Boer.


The British may have hoped that the influx of British labour would help bring about the collapse of the Transvaal but Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, was determined to resist any change to the character of the Transvaal. He resisted any moves to incorporate the 'uitlander' into the political community and saw the gold industry as providing the money to maintain the independence of the Boer republic. It was clear that by 1894 the Transvaal was not going to implode even though the Transvaal was going through an economic revolution that meant the pastoral community was being threatened by the gold industry that within its midst.


Kruger  feared the impact of immigration and industrialisation on Boer society and remembered the threat that Britain had posed in the past in 1880 and believed they continued to pose a threat. He did nothing to allow more Africans to move to the Rand. He maintained a government monopolies and placed heavy taxes on essential items like dynamite.  In 1890 he restricted the Uitlander vote to men who had been resident in the Transvaal for fourteen years. It is doubtful that many British miners would have wanted to exchange their British citizenship for Transvaal citizenship but in making it more difficult for those who might have wanted to become Transvaal citizenships he handed an easy target to the British government who could claim that the British were being victimised.


The scramble for Africa was urged on in Britain by a variety of people and groups. There were merchants looking for new customers, industrialists looking for new raw materials, financiers looking for new investment opportunities, strategists talking about India and the Nile, missionaries wanting to convert heathens, soldiers looking for glory and excitement, patriotic newspapers looking for stories and the British public acting like a baying crowd egging on the protagonists. As a result the empire increased by 5 million square miles but in doing so the whole purpose and value of the British Empire was called into question. Victoria died in 1901 during the Boer War which laid bare the frailties of the British Empire. A debate on the efficiency of the nation and whether it could defend herself began with those  defences being put right just in time for World War One.


John Ruskin

Benjamin Disraeli

William Gladstone

John Seeley

Joe Chamberlain

Cecil Rhodes

Paul Kruger