The British Empire

An Outline History

of the British Empire Part 1

Victoria's legacy

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 that Victoria inherited in 1837 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.

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 power 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

Just six years after Elizabeth I had granted a Charter to the HEIC in 1600,  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.

Expectations  for the American Colonies

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 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.

At the end of the eighteenth century, virtually all of the products of the non-European world flowed through Britain: products such as coffee, sugar, rum, cotton, silk. The American Revolution did nothing to change Britain's stranglehold on world trade. London was the centre of world finance and ports like Bristol and Liverpool flourished from the flow of raw materials through them. London was the home of the East India Company and Britain was the home base of the slave trade. As Britain embraced the industrial revolution the skills and experiences of the eighteenth century were to be put to good use as Britain built an empire that was to have a lasting impact on those who lived in it.

Victoria's Inheritance

At Queen Victoria's accession the empire consisted of about 2 million square miles and 100 million people. It had grown in a haphazard way and consisted of territories acquired for a variety of reasons. Some were the spoils of victory, some were settlements of British people looking for a new life or imprisoned from their old life. The largest territories in India were run by a private company that had its own civil service and its own private army. The central government had acquiesced in the steady growth of the empire but had not masterminded what had happened. During Victoria's reign this pattern was to continue but the expansion was on an enormous scale.

The impetus for Imperial Growth in  the 19th century

If Britain had the expertise and the men to organise empire it was the population growth of the new century that was provided the impetus for the growth of the empire in the nineteenth century and the industrial revolution which made it possible. The increase in population (from 10 million in 1801 to twenty two million in 1871) provided a market for might be produced by industry but only if prices were low (as wages were low). For this to happen the old mercantilist system which was the basis of  the eighteenth century empire had to be replaced with Free Trade. In the 1820s the Navigation Acts were abolished and tariffs reduced. Later in the 1840s Peel's government abolished the Corn Laws which had kept the price of corn high for farmers. With Britain having a monopoly in industrial production and control of the trade routes of the world provided by the Royal Navy, Free Trade would mean cheap food for the British factory worker. As industry developed so there was a search for new markets which led to the empire expanding in the Pacific, North America and the East.


The greatest expansion of the Empire was in India which by 1867 was importing 21 million pounds worth of exports, the same as the USA. Control of India was exercised by the East India Company until 1858 and its officials, whether in its civil service or army, were responsible for the extension of land under its control. At the end of the eighteenth century the Company controlled much of the eastern Ganges valley and enclaves around Bombay and Madras (today Mumbai and Chennai) but with a combination of diplomacy and war its servants extended the control of the Company to much of the remainder of India. Some of these campaigns were Company policy seeking to create new markets, but other lands were taken by individuals acting on their own initiative.

In 1843 the Governor General Ellenborough sent General Napier to Sind, a neighbouring territory to negotiate an agreement to allow a  British presence to remain. Napier was a bible thumping evangelist who wanted to rid Sind of its rulers. He managed to negotiate a treaty which included the handover of land but was not satisfied and invaded Sind with a force of 3,000 men won a one sided contest. Napier imposed annexation on Sind. The action did not please Prime Minister Peel who survived a motion of censure but then dismissed the Governor General.

Two years later, in 1845, the new Governor General Hardinge declared war on the Punjab following a period of unrest in the territory. There followed two wars with the Sikhs of the Punjab in which there was heavy fighting. The Sikhs had 50,000 well trained men whilst the British forces were scattered. The First War lasted over a year and resulted in a British victory and a strict peace imposed on the Sikhs involving the loss of land and the reduction of their army. The second war was the result of unrest amongst unemployed solders and led to the annexation of the Punjab, something which the new Governor Dalhousie had wanted. A huge amount of territory had therefore been acquired without the direct orders from London.

Thomas Jones Barker’s scene at Windsor Castle depicting Victoria meeting an African prince is titled ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’. It is an allegory of empire with Victoria presenting a bible to a humble African prince. Also in the picture are Albert, the Duchess of Wellington, Lord John Russell (Foreign Secretary) and Palmerston (Prime Minister).

Adam Smith saw the British Empire as just a project

300 million people in India were administered by just 1200 British civil servants. This could not have been done with the active support of the many Indian princes.

The British Empire in the early c19th

Sending British missionaries around the empire gave the British Empire a moral dimension

Slaves in the British Empire were freed from 1833 although they were in many cases replaced by indentured labourers who were treated almost as badly

The pursuit of religious freedom was a major factor in  the  establishment of the American colonies.

The home of the Colonial Office from 1866 from when the Colonial Office was shared with the  India Office and  the Foreign Office.

The American colonies

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The College of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Islington. The CMS was set up in 1787 following a proposal given to Wilberforce by two members of the East India Company.

Robert Peel, Prime Minister

India in 1909, by which time the East India Company had been  dissolved following the Indian  Rebellion in 1857.

Governor Dalhousie, whose policies did much to cause the  Indian Rebellion.

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