Captain  Cook claims Australia, 11th June 1770

1815-1914

The British Empire


The responsibility for the territories of the British Empire lay from 1801 with the Colonial Office in London. Before that they were administered by a committee of the Privy Council called the Board of Trade and Plantations. From 1801, the administration of the British Empire lay with a small group of men who were part of the War Office and were housed in a warren of rooms in 13,14 Downing St. Their jobs were to ensure that the administration of the colonies was done with as little cost and fuss as possible.

Whilst the Colonial Office looked after the colonies, India continued to be administered by the private company, the Honourable East India Company. It was only in 1858 that Parliament and the government took a more direct role in the running of India.

By 1857 there were  50 colonies administered from London by  62 employees. Most of these men were of a low rank - only six were above the level of clerk. Hours of work were from 11m to 5pm  with long lunches and teas taken. Employees joined the Colonial Office at the age of sixteen and it took 10-15 years to climb to any substantial rank. there were only six men above the level of a clerk so most of the running of individual colonies was  left in the hands of the man appointed by the Colonial Office - the governor, lieutenant governor, administrator, high commissioner depending on where he served and the circumstances of his appointment. The Colonial Office only really concerned itself with the settler colonies, concerning  itself with land allocation and sales, settlement and migration and left most other matters to the man on the spot.

The men appointed to jobs as Governors had been appointed by the Colonial Office on recommendation. It was not until  1869 that any kind of competitive competition was introduced to raise the quality of men serving in the colonies and then only for the recently acquired Straits Settlements, Singapore and Hong Kong. The life of a Governor varies a great deal according towhee one was posted. the salary levels varied according to where you were posted. There existed a hierarchy of postings with Canada, Cape Colony, Australia, Gibraltar and Malta towards the top. A posting to one of the self governing dominions could mean a salary o f£10,000 a year, Malta was worth £5,000 whilst a West Indian island only provided a remuneration of a few hundred pounds a year. Out of this salary a governor had to provide for  all of his living and entertainment expenses, and this might entail building his own  home if none existed. It was generally accepted that it cost around £10,000 to cover the cost of entertainment, travel, keeping up the garden and ordinary living expenses.

The life of a governor could be hard and lonely. The governor of a self governing colonies would have a large team of advisers and secretaries but someone posted to a small island might be by himself with little or no advisory or secretarial help. A governor made of his job what he could. until telegraph cables we lad in the 1870s he was beyond the reach of the Colonial Office and had a relatively hand in running his colony. In the early Victorian period governors were often men imbued with the mission to improve and reflected the attitudes of the minister in charge of the Colonial Office in the 1830s, Lord Glenelg and his secretary, James Stephen. These men were evangelicals who had a humanitarian concern for native peoples and tried to ensure that the rights of native people were respected. this often meant differences of opinion with settlers as in New Zealand where the Colonial  Office clashed with settlers over the government's land policy. Prime Minister, Lord Russell defined the attitude of the time towards native people when he said that the imperial purpose was to' encourage religious instruction, let them partake of the blessings of Christianity, preserve order and internal peace, induce the  African race to feel that wherever the British flag flies they have a friend and protector.' It was not always possible for  governors once in post to protect the interests of local people as Lord Russell as the interests of white settlers often clashed with the interests of native peoples. Where governors sought to maintain the rights of local people they often clashed with local settlers who looked upon local people as the source of labour.

The budget and personnel of the Colonial Office tended to be small in the period before 1870 and the attitude of the government towards further acquisitions was to discourage them. the job of the governor was to govern with as little fuss as possible and ensuring that as little money as possible was spent. Consequently clerks in the Colonial Office knew little about the colonies unless there was a problem brought to their attention. the nation's politicians themselves knew little about the colonies of the realm and even Disraeli, who was to advocate a larger empire from 1872,earlier in his political career said of the empire that it was ' a millstone around our necks'. Territories cost a lot to administer and protect but in the early Victorian period there were annexations and it was often the case that these were made by men on the spot and were rarely counter demanded.

There were many examples of the men on the spot making important decisions which tied the government in London. The province of Sind was annexed by General Charles Napier much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Peel. Napier was a bible thumping Christian who saw the Emirs of Sind as wicked rulers whom it was his mission to destroy. In a one sided battle on 24 March the armies of the Amirs were defeated much to the delight of the Governor General of India, Lord Ellenborough. Peel and the directors of the HEIC were against the annexation which could only incur heavy costs. Ellenborough was recalled to London and sacked but the annexation was not reversed. The Punjab was annexed as a result of the determination of Lord Dalhousie to do so believing it posed a threat to India's security. Once an annexation had taken place it was unlikely that the government in London would rescind a decision.

It was in South Africa that decisions made locally without the approval of London were to prove most costly. In 1877 Bartle Frere who had been a very successful administrator in India for 30 years and considered Britain's most effective governor, was sent to South Africa to become Governor of the Cape Colony. Three of his predecessors had been fired over their handling of the violence between the white settlers and native tribes.

In 1879, the Zulus, feeling threatened by the British annexation of the Transvaal, were making raids on settlements that bordered their territory. Frere asked the London government for reinforcements to wage war on Cetewayo, the Zulu leader. The government of Disraeli already committed to operations in Afghanistan made it quite clear to Frere that he was not getting any reinforcements and that he was not to commence any hostilities against the Zulus. Despite this warning from London Frere was determined to subdue the Zulus. After giving the Zulus an ultimatum which they could not possibly comply with, he allowed his army commander, Chelmsford to launch a three pronged attack on Cetewayo's territories in order to capture him and force him to submit. The invasion ended in disaster with one section of the invasion force being virtually wiped out completely.

Again in 1899, with relations between the Transvaal government of Kruger and Salisbury's government deteriorating over the treatment of the ' uitlanders', the foreign mine workers, the situation was worsened by the actions of the High Commissioner, Lord Alfred Milner. Salisbury and his colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain wanted to compel the Boers of the Transvaal to submit to British authority but without a war. They both probably thought that pressure against the Boer regime would result in the Boers acceding to Salisbury's demands. Milner though was determined that British authority in South Africa could only be established with the destruction of the Boer power and this could only come about with war. When the Bloemfontein Conference opened in June 1899 to consider the Boer demands, Milner made sure that the Conference would end without any resolution and with the conference failing war would be the result. The man on the spot in Victoria's colonies was often the person who dictated British course of action.

Most governors were men of integrity who wanted to see what they regarded as the ideals of the British Empire - freedom, justice and liberty for all men equally - applied to settlers and natives alike. Often they were righteous men imbued with a Christian mission or like William des Voeux, concerned to do what he considered right and treat all men, Europeans and natives, the same. As a magistrate in British Guyana he was not afraid to take on the planters who mal-treated their labourers and then when governor of St Lucia was quite prepared to sack the most powerful men on the island to rid the government of corruption. Whilst governor of St Lucia, he had to rid the island of inefficient government but he found time to write a huge report of 10,000 words on his time in British Guyana outlining how the plantation workers were being treated. As a result of the report, a  commission of enquiry was set up by Lord Glanville, the Minister for the colonies and as a result of that enquiry major changes were made through a series of new laws.

William des Voeux's  first appointment in the Colonial Service was as  magistrate in British Guiana. He had acquired the position by having relatives in high places and was then sent to one of the worst places in the Empire imaginable. Guiana was then a swampy colony famous for its sugar with vague borders with the countries on its boundaries. It was extremely hot and oppressive and full of snakes, yellow fever and gigantic mosquitoes. For a person who was quite sensitive and squemish this was not quite the ideal location for des Voeux who hated snakes. Moreover he hated injustice and hated seeing men or even animals in pain. He was though expected not to get on the wrong side of the men who ran the colony's economy - the planters - but the way they handled their workers madei t difficult for des Voeux to stay on their right side. Des Voeux was given the job of being magistrate in a far away part of the colony inhabited by Indians . He would literally hold court in the open air and listen to witnesses and try to understand what had happened before giving his judgements and if necessary his punishment, usually a small fine. He was later moved to the capital, Georgetown where his district included  a number of plantations that used indentured labourers from India. The Indian workers endured horrific conditions regardless of them having a contract. Des Voeux could not abide the beatings he knew many of the workers were getting and before long he was bringing estate managers to his court and fining them heavily. For this des Voeux was snubbed by the white population and attacked in the press. His life became miserable and lonely until using his connections back at home he asked to move and he was able to secure a move to St Lucia as the administrator. He would now be his own boss. He found the administration at St Lucia a shambles but with hard work and the sacking of inefficient administrators, he brought reform and justice to the island. He did this at a cost to his own happiness for he had learnt from his time in Guinea to stand aloof from the European population and not to grant favour. During his time on St Lucia des Voeux produced a report into the abuses he had witnessed in Guinea and sent it to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Glanville, who commissioned an enquiry which endorsed what des Voeux had said and as a result  new laws were enacted in the colony, there was greater scrutiny of the work of the magistrates and doctors became civil servants.

Once appointed a governor was responsible for appointing his officials,  law and order,  revenue and expenditure of the colony. The governor was also expected to be a leading member of colonial society and to set an example for the rest of the settler population. The governor was expected to know his territory and tour his colony. For colonies like the Australian colonies this could involve months away from his home and experiencing  primitive conditions and health threatening climate and tropical diseases. The governor attended all kinds of social functions - fetes and the opening of new buildings -and  conferred honours. He maintained communications with the Secretary of State and if there was a cable this could mean implementing frequent orders from an efficient Secretary of State. Above all the governor was responsible for deciding on the level of participation in the affairs of the state by settlers and natives. He could prorogue legislative bodies and decide whether these would be legislative councils with appointed representatives or indeed elected legislative chambers.

In 1860 the British Empire was at the height of its power. Britain had fully industrialised and the Great Exhibition had demonstrated its wealth and that it was the workshop if the world without any rivals. Britain mined two thirds of the world's coal, generated a  third of the world's steam with factories producing a third of the world's output in manufactured goods. Britain had adopted free trade and did not need its colonies as long as it maintained its industrial advantage. British settlers in the colonies tried to maintain their allegiance to the mother country and took with them the same old class hierarchy and customs as back home. The architecture of their homes was similar as were their clubs and eating habits.

By the middle of the century, the consensus in the Colonial Office was that colonies, once they had reached maturity, should be granted their own self-government. In all of the white settler colonies self rule was granted as soon as possible for fear of a American style revolution. This was prompted by events in Lower and Upper Canada in 1837 when there were uprisings against not being able to have a say in the way they were being ruled. The French speakers in Lower Canada, isolated by religion, language and race from the English were also economically poor and resented the rule of the British. French republicanism stirred many to revolt whilst in the more prosperous Upper Canada, made up of mainly loyalists whose ancestors had fled the American Revolution, wanted more representation in the framing of laws which affected them. They like other Canadian provinces had an elected chamber but it only had advisory powers. They were ruled over by an appointee of the monarch.

The uprisings failed but as a result the government appointed Lord Durham, as Governor General of both upper and Lower Canada. Durham did not stay long time enough for him to compile a report that became the blueprint for representative government in the Empire. Durham achieved what seemed to be the contradiction of strengthening the link between the colony and yet granting a measure of self rule. Durham advocated joining together Upper and Lower Canada and then having state aided immigration with the building of inter province railways to link the different parts of  the whole more closely together and then granting self government. Most of the Canadian colonies received self government in the 1850s with the federation of Canada being formed in 1867.

By the end of the century the white settler colonies had a degree of self rule and in the case of Australia on the verge of becoming a federal state. Within eleven years and following the Boer War, the separate colonies of South Africa had joined with the Boer republics to form the Union of South Africa, another federal dominion with self government. The British public thought of the empire as just comprising the white settler dominions as trade between them and Britain was far greater than between the crown colonies.

 The Colonial Office had a new home, built in 1875 in a corner of the  Foreign and India house on Whitehall, . By this time it had much more control of what was happening in the colonies with the growth of the telegraph network. With  the extension of the empire in the 1890s and with Joseph Chamberlain in charge the administration of the empire was made more efficient. The age of the independent governor was over and henceforth he became a civil servant working to the dictates of the masters in Whitehall.



The 18th century British Empire had been acquired for  commercial reasons by private enterprise but at a time when it was believed that a country's sources of raw materials and commodities as well as markets should be controlled. The prevailing economic theory was Mercantilism, which taught that countries could only increase their wealth at the expense of other countries. it became the role of government to protect what private interests had obtained and the government did this by developing the Royal Navy and passing a series of Navigation Acts to control trade. The job of administering the colonies the government acquired was given to men appointed by the government.


How was the British Empire run?

Joseph Chamberlain

Canada before federation in 1867

The Great Exhibition 1851

Government House, St Kitts

William des Voeux

Islandlwana, where the Zulus forces defeated Chelmsford.

Bartle Frere

The Colonial Office  in Whitehall

Various governors of the British Empire