Captain Cook claims Australia, 11th June 1770
The Battle of Isandlwana
The Crystal Palace exhibition 1851
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi
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 -
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 -
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 -
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 -
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-
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?
Canada before federation in 1867
The Great Exhibition 1851
Government House, St Kitts
William des Voeux
Islandlwana, where the Zulus forces defeated Chelmsford.
The Colonial Office in Whitehall
Various governors of the British Empire