The British Empire

Salisbury’s Imperial Policy

Part 2

With the French seeking to establish an empire from the Niger to the Nile and German soldiers of fortune operating in east Africa  independently of the German government, and King Leopold of Belgium seeking to create a huge colony in the Congo region, Salisbury found it difficult to achieve his objectives especially as the British taxpayer did not want to foot the bill. However through a policy of allowing the work of conquest and commerce to be conducted by independent capitalists, and then using diplomacy to remove the military obstacles put in their way by foreign powers Salisbury achieved a great deal.

Private companies developed the empire

The Prime Minister used the idea of the private chartered company which had been used to run India, to achieve his objectives in Africa. In July 1886 the Royal Niger Company had been granted a charter by the Gladstone government to control trade in the Niger region and then in 1888 Salisbury granted a charter to Mackinnon's Imperial East African Company to operate in the area between the coast and Lake Victoria.

The Niger Company was in constant conflict with French traders and although Salisbury was able to sign an agreement with the French in 1890 recognising north Africa as an area of French influence, it took until 1898 before he was able to sign an agreement with the French to end the conflict over the Niger. He was more successful though in dealing with German ambitions in east Africa. The two countries in 1890 signed an agreement by which in return for Heligoland, Britain was given Zanzibar, Uganda and Witu.

Cecil Rhodes expanded the empire in southern Africa

Perhaps Salisbury's greatest use of the chartered private company was when he granted a charter to Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company in October 1889. Rhodes and his associates controlled £13 million in assets and had supporters in society, the City and in Parliament and it made economic sense to allow Rhodes to extend British influence north from the Cape into Matabeleland, Mashonaland and beyond. Without Rhodes' help the area would possibly pass into the hands of the Boers, Germans or the Portuguese. Rhodes' money was also used to fund Harry Johnstone's venture to establish British influence in Nyasaland which he did by persuading local chiefs to accept presents and sign blank treaty forms. Using men like Rhodes, Mackinnon and Goldie of the Royal Niger Company the British Empire acquired two million extra square miles of territory at little cost to the taxpayer.

When Salisbury returned to office in 1895, he was not to be as effective as before. His health was failing and his wife was dying from cancer. Moreover he had in the Colonial Office Joseph Chamberlain one of the most charismatic politicians of the day. Chamberlain was to use the Colonial Office to further his ambitions of creating a stronger Empire bound in a federation. The final scramble for Africa would take place in this Salisbury's third administration but he was not controlling events as much as he had formerly done.

Conflict with France

Conflict continued with France over its attempts to create an empire from the Niger to the Nile and Salisbury contemplated war to resolve the disputes. When in 1896 Italy, an ally, was defeated by the Mahdists in Ethiopia, Salisbury ordered (in 1898)Kitchener with his Egyptian army to move south from Egypt into the Sudan. On 2 September 1898 50,000 spearmen, swordsmen and riflemen of the Khalifa's army faced 25,000 Egyptian and British soldiers.  The ensuing battle was the most unequal in history as smokeless Lee-Metfords and Maxim guns tore into the advancing Mahdists leaving 10,800 bodies scattered in the desert and 16,000 wounded.

An incident at Fashoda

Following his victory Kitchener was ordered to proceed up the White Nile with a small force to repudiate all foreign claims. He was to come face to face with a French expedition led by Captain Marchand and it was here that Anglo-French rivalry would reach its conclusion. The matter was referred to the respective governments. Salisbury met with  the French ambassador and began to put pressure on the French. The Reserve Fleet was manned and war orders drafted for the Home and Mediterranean Fleets. Amid riots in France during the Dreyfus Affair the French government, realising the British  were intent on war and that Salisbury meant business had to climb down. Salisbury had used the threat of war as a last resort and gained an important diplomatic victory.

In 1899 the threat of war was again used by Salisbury to achieve Britain's objectives in South Africa, the creation of a British dominated area through persuading the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State to join a federation of white territories. In this situation Salisbury was bullied by Chamberlain against his better judgement to believe the Transvaal President, Kruger, would agree to the demands of the British government. Kruger though was not to be bullied.

Kruger prepares for war

Ever since the failed Jameson Raid of December 1895, the Kruger government had prepared for war believing that Britain was intent on destroying the Transvaal. When in March 1899 the ' uitlanders' in the Transvaal ( the mainly British foreign mine workers) appealed to Victoria to support their claim for better political rights, Chamberlain used their claims as a way of putting pressure on Kruger. In September 1899 the pressure increased with the Cabinet sending 10,000 troops to Natal. Salisbury believed in private that Kruger would not surrender to the British but Salisbury knew that Britain could not flinch from war - that would mean giving up any pretensions to dominate South Africa. He realised too late the hold that Milner, High Commissioner in South Africa,  and Chamberlain held over public opinion and when Kruger issued an ultimatum to Britain in October 1899 that was all those clamouring for war needed to justify sending additional troops to destroy the Boers.

Britain's preoccupation with the Boer War weakened Salisbury's hand in the China crisis which broke out in 1900. He was losing his grip on foreign policy and the Cabinet had to exert considerable pressure on Salisbury to get him to appreciate the seriousness of the crisis. Eventually he agreed to send British reinforcements to China and called upon the USA and Japan to provide troops.

Black week for the British Empire

The events in South Africa, particularly the three defeats in a week in December 1899, called into question the ability of the army to defend Britain in a European War and led to demands for Britain to abandon her policy of not entering into any entangling alliances. The Boer War also showed up the noble motives for empire - being about the civilising of nations - to be a sham. The nation began to fall out of love with the notion of empire and with the election of the Liberal government in 1906, the aggressive nationalism that was a feature of the New Imperialism became a thing of the past.


Salisbury left office in July 1902 following the conclusion of a treaty with the Boers. Office  had become distasteful to him and the world of a popular press, the telegraph and a popular franchise was a world he did not understand. He did though expand the British Empire and was instrumental in establishing a line of British influence stretching from the Nile Delta to Cape Town. He had done this at a minimal cost to the taxpayer and had only taken the country to war in 1899 after he had lost control of the Cabinet. He had done everything he could to maintain the strength of the British Empire and maintain British dominance of the African continent. Whether control of the whole continent was necessary to defend British interests is questionable but whether he liked it or not he had to be aware of the public mood and the wishes of  politicians and writers who wanted a stronger Empire than he did.

George Goldie of the Royal Niger Company

Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, diamond and gold magnate, and founder of the British South Africa Company

The Battle of Omdurman, 1898, where Kitchener’s army used all the weapons of modern warfare to destroy the mahdist forces and thereby avenge Gordon’s death.

Paul Kruger, the President of the Transvaal who refused to be bullied by Chamberlain over the matter of the ‘uitlanders’.

Soldiers of the Highland regiments marching to defeat at Magersfontein, December 1899

Melrose House, Vereeniging, where the treaty ending the Boer War was signed in May 1902.