What was the importance of Sport to the Development of the British Empire?
In the last quarter of the c19th sport came to play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of the British Empire, especially in the transmission of its values at a time when it was claimed that the Empire had a moral dimension. Sport had always provided opportunities in the Empire for leisure, entertainment and training for soldiers but in the later part of the c19th it became the means by which values were transmitted to local populations, especially local elites, and the means by which the local settler population and the colonial government maintained their coherence and support of the Imperial project.
In the period after 1870 the nature of the British Empire changed. It took centre
stage in politics as politicians and the educated classes saw empire as the way of
meeting the threat posed by the emergence of European countries like France, Germany
and Italy. European empires expanded as countries saw empires as providing opportunities
to develop ailing economies. Britain claimed that the development of her colonies
had a moral dimension -
As the Empire expanded young men were needed to travel to isolated spots to live in extreme conditions exposed to a variety of diseases. This came at a time when British public schools were changing as a result of the reforms introduced by Arnold and the influence of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’. The public schools increasingly saw the development of character as a fundamental part of the education they provided. The character they sought to develop was what they believed was necessary of those working in the far flung parts of the Empire. Self control, good health, fitness, able to work in a team and put the team before yourself, group cooperation and solidarity were the characteristics that the public schools sought to develop.
Arnold at Rugby had initiated the reforms needed to improve the quality of education provided by public schools but it was headmasters like Welldon at Harrow, Rendall at Winchester, Hutchinson Almond at Loretto and Warre at Eton who subscribed to the Imperial project and devoted themselves and their schools to developing young men who would run the Empire as soldiers or administrators or even Governors. It was the public school that sustained the empire and promoted the empire as a means of Christianising the world. As CA Vieland said empire was simply ‘the best thing that ever happened to mankind.’ The public school became an agent of imperial propaganda committing their students to a life of imperial duty and a belief in the moral dimension of the British Empire.
The development of a muscular elite by the public schools was achieved through the
development of sport which was seen as developing not just fitness but also a feeling
of solidarity duty and service and this was seen as providing a vital component in
the creation of an enlarged British Empire. The British came to be seen as masterful,
resourceful and foreigners came to be jealous of how the British got things done.
The man who founded the modern Olympic Games, Baron De Coubertin saw games as providing
the qualities that enabled Britain to build the largest empire the world had ever
seen by the end of the c19th. The games which were played in the public schools were
team games like cricket and rugby. These games and the way in which they were played
developed the qualities deemed necessary to win and maintain the empire. Games enabled
players to demonstrate leadership, loyalty, group work and solidarity, sacrifice,
Although entrants to the Indian Civil Service had to take an examination which tested their academic abilities, other imperial services emphasised the importance of success in sport as a criteria for appointment. It became to be better to be good at sport than to be a good scholar and selection boards increasingly paid more attention to the athletic record of applicants and their school than their academic record.
Sport became not just a means of developing character and fitness but was always a source of entertainment and leisure for colonialist and soldiers alike. It was also a means of developing social cohesion among the social classes and providing opportunities of communication between classes and indeed between colonialists and native populations. Class was as important in the colonies as it was in Britain although the empire did provide opportunities for social mobility.
James Logan left Scotland for South Africa as a nineteen year old railway porter and saw cricket as the means of raining himself in South Africa colonial society. Born in 1857 as the son of a railwaymen, he immigrated to South Africa in 1877. His flair of business soon saw him establish catering establishments along the railway network in South Africa and as he became wealthier he entered politics to extend his influence, becoming a member of the legislative assembly in 1894. He used his money to found the town of Matjiesfontein and then saw the promotion of cricket in South Africa as a means of enhancing his reputation as well as a way of making himself more money.
It was during the period of Logan’s influence in South Africa society that cricket became a national institution and part of the training of an Englishman abroad. The destiny of cricket was linked to the destiny of Britain and its role in colonial society was important in maintaining and promoting English values. Cricket had become by the end of the century the dominant sport in Britain and in the Empire and James Logan recognised this. He realised that promoting cricket in South Africa would enable him to become socially more respected and he began to use his money to develop the game. He built a first class cricket ground in Matjiesfontein and as his reputation for a promoter for cricket developed became involved in bringing teams from England to South Africa. Logan hoped that his association with cricket would divert interest from his more dubious activities. He joined charitable boards along with James Sivewright and Cecil Rhodes but his could not prevent his being embroiled in a scandal which led to Rhodes resigning s Prime Minister. Cricket had been though the vehicle for his rise in South Africa society. It was a means by which the likes of immigrants like Logan could mix with his social betters and gain prestige.
Throughout the colonies sport was a necessity in that it maintained moral and provided a sense of shared roots and a sense of Britishness. For the colonial community living in harsh conditions far away from home, cricket matches provided opportunities for communities to come together and play out what it meant to be British. Cricket matches also provided opportunities for different parts or classes of colonial society to come together and demonstrate their commitment to the colonial enterprise.
Cricket was the most important game that was played around the empire and in Britain at the time. It captured the public imagination in Britain in a new age of improved communications but was also a game that could be played in most colonies unlike football which was not suited to the hot climates and hard grounds. Tennis was also a game played around the empire – it provided opportunities for social contact – and many imperial servants built tennis courts in the grounds of their houses or civil buildings. Horse racing was also popular as providing an opportunity for all classes to come together.
In India polo and pig sticking became popular amongst the officer class as was hunting. Games and sport was important for the military to develop fitness but also to fight boredom. Snooker also became popular among the officer class as providing entertainment on long winter evenings.
Sport was important to inculcate local populations with imperial values and to promote
greater social cohesion amongst settler populations and administrators but it came
to be seen as an important way of building bridges with local elites. The British
could never have governed the empire without the consent of the governed. In India
1000 civil servants governed a population of over 280 million but these 1000 civil
servants responsible for running the Raj could not have done so without the co-
When the British established schools abroad for the sons of local elites, the curriculum
always mirrored the curriculum of British public schools with sport playing an important
part in inculcating imperial values. Schools like Rajkumer College and Mayo College
in India came to be seen as crucial to the development of local princes who supported
the Raj. One of Rajkumer College’s famous sons was Ranjitsinhji who represented Sussex
and England from 1895-
Football was never the imperial game that cricket was. It was not played in the public schools where the future administrators of the Empire were educated and the climate was not conducive however rugby was taken up in the white dominions. Cricket could be played in all the colonies of the empire and indeed became the national game of many. Although cricket came to be seen as a way of transmitting imperial values ultimately it became in many colonies a means of developing and fostering a sense of nationhood and victories against England were seen as evidence of the gaining of maturity by colonies and the justification for being granted self government.
Missionaries in Nyasaland
J Welldon, Headmaster of Harrow
A cricket match brings the community together on Corfu
James Logan of Matjiesfontein
Cricket became popular amongst Indian people
The British in India used sports such as tennis and cricket as social opportunities to develop social coherence
Ranjitsinhji, who represented Sussex and England, was one of the sport’s greatest batsmen