The British Empire

How have Historians’ views of the theories of empire evolved?

Three phases of Empire

There have been three broad phases of the British Empire. Firstly the empire which began with the settlement in Virginia in 1606 established to provide the raw materials and luxury goods for the home population. This phase lasted until the Napoleonic Wars by which time the American colonies had been lost to the Empire a new empire was developing in the east.  The second phase of empire lasted from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the Great War and saw a huge extension of the territories of empire. The third phase was from the Great War until de-colonisation in the 1960s and was characterised by the move towards a Commonwealth of independent nations.


When James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company in April 1606, it was in the expectation that the colony would soon be able to provide Britain with those raw materials that she relied on from other countries. The settlers who sailed into Chesapeake Bay  in 1607 and founded Jamestown hoped to find a climate that was temperature enough not just to provide the timber to build ships in the dockyards of Britain but to provide the mother country with wines and fruits.


In these early times of the British Empire, the prevailing economic orthodoxy was Mercantilism - the idea that world trade was limited and your share of world trade determined a nation's power. If you increased your share of world trade it would be at the expense of someone else. Countries did all they could to give themselves as many advantages as they could. Colonies were important as they could provide a country with raw materials and a market for their own goods, but it was essential to ensure that your colonies only traded with the mother country. To achieve this countries passed all kinds of laws to prevent other countries from participating in the trade from your colonies.

The Role of the Navy

Much was  done to assert Britain's dominance over colonial commerce . The navy was expanded and the colonies had to conduct their trade in British owned ships. Non-British ships were banned from carrying any goods between Britain and the colonies, or between colonies. To police this system the Royal Navy was given the role to support British trade and the vessels which conducted that trade and was therefore an instrument of colonial and commercial policy. With the Royal Navy getting ever larger, a British merchant abroad was never far away from the military support of the Royal Navy. By 1679 the Navy had 86 ships and within ten years had doubled that number.

Attacks on Mercantilism

In the period after the Napoleonic wars, there was a growing consensus that the prevailing economic orthodoxy of mercantilism was out of date and holding back industrial development and limiting Britain's ability to sell abroad. In the years after 1815 there was growing pressure on Parliament to abandon the laws enforcing mercantilism and free up trade. The argument was that if duties on imported goods were abolished raw materials would be cheaper and so the exports of manufactured goods would be cheaper. this in turn would encourage other countries to buy more from Britain. The Anti-Corn Law League argued for the abolishment of the Corn Laws which protected landed interests and domestic corn. They believed that with the importation of cheaper grain from America and Europe the price of food would fall. With the support of  the Anti-Corn Law League, economic theorists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and financiers and bankers in the City of London, government policy began to change.

Huskisson lowers duties

In the 1820s, William Huskisson at the Board of Trade allowed foreign countries to trade with colonies, then lowered duties on a number of imports and also relaxed shipping regulations to allow foreign ships into Britain's and the colonies' ports. In the 1830s deregulation continued under the Whig government and in the 1840s the Conservative government of Peel reduced import duties on a wide range of products and then following the famine in Ireland repealed the corn laws. In 1849 the Navigation Acts were repealed and in the 1850s Gladstone removed the remaining tariffs on imported goods.

Britain dominant

With trade being freed up by the deregulation of duties  and with Britain having a commanding lead in the manufacture of factory made goods, Britain's industrialists sought new markets and expanded production. In the 45 years following the end of the Napoleonic Wars Britain was responsible for 60% of the world's trade with Britain producing 50% of the world's trade in coal, cotton and iron. Despite the repeal of the Navigation Acts, a third of the world's trade was carried in British ships. Much of this increase in trade for Britain was with the USA and Europe which accounted for over 60% of the £50 million earnt in 1827. The pattern of trade for Britain continued for much of the century with new markets being found not in the British Empire but in Latin and South America, the Middle East and China. In 1867 when exports from Britain amounted to £181 million, exports to non-Empire territories amounted to £131 million.

Expansion of the Empire

This period of economic expansion coincided with a period of imperial expansion as the empire increased form just over 2 million square miles in 1837 to over 12 million square miles in 1901. The connection between the economic expansion and the expansion of the empire has been much debated by historians. At the centre of debate has been the role of money and to what extent has money been the motivating force behind the expansion of empire .

Hobson’s new theory

In his seminal study of 1902, J.A.Hobson claimed that the period after 1870 was different to the period before it and was characterised by the British government acting to support the interests of finance capitalists. Hobson had been sent to South Africa during the Boer War and what he saw made a huge impression. He concluded that the war had happened due to the influence of capitalist mine owners  like Cecil Rhodes who  had used their influence in London to persuade the British government to wage war against a Boer government that was standing in the way of industrial expansion. Governments were therefore the puppets of financiers.


Lenin's interpretation of the reasons for empire were not too dissimilar to Hobson's.  He believed that in the search for economic  expansion, empires were established alongside a protective economy with tariffs established to protect national trade. Again he characterised governments as being the puppets of capitalism.

Robinson and Gallagher

Robinson and Gallagher, writing in the 1950s, argued that the British government did not want formal direct control of territories which could be expensive in terms of the  manpower needed to maintain and defend ones interests and in the taxation that would have to be levied at home. They maintained that the government preferred to encourage less formal arrangements, either through private chartered companies like the Imperial East Africa Company or through trade without the formal control that a colony entailed. Informal control would be extended through encouraging  free trade and if necessary supported by diplomacy, coercion and gunboats. Formal empire would only be established when informal arrangements broke down. Gallagher and Robinson gave the invasion and annexation of Egypt as an example. The government only sent in General Wolseley with an imperial army only when there arose the possibility of a complete breakdown in law and order in Egypt which threatened to affect British trade through the Suez Canal. Robinson and Gallagher maintained that the empire was like  an iceberg with formal empire above the water and the greater expanse of informal empire being below the water.

Informal Empire

A major criticism of the theory of informal though is that most of British trade was not with the Empire but with other countries. Although Britain in 1900 was dependant on trade for 75% of her cereals and 40% of her meat, her major suppliers were USA, France, India, Germany, Holland and Australia. Apart from India and the settler colonies the Empire had little economic significance. Informal empire suggests an amount of control but there was no influence or control over most of these trading partners.

Cain and Hopkins

In 1987 a major publication by Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins argued that finance and capital were the motivating forces for empire. They argued that there existed in London 'gentlemanly capitalist elites' who had close ties with the aristocratic elites in government and Whitehall.

John Darwin

John  Darwin in a recent book, 'Unfinished Empire' has argued that no official mind existed in London. There was a recognition for Darwin that the London government wanted the empire to be more dynamic and that might mean more productive and self sufficient, and there was an acceptance that this  should be achieved through free trade and capitalism but imposing western ideas of property rights, enforcing a free market in land and giving a free rein to settlers to create a modern economy all came with a certain risk. It was often up to the local official  to decide whether local elites would accept change or whether there would be a reaction which might require enforcement which central government was always loath to provide.

Decisions made by men on the spot

Many of the annexations of the Victorian period were made by the men on the spot, often without any government prior approval. Sind, Punjab, Zululand were all annexed following decisions made by the men on the spot however none of the decisions were revoked by London. Empire was not just about economics but it was also about prestige and status. In 1890 the American historian Mahon wrote a book about the importance of empire to power, and how the great empires in recent history had all been maritime powers. The lesson was not lost on European countries and the USA keen to assert themselves on the world stage.

The Slave plantations were at the heart of the Mercantilism of the c18th

Robert Peel

William Huskisson

JA Hobson

General Wolseley

General Napier brought about the annexation of Sind.

What was the Great Game?

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