The British Empire

Fifteen wars between 1857 and 1899

In his excellent book on Empire, 'Unfinished Empire' John Darwin begins his chapter on 'Resorting to War by referring to a War Office report of 1902 which stated that there had been fifteen wars between 1857 and 1899. This  tally only included the conflicts which involved more than 3,000 British troops. It did not include all the minor conflicts and skirmishes. It did not include the Boer War which involved the use of up to 450,000 troops from the empire. The British Empire in the Victorian era claimed that it was an empire of liberty that brought civilisation to native peoples. The empire did bring benefits for some but the changes imposed on the many often brought resistance.

Conquest, resistance and indirect violence

The empire increased in size from over 2 million square miles to some 12 million square miles  during the Victorian era and this was done largely through the use of war or the threat of war. After territories had been conquered through the use of violence then the violence did not stop there for often there was resistance which had to be put down, often the result of rulers realising what were the realities of signing treaties with the British. Even after resistance had been put down and a native people had been taught that there was little hope of success in resisting, the violence continued either directly or indirectly.

War was expensive

It is the case that all empires are brought about and sustained by the use and threat of violence, and dealing with resistance is expensive. In an age of free trade and few direct taxes, war was an expensive option for the British government. To keep the cost of war down the British resorted to a number of policies. Where possible they tried to appease local settlers by granting self rule but where this was not desirable and there was more likelihood of resistance they used local militia or local natives in the army. For much of the c19th communications between the Colonial Office or the War Office and far away colonies was difficult so that decisions were often made by the men on the ground - the local Governor appointed by the Colonial Office or the Commander-in-Chief of the local forces. Consequently many of the wars of conquest were the result of decisions made by the men on the spot with London being told afterwards and having to defend a decision made for them. Sometimes there would be fierce opposition within Parliament as a result of decisions taken by far away officials as when Parliament condemned the attack on Canton in 1857 and Cobden's motion of censure was won but usually decisions made by Governors and generals were accepted.

Conquest of Sind and Punjab ordered by men on the spot

It was during the early part of Victoria's reign that India was expanded and came under the total control of the British. In 1843 the Governor General Ellenborough sent General Napier to Sind, a neighbouring territory to negotiate an agreement to allow a  British presence to remain. Napier was a bible thumping evangelist who wanted to rid Sind of its rulers. He managed to negotiate a treaty which included the handover of land but was not satisfied and invaded Sind with a force of 3,000 men won a one sided contest. Napier imposed annexation on Sind. The action did not please Prime Minister Peel who survived a motion of censure but then dismissed the Governor General.

Two years later, in 1845, the new Governor General Hardinge declared war on the Punjab following a period of unrest in the territory. There followed  two wars with the Sikhs of the Punjab in which there was heavy fighting. The Sikhs had 50,000 well trained men whilst the British forces  were scattered. The First War lasted over a year and resulted in a British victory and a strict peace imposed on the Sikhs involving the loss of land and the reduction of their army. The second war was the result of unrest amongst unemployed solders and led to the annexation of the Punjab, something which the new Governor Dalhousie had wanted. A huge amount of territory had therefore been acquired without the direct orders from London.

Hong Kong and Kowloon

The government may not have had much to do with the expansion of India, but Palmerston as Foreign Secretary did authorise the expedition which led to the annexation of Hong Kong. In 1839 the Chinese government wanted to reduce the impact of the opium trade on its people so expelled the British community in Canton, the main trading port for opium and then seized 20,000 cases of illegal British opium. A fleet of gunboats and 3,000 troops was used to take Hong Kong and then shell the cities of Chungking and Shanghai causing the Chinese to agree to a treaty by which Canton and other ports were opened up as well as the acquisition of Hong Kong being confirmed. Within fifteen years the British were at war again with the Chinese when the Governor of Hong Kong, Bowring, authorised a force to shell Canton following the boarding of a British registered vessel, the 'Arrow. Canton was later occupied and looted. This war led to the Treaty of Tientsin which opened up China to missionaries and granted the transfer of Kowloon to Hong Kong.

Wolseley and the Ashante

The government would always act to protect a strategic interest that was threatened or to protect a trading interest and this was seen in several actions in Africa. In 1874 General Wolseley, arguably the best Victorian general, was to make his reputation with his destruction of Ashante, a kingdom in the interior of what is now Ghana. The Ashante were a sophisticated people with a capital at Kumasi that was well designed with avenues of trees and the provision of clean toilets and running water. they also had a powerful army that resented the presence of the British on the coast and their allies the Fante. In 1863 the Ashante invaded the lands of the Fante and so the government sent a regiment from the West Indies and 100 marines who fell sick. Wolseley was sent with a few dozen officers and he decided the situation required regular British troops. Wolseley got his troops and in a  carefully planned operation in the jungle with his men regularly taking quinine and lime juice and lighting fires to keep miasma at bay and with short rifles and special clothes for the jungle he finally captured and destroyed Kumasi. This was the first colonial war in Africa and saw the natives being portrayed as ignorant and backward - a portrayal that would continue and be used to justify violence against native communities.

Egypt and Sudan

The opening up of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought British interest in the region and a number of government interventions. In 1882 to ensure the continued use of the Suez Canal at a time of unrest inside Egypt, the Gladstone sent an army of 31,000 troops under Wolseley to bring down Urabi Pasha who himself had overthrown the previous pro-British ruler. Wolseley destroyed Pasha's army at Tel-el-Kebir and Egypt became a British protectorate. Britain now had a responsibility not just for Egypt but also for the Sudan which Egypt ruled. In 1885 British and Egyptian forces were forces out of Sudan by the Mahdi during which General Gordon was killed. In 1898 Kitchener was sent to Sudan to retake the territory and gain revenge for Gordon. Empire had now been armed with the Maxim gun and this was used with great effect. Kitcheners forces lost just 48 dead to the 10,000 that the Mahdist forces lost.  


The conquest of Zululand as another annexation promoted by the man on the spot, in this case Sir Bartle Frere, who had been sent to South Africa as High Commissioner and came to the conclusion that the power of the Zulus had to be destroyed. Against the explicit orders of his government, Frere made certain demands on the Zulus and when they refused to implement the demands which included breaking up their military system, waged war. Initially the invasion of Zululand in January 1879 went badly wrong with the defeat at Isandlwana. The gallant defence at Rorke's Drift provided some solace to Frere and his general Chelmsford before Cetewayo's impis were beaten by traditional tactics at eh Battle of Ulundi. Wolseley was then given the task of breaking up the Zulu kingdom which he did with Zululand becoming a British protectorate in 1887.

10,000 kingdoms become 40 states

In the period after 1880, Africa was to be divided between five European powers with Britain ending up ruling a third of the continent. 10,000 kingdoms became forty states, many of them British. The British land grab was a response to the new imperial ambitions of France and Germany at a time when Britain had lost its dominance of the world. The British conquests were achieved by resorting to the methods used in the c17th. Private chartered companies were set up and like the East India Company were given the powers to raise armies and make treaties with local rulers. These companies acquired land by negotiating treaties with local rulers and then sought settlers to buy land to farm or mine. With the aid of the maxim gun, any resistance to the companies'  militia could be easily overcome as when in  1893 Rhodes  invaded Matabeleland with a volunteer force  of 700 to confront Lobengula's force of 3.000. The Battle of Shangana River saw one of the first uses of the Maxim gun and the destruction of Lobengula's men who never got nearer than 100 yards. Men like Rhodes in South Africa, Goldie in Nigeria and Lugard in East Africa advanced the empire or dealt with local resistance with the aid of this new weapon. In this way Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia and Nigeria were formed.

The Boers

One invasion in which Rhodes is believed  to have played a part was the Jameson Raid which was designed to overthrow President Kruger of the Transvaal. The invasion in December 1895 was a failure with all the men being rounded up by Boer commandoes. The failure of this expedition worsened relations between the British government and the Transvaal and the worsening relations led to the Boer War of 1899. This war came about after the Boers sent an ultimatum to the British government but was a war not wanted by prime Minister Salisbury and his Colonial Secretary Chamberlain. They had been pushed into war by the actions of High Commissioner Milner in South Africa. the war lasted until 1902 an resulted in the British annexation of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

There were wars of conquest to expand the empire as described above but there was as much violence resulting from dealing with resistance to British rule. Throughout the empire in New Zealand, Australia, India, Africa and Canada there were uprisings that the British authorities had to deal with. Some of these wars were frontier wars to establish real authority that a treaty did not do as borders were vague or the signatories had not full authority to give away land. Some were the result of local rulers suddenly being confronted with the reality of a treaty by which they had unknowingly ceded sovereignty to the British. Some wars or uprisings were the result of settlers or local people not accepting the terms on which the colony was being ruled.

How important was violence to the  19th century British Empire?

Read part 2

The European division of Africa 1900

Lord Dalhousie

Hong Kong at the time of its acquisition by Britain 1842

Wolseley and the Ashanti

The battle of Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt, 1882

The Battle of Isandlwana, Zululand, 1879

Boer Commandos


The Maxim gun shown here in use by British soldiers in the Boer War was first used to devastating effect in 1893 when forces working for the British South Africa Company  defeated a force of over 5,000 Matabele warriors leaving up to 600 dead. The British lost two dead and six wounded. The Maxim gun was responsible for much of the British annexations in Africa in the last decade of the c19th.