The British Empire

Was the use of violence an essential part of British rule? Part 2

Canadian uprisings

Victoria came to the throne at the same time as there were two separate uprisings in Canada. There existed resentment at the governments policy of allocating land to local elites to maintain the power of the Anglican church, especially in Lower Canada which was French speaking and resented the power in Parliament of the English speaking minority. The uprising in Upper Canada (Ontario) petered out quickly but a force of 1,000 soldiers  was needed to quell the uprising in Lower Canada. At the time of federation in 1867 there was resistance to the extension of British control into Manitoba and a 1,000 man force under Wolseley made its way from Lake Ontario to the site of a independent republic established by Louis Riel in 1869. Wolseley put down this revolt bloodlessly but again in 1885 Riel established another republic in northern Saskatchewan. This time twelve mounted police were killed and a force of 8,000 was required to  capture Riel who was later hanged.


In New Zealand the government had signed the treaty of Waitangi with a number of Maori chiefs but not all and resistance against the growing numbers of settlers led to a series of wars that went on until the 1860s. The selling of musket to the Maoris also encouraged wars between those Maoris who had sold land to the white settlers and those that wanted to stem the flow of white settlers.

Indian rebellions

The British may have established their nominal control over the whole of present day India and Pakistan by 1850 but there were continual uprisings against the nature of British rule, particularly the attempts of successive Governor generals to reform Indian religion and customs including the caste system. Between 1836 and 1919 the impoverished farmers of south east India known as the Moplahs rose on more than thirty occasions, mostly out of frustration against local rule. The major rebellion of the Empire and which had a huge impact on attitudes towards empire and its peoples was the Indian rebellion of 1857.  The spark for this may have been the rumours about having to use a new rifle which would have broken the caste of those sepoy s who fired the gun but the wide spread grievances in India at the time at how the British were ruling the country meant it was not just 40,000 sepoys of the Bengal army who rose u against the British. The British lost just 2,600 men in battle but they were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indians as they wreaked their revenge in the years that followed. There were frequent public hangings of rebels to demonstrate what happened to those who rebelled.

Wars with the Xhosa

There was often resistance to British rule when treaties had been signed or land claimed but without the agreement of all tribes. In South African after the British annexed the Cape in 1806, they established the border of the Cape Colony at the River Kei which lay in the land of the Xhosa who had no intention of giving up their land peacefully to the British. Between 1811 and 1853 there were five wars. One official declared that the elimination of the Xhosa was needed as the only outcome of the contest for land.

First Boer War

The Boers had left the Cape Colony to avoid British rule but having established their own republic of the Transvaal, the British annexed the republic in 1877 at a time when the Boers were threatened by the Zulu nation. Once the British had defeated the Zulus in 1879, the Boers had nothing to fear from them and so in 1880 rose up against the British who occupied their territory. The Boers beat a British army at Majuba Hill in 1881  in the First Boer War to re-establish their independence which lasted until their defeat at the hands of the British in 1902.

Everyday violence

As well as the violence of war and resistance there existed always in the empire the threat of everyday violence being used if natives infringed codes of behaviour and laws introduced by the British. These laws were part of a judicial system that usually favoured the white elite and often justified the takeover of territory.  Natives could be denied justice as in Kenya where only white Europeans were allowed trial by jury whilst corporal punishment, whipping and flogging was reserved for blacks. The use of colonial police and military patrols made the threat of violence very real and public hangings bought home what happened if one broke British law.

The last resort of the government in the face of local resistance was the use of the army. The British army was a colonial army and existed mainly to control the colonies however its small size meant that it could only be used in rare occasions. In the last quarter of the c19th the government began to reduce the garrisons abroad to save money and to ensure that the home country was adequately defended but at the time of the Zulu  campaign there were still just fifty nine battalions at home to the eighty two abroad, making a total of about 130,000 men. Where possible local militia or native forces were used to quell rebellions but were  not always up to the job.  In the months leading up to the Second Boer War in 1899 the War Minister continually refused the Commander-in-Chief's (Wolseley) requests for reinforcements. Had they been available when Wolseley wanted them it is unlikely the war would have gone on as long as it did. It might not even have begun.


The use of violence was therefore very much a part of the British empire. It was used to conquer countries or force rulers to sign away their land and if there was a subsequent rebellion, the British could point to the treaty signed to justify their response. The resources available meant that the British had to do what they could to avoid conflict and so where it was possible, in the white settler colonies, they introduced self government as soon as possible. Elsewhere the body and the mind were disciplined to accept the changes that the British brought. Those who did rebel were portrayed as ungrateful and criminals and not deserving of British justice.

The Red River campaign, 1869

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi

The Battle of Majuba Hill, 1881, led to the British retreat from the Transvaal

General Garnet Wolseley, the archetypal Victorian colonial soldier

Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 British reprisals were especially severe with large numbers of Indians hanged.