What was the Legacy of Empire? - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content

What was the legacy of the British Empire?

A Huge Impact on the World
The British Empire has had a huge impact on the world in which we live. A brief look at an atlas from before WW1 will show over 100 colonies that were then part of the Empire but now are part of or wholly sovereign states. Within these states much remains of the commercial, industrial, political and cultural apparatus set up by the British. In many former colonial areas, political issues remain to be solved that had their genesis during the British era. Kwasi Kwarteng, a British MP and historian has recently written a book ‘Ghosts of Empire’ in which he focuses on a few of these areas (Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria and Hong Kong) and details the legacy of the British.

The legacy of the British has been varied and complex but in recent years much attention has been on making value judgements about whether the Empire was a good or bad thing. It would seem that as a nation we are more concerned about beating ourselves up and making the nation feel guilty than understanding how and why the British came to exist, and setting the growth of the British Empire into context. The British Empire was built on the use of and the continual threat of violence and there were appalling examples of the use of force. As well as the Slave Trade and Slavery, there was the Amritsar Massacre, the Jamaican Uprising, the Boer War concentration camps and the response to the Indian Rebellion. However, we must not just focus on these events but examine the Empire in all of its complexities.
Four in Ten view the Empire as a good thing
On the other hand, a number of recent polls have indicated that more than four in ten Britons view the British Empire as a good thing and colonialism as something that we can feel proud of. Only one in five in a YouGov poll sees the British Empire as a reason to feel regret. Such views most likely reflect differences between Labour and Conservative supporters, and the kind of education that was received. Anyone who was taught a version of Empire which focused on the glorious exploits of Clive, Gordon and Raffles and saw the Second World War as won by Britain fighting alone will have a different view to someone who was taught nothing of empire but the Slave Trade.
Warts and All are needed
What is needed is a school curriculum which teaches the British Empire, with a ‘warts and all’ approach. No student should leave school at the age 18 without having studied the British Empire  - how it came to be, how it operated, why it existed and including the role of violence, the impact on indigenous people and the legacy to the world. Piers Brendon has written how ‘The history of empires is the history of human misery’ but also how the British Empire was a liberal empire. Clearly there is a need to put the British Empire into context and compare it to other empires of the c19th and also the Roman and Greek empires.
The Teaching of the Empire should be Honest
The British Empire was complex and the teaching of it needs to reflect these complexities. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chanceller of the University of Buckingham, has made the point that the teaching of the Empire should be honest and not dominated by special interest groups. ‘History teaching should be honest or it is merely propaganda’..’The history of the British Empire was not all bad, and no all good. Understanding its subtlety and its importance to British and world history is essential for every student. Dr Andrea Major, associate professor in British colonial history, called for better teaching of the British Empire when she told the Telegraph, ‘There is a collective amnesia about the levels of violence, exploitation and racism involved n many aspects of imperialism,…. We need better education and more open debate on all aspects of British colonial history, warts and all  - not as an exercise in self-flagellation but as a means of better understanding the world around us and how we are perceived by others’. We need to ditch teaching about our perceived glorious past and face up to the darker side of our past, but not forgetting that the Empire had a huge impact on the world today and that it was not all bad – even if such legacies were not necessarily intended.
The Man on the Spot often determined what happened
Many of the former colonies of the Empire retain vestiges of the political systems set up by the British. The colonies were run in a variety of ways – some eventually as self-governing dominions (largely the white settler colonies), others by authoritarian governors but others with an element of local participation. Much depended on ‘The Man on the Spot’. Whoever was in control of a colony had to be  aware of the views of the local elites and govern through them. When there was opposition to British rule, and there was much opposition, there was always attempted suppression of that violence but with limited resources at their disposal, the British often had to make compromises in the form of allowing a certain amount of local participation. This might mean members of the local elite being used as advisers or becoming members of a chosen legislative council. Later that might mean participation of the people at large in elections to choose a legislative or executive council.

Britain also had a liberal Parliamentary constitution which was able to impose constraints on the actions of colonial authorities and residents, and Britain governed in a way that allowed for a degree of local self-government. The widening of the franchise in the c19th also resulted in enlightened MPs sitting in the House of Commons and with the widening of the franchise after 1832, politicians in Britain had to take into account the views of the electorate.
The South African Houses of Parliament
The Empire was an empire of Liberty.
The British believed their empire was a liberal empire. They saw it as a force for good, bringing development and civilisation, if even at times British forms of government and her preferred trading system had to be forced on indigenous populations. Free trade was seen as  morally good, and a form of trade that was linked to the spread of free speech, ideas and free movement.
The British Empire had developed through the efforts of private enterprise but when the privileges accorded the private company were abused parliament was ready to step in. In the 1770s, Parliamentary investigations into the East India Company (HEIC) conclude that a despotic form of government had been established by the nabobs and elite with the HEIC that went right to the heart of the administration in India. Huge amounts of money were being made by the Company’s servants, often through the extortion of local people. Eventually parliament passed the Regulating Act, to make clear the imperial government’s right to oversee the running of British held India. This was the first in a number of Acts that restricted the power of the HEIC which eventually in 1858 had all its power taken away and ceased to exist.

The influx of evangelical MPs from the 1790s also resulted in the abolition of  the Slave Trade and  Slavery in the Empire. Having abolished slavery the House of Commons set up a committee to oversee the treatment of indigenous people in the Crown colonies.

The American Revolution had taught the imperial government the dangers of not allowing a degree of self-government so when there were a series of uprisings in Canada in the 1830s, Lord Durham was sent out to report on the situation and produce a report with his recommendations.  The Durham Report of 1839 concluded that the rebellions were born out of political frustration and consequently self-government was accorded to Canada in a federal structure that was introduced in 1867. This became the model for the white settler dominions  although the Crown Colonies and India were not accorded the same democratic rights. In India the government did all it could to avoid giving away any kind of democratic but pressure on the local government did result in some political reforms, but only when the alternative was possible widespread rebellion. The policy of the British to ruling their territories was one that combined repression with compromise and the British constitution allowed for this.

This policy of repression and compromise meant that violence played an important role in the running of the empire and it has left a legacy of bitterness, anger and resentment towards the British. The British did not create colonies in areas where no-one lived. There were encounters with indigenous people wherever they went. The main motive for establishing a colony was to exploit the labour and raw materials of the lands the British  occupied. If that could be done through a treaty then there would be no need for a colony but if there was resistance to trading with the British, then land had to be occupied and local people subjected to  British rule. The encounters between the British and local people meant the end of local systems of law, the end of aspects of local culture that ran counter to British concepts of civilisation, and often the end of local systems of farming which were brought into the British global system of trade.

Free Trade was a legacy of the British Global system of Trade
The British believed that free trade was of benefit to all not just for the goods that could be acquired but also because the British linked free trade to freedom of thought and movement. Free trade was a moral concept and was part of the civilising mission. Where free trade was opposed the British justified the enforcement of the British trading system. The Opium Wars was a good example of this.
When Britain embraced free trade in the 1840s, it became a net importer of food. Britain has been reliant on food imports ever since and our agricultural sector is dependent upon government subsidies. The Abolition of the Corn Laws which was pushed through Parliament by Robert Peel, was the last barrier to free trade and reflected the victory in parliament of the industrial interests who with cheap food were able to pay lower wages.
A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League
From the 1840s, the working man had the alternative of the workhouse or migration to working for pitiful wages in the newly established factories. Since that time Britain has been a net importer of food but also reliant on Britain’s role as the world’s banker and provider of finance. Not since the 1840s has Britain had a positive Balance of Trade, a legacy of the adoption of free trade.
Investments abroad produced a positive Balance of Trade
Profits from the output of Britain’s factories were invested around the world and by 1914 the value of capital invested abroad was £3.8 billion. No other country has ever held such a large proportion of its assets overseas and much of this finance was invested not in the Empire but in non-imperial territories, particularly the USA, Brazil and Argentina. The amounts of money invested in the Americas, part of the so-called informal empire ensured that Britain retained a large amount of influence in these territories for many years and that large parts of the world came to accept free trade, a product of the many commercial treaties signed by British merchants. As a result of the huge amounts of money invested in developing countries, Britain drew more and more new countries into her global trading network. British funded cattle ranches in the USA, Uruguay and Argentina, railroads in the USA and India and cotton plantations in India were all part of this network.

Throughout this global empire, formal and informal, Britain set the standard for the international monetary system, which was the gold standard (which fixed the value of paper money in terms of gold and meant notes could be converted into gold). By 1908, virtually the whole world was on the gold standard. The money earnt through British investments abroad ensured that Britain had a positive Balance of Payments until after WW2 although the Balance of Trade remained in deficit.
Part of this global system of trade was the mass movement of labour. Whether it be forced labour provided by slaves (until it was banned in 1833) and indentured labour, or labour provided by mass migration, the effect of the creation of a global trade network was that over twenty million British migrants and millions more indentured workers, many from India, travelled around the world to build the railways, bridges or settle the land and farm it commercially. Of the twenty million British migrants who left British shores between 1815 and 1914, twelve million went to the USA: the others travelled to Canada, South Africa New Zealand and Australia seeking a life which the homeland could not provide. The Afro-Caribbean population in the West Indies and the Indian populations in South Africa, Fiji and formerly in East Africa, were all a legacy of the British labour policies.
Britain used Indian indentured servants around the world. These are the descendants of Indians who migrated to Fiji as indentured servants.
Migration was encouraged to reduce the possibility of domestic trouble
To encourage migration and thereby reduce the possibility of revolution, the government provided subsidies for pauper migration, followed by support from local authorities and benevolent landowners like the Earl of Egremont. The Poor Law Act of 1834 made possible help for migrants and soon private companies and charities began to be set up to support the migration of those affected by agricultural depression. In the late c19th the Salvation Army settled around 100,000 in Canada alone.
The result of this mass migration was to provide the labour needed for the development of trade but also to create a number of white settler dominions which retain strong links with Britain. How many British people still have familial links with people in Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand? Colonies were developed by the British to exploit the raw materials and labour they possessed. Plantations were developed and factories and mines built. To enable colonies to be part of the global trading system, railways and bridges were built as well as irrigation canals. They remained after the British left to be a useful asset just as the schools which were built to educate local elites to think and behave like the British. When one travels around India today and sees schoolchildren walking home in school uniform introduced by the British and carrying books full of English homework, it reminds us that even though the British failed, sometimes lamentably, to care for local people in times of famine, with millions dying as a result of British refusal to deviate from a policy on not interfering with the market, there was a legacy which current governments are able to benefit from.

Many of the decisions the British made about the government of their territories continue to create tension, arguments between nations, and sometimes war. Following Britain’s defeat of the Egyptian army in 1882, she became involved in not only Egypt but the whole of the Middle East.  Britain came to regard the area as vital to her national interest because of oil and the closeness of India. Having been given the responsibility of administering the mandated territories of Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq, Britain was instrumental in creating monarchies to rule the three territories that were pro-British but not capable of ruling the states which the British created for them to rule. The instability in the Middle East today is in part a legacy of Britain’s former role in the region.

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. 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. Cricket was the most popular sport played by both the British and local people, and although introduced throughout the Empire to foster shared values and a shared commitment to the Empire, the game became an important way of developing a national consciousness. From 1868, when an Australian team of aborigines toured England such competitions became the focus of national sentiment. In 1877 an English team visited Australia and so began one of the great  rivalries in sport. Cricket was the most popular sport played throughout the empire but rugby, tennis, and golf were also important to varying degrees. Sport has been a particular gift to the world by Britain and of course includes Association Football, now the most popular sport of all with a World cup for men and women played by countries from all over the world.
'The Innate sense of superiority of the British'
As well as the Empire having a huge impact on the colonies and dominions of empire, the mother country was changed by the very existence of the British Empire. In a lecture given in 2011, Professor Richard Evans of Gresham College, describes what he sees as ‘the innate sense of the superiority of the British over the inhabitants of other countries’. Evans writes how Punch regularly satirized the British traveller for his arrogance, his lack of awareness of foreign customs and his failure to master foreign languages. As Britain industrialised, as trade and British cities grew, British travellers thought they were stepping back in time when they went to Germany and Italy  which were seen as dirty, smelly and unhygienic.
The 1868 Aborigine Cricket team tour of England aroused curiosity but little overt racism but by 1900 racism was to be found throughout the British Empire.
Henry Mayhew, author of a classic book on the poor of London, found Germany extremely backward and a century behind Britain in the refinements of civilisation. At least Europe was Christian and if Europeans were backward, at least they would eventually develop. No such hope could be expected of the Chinese and Africans who were regarded as barbaric - a word often used to describe the peoples the British army came up against. Such attitudes existed in the c17th at a time when the idea of a universal humanity was accepted by most. However with the gap between the developed world and the undeveloped territories of the Empire growing bigger and bigger in the c19th, such views were challenged. The economic and military dominance that Britain enjoyed in the c19th, led to feelings that the British were superior, not just to European nations but to the peoples who inhabited the colonies of the Empire.

In the late Victorian era, attitudes towards native peoples changed and the writings of Knox and the interpretation given to Darwin’s books convinced many that native people were incapable of advancement. Races were increasingly ranked with the Victorians assigning rank on the basis of economic and social progress – a ladder of civilisation which led to a society based on the European model. Social Darwinist ideas on race struggle reinforced the views of those who were now turning to polygenesis as an explanation for race.

Such superior attitudes have persisted into the c20th and have been linked to the development of an island mentality and the view that Britain does not need allies, and particularly allies in Europe. Much of this has fed in to the Brexit debate as politicians continue to talk about Britain being able to exist alone. The notion that Britain ‘alone’ won the Second World War’ is a popular misconception which ignores the contribution of the millions of Indians, Russians, Australians, Canadians, Poles etc.

The First Curry House
Other more positive contributions from our imperial past have been  on– architecture, food, literature and the development of a more diversified population. When the nabobs returned from making their money working for the East India Company, much of their money was spent on creating marvellous country estates of which perhaps the most prominent is Sezincote, created by Samuel Cockerell the chief architecture for the East India Company. The creation of such oriental palaces created a fashion for Indian architecture and artefacts. The Royal Pavilion and Dome, Brighton, built for the Prince Regent both reflect the fashion for all things Indian. At about the same time as the Royal Pavilion was being redesigned by Nash, a certain Sake Mahomed, who had been a servant to an army surgeon in India, opened a coffee house near Portman Square in London serving Indian food. Mahomed had advertised his establishment in The Times hoping to attract the retired officials of the East India Company. Although Mahomed did not stay in the food business very long, his creation set a trend which has stayed with us and there is not a part of Britain today that does not have its Indian restaurant or take away.

The Empire also created amongst the British population a fashion for adventure stories and writings about the Empire. Kipling, Conan Doyle, Buchan, Somerset Maughan, Henty, Orwell, John Masters and EM Foster all wrote about the empire, informing us about the Empire in fiction or non-fiction. They have become part of a legacy in literature which has produced some of the finest works in the English language.
The Commonwealth
One positive legacy that deserves mention is the work of the Commonwealth. This intergovernmental organisation consisting of 54 member states, (all but two former members of the British Empire),  comes together to promote shared values such as the rule of law, individual liberty, free trade, human rights, democracy and world peace. States which do not subscribe to these values can be banished as has happened to South Africa and Fiji. The clearest manifestation of the organisation is the Commonwealth Games, but much good work is done to promote the above values.
In conclusion if one were to do a moral audit of the British Empire, it is more than likely that there would be a deficit. The British Empire existed to further the wealth and prosperity of Britain and this happened at the expense of those living in the colonies. The British worked with colonial elites to ensure peaceful government but what was done in the form of bridge building, provision of education, playing of sport, plantations of tea and coffee, and new irrigation systems rarely benefitted the indigenous people. The British used repression and the concessions of reforms to deal with unrest and dissatisfaction and the means to put down insurrection could be brutal.
Violence  or the threat of it was ever present in the Empire and where reforms happened as they did in the early years of the c20th in India, were as little as the British could get away with. Rarely was self-government mentioned as a serious promise except in the white settler dominions. The habitual use of violence created a legacy of bitterness yet surprisingly in many former British territories the British are remembered with some affection – a tribute to the propaganda of the British in making native peoples believe in the God given right of the British to rule.

The British Empire was not all good and not all bad, but what is now important is to encourage a greater understanding of the Empire and its legacy, especially its importance to British and world history. Without a better understanding of the British Empire, we can not hope to understand the world in which we live.

Peter Crowhurst, July 2019

Further reading:
·     The Undivided Past by David Cannadine, 2013
·     Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng, 2011
·     Empire by Niall Ferguson 2004
·     Curry by Lizzzie Collingham, 2005
·     Britain’s Empire by Richard Gott, 2011
·     The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon, 2007
Back to content