What was the role of Sport in the British Empire? - British Empire 1815-1914

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The first international team to play in England, the Aborigine cricket team of 1868

What was the Role of Sport in the British Empire?

Sport was used to transmit values to local populations
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.
'Mission to Civilise' justified the expansion of the empire
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 - to justify the conquest and suppression of  undeveloped countries in Asia and Africa. The British now talked about a ‘Mission to Civilise’ as justifying imperial expansion although acquiring colonies for strategic and trading reasons remained as important as ever. 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 for those working in the far flung parts of the Empire. Self control, good health, fitness, ability to work in a team and puttking the team before yourself, group cooperation and solidarity were the characteristics that the public schools sought to develop.
Thomas Arnold of Rugby began a revolution in education
Although Arnold at Rugby had initiated the reforms needed to improve the quality of education provided by public schools, it was headmasters like Weldon 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.

Thomas Arnold of Rugby School
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, self-control and fitness as well as initiative and personality.

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 was seen as a way of developing social cohesion
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 ingratiating  himself in South Africa colonial society. Born in 1857 as the son of a railwaymen, he emigrated to South Africa in 1877. His  business flair 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 African 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 this could not prevent his being embroiled in a scandal which led to Rhodes resigning as Prime Minister. Cricket had been the vehicle for his rise in South Africa society. It was also the means by which the likes of immigrants like Logan could mix with his social betters and gain prestige.
Throughout the colonies, sport was deemed necessary to develop imperial values  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 the different elements 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.
James Logan
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 could bring together administrators, settlers and the local population
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 1,000 civil servants governed a population of over 280 million but these 1,000 civil servants responsible for running the Raj could not have done so without the co-operation of millions of Indians who filled the ranks of the army, the bureaucracy and the police. In the countryside where most Indians lived without ever setting eyes on an Englishman, the administration was run by village headmen and functionaries who kept the fiscal, judicial and transport systems ticking over. It was important to make the Indian governing elite feel part of the administration and on good terms with the British. The Indian Uprising of 1857 had shown how powerless the British were if the Indian people withdrew their consent. Sport came to seen as a way of bringing the British and local elites together and enabling a limited amount of assimilation to take place. Sport also helped to foster loyalty to the imperial government.
Rajkumar School, where Ranjitsinhji received his education
One of Rajkumer College’s famous sons was Ranjitsinhji who represented Sussex and England from 1895-1904 and who became the Maharajah Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. His education by the British at Rajkumer and Cambridge left him with a commitment to the British Raj and a love of cricket.

Schools like Rajkumar College and Mayo College prepared future local princes for government
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 Rajkumar College and Mayo College in India came to be seen as crucial to the development of local princes who supported the Raj.

Ranjitsinhji playing for Sussex
Ranjitsinhji as the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar
In the difficult years after WW1 he supported a federal system for India with the local princes like himself having local powers. Elsewhere in the Empire similar schools to Rajkumar College were founded. In East Africa Bishop Tucker founded Budo College in Uganda to teach discipline in work and games in a boarding school environment, and Frederick Lugard in Nigeria proposed to educate the sons of local chieftains so that boys could acquire Anglo-Saxon values.

Cricket could be played in all the colonies unlike football
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 although 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 it ultimately  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.

Peter Crowhurst, updated January  2020

Further reading:
Sport and the British by Richard Holt, 1989
British Sport, A Social History by Dennis Brailsford, 1992
The Games Ethic and Imperialism by J.A.Mangan, 1986
Empire, War and Cricket by Dean Allen, 2015
Batting for the Empire by Mario Rodriques, 2003 (A Political Biography of Ranjitsinhji)
Sport and the English Middle Classes, 1870-1914 by John Lowerson, 1993

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