Not so much an Empire more a World System: The British Empire in Global Perspectives
There are currently 3 myths concerning European colonial empires
1) Empires are only a European phenomenon and the British Empire being even more unique phenomenon among European empires, with the British empire arriving late in history in comparison to other empires, for example the Mongol and Roman empires
2) Empires rely on violence and coercion. No empire would spread throughout the world, like the British Empire, relying solely on violence and coercion. but coming to a understanding with the local elites and authorities, who demanded in return, social benefits. The British empire only had an army of under 200, 000, which would not of been sufficient to enforce British rule on unwilling local people
3) The assumption that British colonial rule was dependent on British government approval and support. The British Empire was a ‘More or less’ empire. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the most important ‘parts’ or ‘influence’ in the world was South America, especially Argentina, which proved to be very profitable to British industry.
Many British colonies were ruled by British Viceroys, who often ignored British central government’s instructions, but the larger colonies, were often self-governing countries, but these countries where the majority of the population were descended from British and European immigrants. The British administrators were often reminded not to be too severe in their rule of the colonies, as a reminder of the consequences of 1776.
Many of the legal and political traditions were inherited from when medieval England ruled Scotland, Wales, Channel Islands and Anjevin France. The ruling English in Ireland, were warned not to become too native
Many of the European empires only held a foothold on the coasts of their overseas’ empires, as most of these countries, already had established armed forces and successful administrations
With the defeat of the French Napoleonic Empire, a new world opened up, with the British taking advantage of being the leading world dominant power. French overseas expansion were suspended, and the Spanish colonies in central and south America were seeking independence, with British support, who were looking for the opportunity to expand their trade within this continent.
London had now become the financial centre of Europe, replacing Amsterdam. Britain is now the vanguard of the new industrial revolution, with textiles now becoming the craving of the world population. Britain had now supplemented India as the world leading manufacture of textiles. Britain had also become the world leader of sea power. During this period, Britain experienced a significant increase in its population, which generated a ‘surplus’ of population which led to people being encouraged to work abroad in Britain’s oversea’s colonies.
India was a strange addition to the British Empire. The British initially went to India for the purpose of trade. Having established trading posts, the East India Company started to become involved with local Indian states’ politics, which to the British East India Company taking control of Bengal, which then over the next 100 years, the British/East India company assuming control of India. The East India company, with the intention of maximizing its profits, decides to import tea from China, and as China had no need for any European imports, so the British decided to pay for Chinese tea with opium. The British use the Indian army, paid for by India, to win the two (Opium) wars against China, and established forts and trading posts along the Chinese coasts. One of the consequences of the Indian Mutiny, was the British government realizes that it will have to have a larger British army garrison in India
The British Empire was divided into several parts:
- The self-governing colonies, who regarded themselves, as British, but at the same, different
- Crown colonies were ruled by a Governor, with an appointed council. These colonies tended to be countries, taken over by Britain, for the purpose of keeping out rival European countries
- India was ruled by a Viceroy. The Viceroy was appointed by the British government, and the Viceroy was never a person who had previously lived in India. The British government felt it was important that the Viceroy was a person who understood the guidelines and constraints required by London, as well as being in touch with British political opinion.
- Areas of influence, without being under direct British rule and without having to rely on gunboats to enforce British policy. If one of these countries wanted to construct a railway, the country would to Britain to finance the railway, and British industry to construct the railway infrastructure and rolling stock
- Zones of Special Economics. The USA experienced the largest amount of British investment
The relationship between Britain and its colonies, could be at times, tense, with the self-governing colonies, sometimes looking at becoming independent, but in reality, these self-governing colonies realised that they were dependent on the supply of people, trade and armies from Britain
In the 19th century, Britain, with France and Germany divided Africa, with Britain gaining the lion share. Britain also gained the ‘dominant influence’ over Egypt, which was essential to Britain and its Asian colonies, due to the Suez Canal.
Britain emerged from the 1st world war, financially weakened, but with the threats of expansion from the pre 1st world war empires of German and Russian empires ended, with the USA retreated into isolation left the British Empire, the dominant power in the world.
In the 2nd world war, the British defeats at Dunkirk and Singapore, the British found themselves dependent on American finances, weaponry and the armed forces, and it forced to sell its overseas assets. Britain also has to promise independence to India, to ensure support for the British war efforts.
After the end of the 2nd world war, Britain firmly commits itself to a Western European defence policy (NATO), against its previous ally, the Soviet Union