British Empire historical state, United Kingdom
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British Empire, a worldwide system of dependencies—colonies, protectorates, and other territories—that over a span of some three centuries was brought under the sovereignty of the crown of Great Britain and the administration of the British government.
The policy of granting or recognizing significant degrees of self-government by dependencies, which was favoured by the far-flung nature of the empire, led to the development by the 20th century of the notion of a “British Commonwealth,” comprising largely self-governing dependencies that acknowledged an increasingly symbolic British sovereignty.
The term was embodied in statute in 1931. Today the Commonwealth includes former elements of the British Empire in a free association of sovereign states.
Nearly all these early settlements arose from the enterprise of particular companies and magnates rather than from any effort on the part of the English crown.
The crown exercised some rights of appointment and supervision, but the colonies were essentially self-managing enterprises.
The formation of the empire was thus an unorganized process based on piecemeal acquisition, sometimes with the British government being the least willing partner in the enterprise.
Competition with France
British military and naval power, under the leadership of such men as Robert Clive, James Wolfe, and Eyre Coote, gained for Britain two of the most important parts of its empire—Canada and India.
Fighting between the British and French colonies in North America was endemic in the first half of the 18th century,
but the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which ended the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in North America), left Britain dominant in Canada.
In India, the East India Company was confronted by the French Compagnie des Indes, but Robert Clive’s military victories against the French and the rulers of Bengal
in the 1750s provided the British with a massive accession of territory and ensured their future supremacy in India.
The loss of Britain’s 13 American colonies in 1776–83 was compensated by new settlements
in Australia from 1788 and by the spectacular growth of Upper Canada (now Ontario)
after the emigration of loyalists from what had become the United States.
The Napoleonic Wars provided further additions to the empire; the Treaty of Amiens (1802) made Trinidad and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) officially British,
and in the Treaty of Paris (1814) France ceded Tobago, Mauritius, Saint Lucia,
and Malta. Malacca joined the empire in 1795, and Sir Stamford Raffles acquired Singapore in 1819.
Canadian settlements in Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia extended British influence to the Pacific,
while further British conquests in India brought in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh and the Central Provinces, East Bengal, and Assam.
The greatest 19th-century extension of British power took place in Africa, however.
Britain was the acknowledged ruling force in Egypt from 1882 and in the Sudan from 1899.
In the second half of the century, the Royal Niger Company began to extend British influence in Nigeria, and the Gold Coast
(now Ghana) and The Gambia also became British possessions. The Imperial British East Africa Company operated in what are now Kenya and Uganda,
and the British South Africa Company operated in what are now Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia),
Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), and Malawi. Britain’s victory in the South African War (1899–1902)
enabled it to annex the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1902 and to create the Union of South Africa in 1910.
The resulting chain of British territories stretching from South Africa northward to Egypt realized an enthusiastic
British public’s idea of an African empire extending “from the Cape to Cairo.” By the end of the 19th century,
the British Empire comprised nearly one-quarter of the world’s land surface and more than one-quarter of its total population.
The rest of the British Empire consisted for the most part of colonies and other dependencies whose predominant indigenous populations had no such experience.
For them a variety of administrative techniques was tried, ranging from the sophisticated Indian Civil Service,
with its largely effective adoption of native practices in civil law and administration,
to the very loose and indirect supervision exercised in a number of African territories,
where settlers and commercial interests were left much to themselves while native Africans were segregated into “reserves.”
Nationalism and the Commonwealth
Nationalist sentiment developed rapidly in many of these areas after World War I and even more so after World War II, with the result that,
beginning with India in 1947, independence was granted them,
along with the option of retaining an association with Great Britain and other former dependencies in the Commonwealth of Nations (the adjective “British” was not used officially after 1946).
Indian and Pakistani independence was followed by that of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) in 1948.
The Gold Coast became the first sub-Saharan African colony to reach independence (as Ghana) in 1957.
The movement of Britain’s remaining colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean toward self-government gained speed in the years after 1960 as international pressure mounted
as the notion of independence spread in the colonies themselves, and as the British public,
which was no longer actively imperial in its sentiments, accepted the idea of independence as a foregone conclusion.
What is a Colony?
This is not as easy a question as you might expect.
They were basically units of overseas territory controlled by the British Government or organisations (or even individuals) coming from Britain.
There is a full list of these colonies on the Entering and Exiting the Empire page.
It also explains the basic classifications of territories – although there were many exceptions.
Company Rule – these were when private companies – capitalised from Britain – tried to set up their own colonies as private commercial concerns.
They frequently found the administration far more expensive than they expected and so often turned to the British government for help – particularly when wars or rebellions occurred.
Colonies were those areas directly ruled by a governor on behalf of the British government and representing the Crown.
The governor was responsible to the Colonial Office in London, although he usually had wide powers of discretion.
These were the most common form of imperial control.
Protectorates were territories where the local rulers could continue ruling domestically but they had ceded the foreign and defence aspects of their government to the British. Theoretically,
the British allowed the rulers full autonomy in domestic affairs although British advisers could and did exercise considerable influence over a range of policies.
Dominions were those colonies that were granted significant freedom to rule themselves.
The settler colonies were afforded this freedom.
Dominions were fully independent countries after the 1931 Statute of Westminster, although their Head of State continued to be the British sovereign.
The Second World War would see much imperial territory threatened or temporarily lost.
Despite being on the winning side, the Empire would not recover from the geo-political shifts caused by this Second World War and would enter into a period of terminal decline.
India was the first and largest area to be shed and then the Middle East and then Africa.
Various Caribbean and Pacific possessions held on a little longer but most of these also went their separate way.
The last of the major colonies to be lost was that of Hong Kong in 1997.
Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation
This was a popular combination of factors given for the rise of the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries.
The Protestant aspect of Christianity was seen by many within the British Empire as part of the larger battle with the more ‘Catholic’ nations of Continental Europe.
Ever since the Reformation, religion represented not merely a spiritual difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches but was part of a far larger cultural and political competition between deadly rivals.
Portugal, Spain and France were the Catholic nations who developed successful commercial empires before the English (and Dutch) were able to do so. Religion gave an excuse for this commercial rivalry to turn into military and political competition.
The very success of the Protestant nations in challenging the Catholic hegemony in the New World and the East Indies seemed to confirm that God might be on the Protestants’ side after all
– although this did ignore the fact that the English and Dutch co-religionists were just as frequently found at the throats of one another.
The civilisation aspiration could be damaging in its own right.
It assumed that British civilisation was innately superior to those it was subjugating. Indeed,
the very subjugation process confirmed the superiority of British civilisation! It then assumed that the new rulers were obliged to improve the subjugated peoples that it had taken under its wing with large doses of Christianity and commerce.
Of course, this appealed to the positive aspirations that many Imperialists held for the future of a benign Empire.
It offered a justification for Imperialism. However, it could also justify some of the more extreme Social Darwinist ideas of racial superiority and it allowed for treating the subject peoples as innately inferior.
In summary, Christianity, commerce and civilisation was a neat way to justify the uniqueness of the British Empire and yet give it a justification for continuing it into the future.
It could also be deeply patronising and justified cultural imperialism and racial stereotyping
and yet there was a surprisingly large dose of truth behind these motivations and strain of British imperialism.
The Royal Navy would undoubtedly become a formidable military institution,
but it was not always inevitable that Britannia would rule the waves. Naturally,
being an island nation, ship-building and sailing would be important skills and industries to a country like England.
But, Portugal and then Spain had got off to a far more promising start with regards to maritime domination of the seas from the fifteenth century onwards.
They had come to understand the ship design, navigational and long distance skills required to explore and commercially exploit the routes that they discovered.
The English were always playing catch up or were merely picking up the scraps left by the Portugese and Spanish.
If anything, it was the Dutch and French who first challenged Portugese and Spanish control of the seas.
This situation would not really be transformed until the Eighteenth Century.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 where the Dutch King William of Orange took control of the English Crown would reduce,
but not remove, Anglo-Dutch rivalry. However, it would not be until the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763 that the Royal Navy would take on the far richer and supposedly more powerful Kingdom of France.
This was also something of a legacy of the Glorious Revolution in that the Dutch brought sophisticated banking techniques (including the formation of the Bank of England) that would allow the British to borrow money to build a huge Navy.
The idea of this investment was to pay back the loans once Britain had been victorious in the war.
The French Navy had no such infusion of investment and so they were hard pressed to see off the challenge from the Royal Navy especially on the global scale of what was really the first ‘World War’
in that it stretched over all corners of the globe. In some ways, the French were able to get an element of revenge by helping the American Revolutionaries in the 1770s and 1780s in their humiliation of the British.
But this in itself would be a false dawn for the French Monarchy.
Marxist/Leninist Stages of Development
One interesting theory to explain Imperialism was borne out of the works of Karl Marx.
In fact, it is more due to Lenin’s adaptations to Marx’s writings that colonialism was brought into the fold,
but it relied on the historical determinism put forward by Marx. Basically,
he believed that human societies were travelling through economic stages of development before reaching the Communist Utopia where all are treated equally and all goods are distributed equitably.
Feudalism was a pre-condition for Capitalism which in turn was a pre-condition for Communism.
It was argued that Capitalism had the seeds of destruction within itself – capitalists would compete with one another as they strived to make more and more profit
– but they would be reduced in number but becoming more efficient simultaneously.
Eventually, it would be so efficient that it would produce all the worldly goods that consumers would desire,
but there would be so few capitalists left that the wage slave workers (who were becoming more and more exploited)
would rise up and seize the factories and the means of production.
It was Lenin who had to adapt this theory to why a revolution might take place in relatively non-capitalist Tsarist Russia which was barely moving out of the Feudal phase.
He basically added another layer of inevitability to explain that capitalist Europe was competing for the raw materials and markets that colonies could provide.
It was this, he explained, that would result in the outbreak of World War One, as European nations desperately competed with one another for colonies and once these ran out,
would fight one another for domination – bringing the day forward for the ‘real’ Communist Revolution.
He therefore advocated staying neutral in the Capitalist war but was not averse to taking the opportunity to seize power in October, 1917 as Russia was worn out by the long drawn out attritional, total war.
Another interesting theory was one proposed by two economic historians,
Gallagher and Robinson, who basically stated that the British Empire actually tried not to take colonies if at all possible.
In fact, colonies were almost a sign of failure.
They argued that the British were interested in trade opportunities and if they could gain access to markets
and raw materials without the need for colonising then so much the better.
They gave examples of British ‘soft’ power existing in the Americas, China and the Mediterranean area.
These were areas where the British could do business but without the overheads and costs of administering and defending territory.
The argument explained the late Nineteenth Century surge in acquisitions in being a consequence of having to respond to the aggressive competition with other European powers who were keen to take the lands,
markets and resources for themselves and deny them to rivals as the world seemed to turn to protectionism.
Even Britain itself was tempted by the Imperial preferences proposed by Chamberlain at the beginning of the 20th century.
This theory would radically redraw the imperial map giving precedence to those areas where no formal British control was required at all.
Back in the Seventeenth Century, even when the government was interested in imperial affairs it still tended to revolve around revenue and profit as the establishment of ‘The Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations’ in 1621 by King James I attested.
He was more concerned at why income and trade was declining and administration costs were rising rather than any of the rights and responsibilities of either settlers or indigenous populations.
This was effectively a temporary committee of the King’s Privy Council –
but it got caught up in the mid-Seventeenth Century upheavals that saw the country descend into Civil War and found itself increasingly sidelined and ineffectual.
1660 saw Charles II relaunch something similar with the creation of ‘The Council of Foreign Plantations’.
This Council had specific responsibility for the Americas and the Caribbean which were the most important concerns at the time.
This was demonstrated in 1675 when they began the process of trying to harmonise the various colonies into Royal ones.
They successfully brought New Hampshire under Crown governance,
they modified William Penn’s Charter and refused to reissue Plymouth Colony’s more egalitarian Charter.
This culminated in the creation of the Dominion of New England in 1685 which saw a single Crown colony for much of the North-Eastern seaboard.
1696 saw the Council modified into a more professional organisation with the appointment of paid commissioners for the first time by King William III.
These were given the title ‘The Lords Commissioners of Trade and Foreign Plantations’ although they were more commonly known as the ‘Lords of Trade’.
Two convulsions in the second half of the Eighteenth Century fundamentally altered Britain’s relationship to its colonies.
The first was the American War for Independence. Problems in the Americas saw the creation of ‘A Secretary of State for the Colonies’ for the very first time.
This post only lasted until 1782 when it was obvious that attempts to retain the 13 colonies had failed. However,
it established a precedent for assigning responsibility for colonial affairs which would be revisited in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, the British government divided the duties of its two principal Secretaries of State into ‘Home’ and ‘Foreign’. Colonial affairs were given as a responsibility to the Home Secretary in a branch of the department called ‘The Office for Plantations’. with its own Under-Secretary.
The American Revolution did have another consequence as the British government sought to avert something similar happening in India.
From 1773 onwards, the British government sought to increase its oversight of the East India Company – especially as news and examples of incompetence and greed by EIC office holders came to light.
The British government gradually gave more responsibilities to the Company in return for financial, political and military support.
This culminated in 1784 with a Board of Control to oversee the activities of the EIC.
One bureaucratic innovation that was to have a profound influence on the administration of Empire was born out of the Indian Mutiny in 1857/8.
This was the establishment of a separate Secretary of State for India and the creation of the Indian Civil Service from 1858 onwards.
The 1858 Government of India Act meant that India was actually governed separately and outside the control of the Colonial Secretary.
It was thought to be big enough and rich enough to require its own representation within the British government and to be able to sustain its own administration also.
Entrance to the Indian Civil Service was to be by competitive examination which encouraged a high calibre of applicants and a high esprit de corps amongst those successful enough to pass the vigorous testing regime.
The ICS were often referred to as the ‘heaven born’ or ‘civilians’ and wielded substantial powers across the sub-continent.
They were famed for their apparent incorruptability which had been pressed upon them as a reaction to EIC administration whose corrupt rule had been held at least partly responsible for the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny itself.
However, the reputation of the ICS was such that colonial governments in other parts of the world sought to emulate and aspire to the levels of governance and honesty exhibited by the ICS – perhaps the closest to come to this realisation was the Sudan Political Service which garnered its own formidable reputation.
This was not to say that the ICS did not have its problems.
It was criticised for having too few Indian members and, given their responsibility for law and order, often it was at loggerheads with the Indian Nationalist movements.
However, its reputation for financial probity, professionalism and honesty impressed many who came across its work.
Origins of the British Empire
Great Britain made its first tentative efforts to establish overseas settlements in the 16th century.
Maritime expansion, driven by commercial ambitions and by competition with France, accelerated in the 17th century and resulted in the establishment of settlements in North America and the West Indies.
By 1670 there were British American colonies in New England, Virginia, and Maryland and settlements in the Bermudas, Honduras, Antigua, Barbados, and Nova Scotia.
Jamaica was obtained by conquest in 1655, and the Hudson’s Bay Company established itself in what became northwestern Canada from the 1670s on.
The East India Company began establishing trading posts in India in 1600, and the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Malacca,
and Labuan) became British through an extension of that company’s activities.
The first permanent British settlement on the African continent was made at James Island in the Gambia River in 1661.
Slave trading had begun earlier in Sierra Leone, but that region did not become a British possession until 1787.
Britain acquired the Cape of Good Hope (now in South Africa) in 1806, and the South African interior was opened up by Boer and British pioneers under British control.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the crown exercised control over its colonies chiefly in the areas of trade and shipping.
In accordance with the mercantilist philosophy of the time, the colonies were regarded as a source of necessary raw materials for England and were granted monopolies for their products,
such as tobacco and sugar, in the British market.
In return, they were expected to conduct all their trade by means of English ships and to serve as markets for British manufactured goods.
The Navigation Act of 1651 and subsequent acts set up a closed economy between Britain and its colonies;
all colonial exports had to be shipped on English ships to the British market, and all colonial imports had to come by way of England.
This arrangement lasted until the combined effects of the Scottish economist Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776),
the loss of the American colonies, and the growth of a free-trade movement in Britain slowly brought it to an end in the first half of the 19th century.
The slave trade acquired a peculiar importance to Britain’s colonial economy in the Americas,
and it became an economic necessity for the Caribbean colonies and for the southern parts of the future United States.
Movements for the end of slavery came to fruition in British colonial possessions long before the similar movement in the United States;
the trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in Britain’s dominions in 1833.
Dominance and dominions
The 19th century marked the full flower of the British Empire. Administration and policy changed during the century from the haphazard arrangements of the 17th and 18th centuries to the sophisticated system characteristic of Joseph Chamberlain’s tenure (1895–1900) in the Colonial Office.
That office, which began in 1801, was first an appendage of the Home Office and the Board of Trade,
but by the 1850s it had become a separate department with a growing staff and a continuing policy;
it was the means by which discipline and pressure were exerted on the colonial governments when such action was considered necessary.
New Zealand became officially British in 1840, after which systematic colonization there followed rapidly.
Partly owing to pressure from missionaries, British control was extended to Fiji, Tonga, Papua, and other islands in the Pacific Ocean,
and in 1877 the British High Commission for the Western Pacific Islands was created. In the wake of the Indian Mutiny (1857),
the British crown assumed the East India Company’s governmental authority in India.
Britain’s acquisition of Burma (Myanmar) was completed in 1886,
while its conquest of the Punjab (1849) and of Balochistān (1854–76) provided substantial new territory in the Indian subcontinent itself.
The French completion of the Suez Canal (1869) provided Britain with a much shorter sea route to India. Britain responded to this opportunity by expanding its port at Aden, establishing a protectorate in Somaliland (now Somalia),
and extending its influence in the sheikhdoms of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
Cyprus, which was, like Gibraltar and Malta,
a link in the chain of communication with India through the Mediterranean, was occupied in 1878.
Elsewhere, British influence in the Far East expanded with the development of the Straits Settlements and the federated Malay states,
and in the 1880s protectorates were formed over Brunei and Sarawak. Hong Kong island became British in 1841,
and an “informal empire” operated in China by way of British treaty ports and the great trading city of Shanghai.
The idea of limited self-government for some of Britain’s colonies was first recommended for Canada by Lord Durham in 1839.
This report proposed “responsible self-government” for Canada, so that a cabinet of ministers chosen by the Canadians could exercise executive powers instead of officials chosen by the British government.
The cabinet would depend primarily on support by the colonial legislative assembly for its tenure of ministerial office.
Decisions on foreign affairs and defense, however, would still be made by a governor-general acting on orders from the British government in London.
The system whereby some colonies were allowed largely to manage their own affairs under governors appointed by the mother country spread rapidly.
In 1847 it was put into effect in the colonies in Canada, and it was later extended to the Australian colonies,
New Zealand, and to the Cape Colony and Natal in southern Africa.
These colonies obtained such complete control over their internal affairs that in 1907 they were granted the new status of dominions
. In 1910 another dominion, the Union of South Africa, was formed from the Cape Colony, Natal, and the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
This select group of nations within the empire, with substantial European populations and long experience of British forms and practices, was often referred to as the British Commonwealth.
The demands and stresses of World War I and its aftermath led to a more formal recognition of the special status of the dominions.
When Britain had declared war on Germany in 1914 it was on behalf of the entire empire, the dominions as well as the colonies.
But after World War I ended in 1918, the dominions signed the peace treaties for themselves and joined the newly formed League of Nations as independent states equal to Britain
. In 1931 the Statute of Westminster recognized them as independent countries “within the British Empire, equal in status” to the United Kingdom.
The statute referred specifically to the “British Commonwealth of Nations.”
When World War II broke out in 1939, the dominions made their own declarations of war.
The last significant British colony, Hong Kong, was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. By then, virtually nothing remained of the empire.
The Commonwealth, however, remained a remarkably flexible and durable institution. See also colonialism.
Mandates were set up after World War One as German and Turkish colonies were passed to Britain and France to prepare for self government on behalf of the League of Nations.
After World War Two, the United Nations continued the concept but called these mandates ‘Trust Territories’.
In addition to these five kinds of ‘colony’ there were colonies set up by individuals, missionaries and even – in the case of Pitcairn Island by escaped mutineers!
Of course these are the areas that had some measure of formal control. In many ways, British naval,
industrial and commercial supremacy was so great that it effectively held sway over an equally impressive ‘informal empire’. T
he best example of this was South America where the Royal Navy was happy to uphold the US so-called ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as it suited British commercial and strategic concerns at very little cost to the taxpayer.
In many ways, formal control was often extended when informal relationships collapsed or were challenged by other European rivals.
How Big was the British Empire?
Of course, the British Empire expanded and contracted wildly over the years.
It became fairly large with the ever expanding American colonies in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, particularly after the defeat of the French in the Seven Years War.
The American Revolution lost much (but not all) of this territory, but the expansion of British interests in India filled this vacuum.
It really was the victory in the Napoleonic Wars that allowed the British to hoover up naval bases and create toe-holds across the world.
These would generally provide the jumping off points for the massive expansion in the Victorian period.
Advances in medicine, transport and communication systems helped make even more of the world accessible with Africa providing the last spur to European Imperialism in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century.
World War One appeared to add yet more colonies to the British Empire in the form of mandates.
I have created a list of the populations and sizes of the colonies in 1924 a territorial highpoint of Empire –
although economically the Empire would begin to enter its period of decline in this Inter-war years period.
But it was still estimated at this time to cover between a quarter and a third of the globe and that it represented an area of over one hundred and fifty times the size of Great Britain itself.
It was certainly helpful that the Protestant work ethic meant that Christian and commercial ideals could be reconciled fairly easily and in fact was thought to manifest itself in the improvement and development of British civilisation in general.
In pre-industrial Britain, the combination of the these three factors would lead to the creation of the settler colonies in North America.
Devout Christians would look for economic freedom from feudal relationships in this New World.
However, mercantalism and then the industrial revolution meant that this commercial aspect could take on a more sinister role as monopoly power,
slavery or exploitative working conditions became a temptation hard for investors or capitalists to resist.
It was reassuring to many such capitalists that they could hide behind the idea that by investing in enterprises
and schemes around the world that they were serving a modernising and civilising goal and so their consciences could be clear in such a noble enterprise.
Technological and Industrial Superiority
The British had no monopoly on technological innovation. Gunpowder,
the printing press, navigational equipment were all developed and improved on the continent or further afield yet.
Europe from the fifteenth century onwards was becoming a dynamic place where new ideas were swirling around with unnatural haste.
Britain was benefitting from this much wider European Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment and yet it was also in a position to take these ideas, and many others,
much further as it would become the first nation to harness the power of steam which in turn would unleash an Industrial Revolution and an avalanche of high quality,
mass-produced goods that would flood markets all around the world.
They, in turn, would provide a technology gap that non-European nations would find difficult to compete with. Precision-made muskets, rifles,
machine guns, train locomotives, steam ships would provide the relatively small and over-stretched British armed forces with unparalleled advantages.
They could take on vastly larger (and possibly braver) enemies and yet beat them off, subdue and suppress them.
British weaponry was very effective and its communication systems allowed it to shepherd its meagre resources to devastating effect and even its medical resources would improve enough to allow its soldiers and sailors to penetrate deeper and more inaccessible areas.
Britain was not the only nation to enjoy a technological advantage over non-European nations,
but its combination of industrial might, commercial prowess and maritime power meant that it had a peculiar advantage
and one that would not be challenged until the development of guerilla warfare and tactics in the Twentieth Century.
Britain’s population had been stable during most of the Medieval period (although there had been periods of decline especially after the Black Death).
This period was characterised by a high birth rate and a high death rate – especially for infants. From the Tudor period onwards there started to be an upward trend in total population as birth rates continued to be high but life expectancy began to increase,
especially for the better off. For a while, towns and cities could absorb much of the increase in population and indeed these people provided new markets and labour for the growing economy.
However, as the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the Eighteenth Century the steady increase in population soon turned into a significant ballooning in numbers.
This was primarily due to the fact that birth rates remained as high as ever but death rates began to fall precipitously.
This was due to a number of factors including better education, more awareness of public health issues, improved medical care and better diets.
Britain was the first nation in the World to experience this remarkable population explosion but it was also the country that had the financial,
maritime and existing colonial links to enable a dispersal of this population beyond the shores of its own small island off the coast of Northern Europe.
Some of this population dispersal was a direct result of nervous government policy to rid urban Britain of what they regarded as the criminal element.
Hence, indentured servants were sent to the 13 Colonies and later to Australia.
There were also formal schemes established to allow the rural poor to skip the step towards the already bulging British cities and go directly to new farming opportunities in places like New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Communism was an easy ideology to sell to poor, exploited and oppressed peoples around the world,
Communist organisations and groups therefore became major resisters and opponents to Imperial regimes the world over
– especially when they became tied to Cold War politics. Unfortunately, when agricultural or primary resource colonies gained their freedoms with the promises of a Communist Utopia to fulfil it did not take long for disappointment, cronyism and corruption to undermine and discredit Communism as a viable form of government.
It may have given some people inspiration to remove their imperial overlords, it just could not deliver on its promises.
Administration of Empire
The British Empire was certainly not a harmonized nor a homogenous institution. The various ways that it acquired responsibilities for large tracts of the World’s landmass
and populations meant that it dealt with administration and governance in an equally haphazard, changing and evolving way.
In the earliest stages, boards and trustees of companies were as likely to be responsbile for the effective governance of their far flung trading stations and concerns.
The most famous example of this was the East India Company which found that the business of government could be just as profitable
as that of trade with the steady flow of taxes pleasing the accountants back in London
– at least in the short term. Over time, rebellions, natural disasters and wars stretched the financial abilities of these early Chartered Companies to breaking point and beyond.
Queen Elizabeth I established the precedent that she would extend the protection of the Crown to any of her subjects wherever in the world they should live.
This was as a result of claims to land made in the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh –
however unsuccessful these early attempts were. This principle was continued by James I and all subsequent monarchs.
However, this theoretical protection was often undermined by the distances and time required to lodge petitions and by their likely unfamiliarity in the way that the Royal Court worked.
In general, a sympathetic and well connected person would have to bring the plight of any particular group of native peoples to the attention of the monarch
and this would often be weighed against the influence of those connected with interested commercial concerns. Additionally, over time,
Parliament exerted more and more influence over affairs in the colonies as the power of British monarchs steadily declined over the coming centuries.
Both Monarchs and the British Parliament found out for themselves that the rights of settlers and the rights of indigenous populations frequently were at odds with one another.
Occasionally a monarch found himself supporting one group whilst Parliament another.
These divergent views on rights and responsibilities were later exacerbated with when settler colonies were granted their own Parliaments in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The British Monarch, British Parliament and settler Parliaments could all see issues through a different lense
and could find themselves disagreeing on important issues especially like land allocation and the treatment of indigenous populations.
The second convulsion to alter Britain’s relationship to its colonies was that of Revolution in France followed by the Napoleonic wars.
As the threat of Revolution spiralled beyond France’s and then the Continent’s borders, so the colonies became the responsibility of the Secretary of State for War.
This was formalised in 1801 with the title of ‘The Secretary of State for War and the Colonies’.
As the Empire grew in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars so there was seen the need to create a Permanent Under-Secretary for the Colonies from 1825 onwards.
1837 saw the first attempts at regulating the conduct of imperial officials with the publication of “Colonial Regulations”
relating to “His Majesty’s Colonial Service”.
However, each colony was responsible for hiring its own personnel and remunerating them accordingly.
The Departments of War and the Colonies were not to be formally separated until 1854 at the time of the Crimean War.
By this time, the British Empire had spilled into South East Asia and the Far East and it was clear that the ever increasing institution required a ministry of its own once more.
‘The Secretary of State for the Colonies’ was created and remained as a cabinet post until 1966.
The ‘Colonial Office’ peaked in importance with the appointment of Joseph Chamberlain in 1895 and was still an enormous government department until just after World War Two when it began its inevitable decline.
There had been two main orgnisational exceptions to the remit of the Colonial Office.
The first was to be ‘Protectorates’ which were initially under the authority of the Foreign Office until the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
The second exception was to be that of the Dominions.
In 1907 a Dominion Division was created within the Colonial Office but in 1925 a new Secretaryship of State for Dominion Affairs was appointed,
albeit still within a single Dominions and Colonial Office. This joint establishment was formally separated in 1947 on Indian Independence
when a separate Commonwealth Relations Office was created alongside the Colonial Office.
The Colonial Service, per se, was not a united service until after 1927.
Up until this time, each colony was responsible for its own administrative officers and applicants had to apply directly to the colonial government in question. Initially,
most applicants were bureaucrats required to help run colonial administration,
but over time, more and more specialised, technical experts were required as foresters, geologists, educators, etc… were given ever greater prominence.
This increasing regard for the quality of administrators saw the creation of training programs for newly recruited officials.
The first of these was inaugurated in 1908 in response to the sudden massive increase in African territories to administer.
The Imperial Institute in South Kensington started a three month training program in law, accountancy, tropical hygiene and tropical resources.
However, it was not until the interwar years that training programs were put in place for all personnel going out to the colonies when a unified Colonial Service finally came into being.