Explorers, bureaucrats, soldiers, artists, scientists, writers, rich, poor, advocates and adversaries all played their part in the history of the British Empire. This section seeks to give brief descriptions of the acts and deeds of as wide a variety of individuals as possible. You may also find information on individuals connected to particular colonies or units in the relevant Maproom or Armed Forces Section.
The Role of the Individual in History
There is a school of history that holds that the actions of individuals is one of the prime determinants of the course of history. This theory can be seen from the top down, that is to say that a few important leaders and men determine the course of history for the rest of us. However, it can also be seen from the bottom up, in that the actions of many individuals can formulate powerful forces that can themselves shape history. There is also the idea of extrapolation. This is the idea that whether an individual is rich and powerful or poor and uneducated, their lives can still give us a picture of the contemporary society that they lived in, their motivations and the forces that affected them or those that they imposed on others.
The top down school was advocated by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th Century: "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." He concentrated on examining political and military figures such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great. The role of heroes would become very prominent in the late 19th and early 20th century. Encyclopedias, lectures, biographies, even children's books would dwell on the stories and examples from people such as Florence Nightingale, Charles Gordon or David Livingstone. The example heroes tended to be from the more educated and 'respectable' parts of society - although servicemen would often be used to extoll virtues thought to be useful such as sacrifice, loyalty or patriotism.
Hegel would also emphasise the role of Great Men, but only those that genuinely represented what he characterised as the 'spirit' of the people that he would lead. His examples included Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte. In essence, he believed that they represented a wider force on behalf of their society - but that they would then have an impact on their neigbours and other weaker societies. This romantic notion of a leader emerging from the masses would later give inspiration to Totalitarian leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler in the 20th Century. They generally preferred the term 'will' instead of 'spirit' but they essentially believed that they had a mandate to speak and act on behalf of the wider society.
Perhaps the best example of a bottom - up approach (at least at first) was that provided by Karl Marx in the 19th Century. He basically believed that individual workers were being exploited by the owners of capital. Furthermore, he felt that these individuals had to team up together to realise that their political power would only come from mass action. One of the earliest Marxists, Plekhanov, even wrote a treatise entitled The Role of the Individual in History in 1898. In the 20th Century, the importance of the indvidual would lose sway in Communist thought and teachings as Bolsheviks and Maoists emphasised the class as a whole above any single individual. Paradoxically, the individual would later become better identified with Communism's great ideological enemy; Capitalism and especially of American Capitalism.
It has always been difficult to determine how far the individual shapes his society or how far his society shapes him. Social Darwinian thinkers in the 19th Century were fascinated by the idea that a society is greater than the sum of its individual parts somewhat like an ant colony. Herbert Spencer went on to state: "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him." Yet again, it was the marrying of these pseudo-scientific ideas to the romantic ideals of Hegel that would produce Fascist Totalitarian leaders on the one hand, or married to Marxist ideas would produce Communist Totalitarian leaders on the other hand!
During the 20th Century, there would be two conflicting forces upon the role of individuals in the field of historical studies. Individual lives would be examined from more and more under-represented and unusual sectors of society: more women would be examined, the colonised themselves (rather than the colonisers), prisoners, slaves and many other marginal groups in unexpected locations. It was much harder to gain information and evidence on these people as they rarely left so clear a picture of their lives as wealthier and more powerful individuals did. However, they could provide a fascinating insight into their lives and societies and also hint at some of the forces that affected their lives. Which brings us to the second, and conflicting force at work on the role of individuals in history, namely that there is indeed a more complex inter-relationship of forces and factors going on throughout history. Individuals would certainly play a part, but only alongside economic, political, technological, ecological, demographic, and all sorts of other social and scientific forces to form a more complete and accurate picture - even if a far more complicated one.
To summarise, the role of individuals is still of fundamental importance to the historian, but only so far as any individual's life is just part of a far more complex series of forces at work. Some people's lives have more ability to shape the lives of others and the choices these people make are often very important. However, often the choices of even powerful individuals are shaped by forces from below, through prisms such as democracy, revolutionary fervour, intellectual activity and many other forms of influence. We can often measure the success or failure of the policies by examining the reactions and lives from the bottom up. How much do they agree with policies or actions, or do they reject and rebel against these choices? Is their a Zeitgeist that favours some ideologies or crushes others? Fortunately, the more individual lives that can be examined, the more we can reveal and understand the extent and nature of these myriad forces. So the role of the individual in history is still intrinsically crucial but it is not enough by itself, but through examining individual lives we can extrapolate the variety and extent of all the forces experienced through the various stages in human history.
It has already been mentioned that Colonial Britain was very interested in the role of heroes and 'certain' individual to extoll examples to the rest of imperial society. This section will seek to examine some of the sub groups that could be defined as having a role to play in formulating colonial history. You can examine the individual examples of influence from the groupings to the right.
The role of monarchs is a suitably high point to begin from. We talk of the Victorian period, or the Edwardian period, but how much power did the individual monarchs actually have in shaping colonial history? Much of the imperial enterprise was conducted on their behalf and in their names. Undoubtedly, power waned at the monarchical level as parliamentary and democratic institutions wrested more of the day to day running of affairs from the monarchs. However, they even now retain a constitutional role in many of the Commonwealth countries. Some monarchs were delighted at the extent of imperial successes (Queen Victoria), others were tainted by imperial disaster and setbacks (George III).
Prime-Ministers are another natural group to examine for influence. At first, these would just be the political leaders of Britain itself, but over time, the settler colonies did develop their own political institutions and leadership which are also worth examining and not just for the impact on their own colonies, but on the others too. Prime Ministers often had significant political power that could be translated into action with the full resources of the state behind them. Wars, annexations, peace treaties were often at the whim of the individual Prime Minister although often (but not always) modified by the core political beliefs of the party he represented. The classic example of the divergence of ideas about empire came in the 19th Century between the 'forward' policy advocated by Conservative leaders such as Disraeli compared to the 'Laissez-Faire' doctrine advocated by the Liberals such as Gladstone. Even in the 20th Century, the role of Attlee of the Labour party is very interesting to understand the start of the ball of decolonisation rolling in the Post-War period.
It was not just politicians at the top of the political tree who made important contributions to imperialism. Various Chancellors of the Exchequer would limit or make available money for campaigns, Foreign secretaries would use colonies as bargaining chips on trading and diplomatic issues back in Europe, whilst various Sea Lords at the Admiralty would push for control of harbours and bays to extend the capabilities of the Royal Navy. Perhaps most interestingly is the case of Joseph Chamberlain who turned the previously relatively unimportant Colonial Minister's job into a major Ministry that dictated not just colonial policy for the Salisbury government for many years, but of much of its foreign policy too.
Administrators could be given a lot of freedom to make judgements and push policies set by politicians but interpreted by these 'men on the spot'. They had particulary freedom in the early stages of empire as slow communications made it difficult to recall or change decisions made by these imperial bureaucrats. As time went by, they came under more scrutiny but still could make decisions which had long lasting effects. One example of this might be Sir Bartle Frere who seems to have played an important part in launching the Anglo-Zulu War or the Earl of Lytton who encouraged the diplomatic actions that led to the Second Afghanistan War.
Generals and soldiers often provided the sharp edge of implementation of imperial policy - either in annexing new territories, defending existing ones or ensuring that law and order was being kept by subject peoples and settlers alike. They would provide the tone for this implementation - sometimes done expertly and with little fuss, sometimes done harshly and causing more problems than they were solving. A good example of the latter might be General Dyer who gave the order to fire at Amritsar killing some 3,000 protesters and launching a serious backlash against British rule in India and inadvertently inspiring new leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi to campaign against British rule.
Local and nationalist resistance leaders also need to be considered and the tactics and tenor that they provided to try and gain self-government or independence. Gandhi had a distinctive style of resistance that caused much angst to the British but little bloodshed in his bid to gain independence for India. The Communist leader Chin Peng in Malaya provided a different example of nationalist expression and one which caused much more bloodshed but less political achievement during the Emergency.
Industrialists and businessmen could play a surprisingly influential role. The search for resources or cheap sources of labour was a prime motivator for imperial expansion from the earliest days. Company chairmen and shareholders would decide where to invest or not invest in the search for profits. Some of these businessmen crossed over into the political realm in order to expedite commercial opportunities. A good example might be Cecil Rhodes in Southern Africa who made his fortune in diamonds but missed the great Gold Rush in the Transvaal. He invested heavily in infrastructure and engaged in political intrigue to bring as much of Africa under British control as possible. In fact many of the techniques and tactics of the mining consortiums would provide the blueprint for the Apartheid rules and regulations in South Africa in the 20th Century. But it was not just the big industrialists who would shape the empire, small traders might set up shop on very marginal lands or on frontiers in a bid to provide a livelihood for himself and or his family. They did not all come from Britain either, Indian traders set up in Eastern Africa for instance or Chinese traders throughout South East Asia. They the supply for the demands of empire.
Missionaries often provided the first contact between Western and native civilisations. At great personal risk, they would enter strange parts of the world in order to bring Christian teachings to natives wherever they happened to be. Despite their good intentions, they often ended up destabilising and confusing local peoples as the peaceful missionaries often preceded less generous traders, administrators or farmers or their Christian teachings clashed with local customs and traditions. Many missionaries would succumb to illness and disease, but many others were killed by hostile local peoples who resented their presence. Robert Moffat and his family provide a good example of just how influential and important missionaries were in establishing a presence in the Dark Continent.
Planters, settlers and farmers provided the bulk of settlement in what would be known as the white settler colonies, although many others would set up plantations and farms in more exotic and tropical locations. These were often people forced off the land back in Britain due to the industrial revolution. Rather than take their chances in the cities of the metropolis, many preferred the idea of using their existing farming skills in the newly discovered lands around the empire rather than enter the industrial cities of Britain. They were often helped by the colonies themselves who subsidised emigration as they sought to attract settlers and expertise to take advantage of the lands. However, not all migrations were successful as different geographies, climates, flora and fauna often paid havoc with the skills of North European farmers. Still, shepherds headed to New Zealand or Australia, grain farmers went to the plains of Canada or Rhodesia and cattle farmers headed to South Africa all in the search for a new life.
A Worker Reads History
A Worker Reads History is a poem by Bertolt Brecht that tries to remind us that not all of history was due to the actions of the rich and the powerful.
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.