The British Empire - Was It Different?

by Gordon Bridger (Development Economist, Central African Federation, UN, ODA, Crown Agents, 1957-97 and Author of Britain and the Making of Argentina)
In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War with France, Britain had established herself as the most powerful nation on earth. Absorbing several important French colonies, mainly Canada and some rich islands and parts of India, laid the basis for the largest empire the world had known. The loss of what was to become the USA in 1783, was a salutary lesson for later decades when other colonies grew restless of control from London and a reminder to enthusiastic imperialists that overseas acquisitions could incur costs as well as benefits.

With a powerful unopposed navy and merchants anxious to expand trade (especially in cotton goods whose production had been transformed by modern machinery) and by emigrants willing to settle new lands, Britain’s possessions spread over the world. At its zenith, including what was to become Dominions, it covered a quarter of the globe and accounted for about the same amount of the world’s population.

Military technology, wealth and organisation ensured that those areas which were initially reluctant, mainly on the Indian subcontinent, accepted absorption. The many quarrelling states were eventually welded into a unitary country which became India. Only a fiercely defended Afghanistan successfully resisted British rule.

Two other major conflicts which did no credit to Britain’s imperial expansion were the seizure of Hong Kong to serve as a basis for the opium trade, and the suppression of the Boer’s control over the rich gold fields of the Rand. That the economic success of the former and the wealth generated by the latter served to establish the basis of economic success of modern China and South Africa highlights the difficulty of making moral judgments about past actions.

The rest of what was to become the Empire, mainly Africa and many small islands were absorbed with relatively little conflict. No doubt the gun boat and the Maxim gun discouraged serious opposition.


The economic transformation of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, first by the factory production of cotton and later by the development of industries based on local deposits of coal and iron, created a new world industrial economy. The industrial revolution was the first major change in the world since the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years earlier. New markets had to be found - particularly for cotton goods and machinery. So new markets were developed. Trade followed the flag. The British Consul in Buenos Aires stated in 1823, after Britain broke the restrictive Spanish monopoly, that:

“The gaucho is everywhere clothed in cotton goods. Take his whole equipment. Everything about him which is not of rawhide is British. If his wife has a gown it is ten to one it is made in Manchester; the camp kettle, the earthenware he eats from, his knife, his poncho, his spurs, are imported from Britain”.

This pattern was repeated over the entire world. Of course existing traditional but highly inefficient local producers were ruined but consumers were better off and eventually so were whole economies as labour moved into more productive activities. The control of local monopolies that had captured most of the benefits of protected trade was broken.

Without these changes our modern world would never have happened.

The basis of exchange through people and societies trading, thus taking advantage of what they do best, has been fundamental to economic development. The principle of comparative advantage and competition has been the key to transformation of the world economy. Matt Ridley1 writes:

“The lessons of the last two centuries are that liberty and welfare march hand in hand with prosperity and trade. Countries that lose their liberty to tyrants generally experience falling per capita incomes”.

That Britain’s Empire was built on trade and self interest is not disputed but unlike every other Empire there were huge gains which subordinate colonies benefited from. This was not the case with those colonies ruled by Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union all of whom paid heavily for their relationship with the Imperial masters.


The British Empire - Was It Different?
Freed Slaves
It was in the 18th century with the emergence of a middle-class Protestant ethic that the British Government was the first to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

The British navy had a special squadron of 28 naval vessels assigned to suppress slave trading and between 1807 and 1860 some 1600 slave carrying vessels with 150,000 slaves were captured. Britain was by far the most effective of imperial powers in suppressing the slave trade. It was not till 1865 after a bitter civil war that the USA banned slavery, and the last country in the world to do so was Ethiopia in 1935.

It is all too often forgotten that slavery was endemic in the world and humans of all races were traded like merchandise since earliest days. Africa had suffered for hundreds of years from Arab slavery and it now shifted to the western coast. Those who claim compensation from European countries need to be reminded that many of the benefits went to slave-capturing tribes in Africa.

That Britain benefited from the slave trade in the 18th century is not disputed and that towns such as Bristol and Liverpool thrived on the trade is also not in question. But the extent to which the British economy benefited is very much disputed. The economic benefits in the 18th century are claimed by some to be as much as 30%, but by others as low as 1% to 2%. Intuitively one tends to think the earlier figure far too high as Britain was already prospering from agricultural development and a massive increase in Asian trade, but the latter figures seem very low.

While in France and even in Spain there was some concern about slavery there never was a Parliament and Government which had the power and the wish to abolish it as there was in Britain.

Currently Britain’s key role in abolishing trade in slavery is insufficiently known and little appreciated.


Being the world’s leading nation in technology and industry benefited Britain, but also had a beneficial trade-off for its Empire.

The British Empire - Was It Different?
Freetown Post Office
The international telegraph was well established by the 1870s which meant that not only distant political and military decisions could be reached almost at once, as opposed to weeks or months, but more important international trade decisions were made more efficiently.

The introduction of the steam ship reduced travel times by between 5 and 8 times compared to sailing ships and enabled more cargo to be carried thus reducing import costs and creating an increased demand for imports from the rest of the world to Britain. Railways were by far the most important of British investment leading to a dramatic drop in transport prices and creating new markets and even new nations.

Surveys of the world led to better, safer navigation, and new industrial technologies gradually filtered into all parts of the Empire in a way that only Germany and to a less extent France could match.


The Marxist view that that imperial powers plundered their colonies and left little in return does have some force in the case of feudal Spain and Portugal who struck rich veins of gold and silver and spices but lacked the capital to become significant investors. Also they transferred to their colonies their feudal social system which gravely handicapped the development of their many Latin American colonies . The much fewer Germany’s colonies did benefit from investment but they had few resources and a military regime in Germany dealt harshly with dissent. French colonies were poorer in resources and their economic development had less potential.

Britain on the other hand transformed the economies of those countries with the potential for tropical agricultural products such as tea, rubber, cocoa, coffee, and palm oil. Research, new technologies, improved road and shipping facilities as well as marketing institutions and good governance transformed tropical dependencies.

In order to exploit the rich mines of the Transvaal and the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia they opened up huge swathes of southern and central Africa. In East Africa they linked Uganda to the sea.

Britain in the Nineteenth Century was the largest international creditor and in 1913 some 40% of all foreign investment was British. Most of this would have gone to the USA, the Dominions and Argentina, but India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and African states benefited.

Claims that British investors were able to exploit these colonial markets through monopolies are as difficult to prove as disprove, but the underlying competitive nature of the market made monopoly more difficult, and in any case was infinitely more efficient and fair than the state or private monopolies operated by other Imperial powers.


Warren Hastings
Warren Hastings
Though by current standards the British Parliament in the eighteenth and Nineteenth Century was far from what we would today regard as democratic, it was internationally regarded as the most open of societies and a country to which many refugees fled. It had a Government which could be challenged.

As far back as 1788 Parliament had attempted to impeach Warren Hastings, the Governor of India, alleging that he had abused his role when accumulating vast wealth.

The existence of Parliament made it just that more difficult for colonial authorities and traders to get away with abuses which were common in other colonies. Although protests were unsuccessful during the opium wars with China, the greatest stain on British imperial history, the Amritsar killing of 357 Indians by a panicky General was widely condemned in Parliament. Likewise criticism of the camps established in South Africa to house the families of Boer guerrilla fighters were heeded.


The importance of the adoption of British Common Law and the British Judicial system made a valuable contribution to economic development. A study of 47 countries2 which compared colonies with those using French Civil Law concluded that Britain encouraged greater capital formation. British colonies generally provided stability and security, private ownership, secure rights to private property and enforcement of contracts. All of which attracted investment.

To this day the basis of British law and its Judiciary have been adopted by all Governments that were once part of the Empire.


The administration of the newly acquired British possessions in the Indian sub-continent was initially left to private traders and investors until the excesses revealed by Parliament of the East India Company led to the Government assuming responsibility for India in 1825. This led to an improvement of the administration though it was not until the shock of the 1857 mutiny that the administration was thoroughly reformed.

Thomas Macaulay
The subsequent reforms of the civil service, much of them based on proposals by Thomas Macaulay the historian, during his four year service in India, were introduced. Appointments were made thereon on merit, with a very stiff entrance exam which ensured a high level of education for successful candidates. Generous conditions of service and training in public administration sought to ensure that the temptations to which those in power could be resisted helped to establish what was to become a unique system of international public service which was relatively free from personal, tribal or ethnic loyalties which handicap public administration in most countries.4

What was an administrative system for the Indian Civil Service became the standard for all British Colonial possessions. It was well in advance of the Home Civil service, for which it acted as a model.

The Indian Civil Service seldom exceeded 1000 British staff yet ruled over a population of over a billion people for nearly 100 years and was treated with respect by those they ruled without great difficulty.

For nearly a century Britain was able to rule a quarter of the globe in relative tranquillity and with a minimal and respected administration. A brief memoir by a young District Officer, Charles Cullimore serving in Tanganyika in 1956, who was told to arrest 5 Masai warriors for cattle theft, throws light on British administration of most parts of the Empire. Taking his wife and daughter in a pickup he found them waiting at the roadside told them they were under arrest and to jump into the back to go to "Her Majesty’s hotel”. Which they did.

British administration put an end to many of the tribal skirmishes which were standard in most pre- colonial territories. In the Pacific an elderly woman recounted that before British rule she dare not leave her village for fear of being attacked and raped. And in Fiji their top civil servant assured the writer over dinner, who had lamented the “fatal impact” of British culture, “not to worry Gordon – if it had not been for the missionaries we would be eating you tonight.”

The British Empire - Was It Different?
Western Medicine
The writer, living in what was a safe peaceable pre-independence Rhodesia and travelling round most of Africa found the only country in which security was an issue was Ethiopia. Living there for two years a frequent complaint of the educated Amhara ruling class was that they never had the advantage that Ghanaians and Nigerians had of British colonisation.

“Pax Britannica” was not just an Imperialist dream. To appreciate the value of a non-venal administration and one which was based on an impartial public service one needs to live and work in Latin America, or indeed most developing countries to realize what a unique service it provided.

Professor Kartar Lalvani in his magisterial history3 states: “The British colonial legacy was radically different from that of Spain, Portugal and France which were highly centralised and controlled entirely by Europeans. When they left there was a power vacuum which led to corruption and civil wars. When the British left India they handed over power to a highly qualified Indian civil service and a fully functional secular civil service”.

The Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh stated at Oxford in 2010 that “the beneficial consequences (of the?) rule of law, government, free press, civil service had all served the country well”, and India’s most prestigious newspaper stated that “the British were the best Colonial rulers in the world”.


Additional to all these benefits Britain was able to pass on to her colonies the English language and team sports. The English language which has become the international means of communication has given Commonwealth countries and its people a headstart in technical and economic spheres and facilitated cultural communication and understanding.

Team sports, most originating in Britain, have also been a tremendously popular export and has transformed the world of sport


The amicable transformation of the world’s largest Empire within ten to fifteen years to independent countries was achieved without a serious collapse, except in India and Pakistan and later Nigeria. The emergence of a Commonwealth of nations was a historically a unique achievement. Because there were so many episodes during Britain’s rule which were a stain on Britain’s colonial record seeking to balance these against positive achievements might seem to be impossible.

In 200 years of Colonial rule there clearly many events which can justifiably condemned and regretted. They can be and are held against British rule. Exploitation, cruelty and corruption no doubt all can be claimed and many justified. But what about the benefits ? Who is to make a judgment?

There is in fact a convincing solution. Ask the people of the countries ruled what they thought. The best arbiters of this long period of rule, or indeed misrule as some still claim, are surely the countries and Governments once ruled by Britain. Their verdict? They all joined the Commonwealth.

The benefits of the Commonwealth were not all that great - and not much more really other than opportunities to meet people from other countries at no cost - but were a gesture of reconciliation, of good will and respect. Britain had changed her relationships peaceably and with little rancour. No other imperial power emerged from what could have been a harrowing experience so well as Britain.

That this relationship was not just one of political convenience emerged in the generally amicable relationships which continued but at a more personal level when Colonial administrators returned to visit those they ruled. They were invariably welcomed and in many cases they set up links to continue with them on a voluntary basis. For many people, especially the poorer, Colonial rule was one of peace and prosperity.


Britain’s rapid abandonment of her Imperial role was not entirely due to the realisation that she no longer had the resources to maintain the Empire.

There emerged in post war Britain a Labour Government, and a new social class who challenged a ruling class whose days were over. A quiet revolution had occurred. This meant that the enthusiasm for the Empire, for “Empire Day”, and ruling benevolently over other cultures as portrayed by Edgar Wallace in Sanders of the River was no longer popular especially amongst the intelligentsia.

The leaders of independence movements were all trained in British Universities and it would have been difficult to deny them the democratic rights which Britain possessed. They had support from a more liberal British society and from the Labour Party, who took over Government in 1945.

It would have been surprising if those demanding independence and those supporting them were likely to claim any benefits from colonial rule or to praise the Colonial administration which they were seeking to replace. Just the opposite. Most complaints rested on the class differences and racial discrimination which were attributed to British rulers who allegedly maintained a comfortable sense of superiority which went with Britain’s place in the world. Though this complaint was not without justification, it was not a fundamental problem, as class differences or ethnic prejudices were far greater in countries ruled by the British, such as the “untouchables” in India.

Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Germany and France all had colonies which only gained independence after bitter struggles, which Britain was able to avoid. This achievement was scarcely recognised by the new liberal establishment which emerged after the war and for whom Britain's role in ruling different cultures was a reprehensible feature of Britain's imperial past. There was little credit given to those who had ruled the Empire. Economic exploitation and cultural superiority were claimed to be characteristics of Colonial rule, and linked to an out-of-date British class system.

This view still pervades amongst a liberal intelligentsia and the BBC where little good can be heard of Britain’s colonial past.


There is plenty of justified criticism to be made of Britain’s two-hundred year rule but as we have stressed above it is for the newly established countries to determine whether they were well treated and as we have mentioned already the answer has been a favourable one.

It is however worth mentioning two major criticisms. The first was the ‘carve up’ of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884/5, and the second the partition of India.

The carve up of this huge distant continent appears at first sight an appalling disgrace ignoring ethnic links and setting boundaries convenient to European powers. One needs to take into account however that there are several thousand tribes in Africa and any attempt to establish larger units which would be essential to create viable states would have been impossible without fierce conflicts probably funded by foreign interests. There was and still is one country which escaped colonial domination (except for 4 years), Ethiopia. The writer lived there for two years and despite the beautiful fertile highlands where most Ethiopians live, the levels of poverty and injustice were unknown in any of the colonised African countries. Many educated Ethiopians lamented to the writer that they did not have the advantage of Ghana and Nigeria of being colonised. At best the case against Britain and France is defensible. By contrast Belgium, Spain and Portugal did little or nothing good, or even made worse the areas they ruled.

The other major accusation of British rule applies to India. It is claimed by some that Britain encouraged the division of India and was thus at least in part responsible for the appalling atrocities committed by Moslems and Hindus. There is little evidence to support this conspiracy theory. Kartar Lalvani’s book makes the case that the British rule encouraged integration and the Army and Civil Service had no discriminatory policies. And the argument that it was irresponsible to appoint a lawyer with no Indian experience to determine the new frontiers ignores the fact that the boundaries were first determined by two groups of four judges, Hindu and Moslem to make the initial decision. Where there was a dispute they wanted an impartial outsider to determine the outcome. And while it was true that Churchill opposed independence, it was the Labour Government who made the decision.

British Empire and Africa
Building Infrastructure
While we have not sought to deal with many accusations which may well be true they need to weighed against the benefits of colonial rule .

Travelling in these countries post independence one is impressed that the British link is respected and in many cases the administrative skills and integrity of Colonial administration much missed.

Britain established a system of administration which was honest, capable and served with a sense of public responsibility hitherto unknown in Governments. That the administrators were usually young, well-educated staff, landed in remote areas and ruling impartially over many thousands, sometimes millions of people, was a quite extraordinary story and is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere.

This is increasingly recognised by historians not only British , but Indian and African ones as well. The refusal of the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance a Museum to record this Imperial History was a tragic mistake which will, one hopes, be rectified in time.


Britain’s imperial and colonial role was very different from those of other imperial rulers. This was because Britain had the benefits of a Parliamentary system, and an economy which was thriving and could afford to invest. It had developed new highly productive industries which created the industrial revolution, and pursued a free trade policy which broke down the monopolies, state and private, which dominated most countries and allowed people and countries to trade and concentrate on what they did best. The emergence of an influential middle class led to the suppression of the slave trade and encouraged education and eventually independence of the colonies.

The transformation from colonial status to Commonwealth was achieved without problems and is the best testimony that these new countries did not believe that they had been mistreated and exploited as some claim. That this fact has not been realised yet in many intellectual circles in Britain is a great pity but the emergence of British and more important Indian historians has led the way to a better recognition of Imperial achievements.

1. Mat Ridley The Rational Optimist
2. Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain made the Modern World
3. Kartar Lalvani The Making of India - the story of British Enterprise
4. Zareer Masani Macaulay – Britain’s Liberal Imperialist
Colonial Map
British Empire Map, 1897
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 114: October 2017 2016


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe