British Empire Article

Contributed by David Brent

Some Brief Notes and Comments
Over recent decades, to this day, there has been a great deal of distorted and emotional criticism of the former British Empire which is constantly depicted as the 'villain of the piece' particularly by some members of the media and other self-serving community groups and individuals.

The extent of this insidious disinformation program is widespread to the extent that most of the time the general public absorbs and digests the unnecessarily biased and inaccurate information with little question or concern. It seems that a large segment of the public, which includes some members of the media, have very scant knowledge of the recent history of mankind over the last two-and-a-half thousand years, the nature of mankind's territorial acquisition and development and the evolution of the nations which exist today.

This whole history of the 'civilized world 'we know today has been a continuum of warfare, invasion, occupation, colonization and empire building with varying degrees of violence, tenure, success and failure.

Among the very many nations throughout the world over time, in Europe, Asia and America which have all followed this path of development, the best-known in recent centuries and acknowledged as the most humanitarian and most successful in terms of achievement (in spite of some mistakes) has been Britain.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Invasions of Britain Map
Some interesting facts about the British Empire are: Britain itself, over history, has been one of the most colonized countries in the world; subjected to attack and invasion by the Picts, Romans, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, the Vikings (Danes & Norwegians), and the Normans in earlier history, and later attempted invasions over the centuries by the Spanish, the French (Napoleon) and the Germans (Hitler) - who actually did succeed in invading and occupying the Channel Islands. This culturally mixed and turbulent history bred a hardy and resilient nation in many respects and one generally experienced in matters of international negotiation and diplomacy and, when necessary, skilled at warfare.

Certainly, in later centuries, compared to any other nation, Britain's empire was the largest and in total disproportion to its tiny 1and mass and small population.

While it must be said that the expansion of the British Empire was largely planned, particularly as a defensive measure against the French and the Dutch, to some extent, at least, the expansion and evolution of the British Empire was not so much the result of a planned national strategy but the vision and efforts of a number of shrewd and tenacious individuals who saw the opportunities and grasped them, sometimes in direct conflict with the views and opinions of the English Parliament and those who wielded power in England.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Shipping off Hong Kong
Hong Kong was the result of an astute commercial transaction, an island which was initially regarded by China as of little importance and by certain influential British politicians as of very dubious value at the time - 'a barren rock' and 'a most unhealthy place'. Little did they all realize!

The saga of Hong Kong's enormous success, due to efficient British administration and Cantonese business acumen, and the later flood of Chinese fleeing from Communist China to find a haven and a future under British rule and justice is well known. Uniquely, the end play of Hong Kong 's colonial history is in the near future with the intent of all parties being for a smooth and peaceful transition.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Stamford Raffles
Singapore, also, had a difficult and precarious genesis. Stamford Raffles failed to convince the Directors of the East India Company and the English Parliament that the acquisition of Singapore was imperative for the development and protection of trade routes in the Far East. It was only through his great vision, courage, persistence and tenacity and some very shrewd conniving with a local royal family installed as Sultan by Raffles, that a 'deal' was struck which surprised the English with the fact that they suddenly owned Singapore; a fact which they initially were reluctant to acknowledge and then when they did, refused to compensate Raffles for the considerable expenses he had incurred in establishing the settlement. However, aside from this 'black mark' against the English, and their appalling and myopic lack of vision, they subsequently administered the Settlement of Singapore with considerable skill and humanity - factors which were not lost on many races in Asia, notably the Chinese, who flocked to Singapore to benefit from the freedom to live and work in peace and safety under a sound and just British administration and to build wealth for themselves and their families, often in stark contrast to the incredible poverty and deprivation of their homeland origins. And finally, when the time came to hand over independence to the locals, the transition was accomplished peacefully and efficiently.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Prince of Wales Island
Malaya is another case in point. Malacca was taken over from the Dutch by the British as part of a treaty resultant from the victory of the British over the French (Napoleon) and their allies in Europe. The acquisition of Penang (and Province Wellesley) was the result of a shrewd commercial deal by Sir Francis Light with the reigning Sultan of Kedah.

Aside from these two small territories, neither the East India Company nor the English Parliament had any desire to become involved in further acquisitions in Peninsula Malaya (Malay States). They were greatly reluctant to be dragged into the problems of the other territories on the Archipelago beyond the existing Straits Settlements of Penang-Province Wellesley, Malacca and Singapore.

This was due not only to a pressing need to conserve very limited resources but also because of the political need not to alienate the Siamese who still wielded considerable power and influence in the northern regions of what is now known as Malaysia.

It was only at the repeated behest of certain sultans who were troubled by continuous internecine raids and "wars" that the British reluctantly came to agreements with these sultans to provide them with "British Residents" to advise and assist in overcoming their problems and to develop sound administrations. In due course this led to the gradual growth of British influence, both commercial and political, and finally to the formation of the Federation of Malaya after WW2.

As with Singapore, during this century or so of progress, justice, peace and prosperity, the country, under the British, attracted tens of thousands of migrants seeking a better life than existed in their homelands. In 1957 Malaya's transition to independence was also smooth and peaceful. In Sarawak, the territory was acquired by James Brooke with the popular consent of the people who invited him to become their Raja in 1841. In 1842, Raja Muda Hassim, as representative of the Sultan of Brunei, signed a document resigning his title and authority to the Englishman. It was not until 1888 that Britain entered the scene and agreed to grant protection to Sarawak. As a small point of interest, the United States of America recognized Sarawak before Britain.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
East India Company Ships
India, the jewel-in-the-crown of the British Empire, was the result of the vision and efforts of the directors of the East India Company acting with the consent of and by arrangement with the English Parliament. The achievements of the initial tiny contingent of The East India Company was nothing less than prodigious in the vast sub-continent of India with its teeming and incredibly complex millions. No less was the incredible achievement of the following British administrations which numbered only a few thousand in this hugely populated pot-pouri of races, sects, religions, languages, dialects - much of the time in conflict with each other. It has been said (by Indians) that only the British, with their skills and experience, diplomacy, justice and humanity, could have achieved such results.

Other territories of the British Empire in one form or another at different times included Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, Somalia, Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Rhodesia, South Africa, Mauritius, Cyprus, Ceylon, Burma, Sarawak, Sabah, Java, America, Canada, British Honduras, British Guiana, Jamaica, Bahamas, Bermuda, Trinidad-Tobago, Grenada, Antigua & others, Egypt, Sudan, Aden, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, Fiji, Tonga, Gilbert & Ellice Islands, New Hebrides, Samoa, Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Middle-East territories.

Other empires over history included:

Greece - early Mycenaean kingdom; the great empire of the Macedonians led by Alexander the Great which covered vast areas of the Middle-East; numerous wars resulting in the invasion and occupation of island groups in the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.

Italy - the Great Roman Empire which extended over most of western and southern Europe and the Mediterranean countries and great tracts of Asia Minor and North Africa; the Byzantine Empire covering Greece, Turkey (Anatolia) and North Africa; the Venetian expansion which extended over Mediterranean coastal territories including much of Greece, and in the 20th Century, Abyssynia, Libya, Iritrea and Somaliland, and finally, the partnership with Germany's military crusade for world domination in WW2.

France - Norman invasion of Britain and also Sicily, southern Italy and Greece; Napoleon's campaigns and huge empire building achievements across Europe and the Mediterranean coasts; colonies in North America (Canada & U.S.A.), Indochina, North and West Africa, Madagascar, Comoro and Reunion islands, Middle-East, Caribbean, South America (French Guiana), East India, Tahiti, New Caledonia. Spain - Europe (Spanish Netherlands), West Africa, North Africa (Morocco), South Americas (very extensive) and Central Americas, west and south of North America, Caribbean (Cuba), Philippines.

Portugal - West India (Goa and Diu), Brazil, Malaya (Malacca), East Timor, Macau, West Africa (Angola) and East Africa (Mozambique).

Mongols - huge and rapid invasions and vast territorial acquisitions across Siberia and the Russias and into Europe as far as Poland and Hungary by the great Khans (Genghis and others) and into south Asia, the Middle-East and northern India.

China - multiple and extensive invasions by Chinese races from north to south; considerable warfare and cruel subjugation of populations; invasion of northern Korea and Tibet.

Moghuls - extensive invasion and occupation of northern India
Japan - Formosa, Korea, Manchuria, China, the entire East and South-East Asia (with great barbarity).

Turks - Ottoman empire - very extensive over the Middle-East, North Africa, Egypt, Greece and southern Europe as far as Hungary and Austria.

Austria - extensive Hapsburg Empire into Bohemia, Silesia, Hungary, Moravia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Bukovina, Slavonia, Serbia, Wallachia, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, the Austrian Netherlands, Spain (Castille, Aragon & Granada), southern Germany and North Africa (Tunis).

Belgium - Central Africa (Congo)

Germany - early multiple wars and invasions and territorial gains in central Europe including invasions into southern Italy to establish the early Germanic states in central Europe; later colonies in Central, West, South-West and East Africa, Pacific (Samoa and others). New Guinea (Bismark Archipelago), European countries in World War 1, European and North African countries in World War 2, (two of the periods of the w o r l d 's greatest dislocation and destruction).

U.S.A. - the western regions (Indian wars) of North America, Hawaii, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba (Guantanamo Bay), American Samoa, Panama.

Iran - extensive Great Persian (Achaemenid) Empire commanding the entire east Mediterranean coast, Asia Minor territories, and into southern Europe (Byzantium and Macedonia), northern Egypt and Cyrenaica (Benghazi) and east to the River Indus (Afghanistan & Pakistan).

India - constant early internecine wars, invasions and occupations with various empires, including Bindusara and Asoka (largest).

Iraq - invasion of Kuwait, genocide among the Kurds.
Norway - Viking invasions into Scotland, England, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland.

Sweden - Viking invasions into Russia as far as the Black Sea; invasions of Norway, Lapland, Estonia, Livonia and Ingria.

Denmark - Viking invasions into England, France (Gaul), North Sea coast of Germanic territories; the empire of King Canute the Great included England, Denmark and Norway.

Egypt - control over the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon and Syria).

Syria - extensive Assyrian empires in the reigns of Tukulti- Ninurta, Tiglash-Pileser, Shalmanser and Ashurbanipal from the Mediterranean coast and northern Egypt (mouth of Nile). Hungary - early Magyar invasions which devastated large areas of central Europe including France (Gaul), Germanic kingdoms, Austria and Italy.

The Muslim Empires - these were very extensive and at different times the Caliphates and Emirates covered most of the Middle-East and North Africa and into Europe as far as Hungary, southern Spain and France, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and the Italian peninsula. In addition, slave raids were constantly made by Arab nations into African territories (with slaves in far greater numbers than were ever taken to the West Indies or North America - also, all supplied by Arab slave traders).

Holland - West Indies and East Indies (Indonesia), New Guinea, Malaya (Malacca), Borneo and South America (Dutch Guiana).

Indonesia - Sri Vijaya Kingdom, Majapahit Kingdom, Achenese Kingdom, Celebes, Moluccas, West Irian, Timor, Borneo and Sarawak ('Confrontation').

Siam - many conflicts with the Khmers, Anamese and the Burmese to finally establish Siam, which itself ruled the northern parts of the Malayan Archipelago (Kedah, Perl is, Kelantan and Trengganu).

Former Jugoslavia - current horrific carnage and genocide for territorial advantage and religious persecution among the former states.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
The Nemesis
Russia - over many earlier centuries subjugated and absorbed many ethnic communities in Siberia and northern Asia; since the revolution and since WW2 built an empire of subjugated nations across Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Created the greatest disruption to the progress of humanity and destruction and waste of nations' resources in the history of the civilized world.

Australia - the western and northern regions of Australia, Papua/New Guinea.

This brief and greatly oversimplified overview of colonial expansion over the past 3,000 years and longer clearly illustrates the natural predisposition of mankind anywhere in the world regardless of race, colour, or creed to seek territorial gain and influence by peaceful or violent means.
and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Trading Routes in Colonial Era

During the more recent period during the Nineteenth Century, under the impact of the industrial revolution, the character of European imperialism changed. Earlier, the motivating force had been the search for the riches of the Orient, and the European stake in Asia and Africa was confined to trading stations and the strategic outposts necessary to protect this trade. In 1815, with the important exception of India, this was still the situation. But in the Nineteenth Century two new factors came into play. The first was the enforced opening of the world - Turkey and Egypt (1838) Persia (1841) China (1842) and Japan (1858) - to European, particularly British, commerce; in short, the breaking down of barriers to European penetration. The second, setting in around 1880, when a new phase of the industrial revolution got under way, was the search for the raw materials without which industry, in its new form, could not exist. Tin and rubber from Malaya, nickel from Canada, copper from Australia and South America were the sinews of European industry; and so the scramble for natural resources began, providing new impetus for colonial expansion.

It could be said that European imperialism was more ephemeral than anyone, at the close of the Nineteenth Century, could have believed; and yet it left an indelible impression on the peoples of Asia and Africa, propelling them, unwillingly and willingly, into the Twentieth Century.
and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments

There were examples of nations which did not become involved in colonial outposts because of their later development in history, their geographical location, their lack of resources and know-how or the lack of opportunity in history. To some extent this included Australia (where I live) which historically was not inclined to seek external trade or influence beyond established partners and was generally only on the fringe of mainstream international power broking up to the turn of this century. However, when the opportunity arose for buccaneering behaviour on a small scale, Australians showed no hesitation in 'blackbirding' - the kidnapping of South Sea islanders (kanakas) for forced labour in Queensland.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Extent of Axis Empires
Expansion by colonization was the naturally accepted method of gaining and maintaining power (survival) and of developing the undeveloped parts of the world. Some nations were better at this than others. Many were dismal failures in many respects due to excessive greed, religious intolerance or sheer incompetence. Some were successful. The nation recognized as the most successful was Britain and certainly the greatest failures were the Russians/Soviets who couldn't even manage their own economy and last into the 21st Century, the Germans whose attempt at world domination is curiously forgotten by those who seem to follow a certain persuasion, and of course, the Japanese whose invasion and incredible barbarity in East and South-East Asia and arrival on Australia's doorstep is similarly overlooked when there seems to be some strange need to 'point the finger' and look for scapegoats.

To those who seem to feel that it is 'de rigueur' and fashionable to denigrate the former British Empire and, perhaps, to demonstrate to our Asian neighbours that we are terribly sympathetic to them for their past historic 'suffering' under the British, it would be worthwhile warning them that, for the most part, they will appear quite ridiculous to most thinking Asians who are a great deal more understanding and tolerant of their historical evolution under the British, and realistic in their appreciation of the benefits they inherited.

As some small evidence of this, coincidentally, the following is the content of a personal hand-written note by a senior government official of an Asian nation on a ceremonial occasion to a former British government official in August 1993:

"I will always remember this night (14 August 1993) as a memorable one. Never for a moment did it occur to me that a comrade-in-arms from across the seas would be back to share with us his past experiences and sacrifices towards the nation building of Malaysia.

Your sweat and toil will never be forgotten. I do hope that this auspicious meeting will confirm the future.

Terima kaseh dan semoga Allah akan melindungi anda. (Thank you and may Allah bless you)"

Furthermore, for those who seem convinced that the British were determined to hang on to their possessions forever, the following extract from a speech by Lord Curzon in Calcutta as far back as 1902 should help give the lie to this other myth:

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Lord Curzon
"To fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust or the mean, to turn neither to the right hand or the left, to care nothing for odium, flattery or abuse, to drive the blade a little further forward in your time, to feel that somewhere among the millions you have left a stirring of duty, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment where it did not before exist: never to let your faith grow sour or your courage grow dim, but to remember that the Almighty has placed your hands upon the greatest of his ploughs, in whose furrows the nations of the future are germinating and taking shape - that is the Englishman's justification in India: let it be his watchword while he is here and his epitaph when he is gone."

It is, unfortunately, too fashionable these days to be cynical and this is a predisposition of some sections of the media on many issues which it feels necessary to 'hype' and emotionalize in order to be popular and gain a sympathetic audience - unfortunately too often at the expense of the real facts. And , of course, this is not helped by fictional 1iterature, film and television which, in the commercial interests of 'good entertainment', distort history and the real facts, creating types of people and situations sometimes quite out of character with the real people and events. The ploy of mixing fact with fiction helps to add credibility to the latter.

To the disparagers of Britain who may point out many instances of failure and mistakes, either by the British Government or particular individuals, it is worthwhile to point out that in life it seems to be the busiest people who make the most mistakes. The less active or the idle do less and so make fewer mistakes.

It is a point of interest, too, that the two nearest nations to Australia's north were given independence by Britain - Malaysia (1957) and Singapore (1959) - allowing those populations to have the vote and elect their own governments. It took Australians another decade before they got around to giving their own aborigines the vote. Furthermore, there is a perception that Australians have not handled the situation of their aborigines as well as they might have. Is there, perhaps, something significant in this behaviour?

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
PNG Independence, 1975
In Papua New Guinea, Australia's one and only brief role as colonialist, there were many examples of failure to meet changing situations and needs. In spite of hard work and high ideals by some, Australians in Papua New Guinea were not well-prepared and did not handle many situations as well as might have been desired, allowing many instances of reversion to tribal warfare. When the United Nations delegation headed by Sir Hugh Foot visited Papua new Guinea it produced a highly critical report on Australia's failure to adequately prepare the indigenes for the path to Independence. Finally, when independence was granted in 1975 it was felt, as with Britain and India, that a Labour Party had rushed the decision to get out of Papua New Guinea and that the timing and circumstances left much to be desired.

Additionally, it might well be viewed that as administrator of Nauru, Australia's record was not very caring or farsighted and certainly detrimental to the islanders resulting in the devastation of their homeland.

In Fiji, Australia's CSR corporation gave considerable offence to the Fijians not only because it dominated Fiji's economy (sugar being by far the largest foreign currency earner at the time), but also because the management was perceived to be extraordinarily insensitive and arrogant. When independence was gained the Fijians rapidly ended CSR's long domination and nationalised it. In turn, this experience coloured general perceptions of Australians in these islands.

And, again, while there are exceptions, Australians generally have not endeared themselves to Asians in recent decades. In both their behaviour and attitude and their business reputation, or lack of it, there is much ground to be made up before the situation can be recovered.

Furthermore, while the 'White Australia' policy of Australia is a thing of the past, the legacy still sticks. The point is not lost on Asian countries that only recently Australia was insensitive to the situation and slow to remedy this anachronism in a world that had changed around it. Just as Australians now still do not recognize that it has changed in other respects also.

Colonialism was an inevitable transitional era which lasted for a relatively long period in mankind's recent history. Since WW1 and in the latter part of this century, as the world community rapidly matured and changed, particularly with increased standards of education and industrialisation, the explosion in communications technology and knowledge, and fast and economical air travel, so did political awareness. These factors - the spread of Western-based civilization, its justice system and other benefits and expectations - and the establishment of the United Nations, all influenced perceptions of the future global community and the necessity of self-determination for all nations. In turn, former colonialist nations made provision for this inevitable change and, with varying levels of success, independence was granted and many new nations emerged.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Political Risk Map
Unfortunately, while independence and freedom became a constitutional fact, history has shown that for some new nations the reality has been far from the ideal. It has been convincingly argued that in very many ways the great mass of the African populations, with some exceptions, are worse off now than during the time of their colonial past. The litany of corruption, devastation and horror common in many African nations described to a stunned Canberra audience of journalists and politicians by a highly respected international journalist and commentator in the late 80s was a stark reminder of the worst excesses of power hungry dictators and followers. An African, a noteworthy Ghanian professor of economics now domiciled in the U.S.A. said:

'Throughout Africa one constantly hears the slogans "People's Revolution" and "People's Power". But where is the power of the African to remove a head of state they do not want? Since 1957 there have been more than 150 heads of state in black Africa. Only six... relinquished power voluntarily... All the rest were ousted or assassinated in military coups. True freedom never came to Africa. Its people wanted independence from colonial rule, not to be ruled by another set of aliens or black neo-colonialists. Under their traditional chiefs - in most cases even under colonialism - they were at least free to speak their minds.'

From some of these countries and others, too, - including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, many have fled the conditions of their own homelands. And where have they gone? To Britain to find freedom, justice and a better life. Where did they learn of this? They knew from the time of the British Empire.

It seems pointless to continue selectively and repetitively to make such a biased issue, however subtly, out of past historical facts which were simply the inevitable way the world evolved and the manner in which civilisations developed up to the 20th Century. And to continue thus may well be perceived as somewhat immature and sanctimonious.

and Empires: A natural evolution
of civilizations: Some brief notes and comments
Lord Caradon
The most flagrant example of very recent, modern colonialism was, of course, the Communist Russian Empire. Built on an ideology and supported by a totalitarian regime which exported its credo across the world with devastating results. After 1945 the only people who still believed in empires were the Communists, at a time when others clearly saw the future otherwise.

One really has to ask, what is it that motivates those of a particular persuasion or mind-set, to ignore the appalling recent humanitarian record of Germany, Japan and Russia and persistently denigrate Britain? Do the unusually tragic circumstances of Australia's genesis as long ago as two centuries still have some bearing on our culture and colour some attitudes towards Britain? Or are there other reasons?

"Let not England forget her precedence in teaching nations how to live".

Lord Caradon (Hugh Foot), long active in the process of granting independence to his country's colonies - quoting the poet, Milton.

map of British Empire
British Empire Map, 1897
Also by the Author
Jungle Patrols
Encounters In Malayan Police Work
Malayan Tales
Malayan Emergency
Malaya - A Magical Experience
The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond: Real Truths, Hidden Truths and Forgotten Truths


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