The necessity for imperium

Contributed by Lee Ruddin

"Victorian imperialism and anti-imperialism were locked in unending if intermittent combat. "

Gladstone & Disraeli
The orthodox interpretation of nineteenth-century British imperial history divides the Victorian age into a period of anti-imperialism created by a timid shop-keeper spirit that culminated circa 1870 and a later age of belligerent, jingoistic, and yet angst-ridden imperialism.

The decade 1861-70 may practically be identified as a decisive intermission in imperial narration, for the duration of those years witnessed the proclivity in England toward the disruption of the Empire undergirded by the canon of 'Manchesterism.' Professor Schuyler convincingly evidenced that, the "Climax of Anti-Imperialism in England" was reached in Gladstone's cabinet of 1868. Gladstone himself, was a 'Little Englander' whose desire was that the separation of colonies from the mother-country ought to be volunatarily permitted. Between 1866 and 1874 Benjamin Disraeli professed less apathy, and it was as an outspoken imperialist, 'beating the patriotic drum' that he triumphed in the elections of 1874.

The Reach of Imperialism
Prior to dissecting the debate in totality, three historical phenemonon are attended to. First and foremost, a rapid concentration must be allied to the meaning of 'imperialism.' After which, Disraeli's anti-imperialist -cum- opportunistic imperialist stance is scrutinzed. The third and final phenomena is an invaluable overview illustrating Victorian aspirations. Upon the commencement of the debate when illuminating the advocates for unification, a precarious substitute to a "Greater Britain" is advanced in an age of increasingly greater ensembles by Dilke, Seeley, Froude and Ruskin. The second prong of the argument depicts an age of British industrialism and demographic constraint coupled with Smith and Dilke's separatist theses with particular focus on Canada. Beliefs of 'race,' 'state' and 'spiritual' bonds comprise an additional backdrop to Dilke and Seeley respectively whilst a critique of Froudian thought and international security occupies the conclusion. The absorbing extracts of Dilke and Blachford, in relation to colonies enduring manfully the inconvenience of her mother-country's battles is unfortuantely beyond that remit of this paper, whilst the 'living' author Hobson, is cited only briefly.

Imperialism, mirroring the 'black stone in Mecca,' has existed long enough for its meaning to have shifted innumerable times. Moreover, the manuscript ink of Hobson and Lenin forged 'imperialism' into an id'e fixe with which Western students must deal with today. Though first implemented to describe the desire of le parti imperialiste, more importantly, it was an illustration of the views of those who wished to strengthen the links between Britain and her Empire as it was emerging in the 1870's. In sum, 'imperialism,' the author formulates as the formal-direct and informal-indirect rule and tutelage of industrial countries over undeveloped regions (terra nullius).

Second, Eldridge finds it perverse that Disraeli should have been branded an anti-imperialist who later changed his colours for political advantage. The evidence for such accusations rests chiefly on two infamous quotations unearthed by Gladstone's biographer, John Morley. 'These few sentences have damned Disraeli,' Eldridge states, 'fashioning him as a so-called Little Englander conspiring to formulate an unprincipled opportunist' who hastily donned imperialist garb in 1872 in order to seize power.

Harvard scholar Niall Ferguson sheds valuable light on my third point: Victorian 'elevated aspirations,' 'not just of ruling the world, but of redeeming it.' This is further evidenced by Lord Salisbury's description of a world divided between "living and dying" nations. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher state in the first line of their opening chapter in Africa and the Victorians that, 'the Victorians regarded themselves as the leaders of civilization, as pioneers of industry and progress.' Pushing a nation to become a global power is contemporarily professed as the spirit of "Neo-Manifest Destinarianism." The time for native exploitation was over; 'now the aim became to improve them,' somewhat of a noblesse oblige in eradicating the 'superstitious, backward and heathen' cultures of les nations barbares. Though not explicit, Ferguson detects Manichean overtones in Victorian aspirations to bring light to the 'Dark Continent,' -gesta Dei per Anglos. Put simply, while there is no summum bonum, or greatest good -there is a summum malum, or greatest evil which the Victorian Empire acted as a bulwark against. Moreover, British imperialism yielded good fruit, "because imperialism as the midwife of democratic self-rule is an undeniable good." The biological conception of international relations during the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, chiefly the ideas of "social-Darwinism," the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, soon became an integral faction of official thought on foreign affairs.

"This is what England must either do -or perish, she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able. "
J. Ruskin 1870

At this juncture the phrase: Penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos is most apt; meaning insularity renders one uncultivated, where an island has no connections with its surroundings. However, the idea of mere size adding to the prestige of a country is, as Charles Dilke states, absurd, and a doctrine where China ought to be 26 times as mighty as France. Dilke, advances a new-fangled argument, namely that the possession of settlement colonies might perhaps be said to tend to preserve the English from insularity, from that dwarfing of the mind which would otherwise make England 'Guernsey a little magnified.' Crucially, the Ruskian ethos was not allied to the maintenace of international security in an age audience to the gradual expiration of Gulliver (Britain's industry) in Lilliput (world trade community).

Cambridge lecturer John Seeley, insisted, that Great Britain should take advantage of two inescapable facts: first, that British subjects in the colonies would soon outnumber those at home (while agreeing, Blachford foresaw metropolitan interference being resented in the colonies forestalling any union); secondly, and concurred by Julius Vogel, that the technology of the telegraph and steamanship, in collusion with the collpase of the old Mercantilist system had made a close and continuing union possible as never before. Only by knitting together a "Greater Britain:" which serves as a safety-valve for Great Britain, could the Empire desire to compete with the increasing ensembles of the future: namely Germany, the United States (hereafter U.S.) and the constant eastern threat of Russia. Both Germany and the U.S. were economically united behind a common protectionist barrier. Richard Cobden's arrogant belief that Britain's acceptamce of free trade would culminate in its universal adoption was a fallacy. Thus, opinion rocketed in viewing both colonies and dependencies as crucial markets whilst providing a 'motionless navy.' The corollary of the Victorian revolution in global-communications achieving the 'annihilation of distance' at the height of weltpolitisch angst fashioned this 'unity' feasibility:

The assertion that the Empire constitutes one British nationality is a favourite one with Seeley and forms the basis of his imperialism... advocating that this national unity should be recognized: What we call our Empire is not property, if we exclude India from consideration, an Empire at all, it is a vast English nation, only a nation so widely dispersed that before the age of steam and electricity its strong natural bonds of race and religion seemed practically dissolved by distance.

In collusion with Seeley, Oxford Professor James Froude, in two articles (1870) pleaded for a greater expansion of state-assisted emigration to the colonies, in order to decrease the demographic pressures currently encountered in the mother-country. Froude staunchly believed that the era was not welcome to small states and envisaged the "indefinite and magnificent expansion of the English Empire." From this time onwards the policy of imperial federation, or at least a close connection between the mother-country and her colonies was urgently advocated by Froude.

"Without India and the Colonies, England would lose her arms and legs, and remain a fat and bloated body racked with internal disease. "
J. Vogel

Froude's scholarship as an imperialist lay wholeheartedly in the new world of the colonies of British stock. In 1886 he published Oceana, a record of travel in Australiasia. The text pleaded for the organic growth of imperial unity: a 'Commonwealth' of Oceana held together by common blood. Of more importance to Froude however, was the colonies' vast tracts of land on which to construct a parallel agricultural Britain. White empire unity and growth were the keys to Britain's future ('true imperialism'), not dependency domination ('false imperialism'). As will be documented in the latter stages of this article, it was a vain hope.

Froude feared that an England without its Empire might sink into a community of harmless traders. Moreover, Vogel contends that the country would become "the theatre of firece war between the labouring, the moneyed and the landed classes." Both Froude and Dilke documented the precarious civilization fast emerging from laissez-faire in Britain, and duly professed the colonies ability to supply fresh-air for the masses. Similarily, 'land' was the bed-rock of Ruskian thought, in ensuring a healthy moral life. Froude was a patriot, and when he advocated emigration to the colonies he did not intend to cajole the finest of his countrymen to abandon the old country, 'as rats leaving a sinking ship.' On the contrary, both Froude and Ruskin staunchly believed that colonies could rescue the soul of England from her rapid industrialism and idividualism which threatened Britain's strength and those hostilities toward capitalism was the antithesis of Dilke's who viewed the U.S. republic as the ultimate exemplar.

Seeley suggested that there is no point in asking "What is the good of the colonies?" The colonies are a simple extension of the English state necessitated by pressure of demographics. The Expansion of England was not a plea for fresh expansion but for the consolidation of the English state overseas. 'Colonists' are recognzied according to Seeley, as 'Englishmen who happen to live beyond the seas, and the colonies are integral parts of England just as Cornwall or Kent.' Seeley was 'reluctant to measure the "greatness" of England by the number of square miles contained within the Empire, or by magnitude of population.'

We must cease altogether to say that England is an island off the another western coast of Europe, that it has an area of 120,000 square miles and a population of thirty odd millions. We must cease to think that emigrants, when they go to the colonies, leave England or are lost to England.

A generation hostile to 'jingo-imperialism' in the Nineteenth Century, drew from Thucydides the lesson that Athens had abandoned morality in the conflict with Sparta, overreached her strength and met the inevitable reward of her hubris. A similar fate was illustrated by Frederic Seebohm, whom advocated that Great Britain's imperial guidance debasing countries into a 'second-childhood' would fashion a corollary of socialism.

Goldwin Smith believed that until all colonies were truly independent colonists could not develop pride in themselves. Smith's text, mirroring Gladstone's oratory professed that a dissolution of the imperial tie with her colonists was inevitable. Smith furthermore, in opposition to John S. Mill insisted that prestige was an illusion.

At this crossroads, Dilke declined to trail Smith's lead. Their premises' are mirror-images, however their conclusions not siamese. Smith arrived as the result that separation was desirable and should be carried out, without regard to the wishes of the colonists. Dilke too, was of the persuasion to view upon separation as desirable, though he did not wish to pronounce this upon them. His contestation is advanced not in order to induce the home government to "cut the painter," but to make it the demand of the colonies that they should undertake an equitable portion of their defence burden.

Akin to the repertoire of separatists, Dilke takes an emphatically gloomy view of the position of Canada. He is frankly in favour of severing the connexion with the 'mummy of France:' where nos institutions, notre langue, nos lois is the motto of the inhabitants. Moreover, Canada once Republican, would cease to be a thorn in the neighbouring Republic whilst satisfying the Monroe Doctrine. Put simply, the separation of Canada from the Victorian Empire would relieve English foreign policy from what commentators foresaw, as an impending defeat by the U.S. in the event of hostilities:

The retention of colonies at almost any cost has been defended on the grounds that the connexion is conducive to trade, to which argument it is sufficient to answer that no one has ever succeeded in showing what effect upon trade the connexion can have, and that as excellent examples to the contrary we have the fact...that while the trade with England of the Canadian Confederation is only 4/11 of its total external trade...the English trade of the U.S. was in 1860 4/7s of its total trade. Common institutions, common freedom, and common tongue have evidently far more to do with trade than union has; and for puropses of commerce and civilization, America is a truer colony of Britain than is Canada.

However, Dilke revises his innovative statement when pronouncing that, "trade does follow the flag" in relation to "dependencies...[whose] retention stands on a wholly different footing from that of colonies." He bluntly denotes that if we were "to leave Australia... we should continue to be the chief customers... were we to leave India... they would have no customers at all" - for falling into anarchy, they would cease to export their goods and consume our manufactureres. However, it appeared to Hobson that, our trade with our rivals; namely, the U.S., Germany and Russia 'has been growing at a rate somewhat faster than the total growth of our foreign and colonial trade.'

The preceeding paragraph ought to be attended to by a table supplied by Hobson. Statistical data illuminated a gradual decline in the necessity of the colonies with their commercial connexion with Great Britain after 1872-75. 'While Great Britain's dependence on her Empire for trade was stationary, the dependency of her Empire upon her for trade was rapidily diminshing.'

It seemed suprising, that an intellect (Dilke) who was so ardent a believer in the mission civilisatrice of the English people, contemplate the fragmentation of the Empire. However, such an explanation is to be found in his feelings aligned with 'race.'

Dilke reasoned in terms of race: namely, national civilizations. To caricature Dilke as an opponent to colonization would be, the author soon came to learn, an elementary misinterpretation. To him, the foremost endeavor of the English people was indeed colonization. However, what one ought to note is that, Dilke detested the retention of such dependencies after their embryonic formulation.

In contradistinction to Dilke, Seeley viewed less favourably 'race' than he did the 'state.' 'Race' to Seeley, was not even the chief segement in the jigsaw of national solidarity on which the 'state' rests. This crucial discrepency accounts for the divergence in the outlook of the two intellects. With 'race' being Dilke's prime factor, and the notion of 'state' relegated to a mere artifical administrative unit, he idealistically foresaw the very real fragmentation of the Empire.

In conclusion, while Seeley's imperialism was founded on his worship of the 'state' and Dilke's on his veneration of 'race,' Froude's imperialism rested principally on his social theory. He wished the retention of the colonies because he foresaw the reproduction of them in simpler states proffering a nobler way of life than was predicted in contemporary laissez faire England. The system of organized emigration advocated by Froude was envisaged as an excellent remedy for distress at home. The philosophy read that a contingent of hardy British peasants transported to the embryonic colonies would effectively construct and recreate a parallel agricultural Britain. It was a vain hope. Froude underrated the practicalities in amalgamating the colonies and the mother-country, whilst further ignorant of the fact that the colonies were already highly urbanised and that their future, comparable to England's, lay in the expansion of towns and growth of industry.

The basic truth is that Froude, suffereing from weltpolitisch angst and resentment toward the U.S. exemplar greatly exaggerated the unity of the Empire. Moreover, Seeley underestimated a facet of the corollary of the 'annihilation of distance' and the national consciousness among colonists, who had not previously seen themselves as members of a single society.

Both Froude and Jeremy Bentham in relation to the colonies: whether one pictured a fruitful future awaiting them either as a unit of a Victorian Empire or as 'free' and democratic republic, believed that, they could not be dumped down in the meantime by the wayside by the imperial Government. Some territories we had reclaimed from barbarism. We could not abandon and allow anarchy to return in an 'apolar' moment. The Protestant social gospel leader Lyman Abbott proclaimed that:

It is said that we have no right to go to a land occupied by a barbaric people and interfere with their life. It is said that if they prefer barbarism they have a right to remain barbarians. I deny the right of a barbaric people to retain possession of any quarter of the globe...Barbarism has no rights which civilization is bound to respect. Barbarians have rights which civilized people are bound to respect, but they have no right to their barbarism.

Men differ in native ability: an assumption which derived from Aristotle's defence of the "natural slave" and from the stance that civilized men, ought to rule over barbarian men. Thus, the justification of imperialism by natural superority is merged with the missionary concept that the ruler will improve those ruled.

Moreover, 'Greater Britain was a dwelling-spot of freedom.' In this view, mission was a charge and a moral responsibility: any passion de gigantesque was alien to mid-Victorian thinking. However, Hobson pessimistically noted that, 'freedom initiated and maintained by military power is at best a justified doubtful and unstable sort of freedom.'

Not to omit the significance of India in such an article, Seeley notes that, "it may fairly be questioned whether the possession of India does increase our security, while there is no doubt that it vastly increases our dangers." As a mere matter of insurance, it would be better to maintain the connection "with the foster-child of England," even at a heavy cost, than to have those dependencies added to the repertoire of greater ensembles.


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 | British Empire on Ebay

by Stephen Luscombe