Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Contributed by Tim Hughes

The Rise of the British Empire

The British Empire was the first genuinely global empire, an empire that ranged, at times, from the American colonies in the West, Australia and New Zealand in the East, Canada and her dominions in the North and huge chunks of Africa in the South, including Egypt and Rhodesia. These huge landmasses, and many other smaller islands and places besides, were to be shaped, controlled, dominated and otherwise brought under the dominion of a nation which, prior to colonial ambitions, was a small and perhaps dull and uninspiring set of countries. That the British Empire significantly kick-started the world into the modern era, and gave the world a unifying language is not really in dispute; but the truth behind the image certainly is, and the ugly reality behind the ever-polished and very-rarely challenged veneer of respectability the British, and hence the British Empire, in some quarters have tried to maintain.

Where do we begin? At the beginning. Far from Britain being historically a never-ending line of tyrants and wayward rulers, Britain has been, to some degree at any rate, a parliamentary democracy that reigned in kings and queens and rulers, and was the first to have a popular revolution, under Cromwell, in Europe. The Englishmen who started the first serious forays into venture capitalism, were little more than pirates and adventurers who plundered the Spanish main, and wanted a slice of the wealth flowing out of the New World, of which ventures were often backed by Royal decree. Here begins the roots of the British Empire.

From ideas of empire rose the ideas of capitalism, free trade, enforced labour, rigid hierarchies, the criminalisation of the poor, and severe and almost unquestioned divides between those who had and those who did not have, both at home and abroad. That this process made many people seriously wealthy cannot be disproved, that it also made many many more people far worse off is, in reality, more important an issue to deal with.

That the legacies of empire are far reaching can be seen only too clearly in places like Ireland, Africa, India and much of the Middle East at this present time. It is when racism and prejudice are broached, that the Empire seems to come into its own; Ireland was the first serious attempt by the British Crown and Parliament, to begin a process of English colonisation, whose colonists would then take over the 'wilderness' of Ireland and use the land more profitably. The Irish were treated like the native 'Indians' a little later in America, as being 'in the way', nomads who were uncivilised, and, more importantly, who did not utilise, and particularly, did not 'own' the land they wandered. This is an important point to understand, and much rests on this 'belief', both in Ireland, America and much later Africa and other nations. The inference being, in English and British mindsets, that because nobody 'owned' the land, it was up for grabs. A simple point, but much laboured, and was the intellectual argument for such colonialism. The Englishman was a gentleman, the Irishman, and henceforth many other nationalities, was an uncivilised and uncultured brute. This 'excuse', compounded with other often faulty reasoning and intellectualising, was the reason why Englishmen sought to establish colonies that would make them enormous profits, buy themselves into the gentry, win fame and glory, and establish their names. Such ideas of civilisation and 'gentlemanliness' being used to excuse ethnic cleansing, land grabbing, slavery and untold injustices have their reflections in most if not all empires, and are seen clearest in the 'nazification' of early 20th century Germany; when notions of superior and inferior excused the most barbarous and evil of practises.

Africa only really became a serious issue to the Empire at the end of the 19th century, but for centuries prior to this, was a source of wealth for Britain and Europe, primarily because of the slave trade, but also as a market for European goods, and as another outpost of European colonialism from the early 1600's. According to Iggy Kim and Peter Boyle, in their article How the rich invented racism, racism has its historical roots in the development of capitalism. Slaves could be purchased cheaply and brought in unlimited numbers from Africa. In the racist mode of reasoning, the next logical step was to conclude that, somehow, blacks must have been "naturally" inferior to whites. Two other factors assisted the advance of racist ideas in the 19th century: the expansion of European capitalism to include huge colonial empires in Asia and Africa, and the development of early theories of human evolution. Gross manipulation of the latter helped justify the new global oppressive relations of imperialism.

Liverpool Docks
Ports like Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow, amongst no doubt many others, grew rich and powerful as a result of this trade, allowing merchants to expand, bankers to grow wealthy, companies to prosper, and many individuals to make more money than they knew what to do with; it was indeed a profitable trade, and also, more and more, a trade that is hidden from history. It is no exaggeration to say that the slave trade, and the profits it created, helped cement the emergence of Capitalism, Britain's pre-eminence as a world empire, the beginnings of Britain's industrialisation, and the creation of a class of capitalists with untold wealth and power at their fingertips. Such unequal relations of wealth and power, creating vast divisions in Britain and around the world, would become uncomfortable realities for many people, and sooner or later would be justified or explained away in high-blown intellectual and scientific terms.

Desmond Kuah, of the National University of Singapore, writes that by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the British Empire was the largest and richest empire in the world. This naturally gave rise to the belief that the British themselves were the chosen race chosen to bring the benefits of western civilization to the backward areas of the world. With India's conquest, in ways militarily, economic, social, ethnic and even religious, came then, as with other dominions, justifications and intellectual reasoning about British, and White European, 'natural' superiority and the 'natural' inferiority of conquered people's around the world.

In understanding and accepting the real reasons for empire, then a better understanding can be made of seeing the inherent divisions within the imperial system, and how racist and classist propaganda, to name but two, was heaped on top of centuries of brutal, merciless and systematic injustice for one real purpose, to make capital gain.

Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History at Vassar College writes that during the Nineteenth Century theories of race were advanced both by the scientific community and in the popular daily and periodical press. In his article The Function of Racism in Victorian England Professor Wohl goes on to argue that "to denigrate or point up the bestial, brute, savage nature of an outside group is to point up our own advanced state and protect ourselves against inner fears or tensions. Racism and class prejudice, in other words, not only serve as agents of political power, but also serve as buffers between a community and a nature that seems to be getting too close to it for psychological comfort."

Social Class ideas in Britain followed many of the arguments that racist classifications did, and were equally pored over by scientists and social theorists. In Britain, class became an issue by the early 19th century. These classes were identifiable groups, and were most notably understood in terms of inequalities in wealth, social power, political power, life expectancy, living conditions, types of job and so on. Race and Class often overlapped, as the Irish would be seen as inferior both racially and in terms of their low-social status. David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College argues that early in the Nineteenth Century the labels "working classes" and "middle classes" were already coming into common usage. The old hereditary aristocracy, reinforced by the new gentry who owed their success to commerce, industry, and the professions, evolved into an "upper class". Beneath the industrial workers was a submerged "under class" which lived in poverty. It could be argued that in some cases, this structure is still viable even today.

The Fall of the British Empire
Now, I wish to look at how Britain's decline as a world empire, effectively in the middle of the 20th century, was and has been in many cases a smokescreen for Britain's continued economic domination of large parts of the globe, and how Britain itself to this very day exercises divisions and injustices that impoverish large sections of the British populace, both ethnic British and other ethnic minorities. And how tying all this together, and at its very heart, there is a moral vacuum at the heart of those who control mass wealth and power at all costs, even the cost of a peaceful world.

The reality of empire, both historically and at present, are so far from the rosy picture of a benign and benevolent undertaking, that an unlearned person might think they were discussing two completely different things. The reality of empire is power, and control of wealth and resources, always stacked unevenly and unjustly in favour of small groups of people. The story of the British Empire, now as well as then, is the story of how this power was and is wielded to create class and wealth divisions in Britain, and how these divisions were and are promoted around the world, in 'superior' white and 'inferior' natives and dark-skinned peoples of the world, all for an agenda of mass profit and wealth creation for a relative few, and the vastly unequal power relations such wealth creates, in Britain and the rest of the world. How these divisions are promoted, accepted, subtly held onto, and reinforced by supposedly benign British institutions like the Church of England, the Judiciary, the Armed Forces with their rigid class structures and so on. In the days of Empire on the global scene, it was a belief that the white man was superior, sensitive, intelligent and fit to govern, but in Britain itself, it was a class structure, again promoted as benign, that held sway; the effete middle and upper class gentleman holding wealth and power and exercising dominance over his social inferiors. Class and Race are still at the heart of a divided Britain, and a divided world. On these injustices were huge fortunes made, lands appropriated, empires carved out, colonies settled and wholesale destructions of cultures and ways of life.

It is easy to attack a structure because you are not part of it, or because you or your family and so forth never really benefited from these structures. But it is the moral issue that is at stake here; the morals surrounding slavery, plantation systems, factory systems, enclosure acts, criminalisation of those left out of the enormous wealth created by Britain for centuries. Yes, it may be an issue of envy, but it is also one of injustice heaped upon further injustices, and of institutions in Britain like the Judiciary and the established Church of England, who rather than speaking out compounded the guilt by being ineffectual, obscure and often mouthpieces for the power and injustices meted out. The heart of the myth is the fallacy of English fair play and justice. A mere glance at history, and at present day affairs shows there is only greed and naked self-interest, compounded with injustice and a lack of any real morals whatsoever. The real enemy is injustice.

In Mark Curtis' eye-opening book 'Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World', the realities of British power and greed are encapsulated in factual chapters, which have been written after studying declassified information of Britain's role in a number of global situations. This is truth, from the horse's mouth so to speak, and it does not make particularly edifying reading. As well as his page by page dissection of well-spread lies by the British elite when tackling popular uprisings in Africa, British Guiana and many other places throughout the 20th century, he criticises the media, even the liberal, intellectual and so-called independent media and journalists, for largely ignoring the injustices sown by Britain. This speaks of a bigger picture, and of the class structures within Britain itself, where individuals have colluded and conspired to ignore unpalatable realities so long as they in some ways benefited. In present day terms, we might well ask why in Britain, at the heart of a modern democracy, there are vast gulfs of wealth disparity between rich and poor, and we might ask why a country awash with wealth and resources should become even more divided than poorer countries, with an immoral class system that remains basically unquestioned at this time.

Mark Curtis writes, in his aforementioned book: "The reality is that British governments bear significant responsibility for global poverty-not only as a former colonial power that shaped many of the current unjust structures, but in their championing of a world trade system and economic ideology that enriches the few and impoverishes many more...Yet I do not think I have ever seen a media article that mentions that Britain might in some way systematically contribute to poverty in the world. Is this not extraordinary?" Remarkable certainly, and extraordinary perhaps so, but somehow this tallies with everything anyone who merely wishes to be honest about the British Empire, and about the realities of empire; those of unequal power and wealth relations, and of little or no moral culpability or responsibility. The fuel of the British Empire was not coal or wool after all, but an incredible lack of concern for those trampled underfoot in the quest for bigger and bigger profits.

And just as Britain, like America, has traditionally backed right-wing dictators and right-wing monarchies and powers in other countries around the world, those regimes often denying even basic rights to the mass of their own people, so Britain has learnt these injustices well, and kept large amounts of British people in the dark, and in poor paying jobs, in run-down areas economically, whilst allowing other groups to prosper often unjustly at the expense of those who are politically, economically and socially oppressed. Sound familiar? I expect it does.

In Liverpool at this present time, one of the major ports at the height of Britain's imperial power, the reality of wealth creation, and of British civilisation and British society is unveiling itself in 'Regeneration' and the much-touted 'Capital of Culture'. Liverpool is a working class city, a town that, whilst a relative few made fortunes and good livings, has been a city traditionally poor, with low paying employment and few real prospects for the average citizen, both historically and at this time. The ball starts rolling when rich people can make more money, and most Liverpool people, those born-and-bred, and many more besides, see in Regeneration a cynical exercise in money making, and another gravy train for overpaid yuppies, consultants, city councillors, politicians and speculators of all kinds and of every hue. I have personally interviewed lots of people in the city centre who have said they are being sidelined, and basically booted out of the city to make way for overpriced restaurants and trendy wine bars, and higher paying rents. This is just another in the long phase of injustice meted out by British wealth and power. That of poor and ordinary people being sidelined to make some rich people even richer, and of all the injustice and hypocrisy that all this entails; low wage economies in the world's 4th richest country, higher taxes for poor people, higher prices in Britain, an average wage in Liverpool of '9000 after the billions flooding in from Europe over the last decade and perhaps more. You may well ask why, in all of these capitalist speculations, a little more of the huge wealth floating around cannot be shared a little more fairly. And therein, in these questions, are answers to be found. They are uncomfortable answers, but true all the same, and they all point to greed, hypocrisy, injustice, breathtaking double-standards, corruption in places high and low and wilful immorality.

The aftermath of the British Empire can be seen clearly around the world, and in Britain itself, divided by unjust class and racist systems, and particularly in the 'gold rush' speculations of Liverpool's Capital of Culture. It's heart is empty, and its morals are non-existent.

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