The British Empire lasted for half a millennia and stretched to the furthest corners of the Earth. However, it was not hatched in isolation and was influenced by political, social, cultural, technological and scientific trends from the home country, immediate neighbours, Europe and the wider world. The timelines available here try and put the developments that occurred in the acquisition, running and dissolution of Empire into a wider context. Of course influence worked in both directions and developments in the Empire could and did have a significant impact on the rest of the world. The British Empire joined parts of the world that had never been connected before. It produced enmity and envy but it also produced new opportunities and made available new products and resources to the world market. Soon, settlers and colonial subjects began to make important contributions in the fields of science, culture and technology themselves. In short, the British Empire was not an institution in isolation. It took important ideas from wider European and world culture but it also fed ideas and concepts back into parts of the world that were not flying the Union Jack.
I have also attempted to explain the complicated procedure of when precisely colonies joined or left the empire on Colonies page. The British Empire was an eclectic collection of colonies with a bewildering variety of colonial structures. I've attempted to simplify the types of colony and put them into some sort of order of when they transitioned from one kind of colony or status to another. It was not an easy task to put together and is certainly open to debate in places. However, I hope that it at least gives an approximation of when colonies were included in the British Empire. Please feel free to contact me with suggestions or improvements to this particular timeline.
The Sixteenth Century
The very first trans-oceanic aspirations by England was in the reign of Henry VII at the tale end of the fifteenth century. The Spice Trade of the Orient provided the primary impetus for this interest. The spices were incredibly valuable for their weight. They also improved the taste of cuisine but more importantly they could be used to extend the shelf life of foodstuffs in an era before refrigeration. Spices from the Orient were literally worth more than their weight in gold. The Venetians dominated the traditional silk routes as they came into Europe through the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Portuguese were in the process of trying to find an alternative route around the base of Africa. The Spanish were attempting to find their own route sailing Westwards but stumbling across the New World as they did so. As European powers scrambled for access to this lucrative trade, England dabbled in searching for a North-West Passage to the Orient through the frozen North of the New World. As yet, England did not have the necessary maritime skills to conduct this exploration without expertise and help from the Continent. Henry VII turned to the Italian navigator John Cabot to lead England's initial forays. John Cabot, and later his son Sebastian Cabot, did not find the fabled North-West Passage. Instead they found very barren coastlines and few products of interest except the information that there were good fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland. The King and his merchants were more interested in finding a route to the Orient and so were disappointed with these results. However, the fishing banks off Newfoundland would inspire various English fishermen to cross the Atlantic and slowly build up the oceanic and maritime skill-set of English mariners that would later be so vital to the success of Elizabethan explorers like Raleigh and Drake. So, although Cabot's voyages failed in their immediate goals, they lit the fuse that would later allow English exploration to flourish.
A glance at the Sixteenth Century Timeline will quickly confirm that England's Imperial ambitions were very limited in the first half of the Century, but then seem to burst into life in the second half. On the face of it, Henry VIII seemed far more interested in the affairs of Europe than in becoming involved in long distance trade and exploration. However, it was his policies that would help lay more groundwork for England's later exploits. In particular, Henry invested heavily in the Navy and coastal fortifications of his kingdom. This was largely financed out money raised from the dissolution of the monasteries and the declaration of himself as the Head of the Church of England. This English Reformation would itself become a very powerful catalyst during the reign of Elizabeth as Protestant England had to survive against the rivalry provided by Catholic Europe in general and Spain in particular. Henry VIII had no way of knowing that his reign would usher in these huge transformations to England's fortunes and future direction.
The initiative for exploration in the Sixteenth Century certainly moved to the Iberian peninsular with Portugal and Spain leading the way. The wealth that these two countries discovered made the other countries of Europe jealous of their successes. Henry VIII was not completely averse to joining in the exploration game and gave permission for Sir Hugh Willoughby to try and find a North-East Passage through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean and John Rut to look once more for a North-West Passage. Their failure, combined with rising tensions with the French, deflected Henry from further maritime exploration. However, he would have more success closer to home with Ireland. He would become the first English King to successfully be regarded as the King of Ireland and have the majority of Irish lords pay fealty to him in return for reissuing lands and rights to them. It would be a rare moment of triumph for the Royal Family in Anglo-Irish relations. Elizabeth would later see a flip in these fortunes as maritime exploits boomed but Irish affairs deteriorated dramatically.
As a firm Protestant, Edward VI was only 10 years old when he came to the throne and yet he, or rather his advisers, turned to the by now venerable Sebastian Cabot to return to the employ of the English Crown. Cabot had worked for many years for the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns in their more advanced explorations and so brought a great deal of useful information to the field of English exploration. This was put to use by mariners such as Thomas Wyndham and John Locke who attempted to engage in trade with the Guinea Coast. Sir Hugh Willoughby once again picked up the idea of discovering the North-East Passage along with Richard Chancellor. Sir Hugh Willoughby was killed in the Arctic Ocean but Richard Chancellor did at least make it to the Court of the Tsars of Russia in Moscow. This may not have been the original goal of the expedition but it generated later interest to attempt to discover a river route to the Orient through Russia along the massive river-ways there. It was during Edward's reign that the first concept of 'planting' settlers to Ireland was considered at Leix and Offaly. These plantations would later be replicated and used as a model for English settlements in the New World and the Caribbean. For the time being, they caused much resentment amongst the local populations and were the source of repeated antagonism. Edward was to die at 15 before his imperial ambitions could be fully realised.
The ascent of his Catholic sister Mary brought the possibility of a long term shift in England's imperial ambitions. This was especially the case when she married the heir to the Spanish throne and had access to one of the two most powerful colonial empires of the era. However, Mary invested her energies in re-establishing Catholicism within her own kingdom rather than searching for new lands and opportunities. This provoked an angry backlash from dissenters and great suspicion of her foreign husband. This suspicion seemed to be confirmed to many English when she presided over the loss of England's last continental foothold Calais as she supported her Spanish husband in a war against the French. In many ways, this marks the end of England's old Continental Empire and left the canvas blank for Elizabeth's reign as she ascended to the throne just months after the loss of Calais.
Elizabeth's reign was truly a transformative one in the history of English exploration and empire. There are a number of reasons for this but it had been facilitated by the massive increase in skills and knowledge of English mariners throughout the century. They were spurred on by seeing the riches of the Orient pour into Portugal and the riches of the New World pour into Spain. The fact that these were both Catholic rivals to increasingly Protestant England meant that they were considered fair game. Elizabeth played a coy diplomatic game with the Spanish who she regarded as her pre-eminent rival. This was largely due to the fact that the traditional rival of France was paralysed by its own Reformation struggles between Huguenots and Catholics and the fact that Spain was increasingly active in the Low Countries where England had historically traded the most. Elizabeth attempted to be careful enough to avoid the full blown opprobrium of the Spanish and so prevent all out war between the two, but this came to be increasingly difficult and ultimately failed. It was during her reign that John Hawkins attempted to break the Iberian monopoly of trade between Africa and the New World in a series of expeditions that took slaves from Portuguese Africa to the Spanish colonies of the New World. When he, and his cousin Francis Drake, were attacked at San Juan de Ulua in 1568 it would transform English attitudes to Spain once and for all. After this attack, English mariners considered it a patriotic duty to raid Spanish ships and settlements as piracy and privateering became legitimate tools of the state. Francis Drake proved to be particularly adept at these exploits and raided Spanish possessions with impunity. His daring circumnavigation of the world was principally designed to gain access to Spanish silver and treasure on the Pacific Ocean, but he also achieved two other notable feats. Firstly, he notionally claimed and established new colonies; Elizabeth Island in the Magellan Strait and Nova Albion on the West Coast of America. Although these were not peopled in any way, it seems to have generated an interest in claiming lands that would quickly be followed up by other English mariners like Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh. Secondly, Drake loaded up with spices in the Orient and brought them back along with his Spanish treasure. These spices would fire up the imagination of merchants and traders in England like James Lancaster who would try and figure out their own way of challenging the Portuguese monopoly over spices. Drake had also joined in on the search for a North-West Passage on the Pacific side, but this was to prove to be as thankless task as for those attempting to discover it from the Atlantic side.
The Sixteenth Century saw England change from being a minor bit player that dabbled in international voyages and exploration to becoming a major player with skills and ambition to rival any other European country. The search for a North-West and then a North-East Passage dominated the strategic thinking of England's explorers throughout the Century. They understood that Portugal had come to dominate the African route to the Orient whilst Spain dominated the route around the Americas. The Great waterways of Canada and the frozen North appeared to offer such possibility to the English and yet each expedition which went searching for a route failed. The English had transformed themselves into a viable maritime power during this century, but it was still primarily a destructive force in that it preyed upon Spanish success rather than discovering its own sources of wealth. This was similar to the way that their Dutch neighbours started to prey upon Portuguese trade routes and outposts. It was not until the Seventeenth Century that the English would really begin the process of acquiring their own far flung colonies, settle them with English people and engage in sustained international trade with the Orient and the New World.
The Seventeenth Century
The Seventeenth Century began to formalise England's colonisation process and identified it as being a nation with rising imperial ambitions. However, the Century also saw an implosion in England's domestic politics and constitutional arrangements. This meant that for much of the mid-century, England's priorities were turned in on itself. This did not mean that England's colonisation came completely to a shuddering halt. Rather, it went in surprising directions as the victorious Commonwealth moved its focus from England to impose its will on her far flung colonies and was able to do so with a newly confident and experienced army and navy. The second half of the century proved as tumultuous as the first half as the Stewart kings managed to lose control of their Crown once more. The events of 1688 had a stark effect on England's imperialism as an infusion of Dutch systems modernised and transformed England's commercial and maritime abilities. So, on the face of it, the Seventeenth Century appeared to be a period of limited colonial expansion and yet the events of the century were fundamental in laying the groundwork for the rapid expansion in the following centuries.
The death of Elizabeth in 1603 saw the end of Tudor rule in England. It had been a period marked by massive social, religious and political change, but the 45 years of her rule had at least allowed England to become at ease with itself and had given England's mariners the ability to defend the island and participate in the exploration of the world and discover new lands, routes and opportunities. The accession of the Scottish James Stewart would usher in subtle but important changes in England's imperial ambitions. Firstly, the binding together of the Scottish and English Crowns would itself have profound consequences in the next century as the two countries became united. Stewart rule seemed to provide an opportunity for the elites of both nations to get to know one another better and to collaborate more and compete less. It also appeared to reduce French influence on the islands. Scotland had long been in alliance with France which had made England nervous. Scotland and England were on similar if not identical sides of the reformation coin. They were both becoming predominantly Protestant nations, even if the form of Protestantism differed on both sides of the border. These commonalities came together neatly in Stewart policies over Ireland. Scots and English both became heavily involved in the plantation systems organised by the King. Additionally, it was King James who came up with the idea of using what we now call the Union Jack to represent his two kingdoms; the Flag of St. George and St. Andrew imposed on one another (the inclusion of the flag of St. Patrick would not happen for another two centuries). The second major component of Stewart colonial policy was the promotion of the idea of Chartered Companies and a mercantilist arrangement. This was not wholly a new idea. Elizabeth had granted charters to Sir Walter Raleigh, English Merchant Adventurers and the Muscovy Company for example. However, James turned it into a major plank of his economic and colonial policy. He was delighted to have access to a way of raising large sums of money that did not require the English Parliament to put their hands in their own purses or raise it from the population through taxation. For James, it seemed a cheap way of raising large amounts of money. Companies would be given permission to utilise the resources of new lands and trade back to England with monopoly rights. The companies were happy not to have any competition and the King was giving away lands or trading rights which were only notionally his to give. This outsourcing of the colonial processes would have profound effects in two key destinations; Virginia and Ireland.
The Americas were proving a disappointment to England's mariners and merchants. The longed for North-West Passage was still nowhere to be found. Prospectors had not yet located the large silver and gold deposits that the Spanish seemed to be finding in Southern and Central America and the Indian tribes seemed to live in a cash poor subsistence and nomadic economy. There were no great empires like the Aztecs or Incas who could be readily plundered. The subtle differences in weather patterns from England also confounded the earliest settlers who saw their attempts to grow familiar crops stunted by the extremes of weather they encountered; too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. Roanoke and Popham colonies both were abandoned and the Jamestown colony appeared to be on its knees. To all intents and purposes, it seemed that the dreams of a North American Empire to rival the Spanish Empire to the south were coming to nothing. The unlikely saviour of the London Virginia Company was the humble tobacco plant. Although Virginia was proving a tough place to grow familiar crops, this native crop thrived in the conditions and crucially was very light for the value that it could be sold for in Europe. One ship laden with tobacco could sell it for far more money than any amount of familiar agricultural produce back in Europe. Tobacco transformed the economic balance and allowed the commercial ventures to continue and pay their way.
For a while there was an unhasty rush to grow tobacco and neglect basic foodstuffs. The authorities had to step in and ensure that food was grown too but the fact that the colonies could fend for themselves economically was crucial. It meant that they could attract new settlers and it meant that they could support skilled craftsmen and farmers in a virtuous circle of development. The more they could sell tobacco for, the more people who would come to the colony who could grow more tobacco and would need more goods and food. Tobacco was the catalyst that allowed for English North America to kick start itself into being a viable entity. Furthermore, James Stewart had succeeded where his more illustrious cousin Elizabeth Tudor had failed in establishing a permanent English presence in the Americas.
Another opportunity to outshine his cousin came before James in Ireland. Elizabeth had seen her Irish policy turn into a quagmire that exhausted her treasury and her patience. Fortunately for James, the Irish rebellions had reached their peak and had been defeated just before he came to the throne. Even more fortunately for him, his policy of coming to a detente with Spain would pay dividends in Ireland. Spain had long been England's number one enemy but James turned that on its head with an Anglo-Spanish Peace Treaty in 1604. Domestically, this was highly unpopular in England but in Ireland it pulled the rug from under the feet of Irish rebels who had long counted on Spanish support. This illustrated itself perfectly with the flight of the Irish Earls. They left Ireland in an attempt to reanimate the Spanish and restart their rebellions against the English. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears and they ended up seeing out their days in Rome. For James though this was an ideal opportunity. Ulster had traditionally been the most problematic of all the provinces of Ireland. Now, the Ulster Earls had voluntarily vacated their lands. This was an opportunity too good to miss for James who promptly seized all their land and redistributed it. He turned to the commercial sector to provide 'loyal' settlers. Lands were sold at knock down prices to the merchant guilds of London and to Scottish Presbyterian concerns. Catholics were cleared from the lands to make way for new 'loyalists' to be 'planted' in Ulster. This plantation system provided a model for the establishment of colonies all over the Empire in future years. Towns, villages and infrastructure were planned out into parcels of land that were overseen by 'undertakers' who undertook to find suitable tenants and freeholders to make them viable. Ulster began the process of being changed from one of the most unruly parts of Ireland to one of the most loyal. Having said that, the undertakers struggled to find all the settlers they needed. This was largely due to the fact that many potential settlers were opting for the newly arising Virginia opportunities instead. This meant that the existing Catholic population was not completely removed and many Catholics stayed on as tenants in the area. For James though, it was imperialism on the cheap. A perennial problem appeared to have a financially lucrative solution. It was not until later that the cultural and religious differences exploded into violent dispute and showed the true cost of these policies.
English attempts to muscle in on the spice trade in the Seventeenth Century were less successful. In the previous century it had been the Portuguese and Spanish who were the main trading powers. In the Seventeenth Century, it was the Dutch rather than the English who were able to make inroads into this trade. It was not that the English were not interested in establishing themselves in this field. The English East India Company was set up in 1600 and James Lancaster sailed off to the Spice Islands to show what could be brought back. However, the Dutch created their own Dutch East Indies Company that proved to be far more financially proficient at raising money to equip ships and forcibly dominate the trade routes to the East. The Dutch slowly edged the Portuguese out of key markets and resupply bases and then defended these aggressively against all comers; including the English. The fact that these nations were both Protestant counted for little in the commercial realm. The Dutch and English fought a series of wars against one another in the Seventeenth Century and the Dutch tended to be on the winning side for most of them. The Dutch East Indies Company found itself in the virtuous circle of gaining more capital the more profit it made which allowed it to invest in yet better ships and more modern armaments to stay ahead of the competition. The English were forcibly ejected from the Spice Islands and the Pacific in general. They kept a small holding in India (which would later prove to be profoundly important), but otherwise it had to seek alternative opportunities. The English turned once more to the New World, but this time towards the Caribbean.
There was to be one more last gasp attempt at getting rich quick in the Caribbean and South America as Sir Walter Raleigh looked for El Dorado one last time. The policy of James to be more friendly towards the Spanish ended the trading and raiding policies - at least for a while. In fact, Walter Raleigh was executed for breaking these new arrangements with Spain. An alternative and more sustained way of creating wealth was required and this was found as attention was focussed on another potential cash crop: sugar cane. Sugar had been brought back to Europe in the Sixteenth Century but there was little comprehension at the possible demand for this foodstuff in these early years. The more people tasted it, the more they seemed to crave it. Sugar delicacies quickly cascaded down the social orders from Royal families to Aristocrats to Craftsmen and then the rest. Demand was further increased by the introduction of coffee to Europe in the 16th Century and tea in the early 17th Century. These products complemented one another perfectly. It was found that sugar cane grew best in the humid conditions of Central and Southern America. The tough cane was hard and unpleasant to work with. Free labour could not be induced to work for long in the uncomfortable conditions of the tropics. Slave labour was quickly introduced to make up for the shortfall. There was suddenly a land grab for suitable space in the Caribbean to grow sugar. Islands with natural harbours were particularly prized. The favourable trade winds meant that ships could cross the Atlantic to the all important European markets with remarkable speed. The Spanish already had a head start but they were quickly joined by the English, Dutch, French and even the Danish and Swedish became involved in these colonial endeavours. National rivalries, complicated winds, the myriad of islands and richly laden ships soon made the Caribbean notorious for piracy. The pickings were too tempting as the sugar economy exploded into importance over the Seventeenth Century.
Back in England, the English Civil War was to have profound if unexpected results on England's imperial ambitions. At first it diverted English attention as resources were called in to help with the war effort of either side. In general, most of the colonies were more sympathetic to the Royalists with the important exception of New England. Charters and contracts had been issued by the Stewarts to court favourites and the established aristocracy. Many of these aristocrats had sent out younger sons to oversee their possessions and plantations. They did not wish to see their privileges stripped by a Commonwealth government. New England, on the other hand, had been the favoured destination of religious dissidents seeking to avoid the perceived Anglican-Catholicism of the Stewarts. Like minded refugees had headed to the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies. These colonists did not wish to see a Royalist victory. For most of the war, the King and Parliament concentrated on events at home and the colonies were pretty much left to themselves. The colonies often resorted to trading with other European powers or their colonies as English vessels could not be spared to supply them or to carry their exports. For the better part of a decade, England's Empire stagnated. However, Parliament's victory changed all that. Oliver Cromwell was determined to ensure that renegade colonies who still harboured royalist sympathies be brought to heel. England now had a formidable army and navy with which to impose its will. Perhaps surprisingly one of Cromwell's first targets was the Dutch. These supposedly co-religionists had taken up much of the slack in trading with the colonies. Cromwell was determined to recover this trade for English shipping and merchants with what were known as the 'Navigation Acts'. A ferocious naval war was fought with the Dutch over England's ability to impose its will on its own colonies. Cromwell's professional soldiers and sailors were able to carry the day and forced the Dutch to accept an English monopoly on trade with her own colonies. Cromwell sent his ships and soldiers to the Caribbean to install pro-Commonwealth leaders in the various colonies there. Although in the tropics, the Parliamentarians had a more difficult time battling with nature and disease than they did with their opponents. Although they were able to take one of the most important islands of all, Jamaica, from the Spanish - which of course was taken as divine providence by the Protestant English. But it is perhaps his actions in Ireland which are best remembered.
Events in Ireland were already highly complex at this stage. In 1641 there had been a great uprising against the Protestant plantations of the North. Various atrocities had been committed and these had been documented and circulated widely back in England arousing great indignation. Charles had sought and gained some support in Ireland for his wars against Parliament. Charles II on taking over from his father signed an alliance with the Irish Confederate Catholics to help him restore his throne in England. Cromwell had already had severe problems fighting with the Scots who had reinvaded England with Charles at its head in 1648. He did not wish Ireland to become yet another launching pad for Charles' son. So in 1649 he sent an army to the only remaining Parliamentarian stronghold in Ireland, Dublin. From there he waged a war which the Irish believed to be savage in its nature. It was certainly fought with a ruthless efficiency as once again the experienced Parliamentarian army proved its worth. Cromwell's antipathy to Catholicism certainly played a part in his uncompromising attitude. A harsh peace was imposed upon the Irish and especially those who had taken part in the 1641 rebellion. Another round of confiscations took place with one third of the population losing their lands or being transplanted to the inferior lands of Connaught or Clare. Once again English pre-eminence over Ireland had been established but at the cost of the long term enmity of even more of the Catholic Irish.
The Restoration of the Stewarts in 1660 did not see the King totally abandon the progress and policies of his Commonwealth predecessors. He kept the Navigation Acts and the rights hard-fought for by Cromwell in Ireland and soon enough they were back at war with the Dutch. But it was perhaps the rise of France with her own imperial ambitions that dominated the second half of the Seventeenth Century. France was in the process of establishing its own North American colonies using the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes as a conduit for trading in furs with the local Indians. It was hoped for a while that the longed for North-West Passage might make itself apparent through these massive waterways. Unfortunately, that was not to be case although the French were able to make a connection of sorts with the Mississippi River which effectively gave them control of the two largest, navigable river systems in North America. This would later have important consequences in the next century as the English settlements increasingly felt hemmed in by the French.
England's North American colonies grew in size and consequence. Indian tribes were displaced to make way for the land hungry Europeans who wished to farm on acreages unheard of in Europe. Conflict with Indian tribes became increasingly the norm. European settlers tended to do better in these as they had access to better firearms and technology. It helped that they were not always fighting a united foe, Indian tribes were as likely to fight displaced Indians entering their ancestral lands as they were to fight against the Europeans themselves. The number of European settlements in the Americas exploded primarily along the Eastern Seaboard. Tobacco planters headed further south towards the sun whilst more traditional farmers expanded into the interior - often placing them in contact with the Indian tribes. In the grand scheme of things though the settlements on the Caribbean Islands were prized far higher than the colonies of the Americas - even over Virginia's tobacco plantations. This was illustrated when at the conclusion of one of the Anglo-Dutch wars, the Dutch preferred to trade New Amsterdam (New York) for sugar plantations in Guyana. Sugar had become the most important cash-crop commodity of the New World and it began to rival the spice trade from the Orient in its value and importance.
This was probably just as well as the English were still being frozen out of that Spice Trade. The Dutch successfully pushed the English out of Bantam to Benkulen as they sought to dominate the Pacific and Indies for themselves. The English were increasingly dependent upon trading from its small number of factories in India. The powerful rulers in India extracted far higher prices for their commodities but the English had little choice but to agree to them. However, the English East India Company established itself in three vital areas that would later blossom far beyond their expectations. In 1639 the EIC set up a factory in Madras in Southern India. In 1661, Charles II received Bombay as a Dowry for marrying the Portuguese Catherine de Braganza. And in 1690, the EIC set up a new factory and fort at Calcutta. From these three ports strategically placed around the coastline India, the EIC will grow to dominate the trade and later governance of much of the Indian sub-continent. What appeared to be a booby prize in the Seventeenth Century would prove to be a stunningly successful asset in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries which far outstripped the Dutch East Indies in importance and value.
It was domestic and constitutional politics at home that once again threatened to spill the apple cart. James II had openly converted to Catholicism. Whilst this was tolerated when he was childless it became an issue of state importance when his wife fell pregnant. The English army and much of the aristocracy invited the Dutch, and prominently Protestant, William of Orange who was married to James' Protestant sister Mary to invade England and take the throne. This so-called 'Glorious Revolution; would have profound consequences for the constitutional arrangements for England but also for its financial and economic future. Suddenly, the Dutch had gone from being a fierce rival to the English to becoming a part of the English establishment. William of Orange not only granted additional rights to the English Parliament for allowing him to become king but he also brought over advisers and systems from Holland that would help modernise England's institutions and military abilities. The Dutch had been the masters at harnessing the power of the limited company and of the banking industry. These were now fully placed at the disposal of the English. Most of the inefficiently run government monopolies were abolished outright and free trade was promulgated. A Bank of England was established in 1694 which allowed the government to borrow funds from its own citizens and effectively from the future. This ability would transform England's imperial aspirations in the next century. For example, the admiralty or army could request huge numbers of ships or soldiers and they could be provided from public funds without having to burden the country with additional taxes and risk revolt or rebellion. Financial power was converted into military power which was converted into imperial power. The Glorious Revolution also turned the spotlight of English antagonism back on to the French who had been somewhat sidelined by antipathy to the Spanish and the Dutch. In fact, the Dutch were now involved in a long running war with the newly resurgent French Crown. With a Dutch king on the throne of England, he was keen to add England's resources to his general anti-French crusade. This played itself out particularly in Ireland where the supporters of James were landed by a French fleet to reestablish a presence in the British Isles. William's determined resistance to this plan further cemented the political ascendency of the Protestants of Ireland over the Catholic supporters of James. Much of the Northern Irish identity was forged in the battles of King Billy against the Jacobites. This is illustrated by their adoption of the colour 'orange' as a reminder of William of Orange and his successful exploits.
In the Sixteenth Century it had been the Spanish and the Portuguese who were the key imperial powers, in the Seventeenth Century it had been the Dutch. As we shall see, in the Eighteenth Century it was all to play for between the English and the French. The Seventeenth Century had been another century of turmoil for the English but one that saw successes in the Americas whilst enduring setbacks in Asia. In the next Century, this was largely turned on its head with the setbacks occurring in the Americas and the opportunities arising in Asia.
The Eighteenth Century
The Eighteenth Century was one of peaks and troughs for the British Empire. It saw Britain having to deal with the rival empire of France for most of the century. It spent much of the century fighting the French and appeared to come closest to absolute victory in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War. This victory saw it consolidate its power in the Americas and extend its concerns and interests in Asia and the Caribbean. However, within the victory were seeds for a dramatic imperial setback for Britain. As Britain set about recouping the costs for victory in the Seven Years War she helped turn many of her own colonists against the Imperial government in London and provoked a severe backlash in the 13 Colonies which culminated eventually with the Independence of these colonies from Britain. Despite this setback, by the end of the century, Britain found herself locked back in to a titanic struggle with the old foe of France. This time though, France found new inspiration from its own Revolution. It can certainly be said that the Eighteenth Century was one of turmoil for the British but one that helped harden its military, financial and political institutions. Even the loss of the 13 colonies provided Britain with an opportunity to learn from its mistakes when dealing with settlers and colonists in the future. In the following century Britain would be much more prepared to devolve government and share political party with local representatives. But it is perhaps events in India during this century that would help define a new style of Empire and new commercial opportunities as Britain's involvement with the sub-continent transcended from being merely a commercial one to a dominating political one. India would not yet be the Jewel in the Crown but as the 13 colonies slipped away a new direction was made available to the British in the Orient from which Britain had long been cold-shouldered thanks to Portuguese and then Dutch power. In the Eighteenth Century, Britain ensured that France would not be the European power to take advantage of the new opportunities opening up there. The seeds of the quintessential Victorian Empire were sown in the turmoil of the Georgian one.
As already mentioned, the Eighteenth Century was dominated by wars with the French. The century started with a war against France with the War of the Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1713, Britain continued to fight France in the War of the Austrian Succession from 1744 to 1748, their was then the the truly global Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763, the French happily joined the American Revolutionaries in their War of Independence from 1778 until 1783 and the two countries found themselves locked once more into combat from 1793 as a result of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, this last war would continue for another 15 years into the next century. So it can be convincingly argued that the Eighteenth Century was principally one of Anglo-French struggle with one another. What is remarkable is that the battlefields in this struggle literally spread across the world as colonies were fully mobilised into the war effort of both empires or were targets designed to hurt the economic power of the other. Battles and proxy wars were fought in the Great Lakes region of North America, amongst the rich sugar islands of the Caribbean, along the African coastline or in the stiflingly hot and humid conditions of India. Naval domination of the sea-lanes of trade and commerce became increasingly vital. To lose control of the Oceans could provide the death knell for colonies as the French discovered in Canada and India during the Seven Years War and Revolutionary Wars and as the British found in the 13 colonies during the American War of Independence. It is no accident that the British invested so heavily in the Royal Navy as it tried to professionalize the service and place it at the cutting edge of scientific research and warfare. It industrialised the production of ships and mobilised huge financial resources to the benefit of the service. The Royal Navy became the senior service during this century, but it would have its own setbacks and failures from which it had to recover and learn from.
On paper, France was the richest nation in the world during the Eighteenth Century - or at least the first half of the century. However, it found it difficult to harness the financial power available to it. It never developed the sophisticated banking and commercial systems that the British had imported from the Dutch and perfected to suit their own needs. The one attempt by the French to produce their own Bank of France in the early part of the Eighteenth Century ended disastrously with the Mississippi bubble and collapse instigated by the Scot financier John Law. The French government and aristocracy was so badly burnt from this ordeal that they never tried to replicate these financial systems again. This meant that for the rest of the century, the French had to rely on money raised directly from taxation or levied on trade with its colonies. On the one hand, this encouraged France's desire to expand its commercial reach but the ability of the state to absorb sudden shocks or requirements for cash (such as when fighting a war) was poor indeed. Despite being twice the size of Britain and having a far larger population than Britain's the French were constantly on the financial back-foot as the British could turn to bankers, financiers and a national debt to build ships, pay soldiers or provide allies with cash to fight for them. This gave Britain a massive strategic advantage and enormous flexibility although it was not without its own risks when it came time to pay back those loans.
It should be noted that France was not Britain's only foe in what was a highly volatile and violent century. The Spanish still provided a reliable foe to fight. Indeed, it was the plan to merge the Spanish and French crowns that so animated many of the countries of Europe, including Britain, to intervene in the War of the Spanish Succession at the outset of the century. It was during this war that Britain began its process of picking up strategically useful ports for its ships to use to help it project its power. The most important by far of these was Gibraltar which lay at the crucial gateway of the Mediterranean. The British also took Minorca for similar reasons during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727 to 1729. The Spanish Empire was a shadow of its former glory but frequently found itself tied to the French in common opposition to the British. Interestingly, the Portuguese were often allied to the British for a similar reason in that they sought help and aid in protecting themselves from their still powerful next door neighbour. In fact, Portugal is still, technically, Britain's longest serving ally. During the Eighteenth Century, the Portuguese and British found themselves on the same side in all the major wars and this would continue into the Nineteenth Century with vitally important strategic implications in the Napoleonic Wars.
It should be remembered that at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, we should still be talking about an English Empire. It was only in 1707 that a Union between Scotland and England created Britain and the British Empire. Ironically, one of the primary reasons for this Union was because of the disastrous foray into the imperial game by Scotland which had collapsed in the jungles of Panama at what was called New Caledonia or Darien. Many influential Scottish parliamentarians and aristocrats had invested in the scheme but disease and Spanish hostility to the colony helped doom the enterprise. The English during their negotiations on the Act of Union offered to compensate all those who had lost money on the venture and even to pay interest on the money lost! This was little more than a bare-faced bribe but it helped convince many Scottish politicians who had incurred losses to become avid Unionists - even if it was for their own economic benefit. There were certainly divisions in Scotland over the benefits of Union with the Lowlands generally being in favour of it whilst the Highlands were generally being more antipathetic to it. Religion played a role in this with the Lowlands having more of the Protestant population of Scotland who also welcomed the new economic opportunities of trading with England and its increasingly important Empire. They recognised that England's Empire held genuine opportunities that would only be available through an active Union of the two countries. The Highlanders, on the other hand, tended to have a larger Catholic population and there were still many who had not approved of the Williamite accession to the thrones of England and Scotland and so still supported what were termed Jacobites (the followers of James Stuart). The French tried to take advantage of these divisions by supporting the Jacobites although the Royal Navy was able to intervene enough in the 1740s to prevent large numbers of French soldiers and equipment being landed in Scotland. Although, even without large numbers of French soldiers, the Jacobites still came close to deposing the Hanoverians at least from Scotland if not England. It was only victory for the Hanoverians at Culloden that removed this particular threat.
The Hanoverian accession in 1715 is another important strand in British and Imperial history during the Eighteenth Century. It helped shift Britain's diplomatic and political focus to Northern, and predominantly Protestant, Europe and particularly towards the Germanic states - of which there were many at this time! The death of the last Stuart monarch Anne in 1714 could have been a disaster for Protestant Britain. The Jacobites were still waiting in the wings with a legitimate, if contested, claim to the throne. The fact that the English constitution had been amended to prevent a Catholic being monarch did not mean that this would be adhered to in practice. The supporters of the Williamite Revolution looked around for a suitable Protestant candidate and found a distant relation in the Elector of Hanover. His religion was more important than his nationalisty let alone his ability to speak English (or lack thereof). His arrival in 1714 certainly sparked consternation amongst more traditional elements of British society and certainly amongst active and latent Jacobites. There were risings in Scotland against the Hanoverian accession but in England it had an interesting if unexpected effect in helping speed up the process of forming political parties. The reason for this was that opponents and supporters of the Hanoverian monarch coalesced into stronger and clearer political units. Supporters of the Hanoverians became known as Whigs whilst opponents became known as Tories (Tory meaning rebel). It is no accident that the foreign king had to rely on advisers and ministers and the role of primary minister - or prime minister - became a full time job. The Whig Robert Walpole is generally regarded as being Britain's first prime minister. The Hanoverians drew much of their legitimacy from honouring the Williamite Revolution and deferring much of the day to day running of the kingdom to parliamentarians. Undoubtedly this century did much to solidify the extension of parliamentary power and privilege. The other by-product of the Hanoverian accession was that Britain could now draw on a well of allies and political support in Germanic Northern Europe. Time and again, German allies would help Britain in her wars with the French or in the Low Countries. Britain had safe ports of call where her soldiers could get supplies and help in order to fight land campaigns against France. During the Seven Years War, the British pretty much divided the war strategy in two with the Prussians doing most of the fighting against the French in Europe whilst Britain could concentrated on fighting against France in the colonies and at sea. It was a symbiotic relationship that helped Britain's imperial aspirations whilst still keeping a balance of power on the European continent. It was only the remarkable success of Napoleon in the early Nineteenth Century that threatened to overturn this system. Although even then, Russians and Prussians eventually came to the aid of the British on the continent and the Royal Navy was still free to hoover up French colonies and possessions hither and thither. Britain was developing its dual role of attempting to keep the balance of power on the Continent whilst utilising its maritime and commercial advantages at the Global level. This was a policy maintained until the Second world War if truth be told.
In North America, the British were finding that the French were proving to be very active in extending their influence and economic activity throughout the first half of the Eighteenth Century. The French were using the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers as their highways into the interior of the Continent. The French were primarily interested in trading - especially furs. This was a different emphasis from the British who were generally arriving in their Atlantic seaboard colonies to farm - either cash crops or foodstuffs. Britain was also undergoing remarkable social and economic changes at home during this century which had the byproduct of disrupting traditional populations and settlements back in Britain. The Agricultural Revolution and Enclosures of land meant that less people were needed in the farms and villages of rural Britain. Some of these agricultural workers made their way to the new growing urban centres which were being kick started by the Industrial Revolution. However, many preferred to use their traditional farming skills and so were happy to get on ships and travel to the New World to continue their agricultural way of life with the added benefit of larger quantities of land being available to them. Many who had headed to Britain's urban centres regretted their decision as they competed with other landless labourers and floating populations and sought passage to the colonies where they heard that the wages were higher due to the shortages of skilled labour there. One way to fund their way to the colonies was through indentured servitude. If they did not have their own funds they could pay for their passage through future service. Basically, they would be required to work for so many years after which they would be free to leave. The indentured servant would also receive board and lodging during his period of service and of course would pick up valuable skills and information that would make his transition to a new settler fairly straightforward. Two less willing groups of settlers in the American colonies were criminals who were indentured for longer periods of time against their will and slaves from Africa who were brought to work on the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. These may have been reluctant settlers but their number helped increase the population and economic output of the Atlantic colonies considerably. Combined, these settlement patterns had the effect of greatly increasing the permanent population of British America whilst French America remained very lightly populated. In general, the French only required traders and hunters many of whom were looking to make enough money to return to France with their fortunes made. With some important exceptions, they were generally a transient population interested in the trading and commercial opportunities of Empire whereas the British settlers were seeing their move as a permanent change to their circumstances and did not anticipate returning to Britain any time soon.
On the face of it, the area of French influence looked impressive but it was largely a notional one. The British area of influence on the other hand was increasingly concentrated with a growing population. This created tensions with the existing Indian populations who were being forced from their ancestral lands by the British settlers. The French tended to have a more benign relationship with Indian tribes as they were seen to provide commercial opportunities without unduly displacing the local Indian tribes. The British settlers, on the other hand, were seen as more intractable and sought ever larger slices of tribal lands for settlement. There were a number of wars and risings against the settlers who had to rely on their access to superior technology to defend their farms and settlements. An attempt to permanently satisfy the Indian claims to their lands was made in 1763 when King George III promised that no settlers would be allowed to cross the Appalachian Mountains. This was to be a hollow promise though. Not because of British intentions but because it provided an area of contention between the British government and the settlers who dearly wanted access to yet more land. This proclamation line provided a valuable rallying cry to American Revolutionaries and was a leading cause of the War of Independence in the following decades.
The Seven Years War (or the French-Indian War) was the real turning point in British and French imperial fortunes in the established colonies of North America. It was also a turning point in their fortunes in India - although unlike in North America, this was not fully appreciated at the time. The Seven Years War was, in many ways, the first truly world war. Fighting raged across the Oceans and Continents of the world. As mentioned previously, much of the fighting in Europe was conducted by the Prussians whilst the British largely concentrated on maritime and imperial endeavours. The British used their financial systems and national debt to help fund their war. It had invested particularly heavily in its Royal Navy and dockyards. This was a high risk strategy as France and her allies appeared to be economically stronger on the face of it and few investors could guarantee that they would see a return on their investments with a British victory. Britain needed to win the war in order to service her debts. A loss would have been devastating. Fortunately for Britain, the increased skill and technology of the Royal Navy came to the fore. Time and again, the Royal Navy was able to blockade French or Spanish colonies whilst being able to supply her own and move British troops around the Oceans of the world with relative ease. The defeat of the French in Canada and in India was largely due to the fact that they could not guarantee the arrival of their own reinforcements or supplies. Britain got its first taste of 'Rule Britannia' which, not entirely coincidentally, was written during the Eighteenth Century by Thomas Arne.
The victory in the Seven Years War was to be a pyrrhic one in many ways. Britain had certainly humbled France and her allies. Britain's Empire had grown larger than it had ever been. However, the war had two unforeseen negative consequences for Britain. First of all, the loans had to be paid back. This meant that the colonies were expected to contribute to the costs of the war and future defence expenditure. This would prove to be a powerful stumbling block between Britain and her American colonists over taxation without representation - another key factor in sparking the American Revolution. The second consequence was that France and Spain may have lost the war but they were still big players with powerful kingdoms and were possibly even more resentful to the British than before. On the fact of it, Britain had become the pre-eminent power in the world. In reality, she was more isolated than she had been before. Prussia and the Germanic states were not interested in oversea empires in the slightest. Colonists in America had been afraid of growing French power on their continent before the Seven Years War, but with Wolfe's victory at Quebec that threat had been removed. The only brake to American expansion was their own British government and King George's proclamation and guarantee to the Indians.
Just over a decade after the Seven Years War, the British found themselves with a full blown revolution by her own colonists in North America. Mismanaged and underestimated from the start, it was the involvement of the French and Spanish that turned this conflict from a domestic difficulty into yet another world wide War. The French and Spanish involvement with the American Revolutionaries stretched Britain beyond its military and financial means at a time when she was diplomatically isolated on the Continent of Europe. There were no allies helping distract the French with land invasion from the lowlands or Germanic states. With trade disrupted and resources being used to fight effectively three enemies and with no allies to help this time, the British found themselves uncharacteristically on the losing side of this conflict. At the time, the loss was considered a shattering blow to British prestige and power. Counter-intuitively though, it was the French King who was to be the real loser from this war. France had invested heavily in fighting the British, but the benefits of victory went to the creation of a new United States rather than as territory or assets to France and Spain. The French treasury was more bereft than ever and had little to show for her commitment to the defeat of the British. Within a decade, the French monarchy was fighting for its own survival with its own far bloodier and disruptive Revolution. Britain, on the other hand, quickly reconciled itself to its defeat and resumed trade with its old colonies. It developed improved relations with the monarchs of Europe and bought itself more diplomatic favour. Furthermore, its tenuous grip on the vast spaces of Canada was firmed up with the massive influx of loyalists fleeing the 13 colonies in the aftermath of the Revolution. It also extended its power in India with victories against the Mahratta and in Mysore. In short, Britain survived the upheavals of the American Revolution with a soul searching examination of its policies and institutions. It is no accident that Warren Hastings was impeached shortly after the American Revolution being accused of acting like a tyrant in India. The British army was reorganised from top to bottom. The Royal Navy redoubled its ship building efforts and improved its ships and dockyard facilities and they continued to send out scientific voyages to map the oceans and lands of the world. The British also started to benefit from increasing industrialisation which improved their trading and commercial links with the rest of the world. The French monarchy on the other hand continued to stagnate economically and politically. It was not to survive its own revolution which could trace at least a part of its origin to the American one, although few realised this at the time.
The French Revolution provided a new, existential threat to the monarchies of Europe, including Britain's. The idea of people rising up and culling its own ruling classes was one that horrified the elites of Europe. There was genuine concern that revolutionary fervour might spread like wildfire through the old monarchies. This was only really tempered when the French Revolution started to devour itself through the Terror and the Guillotine. The English had executed their own king in the Seventeenth Century and so were familiar with the concept of regicide. But when the French Revolution used the Guillotine on swathes of the French population much popular enthusiasm for revolutionary ideals evaporated. In Britain, the Revolution became synonymous with tyranny. This seemed to be confirmed with the accession of Napoleon as dictator.
Whilst the revolution repelled much of the population in Britain, it seemed to galvanise the French state especially under the inspired leadership of Napoleon. His victories appeared to destroy the careful balance of power in Europe. His populist policies and people's army appeared to carry all before it in the 1790s. The British were particularly concerned when Spain joined with France in 1797. The British were once again facing two fleets rather than one. Napoleon made it clear that he intended to invade Britain or Ireland so there was an element of relief when Napoleon headed to Egypt rather than Britain in 1798. A new generation of Royal Naval officers showed just how valuable the investment in skills, ships and technology was worth with two important victories against their foes; a Spanish fleet was decisively defeated at Cape St. Vincent whilst a French fleet was devastated at Aboukir Bay. These did not secure Britain by any means, but they illustrated the power of the Royal Navy and the importance of control of the seas. Once again, Britain could start the process of hoovering up French and Spanish possessions whilst forcing Napoleon to scurry back to Continental Europe and concentrate on building a Continental Empire rather than a Global one.
The Eighteenth Century finished much as it had started with Britain at war with France. The struggle with France defined the Eighteenth Century for the British Empire. It had appeared to win this battle in 1763 only to suffer setback with the American Revolution in 1783. However, it was the last war of the century with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France that would define the eventual outcome of the struggle between the two powers - but that was going to continue for another 15 long years into the next century before it came to a final resolution. The job of removing French primacy had begun in earnest in the Eighteenth Century but it was only in the Nineteenth that it would be resolved.
The Nineteenth Century
To most people, the Nineteenth Century represents the apogee in power and extent for the British Empire. And yet, the Empire was very much in a state of rebuild and was under mortal threat at the outset of the Century. It had been less than two decades since Britain had lost the core of its old empire with the loss of the 13 colonies. But it was the arrival of Revolutionary France that really threatened Britain as the new century got underway. Revolutionary France did not just offer a political or military threat but an existential one as the philosophy that was unleashed by the Revolution threatened the established status quo for all the ruling elites of Europe; including Britain's.
The wars with Revolutionary France had hardly got off to a good start. The French were enthused by a new meritocratic system which quickly rewarded able commanders and inspired previously marginalised people even beyond French borders. Leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte quickly came to the fore and far from just fending off incursions from the traditional monarchies of Prussia, Austria and Britain managed to turn the tides and take their Revolutionary fervour to their neighbouring countries and even further afield. British attempts to intervene in the Low Countries were handicapped by poor leadership, poor training and deadly disease. The more victories Napoleon had on the continent the stronger his armies became as new troops were absorbed into his military machine and his tax base was increased. In the long term this would undermine his authority as the peoples of Europe increasingly resented serving in his armies and being excessively taxed to pay for his ambitious dreams. But in the short term, success fed on success for Napoleon.
Britain did have some cards up its sleeve when dealing with the Napoleonic juggernaut. The Royal Navy was still an enormous institution at the peak of maritime technology and could rely on some inspired leadership. It could deal with the French Navy but would struggle against the combined navies of all the European powers should the French take control of them all. The other advantage for Britain was in the commercial sector. Britain was the first nation to undergo anything like an industrial revolution and was already producing manufactured goods on an industrial scale. Furthermore, Britain still had a significant Empire and the Royal Navy allowed it to continue to trade with most of the rest of the world, at least outside of Europe. The Royal Navy could also be brought to bear to blockade Europe and prevent goods and raw materials getting to France and her allies. This combination of control of the seas and access to markets was crucial in providing Britain with the ability to continue fighting a long, drawn-out war for over two decades. The only concern was if Napoleon could concentrate enough ships to challenge the Royal Navy's control of the seas and even allow a French army to cross the Channel and invade Britain.
It was over concerns of the concentration of European seapower against Britain that led to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This truly was a battle that would chart the course of imperial affairs for much of the rest of the century. The Royal Navy had done a pretty comprehensive job in reducing the effectiveness of French and her allied navies by attacking the Danish and Dutch fleets and weakening the French presence especially in the Mediterranean. However, Napoleon gained a willing puppet in Spain by promising to divide Portugal with her. A combined Franco-Spanish fleet was a much bleaker prospect for the Royal Navy and was a threat that had to be taken seriously. Napoleon made clear his intentions to invade Britain and built up considerable forces in the Boulogne area from 1803 to 1805. He just needed control of the seas for a few days to allow his army across the English Channel unmolested.
His plan was to sail his combined Spanish and French fleet to the West Indies to supposedly threaten British colonies and interests there but in reality it was to draw the British away from the Channel. The French Toulon fleet did manage to cross the Atlantic but it was not pursued by the British. The Brest fleet found itself truly blockaded into port and could not even put out to sea. The Toulon fleet limped back to Europe where it eventually docked at Cadiz. The French still intended to concentrate their fleets and brought more French and Spanish ships together at Cadiz. Nelson decided that this was his chance to force the all important battle to establish control of the seas once and for all. His plan was to lie in wait off the coast of Cadiz and wait to strike the fleet when emerged. The British had 27 ships of the line under the leadership of Nelson whilst the combined French-Spanish fleet had 33 ships under the command of Admiral Villeneuve. Villeneuve felt pressurised to engage the British by Napoleon who also wished to see a definitive engagement.
The Battle of Trafalgar illustrated that Nelson exuded as much elan and daring at sea as Napoleon did on land. Crashing through the Franco-Spanish fleet and cutting it in two. The outnumbered British fleet defeated one half of the Franco-Spanish fleet before turning on the remains. It was a tactical triumph for Nelson but it was one bought at the cost of his life. Of course, he became a hero by dying at the moment of his greatest victory but few could have realised at the time just how decisive and important this naval victory would prove to be. Britain's control of the seas would not be challenged for the rest of the century. It was not until the battle of Jutland in 1916 that it was challenged and even then the Royal Navy still managed to hang on to its control of the seas.
Despite winning the Battle of Trafalgar and ensuring that Britain could not be invaded, it took a further decade to finally wear Napoleon and the French state down. Britain still had to get its hands dirty and get involved in fighting in Europe - mostly in the Peninsular Campaigns in Spain and Portugal. And yet, the Battle of Trafalgar would transform Britain's Imperial aspirations. Now, it really could cherry pick the best harbours and bases around the world. From Cape Town in South Africa to Heligoland in the North Sea to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and many, many more French, Dutch or Spanish colonies dotted all over the world were captured by the Royal Navy. There was no naval power that could resist the Royal Navy and in a state of war it was free to attack and claim whenever and wherever it liked.
The Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars burned themselves out of fervour and allies before ultimately coming to grief at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The Congress of Vienna did much to attempt to turn the clock back to the state it was before the French Revolution had erupted but it was to prove hard to put the national and egalitarian principles back into their bottles. On the face of it, Europe had not appeared to change at all, but in reality France had been severely weakened, the old Aristocratic powers appeared to be in control but would have to 'share' more power over the course of the century and the German statelets were consolidated into more medium-sized units divided unevenly between Austrian and Prussian influence. Nationalism would become a defining characteristic of the Nineteenth Century having been awakened by the forces of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
The only country which appeared to have escaped the worst excesses of occupation and defeat was Britain. Britain held on to the best of the French and Dutch possessions it had occupied as it sought to ensure that it had a truly global system of ports and facilities to service its Royal Navy and trading aspirations. But even Britain was not immune to the after effects of the French Revolution. The Royal Family and aristocracy realised that they had to tone down ostentatious displays of wealth and be seen to work together for the good of the nation. Power had to be increasingly shared out as the century went on. 1832, 1867 and 1884 all saw significant changes to who could vote as democracy was slowly but deliberately spread down the social orders. The parliamentary system had to evolve in order to retain its relevancy and to avoid violent spasms and revolutions as other European powers experienced. This liberalisation of Britain's institutions would also travel with its migrants and administrators to places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand where similar democratic ideas were eventually put in place.
In fact it was Canada which provided the experimental impetus for a more democratic system for settlers within the Empire. Of course, in the back of British politician's minds were the events of the American Revolution where heavy-handed British policies helped inspire a revolutionary backlash. British politicians were keen to avoid a similar problem in the Canadian colonies especially after a series of rebellions in 1837. Canada had another complicating factor in that it had a large population of French speakers concentrated in and around Quebec. Canada also had a long and not very clearly delineated border with a hostile nation to the south. The United States actually invaded Canada in 1812 to try and bring it into its own Union by force. Despite fighting in a huge war with France at the time, Britain was able to help the colonists resist the invasion and return the Americans to their side of the border. However, there was still a great deal of antagonism and suspicion between the United States and Britain over borders and sovereignty between their respective spheres of influence. For all these reasons, the British came up with a surprisingly liberal (for the era) document by Lord Durham in 1839 which recommended responsible government for Canada in which the governor general would merely be a figurehead and the legislative assembly would hold the real reins of power. This was a system that was based on the British constitutional model and would be replicated and followed in the other settler colonies. It provided a workable blue-print for what was effectively a state within the Empire. Soon however, Britain would discover that devolution could be painful to Britain and her domestic interests as some of these colonies decided to increase customs and protected domestic industries even from competition with British companies. Initially Britain retained responsibility for foreign affairs and defence but even these obligations were slowly eaten away. Responsibility for paying for the colonies' defences lay with the local government who soon preferred to raise and pay their own troops rather than pay H.M. Government in Britain for British troops. Steadily, British troops were withdrawn from the settler colonies throughout the Nineteenth Century until they were no longer stationed in the settler colonies at all. If anything, the settler colonies would begin providing Britain with troops and manpower to police its Empire and in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. Britain's primary military commitment remained the Royal Navy which policed the high seas and kept trade, goods and people flowing.
The Nineteenth Century saw a shift in the strategic importance of some of Britain's colonies. The Caribbean had provided an economic engine in the Eighteenth Century Empire but would become increasingly marginalised as sugar cane production over-expanded in the region before being challenged by sugar beet production back in Europe. It also did not help the economic viability for producers by banning slavery and forcing plantations to pay wages to workers instead of relying on slave labour. The decline in the importance of the sugar trade ripped the economic heart from many of these islands. Whilst the Caribbean declined, Asia became increasingly important to the Empire. This was largely due to an ever increasing presence in India and trade with China. The EIC had already started expanding its influence in India in the Eighteenth Century, but its capacity to increase its reach and abilities to collect taxes only increased in the Nineteenth Century. Technology and industrial power came to the aid of the British who could increasingly use higher quality, machine-made muskets, tools and communication systems to help expand and consolidate control. Britain's factories also craved many of the goods that India could provide - especially cotton and jute. Raw materials were shipped back to Britain where they could be turned into clothes and goods by the factories there. The Royal Navy ensured that the sea lanes stayed open so that raw materials could flow to Britain and finished goods could flow to worldwide markets. This became a virtuous circle for the British who could then reinvest their profits back into developing their own economy and improving factories and infrastructure yet further.
Britain was able to control this flow of trade in India due to the political control exercised by the EIC (at least until 1857). Things were very different with regards to China. China had goods that Britain and British companies wanted but they did not really want any particular British goods in return. China made the finest silks in the world, had a monopoly on tea and made many other exquisite luxury items. The Chinese demanded payment in silver for their goods which put a strain on the finances of the EIC who held the British monopoly right to trade with China. The EIC solution was to turn to opium. This could not legally be sold in China but fetched such a high price that officials turned a blind eye in return for bribes or a cut in the profits. The Chinese attempted to stamp this opium trade out in 1839 which led to the humiliating Opium War. The British came to the aid of the EIC when its goods (opium) were seized at its factory and on ships in Canton. The British government demanded compensation and when it was unforthcoming gave permission for the EIC to to defeat the Chinese fleet and blockade Chinese ports with the aid of the Royal Navy until they caved in. In reality, the technological gap between the British and Chinese forces was immense as the industrial power of Britain made itself apparent with the disparity in marine technology available to the two sides. The Chinese did not stand a chance and had to capitulate. The British received the island of Hong Kong to ensure that the flow of trade (even of opium) went unhindered in and out of Chinese ports. The British had started its economic squeezing of China which only intensified as the century went on. The British would later gain control of the Yellow River and even sack the capital Peking in 1860. The British also stole Chinese tea plants and found that they grew in India and Ceylon just as well as in China and so created a new cash crop for themselves. Britain was effectively using its military, political and technological advantages to gain economic primacy over a decaying imperial China. British ships were taking over many of the Asian trading routes. In addition to the Hong Kong entrepot, Britain established Singapore as a port between the two most important trading giants of the continent, India and China and was also en route to the increasingly important Australian and New Zealand colonies. The Empire was becoming self-sustaining, moving goods from one part of the world to another without necessarily arriving in Britain at all. Pax Britannica was becoming a space to conduct business using British financial and legal systems and with the Royal Navy holding the lanes of trade open.
Not everything went according to plan in Asia though. The British were humiliated in Afghanistan as they attempted to extend their control into the Himalayas. This was ostensibly for geo-political reasons and made little economic sense. The British merely wanted to control Afghanistan in order to forestall Russian influence so near to its 'Jewel in the Crown' of India. However, the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and its treacherous politics saw the British come to grief their twice in the Nineteenth Century. In 1842 its army of Kabul was literally wiped out with just one man left standing. 1879 saw a similar massacre of the legation in Kabul. It was clear that the Afghans did not wish to be controlled by any European powers - Russian or British. A face saving formula was put in place after an army of retribution went into Afghanistan after both massacres, but nobody was fooled into thinking that the Afghans were kowtowed by these punitive expeditions. Afghanistan was a law unto itself but equally hostile to all invaders, British or Russian.
The other disaster was the Indian Mutiny of 1857. This really did shake the confidence of the Empire. The savagery directed towards the EIC rulers and their families in particular appalled Victorian Britain. The mutiny was contained to the North of India and did not spread throughout the sub-continent much to the relief of the British who could use nearby loyal forces to come to the rescue of beleagured survivors. The EIC was disbanded as a result of the mutiny and the British Crown took direct control of India and created what became known as the 'Raj'. The British Government took a more patriarchal view of its rule whilst being more respectful of existing Indian traditions. Christian missionaries were dissuaded from being too overt in proselytising, agreements were made with remaining Indian rulers to respect their traditional rights and massive investments were made to improve the infrastructure of the sub-continent. Railways, telegraph, port facilities, irrigation projects were all put in place to expand the commercial potential of the sub-continent but also to allow any forces to be rushed to trouble spots should there be future mutinies or disturbances. India would take a different political route from the settler colonies. Undoubtedly, there was a racial dimension to this decision, but it was also a reflection of the fact that the British authorities were mindful of another mutiny type event and were attempting to deal with the 1857 legacy in a more paternalistic way. This appeared to work for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century but would not long endure into the Twentieth.
Australia, New Zealand and many smaller Pacific Islands became ever more incorporated within Britain's imperial economy in the Nineteenth Century. They were encouraged to develop agricultural products that could be sold back to Britain to feed and clothes its ever increasing population. Sheep, cows, wheat were all experimented with until the right breeds and strains could be found for the conditions found in the various parts of the colonies. For example, the hardy Merino sheep were found to be particularly well suited to Australia whilst the Romney sheep were found to be well suited to the conditions in New Zealand. Settlers in Australia mostly ignored the plight of the Aborigines often viewing them as little more sophisticated than animals. They were forced into increasingly marginalised lands and had existing hunting grounds forcibley taken for farms and ranches. Settlers in New Zealand had to come to terms with a highly organised, populous and determined people who were collectively referred to as Maoris. The British tended to respect existing political hierarchies even when settlers preferred that they didn't. The Maoris fought a series of protracted, guerrilla wars throughout the century against settlers and the British government. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi recognised Maori rights to land and extended British legal protection to them in addition to the European settlers. It was felt that their could be no long term future for the fledgling colony if it were constantly having to deal with clashes with the native peoples of the land. On paper, the Treaty offered generous terms to the Maori, but in practice it rarely delivered what it promised. Judges and courts tended to sympathise with European claims over Maori ones and did not always understand Maori cultural viewpoints on land ownership and traditions. Clashes continued for much of the century but Maori power was really undermined by the ever increasing number of European settlers arriving and their own population decline due to disease and continued conflict.
The continent that saw the greatest increase in British imperial control in the Nineteenth Century was Africa. Britain had long traded with the West Coast of Africa for slaves, gold and ivory. However, traders had generally tried to stay for as short a period as possible in what they rightly referred to as 'the white man's grave'. Therefore, there was precious little evidence of British presence anywhere in the continent. All that changed in the Nineteenth Century. At first, British interest extended from the southern most tip upwards. Britain's seizure of Cape Town from the Dutch in 1806 provided the impetus for this direction of expansion. Southern Africa's geography and weather was more comfortable to Europeans and less 'fatal' to their health. The problem here was the existence of an already established Dutch farming community called the Boers who had populated the area since the Seventeenth Century and of a larger African population to the north. As the Boers sought to avoid British control they tended to destabilise the existing African tribal structures of the interior. The British tended to over and under react to these disturbances. At times they seemed happy to see the Boers go, but then they would see the consequences of warfare on their frontiers and try and rein the Boers back in. The climax of these futile policies was when a British army was wiped out by a Zulu army in 1879 whilst trying to maintain peace on their borders and placate the Boers who themselves rebelled against the British just two years later when they no longer needed British protection from a crushed Zulu nation. It was a mess and Britain seemed happy to wash its hands of interior expansion until the discovery of diamonds and gold replenished their interest. These were valuable commodities whose economic value were understood by everyone. The problem for the British was that the largest gold fields in the world were beneath territory just assigned by the British to the Boers in Transvaal. Prospectors flooded the Boer Republic and imperialists headed further into the African interior in the hope of discovering new raw materials and precious metals. This dash for resources coincided with what was referred to as the 'Scramble for Africa'. Other European powers were equally interested in acquiring the rights to resources for their own empires. Christian missionaries had done much of the legwork of mapping and exploring the interior of the African Continent but governments, and in the case of King Leopold of Belgium - individuals, were keen to organise and allocate the lands between themselves. The Berlin Conference in 1884/5 pretty much laid down the ground rules for how this process was to be conducted with almost no reference to the existing African peoples. The remaining decade and a half of the century saw the vast majority of this continent gobbled up by hungry European powers. The British also participated in this unseemly grab for land - mainly to defend its existing interests but also to extend into areas that were deemed safer for European settlement and business. Medicine improved greatly as the Nineteenth Century progressed and Africa was becoming less of a health risk than it had once been. The British were particularly interested in East Africa and the plains of Southern-Central Africa. These were recognised as providing viable farm land and having a pleasant climate. They were also to discover extensive copper deposits further into the interior. It was felt that the world was shrinking and that European powers wished to guarantee supplies of raw materials for their own industries for fear of being denied access to them from hostile nations.
British interest in Africa also extended downwards from the north thanks largely to the construction of the Suez Canal. Britain had been reluctant to see the construction of this amazing engineering project and had tried to undermine it from day one. Britain realised that the canal would change the strategic balance of international trade by allowing ships to forego the long and arduous journey around Africa whilst travelling between Europe and Asia and vice versa. The Egyptian government had granted the French the rights to construct the canal in return for sharing ownership of the resulting company. As predicted, the canal became incredibly important to trade right from the outset when it opened in 1869. Britain's opportunity to become involved in the venture occurred in 1875 when the Egyptian Khedive sought to sell his shares due to financial problems. Disraeli immediately understood the opportunity and took a huge loan from Rothschilds to buy the shares before anyone else even realised they were for sale. Britain had become a joint shareholder with the French. Britain would have been content for this to continue until there were serious disturbances in Egypt in 1881. A combined British and French fleet was supposed to restore law and order, but at the last moment the French withdrew from the enterprise due to political instability at home. This meant that the British alone intervened and effectively seized control of Egypt. For Britain this made sense as they could now more effectively guard the new route linking Europe to Asia and especially Britain to India. The rationale for extending Empire was feeding on itself.
Queen Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee probably represented the absolute high point of British Imperial power. The sun really did not set on her vast Empire. For many, the fact that she had been queen for sixty years seemed to confer stability and an assuredness to the whole enterprise. The bigger the Empire became, the more its resources and manpower increased and so the more territory it could control. But there were very real storm clouds on the horizon coalescing around competition from rivals, increased internal opposition and the changing nature of warfare.
Britain was no longer the only industrial power in the world. Germany, France and the United States were all industrialising and expanding their own economies rapidly. These new powers were happy to hide behind trade barriers and protective economies to build up their commercial and industrial sectors but expecting to sell to Britain and her Laissez-Faire Empire. They also increasingly had imperial aspirations of their own, even the Americans were extending out of their continent into Asia and the Caribbean. The Germans had jumped into the Scramble for Africa on a determined scale and had also carved out a presence for herself in the Pacific and New Guinea. The French had their own Empire in North Africa and were still resentful at having been pushed out of Egyptian affairs by the British. In 1898, Britain and France nearly came to blows when a British army came across a French force in Fashoda in the Sudan. The British were attempting to keep open the idea of a Cape to Cairo route of all British colonies whilst the French were attempting their own East-West conjunction of French colonies. Cooler heads prevailed and the French withdrew, but it illustrated the dangers of imperial expansion and how it could complicate relations with European powers.
As for increased internal opposition, this slowly grew in eloquence as the century progressed. There had always been sections of colonial societies who had no wish to be governed by Britain but these often were overawed or ignored by the British. But improved communications and more educational opportunities were allowing some critics to better articulate their opposition to imperial rule. The education of local elites had been encouraged by the British and was meant to illustrate the benefit of belonging to the Empire and it was hoped would prepare a new generation of collaborators and administrators. Schools and colleges were set up in the colonies whilst some sons (rarely daughters) were even sent to British private schools and universities. However, these highly educated elites could also become increasingly eloquent critics of Empire. More and more, they saw the iniquities of Empire and sought to challenge laws and rulers in the courts and in the press. Organisations like the Indian National Congress were being formed at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century to coordinate opposition to unjust rule. These organisations did not yet challenge the legitimacy of Empire but merely the way that it was put into operation. And yet, these organisations would provide the focal point for much more determined and sustained political opposition to Empire in the next Century.
Finally, the changing nature of warfare saw that the concept of keeping back hordes of enemies with superior weaponry was coming to an end. Many of Britain's military victories of the Nineteenth Century had been won largely due to the technological advantages of pitching a modern European force against archaic non-European armies. However, at the very tail end of the Century, Britain was about to discover that the terms of trade in military conflict were on the cusp of change. The British were about to be rudely awakened by the supposedly backward farmers; the Boers in South Africa. The Boers had invested much of their takings from the gold fields in modern weaponry and were about to teach the British a lesson in guerrilla warfare with modern weapons. In many ways, the Boer War from 1899 to 1902 provided the template for resistance movements everywhere in the Twentieth Century in how to use modern weapons with hit and run tactics to wear down your opponent. For the British, the Nineteenth Century closed as it had opened, with the country at war. However, this was very different in style and substance from the battlefields of the Napoleonic era. Britain was truly entering the modern world and seeing for herself just how far the industrial revolution had changed the nature of war. The following century would confirm just how far that process had travelled.
The Twentieth Century
The Twentieth Century would witness the extremes of British imperialism as it grew to its greatest extent after victory in the First World War to all but disappearing by the end of the century as nationalism and decolonisation swept it away in the aftermath of the Second World War and wrapped up into the dynamics of the Cold War. This was to be a century of volatility in the history of Empire. The colonies would at least prove to be a source of strength and aid when Britain became locked in mortal combat with totalitarian regimes bent on creating their own empires. But the cost of helping the mother country was often the demand for increased powers of self-government or even outright independence. It is no exaggeration to state that the Empire came to Britain's rescue in its various hours of need during the first half of the century, but that the ideal of empire also burnt itself out as wars to free and liberate peoples in Europe highlighted the contradictions inherent with imperial subjugation and control. The Empire found a purpose but in doing so discovered that it was no longer a suitable institution for the era it was entering. The Twentieth Century saw the effective end of Empire.
The beginning of the century illustrated the paradoxes of empire which would be played out repeatedly throughout the century during the Boer War in Southern Africa. Immediately prior to the Boer War, Britain was feeling at its strongest in imperial terms. The Royal Navy ruled the waves, the flag flew all over the planet and the colonies provided raw materials for Britain's factories to turn into manufactured goods in her industrialised economy. Britain felt that it did not require or need any friends or allies as she could draw on enough power and personnel from her extensive empire. This was a period referred to as one of 'Splendid Isolation'. However, all was not as peaceful or as beneficial as it seemed. Britain no longer held the monopoly on industrial power as countries like the USA and Germany not only caught up with Britain's economy but surpassed it. Other European powers were envious of the extent of the British Empire and sought to expand their own empires. This had led to the 'Scramble for Africa' and the 'Scramble for Islands' in the Pacific Ocean. It even led to exploration and claims in the uninhabited continent of Antarctica! There were increasingly fewer suitable places left for Europeans to colonise and so the likelihood of clashing with rival powers only increased. The Kaiser of Germany made it clear that he wanted to find a 'place in the sun' for his German Empire. The Russians were still extending their land empire southwards in what was referred to as the 'Great Game' and Britain had come close to clashing with France in the deserts of Northern Africa. 'Splendid Isolation' was beginning to look a lot less splendid!
Nothing highlighted Britain's diplomatic isolation more than the Boer War. The British had assumed that they would crush the small Boer Republics with little fuss and had even taken steps to encourage war in the hope of swiftly annexing their lands to the British Empire. What the British had not taken into consideration was the quantity of weaponry that the Boers could purchase thanks to the money made from the recently discovered Gold Fields and the willingness of Britain's rivals, and especially Germany, to provide the latest cutting-edge military technology to them. Britain's army had been used to fighting small, colonial wars against enemies equipped with spears, shields or at best old fashioned muskets. For the first time, the British army would find itself facing state of the art artillery, maxim guns and long range and deadly accurate rifles. In fact, the equipment purchased by the Boers was of a higher quality than that supplied to the British Army. Furthermore, the Boers were a motivated force fighting on home territory and very mobile and flexible due to their skill with horses. The British would find that they were not fighting 'mere' farmers at all, but a highly trained and determined enemy.
British underestimation of their enemy resulted in a series of military setbacks and put them on the back foot almost from day one. Rival powers were happy to portray the British as a lumbering oaf bullying the gallant underdogs. There were no allies to call on from outside of the Empire only forces from within. For the latter, the British called upon colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand to make forces available to fight in South Africa. The Indian Army had fought in other theatres but the white settler colonies had not yet done so. Previously, locally raised soldiers had only served within their own territories or immediate localities. Now, they were being called upon to provide soldiers to fight elsewhere in the Empire. This set a precedent for much of the rest of the century. It had the benefit of magnifying the power and reach of the Empire's forces but it also set in motion a chain that would increase national consciousness and pride within the settler colonies. As their populations volunteered to fight and die in far away wars, the more the colonies developed their own consciousness and identities as separate and distinct places. It would take many more years to fulfil, but the path towards nationhood took an important step forward by providing troops to the mother country. It signalled that they were no longer dependent upon Britain but could actually contribute something themselves. The Boer War unleashed the potential of the Empire in supplying manpower and expertise from all over the world, but it also began the process of detachment in a very slow but fundamentally important way.
Britain eventually used its imperial power and reach to crush the Boers in a mathematically brutal manner. Realising that they could not continually defeat the British in large scale battles, they had resorted to a guerrilla style warfare which frustrated the imperial forces yet further. It was the brainchild of Kitchener to ruthlessly apply a mathematical model to divide up the Boer lands into segments and to systematically clear them of Boers. This was done with ruthless efficiency but at a huge cost especially to the civilian population who were herded into makeshift concentration camps. These were designed to separate the population from the fighters so that they could not supply the Boers with supplies and intelligence. Unfortunately, the camps became breeding grounds for disease and the conditions were hopelessly inadequate for the elements and numbers of people incarcerated within them. Women and children began dying in large numbers which only seemed to confirm to the wider world and rivals that the British Empire was anything but a benevolent force. The British would try and undo some of the reputational damage and make amends for the suffering caused by offering remarkably liberal surrender terms to the Boers. The cost of these liberal terms would later be largely borne by the African population of South Africa as the white settlers would use their newly granted powers from Westminster to separate and entrench their own political power at the expense of the native population. This would later provide the ability to form the 'apartheid laws' but in the meantime it appeared to bring an element of peace and prosperity to the white settler population of South Africa. Indeed, many of the Boer generals and fighters would go on to have very important and influential careers within the British Empire and would become some of her most important military leaders in the two World Wars. The British Empire had taken a leaf out of the Roman Empire's book by co-opting former enemies and allowing them the opportunity to become loyal subjects.
Britain's diplomatic isolation during the war had been plain for all to see. Britain decided to break from its 'splendid isolation' by allying with a surprising new power; Japan. Japan was very much the new kid on the block when it came to imperial powers. She had been shocked to see how far she had fallen behind the rest of the world when American ships sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853. Japan's response to this was very different from most other humiliated powers. Japan decided to modernise and 'catch up' with the European and North American powers. She embarked on a remarkable modernisation process with important help from British industrialists and experts amongst others. Japan demonstrated her desire and willingness to join in with the powers of the day during the Boxer Rebellion. Japan, being the closest to China, sent considerable quantities of ships and soldiers to extricate Europeans from their legations and hiding places as the Boxers attempted to sweep the 'foreign devils' out of their country. The Europeans were delighted with the skill, speed and size of the Japanese response. Japan was the first non-caucasian power to be treated as an anything approaching 'equal' by the European powers and the USA. Britain, meanwhile, had identified Japan as providing a useful ally in East Asia where Britain's commercial interests were vast but her physical presence was fairly limited. Other than Hong Kong, Britain had few colonies of consequence in this part of the world. Britain relied on her informal power and the Royal Navy to police East Asia and the Pacific, but the Boxer Rebellion had revealed the limits of informal and maritime power. Furthermore, Britain's long standing rival, Russia, was busily constructing a trans-Siberian railway that might expand her power yet further into the region. Britain's other rival, France, had recently expanded its own empire into Indo-China and appeared to wish to expand yet further in the region. Japan and Britain were united in wanting to limit Russian and French influence but also to keep an eye on the fatally weakened Chinese state which was entering a period of further political weakness in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. It seemed natural that Britain and Japan help one another and so Britain ended its 'splendid isolation' by signing the Anglo-Japanese Treaty in 1902. The alliance obligated either power to remain neutral if one or other found itself at war. However, should either power have to fight a war against two or more powers, the other signatory was obliged to provide military aid.
Domestically, Britain was undergoing important political discourse about the role and nature of Empire which would have important long term consequences. Joseph Chamberlain was a Liberal Unionist who had crossed over to support the Conservatives over his disagreement with Gladstone's Irish Home Rule bills. He became an enthusiastic advocate for all things Empire and had even taken the unfashionable cabinet ministry office of Colonial Department and tried to transform it into a major governmental force. His efforts had appeared to come to grief over the ill-fated attempt to seize the Boer Republics with the Jameson Raid back in 1895 but his full role in the episode was not revealed allowing him to continue in the cabinet of Salisbury. However, the Boer War reinvigorated his imperial advocacy and his plans for closer imperial cooperation. The fact that Britain had had to rely on its colonies was proof to Chamberlain that they should draw closer together in an increasingly hostile world. Chamberlain advocated a policy of imperial tariff reform with the idea of creating an enormous customs union within the British Empire. He believed that imperial preferences should be put in place to encourage trade between the colonies and Britain and to prevent foreign powers like Germany and the USA from benefitting from access to British and Empire markets. It should be said that both Germany and the USA had very high tariff barriers in place to protect their own industries at this time. Chamberlain's policy marked a substantial shift in long-standing British ideas towards free trade and laissez-faire economics. Britain had long depended upon buying the cheapest raw products and selling them to whoever wished to buy them. Having been the first country to industrialise, Britain had enormous comparative advantages which allowed it to produce high quality goods at low prices. Chamberlain believed that this was no longer viable as rival empires and powers were closing their markets to British-made goods. Chamberlain unleashed enormous tension within the Conservative and Liberal-Unionist parties as free traders fought with imperialists over the best direction for the British Empire to take. Chamberlain was the standard bearer for tariff reform but had a fierce battle even within his own party. There were many for whom the idea of restrictions and taxes was anathema for a party of capitalists. Meanwhile, the opposition liberals could present themselves as a united front and dedicated to free trade and hence, they argued, lower prices for the average working man. The idea of cheap food became a dominant factor as people feared that an imperial customs union would result in the prices of basic foodstuffs inevitably rising. The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were defeated in the 1906 election, despite having won a massive majority in the previous 1902 'khaki' election. Chamberlain claimed that they lost because they were divided and not because of his policies. He believed that he could still unite the party around his imperial preferences platform. Unfortunately for him, he had a paralysing stroke and was unable to continue the battle for tariff reform and without him as a charismatic leader for the cause, support for the policy waned. Tariff reform would not disappear completely off the political agenda and some tariff reforms were introduced in the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s, but the main directive force of the policy to shape the Empire and provide a vision and reason d'etre for the institution was lost with Chamberlain. Britain and its Empire would remain a more informal institution than it might have become had Chamberlain won the argument. Parallel ideas to establish organisations like an Imperial Parliament and financial institutions were also to founder as a result of Chamberlain's failure. It was no accident that the 'Empire Day' national holiday had been founded in 1904 at the height of this debate. Imperial union ideas would continue to circulate but would never again play such a defining role in British domestic politics again.
An alternative response to the rising power of Germany was to seek to repair relations with empires who felt similarly challenged by rising Teutonic power and ambitions. France was feeling even more threatened by Germany than the British were. Britain was worried by German plans to develop its navy. Germany already had a huge, conscript based army. If she were to possess a strong navy than that army could conceivably cross the North Sea and pose a direct threat to Britain. German plans to widen the Kiel Canal and embark on a serious ship-building plan convinced the British that Germany could be a threat in the future. But for France, the danger was already real with her long land-border with Germany. Germany's divisions and population had already outstripped France's. France had already lost the valuable Alsace and Lorraine regions to the Germans and felt that she was getting weaker and weaker vis-a-vis Germany with every passing year. An agreement with Russia was one of France's solutions to rising German power, but Russian troops would not be able to rush to the rescue of France, unlike British troops. It appeared that an agreement between the historic rivals would be mutually beneficial. The resulting Entente-Cordiale in 1907, even more so than the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, marked a definitive end to Britain's diplomatic isolation and illustrated that even with an Empire, good relations with fellow European powers was a valuable commodity. On paper, Britain's military was formidable, but the manpower was scattered around the globe and would take time to harness to fight the huge conscript armies of the continent. Britain needed friends and allies to buy it time to harness the power of the Empire should war break out.
The Anglo-French Entente allowed Britain to put out feelers towards her other historic rival of Russia. Britain had been less concerned with rising Russian power and ambitions after her defeat by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war. Friendship with Russia also allowed Britain to put to bed the rivalry of the 'Great Game' once and for all. There would still be problems on the North-West Frontier but there would no longer be any shadow boxing with the Great Russian bear in the region. Britain also resolved its imperial antagonisms with France over Egypt and North Africa. As the German Kaiser sought his 'place in the sun' in Morocco, Britain closed ranks with France and presented a united front against increased German meddling in the region. Britain acknowledged French primacy in the Maghreb in return for French recognition of British primacy in Egypt. The old imperial rivalries of the Nineteenth Century were being settled peacefully and amicably. The only exception appeared to be German aspirations.
The drift to World War One was long and complicated but suffice it to say that Britain was determined not to allow a nation like Germany to become too strong and powerful on the continent of Europe. Britain found her excuse to become involved by claiming to defend neutral Belgium from German aggression. It would be claims like these to stand for freedom and oppressed peoples that would come back to haunt the Empire over the next few decades. In the meantime, the Empire was quickly mobilised to support the mother country in her hour of need. In fact, Britain had declared war on behalf of all the colonies and Dominions of the Empire - whether they liked it or not. The British sent her Expeditionary Force over to France to help slow the German behemoth but her all volunteer army was too small to stop the German juggernaut and unable to replace casualties quickly enough. Indian and Canadian (including Newfoundland) troops were quickly despatched to Europe to help defend the allied lines. Australian and New Zealand forces were despatched to deal with German colonial possessions in Asia and the Pacific. South African and Rhodesian forces were joined by Indian Army and African units to capture the German colonies in Africa. A huge Indian expeditionary force was landed in Mesopotamia and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was landed at Gallipoli with British and French troops in an attempt to seize the Straits of the Dardanelles and force a supply route through to Russia. The Dominions supplied their own ships for service beyond their own waters for the first time to support the Royal Navy and the war effort in general. For example it was HMAS Sydney which put paid to the German raider SMS Emden which had wreaked havoc amongst allied shipping and colonies around the Indian Ocean. Imperial contributions to the war effort were not confined to fighting soldiers and sailors. Chinese navvies, Indian and African labourers, Caribbean foresters are just a few of the examples of manpower put to use in the war effort.
The world wide nature of the Great War was largely due to the fighting throughout the colonies. The German Empire outside of Europe was fairly quickly dismembered with the exception of Von Lettow-Vorbeck who managed to put up resistance in East and Central Africa for the entire duration of the war. Otherwise, the German colonies were too spread out and too poorly manned to put up much resistance. The Turkish Empire, on the other hand, was another matter. Allied hopes that she was a decaying empire on the point of collapse were quickly disabused in both Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. The ANZACs suffered particularly badly due to mismanagement and the under-estimation of Turkish fighting ability. However, the suffering of the ANZAC forces and the poignancy of their sacrifice did much to galvanise identity in Australia and in New Zealand. Likewise, the Newfoundlanders suffered terribly on the Somme and the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. These sacrifices were keenly felt back in their respective Dominions and did much to forge deeper local identities.
As the war ground onwards into 1917 and 1918, the Australian and Canadian armies were regarded as providing a particularly effective cutting edge to the British and Imperial forces. They were the 'shock troops' which the Germans feared the most. General Monash, for the Australians, and General Currie, for the Canadians, were regarded as two of the most effective leaders on the Western Front. When the German Ludendorff offensives broke through the trench lines, it was Australian and Canadian troops who played a pivotal role in stemming the tide and then counter-attacking the out of position Germans. They then proceeded to keep the Germans off balance with repeated and determined counter-attacks. They proved that they had created extremely effective military establishments. It was no accident that come the time of the peace negotiations in Versailles, the Dominions and India were invited to attend in their own right. It was believed that they had been vital cogs to the allied victory and claimed their seats at the victor's table accordingly.
The consequences of the dreadful First World War allowed Britain and her Empire to grow at the expense of their defeated rivals. Germany and Turkey lost their empires which were primarily divided up and distributed to British and French administration. It was claimed that these new colonies were to be held 'in trust' by the victorious powers who were supposed to prepare them for independence at an undisclosed time in the future. They were technically termed League of Nations' mandates and were held on behalf of the new international organisation also established at Versailles. In reality. they were quickly subsumed into the existing colonial apparatus of the controlling powers. Interestingly, some of the new mandates were held 'in trust' by Britain's Dominions like Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Effectively, colonies were in possession of their own colonies! The Australians took control of German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and Nauru, New Zealand took control of German Samoa and South Africa took control of German South West Africa. The Australians actually fell out with Britain over Empire building in the Pacific when Britain backed Japan's claim to control German colonies north of the Equator as a reward for their help during the war. This helps illustrate the increasingly complicated tensions within the Empire and increasing territorial ambitions of the Dominions themselves. Britain was beginning to lose control of at least some of its colonies. The victorious colonies felt that they had earned the right to more equal treatment in return for all the help and support they had provided during the war. National consciousness was creeping forward yet again.
Britain's pre-eminent position in the Middle East was expanded yet further due to the First World War although only in a manner which would cause all sorts of complications and difficulties in the future. The British effectively promised all things to all allies in their war effort against the Ottomans. They promised the Arabs that they would be rewarded for their support in fighting the Turks, they promised Zionist jews that they might be rewarded with a homeland in Palestine in return for their support and help during the war and they had promised their French and Russians allies that they would divide the region up into spheres of influence and control between the three powers. These complicated and contradictory promises could not be honoured without disappointing some of the recipients. The hodge-podge result was that France was given primacy over Syria and Lebanon whilst Britain was given an arc of influence from Iraq to Palestine. Britain decided to allow Jewish settlement west of the River Jordan but on a voluntary basis and without displacing the existing arab population (at least in theory). Hashemite kingdoms were established in Trans-Jordan and Iraq with British advisers and military support. Tensions in Palestine between the Arab population and Jewish zionists would steadily increase in the inter-war years with the British supposedly maintaining the peace but with increasingly strained difficulty over the years. Nazi persecution of the Jewish population in Germany only sought to increase the flow of Jews seeking to escape the increasingly vicious Nazi regime. Palestinian Arabs were increasingly concerned at why they should make way for problems and difficulties originating in Europe. This was a problem that would not find a satisfactory answer and would only increase in complexity and violence as the years went on.
Although World War One appeared to go successfully for the British and seemed to confirm the value of Empire, it also revealed the first, very real cracks. The largest of which appeared in Ireland. Ireland had long posed fundamental problems to Britain. Technically, it was not even a colony it was regarded as part of Britain itself - although many Irish regarded this as an unwelcome absorption imposed unwillingly upon them. Attempts to offer Home Rule foundered time and again thanks to the opposition of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists. Having said that, Liberals had come to power and had just about passed a Home Rule bill when World War One broke out and all non-essential non-war items were put aside. The timing could not have been worse in hindsight although few realised its importance and significance at the time. Ulster Protestants flocked to volunteer to serve in the Ulster Volunteers in a show of patriotic fervour. Interestingly, Irish nationalists were encouraged to join up and lobbied to have their own Irish Brigade for nationalists to be led by the Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond. It was sold as an idea to foster cohesion and a unity of purpose but was suspected by some in the British military establishment, who tended to be suspicious of Irish Nationlists, that it was designed to form the embryo of a post-war Irish army. In reality, it was designed to achieve the kind of national consciousness that the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian divisions managed to instill by their existence and fighting during the war. Redmond correctly predicted that it would become an important staging post towards nationhood. Unfortunately for him and his cause, he was overruled and the Irish Brigade was never formed. Instead, nationalists were still encouraged to join but were subsumed into more general Irish divisions or other general formations.
Several hundred thousand Irishmen fought and many died in the service of Britain and its Empire during the war, but events back in Ireland shook the confidence of the British military establishment at a crucial time. The IRA uprising in what became known as the Easter Rising of 1916 was put down with relative ease by the British and loyalist authorities. However, Britain's reaction to being challenged by nationalist aspirations whilst Britain was engaged in a war for national survival with Germany was uncompromising. The British regarded the rebels as treasonous traitors and vowed to punish them accordingly. Irish attitudes to the Easter rebels were fairly ambivalent during the rising but it was a different matter when the British set about executing the rebels that they had captured. This had the effect of creating martyrs for the nationalist cause and hardening attitudes against the British and loyalists in Ireland. The Easter Rising became a seminal terminal point in turning Irish opinion against the Union and the British Empire even as Irish volunteers were dying for King and Country on the Western Front and in other theatres of the World War.
Many of the surviving Irish soldiers would return to a tense Ireland with their fresh military experience, training and expertise. Ulster loyalists took to forming their own self-defence formations and nationalists likewise armed themselves for war. The British introduced recently demobbed ex-British servicemen into the toxic political atmosphere. These paramilitary police were to become known as the infamous Black and Tans and their lack of subtlety in dealing with the civil population further increased nationalist animus towards Britain. The island slowly but surely descended into a civil war. Protestants coalesced around their strongholds in Ulster whilst the Nationalist community sought to liberate the entire island from British political domination. The Irish War of Independence raged until 1921 in the complex and brutal kind of warfare that often characterises civil wars. Irish nationalists felt that they were making it clear that the British could only hold the island at great financial and personal cost. However, some nationalists also came to realise that they could never defeat the enormous military power of Britain with all of its imperial assets. Elements of these nationalists, led by Michael Collins, sought to negotiate a peace with Britain. These negotiations led to a face saving formula for both sides whereby Ireland would become a self-governing Dominion within the British Empire whilst Northern Ireland was permitted to remain within the British Union or join the newly created Irish Free State. Not all Irish nationalists were convinced that they had achieved enough independence and the requirement to continue to pledge allegiance to the King as part of the Empire was particularly galling to some of them. These die-hards coalesced around the leadership of Eamon De Valera. The Irish Free State descended into an internal civil war which cost Michael Collins his life. It appears that the British covertly supplied the Free Staters with military equipment and advice to fight off those wanting full independence. The Free Staters ultimately hung on to power but it was clear that Ireland was a reluctant Dominion and that it would only be time before it sought to detach itself even further from the Empire. Ireland was providing a template for how to loosen ties to the British Empire. Some colonies would follow this violent template although others would find a more peaceable way of achieving greater self-governing powers or even full independence from Britain.
The other substantial crack to form in the wake of World War One was in India. Just like the Irish, many hundreds of thousands of Indians volunteered and served in the myriad theatres of war - many with distinction. In addition to men, India provided huge sums of money and resources required to fight the war. Prior to the war, the nascent Indian National Congress began to make tentative requests for greater freedom and self-determination but this was largely set aside once war broke out in 1914. Even the pacifist-minded Gandhi hoped for a British victory and helped to organise an ambulance unit to help those who were wounded in the conflict. It was hoped by many that a show of loyalty and support would be rewarded with political concessions in the wake of the conflict.
At first, it appeared that these concessions would arrive thanks to promises made by Edwin Montagu and Lord Chelmsford during the course of the war. The Indian government was also given full representation on a par with the Dominions at the Versailles peace conference. At this stage, many Indians would have been content with the colony being given the same status and self-governing abilities as the other Dominions like Australia and Canada. However, the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 were ultimately disappointing. The ensuing Government of India Act formed a parliament but it had very limited powers and only had a tiny electorate of the wealthiest Indians only. The civil service and administration was opened up to further Indian participation but the top posts lay firmly in British control. There was a promise to revisit and revise the reforms in 1929 but the whole exercise appeared to dash the increased expectations of Indians who felt that they had sacrificed much to help the British war effort gain ultimate victory over the Central Powers.
Disappointment spilled over into political demonstrations on the Indian sub-continent. As in Ireland, battle hardened and war weary soldiers were called upon to deal with political agitation and protest. Officials in India still had increased powers of coercion which had been introduced back in 1915 to quell any disturbances or signs of treason whilst war was raging. These gave expansive powers of arrest and to disperse crowds. These conditions turned into a bitter harvest in Amritsar in 1919 when General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on demonstrators hemmed into a tight square resulting in the death of some 379 civilians. The resulting outcry and public enquiry criticised the heavy handedness of the British authorities. More worryingly, it radicalised those who were disappointed by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. Gandhi, the Indian National Congress and other Indian nationalists were now motivated to request far more sweeping concessions and were no longer content to wait for political crumbs to fall upon the floor. Their demands for further political rights would only escalate from this point onwards. The British had missed their opportunity to confer meaningful concessions in a peaceful and collaborative manner.
The Great War had been regarded as the 'war to end all wars' by those who had participated in, directed or been affected by it. Therefore, in the immediate post-war period there were sustained calls to reduce Britain's military capacity. These calls were also economically motivated as Britain had had to call upon enormous financial resources to fight the war for four long years and had had to borrow very heavily, especially from America, to sustain its war effort. The classically trained economists of the era called upon Britain's politicians to put their financial house in order and to balance the budget and retrench the military to a significant amount. The lone voice against this reduction in expenditure was J.M. Keynes who would play such a crucial role in the economic history of the later 20th century. But in the immediate aftermath of the war, Britain set about implementing what was referred to as the '10 year rule'. This rule perceived that Britain did not have to anticipate fighting any major war for at least a decade and so could make cuts to its military accordingly.
Britain drastically cut and reorganised its army and navy. Many famous regiments were amalgamated as part of the army's reorganisation. The Royal Navy was sacrificed to the Wilsonian principles of disarmament as outlined in his 14 points. Britain's political leaders had actually ignored much of Wilson's 14 points during the Treaty of Versailles but felt that negotiating a draw down on the military would help ensure that Britain reduced its expenditure whilst not allowing any power to leap-frog the size and scope of the Royal Navy. The result was a series of meetings the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922.
The strategic importance and consequences of the Washington Conference can not be overstated on its impact on Britain's Empire. For the first time since the 18th century, Britain ceded the fact that the Royal Navy had to be the largest navy in the world. Indeed, just a decade earlier, Britain had sought to keep her fleet larger than that of the second and third largest naval powers combined. In 1922 Britain agreed to the principle of naval parity with the United States, setting a lower quota of battleships for the Japanese, French and Italian navies. The conference also agreed a ten-year building holiday for major warships and set down the maximum size of battleships, aircraft carriers and cruisers as well as the size of the gun armament. America also insisted that Britain detach herself from her long-standing alliance with Japan much to the distaste of the Japanese who considered this a form of Anglo-Saxon duplicity and racism. In effect, the conference confirmed that the world order was changing. Britain was no longer the pre-eminent power. She was being joined by the United States. Britain had already dispensed with huge assets in America to help fund the fighting of World War One and had borrowed heavily from the US also. Paradoxically, the US was just about to embark on a a period of isolationism which would draw in her strategic capabilities to the Western hemisphere for the next two decades. Proportionately, the other powers did much better than Britain as they were regional powers who concentrated their naval forces in their closest seas and oceans. Britain, as a global power, had to disperse its navy over a far wider area. The conference resulted in a serious degrading in the Royal Navy's ability to project power globally and this was noticed by her Dominions which depended so heavily on this maritime protection. This would unleash new discussions on political and military commitments in the Empire a decade later at the Westminster Conference.
The Washington Naval Conference was supposed to be followed by equivalent meetings organised by the League of Nations to discuss terms on reducing land and air forces also. However, these never took place and so land powers were never constrained to the same extent as Britain's naval forces. Britain had begun an emasculation process in the context of the aftermath of a brutal war which had seriously drained the resources of the mother country. Her political leaders were content to sacrifice so much in the forlorn belief that further conflicts on the scale of the Great War were unimaginable and therefore unlikely to occur again.
The one military arm that received a boost in resources was the newly formed Royal Air Force. It was hoped that air power could take up the slack from the reduction in land and sea forces and project power over much further distances at much less cost than paying hordes of soldiers or building and maintaining expensive battleships. Air power seemed to offer new strategic avenues for the globally natured British Empire. Travel times could be reduced, administration speeded up and personnel could be moved around the empire quicker than ever. Indeed, the 1920s saw Britain try to use the RAF to suppress uprisings in places like Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. Initial results appeared promising by the nature of the shock effect of these new weapons of war on enemies who had never come across flying machines before. However, as these enemies became more familiar with planes, it became increasingly clear that air power was a blunt instrument at the best of times. Bombs were as likely to hit civilians as their intended targets and helped foster a new generation of hostile foes to contend with. Furthermore, any gains were quickly dissipated unless reinforced by boots on the ground - which undermined the economic rationale on relying on air power alone. Air power appeared to offer much but consistently failed to deliver on the hopes and promises of its advocates. This did not stop Britain from leading the way in establishing sea plane bases and aircraft development in the interwar period. This investment would repay itself strategically in the defence of Britain during World War Two, but failed to bind the empire together as envisioned by many of its advocates.
Concerns over imperial burden sharing of defence costs also led to one of the most significant constitutional shifts during the history of the British Empire with the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. This had been the result of a series of meetings of the heads of imperial Dominions most recently in 1926 and 1930. The British government was keen for the Dominions to take on more responsibility for the costs of their own defence and the carrot to encourage the Dominions down this avenue was legislative independence for the respective Dominion's parliaments. Events were spurred on by the Wall Street Crash and subsequent collapse in commodity prices and international trade around the world. Britain was finding the imperial burden very heavy to bear especially as the empire primarily produced raw materials whose value was collapsing. The Statute of Westminster effectively granted independence to the Dominions - although there did not seem to be a rush by three of the Dominions to adopt it - Australia did not ratify it until 1942 at the height of the Pacific War and then only to clarify its own War Powers Act, New Zealand did not adopt it until 1947 and Newfoundland never did ratify it requesting that Britain take direct control of the colony in 1934 until it joined the Canadian Federation in 1949. Canada, the Irish Free State, and the Union of South Africa did not need to ratify the law and so it applied immediately to these three Dominions. Britain's parliament was no longer sovereign in all colonial matters. The Dominions had been given their own legislative freedom. For some, the Westminster Statute was a sign of enlightened government showing that the Empire had the ability to create viable countries which could stand on their own two feet and to fend for themselves. It provided a constitutional role model for other colonies to aspire to. For others, it was a sign of weakness. Britain had missed the opportunity to establish a federal imperial system. The British Parliament had wanted to preserve its own powers and not have them diluted by Dominion representation in a new imperial chamber. Furthermore, Britain had just wanted to offload her defence commitments and had agreed to the Statute as a penny-pinching exercise. Yet others criticised the racist nature of the agreement. It was only white settler economies who benefitted from the Statute. Non-white colonies were excluded and these included some of the most populous colonies in the Empire like Nigeria and India. Whatever its motivations, the constitutional consequences were profound.
India's exclusion was particularly galling for nationalists there. The British government attempted to offer a fig leaf of constitutional negotiations through a series of round table talks throughout the early 1930s. In theory, every option was on the table but in practice the negotiations were slow and protracted. Britain had entered into a coalition government due to the financial difficulties unleashed by the depression of the 1930s and it was almost impossible to find consensus amongst the coalition partners and so the issue of India was left to drift with vague and patronising promises made but little of substance put in place. It was due to any obvious lack of progress that Gandhi embarked on his Salt March to challenge Britain's right to make laws which applied to India. British authorities taxed salt as part of a government monopoly to raise revenue. By publicly marching to the coast to make his own salt, Gandhi challenged the very legitimacy of Britain to rule over India. Throughout the 1930s, his non-violent challenge to British policies proved to be deeply embarrassing to the British authorities. Modern media showed newsreels where police and soldiers abused or dealt harshly with pacifistic minded demonstrators. The British were finding it hard to justify giving increased freedoms to her white settler Dominions but denying the same freedoms to the far more populous and economically important India. But, political paralysis back in the British parliament scuppered any attempt to speed up the process. A certain Winston Churchill even went so far as founding the India Defence League in an attempt to ensure that India did not even achieve Dominion status let alone full independence. Many Conservatives were sympathetic to Churchill and believed that losing India would result in the end of the entire rationale behind the British Empire. They also believed that it would deprive Britain of vital raw materials just as the world in the 1930s was beginning to set up tariff barriers and protective markets and with the growing menace of Communism and Fascism becoming very real concerns.
The Wall Street Crash unleashed fearsome economic winds which saw the value of raw materials plummet and international finance seize up. America instituted savage protective barriers, the Soviet Union had already closed itself off from the international market place in the 1920s. Italy and Germany were embarking on their own fascistic autarky programs. The world was scurrying behind protective barriers in a vain attempt to protect what remained of any productive industries. At the beginning of the century, the Conservative party had torn itself to shreds over imperial tariffs before rejecting them outright. Now, in the 1930s, the Conservative dominated coalition government meekly assented to forming an imperial preference system to try and stop rival economies from taking advantage of imperial markets whilst denying imperial companies from accessing their own markets. Derided by economists like J.M. Keynes, the British and Dominion governments felt that they had no option but to enact rules and tariffs along the lines of their rivals. Sure enough, the volume and value of world trade decreased yet further globally. The British Empire did not suffer as badly as that of most of her rivals. This was partly due to the size of the empire's internal market but it was also as a result of Britain coming off the Gold Standard in 1931. Although reluctant to come off the standard, it actually allowed the British government to relax her monetary policy, reduce interest rates and boost demand. She was quickly followed by the Dominions who tied themselves to sterling rather than to gold. Britain was beginning to implement Keynsian-like policies for the first time. It may not have been on a significant level, but it did help to bring Britain out of depression faster than many other developed nations. Although, it was to be re-armament in the late 1930s that really allowed Britain to fully implement a Keynesian spending program which allowed for a full recovery from depression but only at the cost of yet another World War.
The 1930s were a difficult time for Britain and her Empire. On paper, it was larger than it had ever been thanks to assuming the mandates for various German and Ottoman colonies. However, the collapse in world trade had hit the colonies very hard indeed. Demand had collapsed for the cash crops which many of the colonies had been built around. Furthermore, Britain's democratic model was being vigorously challenged from left and right by Communist and Fascist ideologies. Communism appealed to some of the dispossessed and poor of the Empire's colonies who were attracted by its agenda of equality and redistributions of wealth. Although it would not be until the post-Second World War that Communist insurgencies became a major challenge to the British, much of the groundwork and initial creation of networks was started during this inter-war period. Fascism also found adherents in and around Britain and its Empire - although to a lesser degree than Communism. Its racist agenda appealed to some settlers and colonists who believed that the British Empire demonstrated the inherent superiority of some races over others. The privileged position reserved for many bureaucrats, businessmen and soldiers held within the imperial structures of the 1930s reinforced ideas of innate differences between races. The granting of political rights to the white, settler colonies only seemed to confirm these beliefs. Fascist ideas were particularly prevalent in Southern Africa where some of the Boer whites in particular (but not exclusively) looked towards this European ideology for inspiration and ideas and to justify the increasingly severe separation and treatment of the native black population. South Africa would develop a complicated racial hierarchy which went fully into operation after World War Two in 1948 but many of the ideas and justifications were formulated in the pre-war years.
In addition to the ideological threat that these totalitarian regimes offered was the threat that they posed to the strategic position of Britain. The Soviet Union, Germany, Japan and Italy all had expansionist dreams of their own and were either inspired or felt threatened by the size and reach of the British Empire. Communism was inherently international in theory but Stalin's regime somewhat turned in on itself as he sought to consolidate his regime and position. However, Soviet expansion into the Caucuses, Persia and Central Asia seemed to reignite the 'Great Game' and caused Britain's planners in India new strategic concerns and worries. Hitler's Germany was surprisingly sympathetic to British Imperialism as Hitler considered the British success as an example of Aryan superiority in his warped world view. Theoretically, he was content to allow Britain to maintain her Empire as long as she did not intervene to prevent Germany from creating its own Continental Empire. Events would prove that Britain could not make any such accommodation with Germany and that she regarded a united European Empire under Hitler's regime as offering a mortal threat to the island of Britain itself. Japan had been angered at Britain being detached from their alliance with one another by the Americans at the Washington Peace Conferences. She was further angered at the League of Nations' criticism of her own expansionist policies in Manchuria. Japan understood that Britain was a prime mover within the League of Nations and so believed that she had become antagonistic to Japan's own desires for an enhanced Empire. Japan became the first country to withdraw from the League of Nations in order to avoid League of Nations' sanctions and allow her to prosecute her war in China with limited hindrance. Japan was a growing regional power and believed that Britain's (and America's) colonial possessions were part of the chessboard of imperial ambition. Likewise, the Italians wished to expand their dreams of empire and convert them into reality. Remembering the deep humiliation of 1896 when an Italian force was defeated by Abyssinians at Adowa, Mussolini sought to expand his territory by righting that historical wrong (in his eyes). Abyssinia was surrounded by British and French colonies and so the Italians felt that it was a double-standard for the old empires to deny Italy her own. When Britain and France failed to prevent sanctions being imposed on Italy by the League of Nations over her use of force in attacking the member nation of Abyssinia, Mussolini began to detach himself away from the Anglo-French orbit (the so-called Stresa Front) and move towards a closer alliance with Hitler's Germany. His use of aerial bombing and chemical weapons further alienated his regime from international public opinion which made it ever more difficult for Britain and France to mend the diplomatic bridges with him.
As if these strategic threats were not enough to deal with for Britain and her Empire, the economies of the totalitarian regimes appeared to be pulling themselves out of depression quicker than the democratic, capitalistic ones like Britain, France and America. Britain appeared to be relatively slipping behind vis-a-vis these new, vigorous and highly unpredictable new powers. It was increasingly clear to some commentators (like Winston Churchill) that these powers were on a collision course and would soon be locked into a mortal struggle for domination over one another. What the British Empire did not anticipate was having to fight all three of the Fascist regimes at the same time. She felt able to confront them one at a time, but the prospect of fighting all three at the same time was a frightening one. Britain had some solace in allying herself with the French who felt even more threatened by German expansionist plans than the British did. France had suffered terribly in the First World War and did not wish to see the Germans take revenge on them. However, attempts to bind the Soviet Union into an alliance faltered after their own appeasement policies were put in place at Munich. The Soviet Union put her own immediate survival needs first by signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany hoping that Germany would weaken herself in a long and protracted war against the British and French in the West and therefore giving the USSR more time to build up her own military and industrial capacity. Britain therefore found herself in the unenviable position of declaring war on Germany alongside just France after Poland was invaded.
Unlike at the outbreak of the First World War, the Dominions did not automatically enter war when Britain did on September 3rd 1939 - although the colonies still did so. There was certainly some administrative confusion and the Dominions took different views on the process required to enter the war. Australia took the view that King George VI's declaration of war on Germany automatically applied to Australia too and so took no additional constitutional arrangements. New Zealand formally declared war on September 4th (due to time differences), South Africa declared war on the 6th, the Canadians took a long and constitutionally convoluted route towards declaring war when they decided to request the federal parliament to declare war. The problem with this was that the federal parliament was in summer recess and was not due to return until October. A hastily convened special parliament was held on the 7th and the bill passed both houses by the 9th ready for the King's signature on the 9th. It took a while but it emphasised the new powers available to Canada as a sovereign nation. The missing declaration of war came from Ireland which was still technically a Dominion. Ireland had granted itself a new constitution from 1937 and had distanced itself from Britain about as far as it could within the confines of its pre-existing agreements. Ireland decided to stay neutral during the war and offered no ultimatum or declaration of war. It was felt by Ireland's leaders that it would be re-opening barely healed wounds to have Irish soldiers fighting alongside British soldiers and would undermine their own attempts at expressing their independence from Britain. Neutrality was a statement of separation from Britain rather than failing to condemn Fascism on the continent. Despite Irish neutrality, many Irish crossed the border and volunteered to fight Hitler through the vehicle of the British Army which had historically drawn so many of its recruits from Ireland. Additionally, British infringements on Irish neutrality - especially flying over the airspace of Donegal in the Battle of the Atlantic - were quietly ignored by the Irish who did not wish to give the British any excuse to reoccupy Ireland in order to be able to fight World War Two more effectively. Ireland did not fully leave the Commonwealth until 1949 after which it continued to adhere to its neutrality policy.
Just like in World War One, the Empire provided troops, money and materials to Britain on an enormous scale. And once again, what appeared to be a European conflict quickly escalated into a world wide conflagration. The Royal Navy was once more called upon to attempt to maintain control of supply routes and sea-lanes. Only this time it was to prove more difficult still as improved technology allowed German submarines to travel further and carry larger payloads than before and airpower became an increasingly important factor - especially in the Far East. In the Mediterranean, Britain's colonial possessions of Gibraltar and especially Malta proved their worth to the Royal Navy many times over. From the very outset, Britain's approach to the war was from a global perspective - as befitted the world's largest power. When the Italians attacked Egypt, Churchill responded by sending over half of the tanks in the British forces to guard the Suez Canal despite the fact that France was in its death throes and Britain was about to become a potential victim of German invasion and blitzkrieg tactics in its own right. The British military establishment still thought in terms of keeping the sea-lanes open to allow supplies and troops from around the Empire to move around the globe and be coordinated by the Imperial General Staff. Australian, South African, New Zealand and Indian troops joined the British forces in North Africa and fought a series of desperate campaigns there for the next three years.
Britain certainly had to prioritise its defence capabilities and in the early stages of the war, and especially when it was the sole power fighting against the Germans, she decided to cut back on the quality and quantity of arms and personnel being despatched to Asia. This was to prove to have disastrous consequences when Japan entered the war in December 1941 but it was understandable from the desperate position of a country hanging on for dear life against a resurgent Germany who had defeated the French in a matter of weeks. One sad consequence of the Fall of France was the fate of the French Fleet scattered around the ports of France and her Empire. The British decided to seize or destroy this fleet in order to prevent it falling into the hands of Hitler and to be used to help aid an invasion of Britain. In many cases, ships were seized with little difficulty, but in the case of 10 ships in Mers-el-K'bir in French Algeria the British were forced to attack and destroy the fleet resulting in the loss of nearly 1,300 French sailors. This had the effect of hardening Vichy French attitudes towards Britain but it also illustrated to the world Britain's determination to continue to fight Nazi Germany whatever the consequences and would do whatever it took to achieve victory. Britain allowed Charles De Gaulle to establish a parallel Free French Army in exile and provided his organisation with uniforms, equipment and bases to operate from. Soon, De Gaulle and his Free French forces were used to try and liberate various French colonies from Vichy French control. African colonies like Chad, French Congo and Cameroon joined the Free French quickly and easily. However, attempts to take control of Dakar ended in ignominy when the Vichy French soldiers on the ground resisted De Gaulle's requests to them to change sides. Determined resistance convinced the Anglo-French force to withdraw rather than escalate the situation and further alienate Vichy French opinion in this and other French colonies. Gabon was taken by force by Free French forces a few weeks later.
Britain's strategic position in the Middle East was felt to be vital to her war effort. The Suez Canal was a vital artery for the movement of troops and supplies and the nearby Persian Gulf was the source of most of her oil supplies. Libya was already an established Italian colony and after initial British successes against an Italian invasion of Egypt, they had been reinforced by battle hardened German Afrika Korps under the command of Rommel. Britain had also had to respond to Italian attacks on their colonies and bases in East Africa and a very cosmopolitan imperial force was used to reassert British control throughout the Horn of Africa and the lands to the south of Egypt. A disastrous British intervention in Greece and Crete saw precious resources diverted from the North African campaign. As allied prestige fell yet further and Britain's military situation in the region appeared ever more precarious, Arab attitudes against British colonial control hardened in many of the cities and centres of political power in the region. The Mufti of Jerusalem virtually declared himself a Nazi sympathiser and fled British controlled Palestine for asylum in Baghdad. In fact, Iraq was undergoing its own political upheavals as pro-British and pro-German factions vied for power over one another. A coup in 1941 put pro-German elements in charge of the country which Britain felt that it could not ignore. The British diverted troops and aircraft to intervene to return pro-British elements back into power. German and Italian planes landed supplies in Vichy controlled Syria in an attempt to support the pro-German faction in Iraq. British, Australian and Indian forces landed at Basra whilst others advanced from Palestine. In a matter of weeks, Iraqi resistance crumbled in the face of fighting a modern power with battle hardened soldiers. A pro-British government was duly re-installed and the political and strategic situation stabilised in a manner which the British felt did not threaten their oil supplies or regional position. However, the German and Italian attempted intervention via Vichy controlled Syria concerned the British greatly. Plans were swiftly put in place to follow up the action in Iraq with an invasion of French controlled Syria and Lebanon. British, Australian and Indian troops were diverted from their successful campaign in Iraq to invade and seize Syria and Lebanon. They were supported by troops from Palestine, Royal Naval forces and Free French soldiers. The relatively isolated Vichy soldiers received little support from the Germans or Italians. In the case of the Germans, they were preoccupied with their plans for the invasion of Russia which was imminent. The British forces seized the colonies in a matter of weeks.
There was still one more significant political challenge to the British in the region and this was in Egypt itself. Egypt's support for the British had been ambivalent since the outbreak of war with significant support for the Axis cause, including from the Egyptian King Farouk I. In 1942, whilst the Germans were pushing all before them in Russia and Rommel had triumphantly advanced along the coast of Egypt towards El Alamein and Alexandria, the British forced Farouk to appoint a pro-British government. They literally surrounded his palace with armoured cars and tanks and explained to him that if he did not follow British instructions he would be replaced and was presented with his abdication decree which was to come in force should he not follow British instructions. He capitulated fully in what was a last gasp example of British residual power at a desperately important strategic time for the allied war effort. Egypt was politically stabilised allowing for the British to concentrate on their own military offensive at El Alamein which took place later in the year.
Being the newest arm in the British military establishment, the RAF was the least hidebound and traditional of the services. The RAF was the most colour-blind of the three services and was quick to accept volunteers, skilled pilots and technicians from any and all walks of life. Iconic aerial campaigns like the Battle of Britain, the Dambusters Raid and many other bread and butter missions were carried out by an amazingly cosmopolitan source of aircrew. It wasn't just the white Dominions or settler colonies who provided personnel; there were pilots and crew from India, the Caribbean and throughout Africa. There were also volunteers from occupied nations like Poland, Czechoslovakia and France. It was an interestingly varied counterpoint to the Nazi ideals of a pure-bred Aryan military machine.
Churchill courted Roosevelt in a desperate attempt to draw America into the war against Fascism. Roosevelt had to contend with a strong isolationist mood in Congress and so was unable to give unequivocal support to Britain. There were some important acts of support that he managed to get through Congress but only by ensuring that the British made important concessions in return. Roosevelt offered 40 old destroyers and a Lend Lease facility to allow Britain to purchase goods even without the funds to by able to immediately buy them. However, in return, the British had to cede port facilities to the Americans in the Caribbean and Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, the British were forced to agree to open up her imperial markets to American trade. The Atlantic Charter signed by Churchill and Roosevelt also seemed to open up the prospect of the dissolution of Britain's Empire when they agreed that peoples should have the right to determine their own form of government. Churchill assumed that this phrase was aimed at the Nazi occupation of Europe, but it could also be applied to Britain's colonies. Britain would learn that America's priorities were not to be the same as Britain's.
In the early stages of the war, the Empire gave Britain the confidence, personnel and resources to take on the might of Nazi Germany. This support became crucial after the fall of France and the introduction of Italy into the war. Much of the threat in 1940 and early 1941 was directed at Britain itself and the colonies sent soldiers, aircrew and sailors to help out the mother country in her desperate hour of need. At this stage, the war was confined largely to Europe and North Africa, but it was the entrance of Japan that expanded the war enormously and took the threat to her colonies in Asia. Britain was barely surviving a war in Europe and had strategically concentrated her resources in fighting in Europe and North Africa which led to the neglect and draw-down of resources elsewhere - especially in Asia. Soldiers, equipment and garrisons in Asia were those deemed to be too antiquated, inexperienced or inadequate for the fighting required in Europe and North Africa. The best formations and equipment of the army were sent to North Africa, the best planes and aircrew sent to Britain and the best ships and sailors were sent to the Battle of the Atlantic. The leftovers had to make do with whatever antiquated equipment or resources they could source locally. This meant that the British and Empire forces were in for a rude shock when the Japanese entered the war in December 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was part of a continent-wide strategy to divest the European and American powers of their colonies and appropriate their resources for Japan. The primary target was the rich oilfields of the Dutch East Indies, but the Philippines, Malaya and Singapore were all en route to this target and were thus thrust into the front line. Japanese forces in China also attacked and captured Hong Kong but the real disaster was unfolding in the Malay Peninsular as the underestimated Japanese forces drove back British and Australian forces onto the supposedly impregnable defences of Singapore. Lamentable leadership, a collapse in morale and inadequate military equipment contributed to the most humiliating of defeats in February 1942 when the British surrendered their forces there. It was the largest military catastrophe of the war and marked a watershed in Britain's imperial prestige in Asia. The Japanese took away the last vestiges of mystique and appearance of power from the British in the region. Scenes of British soldiers being paraded through streets as prisoners by their Asian captors shattered any illusions of innate power based on racial superiority. The Japanese failed to fully capitalise on local feelings toward their previous colonial masters by introducing harsh and severe rule of their own upon the subject peoples. The Japanese Empire was every bit as racially delineated as the European ones it supplanted and in many ways even more so.
The collapse in British and Imperial forces in Asia had a profound effect on the relationship of Australia to the Empire. Australia had been a steadfast Dominion which had supplied arms and units to the British to fight in Asia and North Africa. With the collapse of the defences in Malaya and Singapore, Australia realised that it was now strategically vulnerable to an all victorious Japanese military advance which was penetrating ever deeper through the Dutch East Indies. The Australians, much to the annoyance of Churchill, recalled many of their troops serving in North Africa and a division en route to Burma and redirected them directly back to Australia. The Japanese had effectively removed the Australian contribution to Britain's war effort in the West. Furthermore, the Australian government quickly ratified the Westminster Statutes to clarify its own legal standing and invited the Americans to provide troops and military equipment to defend the Northern coast of Australia which had come under aerial attack by the Japanese. One of the oldest Dominions in the Empire was moving out of British orbit and would never fully return to the fold. Australia had supplied some of the sternest and most professional troops in the British and Empire forces since the time of the Boer War. They had been instrumental in bringing about the defeat of the Germans in 1918. But from 1942 they retreated back to defend their island behind a shield which was not provided by the Royal Navy but by the United States Navy. It was an important sign in the transference of strategic power between Britain and the United States and that the Dominions were now in control of their own destinies.
Having lost large swathes of territory in Asia, the British turned to an unlikely ally which would prove to be valuable in the fight against the Japanese but would have long term consequences in the post-War period: The Communists. Communist guerrilla fighters in South East Asia were supplied by the British and allied forces to disrupt the Japanese occupation of their lands. It may have been the case that my enemy's enemy is my friend but it was no less invaluable to the war effort. Communist insurgents tended to be ruthlessly committed and effectively organised. They hated all forms of imperialism and so were happy to fight the Japanese variety even if it meant taking aid from their old imperial masters. They believed that the course of history was on their side and that the European colonists were not as ruthless or as uncompromising as the Japanese were proving to be. Besides, the military equipment and training could be turned on their providers should they return to the region after the defeat of Japan. This is precisely what did happen in many instances as allies in war became rivals for political power after the defeat of Japan.
The Japanese advance into South-East Asia and through Burma caused particular concerns for the British and Empire forces in India. The Japanese had some limited success in recruiting Indian Prisoners of War into an Indian National Army under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose. Japanese ideas of their own racial superiority over defeated peoples undermined their attitudes towards the organisation which was limited to a largely garrison role. However, its very existence highlighted the fact that not all Indians were willing to remain loyal to the British and with the advance of the Japanese to the borders of India the matter became even more crucial. Political events in India were equally fraught. Unlike in the First World War, Indian Nationalist leaders like Gandhi were not willing to support the British war effort unconditionally. The British authorities were caught between using force to impose law and order and further undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of Indians or ignoring Indian Nationalist leaders and allowing them to increase their profile and levels of support and potentially destabilise the colony in the midst of war. It was an unenviable position forcing the British to attempt to square the circle by offering India Dominion status upon the end of war with the hint that they could then use this status to gain their own independence (along the lines of Ireland). At the time, Gandhi referred to the offer by Sir Stafford Cripps as a 'Post-dated Cheque' and appeared not to cooperate but in reality the offer took much of the wind out of what was known as the 'Quit India' movement. It also encouraged muslims in India, under the leadership of Jinnah, to declare themselves fully in support of Britain and her war aims in the hopes of being rewarded with their own state upon a British victory. Cripps' offer also meant that the British would find it very difficult to retract the offer and seemed to confirm that they had every intention of handing power over in the near future, but of course only if they won the war. The military and political situation was temporarily stabilised but at the cost of very expensive promises which were to be cashed in after the war.
The entrance of Japan into the war was tempered for the British by the arrival of the USA as an ally. It was clear that the Americans could provide enormous economic and military resources. Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Nazi Germany provided the greater threat and so concentrated their efforts on defeating Hitler. This was despite the fact that it was an attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour that had brought the Americans into the war. Furthermore, Churchill was able to convince Roosevelt that the war effort should be directed towards North Africa and the Mediterranean in the immediate future. This reflected his global and imperial perspective. He wished to clear Axis forces from North Africa before invading Italy and various Mediterranean islands. He claimed that it was Hitler's soft underbelly but in reality he was hoping to restore British influence to the Mediterranean and to clear the approaches to the Suez Canal to fully reopen the sea lanes connecting India and the wider Empire to Britain. Roosevelt deferred to Churchill's priorities in 1942 as he regarded Britain as the experienced partner but also to test Americans in combat for the first time without fully committing them to a direct invasion of France. The result was Operation Torch where US forces landed on the Vichy French colonies of North Africa as the British struck Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein and pushed from the East. In many ways, El Alamein was the last great battle of the British Empire with troops from all over the colonies joining British forces without any Americans supporting the effort. After this battle, the British would increasingly rely on an ever growing American military presence either in terms of command, logistics or supplies. El Alamein was the last imperial hurrah as imperial troops fought for an imperial strategic artery in a typically exotic imperial location.
Churchill managed to maintain the focus to the Mediterranean throughout 1943 although the invasion of Italy proved that Southern Europe was anything but a 'soft underbelly' as the terrain and conditions was used to masterful effect by the German defenders. At the strategic level, Roosevelt increasingly agreed with Stalin, at the expense of Churchill, to conduct a direct invasion of France across the English Channel. It was increasingly obvious that the Americans were supplanting the military and political capacity of the British to conduct the war and the appointment of Eisenhower to command the D-Day operation confirmed this shift in their relative status. The invasion itself was a remarkably balanced operation with two British beaches, one Canadian beach and two American beaches being targetted. But behind the headline troop figures was an increasing dependence by British and Imperial forces upon American logistics, equipment and command decisions. The balance was shifting.
Britain and imperial forces continued to fight in the Northern European, Italian and Burmese theatres through 1944 and into 1945 but it was becoming increasingly obvious that the United States and the Soviet Union were becoming the dominant partners. There were still meetings of the 'Big Three' leaders but Britain was no longer being treated as an equal. Churchill was convinced that the Soviets would replace the Nazis as the next totalitarian target, but Roosevelt was more trusting of Soviet intentions and was more willing to trust Stalin's promises. Churchill had stated on the record back in 1942 that he had "not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire" and yet it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Allies to criticise the Soviets over taking control of Eastern European nations whilst Britain was still holding on to its own colonies. The death of Roosevelt in 1945 did not see any major shift in American policy towards Britain and its Empire. If anything, the incoming President Truman was even more stand-offish about British and Imperial matters. Most importantly of all was his failure to share the fruits of the Manhattan Project which resulted in the atomic bombs. Churchill believed that he had an unwritten understanding with Roosevelt to share the research but Truman ignored all such requests. It did not help the British cause that Churchill himself was personally swept away from power in July of 1945 and replaced with the Labour government of Attlee who had very different ideas about the British Empire.
The sudden end of the war in the Pacific, thanks to the Atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saw British and Empire forces move back into their former colonies. On the face of it, they were welcomed back with cheers and goodwill, but everyone knew that the colonial equation had changed and that things could not return to the way they were before the Japanese occupation. The British even entered the colonies of their rival European nations like the Dutch and French to accept the surrender of Japanese soldiers and attempt to maintain law and order before a form of political authority could be reintroduced. Communist guerrillas were equally keen to move into the political vacuum left by the sudden Japanese surrender. Communists consolidated their positions in colonies such as Malaya, Vietnam, the Dutch East Indies amongst others. Some of these Communist groups would later launch full blown insurgencies with varying degrees of success as the World War gave way to a Cold War.
Notwithstanding the political and military power unleashed by the atomic bombs to the benefit of the United States, Truman and his administration equivocated at first as to how to deal with the post-war world. His first decisions actively harmed Britain when American lend-lease ships bringing vital supplies and aid to Britain were literally turned around mid-Atlantic upon the surrender of Japan and sailed back to America. British requests for an emergency loan were met with similar hesitancy. One was offered but only at a steep rate of interest. The British found a much more favourable response from Canada which advanced it a considerable loan given the size of the Canadian economy. The Indian Government also decided to write off its loans to Britain made during the war. This may have been seen by Indian Nationalists as a conceit demonstrating that a British ruled India would put British interests before Indian ones, nonetheless it was a genuinely helpful gesture to the British government exhausted by six years of war. It was clear that Britain was no longer the economic power it had once been. Two World Wars within 25 years had drained Britain of much of its resources, prestige and political power. It had been victorious in both wars but had still paid a huge price. The economic power had shifted across the Atlantic towards a country which had not yet decided how it was going to use its new found influence.
Attlee's newly elected Labour party was clearly anti-imperialist in outlook and set about organising India for its independence. It appointed Lord Mountbatten as Viceroy as a sympathetic royal who would have the prestige and clout to move the process along. If anything Mountbatten may have travelled too quickly when he brought forward plans for Indian independence from 1948 to 1947. He also was unable to convince Jinnah that the Muslims should agree to work within a united India. Jinnah held out for an independent Muslim Pakistan and the unrelenting British timetable meant that he had to be accommodated. The result was the creation of two new states in 1947 as India and Pakistan both gained their freedom. This act was initially greeted by jubilation and enthusiasm but this quickly turned to ethnic violence and division as many Hindus and Muslims suddenly found themselves in a nation that they believed would prove hostile to their faith. Many were killed as refugees fled in both directions. The Jewel in the Crown had gone and with it went much of the rationale for other colonies such as Ceylon, Burma, Aden, the Suez Canal even Malta which had all been colonies designed to support the infrastructure of a maritime Asian Empire organised around India. One of the most important pieces of the imperial jigsaw puzzle had been removed and others would fall as a consequence.
Another prickly issue for the Labour government to deal with was in Palestine. This mandate was particularly difficult to deal with due to the different claims and aims of the rival Jewish and Arab populations. The British had attempted to hold the line in the 1930s by restricting Jewish immigration to the mandate. In the light of the horrors perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis in Europe it became increasingly difficult for the British to prevent Jews from fleeing Europe to settle in their holy lands. British attempts to stem the flow were met by devastating terrorist acts which the war weary British were reluctant to endure any longer than necessary. It did not help that Truman's Democrats were undermining British attempts to find a solution for both the Jewish and Arab communities. Britain attempted to hand the problem over to the newly formed United Nations only for Zionist Jews to take the initiative and claim the formation of Israel in the diplomatic vacuum left by the British withdrawal. Britain had extricated itself from a problematic colony but with little honour and with the seeds of an enduring conflict left firmly in place.
There was to be more disappointment for the British Government thanks to elections held in the Dominion of South Africa in 1948. The pro-imperial and internationalist Jan Smuts was defeated by an inward-looking and openly racist Afrikaner party under Daniel Malan in a restricted election. South Africa had been one of the most important of the Dominions within the British Empire and had been a vital ally in both World Wars. Now, it set itself on a course of Apartheid and eventual international ostracism as it sought to reserve the powers and fruits of the state for its white and particularly its Afrikaner population. South Africa went on to be expelled from the Commonwealth in 1961 for its racist legislation and treatment of its black population. It would not rejoin until 1994 after Apartheid had been fully dismantled.
Whilst Attlee's Labour government was investing huge amounts of political and economic energy into revitalising and redirecting the British domestic scene, internationally it was clear that Britain was no longer the dominant political player. It had not joined the ranks of 'Superpower' as America had by dint of its huge economy and atomic power and the Soviet Union thanks to its enormous military still occupying large swathes of Eastern Europe. Britain had to re-evaluate its role and purpose but it also had to help convince America not to abandon Europe to its fate as it had after the First World War. Britain, despite having a socialist government, worked hard to concrete America into defensive alliances and meaningful international institutions - aimed primarily against the spread of Communism. Truman's regime did not immediately turn on the Soviets in the post-War world but when Britain announced that it could no longer fund the Turkish and Greek governments in fighting counter-insurgencies against Communist infiltrators it was clear that the intention was for America to step up and fill the void created. Attlee was supported in his attempts to woo the Americans by his defeated rival Churchill who gave an important speech in Fulton, Missouri where he articulated the concept of an Iron Curtain and warned of the dangers of the spread of Communism. These requests fell on fertile ground as Republicans and Democrats alike attempted to outdo one another on the extent of their anti-Communist credentials. The immediate response was the Truman Doctrine for the containment of Communism to its current borders and to invest in the military and economic structures of countries endangered by the threat of Communist insurrection. This policy would have the effect of prolonging European decolonisation in many examples. Previously, the Americans had been deeply hostile towards European nations owning colonies around the world. However, they were even more reluctant to see Europeans leave colonies too quickly and leave a power vacuum that would be filled by Communists or left leaning governments. For example, the Americans started to channel funds and military expertise to the French in Vietnam. They were also sympathetic to British attempts at stamping out a Communist insurgency in Malaya. Previously, they would have been very critical at this use of force but their world view had shifted radically in the late 1940s and empires now had their use as a buffer to the spread of Communism.
In an attempt to rationalise the remaining colonies and make them into stronger economic and political units, Britain embarked on the creation of a number of 'Federations' around its empire. The Federation of West Indies, a British Central African Federation, a British East Africa Federation and the Federation of Malaya were all attempts to build stronger blocks that would be economically stronger and could be prepared to withstand Communist attempts to pick off unstable colonies as they gained independence. With the exception of a modified Malayan Federation, they generally fell apart. Nationalists were convinced that they were attempts to create a new colonial construct in order to delay independence or to create systems to help influence their governance post-independence.
Malaya was the exception as it came to experience the destabilising effect of a Communist insurgency quicker than most. Some of the Chinese population of Malaya were inspired by the success of China's Communists in overthrowing the government of Chiang Kai Shek in 1949. Many of the Malay Chinese had fought with the British against the Japanese and were well armed and well motivated to emulate Mao Zedong's success in China and received material aid to help them in their endeavour. British plans to grant independence to the Malay Federation were put on hold as Malays and the Indian population requested British aid in subduing the largely Chinese inspired insurrection. It took nearly a decade of sustained jungle warfare mixed with 'carrot and stick' tactics to isolate and then defeat the guerrilla insurgency. Independence was only granted in 1957 after the defeat of the Communist insurrection. Although it should be pointed out that the Federation did not last in its original format as Singapore later detached itself from the Federation for fear of being a permanent minority within a Malay dominated Malaysian Federation. This balancing the rights of minorities was to prove a particular problem for Britain in its decolonisation process. Populations had freely moved around the empire in previous centuries but as the newly created United Nations required clearly defined borders for new members, some populations were beginning to find themselves as a minority without the protection of the full British legal system to defend themselves against a newly installed majority keen to exercise full political and judicial power upon independence. It was a dilemma that was thought to be addressed by the Labour government with the passing of the British Nationality Act of 1948. This act effectively created the new status of 'citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies' but it also applied to members of the newly emerging Commonwealth. This meant that people who were born in Britain or its colonies could claim a British passport and could retain the protection of the British Crown. It was successfully used by many Indians in East Africa when Idi Amin persecuted them and forced them out of the newly independent Uganda. However, the sheer extent of the Empire meant that huge swathes of the world's population could claim British citizenship and move to Britain. It led to a big influx of Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean immigrants coming to work in Britain in the days of Full Employment of the 1950s and 1960s. These were the sons and daughters of Empire and were following the concepts of the Empire of old by moving to follow economic opportunity. In this case though, it was largely non-white populations flowing to Britain in a reverse of the trend of the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a political backlash as Britain's economy failed to keep up with competitor countries and so failed to offer continued employment to new waves of immigrants. The 1948 British Nationality Act was steadily restricted in the following decades before being replaced fully in 1981 by a far more restrictive Nationality Act. However, the consequence of the 1948 Act was that it transformed the ethnic profile of Britain which in itself has gone on to become one of the more enduring legacies of the British Empire.
The post-war Labour Government was hostile in principle to Empire and certainly started the process of decolonisation rolling with earnest. However, even the Labour party hesitated from divesting Britain of all of its colonies too quickly. Many still felt that not all colonies had reached a necessary minimum level of development before being able to be granted independence. The Labour Party also hardened its own stance against the threat of Communism by joining NATO, keeping large numbers of troops in West Germany, providing aircraft to overcome the Soviet Berlin Blockade and investing in its own atomic weapons programme. But it was the Korean War which saw British rearmament come back onto the political agenda with urgency. Although this was theoretically a United Nations intervention, in reality it was an American led coalition against Communist aggression. British and Canadian forces were joined by Australian and New Zealand forces in a Commonwealth Division in addition to air and naval assets. Interestingly, they were joined by a medical contingent from recently independent India. However, despite the sizeable contribution in numerical terms, Britain was no longer calling the shots in the strategy and tactics of the conflict. Britain was firmly a junior party. It was further evidence that America had eclipsed Britain as the leading global policeman. It should be said that the war commitment came at a considerable economic and political cost for Attlee's Labour government as it struggled to offer 'guns and butter' to a nation which it had endowed with new institutions such as the NHS and various nationalised industries. The struggle to balance these commitments provided the opportunity for the return of the great imperialist politician; Winston Churchill.
Churchill's administration coincided with the sudden death of George VI in 1952 and the elevation of Elizabeth to be the new Queen. Churchill, the historian as much as the politician, used the occasion and accession to declare that the coming era would usher in a 'New Elizabethan Age' and by implication a 'New Elizabethan Empire'. He was quite vague on the details, but it was clear that he thought that a new, young and vigorous monarch might provide the perfect excuse to reinvent Britain's status. Indeed, thanks largely to significant developments in jet travel, Elizabeth II and her young family travelled around the Commonwealth more frequently than any previous monarch had been able to do so. She brought a public face to the institution of Empire and helped to transist it towards the more convivial Commonwealth which was being established to provide a lasting and more balanced forum for remaining colonies and newly independent nations.
In the post-war period, both the Labour party and the Conservative party failed to coherently set out a course for Britain to take on the world stage. Britain still held residual power and goodwill as a consequence of being on the victorious side in World War Two and thanks to its global network of links and connections thanks to the Empire and its long-standing commercial tradition. And yet, it was falling between three possible stools. One stool was the Empire/Commonwealth where Britain was fast realising that it was losing the argument on the necessity of keeping peoples and colonies against their will in the face of rising nationalism and the ability of freedom fighters to find sympathetic allies and a voice on the world stage. Another stool was Britain's so-called special relationship with America which had been a cornerstone of Churchill's war strategy and something he wished to rekindle in the 1950s. Even the Labour party had seen the value of nurturing good relations with the Truman administration and keeping American interest in Europe and against the spread of Communism. However, the 1950s would reveal the limits of American goodwill towards its former ally. The third stool was that of becoming involved in Europe. Churchill was actually mindful of Britain's historical role in Europe and had been instrumental in forming pan-European institutions like the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. The Labour party was more wary of European connections at this time and were particularly suspicious of plans for a European Coal and Steel Community just after they had successfully managed to nationalise those very same industries. In the 1950s, successive Conservative politicians failed to appreciate the significance and depth of earnest negotiations which culminated in the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the European Economic Community. The British assumed that it was just another minor collection of states which was probably doomed to relative insignificance. They also worried that joining this new band of European allies would undermine their links with the USA and pull the rug from under the newly developing Commonwealth. So Britain was about to enter some turbulent waters without any clear attachment to a global strategy.
Britain had been more reluctant to allow its African colonies to declare independence and leave the Empire in the immediate post-war period than it had for its Dominions and Asian colonies. Many policy makers felt that the levels of development in Africa were just too low and there were still influential white settler communities in key African colonies like Rhodesia and Kenya. The 1940s and 1950s did see some significant injection of development projects compared to the laissez faire policies of the pre-war era. Hospitals, schools and infrastructure were built and promoted and British specialists did rotate through these African colonies in an attempt to transfer skills and technology to the local populatin. These schemes could be paternalistic, inappropriate and condescending in their nature but they did represent earnest attempts at taking more responsibility for the welfare of peoples in its care. Some of these schemes were an unmitigated disaster such as the groundnut scheme in Tanganyika which had been proposed as a way to encourage self-financing farming for Africans but failed to appreciate the lack of regular rainfall in East Africa. Other schemes were grandiose in an attempt to emulate the high profile engineering projects in the Soviet Union and North America. Dams and hydro-electric facilities were particularly popular in the 1950s but did not always take into account the settlement and movement patterns of local populations and seriously disrupted and unbalanced local ecological and environmental systems. Africans supplied much of the labour required to build these but white specialists were still relied upon and preferred for the higher end work required. These policies limited the abilities of skills and technology to be successfully transferred to the developing economies of the colonies in what represented missed opportunities for better preparing black majority colonies for post-colonial life. Undoubtedly there still remained ideas of racial superiority and condescension towards those who were colonised but these concepts tended to be strongest in white settler communities that isolated themselves from the black communities and was becoming less prevalent in those coming out directly from Britain or from those who lived and worked with black Africans on a daily basis.
It was the white settler community in Kenya that felt the backlash of a minority of determined black Africans the most in what became known as the Mau Mau Emergency. This started in 1947 and continued into the mid 1950s and caused considerable panic and distrust between the various communities of what had been regarded as one of the most tranquil of colonies. The Mau Mau tended to be Kikuyu who had felt deprived of lands and political power by the white settlers and sought to drive the whites out of Kenya. The name became synonymous with mysticism and savagery. White settlers felt particularly isolated and at danger from violent death even though the Mau Mau directed most of their attention towards those black Africans who worked for the whites in capacities such as policemen, soldiers and village headsmen. Still, it was the death of white settlers and especially of women and children which caught the headlines back in Britain. Well-connected white settlers demanded protection from the British government and by 1952 a full state of emergency had been called. Thousands of British soldiers were diverted to the country to man checkpoints and round up potential suspects in a war that became more and more brutal. Mau Mau tactics did not find much support outside the Kikuyu tribe as non-Kikuyu feared the prospect of Kikuyu majority rule more than that of British rule. Mau Mau strikes against fellow, but non-militant, Kikuyu villages also created animosity and a diminution in support for their insurrection. But it was the escalation of intelligence gathering and particularly the systematic isolation of communities with Operation Anvil in 1954 which really turned the tide. Former Mau Mau were given the dubious option of turning informer or being seriously mistreated and/or executed for terrorist outrages. Hooded Mau Mau were taken through camps of rounded up Kikuyu in a blunt but often effective way of identifying Mau Mau sympathisers. However, if the white settlers felt that they could turn the clock back to life as it was before the insurrection began then they would prove to be disappointed. Serial mistreatment of Mau Mau by the authorities and the white settlers who operated much of the local systems of government made it more difficult for the British government back in London to deny black majority rule in order to protect themselves from white retribution. Ironically, it was the ex-Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta who became the leader of post-colonial Kenya although thanks to skillfull repositioning of his political beliefs and implementing a forgive and forget attitude to placate the white settler community and non-Kikuyu tribes in return for allowing black majority rule.
However, it was events to the North of Africa that truly illustrated Britain's relative strategic decline in an issue that was primaricly concerned over ownership of the Suez Canal. Anthony Eden would preside over the fiasco. He had been Churchill's right hand man and foreign secretary for many years. Eden had been as outspoken about pre-war appeasement as Churchill and had been his point-man since their return to power in 1951. Eden even married Churchill's niece Clarissa Spencer-Churchill. Eden had been a successful foreign secretary despite the declining power of Britain and in 1954 believed that he had negotiated a long term Anglo-Egyptian agreement to withdraw all British forces from Egypt and the Suez Canal zone but leaving the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company to continue to run the hugely important Suez Canal connection between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Churchill finally retired in 1956 and Eden effortlessly inherited the role of Prime Minister.
It was not long before events in Egypt were to challenge Eden's premiership and, as he believed, his credibility. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company in 1956 apparently piqued by the withdrawal of Anglo-American funding for a new Aswan Dam. He intended to use the operating profits from running the Suez Canal to fund his own grandiose public works dreams. Fatefully, it was the French and Israelis who came up with a plan that would give the European powers an excuse to intervene and seize back the Suez Canal. The plan was that Israel would attack Egyptian forces and destabilise the region. This would then give British and French forces an excuse to invade Egypt and seize the canal zone in order to prevent it from being disrupted by this outbreak of war. No one in parliament was privy to this underhand and illegal act let alone that of Britain's most important ally; America. The Anglo-French invasion was successfully carried out and all the key points were seized relatively efficiently. However, the diplomatic fallout was anything but efficiently dealt with. The timing of the whole invasion was diabolical. It coincided with the Soviet invasion of Hungary which seemed to offer the Communists with an excuse of equivalence in dealing with troublesome regimes. The invasion also took place just days before the American presidential election much to the chagrin of the Republican incumbent Eisenhower. His administration was furious that they knew nothing about British and French plans to launch a war and destabilise a vital international trading route. In fact, although the Egyptian armed forces had been quickly defeated by the Israelis, British and French forces, they had succeeded in sinking blocking ships into the Suez Canal and so close it down to shipping movements. This had the unfortunate consequence of preventing oil tankers from carrying their precious cargoes from the Middle East to Europe and provided a nasty surge in the price of oil. The Soviet Union felt that the unfolding debacle might provide them with an excuse to gain influence in Egypt and a toe-hold in the strategically important Middle East. They also felt that they could be more forceful towards a Britain and a France which patently did not have the support of the United States and made extremely worrying threats towards these Western powers. The value of Sterling came under sustained attack as confidence in the British government fell and the price of oil rose. Eden was put in the humiliating position of having to ask the offended Americans for an emergency loan to defend the pound. Eisenhower would agree only if the British withdrew immediately from the Suez Canal and hand it back over to Egyptian control. It was a humiliation for Anthony Eden and the political situation only deteriorated as the scale of deception wrought by the Israeli aggression became clearer. It was a debacle and one from which Eden could not escape. It was left to Harold Macmillan to pick up the pieces and attempt to restore relations with the Americans and set out a new direction for British Foreign policy. For Nasser, the whole affair was a propaganda triumph as he could legitimately claim to have seen off colonial interference on Egyptian soil. He became a hero to Arab and other Nationalists alike as he personified a new and more aggressive stance against Western Imperialism. Both Britain and France would now see reinvigorated challenges in many of their remaining colonial assets. France dug in its heels for a while and still tried to hold on with force in colonies like Algeria but the British were losing their stomach for armed interventions and so began to negotiate transfers of sovereignty. The new policy was to try and leave colonies on good relations with those who were likely to take over. Britain felt that if it speeded up the independence process then there would be less hostility and more opportunity for existing trading and commercial links to be maintained.
The first country in Africa to benefit from this new mood of cooperation was the Gold Coast in West Africa. The Gold Coast had become relatively wealthy on the cultivation of cocoa crops. Kwame Nkrumah became the leader of the renamed Ghana in 1957 and opening the floodgates for black Africa. Within a decade, most of the rest of the British colonies had been given their independence. The Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan referred to it as the 'Wind of Change' in a remarkable address to the Apartheid South African parliament in 1961 as he tried to explain to them that majority rule was inevitable and in the long-term interests of all on the continent. These were words did not go down well with the white minority government in South Africa which just days later shot 69 black demonstrators in the Sharpeville massacre. This heightened calls within the Commonwealth to expel South Africa which took place just two months later. The white settler community in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia was loathe to share power with a black majority from which it had stripped much of the land and rights in previous decades. Rhodesia had never been granted the Dominion status which had been converted into sovereign rule in places like Australia, New Zealand and, most importantly for Rhodesia, South Africa. The solution of the white population in Rhodesia was to declare UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) in 1965 and attempt to leave the Empire as it feared that the British government would insist on introducing a universal democratic model which would give power to the black majority. The privileged white minority took the initiative and hoped to have the implicit support of neighbouring apartheid South Africa. Britain was reluctant to escalate the situation into an armed intervention and sought a negotiated peaceful resolution and reincorporation into the Commonwealth and Empire. Ian Smith became the prime minister of the white minority government but found that the United Nations and nearly all other international states refused to recognise the new state of Rhodesia. Attempts to conflate black nationalist freedom fighters with Communist insurgents served to prolong a sense of legitimacy and justice within the white minority population of Rhodesia who fought an undoubtedly effective counter-insurgency war despite wide spread international sanctions aimed at their regime. However, it was the removal of support from the Boer dominated South Africa which really doomed Ian Smith's government and would-be nation. Many Boers had never truly reconciled themselves to supporting the Anglo-whites who they felt had treated them brutally in the Boer War and had attempted to cheat them out of their land and resources. Besides, they were uncomfortable at the destabilising effect in Southern Africa as a whole as guerrillas and insurgents felt they had a legitimate grievance to take up arms and fight in the region. It was feared that these guerrillas would then use their skills and weapons to transfer the fight into South Africa itself. South Africa had provided a porous border to circumvent the sanctions programs but this was slowly tightened making it more and more difficult for the Rhodesians to continue to operate as a viable nation. With extreme reluctance, Ian Smith realised that he had to rejoin the British Commonwealth and allow the British to negotiate for a peaceful transition to a democratic independent Zimbabwe. This was only achieved in 1980 many years after the liberation of much of the rest of Africa. It should also be said, that it only took the spotlight off South Africa for a few years before international sanctions and opprobrium forced the white minority government there to release Nelson Mandela and negotiate their own transition to black majority rule.
It was not just in Africa that saw Britain divest itself of its old imperial responsibilities. 1968 saw Britain announce its intention to withdraw from all bases 'East of Suez' by 1971. Britain could no longer afford to maintain the military infrastructure of a global power. Besides, with changing trading patterns and international relationships, Asia was becoming relatively less and less important to Britain. This policy shift was announced by a cash strapped Labour government which was finding it harder and harder to balance the budget with increased social provisions and yet maintain British military commitments in NATO, Western Europe and in its remaining far flung colonies. British power was also waning throughout the Middle East. The British sent a troop of Royal Marines to help guard Kuwait from Iraqi claims in 1961 but it was becoming increasingly obvious that the Americans were becoming the guarantors of the supply of oil as her own internal demand for oil increased dramatically and her military reach increased with her new aircraft carrier capabilities and Cold War priorities. The British house of cards in the region began to collapse with the insurgency in Aden. The British found themselves fighting a hodge-podge of Communist, Islamist and pan-Arab nationalists and finding it very difficult to justify the costs of occupying this reluctant imperial outpost. The government announced a sudden withdrawal from Aden in 1967 and left the area with indecent haste. This was a signal to other Middle Eastern nations that Britain's interest in the region was waning. It also concentrated the minds of the British government's bean counters. Without the Suez Canal, without India, without Aden, what was the point in having British troops and ships in bases like Singapore and Hong Kong. The former was already an independent nation and the latter only required enough defence capability for its own immediate defence. There was no longer a need or an ability for Britain to 'project' power throughout Asia. Britain also signalled its intention to terminate its old protectorates with the Gulf Arab states like Trucial Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. Unofficially, Britain did leave troops in the region in Oman to help subdue Islamic fundamentalists who threatened to overthrow the royal family there. But essentially, Britain's power and influence were slipping away and by 1971 its formal role 'East of Suez' was essentially over.
The new Conservative government of the early 1970s sought to stamp a new direction in Britain's foreign policy by applying to join the European Economic Community. This had been attempted before but had been vetoed by Charles de Gaulle who was suspicious of British links to the Americans and thereby any dilution of French power in the fledgling organisation. By the 1970s, Britain was welcomed into the club. Joining the EEC did have some imperial implications. Britain had to negotiate hard to maintain some of its old imperial trading connections most notably with New Zealand which had long supplied dairy and woollen products to Britain. The poorer British ex-colonies and remaining dependencies were placed into a similar category with French and Belgian ex-colonies and dependencies to make them eligible for European development aid and give them trading access to European markets. However, most non-European trade was penalised heavily by tariffs and import quotas and much of Britain's old trading connections were severed or at least severely curtailed. It did not help that the 1970s saw two huge oil shocks which further weakened existing trading patterns. Britain still had investments in many of its ex-colonies but nationalisation policies and left wing taxation policies further reduced the value of these assets. Britain was refocussing its economy on the closer, richer and more populous European partners. Britain began disposing of many of its isolated and poorer colonies scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean or Caribbean sea, keeping only those which were too small, too poor or too isolated to be viable as self-sufficient nations. There was a case for keeping some colonies for their strategic location providing bases and listening posts in some of the harder to reach parts of the world. Indeed, the British ended up leasing some of these isolated islands as bases to the Americans who were now the lead naval power. Diego Garcia and Ascension Island are still used as American bases to this day. Britain kept military bases in Cyprus due to its ideal location to monitor events in the volatile Middle Eastern region. But it was in the Southern Atlantic that the last truly 'imperial' war was fought for a group of islands that few believed had any strategic value; the Falkland Islands.
With Britain on the retreat from so much of the globe, an unpopular Argentine military Junta attempted to force the pace in the South Atlantic in 1982 by seizing the British controlled islands. What made these islands different from the many ex-British islands granted independence was the fact that the inhabitants of the islands were entirely of European settler descent - there having been no native population previous to British settlement. Falkland Islanders, much like Gibraltarians, wanted to remain part of the British Empire. It should be said that the Conservative government of the day had been equivocal in recognising this desire. They had recently withdrawn the automatic right of settlement and citizenship from Crown Dependencies in 1981, they had announced the withdrawal of the Antarctic Survey vessel from the South Atlantic and were in the process of announcing swinging cuts in the size of the Royal Navy. Misreading these cues, the Argentinians invaded in April 1982. Margaret Thatcher did not wish to be seen to give in to such blatant aggression and certainly not by a military dictatorship with a terrible human rights record of its own. She therefore sanctioned the sending of a Task Force with an Commando Brigade to take back the islands which was achieved in just ten weeks of fighting. It was a throwback to the short, sharp imperial wars of yester-year and proved a significant boost to the popularity and support for Margaret Thatcher. The Empire had played a political role once more.
Thatcher was not to be so sure-footed in her negotiations with the Chinese over the status of Hong Kong. Flush from victory in the South Atlantic she believed that she could extend British sovereignty in Hong Kong beyond 1997 when the New Territories lease was due to end. Hong Kong Island was technically British in perpetuity but much of the infrastructure of the colony had been constructed on the mainland side of the colony. Thatcher was tempted to dig in her heels but had underestimated the sense of grievance from the Chinese who believed that Hong Kong still represented the 'Century of Humiliation' where Britain imposed its will on China through the Opium Wars and successive humiliating treaties. The best that the British could extract from the Communist Chinese was the creation of Hong Kong as a Special Economic Zone which retained the majority of its characteristic 'British' features for fifty years beyond its repatriation to China in 1997. Hong Kong was thus able to keep its free press, judicial system, even driving on the left side of the road as the British sought to convince the Chinese not to kill the capitalist goose which laid the golden eggs. The Chinese were relatively happy to accept this compromise of 'One Country, Two (economic) Systems' as a way to demonstrate to the Taiwanese that they could be reasonable in assimilating the renegade province back into the mother country. The only sticking point was that of democratic institutions which had been singularly restricted during Britain's tenure. Attempts to rush in a limited franchise were seen as 'too little, too late' by democratic Hong Kongers and unnecessarily provocative by the Chinese who promised to undo the last minute reforms upon taking control of the province. A frosty handover ceremony in 1997 saw Britain lose its last significant and economically viable colony effectively bringing an end to a direct British political presence in Asia which had lasted at least three centuries.
There are still fourteen isolated and small dependencies scattered around the world which are still British responsibilities. Technically, the sun still does not set on these scattered outposts of Empire. However, in reality, Britain has had to get use to life as a post-colonial power. The legacy of Empire is to be found walking on the streets of Britain's cities and rural villages in the faces of the sons and daughters of colonisers and colonised who arrived on Britain's shores or returned from service or posting to the exotic destinations of the heyday of Empire. Britain established an Empire scattered all over the world only to have peoples from all over the world come to (or back to) Britain to call it home. These people also brought with them their food, music, textiles, literature, languages, art and many other concepts with them helping to turn Britain into a wonderfully complex amalgam of exotic, interweaving and unexpectedly diverse features and cultures. The post-colonial world for Britain is one that was shaped very much by its colonial experience. Britain and its culture may have influenced much of the wider world, but much of the world returned the favour and influenced British culture. It gave the peoples of the Empire opportunities to see that the world was a hugely diverse, exciting and fascinating place. Not everyone back in Britain took up these opportunities but they were available and many of the lessons learnt were subsumed into the culture. Cosmopolitanism was a key byproduct of empire. It may have been initially built on inequalities and feelings of superiority but experience and human interactions gave the institution of Empire a chance for diverse peoples and cultures to come into contact with another and find out what they appreciated, or not, from other societies. Empire could be a highly exploitative institution with built-in power inequalities and forms of discrimination, but it also provided very real opportunities on a truly global scale. We need to understand the negatives of the imperial legacy but should also embrace the positives and recognise the fact that for better or for worse it did exist for so long, over such a vast distance, and so shaped much of the modern world as we understand it today. Britain helped change the world and the world helped to change Britain. The Empire has gone, but its consequences live on.