In 1899 Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist and co-discoverer of the theory of evolution through natural selection, wrote The Wonderful Century – which, as its title suggests, was a broadly upbeat summary of what Britain had achieved during the preceding 100 years.
In his conclusion, however, Wallace reflected on how the British empire had behaved in its dealings with the “subject races”. They, he admitted, had been treated with “a strange mixture of good and evil” – a word that perhaps no modern commentator outside the former colonies would dare use to describe any aspect of British imperialism.
In the century since then, the empire has crumbled and Britain’s power has largely evaporated. But in our national memory of Britain’s centuries in the sun, the balance between the good and evil that Wallace recognised has been tipped decidedly towards the former. So it is perhaps unsurprising that a recent YouGov poll revealed that 44% of respondents, when asked, claimed to feel pride rather than regret in the long-lost empire.
The problem today is not that our national feelings about the British empire are too positive or too negative, but that we know too little of the actual history to make a sound judgment. How can we ask people to take pride in, or feel regret about, a history that is hardly taught in schools and little explored elsewhere? The empire has become reduced to the abolition of slavery, the building of the Indian railways and some vague talk about the rule of law, British values and the spread of the English language.
Most debates sooner or later degenerate into the banal “Did it do more good than bad?” formula. And once it has been agreed, as it usually is, that the empire was on the whole a good thing, the bad aspects of imperial history are banished from further discussion.
The cumulative effect of this has been that the manmade famines, slave trading, ethnic cleansing and day-to-day violence of empire have been rendered almost invisible. The long list of what the Victorians liked to call “small wars” has likewise been forgotten, reduced to minor details as we focus almost exclusively on the “achievements” of empire and the “gifts” it gave to the world.
We’re insulted when the Chinese bring up Britain’s century of state-sponsored, military-backed drug pushing
British politicians of all parties have spent the last half-century travelling the world asking nations that were invaded by British armies to celebrate our shared history, culture and language as if they were the consolation prizes in some great historical raffle. We then collectively recoil in hurt outrage when the Indians point out that their share of the global economy slipped from 23% to a mere 4% under British rule. We’re similarly insulted when the Chinese bring up Britain’s century of state-sponsored, military-backed drug pushing.
This image of the empire, as a list of nations to whom we bequeathed various precious gifts, ignores the fact that imperial conquest and centuries of economic and military domination are not the only mechanisms through which nations can acquire railways, education systems, the rule of law or world languages. If that were true, Japan, Thailand and the handful of other nations that avoided being absorbed into one or other of Europe’s empires would be trapped in a Hobbesian mire of lawless feudalism, their dirt roads clogged-up with oxcarts driven by illiterate farmers.
Yet somehow, without being colonised, the Japanese managed to construct a national railway that carries some of the fastest, most punctual and comfortable trains in the world. My guess is that India would have managed something similar without us. The Chinese too have managed to become the second largest economy in the world without our assistance.
To attempt to attach any simple label – good or bad – to an imperial project that was launched by Elizabeth I, and of which the final fragments were decommissioned under Elizabeth II, is an impossible task.
The empire was not a singular phenomenon, and indigenous people on the ground did not encounter “the empire”: they encountered individuals. There were the brutal soldiers and traders, motivated by personal greed, careerism or racial theory – many more of them than we like to acknowledge; but there were also thousands of men and women who were unquestionably decent. The empire found places and uses for both.
Many of the “good” were missionaries and abolitionists – the 18th- and 19th-century equivalents of aid workers. They travelled to distant lands and risked their lives with good intentions, though their humanitarianism was almost always fused with racial paternalism and the urge to spread their faith.
And the empire did bring economic developments and peace to some parts of the world, though many of those developments were fleeting and arranged primarily to suit British interests. And it delivered war and devastation to other regions.
British missionaries and colonial administrators did confront or end terrible practices, such as the ritual burning of widows in India and the superstitious killing of newborn twins in my native Nigeria. But the same empire, whenever it encountered indigenous resistance, acted with incredible brutality.
Let us not forget that, within living memory, tens of thousands of Africans were murdered, tortured and mutilated in British concentration camps in Kenya. This is not a revisionist theory or a leftwing interpretation of the past. It is an historical fact, an acknowledged crime for which the British government has paid compensation to surviving victims.
The British empire, like every empire in history, was created to enrich the imperial mother country, not to realise some vague civilising mission. It would have been the greatest aberration in world history had it been otherwise.
Yet we still, somehow, convince ourselves and expect others to believe that this nation set aside its own financial interests, ignored the desperate plight of the British poor and dispatched great fleets of ships and vast armies of soldiers and administrators across the oceans to attend to the material welfare, educational aspirations and future mass transport requirements of the indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa.
Our future relationships with the former colonies – which are now critical trading partners – demand that we wake up from this fantasy.
So I've just started my A Levels, I've only had a few lessons so we haven't covered that much but my teacher has set us a homework to write a 'mini essay' (intro, 2 paragraphs and a conclusion) on whether or not we agree that the British were successful in creating an empire.
I didn't take GCSE History so this is my first time writing a History essay ever really, was just hoping someone could give me some feedback? Is this alright as a first homework?
How far do you agree that the British were successful in creating an empire?
The British Empire began with the first empire, in the early 17th century, when Great Britain began to establish colonies around the world. From this point onward, continuing into the late 1800s, the British Empire grew significantly in size over three empires; at one point owning one fifth of the world’s population. Britain undoubtedly accomplished a great deal in their time as the biggest international superpower, but were they truly successful in creating an empire? Many historians would agree to a notable extent that this statement is true - the empire, whilst many argue it was unplanned, was a successful one. In the following essay I will discuss the successes and drawbacks of the British empire, and why I feel that, despite other opinions that view the empire as negative, it was highly successful.
The most significant success of the British empire, in my opinion, is that they spread the English language worldwide. This has remained over the course of many years, a way for people around the world to communicate and share a common language. Without this common language, I believe that countries would struggle to obtain the strong ties we have today. As well as the English language, the British spread the British judicial system to many areas worldwide. Another notable success of the empire is that they set up lines of communication between Britain and several other areas in the world (that have remained strong to this day) and kept cultural, political and social links with many of its colonies, mainly through the Commonwealth. Many countries are also now multicultural because of the achievements of the Empire. Alongside this, Britain fought hard during the 1800s to abolish slavery, a particularly paramount success. It is often said that the British Empire was about “discovering new lands and building them up”. Britain gained a large amount of power, which to me speaks for itself of the country’s success and while many would see this as a negative, that British rule was barbaric and that Great Britain forced its ideals onto others, to me it shows that Britain excelled in what it set out to do, building up colonies, creating a larger army, alongside spreading their name and influence. Britain’s rule was much less harsh than that of Russia, Germany and Spain - as modern historian Niall Ferguson stated. British rule was highly successful as there is evidence to suggest that they put more money into developing economies in several African countries. Britain provided support to help build economies around the world, with countries such as India having a strong economy today as a result of this. Australia, New Zealand and Canada are all also products of the British Empire.
On the contrary, there are clearly many negative elements of the empire. The British profited much off the transatlantic slave trade during the first empire, although fought with strong efforts to abolish slavery, and were successful in this during the second British Empire in the 1800s. Many argue that countries were taken advantage of and exploited for their exports by Britain, following colonisation. Further, many indigenous people were killed, such as Maoris and Aborigines, in order to make more land for settlers. Some argue that the empire was established by aggression, and there are many arguments to suggest that Britain got ‘too greedy’ and that was ultimately their downfall. Britain’s empire expanded to the point where they had little control over many of its colonies; and the empire ended up splitting into two different empires, dependent and settlement empires. My the 1960s, all areas of the British empire had gained their independence. A significant contraction in the empire, and a big crisis for Britain was the loss of the 13 American colonies in 1783. Americans fought for independence, due to the restrictive and unfair nature of the British rule. Several historians argue that the Empire resulted in loss of land, discrimination and prejudice, and historian Bryan Edwards, 1973, critiqued the tyranny of British Parliament and the ill treatment of Englishmen in Jamaica. He argued that this treatment was the reasoning behind the demand for independence among American colonists in the late 1700s.
In conclusion, ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’ - and there is extensive evidence to prove that Britain did create an empire, owning such a large percentage of the world, thus being a highly successful one despite the negatives. Despite some arguments that Britain forced their ideas onto others in a brash manner, countries around the world have advanced vastly as a result of the British empire. Although in the 1700s, Britain profited off slave trade, they fought and abolished it in the 1800s. The spread of the English language, a strong network of links between countries and economical advances around the world have all come as a result of the empire, which I feel are key points as to why the British truly were successful in creating an Empire. G.F. Lechie, a Napoleonic era writer, believed that expansion was a result of the 'enlightenment' of British people, and should therefore be welcomed - and with this statement I strongly agree.