The British empire: 10 big questions

Jeremy Paxman and a selection of historians share the major talking points of Britain’s imperial past…

This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine to accompany the BBC One series 'Empire'

Images of empire dominate the front cover of 'The Illustrated London News’ speci

Images of empire dominate the front cover of 'The Illustrated London News’ special edition marking George V’s jubilee, 1935. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

1 How has the imperial experience affected Britons today?

Jeremy Paxman, presenter of the BBC One series Empire

For anyone who grew up during the 60s and 70s, and perhaps even into the 90s with the handing back of Hong Kong, there has been one narrative: 
the end of empire. This has been accompanied by the belief that somehow you can just draw a line under the whole experience and that 
it was of itself a bad thing and we have somehow outgrown it with the return of countries to independence. The supposition that underlies this is that it has had no lasting impact on us. I think it has. You can measure it in many ways.

The fact that we find ourselves living in a union is partly a consequence of an empire. The Scots joined the union after they virtually bankrupted themselves because they couldn’t found their own empire. That we live in a monarchy is also partly attributable to empire. It was a monarchical enterprise. If you look at every single photograph taken of Commonwealth heads of government meeting after the foundation of that rather odd institution, the one constant is the presence of the Queen in the centre 
of the group photograph. 

The empire stays with us in the fact that English is the international language and we’re all lazy about learning other languages. I think it shows itself in things like our presence on the Security Council at the UN. It shows in the readiness of political leaders, whether they be Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or David Cameron, to deploy British forces abroad. 


Legacy of empire? A British soldier 
in Iraq, February 2006. (© Getty Images)

I also think it shows itself in the engagement many people in this country feel with the rest of the world: that’s evidenced by the far higher rate 
of passport possession in Britain than in, say, a place like the United States; by the engagement of British charities all over the developing world. I think it shows itself profoundly in the fact that it has changed the genetic make-up of the people, through immigration. 
On all those scores and many others, 
it’s given us a sense that we are somehow different. I’m not sure we are that special, certainly slightly different to many other countries but every country is different to some degree. I think there are many resonances that we find in the way that we live now that are attributable to the imperial experience.

Jeremy Paxman’s Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British is published 
by Viking (2011) 

 

2 What exactly was the British empire?

Professor Linda Colley, Princeton University

This seems to be a rudimentary question but we can lose sight of it. People often make assumptions that they know what the British empire was, when in fact it was an umbrella term that covered a multitude of different types of spaces, different kinds of authority, different kinds of 
imperial connections.

One of the most influential but deceptive forces in shaping people’s attitudes is that famous Victorian map of the world where the parts of the empire were coloured red. That gives a cut and dried impression of what the empire was, but what about the informal empire? In many ways, for instance, Argentina was substantially run by the British during the 19th century but it was not coloured red because it was not a formal part of empire. Similarly, there are ways in which the US remained economically and culturally dependent on the empire for much of the 19th century.

The British often took the attitude that if they could run a place without having to go to the trouble of ruling it and administering it and sending in the troops, then why did they need a formal empire connection? If, as in Argentina, they could set up railroads and make them serve British commercial interests, as well as dominating the banks and investment structure, there was no 
need for formal control.

The empire was not a fixed geographical and political entity 
and there were massively different experiences within it. In the late 19th century in New Zealand there was almost complete democracy for white people – much greater democracy than in Britain itself – but in large parts of Africa democracy was a distant dream. The quality of authority was always highly variegated.


Despite MacDonald Gill’s c1927 map showing Britain’s imperial possessions in red, the empire was not a fixed geographical and political entity. (© Art Archive)

Another point is that people often have preconceptions about where the empire was and often forget, for example, the European outposts of empire. Naval bases such as Menorca, Gibraltar, Cyprus and Malta allowed the Royal Navy to control the Mediterranean for a very long time, which was crucial in all sorts of respects. Partly, I suspect, because of current interests in racial politics, there can often be an unexamined belief that somehow the empire was about white Britons governing non-white people outside of Europe. That was undoubtedly one aspect of the empire but of course there were lots of others as well.

Establishing what the empire was at different times, and exactly what varieties of empire existed, is crucial because choosing which version of the British empire to focus upon tends to influence the stories that historians write about it. There can be a temptation to select only those parts of the empire that support a desired thesis. Hence the importance of an eclectic and nuanced vision.

Linda Colley is the author of The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (HarperCollins, 2006)

 

3 Was the British empire really ‘British’?

Professor John MacKenzie, Lancaster University

The phrase ‘British empire’ was 
in common use from the union of parliaments in 1707. I think there was a theoretical position that lay behind the use of that phrase, which was that the British empire was intended to dissolve the ethnic differences within the British Isles, between the Irish, Scots, Welsh 
and English. The theory was that true Britons would be forged out of their imperial role, but 
I believe the opposite happened.

Migrants moved out of Britain to the empire and, instead of posing as Britons, they often remained affiliated to their original ethnic connections within the UK. They maintained their differences and this became significant later on because, when nationalist movements started to develop – particularly in Ireland – their worldwide reach came to be important. 

Each of the ethnicities of the UK contributed different things to the British empire. Obviously the demographic majority was English and generally it was English administrative systems and English common law that was reproduced around the empire. Public schools also followed the English model. However, while the Anglican church thought it ought to be top dog, it was not allowed to be. There was too much resistance and too many heterogeneous Christian denominational positions within the empire, so the Anglican model never became established. That is illustrative of the way in which Englishness 
was resisted.

An obvious Irish contribution was Roman Catholicism and if you look at the population of Catholic priests and nuns around the empire they were nearly always Irish. The Irish also had a great influence in education; they contributed lots of doctors and were disproportionately powerful within the British army. A number of the significant generals within the empire were Anglo-Irish figures. The Scottish Enlightenment became important in the empire; for example, many of the universities were founded by Scots on the Scottish model. In addition, Scotland was an overproducer of graduates so you had very many Scottish doctors, engineers, foresters, botanists and teachers. That’s one reason why, when commentators such as JA Froude went around the empire in the 19th century, they were constantly commenting on the fact that there were Scots everywhere.

Welsh nonconformity was very active in missionary activity, turning up in India and various other places. The Welsh language sometimes appeared as well. The Welsh were influential through their coal, which fuelled the empire, and their mining. Whenever you had mines established around the empire, it was often Welsh or Cornish who inhabited them.

I think that you can identify what I call the four nations theory of empire, with strands that come from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. They never fully amalgamated into something called Britishness. So when I look at the so-called British empire, what I begin to see are bits of a Scottish empire, bits of an Irish empire, a considerable English empire and also parts of a Welsh empire.

John MacKenzie is co-editor of Scotland and the British Empire (OUP, 2011)


Nurses at a military hospital in Lucknow, India, Christmas Day 1944. (© National Museums Scotland)

 

4 How important were merchants to the first British empire?

Dr Sheryllynne Haggerty, 
University of Nottingham

There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes the first British empire but I would see it as beginning in the 16th century when the English started going across the Atlantic and lasting until around 1807 with the end of the British slave trade. This was a commercial empire and merchants were integral to it.

As opposed to, say, Spain or Portugal, Britain was rather late at getting into the Atlantic world and by the time we had arrived all the gold and silver, valued as representative of a nation’s comparative wealth, had pretty much been taken up by the Iberian powers. Instead we had to grow tobacco and sugar, which the state didn’t think was as important as precious metals, and didn’t directly invest in them. So the trading companies that went on to become the plantation colonies were financed by merchants. It was they who took the early risks and without them the empire might never have happened.

The merchants formed a symbiotic relationship with the state, which was very positive. Britain provided assistance from the Royal Navy, in the form of convoys, negotiated favourable treaties following war and offered light taxes on customs and excise, while the merchants took the risks. They colonised on behalf of the state. 


This engraving from the 18th century shows the tobacco trade in full swing in Virginia. (© SCRAN)

It amazes me how knowledgeable these merchants must have been. They had to know all about the different markets in various commodities as well as how to manage the exchange rates. All this had to be done during a period of high uncertainty due to wars and credit crises. This meant financial risks too, in a time before limited liability. If you messed up you would lose everything,

Some merchants were involved in the slave trade, which was integral to the growing of sugar and tobacco in the colonies. It seems awful to us now but at the time they were only doing what the state had been encouraging them to do for 200 years. That is why 1807 was such a watershed for the British empire, because it changed that old symbiotic relationship between the state and the merchants.

Sheryllynne Haggerty is the author of Merely for Money? Business Culture in the British Atlantic, 1750–1815 (Liverpool University Press)

 

5 What impact did the American revolution have on the British empire?

Professor Maya Jasanoff, 
Harvard University

It used to be the prevailing view that the American revolution was a dividing line between the so-called first and second British empires. The first empire was characterised as being an empire of settlement, oriented around the Atlantic, and an empire that was in certain respects an extension of Britain. The second empire was characterised as being largely oriented towards Asia and involving direct rule over manifestly non-British people. 

My view is that although things changed after the American revolution there were some important continuities. For example, the British empire was still an Atlantic empire after the War of Independence, with lots of colonisation in Canada. I don’t think it is right to talk about distinct empires.

The American revolution was undoubtedly a big defeat and yet I would say that it had a positive effect on the British empire. Losing the 13 colonies made British imperial governors and politicians take a different look at the empire that remained and think about new ways of governing it in the future. Britain clarified its relationship with the rest of the empire. Colonial subjects tended not to be seen as the same as metropolitan Britons. Hierarchy got strengthened, with metropolitan Britons at the top as authority figures.

On the other hand the British did recognise that certain measures needed to be implemented to keep imperial subjects happy. They recognised that you should give people rule of law and not tax them too much. So one of the great ironies is that the American patriots rose up with the great rallying cry, ‘No taxation without representation’, and yet it was actually the loyalists in Canada who won the taxation battle because they were extremely lightly taxed by the British after American independence.


George Washington and the Count de Rochambeau order an assault on Yorktown in Auguste Couder’s 1836 painting. (Bridgeman Art Archive)

The former American loyalists who remained within the empire themselves had an important role to play after the revolution. They were key agents and advocates for imperial growth after the loss of the 13 colonies. It was actually an American loyalist, who had sailed with James Cook, who first proposed colonising Australia in the late 18th century and it was loyalists who advocated increased settlements in parts of Canada. 

Although the USA 
was no longer part of 
the empire, it remained incredibly closely tied to Britain right up to the Civil War, and in some ways even beyond that. Economically both countries were dependent on the other and the United States was the main trading partner for Britain. It was also the chief destination for British emigrants. So when we think of the British empire as a global entity bound together by trade, emigration, and cultural ties, we should remember the ways in which the USA remained involved.

Maya Jasanoff is the author of Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (HarperPress, 2011)

 

6 What was India’s 
value to Britain?

Denis Judd, 
New York University in London

In 1901 the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon said: “As long as we rule India we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straight away to a third-rate power.” 
I think Curzon was guilty of over-simplification. 

The truth is that Britain was the world’s first superpower because of her flying start in the industrial revolution, her financial and manufacturing domination, her enormous wealth, her stable political institutions, the global supremacy of the Royal Navy and her huge worldwide empire. India was more of a by-product of that pre-eminence than the cause. 

Nonetheless, foreign observers (including Hitler) tended to see the British Raj in India as a stupendous achievement, and many Britons – such as Winston Churchill – were bitterly opposed to any moves to devolve power in the subcontinent. 

But India’s value to Britain was far more tangible than simply providing the nation with prestige. India was of prime importance to the British economy. Not merely was Britain’s trade with India by the start of the 20th century responsible for 
a fifth of the nation’s overseas commerce, but there was a large annual balance in Britain’s favour. British loans to India secured a handsome return in interest, and Indian taxes and revenue paid for the salaries and pensions of the British administration there.


King George V and Queen Mary pictured in Delhi in 1911 
during celebrations to mark their coronation. (Alamy)

Huge amounts of British capital were invested in India, and in the case of the railway system the British government actually guaranteed a good minimum percentage return for British investors. In addition, the Indian army was a readily available source of manpower for the exercise of British foreign policy, and at no cost to the British taxpayer. 

At the start of both world wars, the Indian army was expanded by several million men. By 1900 nearly 40 per cent of Indian revenue was being spent on the military. Ruling India enabled Britain to function as a great military power, on a par with France or Russia but without having to resort to the unpopular domestic expedient of conscription. No wonder India was so often referred to as ‘the jewel in the imperial crown’.

Denis Judd’s Empire: The British 
Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present has recently been republished 
by IB Tauris

 

7 Did opium bankroll 
the British empire?

Dr Julia Lovell, Birkbeck, University of London

The opium trade is one of the great forgotten misdeeds of the British empire. We remember other shameful imperial episodes, such as the slave trade, or centuries of institutionalised racism. But the opium trade and the Opium Wars that Britain fought with China in the 1840s and 1850s were crucial to the running of the British empire, and yet are little known today. 

Opium (a drug derived from the opium poppy) was grown in and shipped from British India to the south China coast, where it was sold for silver that British traders used to buy tea; the tea then travelled to Britain and, before it disappeared into British teacups, the government exacted its customs duties. These duties paid for a large part of the Royal Navy, so opium helped keep the British empire afloat. 

Colonial administrations in Asia were also extensively funded by the management of opium-growing monopolies. As late as the 1850s, opium revenues accounted for more than 20 per cent of British government revenues in India. 
This was a significant part of the imperial economy. 

The business grew throughout much of the 19th century. Between 1800 and 1839, sales of opium from British India to China went up tenfold: in 1800, British India was exporting around 4,000 chests a year to China; by 1839, annual exports had risen to almost 40,000 chests. 

A 19th-century French caricature of “an old English hag carrying an opium chest”. (AKG images)
 

And Britain did more than just profit from drugs; it fought wars for them, too. In 1839–42 and 1856–60, it launched expeditions against China and its government’s refusal to legalise the contraband opium trade. The 1860 Beijing treaty, concluding the second Opium War, finally forced the legalisation of the drug in China.

Why has the opium trade itself not been better understood? One historian recently wondered whether we remember the slave trade more clearly because the homegrown abolition movement leaves us with 
a happy ending. Late 19th-century British attitudes to the opium trade were more ambivalent, with the trade petering out reluctantly in the early 20th century.

But even if Britain has done its best to forget its opium-trading past, this is a history that has resonances for global politics today. In China, the Opium Wars remain at the front of public memory. They are seen as the start of a long-standing, ongoing western conspiracy to undermine the country. To understand China’s troubled relationship with the west, you have to understand Britain’s role 
in the opium trade.

Julia Lovell is the author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (Picador, 2011)

 

8 Did Britain grow 
rich while the empire became poor? 

Professor Huw Bowen, Swansea University

One would assume that Britain grew richer and the rest of empire got poorer because the whole point of empires is that they are exploitative. There’s no point in having an empire unless it benefits the imperial power or metropolis. But identifying specifically where and who benefitted from the empire has proved to be difficult. 

I’m interested in India, whose historians have been unable to quantify the ‘drain of wealth’ from the subcontinent with any degree of certainty. However, if 
you look at the localities of Britain and inflows of ‘East Indian’ wealth into industry, land purchase, country house ownership and so on, you can begin to get a much better sense of where the imperial impact was being felt. 


Officials inspect the Cunard liner Aquitania under construction at 
the Clydebank shipyard in 1912. (© AKG Images)

Significant sums of money were generated by active participants in empire-building, those who went out to India and returned with their often ill-gotten fortunes. But the passive participants in empire – the stay-at-homes who invested in overseas enterprise – derived benefit from imperial expansion in a broader sense. Certain employment groups benefited particularly from British expansion, among them those in the marine industries that supported empire. Suppliers of commodities both for export and to sustain the whole enterprise – such as arms manufacturers and munitions suppliers – also profited. 

There was however an uneven distribution across Britain. Specific regions – such as parts of Scotland and Wales, as well as London – were strongly linked to the empire. But you can be more specific than that and say, for example, that parts of the West Country derived sustained benefit for its flagging wool-textile industry through bulk exports to the subcontinent.

What happened to India is a complex question. To assume that everything the British did was damaging is incorrect. British enterprise stimulated a large export trade which might otherwise never have come into existence. However, there is no doubt that in the long run specific sectors of the Indian economy did suffer under the yoke of imperialism – the cotton industry was profoundly damaged by cheap imports from Lancashire and Scotland from the 1830s onwards. 

It’s difficult to construct a cost-benefit analysis across the empire as a whole, but I suspect that an Africanist would paint a broadly similar picture. To establish fully the strength of the imperial impact, you would have to stitch together a number of case-studies linking different parts of the empire to specific localities in Britain. As things stand, we have only 
a hazy view of the extent of the economic influence of empire 
on Britain itself. 

Huw Bowen is editor of Wales and the British Overseas Empire: 
Interactions and Influences, 1650–1830 (Manchester University Press, 2011)

 

9 To what extent did the people of Britain and the empire see themselves as being part of a single British people?

Professor Peter Marshall, King’s College London

A SENSE OF being British was never the exclusive property of the peoples 
of the British Isles. On the eve of the American revolution there was 
a strong sense in the 13 colonies that so long as you were white and Protestant then you were British or more specifically English. This did not, however, keep the Americans within the empire. There were different views of what being British 
or English meant and the Americans often felt that 
they were better freeborn Englishmen than the British themselves.

A sense of a common British identity was very strong in the later 19th century, particularly among people of British origin in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and English-speaking South Africa. This continued well into the 20th century and reached its height in the tremendous commitments made by these countries in two world wars. This commitment did not, however, stop them from developing a sense of being distinctively Australian, Canadian or whatever, at first within a British framework.

Many non-European people within the empire could also think of themselves as British. People in the Caribbean as well as mixed-race people in southern Africa or the elites in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka could have a strong sense of British values. Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island tells of Jamaican people who thought 
of themselves as British and were dismayed by what they regarded as 
the un-British standards that they encountered in Britain.


Jamaican immigrants to the UK 
in 1955. Many inhabitants of Britain’s colonial possessions considered themselves British. (AKG Images)

A sense of Britishness was not therefore something solely imposed from London. It was something that people throughout the empire took up for themselves, putting their own twist on it and sometimes opposing London in the name of British values as they interpreted them.

The extent to which people in Britain felt themselves to be linked with the peoples of the empire varied widely. Enthusiasts tried to propagate ideals of empire and later Commonwealth unity, and the experience of family links and employment overseas gave these ideals some substance for many. 

It is, however, doubtful whether the mass of British people ever felt much sense of common identity. Attitudes of condescension towards all imperial peoples and downright racism towards non-Europeans were very common.

Peter Marshall is the author of Remaking the British Atlantic: The United States and the British Empire after American Independence (OUP, 2012)

 

10 How did the end of empire affect Britain?

Dr Sarah Stockwell, King’s College London

Until recently historians had concluded that decolonisation had comparatively minimal impact in Britain itself. It’s only now that this view is being reassessed and historians are beginning to investigate the variety of ways in which the end of empire may have affected the home country.

New research expands on existing knowledge of how imperial decline reverberated in British politics, between and within political parties, and is also examining the wider social, cultural and economic impacts of decolonisation. One aspect of this story that has long attracted attention has been the whole question of the empire ‘coming home’ in the form of Commonwealth immigration into Britain after the Second World War. Researchers are now, however, exploring how the popular response to  immigrants may have been informed by Britain’s imperial past and specifically by media reports about the conflicts that occurred at the end of empire such as the Mau Mau insurgency and counter-insurgency in Kenya. 

More research is still needed into the economic impact of decolonisation, but some would suggest that continued attachment to empire through the 1940s and 50s may 
have had an adverse effect on the British economy. It contributed to Britain’s initial decision not to join the European Economic Community at its foundation in 1957, while some British businesses also remained focused on traditional markets that were increasingly less important to the country than those in Europe.


An Empire Marketing Board poster promotes tea from Ceylon 
and salmon from Canada, c1927–33. Historians are 
still assessing decolonisation’s impact on the British economy. (© Heritage Images/Corbis)

Another dimension of the end of empire just beginning to receive attention is that of its effects on the large number of Britons who were employed in the colonies. Traditionally, empire had provided employment for a significant sector of Britain’s middle and upper classes, especially in the imperial services. Then there were also numerous Britons who travelled overseas in the employ of missionary organisations or of big businesses operating in the colonies. Many thousands of Britons found their careers curtailed, and we need to look at the wider impact of the cutting off of these avenues of employment.

Something that I’ve been looking it is the impact of decolonisation on domestic British institutions that had developed an interest in empire over the long period of British imperialism. These were often faced with a situation of either adapting or losing significant areas of their business. Take the Royal Mint, which produced coins for Britain’s colonies as well as the home country itself. At the end of empire the former colonies started to issue their own currencies and the Royal Mint set out to ensure it got the business for producing these coins. This it did successfully and so the period of decolonisation actually coincided with commercial expansion for the Mint because it was able to adapt. However the effect on this and other institutions, such as the Church of England (which through its missionary activities was part of the wider imperial project), still remains to be fully explored. 

The five-part series Empire, presented by Jeremy Paxman, was broadcast on BBC One during February 2012.

Jeremy Paxman spoke with editor David Musgrove on our weekly podcast. Listen again here.

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