The British empire in 1923: the story of the imperial project's territorial height
In September 1923, the British empire reached its maximum territorial extent. A staggering 460 million people lived within its borders. Yet just as the imperial project reached its apex, writes Matthew Parker, cracks were widening…
Hubris permeated the London air in late September 1923. The leaders of the British Dominions – the largely self-governing ‘white settler’ colonies – had arrived in London for the Imperial Conference. It was convened to debate how foreign policy would be determined across the various territories. But it was also a celebration of continuing imperial expansion.
South African prime minister Jan Smuts expressed his delight that the British gains from Germany had at last created an ‘all-red’ route from the Cape to Cairo. The empire, he declared, had “emerged from the awful blizzard of the war quite the greatest power in the world”. Prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s foreign secretary, former Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, agreed, declaring that: “The British flag has never flown over a more powerful empire.”
They were right. The collapse of the rival empires of Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans, and the retreat into isolation of the US, had left the British empire the sole global superpower. And on 29 September 1923, as Dominion leaders arrived for the conference, the Palestine Mandate became law, bringing Palestine and Transjordan under British administration – and the British empire reached what would prove to be its maximum territorial extent. Some 460 million people – a fifth of the world’s population – woke that morning as subjects of Britain’s king-emperor, George V. This dwarfed the populations of the US (112 million), Soviet Union (135 million) and the French empire (93 million).
Twenty-five years earlier, the Victorians had produced a stamp with a map of the world and the legend, “We hold a vaster empire than has ever been”. But under the terms of the post-First World War treaties, Britain had now absorbed from the German and Ottoman empires a further 1.8 million square miles and an additional 13 million subjects. So the British empire now covered 14 million square miles, a quarter of the world’s land area – making it the largest empire in history.
In keeping with the vision of former colonial secretary Winston Churchill, Palestine was now the keystone of a geopolitical and strategic arch that stretched the length of Africa, across the Middle East and down to India, Burma and all the way via Malaya to Australia and New Zealand. With a puppet ruler and British garrison installed in Persia, and Egypt under a bogus ‘flag of independence’, you could now walk from Cape Town in South Africa to Rangoon in Burma without ever leaving the British empire or territory it controlled.
The business of empire
London, the world’s most populous city, was the centre of global business, a shipping and cable hub communicating news, opinion, values and ideas across the world.
In France, Sorbonne professor Albert Demangeon wrote in his just-published L’Empire Britannique: “Without its overseas possessions the United Kingdom is merely a small group of islands off the coast of Europe; with them, it has become one of the poles of the human race.” For him, it was trade that had established British global supremacy: “the gold and diamonds of South Africa; the wool, wheat, butter and meat of Australia; the wheat, fish and timber of Canada; the sugar of the West Indies; the rubber and tin of Malaya; the wheat, cotton, jute, rice and tea of India.” A quarter of the world’s wheat, around half its rice, wool, chrome and tin, 60 per cent of its rubber and 70 per cent of its gold were all produced within the empire.
For Demangeon, though, the “most original type of British settlement” were the cosmopolitan entrepôts such as Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong: “suction pumps, gathering to themselves the commerce of vast regions”. In fact, four of the world’s five busiest ports were in the British empire, with Hong Kong, clearing nearly 40 million tons a year, at the top of the list above London, New York, Liverpool and Singapore.
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What’s more, nearly half of the vessels using Hong Kong harbour were under the British flag, part of an unmatched merchant fleet of more than 2,000 ships over 3,000 tons. It was this “commercial genius”, Demangeon concluded, that had made the British empire “the largest, richest and most populous colonial empire that the world has ever seen”.
This immense wealth, all within the borders of the empire, was to be showcased at the vast Empire Exhibition, scheduled to open in six months’ time. Recent troubles and unrest in India, Iraq, Egypt, Ireland and elsewhere had abated or been crushed. At the end of the previous month, the victory in Ireland of William Cosgrave’s pro-Treaty party over Eamon de Valera’s republicans had confirmed the Irish Free State as a Dominion of the empire, an arrangement believed to be a permanent solution to an age-old problem.
- Read more | The Irish Civil War: 100 years on
The new ‘trustee’ relationship between coloniser and colonised, which included a widely-professed concern for the well-being of ‘native’ people, together with new ideas about racial equality, promised a glorious and more humane future in a consensual empire, which was now increasingly being referred to as the British Commonwealth. This, it was hoped, could even become a ‘federation of mankind’, a structure for benign world government.
Arriving in London on 29 September, New Zealand prime minister William Massey told the press that: “The British empire is today more necessary than ever to the welfare and peace of the world,” while Australian PM Stanley Bruce said his desire was “to ensure a strong and virile British empire which should be the precursor of a world-alliance”. But the First World War, while dramatically expanding the size of the empire, had changed everything.
This period became known to contemporaries as ‘The Aftermath’, and the shadow of the war fell over every part and aspect of the empire: military, political, financial, racial, psychological. The war had seen the empire at its most useful ever for the mother country – the huge contribution of money and nearly 2.5 million men from the Dominions, India and the African colonies had arguably made the difference between victory and defeat for Britain. But then, during the Chanak Crisis of 1922, prime minister David Lloyd George had, without consulting them, pledged the Dominions to fight against Turkey if war broke out again.
The Dominions were outraged, and determined that only their own parliaments could decide on war. Now the idea of a common foreign policy and unquestioned military alliance was under threat.
The US rises
The war had also wrecked the international trading and financial system on which Britain’s prosperity had been built. In September 1923, Rudyard Kipling – who had famously urged the United States to take up the ‘White Man’s Burden’ and assume control of the Filipino people – gave a bad-tempered interview to the New York World. America, he said, “came in the war two years, four months and seven days too late, botched the Versailles Treaty for us, and withdrew without assisting any further. She has our gold, but we have our souls.”
Britain, for its part, was saddled with industry which had failed to modernise and largely missed out on the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ based on chemicals, oil, electrical goods, and, above all, cars. It also had a vast war debt, including £900m owed to the US. New York was in the process of replacing London as the world’s leading capital market.
Mainland Europe was the best market for British exports, and had almost always been more important than the empire. But this market had pretty much ceased to exist: postwar Europe was in ruins, with devalued currencies, hyperinflation and political chaos. Rival militias, including Hitler’s Nazis, were fighting in the streets.
There was hope that the empire could fill the gap, but this was ridiculed by the Daily Herald: “It is futile to suppose that fewer than 20 million people [in the Dominions], with growing manufactures of their own, could, even if they dealt with none of our competitors, take the place of the 100 million in central Europe with whom we did such valuable trade before the war.”
In the meantime, Britain was suffering high taxation and unemployment and ever harsher cuts to government expenditure, including on defence. Among British political and military leaders there was concern that, particularly in these severely straitened postwar financial circumstances, the empire was now just far too big – “a huge bladder waiting to be pricked”, as German wartime propaganda had alleged.
To make matters worse, in order to avoid antagonising the Americans – in the forlorn hope of debt reduction and with an irrational belief in the ‘special relationship’ – Britain had just ended its treaty with Japan. It had also agreed to limits on its key strategic asset, the Royal Navy. The empire had never made much strategic sense, with its closest allies on the other side of the world, but this now left the far eastern possessions, including Malaya, Burma and even Australia, intensely vulnerable to an expansionist and insulted Japan.
The First World War, ostensibly fought against German autocracy and in the name of freedom, had cracked the foundations of the empire in other ways. Before the war, imperialism had been the familiar form of government for much of the globe. Now, for many, ‘empire’ was a dirty word, conjuring up, as former colonial secretary Alfred Milner wrote in 1923, “the vision of conquest, of domination, of the oppression of the weak by the strong, of government by force against the will of the governed”. The future seemed to belong to alternative forms of government – the nation state, democracy, communism, fascism.
In Britain itself, 1918 had seen the ushering in of something approaching mass democracy for the first time, with a universal male franchise and votes for most women over 30. Could real democracy at home ever be truly compatible with autocratic imperialism abroad?
The dawn of a new era
For many supporters of the British empire, the villain of the piece was US president Woodrow Wilson and his talk of self-determination at Versailles. Although Wilson was a dyed-in-the wool segregationist and imperialist, and had been aiming his rhetoric at the imperial graveyard of central and eastern Europe rather than at western overseas possessions, his words served, inadvertently, to encourage anti-colonial forces around the world.
Furthermore, a new, nuanced form of empire emerged from the Versailles Conference: the mandate system for the former imperial territories of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman empire. Although in many ways a fig leaf for an imperial land-grab, the mandates were established in principle as a form of ‘trusteeship’ – territories were to be administered for the benefit of their populations with the express goal of moving them towards self-government in the near future.
Such an idea could not be contained, and was soon being applied to the empire as a whole. This led to the reluctant granting of political reforms in India, Burma, Ceylon, Nigeria and elsewhere – but the imperial authorities soon realised that giving in to calls for reform merely stoked the demand for further constitutional changes.
In the light of these mandate and trusteeship ideas, was the empire’s only purpose now to dismantle itself? Had it become, as The Times asked, nothing more than a “self-liquidating concern”?
At its greatest ever extent, the empire was suffering a crisis of confidence. What was the empire, and what was it for? In theory, the empire generated economic gain by producing raw materials, providing an outlet for capital, and importing finished goods from Britain. But did this really require a hugely expensive infrastructure?
Britain’s most important raw material import was cotton, most of which came from the United States; some of the most profitable investment was in South America, particularly Argentina; only a 16th of the imports of Malaya, the richest colony, were from Britain. Despite appeals to ‘buy British’, there was not a single colony that imported more cars from Britain than from the US, which turned out cheaper and better models.
The racial question
Despite recent declarations of racial equality, the empire was still seen, in many quarters in Britain, as an expression of racial pride and a result of racial superiority. “We hold these countries,” one empire-builder wrote in 1922, “because it is the genius of our race to colonise, to grade, to govern.”
This racist ideology fostered arrogance and ignorance in the rulers, but it was a coping stone of empire, explaining and justifying white rule. At the same time, it undermined the sense of agency and self-respect of the colonised.
As Jamaica’s first premier, Norman Manley, would write: “The empire and British rule rest on a carefully nurtured sense of inferiority in the governed.” He saw this as creating “turgid lethargy” and “a culture of dependence”. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of how “surprisingly most of us accepted it as natural and inevitable” that Indians were second rate. “Greater than any victory of arms or diplomacy,” he said, “was this psychological triumph of the British in India.”
But things were changing. The edifice of white supremacy was starting to crumble. The defeat of the Italians in Africa in 1896, and then the victory of Japan over Russia in 1905, had seen white power overcome by the so-called lesser races. African-American leader WEB Du Bois spoke of a worldwide eruption of “colored pride”. The Japanese victory, he wrote, had “broken the magic of the word ‘white’”. For Nehru in India, it “diminished the feeling of inferiority” from which many of his compatriots suffered.
- Read more | Enduring trauma: the legacy of partition
Just as significant for colonised peoples was the cataclysm of the First World War, which made a mockery of the narrative of progress built around western technological modernity. How could Europe continue with its claim of a ‘civilising mission’ when it could not contain its own barbaric violence? It was a huge blow to white prestige as well as to the confidence of the rulers.
At the same time, influential politicians and writers – Edward Blyden and Joseph Casely Hayford in Africa, Marcus Garvey in the US, Gandhi and Tagore in India, and many others – were spreading a message of indigenous pride, ingenuity, intelligence and beauty that opposed the racist ideologies put forward by the colonial regimes. Anti-colonialists were urging the teaching of African history in schools; encouraging the appreciation of African art and music and the wearing of traditional dress; and setting up African churches, newspapers and literary societies. The same process was under way in India, Ceylon, Burma, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Congresses and political parties were being organised. Strong pan-Asian and pan-African movements were emerging.
Across the empire, colonial officials were witnessing a new confidence in the colonised. In Kenya, “the native employee was respectful and obedient… now he has become openly insolent, disobedient and even menacing”. In Malaya, there were complaints that Chinese people were no longer serving Europeans first in shops, or stepping aside when Europeans were walking in the streets.
Of course, anti-colonial interests were as varied as the empire itself, and by no means homogeneous even in a single place. Nevertheless, networks existed underneath the official channels. The example of Ireland inspired Indians, who in turn encouraged Burmese and Africans. From Canada to Africa to the Pacific, a new postwar indigenous generation was turning against those of their fathers or grandfathers who had signed away their land rights, emulated the British or collaborated for their own benefit in some other way.
For most of the empire’s subjects, freedom from colonial rule would not come for another generation. For now, most were demanding only some sort of self-government, rather than a complete exit from the empire. But with hindsight, we can see that the faultlines along which the British empire would ultimately rupture had already started to appear. An unstoppable force was now in motion.
8 challenges facing British colonies in 1923
Jamaica – Economic stagnation
The West Indian islands were once Britain’s richest and most important possessions, but the collapse of the sugar price had left them destitute and derelict. Malnutrition was rife and infant mortality ran at four times that of Britain. Strikes and protests were growing, and returned soldiers – politicised and radicalised by their appalling treatment while serving in the First World War – would be at the forefront of labour and political activism in the decades to come.
Kenya – A brutal reckoning
On 29 September 1923, the Colonial Office fired off a furious telegram to the governor of Kenya. News had arrived of the extraordinarily lenient verdict from an all-white jury in the trial of a white farmer who had beaten one of his black workers to death.
As the Colonial Office minuted, this was just the latest in a string of such cases, and a symptom of the brutal regime of forced labour carried out by the white settler community under the leadership of Lord Delamere.
Nigeria – The push for democracy
On the night of Saturday 29 September 1923, the streets of Lagos were thronged with crowds celebrating the sweeping victory in recent elections of the Nigerian National Democratic Party, west Africa’s first organised political party. The party’s manifesto, and indeed the fact that the elections took place at all, owed everything to the newly formed National Congress of British West Africa. The governor of Nigeria, Sir Hugh Clifford, however, dubbed the Congress “self-selected educated gentlemen: entirely unrepresentative of the bulk of Nigerians”.
India – Mounting pressure
In September 1923, Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the leaders of the non-cooperation movement, were in prison, and a measure of calm had returned after the furious reaction to the Amritsar massacre and the imposition of martial law. But the unity seen between Muslims and Hindus and radical and moderate groups had rattled the British, leaving administrators and soldiers demoralised. As EM Forster wrote: “’It’s all up with us’ is their attitude.”
Burma – Crime epidemic
In 1923 George Orwell was serving as a policeman in Burma – an experience that turned him into a committed anti-imperialist. In removing the king when Upper Burma was conquered, the British had destroyed the lynchpin of the country’s entire religious, political and social structure. As a result, by 1923 the country was in the grip of a major crimewave. The British also faced stiff opposition from a new generation of militant Buddhists.
Australia – Migrants wanted
On 29 September, Australian prime minister Stanley Bruce was en route to the Imperial Conference. He told reporters that day that what he wanted from the meeting was “men, money and markets”. In fact, he wanted 100,000 Britons a year to migrate to Australia. It was not just about economic development: like many Australians, he saw their sparsely populated country as vulnerable to an attack by Japan and, more generally, what they called the “teeming millions of coloured folk close to our northern shores”.
The Pacific – Population collapse
On 30 September, The Observer reported on a scientific conference in Australia under the heading “Dying races”. Evidence from missionaries and anthropologists pointed to a dire population collapse in the Pacific region. Most blamed the new diseases, firearms, alcohol and tobacco brought by Europeans. But new studies suggested that the birth rate was just as important: after traditional cultural activities – including head-hunting and dancing – were banned, indigenous peoples had fewer children.
Malaya – Growing racial discord
Thanks to its tin and rubber, Malaya was the empire’s richest colony. The country’s resources, however, had been developed by the Chinese, who now made up a majority of the populations of the biggest cities, but faced increasing discrimination and second-class status. Tan Cheng Lock, the leader of their community, presciently warned that unless a Malaya could be built that united the races around a “true Malayan consciousness”, it would be easy prey to an outside threat.
This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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