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Have empires ever been a force for good?

Throughout the course of history, numerous peoples have expanded their territories by subjugating others, creating vassal states or settled colonies. But have any of these empires benefited the inhabitants of the lands they conquered? Seven historians compare the impacts - positive and negative - of different colonising powers around the globe

Illustration representing various empires across history
Published: August 16, 2021 at 8:22 am
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Yasmin Khan

The British empire transformed trade and drove the growth of cities. In short, it made the modern world

Historians are pretty squeamish about the idea of empires as a force for good. That’s because we prefer hard facts that we can find in archives to thrashing out counterfactuals. What would the world have been like without the British empire? It’s an interesting question but not one historians can easily answer.


We can say, though, that the British empire stood against a lot of the things that we now cherish. Take the rule of law, liberal democracy or the education of young children, for example. The ‘rule of law’ was patchy across the empire, and there were different rights for jury trial depending on whether you were white or black. Censorship was rife. Nowhere in Asia or Africa had full democracy under empire until independence, and the money spent on primary education and literacy was pitiful. If you are in favour of racial equality or democracy today, it’s hard to think of the empire as a golden age. Fundamentally, the British empire rested on the idea that some groups of people are simply better than others.

That’s not to say that there weren’t extraordinary people who believed in imperial expansion, or that the imperialists themselves were immoral. There was an astonishing outpouring of creativity in the Victorian age. Like international development projects today (which often do good, but can also backfire and have unintended consequences), imperialists often wanted to do the best for colonised people. The forces driving change – the rise of global industry and capitalism – were bigger than any individual or any one country.

Ultimately, it’s just better history to think in terms of specifics: there were dark moments and there were brighter times. For good or bad, the British empire brought people into contact across the globe, transformed trade and drove forward the growth of cities. In short, it made the modern world – whatever you think of that.

Yasmin Khan is associate professor of history at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, and author of The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War (Bodley Head, 2015)

Peter Jones

Those who benefited most from the Athenian ‘empire’ were, Aristotle said, the Athenian poor

If ‘good’ is defined as ‘material benefits’, perhaps we should ask: “Who benefits?”

The Athenian ‘empire’ of the fifth century BC arose out of fear that the Persians, driven out of Greece in 479 BC, would return. Athens, with its superior navy, was invited to head a Greek coalition that would gather tribute and build triremes (war galleys) to protect the Aegean from incursions. Over time, Athens turned this alliance into an autocratic ‘empire’ that came to an end when it was comprehensively defeated by Sparta in 404 BC.

Those who most benefited from the ‘empire’ were, Aristotle said, the Athenian poor. Why? Because Athens was a direct democracy: the poor dominated the Assembly and made sure that it worked in their interests. So it was they who were granted the land that Athens confiscated from rebellious states or took over in their ‘colonies’ around the Aegean; they who were paid for public service, for example on juries (a radical innovation); they who held down the jobs working in Athens’ navy and dockyards, which kept the ‘empire’ going. Furthermore, Athens’ political, cultural and intellectual innovations at this time were to imprint themselves across western history. How the rich – the only people who paid taxes – took advantage is less clear, except perhaps in general terms of ‘prestige’.

Rome, by contrast, was an oligarchy, and its leading men kept it that way. They gorged themselves on the profits to be made from the Roman empire throughout the course of its 500-year existence. But those profits could not be made if the empire were permanently in conflict, because armies were expensive. Since experience from their earlier conquest of Italy (in the third century BC) had taught Romans how to bring defeated people on board, much of the empire enjoyed prolonged periods of peace and, therefore, safe internal travel.

The result, intentional or not, was flourishing trade throughout this ‘global’ world, bringing with it wide-ranging economic benefits and a rise in general, especially urban, living standards. The empire became the go-to location. But in the fifth century AD, Germanic invasions broke up its western half. The ensuing collapse of living standards there testified eloquently to the empire’s powerful economic benefits.

Peter Jones is the author of Eureka! Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ancient Greeks but Were Afraid to Ask (Atlantic, 2014)

Elizabeth Graham

Maya and Aztec rules of engagement in warfare resulted in far fewer deaths than was the case in European warfare

Empires have never been a force for good. They are built on competition for resources among elites and the exploitation of an underclass. Not only are ‘ends’ said to justify the means, empires also rationalise their actions by claiming access either to supernatural sanctioning or to some higher morality. We are, however, stuck with empires, because societies with effective curbs against the accumulation of power, and which prohibit the use of violence to safeguard power, cannot survive alongside those that sanction power and aggression.

The pre-Columbian Maya city-states or kingdoms (at their height around AD 250–830) did not form an empire, though their historical trajectory suggests that empire might have resulted had the political power of particular cities and dynasties not been undermined by more ‘global’ regional forces. In that respect, the Maya were not alone in Mesoamerica. Centres of power in different regions waxed and waned, while ruling families maintained trans-regional ties. In the 16th century the Spanish were faced with an Aztec empire that, like the empires in Europe, reflected supra-regional historical trajectories.

Illustration of Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, attacking natives in Mexico
Hernando Cortes (Cortez), Spanish conquistador, attacking natives in Mexico. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Were Maya kingdoms or the Aztec empire any ‘better’ than those of the Old World? There were democratic traditions, as in the city-state of Tlaxcala, and councils always had some say in who would rule the Aztecs; the Maya, however, followed dynastic rule. Contrary to popular belief, Mesoamerican rules of engagement in warfare resulted in far fewer deaths than was the case in European warfare. There were no grazing animals, so disease rates were lower than in the Old World, as well as economic benefits in maintaining forests and trees. Social mobility was limited, but there was a good deal of locomotion. Having no beasts of burden, the upper classes could not monopolise travel, and people walked everywhere.

Commerce was lively, and markets offered an astounding range of goods. Taxes and tribute reflected long-term allegiances to lords rather than territorial boundaries; this, and the fact that kinship ties stretched over long distances, encouraged travel. As empires go, one could do worse.

Elizabeth Graham is professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at University College London Institute of Archaeology

Joachim Whaley

Maya and Aztec rules of engagement in warfare resulted in far fewer deaths than was the case in European warfare

“Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” – Voltaire’s description of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation has often been cited to underline the worthlessness of this polity that Napoleon destroyed in 1806. Since 1945, though, scholars have been more positive. Some even viewed it as a precursor of the European Union.

Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne emperor in 800, but the empire’s continuous history began only in 962, when the German kings assumed the imperial crown. Thereafter the empire, under various dynasties – notably, from 1438, the Habsburgs – was essentially German.

The Holy Roman Empire was not expansionist. Indeed, it largely contracted from the late Middle Ages. The Swiss cantons and the northern Netherlands seceded in the 16th century, and France acquired Metz, Toul, Verdun and Alsace in 1648.

Critical accounts of the empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries cited these losses as signs of its inadequacy. They rarely conceded that it had made significant contributions to the development of west-central and central Europe, notably the creation of an enduring system of public order and of law.Successive medieval emperors experimented with internal peace decrees. And around 1500 the empire developed a legal system that pacified the territories and cities of German-speaking Europe. By 1519 it had a supreme court and a regional enforcement system that ended feuding for good. That year Charles V was obliged to sign an electoral capitulation before his coronation, which explicitly guaranteed the rights of all Germans.

These rights were extended by subsequent imperial electoral capitulations and by major peace agreements designed to prevent the outbreak of religious wars. These treaties also secured and extended the rights of individuals, including rights over property as well as provisions designed to ensure that Germans could not suffer discrimination on grounds of their religion. By the 18th century the subjects of the empire had more rights enforceable by courts than those of any other European polity.

Relentless French military campaigns beginning in 1792 led to the dissolution of the empire in 1806. But the sense of a common history over 1,000 years, and the legal traditions established by the empire, have shaped the history of German-speaking Europe ever since.

Joachim Whaley is professor of German history and thought at the University of Cambridge

Chandrika Kaul

Imperialism is freighted with negative connotations. Yet this is too reductive an approach

Few major empires in modern history can be said to have been unmitigated disasters. This is no more than stating that any large-scale organisation of control needs to ensure there are winners – at least, for some of the people, for some of the time.

Imperialism is freighted with negative connotations of intrinsic and systemic inequality and exploitation. Yet this is too reductive an approach, especially when examining the track record of the British in India. Instead, we must consider the political culture of imperialism, both subversive and supportive, evaluate relative gain and loss, and assert the significance of context as key to assessing intention and impact.

After independence Indians borrowed 250 articles from the Government of India Act (1935) for their new constitution, and chose to run their army, railways, press, broadcasting, judiciary and parliamentary system substantively on British lines. Prominent nationalist leaders extolled the virtues of British imperialism. Such sentiments affirming the apparent British ‘genius for colonisation’ do not marginalise the economic exploitation, racism and violence that resulted from British rule, but they do underline the need for a nuanced approach.

Poster advertising Bengal Nagpur Railways by Bylityllis
An advert promoting the Bengal Nagpur railway. "The railways served imperial economic and strategic imperatives, but their proliferation also benefited Indians", suggests Chandrika Kaul (Swim Ink 2/Corbis via Getty Images)

The British claimed they were committed to inculcating representative institutions and a liberal culture, making colonial rule synonymous with modernisation and progress. This implies a clear-sighted policy, implemented in a systematic fashion by absolute rulers. In fact, imperial ideology was ambiguous and policy inconsistent. Indian princes controlled 40% of the subcontinent, and even within British India their rule was characterised by ‘dominance without hegemony’.

The spread of new technology to India, and its impact, was often more complex than we might think. Traditional boatmen survived and flourished, despite British efforts to champion steamboats. Railways served imperial economic and strategic imperatives, but their proliferation also benefited Indians.

The Raj exploited traditional fissures between castes and religions. Yet other, arguably more profound chasms that bedevilled India, such as ‘untouchability’, were of indigenous origin. The British introduced cricket, hoping that matches between the races would consolidate the empire – but almost from the outset they were to be defeated at their own game.

Chandrika Kaul is lecturer in modern history at the University of St Andrews and a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time

Jon Wilson

The British ‘empire’ was so disparate, so sprawling, that it has never been possible to think about the whole coherently

Was empire a force for good or bad? Have empires really any kind of force at all? Take the British empire. Despite the claims of a few self-appointed ideologues, it was never anything other than a sprawling collection of different territories, each connected to Britain in a different way. There was no imperial system, no single imperial regime.

The British presence meant different things for different people because it worked in different ways. In India, Britain governed despotically from the late 1700s to 1947. British rule impoverished a subcontinent, turning one of the most prosperous societies on the globe into one of the world’s poorest. In Canada – to take another example – life for native Americans became harder. But a massive, underpopulated expanse of territory became breadbasket to the world, as British rule created vibrant self-governing institutions. European migrants attracted to British territories in North America built one of the richest societies in the world.

‘The empire’ was so disparate, so sprawling, that it has never been possible to think about the whole coherently. Britons have emphasised the importance of different parts of it at different points in time. Today, we tend to think of India, Africa and the Caribbean. But in British school textbooks of the 1950s, ‘empire’ mainly meant Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the ex-colonies that were then Britain’s greatest export market.

Of course, there have been many imperial ideologues trying to persuade us their vision of empire is a ‘good thing’; people always try to create coherent stories. But every vision of empire that presents it as a united force leaves out some parts. JR Seeley, author of the most famous defence of empire, The Expansion of England (1883), went so far as to declare that India couldn’t really be considered part of the empire at all. Seeley argued that empire needed to be celebrated as a force of liberalism and progress – but that argument was based on his exclusion of Britain’s largest possession. In reality, the history of empire is far more chaotic and messy than its defenders like to think.

Jon Wilson teaches south Asian history at King’s College London. He wrote about the East India Company in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Francois Soyer

The Spanish brutally subjugated the indigenous peoples of the Americas

The Spanish empire, which was established in the decades following 1492 and lasted until the 19th century, has become infamous for its negative impact on conquered populations. Acting in the name of the Spanish crown, ruthless adventurers exploited their military advantages (horses, steel weapons and guns) and indigenous divisions to brutally usurp and subjugate the populations of Mesoamerica and South America.

Post-conquest, the Spanish crown established the encomienda (‘trusteeship’) system, by which it kept control of the land but granted Spanish settlers the right to exploit indigenous labour along with the duty to oversee the Christianisation of their native charges. This was a system open to egregious abuse – settlers focused on their personal enrichment through the forced labour of natives – and it was controversial even among contemporaries. The crown later instituted a repartimento (‘partition’) system that essentially took over the management of the indigenous workforce, ensuring a ready supply of conscripted native labour for the empire’s silver mines and large agricultural estates.

Europeans unwittingly introduced virulent diseases such as smallpox that killed millions, devastating native populations in the Caribbean and on the continents. To replace the declining indigenous peoples, disease-resistant African slaves were imported, thus initiating the horrific Atlantic slave trade.

Finally, the gradual establishment of the Catholic church led to forceful campaigns of evangelisation aiming to eliminate native religions and acculturate indigenous peoples. In the Yucatán region of Central America, the process was particularly brutal, amounting to a co-ordinated attempt to wipe out Maya culture.

Like all colonial empires, the primary purpose of the Spanish empire was to enrich the mother state in Europe. Overall, there can be no doubt that the rise of the Spanish empire had a dramatically negative impact on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, though it has also thereby decisively shaped the culture and faith of most modern-day Latin Americans. Its notoriety was widely decried by early modern Protestant propagandists who had an anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic agenda. Furthermore, apologists of later northern European colonial powers, notably Britain and France, also sought to whitewash the excesses of their own colonial endeavours by contrasting Spanish colonialism with their own ‘enlightened’ colonialism.

Francois Soyer is associate professor of late medieval and early modern history at the University of Southampton


This article was taken from issue 3 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in April 2017


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