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When James Stephen arrived at his desk on 1 January 1838, he was confronted by piles of dispatches from across the world. As the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, which administered all 32 crown colonies that were controlled directly by the British government, Stephen spent every day “diligently... keeping back the flood of papers from deluging us”. He even warned his sister that “I shall soon become a mere bit of blotting paper myself!” Amid letters from imperial governors in Australia, southern Africa, Sierra Leone, Malta and Canada, Stephen faced – among other issues – the spectre of colonists’ rebellions, which deeply concerned him; anxieties about the aftermath of emancipation; and massacres of indigenous peoples carried out by British settlers.

Stephen was the personification of the Colonial Office, working 18-hour days, six days a week to interpret every dispatch and draft most of the responses on behalf of the British government. He and his staff of 25 worked from a dilapidated townhouse in Downing Street, its floors creaking under the weight of filing cabinets. The politician Charles Buller wrote of its “sighing rooms”, where supplicants waited endlessly for appointments in dark, dingy annexes, providing Charles Dickens with a model for Little Dorrit’s “circumlocution office”.

The rest of the British empire was governed from East India House, a grand neo-classical palace in the heart of the financial district. Here the East India Company directors oversaw the governance of India and associated territories with a staff three times as large as Stephen’s. (In India the territories acquired by the East India Company’s armies had been governed by the Company alone until, in 1784, more parliamentary oversight was brought to bear by the government’s Board of
Control. In 1838 the board was headed by John Cam Hobhouse, who had been a friend of Lord Byron. He had spent time in jail for radical pamphleteering in his youth but was now a mellowed Whig MP.)

Steamships were in their infancy, and the vagaries of ocean current and wind determined sailing times – and the speed of communication

However, despite the differences in their workplaces, both the Colonial Office and the East India Company were plagued by the same problem: dispatches took weeks, if not months, to travel from the far-flung colonies to London. Steamships were in their infancy, and the vagaries of ocean current and wind determined sailing times – and the speed of communication. When William Nicolay, governor of Mauritius, complained to Stephen in a dispatch dated 10 October 1837 that he had still not been notified officially of Queen Victoria’s accession back in June 1837, although the news had already arrived with the London newspapers, Stephen explained tersely that “Merchant Vessels are simultaneously advertised as about to sail from London, Liverpool, Bristol... [and] the actual time of their departure cannot be stated with any degree of certainty, until immediately before they sail”, adding “vessels do not arrive at their destination in the order... in which they may have... left England”.

Hobhouse’s communications were no more reliable. The quickest route for dispatches from India was from Bombay (Mumbai) or Karachi via the Red Sea, across the Isthmus of Suez by land and then on by sea from Alexandria. With sailing ships frequently becalmed in the Red Sea, the Company was a pioneer investor in steamships. In January 1838 its agent in Alexandria negotiated access to coal depots at Ottoman ports en route. Dispatches sent from East India House that March
would reach Bombay in a record 41 days.

Given its dispersed nature, its fragmented administrative structure and the difficulties of communication, how was the largest empire that the world had ever seen governed, everywhere and all at once? Based on research for my new book, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the 19th Century British Empire, this article takes a snapshot of the first full year of Queen Victoria’s reign: 1838. By focusing on one year, we can see how Colonial Office clerks and Company men made the decisions that shaped the rest of the world.

On 1 January, Lord Auckland, the East India Company’s governor general of India, and his sister Emily were diverted from touring northern India by reports of an unusually severe famine in the Agra region. The economic volatility brought about by the end of the Company’s monopoly on trade with Britain in 1813 and with China in 1833 had contributed to extreme poverty.

Indians who were reliant on cotton production and export had been undercut by British imports. And they were charged rent purely for the privilege of being governed by the Company; this money was poured into the pockets of the Company’s shareholders, whose annual dividends of 10.5 per cent were funded wholly by the rent. None of this was helping impoverished peasants to buy food. El Niño weather events had then caused harvest failure, further raising prices.
Hobhouse received Auckland’s “harrowing accounts of famine and distress” in February. He and the Company directors agreed to pay a sum of 2 million rupees for the able-bodied who could work for it, but prohibited handouts to the incapacitated so as to afford “the greatest possible facilities for free and unrestricted commerce”. In all some 800,000 Indians would starve to death by the end of the summer.

Power hoarding

In the Colonial Office, Stephen was dealing with the aftermath of abolishing slavery. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which he had drafted, had not actually freed enslaved people from their owners’ control. Instead, 800,000 enslaved people had become unpaid “apprentices”, obliged to continue working for their former owners. This period of “apprenticeship”, along with the payment of £20m compensation to the slave owners (not the enslaved), had been necessary to secure parliament’s approval for abolition. Apprentices were due to be freed to find their own employers from 1 August 1838.

Their emancipation would significantly increase the free black population of Jamaica, and these freed apprentices would potentially be eligible to vote for the colony’s assembly. Governor Lionel Smith had a suggestion – that the property qualification be raised in anticipation, so as to maintain white planter domination. From Mauritius, governor William Nicolay agreed: “The period is far – very far – distant... [when a] representative legislature could be safely introduced, founded on... the equality of legal rights.”

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Stephen felt the Christianity and “civilisation” of indigenous peoples should be the object of colonisation – not their destruction

Stephen affirmed that any explicit racial discrimination could not be allowed. Setting a precedent for other colonies where propertyless, formerly enslaved people of colour were about to join the predominantly white free population, the Jamaican Assembly would raise the property franchise without specifying any form of racial exclusion.

However, in the early months of 1838 Stephen’s overriding concern was the rebellion in Canada. British settlers in Upper Canada were joining with French-speaking colonists in Lower Canada to force the governors’ cliques to share power. Armed US citizens were raiding across the border in support of the rebels, and Stephen feared a second American Revolution. “Oh Canada” he lamented, “what wrongs have I done thee that thou... pursuest me in my house & my office, my walks & my dreams?”

Turbo-charged colonisation

The rebellion was a by-product of decades spent encouraging Britons to emigrate to the colonies of North America, Australia and southern Africa as a cure for supposed overpopulation at home. Turbo-charged “systematic colonisation” was now government policy. The accelerated British diaspora was causing Stephen two major headaches. The first, manifesting in Canada, was how to respond when British settlers demanded the right to govern themselves. The other was how these settlers should engage with the indigenous peoples whose lands they were taking.

Stephen was simultaneously digesting the recommendations of a select committee which condemned emigrants for the brutality of their invasion. He agreed that the Christianity and “civilisation” of indigenous peoples should be the objects of British colonisation, not these peoples’ destruction. Yet he still had to encourage further emigration.

Meanwhile, as indigenous Mohawk were helping the loyalist militia round up the cross-border raiders in Canada, Aboriginal dispossession was proceeding at an alarming rate in Australia. From Sydney, Richard Bourke, the governor of New South Wales, notified Stephen that he had sent a magistrate after Britons who had taken it upon themselves to settle around Geelong. He placed “the greatest reliance on [the]... humanity, good temper, and considerate disposition” of Foster Fyans. In reality “Flogger Fyans” systematically acquitted settlers accused of killing Aboriginal people, declaring that the only agreeable course of action was to “deal with such useless savages on the spot”.

In February, George Gipps replaced Bourke as the governor. The agenda for Gipps’ first advisory council meeting included Stephen’s instructions for “the just and humane treatment of the Aborigines” alongside a report from Major Nunn who, in January, had led a military force killing over 40 Kaamilaraay men, women and children accused of spearing settlers’ invasive sheep. Stephen was at a loss about how to advise the new governor exactly how he should show “humanity” to Aboriginal people while encouraging British settlement on their land.

The bureaucrats also had to respond to foreign “threats” to Britain’s empire. For instance, in May, Hobhouse panicked upon hearing that a Russian envoy had entered Kabul in Afghanistan in 1837, to attempt an alliance with the Afghan amir, Dost Mohammad. The Foreign Office dictated that the Company had to participate in the “Great Game” contesting Russian imperial expansion across central Asia towards India.

The Company’s agent in Kabul believed that the independent-minded amir had no intention of indulging the Russians, but Auckland and Hobhouse were falling under the spell of a rival advisor, William Hay Macnaghten. His suggestion was to overthrow Dost Mohammad and reinstate a compliant former amir, Shah Shuja.

Rebels and murderers

Over in the Colonial Office, Stephen remained preoccupied with Canada. Against his wishes, the government had decided to send out Lord Durham as an appeaser. He arrived in May and proposed later that year that the Canadian settlers be granted representative government based on a low property franchise. Devised at the same time that franchise qualifications were being raised to exclude free people of colour elsewhere, this solution would maintain British emigrants’ sense of belonging to the empire. They would govern themselves internally while Stephen’s office determined their external relations.

In June, Gipps reported that another massacre of Australian Aboriginal people had been committed at Myall Creek. For the first time, white witnesses testified to seeing the corpses of 28 Wirrayaraay women, children and elderly men. Gipps saw an opportunity to demonstrate humanitarian resolve. However, once seven of the white culprits were hanged, previously divided former convicts and free settlers united to press for Canadian-style self-governance, not least so that Australia could be “cleared” for settlement without further philanthropic interference from London.

The empire developed a template through which exploited people of colour would continue to supply cheap labour to white Britons

Meanwhile the philanthropic impulse that had driven the anti-slavery campaign found its fulfilment as “apprentices” around the empire were at last able to seek paid employment on 1 August. Many were able to secure jobs, but they were expected to pay for the first time for plantation accommodation with extremely low wages. It is not surprising that the first impulse for many others was to reunite with family members dispersed among different “owners” and find land upon which they could derive a subsistence together, depriving their former owners of labour.

The drums of war

During September the Foreign Office persuaded Russia to back away from potential conflict in Afghanistan. However, Auckland was committed before he could be called off. On 1 October, he issued the Simla Declaration, pledging to restore Shah Shuja with help from Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom. Hobhouse doctored the Kabul agent’s dispatches in order to back the governor general in London. Auckland’s sister Emily sighed: “Poor, dear peaceful George had gone to war. Rather an inconsistency in his character.”

No sooner had Hobhouse committed the government to an unnecessary invasion of Afghanistan than he was confronted by the next crisis. The East India Company had perfected a narcotics industry, obliging Indian tenants to grow opium poppies and remit them to Company agents, who supervised their manufacture. Private companies like Jardine Matheson smuggled the prohibited opium into China through Canton, where officials turned a blind eye. “Only think of the Chinese going to smuggle tea on the coast of England in a junk!” an associate quipped.

However, the Qing emperor was getting serious about suppressing the trade that undermined his authority. In December, a new Cantonese governor, Lin Zexu, threatened to attack British clippers from India unless all the opium on the coast was surrendered. William Jardine, co-founder of Jardine Matheson, complained: “Not an opium pipe [was] to be seen, not a retail vendor. . . not a single enquiry after the drug.” He and his associates set off to London to lobby for war.

The ramifications of British bureaucrats’ decisions in 1838 echoed down the years. In Afghanistan, for instance, the regime change that Hobhouse craved was soon accomplished – but what the Duke of Wellington called the “stupidity” of Macnaghten’s plan soon became apparent.

Shah Shuja, a puppet whose strings were pulled by infidel foreigners, was never going to become acceptable to Afghanistan’s tribal leaders. Fighters lining the Hindu Kush’s narrow passes easily cut off supplies and reinforcements to the army supporting him. In 1842 the beleaguered and starving Anglo-Indian garrison accepted an offer of safe passage out, but nearly all were killed as they retreated, Hobhouse’s nephew among them.

Meanwhile in China, in 1839 Lin destroyed 6 to 10 million dollars’ worth of Company opium, prompting Britain to declare war. Hobhouse asserted: “England was not pursuing purely selfish trade ambitions; rather she was fighting for the opening of trade for all nations.” The assault resulted in the humiliation of the Qing dynasty, the forced opening of the opium trade through Chinese ports and the seizure of Hong Kong. China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of the west had begun, and we are now witnessing the former empire’s reassertion.

In drafting the act ending slavery, Stephen had helped bring one kind of empire to an end. However, he admitted that in the post-emancipation empire, the devastating impact of colonisation on indigenous societies was “clear and irremediable; nor do I suppose it is possible to discover any method by which the impending Catastrophe, namely the extermination of the Black Race, can long be avoided”.

At the same time, he was helping devise the means for replacing enslaved peoples’ labour (see our annotated map on pages 46–47 for more details on this). In Mauritius impoverished peasants from India were providing planters with cheaper labour than formerly enslaved apprentices. The Colonial Office would liaise with the Company to build an indentured labour system which yielded a diaspora of over a million Indians for colonists’ plantations across the globe.

The new British empire developed a template through which people of colour, generally with lesser civil rights, would continue to supply cheap labour to white Britons around the world.

Smuggling, subversion and slaughter

The events that dominated seven of Britain’s colonies in 1838

1) Upper Canada Major rebellions that had begun in late 1837continued in 1838. US “Patriots” were crossing the border, hoping to unite with disaffected British settlers in Upper Canada and French-speaking rebels in Lower Canada to bring about another North American republic. Lord Durham arrived from Britain to propose a remedy in the form of the settlers’ democratic self-governance within the empire. This would effectively remove London’s ability to safeguard indigenous interests.

2) Jamaica significant planter anxiety about the emancipation of formerly enslaved “apprentices” on 1 August 1838. Planters were devising schemes to secure replacement cheap labour from other colonies including Malta, until William Ewart Gladstone’s father set a regional precedent in Guyana: he emulated Mauritius’ planters by importing inden- tured labourers from British India. Jamaica’s governor, Lionel Smith, meanwhile, was proposing a way of excluding newly freed black people from the legislative assembly’s franchise in order to maintain the white grip on power.

3) Sierra Leone Still the main dropping-off point for Africans rescued by the Royal Navy from other nations’ slave ships. Traditionally referred to as “liberated Africans”, they are today generally referred to as “Recaptives”. Unable to return home across hundreds of miles of raider-infested territory, most were apprenticed for 15 years to free settlers without pay. In 1838 James Stephen was considering whether the apprenticed “liberated Africans” in Sierra Leone should be emancipated like the formerly enslaved apprentices in the Caribbean, Cape and Mauritius, but he decided against it, believing that their apprenticeships would help to “civilise” them.

4) Cape Colony Afrikaner colonists continued to move across the northern frontier on what later historians called the Great Trek (as 4 shown below in an 1837 engraving), preferring their system of slavery, cont- inued expansion, and self-rule to British governance. The Colonial Office recalled Governor Benjamin D’Urban for refusing to communicate once his annexation of land belonging to the Xhosa people across the eastern frontier was disallowed. The lieuten- ant governor, Andries Stockenström, was maintaining peace through treaties with the Xhosa people; he was soon sacked after British settlers’ lobbying.

5) New South Wales The rapid colonisation of the Port Philip District (now Victoria) continued as British pastoralists invaded Kulin peoples’ lands. Despite the arrival of a handful of Protectors of Aborigines (men appointed by the Colonial Office in order to safeguard the interests of Aboriginal people), the Aboriginal population is estimated to have declined by 90 per cent during the 1840s. In 1838 colonists perpetrated two well-known massacres of Aboriginal people at Waterloo Creek and Myall Creek. The courts hanged seven white men for the latter offence, energising settlers’ calls for self-governance.

6) India The Agra famine continued in the north-west provinces, only partially mitigated by the East India Company’s relief for the able-bodied. Some 800,000 would die of starvation. Meanwhile, the Company’s invest- ments in steam were laying the foundations for steamship navigation of the major rivers and railway development; Company forces were set to invade and occupy Afghanistan; and Company steamships were preparing to join with the Royal Navy in war on China for daring to crack down on the smuggling of the opium it produced in India.

7) Mauritius Governor Nicolay was delighted that the British government’s payment of compensation to the island’s former slave owners was now feeding into the economy, enabling enhanced sugar production with indentured workers. Plantation owners were establishing an industrial-scale indentured labour system to bring low-paid workers from India. (Nearly half a million indentured labourers arrived at Aapravasi Ghat, Port Louis, shown left.) This proved cheaper than providing food and shelter to former enslaved persons. British planters facing the loss of enslaved labour in Central America, the Caribbean and Ceylon would copy this indentured labour experiment.

Alan Lester is professor of historical geography at the University of Sussex. His co-authored book Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the 19th-Century British Empire is out now from Cambridge University Press


This content first appeared in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine