The hidden story of the British Empire

The hidden story of the British Empire

The more we talk about it, the less we seem to understand it.

James Heartfield

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Renewed interest in the history of the British Empire has generated a great amount of fascinating research and reflection. Over the past decade or more, there have been many books written about the empire – popular, academic, polemical and picaresque. There has been Akala’s Natives, William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire and Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence, to name just a few.

Today’s approach to the British Empire is invariably critical – often stridently so. It marks a change to the attitude widely held half a century ago, when books on the empire tended to be elegiac farewells, like Paul Scott’s novel, The Jewel in the Crown, or Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica. Today’s critical approach to the empire is certainly a far cry from that which prevailed for a brief moment around the time that Margaret Thatcher was taking back the Falkland Islands. Back then, there was even an attempt at the moral rehabilitation of the empire.

At least in part, the contemporary negativity towards the British Empire is a reflection of a more recent disappointment with the British state’s projection of its moral authority overseas. At the end of the Cold War, many liberal-minded people invested a lot of hope in the idea of an ethical foreign policy. They envisaged an era in which the international community, led by Western nations, would intervene in troubled nations and regions to make peace between belligerents and even build states where dictatorships had failed. So-called humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and East Timor were supposed to herald a new kind of altruistic militarism.

But these hopes for ethical foreign policy faded with the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. This manifestation of ethical foreign policy destroyed a nation, and demoralised and brutalised its people.

Some would argue that a more critical attitude to the history of colonialism is a good thing. And in many ways, they would be right. Certainly, the growing critical interest in Britain’s imperial history has generated a lot of excellent research. New books on everything from late settler colonialism in Africa to national-liberation movements have added to our understanding of the British Empire.

But there are downsides to the self-excoriating criticism of Britain’s past. Often this approach to history turns into a debilitating exercise in self-loathing, an act of guilt-mongering. Many others have pointed out the limitations of this kind of morbid raking over the coals. But what is just as worrying is that the more we posture over Britain’s colonial past, the less we seem to understand it.

The moralistic framework in which we teach and discuss colonial history reduces our understanding to a single note of complaint. Hence, many historians today now write as if they have to make a case against the empire. This is just kicking at an open door. The empire has very few champions today. And the great British public is certainly not nostalgic for its return, despite some commentators arguing otherwise. Indeed, an ever growing majority think that the empire was a bad thing.

There is another problem with this approach to Britain’s colonial past. It situates readers outside of history. It encourages them to adopt a moralistic rather than historical approach to colonialism. They can do little more than judge the empire as evil. And in doing so, it flattens out the different periods of the colonial project into one long uniform timeline of subjugation. Collapsing distinct periods and stages together leads to a great confusion. For instance, in many accounts, there appears to be little difference between 18th-century British colonialism, which was dominated by slave trading, and the British colonialism of the late 19th century, which was marked by anti-slavery. It is important not to reduce the long history of the empire to a single motivating cause, be it the ‘English genius’ of earlier celebratory accounts or today’s contention that it was all driven by ‘white supremacy’.

I seek to address these problems in my new book, Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020. There I draw out the differences between the distinctive stages of Britain’s colonial history.

To do this, it is necessary to step back from moral judgement, which foregrounds our attitudes today, in order to try to understand what motivated people back then. That often means looking at a society’s changing social and economic organisation. Britain’s Empires is a history of the empire that holds on to a sense of historical change, and tries to understand the interrelation of its component parts.

Battle of Isandhlwana (1879) Natal, South Africa.
Battle of Isandhlwana (1879) Natal, South Africa.

The distinct eras of British colonialism are: the Old Colonialism (1600 to 1776); the Empire of Free Trade (1776-1870); the New Colonialism (1870-1945); and the period of decolonisation during the Cold War era (1946-1989). Britain’s Empires ends with an account of the ‘humanitarian imperialism’ of the 1990s up until the present day. This periodisation aims to reflect the objective moments of transition.

From the Old Colonialism to the Empire of Free Trade

The Old Colonial era, which began when Britain was still as much a dynasty as a state, was dominated by the role of the royally licensed merchant companies, most notably the East India Company and the Royal African Company. Much less known are the Muscovy, Virginia, Levant and Hudson’s Bay companies. These mercantile companies sat somewhere between modern corporations and princely armies, going to foreign lands to set up monopoly trading posts. It was the Royal African Company – re-established by Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to fill the royal coffers – that systematised the trade in enslaved Africans with the Dahomey kings and Caribbean planters. Mughal India licensed East India Company trading posts, only to see the Leadenhall Street-based corporation move from being ‘tax farmers’ to overlords in Bengal.

Adam Smith was perplexed that this early colonial era came before the Industrial Revolution. He thought that foreign trade should follow, not precede, the build-up of domestic markets. But it was the condition of domestic markets that drove British companies to pursue foreign trade. Merchants working out of ports looked to sell and buy overseas, because Stuart England was overgrown with archaic customs and duties that got in the way of commerce. Such was the expansion of overseas trade that the East India Company town of Fort St George, in what is now known as Chennai, was larger than Manchester in the 17th century.

Trinidad historian Eric Williams is often quoted as saying that you would think that the only reason that the British had taken up slavery was so they could abolish it. It is a good joke about the tendency for later historians to whitewash the history of the empire by focusing on Britain’s role in abolition. But it diminishes the main point of Williams’ seminal book, Capitalism and Slavery (1944). There he argues that the Industrial Revolution could only really take off once the mercantilism of the Old Colonial era had been overthrown. The transition from being slave traders to anti-slavery was, therefore, not just a moral step. It was also fundamental to the launch of modern capitalism, where the exploitation of wage labour in England would be more pivotal and profitable than the exploitation of slave labour on plantations.

The modern, free-trade era – the Empire of Free Trade – begins with the American colonists’ revolt against Britain in 1776. This was a protest against the monopoly prices of mercantilism (which is why rebel colonists in Boston threw East India Company tea into the Boston harbour) as well as against King George. As it turned out, Britain’s reluctant withdrawal from the Thirteen Colonies of America prompted it to develop a more nationally focused economy – one that, once it had defeated Napoleonic France, would impose a ‘free trade’ policy on the high seas. French, Dutch and American rivals complained that Britain believed in free trade only because Britain was economically dominant, and that anti-slavery was mostly a way of doing down rivals. This was half-true.

Indian troops, led by British officers, march out of their desert camp in Egypt as part of the North African campaign, 1 March 1940.
Indian troops, led by British officers, march out of their desert camp in Egypt as part of the North African campaign, 1 March 1940.

Trade, it turned out, could also be at least as powerful a means of domination as the use of arms. Indian weavers were put out of work by British textile exports, while slaves in America were set to work supplying those very textile mills with cotton. As 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat put it: ‘England opens all of its ports; it has broken down all the barriers which separated it from other nations; England had 50 colonies, and now has only one, the universe.’

The New Imperialism

The so-called New Imperialism of the late-19th century marked a sharp break from the era of free trade. Competing with European rivals, Britain massively and quickly expanded its colonial possessions, principally through the rapid colonisation of Africa. The New Imperialism reflected a shift in economic policy in Britain, away from free trade and towards large-scale monopoly corporations, which were increasingly wedded to an expanded state machinery. The spur to this shift was the exhaustion of the Industrial Revolution in the 1870s. That, as JA Hobson explained, sent investors to look overseas for opportunities in the empire at the cost of investment at home.

Late-Victorian England did not just find new investment opportunities in the empire – it also found a new moral purpose. This was the moment when Britain’s anti-slavery West Africa Squadron, which had harried French and Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic in the 1840s, turned its attention to Arab slave traders. This moral mission laid the basis for the division of Africa between the European powers at three Great Power conferences, in Brussels and Berlin, held between 1876 and 1890 – all ostensibly addressing the problem of slavery.

The British Empire seized colonies across Africa in the name of rooting out Arab slavery. In these places, it then created new kinds of forced labour, notably the indentured labour of Indian and Chinese migrants in Mauritius, Fiji, Africa and the West Indies. But while the British Empire sweated hundreds of thousands of people in gold, diamond and tin mines, rubber and tea plantations, and later oilfields, millions more of the empire’s colonial subjects were shut out of industry. They found themselves locked in barren reserved areas or protectorates, prone to famine and governed by ‘native administrations’ that were fronted by British-appointed ‘chiefs’. The worst indictment of the British Empire was not that it exploited so many, but that it abandoned a great many more to the misery of subsistence agriculture.

National liberation

The British Empire had always generated resistance. The Old Colonial system provoked opposition from traditional leaders. And during the free-trade era, many subject peoples, most notably in Haiti and Ireland, seized on the promise of democratic revolutions to press for their independence. The New Colonialism of 1870-1945 was also a target for subject peoples. They longed first for Home Rule (which had already been conceded to the white settlers of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and southern Africa) and then, when that was withheld, for independence. The national-independence movements of the 20th century were the heirs to the democratic struggles of the 18th century and the best hope for a just world.

Their claims were nearly drowned out in the thunder of two world wars as imperial Britain was increasingly locked into rivalries with other imperial powers. France, Italy, America, Holland and Japan all challenged Britain’s global dominance. But it was war with Germany in 1914-18 and with the Third Reich in 1939-45 that really shook the British Empire. Understandably, Britons are proud of the victories that saved Europe from dictatorship, but those achievements looked different from the colonies. Colonial subjects fought for Britain in their millions, out of pride in the empire and because they believed that they would get a better deal at the end of those wars.

Many of those hopes were thwarted in the misery of war. The British Empire exploited every resource to win, subjecting many colonial peoples to forced labour under military discipline, and engendering hardship and famine (such as swept the Middle East in the First World War, and cost millions of lives in Bengal between 1943 and 1944). Politically, too, British leaders betrayed promises glibly made in the heat of war – for self-government in Ireland, India and Arabia – until full-blown independence movements demanded freedom.

The destruction wrought by the Second World War was so profound that it significantly reordered the world economy. Capital, which for decades had been increasingly invested in the colonies, was refocused on rebuilding Europe. Britain was completely broke and squeezed as much as it could from dollar-earning colonies and client states like Iran, Iraq, Malaysia and Ghana. The real story, though, was that by the 1950s prime minister Harold Macmillan had already decided that Britain would bow to the ‘wind of change’ and concede independence to nearly every colony it held. Many were bundled into makeshift confederations like the West Indies, or Singapore in Malaysia.

Though Britain’s rulers became very good at stage-managing flag-lowering ceremonies, the process of decolonisation was a painful experience. More for ideological and geo-strategic reasons than economic ones, the British army and diplomatic corps fought a rearguard action to sabotage and divide those national movements that were laying claim to the lands Britain ceded. Militant Third World leaders – like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Sukarno in Indonesia – were vilified and attacked. Resolute social movements like the Mau Mau in Kenya or Chin Peng’s Malayan National Liberation Army were bombed and terrorised into submission. British-friendly leaders like King Hussein in Jordan and even Saddam Hussein in Iraq were armed and backed against their rivals. In southern African states, such as South Africa and Rhodesia, white settlers sabotaged the transfer of power to native leaders by declaring unilateral independence and institutionalising their racial dictatorships as ‘apartheid’ regimes.

In Neo-Colonialism, Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah made a strong case that independence had been undermined as colonial powers handed over political sovereignty while European investors retained ownership of private industry. There was some truth to this argument. Independence had indeed been conceded begrudgingly and in a qualified way.

Yet, while some British capital was tied up in oil fields in the Middle East and in South Africa, for the most part the former colonies suffered from a lack of investment. Nkrumah’s account of neocolonialism overstated the continuity between the empire and decolonisation. Leaders of these newly independent states often used the unlevel playing field left by the British as an excuse for poor leadership, and to dampen popular demands for progress in the present day.

The history of the British Empire is not easy to summarise in a single volume, and even less so in a single article. But it is important to understand the different, distinct motives that drove Britain to trade with and colonise parts of the world at different times. The original mercantile companies ventured all over the world because in the 17th century that was easier than investing in Manchester. Up until the 1870s, Britain was reluctant to countenance new colonies in Africa. Then, over the course of just three decades, it grabbed four million square miles of territory. And while Britain continues to interfere far too much in many countries around the world, decolonisation did actually happen. It was a real historical moment – not a perennial struggle against Western modes of thought, as today’s shallow ‘decolonisation’ movements have it.

The growing historical interest in the history of the empire ought to be an opportunity for a far greater interest in the struggle for liberation and national independence, and in the very different eras and dramas of world history. It would be a shame if today’s ‘anti-imperialists’ were to reduce that rich and varied history to a one-dimensional contest between wicked colonists and native victims.

James Heartfield’s new book, Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020, is published by Anthem Press. Order your copy here.

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Main picture by Francis Hayman, published under a creative-commons licence.

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