The Rise and Fall of the British Colonial Empireby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Describe the rise and fall of the British colonial Empire
Sir John Robert Seeley is famously quoted as saying that the British Empire was developed in a "fit of absence of mind," implying that through multiple disjointed ventures, such as looking for a place to send convicts, or attempting to find gold, the British one day awoke to discover they ruled over 20% of the world1. However, it can be factually argued that all the endeavors of the British that led to the empire were purposeful, and aimed at land and largely at profit.
A late comer to world exploration, Britain under Queen Elizabeth began exploring after defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588. From Francis Drake to Cook and Hudson, England sought to catch up with its chief rival, Spain, who had well established colonies in the Americas exporting gold and silver back to Europe [see Spanish Colonization]. Britain began seeking its own source of precious metals, and looked toward the American territories and the Caribbean. Failing to find its own supply of gold on land, Britain turned instead to the sea for its fortune. Increasing in the latter half of the 17th century, Privateers, pirates endorsed by the government for a share of the profits, attacked Spanish ships and sacked Spanish towns, capturing huge amounts of gold. In 1655, with Oliver Cromwell leading England, the English conquered the Spanish settlement of Jamaica, and established other multiple colonies in the Caribbean, along with several plantations in America, such as the colony of Jamestown. Multiple colonies that were founded for religious freedom from persecution in Europe. However, none of these explorative voyages and colonies ever yielded gold. They did, however, yield abundantly tradable resources. Spices, tea, lumber, sugar, tobacco, and cotton began to flow in from England’s colonies, and an economic boom followed. Companies such as the East India Trading company, established in 1600 to handle trade with the British territory in India, and the Hudson Bay Company, dealing with the fur trade in America established in 1670, were private groups given monopolies for trade in certain areas by the British government. The Royal Africa Company, formed in 1672, traded in the controversial resource of slaves. The African slave trade was the perfect way for the British to get labor for their Caribbean plantations.
Entering the 18th century, British trade continued to expand right up to the Seven Year War (1756-1763), known as the "French and Indian War" in America. Over the course of the war, Britain overtook many French possessions, including Québec; the last French territory in Canada. Not long after the war ended, however, Britain was to a have a sharp blow to its colonial power. In 1776, the American colonies declared their Independence, and in 1781, the British commander surrendered, giving the colonies their freedom.
The industrial revolution, which Britain had given birth to, needed to be fed as it grew across the globe. Having lost its major interest in North America, Britain sought raw materials in other territories. Just two decades before the colonies had gained their freedom, Britain made major headway into dominance over India. By this time, the East India trading company had already established multiple trading posts in India. The death of the Mughal emperor in 1707 had severely destabilized the Indian nation, and in the 1750s, the East India trading company began to fight the French for dominance. In 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, the British decisively defeated the French, establishing England as the dominant foreign force in India.
Another country that fell under British rule in the 18th century was Australia. Originally assessed as useless for the British to use when discovered in 1600, it had never been colonized. With the loss of the American colonies, however, the British needed a place to send convicts British prisons could no longer hold. Thus, in 1788, A British fleet composed mainly of prisoners founded Sydney.
Just as the 19th century was beginning, Wilberforce led England set the moral precedent of banning slavery (1807) which was enforced as the royal navy added teeth to the law. Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815). By the end of the wars, Britain owned several French islands in the Caribbean, and the Dutch possessions of Cape Colony, Ceylon and Guiana. In India, British forces under the command of the East India Company had by 1805 turned the Mughal emperor into a puppet governor. By 1858, after putting down a revolt, the British dropped the pretense of a puppet emperor, and brought India under direct control of the British government. One advantage of this action was that Christian missionary activity increased, widow burning (suti) and child sacrifice outlawed. Situated next to India was Burma. Burma had begun to take control of new territory just as Britain had begun to take total control of India. The resulting clash ended in 1886 with Britain controlling both India and Burma.
Although mismanagement by East India Company caused the English crown to take control of India, the moral high ground was not always held. The Opium Wars against China were the darkest blemish on England's record. Trading India's opium for China's silks, tea, and porcelains, despite the protests of the Chinese government, led to war. A 100 year lease was granted England for the development of Canton (Hong Kong), and increasing spheres of foreign influence gave the west the benefit of unequal treaties into China's resources.
The 20th century brought an incredible challenge to the British Empire in the form of the First World War (1914-1918). In the beginning, the British colonies were willing to send troops to aid the British, but as the war continued, and the casualties mounted, the British government had to begin conscripting troops from their colonies. However, with the end of the war and the signing of the treaty of Versailles in 1919, the British Empire was the largest it had ever been, absorbing a huge potion of Africa, and the areas of Palestine and Iraq. However, though the Empire gained territory, the war left Britain overextended and under managed. In this state, Britain could no longer hold all of its territories. It released Egypt in 1922, Iraq in 1932, and after a rebellion, Ireland was released in 1937. India was another matter entirely. Throughout the 20th century, tensions continued to mount until the Amritsar Massacre, where British soldiers fired into a group of protesting Indians, causing the deaths of 400 people. After this, British rulers continually proposed changes in the government, hoping to ease the tensions. Anger ebbed slightly, but remained never far beneath the surface.
Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler was the beginning of the end of Britain’s empire as WWII devastated Europe from 1939 to 1945. A number of its possessions, such as Hong Kong and Burma, were temporarily conquered by Japan. Those territories still in the British Empire went to war in conditional support of Britain with agreements towards self government at the war's end. As promised, after the war, many of the possessions received statehood, entering into a “commonwealth” state with Great Britain. Under the British Commonwealth, the King or Queen is the figurehead, but has little political power over the other nations in the commonwealth. It is mainly a group of former British colonies who have come to gather to expand economically, and democratically. Following Gandhi's non-violent protests, Pakistan and India became independent in 1947; followed by Ceylon and Burma in 1948 (although Burma did not join the commonwealth). The dream of Cecil Rhodes to have a British railroad running the length of Africa fully dissolved by 1968, as Sudan, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, The Gambia, Botswana, and Swaziland all became independent. The Caribbean territories followed the same timeline.
The colonial model of British Paternalism compared to French Assimilation allowed a relatively bloodless process of decolonization for the British (but not the French). Today, the United Kingdom still maintains several small territories that choose (with the exception of the Falkland Islands) to remain under British rule. This situation is not unique as several colonies of other world powers have also preferred to remain with their colonizer. For example, residences of Gibraltar voted to remain under British authority.
Beginning as a small island, Britain forged an empire upon which the sun never set as they spread technology, knowledge, and the Christian religion to the farthest reaches of the globe. Perhaps it did fall together in a "fit of absence of mind" for the British, but God certainly knew what He was doing.
1. MSN Encarta, verified on Wikipedia.org
"British Empire," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved
Empire, the rise and fall of the British world order and the lessons for global
power Ferguson, Niall
Basic Books, 2003
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