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Queen and empire

Britain's empire had first been built on trade and the need to defend this against rival European countries. After the loss of the American colonies in 1783, the idea of creating new colonies remained unpopular until the 1830s. Instead, Britain watched the oceans carefully to make sure its trade routes were safe, and fought wars in order to protect its "areas of interest". In 1839 it attacked China and forced it to allow the profitable British trade in opium from India to China. The "Opium Wars" were one of the more shameful events in British colonial history.

After about 1850 Britain was driven more by fear of growing European competition than by commercial need. This led to the taking of land, the creation of colonies, and to colonial wars that were extremely expensive. Fear that Russia would advance southwards towards India resulted in a disastrous war in Afghanistan (1839-42), in which one army was completely destroyed by Afghan forces in the mountains. Soon after, Britain was fighting a war in Sindh, a part of modern Pakistan, then another against Sikhs in the Punjab, in northwest India.

The Russian danger also affected south Europe and the Middle East. Britain feared that Russia would destroy the weak Ottoman Empire, which controlled Turkey and the Arab countries. This would change the balance of power in Europe, and be a danger to Britain's sea and land routes to India. When Russia and Ottoman Turkey went to war Britain joined the Turks against Russia in Crimea in 1854, in order to stop Russian expansion into Asiatic Turkey in the Black Sea area.

It was the first, and last, time that newspapers were able to report freely on a British war without army control. They told some unwelcome truths; for example, they wrote about the courage of the ordinary soldiers, and the poor quality of their officers. They also reported the shocking conditions in army hospitals, and the remarkable work of the nurse Florence Nightingale.

In India, the unwise treatment of Indian soldiers in British pay resulted in revolt in 1857. Known in Britain as the "Indian Mutiny", this revolt quickly became a national movement against foreign rule, led by a number of Hindu and Muslim princes. Many of these had recently lost power and land to the British rulers. If they had been better organised, they would have been able to throw the British out of India. Both British and Indians behaved with great violence, and the British cruelly punished the defeated rebels. The friendship between the British and the Indians never fully recovered. A feeling of distrust and distance between ruler and ruled grew into the Indian independence movement of the twentieth century.

In Africa, Britain's first interest had been the slave trade on the west coast. It then took over the Cape of Good Hope at the southern point, because it needed a port there to service the sea route to India.

Britain's interest in Africa was increased by reports sent back by European travellers and explorers. The most famous of these was David Livingstone, who was a Scottish doctor, a Christian missionary and an explorer. In many ways, Livingstone was a "man of his age". No one could doubt his courage, or his honesty. His journeys from the east coast into "darkest" Africa excited the British. They greatly admired him. Livingstone discovered areas of Africa unknown to Europeans, and "opened" these areas to Christianity, to European ideas and to European trade.



Christianity too easily became a tool for building a commercial and political empire in Africa. The governments of Europe rushed in to take what they could, using the excuse of bringing "civilisation" to the people. The rush for land became so great that European countries agreed by treaty in 1890 to divide Africa into "areas of interest". By the end of the century, several European countries had taken over large areas of Africa. Britain succeeded in taking most.

In South Africa Britain found that dealing with other European settlers presented new problems. The Dutch settlers, the Boers, fought two wars against the British at the end of the century, proving again, as the Crimean War had done, the weaknesses of the British army. The Boers were defeated only with great difficulty.

The real problems of British imperial ambition, however, were most obvious in Egypt. Britain, anxious about the safety of the route to India through the newly dug Suez Canal, bought a large number of shares in the Suez Canal company.

When Egyptian nationalists brought down the ruler in 1882, Britain invaded "to protect international shipping". In fact, it acted to protect its imperial interest, its route to India. Britain told the world its occupation of Egypt was only for a short time, but it did not leave until forced to do so in 1954. Involvement in Egypt led to invasion and takeover of the Sudan in 1884, a country two-thirds the size of India. Like other powers, Britain found that every area conquered created new dangers which in turn had to be controlled. In all these countries, in India, Africa and elsewhere, Britain found itself involved in a contradiction between its imperial ambition and the liberal ideas it wished to advance elsewhere. Gladstone's view that "the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by a love of freedom" seemed to have little place in the colonies. In the twentieth century this contradiction was a major reason for the collapse of the empire.

There was another reason for the interest in creating colonies. From the 1830s there had been growing concern at the rapidly increasing population of Britain. A number of people called for the development of colonies for British settlers as an obvious solution to the problem. As a result, there was marked increase in settlement in Canada, Australia and New Zealand from the 1840s onwards. The settlers arrived to take over the land and to farm it. In all three countries there had been earlier populations. In Canada most of these were pushed westwards, and those not killed became part of the "white" culture. In Australia British settlers killed most of the aboriginal inhabitants, leaving only a few in the central desert areas. In New Zealand the Maori inhabitants suffered less than in either Canada or Australia, although they still lost most of the land.

The white colonies, unlike the others, were soon allowed to govern themselves, and no longer depended on Britain. They still, however, accepted the British monarch as their head of state. The move towards self-government was the result of trouble in Canada in 1837. A new governor, Lord Durham, quickly understood the danger that Canada might follow the other American colonies into independence. His report established the principle of self-government, first for the white colonies, but eventually for all British possessions. It prepared the way from empire to a British "Commonwealth of Nations" in the twentieth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century Britain controlled the oceans and much of the land areas of the world. Most British strongly believed in their right to an empire, and were willing to defend it against the least threat. This state of mind became known as Jingoism, after a famous Music Hall song of 1878.

But even at this moment of greatest power, Britain had begun to spend more on its empire than it took from it. The empire had started to be a heavy load. It would become impossibly heavy in the twentieth century, when the colonies finally began to demand their freedom.

 

 


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1642


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