Continued from blog posting: Rule Britannia
British ingenuity not only fed the modern world’s desire for new goods; it became a power that was able to eliminate the serious underlying problems of piracy, slavery and smuggling, guaranteeing its position as a moral force for good. Ever-advancing technology gave Britain the upper hand in its fight against outlaws – Britain twice asserted its authority over Chinese pirate junks and rogue, anti-Capitalist governors in two Opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856 to 1860), which ended with the handover of Hong Kong to the British, and the resumption of trade. The reluctance of the Chinese to trade with Britain was unprecedented, and Britain implemented its much practised gunboat-diplomacy policies to knock China back into line with a short, sharp surgical strike.
Suppression of Slavery (the movement started off by William Wilberforce with his Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade) in the 1800s was somewhat harder, due to the resistance shown by campaigns from the American plantations and slave traders. On seeing approaching British men-o’-war, slave ship crews (in both Africa and the Americas) were not infrequently seen hurling slaves overboard into the sea to avoid prosecution. As Britain moved into the later 1800s the trade was almost entirely eradicated, marking the transition into what is commonly known as the liberal age.
British dominance of the seas allowed countries such as Australia to flourish under the tariff-protected system, and the value of this can still be seen today. According to the Australian government, ‘Australia continues to be one of the strongest performing economies in the world’, with trade as strong as many Western European countries. Its GDP ranks well above those of Greece, Norway, Sweden and Portugal, only a few places behind Spain, Italy and France. India’s GDP is now $3,678,000,000,000, far higher than the UK’s $ 1,867,000,000,000, proving that hardships undergone by India in the 1700s were in fact a worthwhile investment for the country’s future – it is now firmly recognised as a world power, with a seat on the UN security council and a powerful nuclear arsenal.
Trade was not the only factor that benefited the people of the colonies; the empire can also be seen as a civilising force. British influence eventually gave African and Asian countries two vital factors that make up a developed country – the alien system of democracy, and a strong economy. In all newly acquired possessions, the British government followed the same pattern of actions in order to win over the new peoples; puppet governments were first set up, then followed by an influx of missionaries and traders. Without the British power overseas, it would have been impossible to so easily replace governments with pre-selected candidates (or simply British governors), and then to have them discreetly watched over by the pro-consul governing the area. Administrators (and therefore costs) were kept to a minimum, meaning that the skeletal administration was efficient (entry tests to the colonial civil services were notoriously difficult, especially those of India) but secure. Steamships and the new telegraph system meant that orders and soldiers could be sent faster than any rebellion could travel, meaning that martial law was always there as a reassuring fall-back. These measures ensured the maintenance of law and order in the area, and with the introduction of new technology and services (piped water, sewers, roads) kept the native populations under control and made tribal warfare a thing of the past. Trading raw materials (sugar, cotton, wool, timber) for cloth, weaponry and machinery brought poorer countries into the world of commerce, and with the money gained from trade, an infrastructure could then be set up, all provided by British entrepreneurs. After the conquest of India, bridges were built, telephone cables laid and railways installed – whilst these measures served the British troops excellently, they also advanced the sub-continent greatly.
In India, higher caste men were encouraged to acquire a university education in Britain, whilst education in general was set up in the majority of peaceful colonies. Ghandi used his education and English to influence the ruling of India, and eventually orchestrated independence from Britain. Even when he began his civil disobedience campaigns (‘100,000 Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians if these Indians won’t cooperate.’), he was arrested and released twice by the British authorities, and later invited to the Round Table conference to discuss properly the matter of India’s independence.
Whilst conditions in modern India may now be the better for British rule, it is clear that the British Empire did not successfully set up many African countries for the future. Modern Zimbabwe was created by Cecil Rhodes in 1888 and governed by the British as a colony until independence in 1965. Throughout the later years of British rule (and then under independent white-majority rule) the country had been stricken with rioting, burning and the attacking of European farms and farmers. Unlike the colonies founded in the early 1800s (India, West Indies), many events and disturbances were covered by the media, allowing people to form their own, stronger opinions from what they saw and read about. News in the new, media- and liberal-obsessed world focused hugely on the wrongs of empire, overlooking the good points and subconsciously stirring up the people of the modern, less established colonies into what eventually became violent revolts. This behaviour from native peoples disrupted trade, taxing and pioneering, meaning that the country could not become richer and benefit from new inventions and techniques, as those in other colonies and dominions had. The popular media prevented countries like Rhodesia from thriving under the British, forcing the rulers to fight harsher and ever harsher campaigns to pacify the violent anti-European protests, trapping the innocent in a vicious circle of poverty.
The popular argument then follows from here that perhaps the British and other Europeans had no right to be in Africa in the first place, and that the Africans were right to be angry. However, whilst this argument may seem morally correct, it is clear from looking at the facts that the British presence in the areas was advantageous. The overwhelming majority of the settlers in Rhodesia since its creation in 1888 settled down to become farmers (since the gold they set out to find had long since been used up), fencing off dry and dead land on which to grow their crops. The land was not in any way utilised by the African population, and they could not – considering their technological limitations – have farmed the land as efficiently as the settlers. After the pacifying of the African rebel groups by Rhodes’ own South Africa Company, British technology was used to irrigate and plant the land, pouring money back into the country and its people, black and white. Many would argue that the money was in fact entirely directed back to the white settlers, the natives trapped in a European-run and dominated market, out of which there was no escape. As in all cases, the entrepreneurs received the lion’s share of the income, but it is ludicrous to claim that the use of previously untouched land to feed the nation independently of Britain did not benefit Rhodesia. The farming provided jobs for Africans that paid considerably better than nomadic cattle farming, the most common source of wealth in early Rhodesia.
However, with independence came stronger African nationalism; over the past decade, Robert Mugabe’s roaming militia have lain waste to European farms, burning, shooting and killing as they went – a stark contrast to the fair and just Mugabe elected by Zimbabwe in 1987 as President. It is regrettable that the British were prevented by public opinion and international (and naturally Rhodesian) pressure from setting up responsible government in the area, which could have prevented the atrocities and poverty still prevalent in Zimbabwe today.
It is likely that it is ongoing and unchallenged events such as these, combined with highly publicised acknowledgement of suppression of indigenous people that are the real sources of shame for the British people. It is now recognised that figures such as Gandhi may have been right when he made statements such as ‘[British Rule] has reduced us to serfdom, [and] it has sapped the foundation of our culture’, or that Chief Dan George of the Salish West Canadian tribe was right when he said ‘Come and integrate you say; but how can I? What is there in my culture you value?’ It has taken over 100 years for the governments of the white settler dominions (Australia, New Zealand, Canada) to realise, let alone right, the wrongs done to their native people, such as those in Palestine, certain African countries and Kashmir.
The British Empire was an empire like no other. The period from 1700 to the present day encompasses what in my opinion is the era of greatest human advancements in all fields, from weaponry to medicine, trade to cartography. However, there were two fundamental differences between the British and the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans before them; it offered its subjects an unparalleled level of freedom in speech, movement, government and, most importantly, education. Since 1750, the British government and people have set up schools and universities on every continent on Earth, spreading essential civilised and previously only western principles (such as freedom of speech) which make Britain, North American and most European countries the secure, fair, reasonable and responsible nations that they are today. The British Empire spread these ideas of equal treatment (regardless of gender and race) across the world, and it is undeniably why the world is as stable as it is today. Without the Empire, one can be almost certain that the allied nations would have been unable to twice defeat Germany and her allies – it was only due to Britain’s swift intervention that France was not immediately overrun, potentially leaving all her industrial capabilities available to the fascists.
The British Empire was not only good for Britain; it has spread its beneficial values across the world, but the truly remarkable feature of the British Empire can be found in its downfall. Built and maintained by military superiority alone, it is the first empire the world has ever known that has managed to fade away as gracefully and as splendidly as it was formed, leaving behind it a magnificent legacy of benevolence, civilisation and evolution. Whilst the colonies and imperial splendour of the 1800s may be gone, many reminders of Britain’s imperial past remain visible across the world. No empire has ever surpassed Britain’s in any way, and I firmly believe that thanks to the honourable conduct of the British abroad and at home, during and after imperialism, none ever will.
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