Why The British Empire Was Unique History Essay

3000 words (12 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 History Reference this


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One way of ascertaining the particular uniqueness of the British Empire (empires maybe unique in certain respects), is by brief comparison to other maritime/oceanic (discontinuous empires according to Motyl’s methodology) (Unit 2, p. 67) empires of the same era. So the empires of Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands will be used as the benchmark, against which the uniqueness of the British Empire is ascertained. Although Fieldhouse points out that Spain and Portugal, were the main empires prior to 1815, and Britain and France assumed this mantle in the modern era (Secondary Source 2.2). Also certain points need to be clarified, such as why the British empire came into being, and ended (prior to the Act of Union of 1707 when the crowns of England and Scotland joined together, the British Empire was the English Empire), for this discussion, it will be taken the beginnings of the English/British Empire started from the plantation (colonization) of Ireland in the late 16th century, and the demise of the British Empire will also be discussed; which will be taken as when Great Britain took the step of joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. However, Hong Kong was not formally handed over to China till 1997, and Great Britain still retained some overseas territories such as Gibraltar (which is part of the EEC). Also, Great Britain is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (many of the nations were former colonies of the British Empire) whereby the British sovereign is the figurehead, this does give continuity to the aftermath of Empire so these points will also be discussed.

Therefore It will start with England, being the major partner in the formation of the United Kingdom’s of Great Britain and Ireland (the Kingdom of Ireland joined Great Britain in 1801), with the unifying factor joining these countries together being the British sovereign, this significance was later to be seen on a vastly greater tableau in the British Empire, when the British Sovereign ( who would also have the title Empress or Emperor of India after Queen Victoria was made Empress of India in 1876) , the ruler of approximately a quarter of the worlds land mass and about a fifth of its population. However this can be assumed to have its beginnings in the plantation of Ireland in the16th century (Unit 3, p. 82), which was a landmark event for England, when Humphrey Gilbert (Unit 5, p. 168) developed his ideas of colonization; though in this case of settlement and colonization (to suppress Irish independence, with the attendant violence this entailed), it was a formula for future colonies, and proved to be the springboard upon which the English Empire proper (that is the so called First Empire in the New World) was built upon. Thus England first used the plantation and colonization system, as a means of oppression and settlement; this is very different to how the Spanish Empire started, when Christopher Columbus set out to find a route to the East Indies for spices, and acquired by accident the New World, Spain had already got the start of an Empire, with Spain’s conquest of the Canary Islands prior to 1490 (Unit 1, p. 22). Also the Portuguese had started accumulating an Empire with the acquisition of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands by 1490 (Secondary Source 2.4, p. 3); their acquisitions can be seen in World Map 1 (Visual Sources Book, p. 5).

Thus the transoceanic Empires of Portugal and Spain were going to be boosted enormously by their conquests in the new world. It can be seen at that time, it was a

two horse race between Portugal and Spain in acquiring colonies; America has actually been named in a map for the first time, and importantly the map shows the American continent is distinct from the Asian continent, in this map made by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, in 1507 (World Map 1507, Primary Source 1.4, p. 1). The maps usefulness is it gives a perspective of how the world looked to people in 1507. With these advances, and coupled with advances in navigational skills, which would have enormous bearing on the British challenge to make a global Empire, as proved with the exploits of captain James Cook in discovering new lands. It is with this insight into these various factors; such as Portugal with its naval superiority and trading skills, and Spain, with its almost genocidal ways with conquered peoples; which is shown quite dramatically in this translated extract of one of Hernan Cortés’s letters to Charles V of Spain, when he was describing the conquest of Mexico (1519-22) (Primary Source 4.2, pp. 1-4). It explains how many people were killed at a place called Cholula, because of their loyalty to Montezuma (this letter shows the Spanish crown was privy to what was going on). So ruthlessness seemed to be an important factor in Empire building and it would certainly be used in the way forward for the English Empire; this was shown with the ruthlessness in which the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion of 1857 was suppressed, as Ferguson points out, forty mutineers were tied to gun barrels and blown apart (Ferguson, Empire, p. 151). However, England was a long way from readiness to take on the mantle of being a full blown transoceanic Empire builder in the 16th century. This was the period to look and learn.

However, the seventeenth and eighteenth century’s were a turning point for those European nations, interested in Empire building. The success of Spain and Portugal

(who had been ruled by the Spanish king Philip II from 1580, thus uniting the two major exploring powers) in the conquest of the new world, was a spur to other maritime nations, to follow in the footsteps of the conquerors. Also the Dutch too had started their Empire building after shaking off the shackles of Spanish rule, they founded the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indishe Compagnie or VOC) (Secondary Source 2.3, pp. 1-6 ) in 1602. The idea that a company could be an Empire builder may seem a strange one, but with letters of patent granted by the relevant government, it was a relatively cheap way for a country to acquire an Empire. However Fieldhouse points out; when the Dutch and French (Compagnie des Indies) failed; respectively in 1795 and 1769 , their assets were taken over by the respective governments (Secondary Source 2.3, pp. 1-6), the English also went down this road, having set up the English East India Company (EIC) in 1600 (Unit 1, p. 25.) and Fieldhouse makes the further point that the EIC, had ruled as the government of India until 1858, and was only in real danger of losing its monopoly if there was grievances; this was amply applied by the British government when it withdrew its charter after the Indian mutiny of 1857 and took over the running of government directly; thus ruling as the de facto government, and formally incorporated India into the British Empire. Also Britain and the Dutch shared similarities; though one a republic and the other a monarchy, both were ardent Protestant nations with a shared hatred of the Catholic Church; this proved important later on when the Dutch Stadholder, William of Orange was offered the English throne in 1688 (the financial benefit derived from this, was to prove enormous with the founding of the Bank of England, thus paving the way for expansion of the Royal Navy in later years). However because of the competition to

either acquire land or compete for trade, by the companies of these two countries, through the years, would lead to many set-to’s, one in particular was at Amboyna (Block 1, p. 6) where the Dutch showed they had no interest in sharing their new found wealth, although an agreement had been put in place to share one third of the produce in the Moluccas (where Amboyna was situated). What this shows is that autonomy sometimes has greater bearing on the localized colonial settlement, rather than orders that are issued from a faraway government. This point was to have enormous repercussions, as seen in the next paragraph.

The discussion must take into account the fact that the fledgling United States of America, had a certain amount of autonomy, but was told to obey orders from the British government, which was based 3000 miles away, one of the orders basically was not to expand the colonies; this was in ‘The Proclamation of Oct. 7, 1763’ (Primary Source, 17.2). This at first seems a strange state of affairs if you want to build an empire. Until it can be seen, that though Britain had won the seven years war against her major protagonist in North America, France. In winning, it carried with it a poisoned chalice; because of the costs involved, the colonists were expected to pay towards the upkeep of their own defence (Lord North for example, estimated that for servicing the debt, Englishmen paid £18.00 per person per year, against a contribution off the colonists of 18 shillings each (Unit 8, p. 25) (this was untenable to the British government). Because its former enemy (France) had ceded vast areas to Britain, because the colonists did not think they needed protection anymore. So with the disobedience that resulted from this, grew a call for independence, the outcome is well known; England lost her thirteen American colonies in 1783, and had to make restitution to her former enemies, it did however keep Canada, thus keeping

the French presence in North America muted. These events certainly seem to have an air of uniqueness about them, as they led to the end of the so called first British Empire (block 5, p. 14). But because of these events happening, Great Britain took steps to stop it happening again, it came up with the unique Dominion Status, this entailed a lot of autonomy to British Canada, thus the 1867 British North America Act which gave self-governance to Canada, was the forerunner to the other Dominion Status acts that were to be enshrined in the Statute of Westminster 1931, whereby the self governing Dominions of the British Empire and the mother countries of the United Kingdom were given equality; Ferguson makes the point that New Zealand and Australia did not adopt the statute till the 1940’s (Ferguson, Empire, p. 326). However; prior to 1931, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Asquith, when addressing the Colonial Conference of 1907, had already embodied some of these factors, making reference to the point that British Statesmen had already lost her American colonies, in the 18th century, because of not giving fiscal responsibility with autonomy, it would not make the same mistakes again, and thus ensure that the British Empire would not be dismantled (Primary Source 21.2). (These were the minutes of the speech, and could be construed as an official document.)

However the battle of Plassey in Bengal, India, must also be discussed as this may be judged as a pivotal moment in the British Empire, as victory was achieved largely due to France being kept out of the proceedings, due to the strength of the Royal Navy in keeping the French forces isolated overseas (Unit 1, p. 27), the importance of this event would have major significance to the future of the British Empire; Major-General Havelock in his diaries (Primary Source 14.12), actually states that because of the battle of Plassey, Britain had gained the sovereignty of India. Britain also now

was outstripping other nations in the building of ships, and the metropole was turning itself into the shipbuilding capital of the world, the Royal Navy was now becoming the foremost naval power in the world. Moreover, a Lieutenant James Cook, was given secret instructions by the British Admiralty in 1768, whilst voyaging, on a scientific mission to Tahiti; these instructions were to get, by the use of trade or treaty any unclaimed new lands that he came across. He laid claim to New Zealand, Australia and other lands in the Pacific, although he was actually looking for a southern continent (Primary Source 1.1) .These newly discovered/claimed lands, eventually would provide a substantial part of the British Empire. The continent of Australia alone covers almost three million square miles; which is approximately a quarter of the area taken up by the British Empire at its greatest extent, this can be seen in World map 9 (Visual Sources Book, p. 13). (This in fact occurred just after the First World War, with the acquisition of mandates from the beaten enemy; that is Germany and the defunct Ottoman Empire) (Unit 19, p. 93).

It can be seen that the British Empire has gone through a very substantial metamorphic state through the centuries, whereby through the use of the plantation system in the colonization of Ireland to bring the local populace under British government control, its use of superb explorers; such as James Cook to find and claim new lands, and the effective use of credit to bankroll its wars. However it was with this effective financial control coupled with the growing Royal Navy that was to be a catalyst in the Empires growth, and coupled with Britain being a seafaring island nation; gave it a great advantage, it could only be conquered by a seaborne invasion. In the period under discussion, this would not apply, neither will World Wars I and II as a successful invasion did not take place on the metropole, though certain

territories of the British Empire were invaded ( the Channel Islands for instance). However, the Royal Navy from the Elizabethan times was a formidable force, it helped to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 (though some stormy weather was also a contributory factor) and right up to the time of Nelson it had been increasing in size. By the end of the Napoleonic wars it was master of the seas, according to Bruce, when stating ‘b y 1815 the Royal navy had as many ships as the rest of the world’s navies combined.’ (Secondary Source 8.1, p. 15). It has also been pointed out (Block 3, p. 11), that in the 19th century, Britain’s unique strength came from its Europe-based naval and financial power. Therefore it can be seen, when William of Orange was invited to take over the mantle of the English throne, the reforms in the fiscal system that were to come with him, (such as the foundation of the Bank of England) had dramatic results in later years. This can be shown in Britain winning the Napoleonic wars; Napoleon was waiting for Britain to go bankrupt, he raised taxes to create more revenue for the war effort, but this did not keep pace with expenditure, the British though had sound financial practices in place, which allowed Britain to become the banker of Europe, thus culminating in the defeat of Napoleon, by the financial/military coalition it had formed with other countries (Block 3, p.41). On the other hand there was also a dark side to the British Empires successes; Britain had been the biggest supplier of slaves for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth century’s, the amount of slaves exported from Africa was enormous, and economies were based on the produce of these exploited people; produce such as sugar, cotton and tobacco were all slave produced crops. Britain led the way by first banning the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, and abolishing slavery itself in 1833. So the British Empire was also unique in going from being the biggest purveyor of slaves, to

becoming the world leader in the abolition of slavery (initially in the British Empire, but eventually in most of the world).

From the nineteenth century onwards Britain’s overseas gains kept increasing. World map 7 (Visual Sources Book, p. 10) shows that in 1878, the whole continent of Australia was in the red colour of Britain, British Canada (now called Canada), had now been extended from east to west, Burma had now joined the Indian Empire and the French had been kicked out of India, but one of the major events of the century was also to take place in this year. The continent of Africa had remained largely untouched by colonization; this was to change dramatically in the so called ‘Scramble for Africa’, whereby the European powers would carve up the African continent between themselves; Britain joined in this free for all and enhanced the size of her empire even more. The results can be seen in World Map 9 (Visual Sources Book p. 8). Thus It can be seen that perhaps the historian, Sir John Seeley was perhaps slightly right, in remarking about Britain’s acquisition of an empire ‘in a fit of absence of mind’ (Block 1, p. 80), because Britain had gained over the centuries, lands from the Spanish, Ottoman, French, and Mughal empires. This land grab must itself be unique.

So in conclusion we can see why the British Empire was unique; it had at its extreme size, a landmass extending to approximately a quarter of the Earth’s surface, its sovereign reigned over approximately a sixth of the world’s population. It had the world’s largest navy, with the Royal Navy being its enforcer around the world; as proved with its major role in the abolition of slavery. Also the English language was accepted as the lingua franca of commerce; this obviously was because the British Empire had far flung colonies around the world, and London was the major trading centre of the world. Its use of Dominion Status was innovative and unique. Although the British Empire disbanded, when Great Britain joined the European Economic Community, its ties with former colonies carried on in the guise of the Commonwealth of Nations and the Commonwealth Games, so its decolonization process was also unique. No other empire can boast of all these attributes. The British Empire was the most adaptable empire; it took the attributes of other empires and melded them into the most unique empire ever.

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