In Defence of Empire
In Defence of Empire
The British Empire spanned the globe from the sixteenth century to the twentieth and was held in the highest regard by the majority of those who inhabited the British Isles. However, ever since its slow and steady downfall following World War Two a shadow has been cast upon the legacy of the Empire. A recent YouGov survey claimed that young people are the most doubtful of the legacy of the Empire, with only 48% believing that the British Empire is something to be proud of. This has coincided with a time in which many newspapers and commentators have launched savage attacks on the Empire and exposed many of the undeniably brutal acts of the British at this time. However, the positive contributions to worldwide society must be remembered and some aspects of the Empire can be defended. While it would be easy to bring up the several wars that Britain and her Empire fought in on behalf of stability in Europe, this was not the only legacy they left behind. Rather, the British Empire left a legacy on the world which will last for years to come.
It cannot be denied that Britain not only participated in slavery but also profited heavily from it. However, the use of slaves dates back before the nation of Britain was even formed, with the Egyptians using slaves to build their pyramids and the Romans using slaves in everyday life. Of course, this does not excuse them of what it is an inhumane act, but we cannot judge them more harshly than the Romans or the Spanish. However, Britain and the Empire are special as they were the participant in the slave trade that ended it. The process to abolish the trade began in the 1780s with a movement led by William Wilberforce, ending a cruel practice that dated back to the Roman times which was now being actively opposed by most world powers. Despite opposition by very wealthy merchants, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and actively disrupted it by deploying a West African squadron, who, by the 1850s, had 25 vessels and a 2000-strong serving crew. The power of the British Empire was wielded as they urged Spain and Portugal into signing agreements to stop the slave trade and encouraged the French to help oppose the trade. The last of the major European nations, at Britain’s request, also signed the Universal Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna making the USA the only major power to engage in the trade. Slavery itself was then abolished in 1833, with the British government paying owners heavy amounts of money to give freedom to many workers. Those who dared to defy the government were often sent to a penal colony in Australia in a cruel twist of fate. Had Britain not had her Empire, any attempts to get the major powers to give up the slave trade would have been fruitless; but with her Empire, Britain helped to end one of the world’s oldest and cruellest trades.
Throughout the history of the British Empire there was always a belief that they were working toward something. Often, propaganda posters would depict what some sort of utopian future would look like when a conquered country would be “civilised”. This utopia never came to fruition but this is not to say that there was not any sort of development. If we take the case study of India, we can see how much Britain actually did for the inhabitants of the country. While the British rule in India is often remembered for plundering and massacre, there were some bright parts of British rule. For one, India did not exist when the British arrived. Rather, in its place was a group of warring principalities. Conquest after conquest pieced together a state that we now know as modern-day India. By unifying these states, Britain bypassed what probably would have been decades of war and destruction until one state eventually unified the others. Of course, they didn’t just land-grab and leave the country as it was, but they built infrastructure. By 1914, roughly £20 billion was invested into India with 40,000 miles of railway built, 70,000 miles of metalled road built, and improved irrigation which opened up a further 30 million acres to be cultivated. The coal industry had been built from scratch and the life expectancy increased by 11 years. The improvements to the government were significant with today’s government, civil service, universities and armies still using some structures which the British implemented. All this led to President Roosevelt asserting that British administration of India is a “far greater feat” than any of the Roman Empire. This was not just a feature of British rule in India but a feature of rule across the globe where British development has had long term benefits for many countries.
Outside the Houses of Parliament stand statues of Nelson Mandela, George Washington, and Mahatma Gandhi, acting as constant reminders for the lowest points in the history of the British Empire. These were of course the oxymoronic scenarios in which one of the world’s oldest democracies attempted to stifle and stop the right to self-determination and democracy in lands that were part of the Empire. Therefore, it might seem counter-intuitive to claim that Britain and her Empire are responsible for the democratic core that runs through the world today. As the Empire was crumbling post-World War Two, Britain faced uprisings by a variety of nationalists and communists across the globe. In a final act of liberalism, Britain ensured that the majority of countries that gained independence had written constitutions and followed some sort of democracy, usually one based around the Westminster parliamentary system. This ranged from the biggest of possessions like India to the smallest such as Malta and Singapore. Of course this was not always successful: the rise of dictators like General Ne Win in Myanmar or General Idi Amin in Uganda shows that perhaps the job was not done to perfection. However, in an age of instability due to the insurgency of communism, the democratic ideals that where instilled during the British rule and during decolonisation founded a firm basis for stability amongst even the smallest of nations. For example, the world’s smallest independent democracy is a small island called Tuvalu which inherited its democratic organisations from the British during de-colonisation. It would have not caused any uproar if Tuvalu fell into a dictatorship following British rule, but Britain put the work in to ensure that their empire was mainly democratic. There are millions of people across the world that owe their democracy to the British Empire.
When we look back at the Roman Empire we do not remember the slavery or the massacres, but we do remember the nation that helped give birth to modern Europe, the nation that built roads and infrastructure and the nation that helped foster democratic values. The point of this article is to remind people that the British Empire had very similar long term effects as well. The world is a very different place because of how the British ruled her Empire. Yes, there were some horrendous actions, but at the same time economies were modernised, railways were built, people liberated and democratic institutions set up. The reason those such as Gandhi and Mandela did not turn their back on the British following independence for their respective countries is because they recognised this. Of course, we should not forget the horrendous deeds of the Empire, but this does not mean that we should not be proud of what the British Empire left behind.
By Jatin Mapara
Ferguson, Niall. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, London: Penguin Group, 2007.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, London: Abacus, 2001
Martin, S. I. Britain’s Slave Trade, London : Channel 4 Books, 1999
Marriot, Sir John A. R. The English in India, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932
Lewis-Jones, Huw. The Royal Navy and the Battle to End Slavery, BBC, Accessed February 27 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/royal_navy_article_01.shtml
Lesaffer, Randall. Vienna and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Oxford Public International Law, Accessed March 3 2016. http://opil.ouplaw.com/page/vienna-slave-trade-abolition
Kumarasingham, Harshan. How the Westminster parliamentary system was exported around the world, University of Cambridge, Accessed March 11 2016. http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/how-the-westminster-parliamentary-system-was-exported-around-the-world