The Controversies and Legacies of the British Empire

I was born in 1944 and the refrains when I was at (Grammar) school were of the calibre of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Hearts of Oak and the like. Our country was recovering from the Second World War in a generation. As far as I, at school age, was concerned we had beaten the invaders yet again. I along with my classmates sang with gusto.

I do not think we were subjected to propaganda as such but neither do I think we were given all the facts that we needed to make educated judgements.

Obviously with my advancing years and an enquiring mind, I have educated myself through whatever media has been readily available although I have never actively studied history as a serious student. I achieved no qualifications from school, my fault not theirs. I do however have a thirst for history now – including my own!

I recently enrolled in a free course looking at the controversies and legacies of the British Empire.

There can be no definitive answer regarding the legacy of the British Empire but perceptions of individuals are definitive as far as that individual is concerned.

The first consideration for me is to decide when the Empire was ‘born’. If it can be accepted that the likes of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, given a free rein to compete with the Spanish who were already building an empire of their own, set sail from England with the blessing of Elizabeth 1 to sow the seeds of the Empire, then imperial expansion measures the time between the two Elizabethan eras.

Drake, Raleigh etc including those from other European nations were the astronauts of their time. They set off from home on a wing and a prayer with very little knowledge to support their aspirations. They did not have the massive back up teams that their modern counterparts have available. That they returned home at all was a wonder of the world and many did not. What they reported on their return home however whetted the appetite of their ruling classes. Europe set off to take over the world.

Actions carried out first in the name of England and later Britain over the ensuing years after Elizabeth 1 show how powerful, ruthless, ingenious and influential the explorers, colonisers and financiers of the ages could become.

European nations were in great competition for influence all around the known world for long periods from the 16th to the 18th century and England was simply one of these. However, there was a change that took place in England that accelerated its power and influence; the industrial revolution!

The industrial revolution created the opportunities for the wealthy to make the use of the empire for both provision of raw materials but also, even more significantly a ready market for their goods producing the new technologies. Here is where the true positive legacy of the empire is displayed and also where the negative aspects are most felt.

In order for the industrial might of Britain to flourish, labour had to be cheap. It is shown that the decades after the spread of industry saw a sharp decline in the well being of workers. Friedrich Engels (a German!) did major research into the Condition of the English Working Class in England which also expanded into the major cities of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. His description of the depravities suffered by the workers in a book written in 1845 is illuminating. The exploitation of workers does not occur only at home, the workers around the empire toil under no better and in many cases worse conditions.

There are personal records for me to back up the assertions by Engels. in 1841, My grear, great grandfather at the age of 13 was a ‘hurrier’ in a coal mine. His job was to push wagons, loaded with coal, along tunnels too small for adult workers to use. He lived in Bradford, West Yorkshire where the odds of a child surviving to adulthood were around 50:50. My ancestor had 2 children by 1851 both had died before 1861. He and his wife had eight children of which only 2 achieved maturity. Even half a century later, in Leeds, his son and daughter-in-law had eight children of whom only four survived to maturity.

The wealthy became wealthier and there was no limit to their expansion within the British sphere of influence. Many of the industries that are regarded with great affection and reverence have their roots fertilised by the evil of slavery and exploitation of poor people. In particular, the huge corporations still producing sugar and chocolate received their raw materials from colonies using slave labour.

In order to protect this trade Britain took control or cultivated influences along the trade routes so that the Royal Navy could protect those routes and keep the trade flowing. Having the bases and the naval power to keep the routes open was a legacy of the power developed through immense wealth as a nation / empire. Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town, Malta, Gibraltar are just a few of the ports that were developed for the purpose of providing safe havens for trading ships.

Railways were built and in most cases still exist to help communications and other infrastructures in order for countries to continue developing. Many other industries exist throughout the former empire as a direct legacy of colonisation.

Legacies that can still be seen as lasting positive outcomes of empire are the adoption of many British customs that have allowed free and democratic governments to flourish in many countries and the continued success and popularity of the Commonwealth.

English style education systems and the adoption of English as an international language can be seen as positive legacies simply on the basis that any language adopted and used by so many communities worldwide must be an advantage for international communication.

Britain has rightly been criticised for using excessive force on many occasions and these cannot be overlooked. In particular, air policing was used in order to control problems without risking troops on the ground. I did not know of the term ‘air policing’ and I am unable to see it in any other terms than an aggressor using the best technology or means available to it. That is not justification because it is violence after all and the dropping of Atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the ultimate examples of people justifying unfathomable violence against civilians. There can be no justification.

Who can measure the harm, or the benefits for that matter, of imposing ‘culture’ and ‘education’ on people? I think it is true of human nature that they, particularly young people, will learn what they can. If what they learn is not what they would have learned if left to their own devices, does that mean they and their country have benefited from that education or not?

My closing comments however are related to the driving force of colonisation and imperial expansion. The winners throughout the imperial centuries have been the wealthy and the financiers who were able to take advantage of the conditions that developed around exploration, colonisation and industrialisation. The losers worked in the conditions set by the winners.

The real issues for me are around who were the power behind empire. Not the sovereign but the industrialists. Leopold, King of the Belgians, managed to combine both disciplines in the ‘Belgian Congo’using personal influence in order to cultivate immense personal wealth outside the control of the government of the country.

Perhaps the most poignant, and I do not remember this being mentioned in the course, is the fact that business men, and some from very well known families from our time, were paid substantial sums of money to compensate them for losing slaves when slavery was abolished. Even at that stage, the government put a price on a slave!