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1831-1870 - Laissez Faire

Though it was not clearly recognized at the time, the American Revolution marked the decline of mercantilism. The rising laissez faire economists were undermining its theoretical foundations. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century the Trade and Navigation laws were repealed, and the Corn Laws and other tariffs were abolished. With mercantilism passed one great reason for desiring colonies, and free traders like Cobden and Bright viewed with indifference or even satisfaction the prospect of colonial independence. The chief constructive efforts of the period were those directed towards the systematic colonization of Australia, New Zealand and Cape Colony.

The policy of government by orders from England gave way, soon after 1830, to another, based on the Whig doctrine of letting the colonies alone (laissez faire). Statesmen began to advocate the plan of granting to the colonies responsible government, with the right to manage their own waste lands and finance and to conduct their own military defence. The reorganization of Canada in 1840 was in the main an application of the " let alone " policy. The introduction of representative institutions in Australia began with New South Wales and South Australia in 1842, and was carried well forward by a great constitutional act in 1850. New Zealand received attention in 1846 and again in 1851. To many British statesmen these measures seemed to foreshadow eventual separation of the colonies from. the mother country. Some writers of the time thought that such a result would be a blessing; but others, with more foresight, believed that colonial self-government was not inconsistent with loyal attachment to Great Britain. The faith of the latter was to find ample justification later, when, after 1880, the idea of a union of mother country and colonies in a great federal empire began to take hold of men's thoughts and to shape the policy of the government.

The investigation of the Canadian rebellions of 1837 led to Lord Durham's famous report in which he advocated federation and complete responsible government for Canada. He contended that this would strengthen rather than weaken the ties of Empire, but in granting the Provinces responsible ministries (1847 ff.) the home government hardly shared his optimism. However, the failure of the policy of centralization was by now painfully apparent, and something had to be done. In Australia, also, gradual progress was made, and in 1850 Parliament authorized the colonies there to amend their own constitutions. Other steps in devolution followed. Control of crown lands gradually passed to local legislatures; British troops began to be withdrawn (1862 ff.). The colonies gained control of their own tariffs, to the extent even of taxing British imports.

There is little doubt that these practical applications of the fundamental British principles of self-government saved the Empire. To most contemporary Englishmen, however, they seemed destined to lead to colonial independence. Turgot's well-known saying that colonies were like fruit which when ripe naturally drops from the parent stem represented a widespread feeling. Some felt relief, others regret, others indifference at the prospect. The attitude of the government is reflected in a later statement by Lord Blachford (Under Secretary of State, 1866-71): "I had always believed . . . that the destiny of our Colonies is independence, and that . . . the function of the Colonial Office is to secure that our connection, while it lasts, shall be as profitable to both parties, and our separation, when it comes, as amicable as possible."

While they worked for increasing democracy at home, Gladstone and the Liberals favored increasing self-government for the colonies. They denied, however, any intention of breaking up the Empire. True to the teachings of the Manchester free-traders, they opposed further extension of territory. Forcible conquest they repudiated as morally wrong and economically unsound, and accordingly withdrew from the Transvaal.

By force of circumstances, however, they were led to enter Egypt and to take part in the scramble for African territory following the entrance of Germany into the colonial race (1884). By the middle of the 19th Century England owned in Africa only a few scattered forts on the West Coast, and, in the south but a small part of the Cape Colony. The "scramble" received sanction and encouragement from the Conference of European Powers assembled at Berlin in 1884. The subsequent increase was far more rapid. In the "partition of Africa," which the Berlin Conference brought about, nearly a third of the entire continent, and more than a third of its population, had fallen to England's share.

The area controlled by the British East India Company expanded during the first three decades of the nineteenth century by two methods. The first was the use of subsidiary agreements (sanad) between the British and the local rulers, under which control of foreign affairs, defense, and communications was transferred from the ruler to the company and the rulers were allowed to rule as they wished (up to a limit) on other matters. This development created what came to be called the Native States, or Princely India, that is, the world of the maharaja and his Muslim counterpart the nawab. The second method was outright military conquest or direct annexation of territories; it was these areas that were properly called British India. Most of northern India was annexed by the British.

The Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 was a major turning point in the history of modern India. In May 1858, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837-57) to Burma, thus formally liquidating the Mughal Empire. At the same time, they abolished the British East India Company and replaced it with direct rule under the British crown. In proclaiming the new direct-rule policy to "the Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India," Queen Victoria (who was given the title Empress of India in 1877) promised equal treatment under British law, but Indian mistrust of British rule had become a legacy of the 1857 rebellion.

China was not in any sense "opened up" until 1842 when, because of the Opium War, British cannon battered down her walls of isolation and seclusion. Protesting that her objects in China were commercial and not territorial, and holding that the independence and integrity of China should be maintained, Great Britain was nevertheless a follower of the doctrine of spheres of interest or influence, which would in the very nature of things defeat the object that she had in view. Determined as she apparently was, at the time when the international scramble menaced British interests in China, to preserve intact the rights and privileges that were hers, she was nevertheless unready and indisposed to do anything that would in the least hurt the feeling of aggressive Russia or voracious Germany.

Her most distinguished statesmen had, one after another, gone on record that they, and the Government they represented, were strongly opposed to dividing China into "water-tight compartments." Yet at the same time, the very fact that Great Britain leased Weihai-wei for as long a period as Russia would hold Port Arthur, and that she ear-; marked the Yangtze Valley as her own sphere of interest, showed most clearly that, while she was not in favor of the regime, she was not exactly opposed to it. The same is true of her attitude regarding the maintenance of the Open Door policy. Undoubtedly, Great Britain was . strongly in favor of the Open Door if | for no other reason than that the policy would operate to the benefit of the British commercial interests in China. She was, however, always ready to compromise with it, to disregard it, and some times to violate it, in spirit if not in letter, either to suit her own particular interest in China, or to meet political and diplomatic exigencies which often confronted her in view of her alliance with I the most designing Power of the Far East.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 18:34:02 ZULU