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British Empire

For a time the formation of the British Empire was almost exclusively the expansion of England, but after the organic union with Scotland it became British expansion, and the accomplishments of the Empire are rightly those of Great Britain. There is no good word or phrase to describe the group of self-governing units, Crown Colonies, Chartered Companies, Mandates, and spheres of influence, which came to form Greater Britain.

"Empire" is inaccurate, for the great self-governing Dominions are not under absolute control in the political sense; "Dominion" has much the same fault, whereas "British Commonwealth" errs in the other direction. In the use of the current appellations for Greater Britain, it should be understood that the British Empire was, politically and socially, something "new under the sun."

It was a strange empire, however, built unconsciously for impermanence. From its beginning, it carried within its body the seeds of its own inevitable death. In its beginning and development, it was haphazard. It was born of pride and greed and of a m!ssionary zeal that could be political or religious, or both. It was capable, in individuals, of heroic self-sacrifice and of a personal honesty that was almost offensive in its rectitude.

No man, no ministry planned it, but the color red spread over the map of the world like a lichen, and just as ephemeral. At any time it could be scraped back or destroyed. It was, all at once, hated, feared, admired and loved. In the years of its most spectacular success, it was strong and destructive drink to the English.

The Empire, in fact, seemed to catch England unawares. The very idea of an empire was, in the early 19th century, repugnant to the English. As late as 1877, there was solid opposition to the passing of Disraeli's Royal Titles Bill that made the British queen Empress of India. An empire was essentially foreign, a matter for Russians for Frenchmen.

But the idea of empire was first tolerated, and later embraced, out of that bottomless feeling of superiority that used to be the mark of an Englishman. It was different from the Frenchman's conception of the glory of his country, or from the German's sense of what was owed bim, or from that brief American aberration of "manifest destiny." It was simply the feeling that God had so made the English that they were uniquely fitted to rule because they had something unique to offer, and that all their history - since the Reformation - was evidence of this.

The classical statement of this attitude was made 1n 1850 by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, over the case of Don Pacifico, a British subject who got the British government to help collect his debts in Greece. Palmerston enunciated a sort of divine right of the English to interfere. England, he said, in a five-hour speech to the House of Commons, was the natural guardian of liberty, and liberty was indivisible.

England could not remain an island in a sea of autocracy. She must assert her ideas and impose peace and order. Also, the world must be made safe for Englishmen everywhere. This his opponents described as the "pecullar weakness of the English mind."

At that time, the country was enjoying a fantastic increase in prosperity. Many radicals and businessmen were not interested in, or indeed actively opposed, the move toward empire. More money could be made by investing in the United States than in some undeveloped new acquisition, however fabulous its distant promise. A Conservative ministry taking over India from the East India Company in 1858 did it without enthusiasm and considered that it was assuming a heavy rather than a lucrative burden.

It was Disraeli, in the 1870's who made the English begin to think and feel imperial. He liked the romance of it, and at a time when British naval and industrial supremacy was being challenged, he believed that to be a great power, England had to act like one.

With the increasing acceptance of the idea came an almost universal exhilaration. How marvelous that so small a country should rule so much I It did not alter the condition of the poor in British slums. It provided rough soldiering for their sons and dignified employment and real power for the nicely educated, and very often an early death for both.

And driving it on was this missionary zeal to spread the word of England. Jawaharlal Nehru, writing in 1936 of the British in India, mentioned their "calm assurance of always being in the right" and said that "there was something of the religious temper about this attitude." These men believed also that the supreme duty of the new subjects was obedience to the crown.

By the early 20th Century British Empire could be divided into five distinct groups so far as its government was concerned - the United Kingdom, the self-governing Dominions, the Crown Colonies, the territories under the jurisdiction of chartered companies, and British India. As an outer fringe over which there is a lesser degree of political jurisdiction, there are the various protectorates and spheres of influence. The governments in the Empire are by no means static. Progress in the constitutional development has been continuous, and in recent years, especially since 1914, very rapid.

The United Kingdom consisted of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, united under the control of one Parliament sitting in London. The House of Commons is elected from the United Kingdom on a franchise now practically universal. The party that can control a majority in the Commons rules through a Cabinet dependent upon its good will and support and, therefore, on the majority opinion of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom as expressed at the polls. The Cabinet - an organization unrecognized by law, but wielding the greatest power in the government of the Empire - serves as the executive, the King acting on the advice of the Cabinet. The British Isles include, in addition to the United Kingdom, two interesting groups of islanders, those on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea and those living on the Channel Islands off the coast of France.

Dominions were those self-governing parts of the British Empire across the seas where the British stock is predominant and where, in consequence, the privilege of ruling themselves on terms similar to those in the United Kingdom has found expression. They were five in number, the Colony of Newfoundland and the Dominion of Canada in the western hemisphere and the Union of South Africa, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Commonwealth of Australia south of the equator. Newfoundland had always been a unit, but in every other case the present political organization was the result of a federation or union. The Dominions were bound to Great Britain in a variety of ways. The racial bond and the common cultural heritage were very significant. The self-governing Dominions were the only important imperial possessions outside the British Isles in which the white race lives in any large numbers. Of the 60,000,000 white people in the Empire on the eve of the Great War, three fourths were in Great Britain and most of the remainder in the five Dominions. The Parliament of London had the right to pass laws for the Empire as a whole, but such a power had become less and less operative by the early 20th Century. By that time, the right of the Imperial Government to withhold assent to Dominion legislation was practically obsolete.

British India did not come under the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office, largely because of its size and of the great and complicated problems peculiar to India which were connected with its administration. It was for long under the East India Company, but, as time went on, the British Government more and more carefully supervised the administration of the Company. In 1858 the Indian possessions were transferred to the Crown. The Indian Empire's connection with the home Government was made, not through the Colonial Office, but by means of a Secretary of State for India, who was assisted by a Council and numerous subordinates in the India Office. The Secretary of State for India was a member of the Cabinet advising the Government on Indian matters and responsible to Parliament for the conduct of affairs in this part of the Empire. It was through him that the Viceroy in India communicated to the home Government and vice versa. India received increasing rights of participation in the government of the peninsula from time to time, but by the early 20th Century relatively few of its people share as yet in the government of their land.

Crown Colonies were a large number of colonies that varied in the nature of their governments, but were alike in the fact that they did not have responsible government as do the Dominions; they were more or less directly under the control of the Colonial Office. This department, headed since 1854 by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, had charge of matters concerned not only with the Crown Colonies, but also with the Dominions. The business of the Office, however, was largely made up of Crown Colony matters. The Crown Colonies had been taken from other empires, or were inhabited by populations not considered capable of governing themselves according to British standards. At the head of each colony was the appointee of the Crown, who was assisted but not controlled by councils varying in character and number with the different colonies. It is usual to have an Executive Council whose members are appointed by the Crown, and which often included non-official as well as official members. Although it had only advisory powers, the fact that its membership may include members of the colony with a great knowledge of local conditions makes it often influential in shaping the policy of the Government.

Protectorates were next below the Crown Colonies. By far the greatest number of protected states were the native states of India. The Federated Malay States had a similar connection with the Straits Settlements. This class of imperial possessions was well represented in the various parts of Africa. Bechuanaland in the south, Somaliland, Uganda and Nyasaland in the east were protectorates. In addition, Gambia, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria in west Africa, and Kenya on the eastern coast are Crown Colonies with which native protected states were connected. Previous to the opening of the Great War, Egypt was a part of the Turkish Empire with an hereditary line of rulers who were "advised" to such an extent as to make the rule essentially British; the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was under the joint administration of Great Britain and Egypt. When the war broke out in 1914 the informal Egyptian protectorate became formal, to the great dissatisfaction of many Egyptians. In 1922 Egypt obtained the status of an independent, sovereign state.

Chartered Companies administered a small group of British holdings. The commercial interests of the 1880s were responsible for a sort of development recalling to mind the trading companies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British North Borneo Company was granted a charter in 1881 for the purpose of acquiring and governing territories in North Borneo. The exploitation of Africa in the eighties offered considerable opportunity for the activity of trading syndicates. In 1886 the National African Company obtained a charter under the name of the Royal Niger Company which enabled it to develop and administer the valuable lands along the Niger River. This Company was very active for the remainder of the century; it surrendered its charter in 1899, when growing international complications as well as the increasing burden of the administration led to the formation of British protectorates in this important commercial region. Similarly in East Africa a British chartered company held sway for a time. The Imperial British East African Company received a royal charter in 1888 to administer some territories obtained from the Sultan of Zanzibar the year before. The task was so great and the Germans were so active in East Africa that the Company surrendered its rights to the British Government in 1895. The best known of the modern chartered companies was the British South Africa Company.

Spheres of influence were a shadowy relationship borne to certain states, not under British jurisdiction, but whose position gave the British Empire an inherent interest in their development. Under this caption Egypt, Oman, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet might be included. Very definite spheres of influence were marked out in Persia and China in the opening years of the twentieth century.

British Empiire 1766

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Page last modified: 24-09-2017 18:53:27 ZULU