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About this book

What was British imperialism and was it an important element of modern globalization? Were economic, political or military factors paramount in imperial expansion? Do post-colonial theories assist or mislead historians? How have histories of imperialism changed, and are current analyses satisfactory?

Robert Johnson's invaluable guide offers a succint, easy-to-follow introduction to the key issues and historiography of British imperialism from its origins to the conversion to the Commonwealth.

British Imperialism
- provides concise introductions to key questions and debates
- takes a question-based approach to analysis of the material
- offers an assessment of the significance of economic, military and political factors in imperial expansion and decolonization
- presents critical appraisals of the most recent controversies including neo-colonialism, cultural imperialism, post-colonial theory, and gender and imperialism
- includes a useful guide to further reading

Using vivid examples, Johnson clearly explains the nature of British imperialism and enables the reader to understand the causes, course and immediate consequences of the British-colonial encounter on a world-wide scale. His book is an essential starting point for all those new to the subject and a helpful introduction to more recent debates.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: what was British imperialism?

Abstract
The British Empire seems, at first sight, to merit a straightforward definition. United by the British Crown, and governed from London, the vast array of territories and seas that fell under British military and economic control was the Empire on which ‘the sun never set’. However, historians and social scientists have grown dissatisfied with the idea that the Empire was some monolithic entity exclusively and firmly under British government direction throughout the 300 years of its existence. In 1900, the British Empire covered one-fifth of the globe and governed 400 million subjects of many faiths and ethnic groups. There were 60 dependencies covering 3.2 million square miles, and British India consisted of a further 2 million square miles and 322 million subjects. In addition, Britain possessed five dominions covering 7.6 million square miles and 24 million people. As the hub in a system of trade, financial services, communications, migratory patterns, naval and military power, Britain had become, as Makinder once put it, ‘the centre of the world’.
Robert Johnson

2. What was the nature of imperialism in the early nineteenth century?

Abstract
Vincent T. Harlow introduced the idea of ‘two British Empires’. The first began with the foundations of the settlements in America in the seventeenth century, the establishment of British power in the West Indies, exploration in the Pacific, and the development of trading networks in Asia and Africa. The ‘second British Empire’ dated from 1783 and reflected the nature of imperialism that came after the American War of Independence.1 Whilst this change conveys the idea of a turning point for Britain in America, no account was taken of the continued growth of a considerable British overseas empire elsewhere, particularly in India, which took place between the 1750s and early 1800s. A focus on the Americas also obscures the long-term economic influence of the industrial revolution, which can be traced back to the early eighteenth century.
Robert Johnson

3. What was the nature of British rule in India, c.1770–1858?

Abstract
India was the most prestigious and populous of all Britain’s imperial possessions and was regarded as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Empire. British rule in India emerged over many decades. British ‘factories’ (trading posts) had been established on the coasts with Indian approval in the eighteenth century, in order to cope with the huge demand for chintzes (washable decorated fabric), indigo, saltpetre, rice and sugar cane. The trading posts in India and Ceylon were important to the British because trade in the East Indies had failed in the face of Dutch competition. The resulting commercial revolution in pre-conquest India exposed the subcontinent to the penetration of British merchants to a far greater degree than in China. The enterprise or aggressive profiteering of individual merchants, the lack of accountability of the men in India, the difficulties in maintaining communications due to the distances between Calcutta and London, and a series of conflicts with the French and the Dutch, as well as the rulers of the Indian states, all served to drive the East India Company from trade to administration.1 Although the process of acquiring intact a lucrative land revenue system was a long one, the defeat of the Marathas in 1817 is regarded as a watershed in the transition from commercial interest to formal rule. By 1834, this fact was recognised when the East India Company’s monopolistic trading functions were abolished in favour of private ownership.
Robert Johnson

4. ‘New Imperialism’ and ‘Gentlemanly Capitalism’: did the flag follow trade?

Abstract
Britain’s formal Empire expanded dramatically from the late 1870s, with new colonies added in Africa and Asia. In the space of barely 25 years, the European powers together partitioned 10 million square miles in Africa and governed 110 million new subjects. South-East Asia was carved up, with France and Britain taking the lion’s share. In the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, Britain, Germany and the United States acquired new territories and islands. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America and Russia stepped up the colonisation of their vast hinterlands. Even apparently moribund older empires such as Portugal and China renewed their imperialist drive, the Portuguese in Africa and the Chinese in Xinjiang. The world in 1900 was a world of empires.
Robert Johnson

5. What were the motives and effects of colonisation and migration?

Abstract
The British Empire emerged over a period of several hundred years and its administration was frequently adapted to suit local circumstances. This resulted in a great variety in the patterns of British rule. India was ruled as a military despotism and commercial enterprise, tempered by philanthropic ideas developed and adapted from English liberalism and radicalism. African and Chinese coastal stations were little more than commercial entrepôts, or bases for the Royal Navy. However, the colonies of white settlement enjoyed a special status. They were regarded as part of a ‘greater Britain’, and settlers were the agents of British civilisation who took with them British tastes and values. Marc Ferro wrote: ‘colonization was the ‘power’ of a people to “reproduce” itself in different spaces’.1 It was the emphasis on being able to dominate, and to retain a distinct identity that made colonisation distinct from immigration.
Robert Johnson

6. Collaboration and resistance: was the Empire held by coercion or co-operation?

Abstract
In 1876, Lord Salisbury remarked ‘it is the nakedness of the sword on which we really rely’.1 One recurrent question about the British Empire is whether it was acquired or held by force, or whether it was built and sustained through the collaboration of indigenous peoples and by diplomatic accommodation with existing native elites. There can be little doubt that an important element of British imperialism, both in the expansion of the Empire and in its consolidation, was the part played by ‘the sword’. The deployment of troops in 1854 indicates this: of the 40,043-strong British Army, there were 39,754 in the colonies and 29,208 in India. Nevertheless, the garrisons were relatively small. To cover the vast stretches of territory of the Empire, there was, in fact, only one regular soldier for every 53 square miles. There were several reasons for this spartan coverage. First, the cost of large garrisons would negate the value of the colony in question. Second, the British often possessed a marked advantage in weaponry, transport and medicine, which enabled them to make rapid and effective movements against native forces. A decisive engagement was the preferred policy, to leave a ‘lasting impression’ and to prevent desultory guerrilla resistance.
Robert Johnson

7. Colonial discourse: was there an ideology of imperialism?

Abstract
Dissatisfied with the standard approaches to the history of the British Empire, a number of academics have attempted to uncover the reality of imperialism through its texts or ‘discourse’. The foundation of the new approach was an attack on the premise that, using the exercise of reason, one might discover universal truths about the human condition.1 Instead, it was proposed that all knowledge is relative, and that there is no objective truth.2 Indeed, there was a feeling that what was portrayed as ‘truth’ was often little more than a European interpretation of the world, which was made convincing by a series of ‘constructions’ (such as literary devices, language or vocabulary). Moreover, there was, it seemed, a hidden agenda: the inventions of these truths was motivated by a desire to construct power positions over other peoples.
Robert Johnson

8. Was the British Empire racialist or racist?

Abstract
To many, any distinction between racist and racialist may be a little academic. However, the differences are important. Race is used to denote any group of people, united by common descent and identified by skin colour and physiognomy. Common bonds are also usually expressed in terms of shared language, history, culture or outlook. In the nineteenth century, race became a social scientific tool to explain not only diverse characteristics and types, but also levels of development. It became a universal tool of categorisation, but also the key to understanding customs and behaviour.1 Racialism was thus a term used to describe differences between races.2 Racism, by contrast, is a belief that some races are inherently superior, and that others are inferior and those races therefore require different treatment. Stereotyping of temperamental qualities, intelligence, capacity for work and the ability to create a valuable culture typically follow. Explanations for racism vary: from economic needs to find and harness an underclass of slave labourers, to Satre’s explanation that racism was sexually motivated by a fear that another race would take its women.3
Robert Johnson

9. What was the significance of gender to British imperialism?

Abstract
It wasn’t until the 1970s that gender was regarded as a distinct aspect of the history of the British Empire, but in recent years gender historians have explored the role that sexual identity played in the ideology of imperial rule. To some extent, this development was due to the interest in the construction of power by Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, and the work on the powerful role of knowledge by Edward Said. Gender has become, like many areas of imperial history, a battleground of ideas.
Robert Johnson

10. The Great War: watershed or continuity?

Abstract
The First World War was a global conflict because it was a war of empires. It profoundly affected the British Empire and was known to contemporaries as the Great War. Ever since, scholarship of the war has focused primarily on casualty statistics and controversy has arisen over the relationship between leadership and the ‘butcher’s bill’. Republicans in Australia draw attention to the sacrifice of the ‘Diggers’ at Gallipoli as evidence of British incompetence, and Canadians at the Western Front memorials in France regard the First World War as the crucible of a fully independent nationhood. There is little doubt that the war dead still evoke strong emotions. In Ireland, nationalists felt compelled to make their own blood sacrifice in 1916 against the background of the war. Indeed, the war encouraged large numbers throughout the Empire to reconsider their position vis-à-vis Britain, producing both fierce loyalty and bitter enmity. However, hundreds of thousands of imperial subjects volunteered to serve the Empire, and many of their units sustained high casualties without opposition to British leadership, unlike the mutinies that occurred in France and Russia. India, for example, produced the largest volunteer army in history for the Empire. Those who had eagerly sought imperial consolidation before the war were encouraged that, in the supreme test, there was a strong sense of solidarity. This was due, in part, to the sense that the Empire was on trial.1 Men, food, raw materials, equipment and money were freely offered and these sustained Britain’s imperial war effort. Outside of the European theatre, imperial troops played a significant operational role.
Robert Johnson

11. How did British imperialism meet the challenges of the inter-war years?

Abstract
It is difficult to speak of mass support for modern nationalist movements before the First World War, despite the existence of groups that opposed European influence.1 Whilst protests in the nineteenth century often attempted to resist the modernising tendencies of British imperialism in the hope of preserving a traditional society, many twentieth-century organisations embraced modernity and even defined themselves by European standards. This generalisation cannot be absolute. Mahatma Gandhi rejected ‘British civilisation’ in the hope of regenerating an older, more spiritual India. In this sense, Gandhi had more in common with some of the nineteenth-century religious leaders who hoped for a purification and restoration of an older, religious order, than with his contemporaries in the Indian National Congress. Some movements combined atavism and modernity, recognising the developments that had accompanied imperialism as permanent but aspiring to reconstruct a lost past, before the imperial epoch. Francis Robinson has identified how Muslims redefined themselves in the face of British expansion, but also how the Muslim world was able to use the Empire to spread Islam.2
Robert Johnson

12. What effect did the Second World War have on British imperialism?

Abstract
Perhaps the key difference between the First and Second World Wars is that throughout the Great War, the British Empire was engaged in offensive operations, whereas in the period 1939 to 1943 it found itself on the defensive. Although it was able to extricate the British Expeditionary Force from France and defeat Italian forces in North Africa (thus saving Egypt), it faced the onslaught of Germany’s armed forces in the West and Japanese attacks in the East. In the First World War, the threats were limited to specific geographical areas: Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Atlantic. Yet, in the Second World War, Britain’s imperial resources were scattered across the globe, and the Empire was forced to defend itself against three major military powers. The priority, particularly after the fall of Europe, was the defence of the United Kingdom.
Robert Johnson

13. Decolonisation after 1945: how did British imperialism end?

Abstract
Decolonisation was a term that came into general use in the 1950s, but it has been challenged since it implies the initiative for the relinquishing of the empire emanated from the metropolis. Nationalists have preferred to use ‘liberation struggle’ or ‘resumption of independence’, although the latter claim (implying complete continuity) is tenuous.1 The date for the origin of decolonisation is also debated. Paul Kennedy argued that the European empires had always contained the seeds of their own destruction.2 Muriel Chamberlain believes that the loss of India in 1947 marked the turning point for the British Empire, but George Boyce notes that the British had always had a sense of contingency, they had adapted to changing conditions and drew upon these experiences rather than any rigid theories.3 This flexibility was a strength; it helped them to avoid destructive ideological wars and to withdraw from the imperial experience relatively unscathed. It also provided useful justifications to excuse actions that had been forced upon them. It was easy to see a trend towards eventual self-government in the writings of Liberals and radicals.
Robert Johnson

14. What was the cultural legacy of imperialism?

Abstract
In recent years there has been renewed interest in the relation-ship between culture and imperialism, part of a wider post-mod-ernist approach to the connections between language, imagery and power. Whilst the Orientalist debate has dominated the field, culture is undoubtedly a feature of the imperialist landscape that stretches far beyond the narrow horizons of language and power. Culture helped to define British imperialism as distinct from other European versions. It was an agency for propagating support for the imperialist enterprise. It also created idealised notions of the British themselves. Moreover, it raised the concept of Empire beyond trade and conquest to a realm of adventure, chivalric duty and sacrifice. The culture of imperialism promoted ‘Britishness’ but also embraced aspects of the civilisations it came across. Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern designs became part of the British imperial culture. There was a cultural exchange on a global scale, often accompanied by greater population mobility and migration. This exchange is visible in all forms of media, from art to film. But cultural aspects of imperialism also affected education, youth movements, religion and sport, both for the British and for the peoples of the Empire. Many regard this legacy as an unhappy one, but the impact varied from place to place. Frequently it was a case that people adopted what they wanted from the Empire, and rejected the rest: it is more difficult to find where British culture was imposed successfully.
Robert Johnson
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