Table of Contents
For Ken and Vivienne
The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of
day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its
banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to
the uttermost ends of the earth ... The tidal current runs to and
fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and
ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea.
It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is
proud ... It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels
flashing in the night of time ... It had known the ships and the
men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from
Erith – the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships
of men on ’Change; captains, admirals, the dark ‘interlopers’ of
the Eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of East India
fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out
on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messen-
gers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sa-
cred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river
into the mystery of an unknown earth! ... The dreams of men,
the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires ...
Heart of Darkness
Britain controls today the destinies of some 350,000,000 alien people, unable as yet to govern themselves, and easy victims to rapine and injustice, unless a strong arm guards them. She is giving them a rule that has its faults, no doubt, but such, I would make bold to affirm, as no conquering state ever before gave to a dependent people.
Professor George M. Wrong, 1909
... Colonialism has led to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and ... Africans and people of African descent, and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences ...
Durban Declaration of the World Conference against Racism,
Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, 2001
nce there was an Empire that governed roughly a quarter of the world’s population, covered about the same proportion of the earth’s land surface and dominated nearly all its oceans. The British Empire was the biggest Empire ever, bar none. How an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world is one of the fundamental questions not just of British but of world history. It is the main question this book seeks to answer.
Why should Americans care about the history of the British Empire? There are two reasons. The first is that the United States was a product of that empire – and not just in the negative sense that it was founded in the first successful revolt against British imperial rule. America today still bears the indelible stamp of the colonial era, when, for the better part of two centuries, the majority of white settlers on the eastern seaboard were from the British Isles. Second, and perhaps more important, the British Empire is the most commonly cited precedent for the global power currently wielded by the United States. America is the heir to the Empire in both senses: offspring in the colonial era, successor today. Perhaps the most burning contemporary question of American politics is: Should the United States seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited? I do not believe that question can be answered without an understanding of how the British Empire rose and fell; and of what it did, not just for Britain but for the world as a whole.
Was the British Empire a good or bad thing? It is nowadays quite conventional to think that, on balance, it was a bad thing. One obvious reason for the Empire’s fall into disrepute was its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself. This is no longer a question for historical judgement alone; it has become a political, and potentially a legal, issue. In August 1999 the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission, meeting in Accra, issued a demand for reparations from ‘all those nations of Western Europe and the Americas and institutions, who participated and benefited from the slave trade and colonialism’. The sum suggested as adequate compensation – based on estimates of ‘the number of human lives lost to Africa during the slave-trade, as well as an assessment of the worth of the gold, diamonds and other minerals taken from the continent during colonial rule’ – was $777 trillion. Given that more than three million of the ten million or so Africans who crossed the Atlantic as slaves before 1850 were shipped in British vessels, the putative British reparations burden could be in the region of £150 trillion.
Such a claim may seem fantastic. But the idea was given some encouragement at the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban in the summer of 2001. The conference’s final report ‘acknowledged’ that slavery and the slave trade were ‘a crime against humanity’ of which ‘people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian and indigenous peoples’ were ‘victims’. In another of the conference’s ‘declarations’, ‘colonialism’ was casually lumped together with ‘slavery, the slave trade ... apartheid ... and genocide’ in a blanket call to UN member states ‘to honour the memory of the victims of past tragedies’. Noting that ‘some States have taken the initiative to apologize and have paid reparation, where appropriate, for grave and massive violations committed’, the conference ‘called on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so’.
This call has not gone unheeded in Britain itself. In May 2002 the director of the London-based ‘think tank’ Demos, which may be regarded as the avant-garde of New Labour, suggested that the Queen should embark on ‘a world tour to apologize for the past sins of Empire as a first step to making the Commonwealth more effective and relevant’. The news agency that reported this remarkable suggestion added the following helpful gloss: ‘Critics of the British Empire, which at its peak in 1918 covered a quarter of the world’s population and area, say its huge wealth was built on oppression and exploitation’.
At the time this book was written, one BBC website (apparently aimed at schoolchildren) offered the following equally incisive overview of imperial history:
The Empire came to greatness by killing lots of people less sharply armed than themselves and stealing their countries, although their methods later changed: killing lots of people with machine guns came to prominence as the army’s tactic of choice ... [It] ... fell to pieces because of various people like Mahatma Gandhi, heroic revolutionary protester, sensitive to the needs of his people.
The questions recently posed by an eminent historian on BBC television may be said to encapsulate the current conventional wisdom. ‘How’, he asked, ‘did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world ... How did an empire of the free become an empire of slaves?’ How, despite their ‘good intentions’, did the British sacrifice ‘common humanity’ to ‘the fetish of the market’?
Despite a certain patronizing fondness for post-colonial England, most Americans need little persuading that the British Empire was a bad thing. The Declaration of Independence itemizes ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations’ by the British imperial government, ‘pursuing invariably the same Object’, namely ‘a design to reduce [the American colonists] under absolute Despotism’ and to establish ‘an absolute Tyranny over these States’. The sentiments of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ are essentially defensive, portraying ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ under attack by ‘the foe’s haughty host’ – the Royal Navy squadron that inspired Francis Scott Key’s verses by bombarding Baltimore for twenty-five hours. A few clearsighted Americans – notably Alexander Hamilton – saw from an early stage that the United States would necessarily become an empire in its own right; the challenge, in his eyes, was to ensure that it was a ‘republican empire’, one that did not sacrifice liberty at home for the sake of power abroad. Even Hamilton’s critics were covert imperialists: Jefferson’s expanding frontier implied colonization at the expense of native Americans. Yet the anti-imperialist strain in American political rhetoric proved – and continues to prove – very resistant to treatment.