British Imperialism: 1870-1914.
There are many historical events that marked the British Imperialism of 1870 to 1914. Great Britain’s African rule was established and consolidated. This was focused mainly in the East and Southern Africa. British won the conflict with the French in Fashoda in 1898. Further, Britain also defeated Dutch resistance in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902. Britain also annexed Rhodesia into its territory. Great Britain got power over Burma and Malaysia. The two “opium wars” one in 1839 to 1842 and the second 1856 to 1860 widened the trade with China and the loss of Port of Vladivostok along the Pacific Ocean.
Most importantly, Great Britain won the conflict for rule over India against France. The British East India Company was instrumental in consolidating the British rule in India. The British policy was very clear and that was to exploit India economically. There were problems for the British no doubt, for instance there was the “sepoy” mutiny of 1857-58 that was quickly put down. Further, in 1885 Indian National Congress was established and that marked increased nationalism in India. This imperialism paid because during the World War I India supported Great Britain with men and finances (Matias.
P 267). This brings us to the reason for British Imperialism between 1870 and 1914. The most important reason for the imperialism was economic. This was fuelled by the industrial revolution. This generated large amounts of capital in Great Britain as well as a huge demand for raw materials to feed the factories. There was a need for Britain to procure raw materials from abroad as well as seek investment opportunities for the new capital. Adding to this reason was the need to express nationalism. Imperialism provided Great Britain an opportunity to expand colonialism.
There was a spirit of acquisition and a political race among the European countries to acquire more and more colonies (Laity, P. 74). Finally, the most powerful impetus in Great Britain was the military. The military exerted great power in Britain and the military stressed the need for Britain to control importantly located areas and the need to set up military bases in key locations. To add to this cauldron of reasons was a religious fervor that favored imperialism. The extension of colonies was believed to be an act of humanitarianism in Great Britain.
There are very mixed opinions on what benefits imperialism brought to Britain. There are suggestions by economists that with unemployment and industrial stagnation at home, the export of capital was a miscalculation. Economists believed that Great Britain would have been much better off with its capital at home rather than investing it abroad in colonies. The investments in colonies were not believed to be productive. Capture of new markets and expansion of economic imperialism was sadly behind schedule and satisfactory.
Late nineteenth century capital investments in colonies were believed to be non-productive. The returns were lower than investments made back in Great Britain. On the other hand the argument that imperialism was humanist is nature is refuted by ‘nationalist’ writers who discuss the economic costs of British imperialism to Britain’s colonies, most prominently India. These writers claim that the British did not bring finances, medical advancement or prosperity to India; instead they brought with them a lasting legacy of backwardness and poverty.
In other words it is argued that British imperialism brought economic impairment both to Britain and its colonies. Those who insist that British Imperialism brought benefits assert that Great Britain brought economic openness to its colonies especially in the period 1870 to 1914. This openness was brought not only to African and Asian colonies but also to South America and Japan. In addition, the proponents of British Imperialism point out that Great Britain allowed some emigration to some of its colonies and so promoted the migration of labor from less developed to more developed societies.
Moreover, historians claim that British Imperialism led to greater movement of investment capital to agrarian societies. Further, in its colonies British Imperialism has brought about good governance that includes the right to private property, reasonable and efficient government, What the British did in its colonies was to hold taxes to moderate levels. The British Imperialism is reputed to have provided its colonies with honest governments; there was not much nepotism. The government provided in the colonies was responsive to the needs of the people.
The government and the law provided backing to enforcement of contracts and most importantly, the British imperialism provided in its colonies a right to individual liberty, especially against felony and corruption (Heyck, T, 35). The British established the common law in its colonies. From 1870s the British practiced the principle of keeping the tariffs low and the practice of cheap bread. In much of the British colonies the tariffs were also kept low except for the Dominions that were given the right to set their own tariffs in late nineteenth century.
Had Britain withdrawn from its colonies in the late nineteenth century then larger tariffs would have been imposed against its exports and tariff barriers would have become the norm (Twaddle, M 17). The British Imperialism took place in the context of increasing tussle in Europe over strategic position, resources and esteem. During the period preceding 1870 that is between 1815 and 1871, Great Britain enjoyed profits of industrialization relatively easily. The British industry could produce expertly produced goods that could capture any market and out compete any other local products.
However, the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 challenged the position of Britain. From the economic point of view what happened was that the industrial supremacy was gradually replaced with a need for financial conquest. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the industrial and commercial sluggishness in Britain spurred the formation of large companies and even conglomerates. The financial sector increased its influence over the British politics. There was a clamor that the government should protect the foreign investments.
What prompted such demands was that the foreign investments were in assets like railroads and there was political unrest in several colonies where the investment had been made. In 1875 Britain purchased the shareholdings of the Egyptian ruler Ismail and managed to establish control over the Suez Canal. The French control in the area ended when the British occupied Egypt in 1882. After this the British wanted to control the Nile valley. For this they conquered Sudan between 1896 and 1898. The focus of the British Empire then focused on South Africa and in 1899 completed the takeover of that country.
The British Empire had reaped great harvests from occupying Transvaal with its deposits of gold and the Orange Free State (Cain, P 250). The British High Commissioner Alfred Miller pleaded for a British Empire that ranged from “Cape to Cairo” and that should be linked by railroad. This he explained would help exploit the minerals of the region. The military still exercised its say in the expansion of its Imperialism. To counter the expansion of Russia in 1878, Great Britain occupied Cyprus and established a base there. On the other side Afghanistan was annexed and occupied to block any Russian advance in that direction.
This military strategic advancement led to the gory confrontation in Tibet (1903 – 1904). Economic explanations were provided for the far ranging increase of the British Empire. The explanation was that Great Britain was trying to protect its shrinking markets. It was under these explanations that Great Britain modified its policies in 1890 and tried to grab as much of the tropical African territories as possible. In India after the ‘sepoy’ rebellion, there was a formal transfer of power from the British East India Company to the British government.
The Governor-General the highest Company official in India was now appointed by the British government. In 1876 Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India and replaced the administration with civil servants trained in top British Universities. The princely states of India accepted the lordship of British. In 1880s British imperialism saw its expansion with the occupation of Burma. To sum, the British Imperialism of 1870-1914 saw the almost unbridled growth of the British Empire that gave birth to the saying “The sun never sets on the British Empire”.
Even though there were costs that Britain had to bear in general it made several gains and established itself as a superior economic, military and political power. Reference: Cain, P. Hobson and Imperialism: Hobson Imperialism C, Oxford University Press,2002. Heyck, T, A History of the Peoples of the British Isles Routledge, Great Britain, 2002. Laity, P. The British Peace Movement 1870-1914, Oxford University press, 2001. Matias. P, The First Industrial Nation: The Economic History of Britain, Routledge, Great Britain, 1969. Twaddle, M. Imperialism and the State in the Third World, British Academy Press, 1992,