| Tomorrow is a mystery,|
but yesterday is
|Wie es eigentlich gewesen|
The British Empire was a global empire acquired and ruled by the United Kingdom. It was initiated with voyages sponsored by the Tudors in North America, rebranded itself as the Commonwealth and ended with the formal transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997.
The height of the empire came in the early twentieth century, when many parts of the German empire fell under League of Nations control - areas such as Tanganyika (which was later fused with Zanzibar into Tanzania) became completely Anglicised in their administration.
Motives for empire
As a general rule, most historians prefer to state that the motives for the Tudor ruling elite to found new colonies were concerns arising from military conflict with Continental nations and commercial competition with the Spanish (who were on the way to founding New Spain and conquering the western half of present-day South America) and the Portuguese (who would found colonies in Brazil, Southeast Asia and Africa).
Those who have visited the UK before would beg to differ, and would rather believe that the ordinary people of England felt a need for colonies with balmier climates simply because they were getting fed up with incessant drizzling and a diet that basically consisted of little more than beef, beer and turnips. The popularity of wine and curry from the 1950s and (later on) sushi and vodka in contemporary British society today correlates with this viewpoint.
The theory in brief
"European culture," argues Edward Said, "gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self." Those living at the centre of the British Empire were encouraged to define themselves in contrast with those on the periphery; "the Victorians," writes Niall Ferguson, "aspired to bring light to what they called the Dark Continent" as they believed it their duty to, among other objectives, "convert the heathen to Christianity." Those native to the British Isles born in the mid- to late-19th century were brought up as members of an "enlightened" race that was both privileged and burdened with the task of civilizing otherwise savage societies abroad.
Whilst the majority that were born and raised in Britain did not come into direct contact with the distant lands under the Crown’s dominion, the territories "became a more tangible presence in the lives of British people towards the end of the [19th century], made possible in part by," as Dane Kennedy puts it, "the increased attention [that they] received from the press and other shapers of public opinion."
Deceiving the proles
"Various forces combined to cause the British to rethink who they were and where they stood in the world," argues Kennedy. Many cultural theorists cite the change in public opinion over the military, and more specifically the army, as an example of how nationality became the lowest common denominator (as opposed to class) after 1870. It was common in earlier decades for the army to engage in quelling civil unrest and act as a "shield for the upper classes against lower-class discontent" on the domestic scene. The general population was filled with dreadful thoughts rather than patriotic imaginings at the sight of soldiers marching into town. Yet, certainly by the late 19th century, "the British public received varied images of empire, and probably the most vivid and emotive were those of war."
Media publications such as the Boy’s Own Paper (1879–1967) "sought to be both 'sound and healthy in tone' and respectably patriotic.” It taught generations of schoolboys about the Empire from the British Empire’s perspective as overlords of lesser races; featuring contributors such as Kipling "with his celebrations of tough and two-fisted Tommy Atkins and of noble young subalterns, of faithful Indian troops and gallant Afghan foes." Between 1870 and 1914, the British public was saturated in propaganda that was backed in part by an abuse of Darwin’s theory of evolution, commonly referred to as Social Darwinism.
If pseudoscience didn’t appeal, the Anglican Church offered justification for, and actively promoted, imperialism as an ideology favored by God, rallying its "wards into quasi-military units that instilled discipline and a sense of duty, the prototype was the Boys’ Brigade (1883), followed by the Church Lads’ Brigade (1891) and various others." Much like the Hitler Youth that was established in Nazi Germany some forty to thirty years after their creation, these Brigades for young boys taught its members allegiance to the state; above all else, they were Britons.
Relics of Empire
- The place name Victoria (after she-who-was-not amused) is found on every continent.
- Cricket (except in America, where they play made-up-sports and have a "World Series" that only American teams play in. Oh, and those two times a Canadian team won instead.)
- Rugby - like American Football but without the
players who are faster than olympic sprinters, as strong as competetive powerlifters and able to hit so hard that without armor, they would literally be killing each otherwussy crash helmets and late-1980s padded shoulders played by big girls blouses.
- Hockey - originally an
Indian Mongolian IrishGreek game.
- Scones, with jam and cream, and cucumber sandwiches
- Words entering the English language from diverse sources (but mostly India): Boomerang, bungalow, pukka, mogul, doolally, jodhpurs, gymkhana, curry, gnu (but not GNU), wildebeest, budgerigar, tobacco, anorak/parka, demerara sugar, and loads more.
- A few far-flung island colonies and one peninsula, collectively known as the "British Overseas Territories".
Modern fans of empire
The decline of the British Empire was long and slow: increasing independence for the white parts began in the late 19th century (Canada in stages from 1867), while British India became independent in 1948. In 1960 Harold Macmillan delivered the "Winds of Change" speech which signalled acceptance of nationalism in the African part of the empire, and in the 1960s most African, Caribbean, and middle eastern British colonies gained independence, leaving only a few remnants with small populations. Since then, most of the colonies in the South Pacific and some of the smaller islands in the Caribbean have become independent, with only a few tiny places, typically those valuable as naval or air bases, remaining.
Even after Macmillan's official change in policy, there have been voices calling for preservation of the empire. Some claim that governed people were happier or better off during the Empire, such as by pointing to the many civil wars and coups in African countries: these countries were often poor, left with little infrastructure, constructed without regard for ethnic divisions, subject to interference by more powerful nations, and turned into pawns during the Cold War. Other times, the interests of white settlers are considered more important than the needs of black populations.
Conservative Monday Club
This organisation was founded in 1961, following Macmillan's speech, to defend the empire. It supported South Africa and later white Rhodesia (see below), and advocated voluntary repatriation for non-white immigrants in the UK.
Ian Smith, PM of Rhodesia declared independence from the UK in 1965, and set up a government system which effectively preserved power for the white minority. This was strongly supported by some right-wingers in the UK, including the Monday Club and the Freedom Association. Since the official independence of the country as Zimbabwe, the country has become an economic disaster and human rights nightmare, leading to a lot of concern from the right-wing press about the few white people left behind.
Particularly in his book Empire, Ferguson argued for the merits of the British Empire, focussing on decent Victorian administrators and occasional moments of idealism, and ignoring the rapacity of the British slave trade. Conservative education secretary Michael Gove called on Ferguson's help to write a curriculum for English history, which suggests some sympathy in government.
British politician Gordon Brown made several remarks in favour of the empire, saying "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over" and saying Britain should have been proud of its empire. Tony Blair reportedly held similar beliefs but was more circumspect about expressing them. With both men, a strong belief in humanitarian intervention and Britain's role in imposing peace in places such as Iraq apparently led to their sympathy for the imperial mission.
- See the Wikipedia article on Wind of Change (speech).
- See the Wikipedia article on Conservative Monday Club.
- Empire: Review, Linda Colley, Guardian, 2003
- , The Guardian, 2010
- It's time to celebrate the Empire, says Brown, Daily Mail, 2005
- Imperial Nostalgia, Seumas Milne, Le Monde diplomatique, 2005