40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire

Larry Holzwarth - March 25, 2019

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Royal Navy was kept busy with the administrative and communication duties of maintaining the empire for more than a century. Wikimedia

26. Administering the British Empire before telecommunications made it simple.

Before the telegraph connected the vast British Empire, the communications between the British Isles and its dominions overseas were in the hands of the Royal Navy and the diplomats it occasionally carried to its destinations. Often, diplomacy was the purview of the ships’ captains, backed by the big guns of the squadrons. During the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, a naval race emerged between the great powers, with Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the United States creating fleets to patrol their growing overseas empires, and deliver the instructions from their capitals to their distant subjects. Overseas coaling stations for ships became critical components of imperial growth.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The All Red Line allowed London to communicate across the Empire at the dawn of the 20th century. Wikimedia

27. The All Red Line created the ability to rule over the ever-growing British Empire with simple telegraphs.

In the 1860s, telegraph cables began to link the far flung British Empire, enabling the government in London to monitor situations around the globe and respond far more quickly than by dispatching ships to areas in crisis. By 1876, cables could be sent from London to Sydney, and thence to New Zealand. By 1911 – three years before the First World War broke out – the global telegraph system, known informally as the All Red Line, connected London with all but the most remote sections of the British Empire. The system remained in place and operated throughout the war, allowing the British superior command and control of their global assets throughout the conflict.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
British global dominance in 1907, with the dominions of the empire bordered in red. Wikimedia

28. The tools of the British Empire created scientific breakthroughs that rippled through history.

The development of steamships, railroads, canals, and other symbols of the industrial age are often cited as critical factors in the expansion of the British Empire, as indeed they were. Military strength and the use of Christian missionaries to convert and pacify native populations are also well represented as necessities for the European empires. Often overlooked, are advances in medical knowledge, in particular quinine as a treatment for the tropical disease of malaria. The use of quinine made the occupation of tropical Africa possible by European settlers and the rich mineral deposits of the continent made the occupation desirable. The empires of Europe, Britain among them, divided Africa among themselves.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
British Marines after capturing the palace in Zanzibar, during another outbreak of violence during the Pax Brittanica. Wikimedia

29. The scramble for Africa was taken to the global stage by creating the Berlin Conference, a meeting of major countries… Africa was not invited.

The division of Africa into European colonies was discussed and agreed to during a formal conference in Berlin, attended by representatives of 13 European nations, plus the United States. There were no representatives from Africa. Although the push inland from the African coasts was already underway, and several of the nations represented at the conference already had bilateral agreements over the division of the continent, the Berlin Conference formalized European carving up of Africa. The conference agreed that under colonial rule all slavery practiced by natives in Africa would be ended, as well as among Islamic states and realms, as a means of justifying the forced colonization.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Four solders of the King’s African Rifles (Kenya) prior to World War I. Wikimedia

30. The push to colonize African lands left Europe in a map race to build up territories as quickly as possible- destroying African culture and lands.

The British Empire controlled vast tracts of land in Africa, but the Berlin Conference adopted the principle of Effective Occupation. It wasn’t enough to claim territories simply on a map, the area had to be placed under occupation of European settlers. British settlers were encouraged through numerous means to settle in British possessions in Africa, displacing the native peoples as they created vast plantations and built infrastructure, their European rivals doing the same in their territories. The peoples of Africa rose up against the British and the other European imperialists, one more example of the Pax Brittanica not having much in it in the way of Pax.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific ocean were part of the British dominions before the Japanese took them during World War II. Wikimedia

31. The British Empire in the Western Pacific largely took advantage of smaller islands.

The British Empire extended in the Pacific beyond the colonies in Australia and New Zealand. Several Pacific Island groups were part of the British Empire, including the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and many others. The British-controlled islands in the Pacific were necessary for the purpose of providing firewood and drinking water during the days of sail, and later coal for steamers. During the World War II, the British temporarily lost control of the Solomon Islands to the Japanese, and they were retaken by the Americans during the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands campaigns. They were later returned to British control.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
British Burma was never fully pacified, with Burmese monks leading the opposition against the British occupiers. Wikimedia

32. The British Empire in Burma took three wars and over 60 years of fighting.

From its base in India, and using predominantly Indian native troops, the British Empire fought three wars of conquest over a period of sixty years before subduing Burma and creating British Burma on New Year’s Day, 1886. The British established Rangoon as the capital, linking the empire’s critical ports of Singapore and Calcutta. The Burmese people were not willing subjects of the British Empire, an impertinence which was led by Burmese monks and created a contentious environment up to the time of the Japanese invasion of the territory during World War II. During the war, Burmese troops supported both sides, with some fighting for the Japanese and others in the British Burmese Army.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Chinese laborers at a pepper plantation in British Singapore. Wikimedia

33. The occupation of Singapore was desirable for its strategic location.

The British Empire expanded to Singapore in 1819, with the establishment of a trading port at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Colonial Singapore was a major link in the chain of empire, due to its strategic location, its superb harbor, and its access to raw materials such as timber, which made it an ideal location for the maintenance of wooden ships. By 1824, Singapore was ceded to the British in perpetuity. Despite British administration and control of the colony’s economy, the majority of the population over the years were Chinese, fleeing the trepidations of the Opium Wars and other strife in China. Singapore fell to the Japanese in early 1942, one of the worst defeats suffered by the Allies during World War II.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Winston Churchill, an unabashed lifelong imperialist, in 1901. Wikimedia

34. Winston Churchill was the epitome of the British Empire.

Born in 1874, Winston Spencer Churchill (who was half American), symbolized the English upper-class and what became known as the White Man’s Burden after Rudyard Kipling published a poem of that name. Churchill was a lifelong advocate of British imperialism, who managed to convince the western world that, despite controlling the largest empire in world history, Great Britain was but a small island battling the Germans alone during World War II. Following the war, he advocated suppression of the independence movements which erupted throughout the empire, especially in India and Singapore. For Churchill, World War II had been about saving the British Empire as much as defeating Nazism.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Battleships being dismantled in Philadelphia following the Washington Naval Treaty between the World Wars. Wikimedia

35. World War I changed the British Empire by aligning Great Britain with the United States and the independence of the Irish Free State.

Following the First World War, the world order changed dramatically. The United States Navy grew exponentially during the war and its main focus was on Japanese adventurism in the Pacific. Great Britain, formerly allied with Japan, shifted to align itself with American interests. The Naval treaty negotiations during the 1920s allowed the US Navy and the Royal Navy to reach parity. One of the first pieces of the British Empire, Ireland, rose in revolt, which ended in 1921 with the creation of the Irish Free State. Within the empire, rumblings for independence shook its core, particularly in India and Egypt. The latter was granted independence in 1922, though British troops remained in the Canal Zone.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
King Faisal I visiting the Iraqi parliament in 1932. Wikimedia

36. Iraq was declared a British mandate in 1921 and the Empire installed an Iraqi King.

In the aftermath of World War I, the territories of North Africa and the Mideast were in turmoil. Armed insurgency in modern Iraq by nationalists who wanted to remove British control of the region, led to concessions by the British, who essentially installed Faisal ibn Husayn as King of Iraq, confident that he was controllable. British forces remained in Iraq, and British troops created, trained, and armed an Iraqi army. In 1930, a second treaty was negotiated which established mutual defense between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Iraq. In 1932, Iraq became fully independent, remaining so until the 1958 revolution.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Japanese attacks of 1941-42 demonstrated that Great Britain was no longer able to defend its empire alone. Wikimedia

37. The Empire’s cracks were revealed by the Japanese attacks in 1941 and 1942.

With Great Britain fully engaged with the Germans in 1941, the Japanese struck at points of the Empire in the Pacific, including Hong Kong, Burma, and Singapore, threatening India, Australia, and New Zealand. Both Australia and New Zealand became more aligned with American policy and strategy in the Pacific War. Indian troops fought against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater, under British command. But the main thrust across the Pacific was under American control, supported by the Australians and New Zealanders. The war revealed that Great Britain, even with its powerful navy, could no longer defend the entire British Empire.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was the last British Viceroy of India. Wikimedia

38. The Empire declined quickly following World War II.

When World War II ended, the United States was the only power equipped with the atomic bomb, and the European continent was dominated by the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Royal Navy was dwarfed by the US Navy, especially in the area of more modern ships. Great Britain was saved from complete financial collapse only through an emergency loan from the American government (the British paid the final installment on the loan in 2006). America’s goal in the developing Cold War was the containment of communism, and supported maintaining the British Empire only so far as it contributed to that achieving that aim.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Churchill arrived at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 determined to preserve the empire, but he was replaced before the conference was over. Wikimedia

39. Churchill’s defeat in 1945 meant the Empire was doomed.

When Clement Attlee and the Labour Party prevailed in the British elections in 1945, the greatest defender of the British Empire, Winston Churchill, fell from power. The Labour government believed that Great Britain could no longer afford the Empire nor defend it from insurrection within or aggression from without. Pressures in India reached the point that all out civil war was threatened, and the last British Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, set the date for Indian independence as August 15, 1947. The partitioning of the subcontinent created the independent states of Pakistan and India, displaced millions along religious lines, and led to decades of strife, poverty, and famine.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
In the early 1980s Great Britain and Argentina fought a war over possession of the Falkland Islands. Wikimedia

40. What’s left of the British Empire?

In 2002, the remaining 14 territories over which Great Britain held sovereignty were named the British Overseas Territories. Several of them remain disputed. Spain has claimed Gibraltar for over two centuries, and the British fought a war in the 1980s over disputes with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The legacy of the British Empire and its dissolution includes ongoing factional and religious strife in the Mideast, the India-Pakistani border, and in South America. Similar problems exist in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other areas where white settlers entered into conflicts with indigenous peoples. The British Empire spread the parliamentary system around the globe (though not in America or most of Africa), and the Commonwealth of Nations claims 52 nations as members, former colonies and protectorates of the Empire upon which, it was said, the sun never sets.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Abolition of the Slave Trade”. UK National Archives. Online

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“A Short History of the British Army”. Eric William Sheppard. 1968

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“Canada Under British Rule 1760 – 1905”. John G. Bourinot. 1900. Online at Project Gutenberg

“Great Britain and the Suez Canal”. William Rathbone. 1882

“The Zulu War 1879”. Ian Knight. 2003

“The Boer War”. Thomas Pakenham. 1979

“The Opium War”. UK National Army Museum. Online

“The First Anglo-Afghan War”. Craig Baxter, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. Online

“Arrogant Armies”. James Perry. 1996

“Dreadnought” Robert Massie. 1992

“Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914”. P.M. Kennedy, The English Historical Review. October 1971

“The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire”. P.J. Marshall. 1996

“Imperialism and the Victorians: The Dynamics of Territorial Expansion”. John Darwin, English Historical Review. 1997

“The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent 1876 -1912”. Thomas Pakenham. 1992

“Solomon Islands”. Chronological history, World Statesmen.org

“History of the British Residency in Burma”. Walter Sadgun Desai. 1972

“The Real Winston Churchill”. Richard Seymour, Jacobin Magazine. Online

“Sea Power: A Naval History”. E. Potter. 1981

“Inventing Iraq”. Toby Dodge. 2009

“The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery”. Paul Kennedy. 1983

“British Imperialism 1750 – 1970”. Simon Smith. 1998

“Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia”. Bernard A. Cook. 2001

“Decolonization since 1945: the collapse of European overseas empires”. John Springhall. 2001

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