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
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:

“The Spanish Seaborne Empire”. John Horace Parry. 1966

“Failed Colonies”. National Humanities Center Toolbox Library. Online

“What was New Netherland?” New Netherland Institute. Online

“Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World”. Niall Ferguson. 2003

“Religion and the Founding of the American Republic”. Library of Congress Exhibition. Online

“Liverpool”. Ben Johnson, Historic UK. Online

“Dutch East India Company: The World’s First Multinational”. Ben Phelan, PBS Online. January 7, 2013

“1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World”. Frank McLynn. 2005

“Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the Eighteenth Century”. Jeremy Black. 2008

“The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia”. Robert Hughes. 1988

“Napoleonic Wars and the United States”. Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“Britain Takes Control of the Cape”. South African History Online.

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

“The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset”. Philippa Levine. 2007

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

“Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion”. Ronald Hyam. 2002

“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

Advertisement