British Empire

views updated Jun 27 2018




At the beginning of the twentieth century, those countries colored pink in British school atlases made up the largest empire the world had ever known, encompassing nearly one-quarter of the world's landmass and more than 25 percent of its people. By the end of the 1960s, however, the empire upon which "the sun never set" had shattered into more than forty independent nation-states, most of which found a new status of legal equality with Britain in the Commonwealth. The first to fall out of the imperial tree in the 1920s and 1930s were the so-called White Dominions: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free State. After World War II they were followed by Britain's major colonies in Asia and Africa; for example, India and Pakistan (in 1947), Malaya (in 1957; expanded to form Malaysia in 1963), Nigeria (in 1960), and Kenya (in 1963). British power retracted also in those countries where Britain had not exercised complete colonial control. Hence, in China after 1949, the victory of Mao Zedong's (1893–1976) communists in the civil war brought about the end of the special concessions afforded to the "foreign devils" in ports like Shanghai, and British companies were effectively nationalized without compensation during the 1950s. Britain retained a scattering of rocks and islands around the globe, but even Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. In 2005 there were only 190,000 residents of British colonies, which were restyled "UK Overseas Territories" in 1999. It is tempting, therefore, to regard the twentieth century history of the empire as one long sad and sorry tale of ruination. However, as John Gallagher has pointed out, the decline and fall of the British imperial system was punctuated by significant periods of revival.


One such era of resurrection, indicating that there was still plenty of life left in the old imperial dog, occurred during World War I, when the extra resources provided by Britain's colonies and Dominions gave Britain a significant edge in the global struggle with Germany and its allies. Canadian flour saved Britain from hunger, and one-third of the British army's munitions in France during 1917–1918 were made in the North American dominion. Concurrent controls on strategic raw materials, such as Malaya's bountiful rubber and tin exports, denied such vital supplies to Britain's enemies. More important still was the manpower contribution from the empire: 1.3 million soldiers from the Dominions, around one million from India, seventy thousand from west and east Africa, and about ten thousand from the Caribbean assisted the imperial war effort, as well as the numberless nurses and Red Cross volunteers from Britain's overseas territories who tended to the wounded. Moreover, as a victor, Britain was a principal benefactor from "the repartition of the colonial world" (Nasson, p. 147), which was a central feature of the peace treaties after 1919. As such, the empire reached its greatest territorial extent in the early 1920s: Britain succeeded to the administration of German colonies in Africa (Tanganyika particularly), but, more importantly, the United Kingdom was confirmed as the paramount power in the Middle East in its internationally recognized role as protector of various ex-Ottoman territories (Palestine and Iraq notably). Thus the Indian "jewel in the crown" was more secure than ever.


This is not to deny that there were significant nationalist challenges to the empire both during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I in India, Ireland, and Egypt, which resulted in considerable devolution of imperial authority. Hence, Ireland (bar the northern counties of Ulster) emerged as a Dominion in 1921, Egypt regained its independence in 1922, and India received various forms of self-government culminating in the 1935 Government of India Act (which proposed eventual self-government for India as a Dominion). Moreover, the 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed that all the Dominions were legally independent in all internal and external matters. Constitutional change in Egypt, India, and the Dominions need not be interpreted, however, as symptoms of "imperialism in decline" since, as Darwin ("Imperialism in Decline?") notes, such changes were calculated to provide the empire with a new "streamlined efficiency." Egyptian independence was seriously qualified by ongoing British dominance of the cotton trade and control of Egypt's foreign and military affairs to safeguard the Suez Canal, through which passed Britain's trade to and from India, the Far East, and Australasia. An additional Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936 allowed for the stationing of ten thousand troops in Egypt during peacetime. In a similar vein, Iraq's entry into the League of Nations in 1932 was limited by established sovereign British rights over military bases, and the right of Britain to utilize all Iraq's military facilities in time of war. Devolution in India, meanwhile, merely deflected nationalist energies to provincial government as British administrators continued to control what mattered—overall economic and military policy—in Delhi. India did introduce tariffs that severely dented Lancashire's textile exports to the subcontinent, but the territory remained a huge field for British financial interests and an invaluable source of military troops for imperial emergencies. Political independence notwithstanding, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada remained reliant on the Royal Navy for their defense and dependent on the City of London for their investments.

The fundamental basis of the United Kingdom's overseas strength—its economy—was undoubtedly tottering in the interwar years. As a consequence of World War I, Britain had emerged as a major debtor to the United States and was unable to resurrect the prewar gold standard, while the global Great Depression after 1929 increasingly exposed a lack of international competitiveness on the part of the British manufacturing industry. However, this relative economic weakness tended to encourage the greater economic integration of the empire. During the 1930s the sterling bloc unified and regulated the empire's financial and monetary affairs as never before, while imperial trade preferences and quotas secured colonial markets for ailing British industrial exports in return for holding open the British market for colonial commodity exports. As such, the empire ensured that British foreign trade just about stayed in the black: at the end of the 1930s Britain's overseas trade balance was just under £2 million thanks to the huge surplus of £150 million that Britain enjoyed with the empire. Links with the white settler territories were further cemented after World War I by an upsurge in imperial emigration from the United Kingdom: British nationals who journeyed to the colonies between 1900 and 1904 numbered 465,924 (representing 43 percent of all extra-European journeys by Britons), but between 1925 and 1929, 576,146 British émigrés (over three-quarters of the total) ended up in colonial destinations (and overwhelmingly in British North America and Australasia). In metropolitan Britain, meanwhile, imperial propaganda was probably at its height in the interwar years in the form of grand public exhibitions; popular adventure stories for children; the new mass media of radio and the cinema; the annual celebration of Empire Day in most schools; and in the posters of the Empire Marketing Board, which admonished British consumers to purchase Jamaican bananas, Gold Coast cocoa, Australian currants, Burmese rice, Kenyan coffee, Straits Settlements pepper, and Ceylonese tea.


The empire once again loyally came to Britain's rescue during World War II. Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand supplied, and paid the costs of, some 2.68 million fighting personnel. Even 43,000 citizens of the Irish Free State enlisted in British or Commonwealth units, despite their government's policy of remaining stubbornly neutral. India confirmed itself as a vital martial source with more than 2.25 million personnel in the imperial armed forces, and as a crucial base for operations in the Middle East and the rest of Asia. In addition, there were some 374,000 Africans serving in all the armed forces and about 6,400 West Indians in the Royal Air Force alone. About 15,000 seamen in the merchant navy were of colonial origin (a staggering one in three of whom died trapped in the engine rooms of sinking ships). Egypt, meanwhile, was effectively reoccupied with the Suez Canal Base—the world's largest military emplacement by the end of the war—playing a vital role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy through supplying the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. Once again, in time of crisis, the colonies proved invaluable resource assets in other ways too: commodity production was stepped up and colonial governments extended their bulk-buying powers for foodstuffs and raw materials. As such, the new sterling area was more tightly controlled than the prewar bloc. In certain cases, conscripted, forced labor was exploited in Africa to boost production vital for the prosecution of the war effort: in Tanganyika nearly eighty-five thousand workers produced rubber and sisal; in northern Nigeria more than one hundred thousand peasants mined tin.

Such expediencies were resorted to precisely because the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia after December 1941 had deprived Britain of vital raw materials. The fall of the supposedly impregnable fortress colony of Singapore in February 1942 was regarded by Britain's wartime prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) as a disaster and has often been regarded as a watershed in the history of British imperialism. Defeat by the Japanese exposed a fundamental weakness of the post–World War I empire—Britain's military under-capacity and "imperial overstretch" meant that it could no longer fight a war on two fronts, not least because the Royal Navy no longer ruled all of the waves. As early as the 1920s it was clear that Britain faced major naval competitors in the fleets of the United States and Japan. Moreover, the sinking of the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya, following the assault on the U.S. naval base of Pearl Harbor, which preceded the Japanese occupation of Britain's colonies east of India, were ominous indicators that airpower had superseded naval power. At the same time, for an imperial system built upon the alleged superiority of the white race, defeat by an Asian power was a huge psychological blow for the empire's prestige.


Nevertheless, after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the British returned to their colonial possessions in Burma, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In repetition of 1918, and despite the election of Clement Attlee's (1883–1967) Labour government, there was a new sense of imperial mission in post-1945 Britain.

Although India and Palestine were given up, British indebtedness (especially to the United States) after World War II led to a new phase of colonial exploitation; under the revitalized sterling area, Malaya's huge sales of rubber and tin to the United States, for example, earned dollars vital for metropolitan recovery, as did to a lesser extent the Gold Coast's cocoa and Nigeria's palm oil. Additionally, fuel oil from the British-protected Middle East propped up the crisis-ridden postwar metropolitan economy through the avoidance of hard-currency expenditure. A revived imperial commitment was also evident in grand British plans, such as the ill-fated East African Groundnuts scheme, to produce dollar-saving foodstuffs, further reducing economic dependence on the United States. The Empire-Commonwealth was probably more important for Britain from an economic standpoint than ever before: in terms of volume, some 48 percent of British imports were derived from the colonies and Dominions in exchange for 58 percent of UK exports between 1946 and 1949 (the corresponding figures for a decade earlier were 40 percent and 49 percent). Before World War II some 50 percent of British capital exports were directed to the colonies and Dominions and by 1950–1954 this figure had leapt to 65 percent. At the same time, a revitalized Empire-Commonwealth held out the prospect of Britain returning to international power—political greatness as an alternative "Third Force" between the United States and the Soviet Union. In exchange for increased exploitation, colonial peoples were offered a new "partnership," a stakeholder role in the imperial enterprise, through (in Africa particularly) the opening up of local government to aspiring nationalist politicians with the prospect of eventual self-government on the prewar Dominions model.

Even so, with swift independence ceremony after even swifter independence ceremony, the population under British colonial rule dramatically contracted one hundred times from 700 million to 7 million in the twenty years after 1945. Why did the empire collapse so rapidly in the wake of World War II? One obvious reason was the force of popular nationalism in the colonies. The real innovator here was Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), who transformed the Indian National Congress from an elite talking shop into a mass movement of peasants, industrial workers, and entrepreneurs after World War I and led a series of peaceful non-cooperation campaigns against the Raj. These climaxed in the Quit India campaign of 1942 as the Japanese army was threatening India's borders. Hopelessly understaffed, the empire relied on "collaboration" with colonial peoples. Hence, when, by 1945, much of the Indian police and army had gone over to Gandhi, the Attlee government was forced to withdraw. Gandhi's example was followed by other nationalists; in Malaya, for example, Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903–1990) extracted an elected majority from the British in the new federal council of 1955 after the Alliance Party threatened noncooperation. Others, such as the communists in Malaya and the Mau Mau in Kenya, chose violent insurrection as the means to bring the empire down, tying up British military resources in horrific guerrilla warfare and making colonial rule unbearably costly. What often undermined British rule, however, was internecine conflicts and tensions or "competing nationalisms" in the last phase of colonialism. During 1946 and 1947 Hindu and Muslim Indians were more concerned with killing each other than struggling against the retreating British. The result—much to British chagrin—was partition of the subcontinent into a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim-dominated Pakistan, and the tragic deaths of upward of one million Indians and Pakistanis. In the 1950s and 1960s territorial parochialism disrupted British plans for postcolonial federations in central Africa, the West Indies, South Arabia, and "Greater Malaysia."

But the empire's demise would not have been possible without the British themselves. The 1940s and early 1950s had been a period of integrated sterling-area economic development in which colonies were expected to produce commodities that would either earn or save dollars while simultaneously absorbing ailing British manufactured goods. By the mid-1950s, however, Britain was back on its feet, and Conservative governments appreciated that the big gains in the international economy were to be made through trade and investments with North America, Europe, and Japan, and not with the colonies. Britain was also determined to secure a nuclear weapons capacity via cooperation with the United States. Hence, membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) and the "special relationship" with the United States were perceived as the new paths to greatness. At the same time, the British hoped to maintain friendly relations with nationalists in the colonies by granting swift independence. In other words, Britain's global economic and strategic interests would be maintained in the new multiracial Commonwealth. Malaysia and Singapore, for example, continued to peg their currencies to the pound sterling and retained British military bases into the 1970s.

Yet, preserving global sway through the Commonwealth was a fantasy because the third reason why the empire could not survive was that British economic and military might had been superseded by the superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. In contrast to Britain, the Americans and the Soviets had grown much more powerful as a consequence of World War II. In the ensuing Cold War Washington, D.C. came to see the empire as a hindrance in the global struggle with communism. This came to a head during the Suez Crisis of 1956 when Britain attempted to denationalize the Egyptian canal and reassert itself in the Middle East. Fearing that the Arab states would side with the USSR, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) flexed his nation's considerable financial muscle: he would not support the tottering British economy unless Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1897–1977) withdrew British troops from Egypt. Eden was replaced by Harold Macmillan (1894–1986) in 1957. Macmillan accepted Britain's role as a "junior partner" to the United States and, after 1960, the "wind of change" blew through Africa to prevent the continent from falling to the Soviets and/or Red China. The British Empire collapsed, then, because three phenomena coincided and reinforced each other: colonial nationalism, changing British priorities, and the Cold War.


From the 1960s, however, an important worldwide legacy of the British Empire remained through the continued functioning of the Commonwealth. The ex-colonial club was transformed from the exclusive preserve of Britain and the White Dominions to a multiracial institution with the accession of India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to its ranks in the late 1940s; Ghana's election after 1957 as the first Black African member; and the admission of the smaller ex-colonies, such as Cyprus, after 1960. Beginning in the late 1950s, mass immigration from the non-white Commonwealth—the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean particularly—produced a genuinely multicultural Britain as well. The British had hoped that the multiracial Commonwealth would serve as a surrogate empire, as another pragmatic streamlined adaptation of colonialism to informally bolster the United Kingdom's global position. However, in practice, the Commonwealth emerged more as a force for third world solidarity rather than a neocolonial conserver of British world power, especially after white supremacist South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961. Despite British hopes, the multiracial Commonwealth never served as a formal military alliance—India, for example, did not allow the stationing of British troops after independence, while Britain's financial difficulties in the 1960s, culminating in the great sterling devaluation of November 1967, led to the British military withdrawal from the postcolonial bases "east of Suez." Britain did retain considerable investments in ex-colonies, and Commonwealth trade remained important to Britain until the 1970s.

However, the main growth areas for both British manufacturing and capital exports tended to be with Western Europe, reflected in Britain's final entry to the EEC in 1973. British dreams of upholding economic influence through decolonization were shattered by a number of other factors during the 1960s: the reduction of sterling balances in London and the loss of British control over Commonwealth currencies; an emphasis on import-substitution industrialization, as well as the extension of state intervention in postcolonial economies; the emergence of more generous international lending agencies, such as the United States, Japan, the International Monetary Fund, and even the Soviet Union and Communist China; and the decline of British industrial performance, compounded by the end of Commonwealth preference. British influence in the Commonwealth suffered another setback with increased restrictions on non-white immigration to the United Kingdom after 1962. Nevertheless, Britain has continued to exhibit a determination to act in a quasi-imperial manner in Hong Kong before 1997, and most notably in 1982, when a short war with Argentina ensured that the two thousand inhabitants of the Falkland Islands would remain British, and after 2003 in the invasion and occupation of Iraq (albeit in junior partnership with the United States).

See alsoColonialism; Commonwealth; Decolonization; Egypt; Gandhi, Mahatma; India; World War I; World War II.


Barratt Brown, Michael. After Imperialism. London, 1963. Classic study of the economic aspects of terminal colonialism and its immediate aftermath.

Bickers, Robert A. Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. London, 2003. Fascinating and insightful narrative of Britain's "informal empire" in twentieth century China through the experiences of an "ordinary" Briton.

Brown, Judith M., and William Roger Louis, eds. The Twentieth Century. Vol. 4 of The Oxford History of the British Empire. Oxford, U.K., 1999. Indispensable collection of high-quality essays, written by experts in their fields, on all aspects of the British imperial experience.

Cain, P. J., and A. G. Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688–2000. 2nd ed. Harlow, U.K., 2001. Magisterial, if contentious, economic interpretation of British imperialism over four centuries.

Darwin, John. "Imperialism in Decline?" The Historical Journal 12 (1980). Seminal article that points to the considerable vitality of the interwar imperial system.

——. Britain and Decolonisation: The Retreat from Empire in the Post–war World. Houndmills, Basingstoke, U.K., 1988. Early comprehensive study of post-1945 decolonization that remains a central work.

——. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate. Oxford, U.K., 1991. Excellent analysis of the historiographical debate on why the British Empire collapsed so rapidly after 1945.

Dumett, Raymond E., ed. Gentlemanly Capitalism and British Imperialism: The New Debate on Empire. London, 1999. A vital companion volume of critical essays for Cain and Hopkins, British Imperialism.

Gallagher, John. The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire: The Ford Lectures and Other Essays. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Contains a compelling, and frequently cited, essay on the peaks and troughs of British imperialism during the twentieth century.

Holland, R. F. European Decolonization, 1918–1981: An Introductory Survey. Basingstoke, U.K., 1985. Masterful comparative analysis of European imperialism and decolonization in the twentieth century, which, controversially, argues that the main motor behind the end of the European empires was to be found in the changing priorities and strategies of European policy makers.

Nasson, Bill. Britannia's Empire: Making a British World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, U.K., 2004. Elegantly and entertainingly written authoritative account of the rise and fall of the empire from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Smith, Simon C. British Imperialism, 1750–1970. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. Highly recommended textbook with particularly useful chapters on imperialism and nationalism in India and decolonization in Africa.

White, Nicholas J. Decolonisation: The British Experience since 1945. London and New York, 1999. Studentoriented synthesis and analysis of British late-colonial policy, the rise of anticolonial nationalism, and the international aspects of decolonization.

——. "The Survival, Revival and Decline of British Economic Influence in Malaysia, 1957–70." Twentieth Century British History 14 (2003): 222–242. Groundbreaking article on the British economic experience in an independent Commonwealth country, with relevance for the postcolonial situation in general.

Nicholas J. White

British Empire

views updated May 23 2018

British Empire

Tobacco was the first great commercial success of England's empire in America. Indeed, if we date the creation of a formal imperial structure to the passage of the Navigation Acts in the mid-seventeenth century, then it was tobacco that called the empire into existence.

Before the middle of the seventeenth century, the British Empire in America had been an informal structure, bound together by the subordination of the several colonies to the crown, by the common culture and identities of the colonists, and, most important, by the activities of London merchants involved in colonial trades, who linked the relatively distinct enterprises scattered along the Atlantic from New England to the Caribbean into a coherent commercial whole. In this period the tobacco trade was already a major part of England's external trade, employing hundreds of ships and thousands of seamen while attracting the interest of some of the most prominent and richest merchants involved in colonial trades. By 1650, England imported roughly 10 million pounds of American tobacco, worth roughly 12 million pounds sterling in the colonies but worth several times that sum once safely delivered to markets in England.

Navigation Acts

The first navigation laws in 1650 were written in part by tobacco merchants determined to prevent the Dutch from wresting that valuable trade from their control. Although it is likely that evidence of Dutch inroads into the American tobacco trade has been greatly exaggerated, the English merchants had good reason to worry. During the Dutch revolt against the Hapsburgs, English merchants had been able to take advantage of Dutch distractions to seize control of trade to the Levant and in the Baltic. Once their issue with Spain was settled, the Dutch were able to use their commercial superiority and more efficient shipping to take back control of the trades previously lost to the English. English colonial merchants feared that the American trades might be next, so they turned to the state and wrote the Navigation Acts to protect their interests.

The navigation laws laid down only a few simple rules to regulate colonial commerce. First, all trade with the colonies had to be conducted in ships that were English-built, English-owned, and English-crewed. Although colonials were considered English for the purposes of the Navigation Acts, this rule effectively excluded foreigners from American trades. Second, certain commodities, tobacco among them, were designated as enumerated, which meant that they had to be shipped first to England no matter what their destination.

Expansion and Settlement

The tobacco trade continued to grow under the new system: By the early 1680s, England was annually importing from its American colonies about 20 million pounds of tobacco worth roughly 80 million sterling at the farm and much more at English markets. Most of this crop came from the Chesapeake colonies Maryland and Virginia. Tobacco, however, was a good small man's crop, and as such it played an important role in creating the opportunities that attracted so many to the colonies. A profitable crop could be grown by a man working alone or with the help of a few family members and perhaps an indentured servant or two on a small patch of ground, using only simple tools. Tobacco played an important role in the settlement stage of several colonies. Before the 1640s, several of the Caribbean islands had also shipped substantial quantities of tobacco to England, but with the sugar boom of that decade, Caribbean tobacco production soon faded to insignificance.

Taxes and Smuggling

Planters insisted that the restrictions of the navigation system and the high taxes that system placed on tobacco brought hard times to producers. Because tobacco paid a basic customs levy that boosted its price several times over its price at the farm in Virginia, one might think the planters had a case. Total British customs on Chesapeake tobacco fell from 12 pence per pound in 1619 to 2 pence in 1657. There they remained until 1685, when they increased sharply. In 1685, Parliament raised the nominal duties on tobacco from 2 pence to 5 pence per pound. Subsequent increases raised the charges to 6 pence in 1697, 6.3 pence in 1703, and 7.3 pence in 1748 (the effective rates were slightly lower, depending on the method of payment). Duties on reexported tobacco declined at about the same rate. After 1723, all customs on re-exported tobacco were rebated, so the tobacco of English colonial producers would be competitive in the markets of Europe. Since farm prices for Chesapeake tobacco in this period hovered between 2 and 3 pence per pound and occasionally fell below a penny, one can understand why planters often complained that customs charges were too high. However, tobacco from other parts of the Americas paid a much higher tax, while farmers in England were not allowed to raise tobacco. These policies gave English colonial producers a near monopoly of the large English home market. Further, customs charges fell over the seventeenth century, so they can hardly be said to have forced the price down.

Such high customs charges, often more than 10 times the price of the crop at the farm, raise the question of smuggling. Certainly such high taxes created an incentive to violate the navigation laws, for if one could avoid the tax and sell tobacco at market prices, one's profits would be substantial. Unfortunately, it is impossible to measure the extent of smuggling with any certainty; successful smuggling does not leave extensive tracks in the records. Despite the potential profits, smuggling does not seem to have been a major problem in the colonial tobacco trade, although there may have been a flurry of illegal activity just after the customs charges were raised in 1685. If caught, smugglers would lose not only their cargo but also their ship and face a substantial fine. Most merchants apparently concluded that the risks were too high and worked within the law. Smuggling, then, seems not to have been a major problem in the tobacco trade once metropolitan officials put an effective enforcement structure in place, something that had happened by the end of the seventeenth century. Smugglers apparently preferred low-volume, high-value commodities such as tea and brandy.

Planters and Merchants

As the data in Table 1 make clear, this seventeenth-century expansion of the tobacco industry took place within a context of rapidly falling prices. Falling prices for tobacco did not mean declining revenues for the state. Indeed, the revenues earned by the government from the tobacco trade climbed fairly steadily across the colonial period. As a consequence, the influence of the tobacco merchants over state policy remained substantial. A case in point is the Colonial Debts Act of 1732. Planters, to buy more land and slaves to expand operations, borrowed heavily from English merchants. When the loans came due, the planters often resisted repayment. Colonial legislatures, usually dominated by planters heavily in debt, often aided the foot draggers in finding ways to frustrate the efforts of merchants to collect what was owed them. So difficult did collecting become that in 1744, Micajah Perry III, perhaps the leading tobacco merchant of his day, gave up his assets to his creditors in large part because of his inability to collect from planters.

Before his bankruptcy, however, Perry led a successful effort to have Parliament pass the Colonial Debts Act of 1732, despite the planters' fierce opposition. The act outlawed many of the obstacles colonial legislature had thrown up to make collection difficult. According to the act, all of a planter's property, including land and slaves, could be seized for debt, and a creditor could simply swear an oath before a British magistrate to prove his claim in court, which permitted creditors to bypass colonial judges and juries. This procedure could be counted on to protect local interests (the indebted planter) against grasping foreign creditors. Such demonstrations of their weakness within the empire and their inability to defend their interests against the merchants played no small part in the decision of many Chesapeake tobacco planters to join the revolutionary movement.

Productivity and Prices

While the planters were perhaps partially correct in blaming falling prices on overproduction and the restrictions of the navigation system, their complaints obscure a more complex and more interesting process. In a classic new-industry pattern, tobacco prices fell because planters and merchants discovered better and more efficient methods of raising and marketing the crop. These improvements in productivity permitted planters to lower prices. Lower prices meant that more people could afford their product. More customers required more tobacco. The argument that prices fell because planters produced more tobacco is backward. Falling prices expanded the market for colonial tobacco, which prompted increased production. It is not clear exactly how planters effected this change, but it is undeniable that productivity (output per each worker) increased. In seventeenth-century Maryland, the mean output crop per hand rose from about 900 pounds in the 1640s to over 1,500 pounds in the 1660s and to nearly 1,900 in the 1690s.

One major boost in productivity came from the late seventeenth-century shift from a work force dominated by British indentured servants to one dominated by African slaves. Since tobacco was widely cultivated in West Africa, slaves often possessed skills that servants did not have. Further, this transition in the labor force permitted planters to drive their workers harder and to ignore the conventions that protected English servants from overwork and other forms of abuse. In the Chesapeake colonies, these conventions included a rest period in the heat of the day, many traditional holidays, Saturday afternoons free of work, and conventions that governed the gender division of labor and the work. As long as English indentured servants dominated the work force, planters seem to have been reluctant to assign women to field work. With the shift to African slaves, that reluctance disappeared. Slaves could be made to work more hours per day and more days per year than could servants. Further, through liberal use of the whip they could be forced to work faster and harder. Productivity increase also reflected the cumulative impact of many small changes in technique as planters gradually discovered more efficient ways of growing tobacco.

The completion of the farm-building process also played a key role in productivity increases. Once planters had working farms in operation, they could ignore such tasks as land clearing, fence and barn making, and orchard planting and concentrate all their labor on making tobacco. The tobacco industry also benefited from innovations in commerce, which lowered interest rates and the commission fees that merchants charged for handling the business of planters in England. In addition, improvements in shipping lowered freight charges.

As a result of these improvements in productivity, prices fell. In 1618, Chesapeake tobacco brought 8 and 9 shillings per pound in London; by the 1620s it sold for as little as 2 shillings and by the 1630s for less than one shilling per pound. Prices continued to decline in the middle decades of the century, although at a slower rate than before: In the 1660s prices of 6 to 8 shillings per pound were common. By the 1680s, York River sweet-scented tobacco, generally regarded as the best made in the Chesapeake colonies, brought as little as 4 pence per pound. Prices at Amsterdam, the major European market for Chesapeake tobacco, also declined sharply: in the mid-1630s, Chesapeake tobacco sold for 2 shillings a pound in the Dutch port; by the early 1680s, it brought less than four pence.

As a result of falling prices, tobacco was made affordable to an increasing number of Englishmen. The market for tobacco widened, spreading from the major port cities to the countryside. Once a luxury used chiefly by the rich, it was becoming a product that a growing number of the working poor regarded as a necessity. The results of this expanding market are clear in figures on percapita consumption. In the 1620s, annual per-capita consumption of tobacco in England and Wales was only one-tenth of a pound; by the turn of the century, that figure had grown to 2.3 pounds. Tobacco, if not quite yet an article of mass consumption, had become a daily presence in the life of thousands of English men. One can also trace the increased consumption of tobacco in the growth of linked industries. The number of pipe makers in England rose from 7 in the 1630s to 66 by the 1690s.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this process for the impressive growth of the English Empire in the Atlantic during the seventeenth century. By 1700, when the population of the English colonies of America was roughly 400,000, about a quarter of whom lived in the Chesapeake region, England's Atlantic empire had become a colossus, in part because of the successes of tobacco. Had tobacco planters not found ways to lower prices by increasing their efficiency, tobacco would have remained a high-priced luxury item with a limited market; the impressive expansion of the English American Empire over the seventeenth century would not have occurred, for much of that empire rested on a foundation of smoke.

The great seventeenth-century expansion of the colonial tobacco industry led by productivity gains tended to slow as the century progressed. By the 1680s, it finally ground to a halt, and the industry began a thirty-year period of stagnation. By the 1680s, planters and merchants had exhausted the possibilities of improved efficiencies, and they faced rising prices for land and labor. Growth began again during the 1720s as the industry entered a second long expansion that lasted until the American Revolution. In contrast to the first period of growth, this eighteenth-century expansion was driven by increased demand as population growth and rising incomes in Europe slowly pushed prices up and persuaded planters to make more tobacco to satisfy the rising demand.



Carr, Lois Green, Russell R. Meard, and Lorena S. Walsh. Robert Cole's World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence. London: Routledge, 1993.

Harper, Lawrence A. The English Navigation Laws: A Seventeenth-Century Experiment in Social Engineering. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

Main, Gloria L. Tobacco Colony: Life in Early Maryland, 1650–1720. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

McCusker, John J., and Russel R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.

Price, Jacob M. Perry of London: A Family Firm on the Seaborne Frontier, 1615–1753. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Navigation Acts laws passed by the British Parliament that forced the American colonies to sell only to Britain, buy only from Britain, and ship only in British vessels. The Navigation Acts were one of the background causes of the American Revolution.

indentured servant a person who agreed to work for another for a specified term (usually a few years) to satisfy a financial obligation. During the American colonial period, immigrants sometimes paid their passage with indentured service.

British empire

views updated May 21 2018

British empire. At its apogee, around 1920, the British empire was the greatest—the biggest, at any rate—ever known. It was reputed to cover a quarter of the world's land area, and a fifth of its population. Most of that, however, was of recent provenance. Like all mighty oaks, this one had a tiny origin. A medieval English proto-empire can be dimly made out, in 12th–13th-cent. Ireland and Gascony. Most historians date the beginnings of the empire proper, however, from Tudor times. It grew out of the great seafaring voyages of that age. Britain was a little behind the Spanish and Portuguese, so initially her empire did not compare with theirs. They took the plums. Britain had to make do with North America and the Caribbean, which were not so obviously valuable. The first British colony was Virginia, which was settled in 1585, but not for long. A ship returning four years later found that the colonists had disappeared. In 1607 the colony was re-established, and this time survived. Other places were also colonized, especially some Caribbean islands, and more of the North American coast. Trading posts were established in India. These became the two main focuses of British imperial dominion for the next two centuries.

It was mainly a commercial empire, run by chartered monopoly companies, and defended by the Royal navy. Britain made sure its benefits accrued to her exclusively, by a series of Navigation Acts passed in the mid-17th cent. to prevent the colonies dealing with anyone else. That was to cause trouble later on. Meanwhile, however, the empire expanded steadily, partly through the extension of British trade, and partly as a result of wars with other colonial powers. The Seven Years War, for example, saw Britain take control of much of India (1756–7). That marked the peak of what later came to be called the ‘first’ British empire, which came to an end with the rebellion of the thirteen American colonies, originally against Britain's trading restrictions, in 1776.

The loss of America (except Canada) threatened to mark the beginning of the end of the British empire as a whole. That was because the idea of exclusive trading colonies was coming under attack on other fronts. Adam Smith, for example, taught that they undermined the ‘wealth of nations’, rather than promoting it. In the early 19th cent. most liberals believed that empires were things of the past. For years historians followed them in assuming that the early and mid-19th cent. was one of the British empire's low points. In fact, however, it continued to expand. Even while America was being lost, Captain Cook was sniffing out new imperial possibilities in the antipodes. The first colony there, New South Wales, was established in 1788. Sierra Leone in west Africa was established as a home for freed slaves at around the same time. Other gains—Trinidad, Malta, Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope—were made as a result of the French Revolutionary wars. Later came Tasmania, Singapore, Burma, Western Australia, New Zealand, Aden, Hong Kong, Natal … a full list would be tedious, but would also illustrate the continuity of Britain's imperial history at this time. Most of this expansion was due to the requirements of Britain's ever-expanding trade. By the 1880s, when the conventional view used to be that the empire picked up again, the bulk of it was already in place.

The difference about the 1880s was that Britons thereafter became infused with a conscious mood of imperialism. They sought empire deliberately, instead of merely accepting its growth in what the imperialist J. R. Seeley called ‘a fit of absence of mind’. That may have had some effect on this phase of its expansion, though it has to be said that much of it took place under non-imperialists, like Gladstone. It was he who took control of Egypt in 1882, for example, though strictly—perhaps to save his anti-imperialist face—this was never called a colony. That sparked off the Scramble for Africa, which added much of the eastern and southern part of the continent to Britain's collection. The culmination of this phase was the second Boer war (1899–1902). The only substantial additions to the British empire after this were the ‘mandated’ territories—ex-German and Ottoman possessions, including much of the Middle East—which were allocated to it in the wake of the First World War. They too were not meant to be ‘colonies’, though most people at the time regarded them as such.

This was the empire's zenith. It was huge. In 1901 an imperial census reckoned its total population was 398,401,404, but even that may have been an underestimate, as it apparently never occurred to the heads of households in some colonies that the British wanted them to count their women too. It had a presence in every habitable continent, giving rise to the boast that ‘the sun never set’ on it: though one subversive joke suggested that this was only because ‘God doesn't trust the Brits in the dark’. Most Britons felt it was beneficial: ‘the greatest secular agency for good that the world has seen’, according to Lord Rosebery, though there were other opinions, voiced by J. A. Hobson. The wonder was that so small a country as Britain, at the very edge of Europe, was able to exercise so wide a sway. How was it done?

The simple answer to that is: ‘with difficulty’. Britain's empire would have been far too much for her, if she really had tried to dominate it. She succeeded in holding it mainly by being flexible, and persuading others to take much of the strain. In the ‘white’ dominions these were the European settlers, who were given effective self-government from early on in the 19th cent., in exchange for which they agreed to look after their ‘natives’ themselves. That often meant exploiting, enslaving, and even extirpating them, while the Colonial Office in London looked on helplessly. Elsewhere local governors utilized divisions amongst natives cleverly, or adopted a policy of preserving native social and power structures, so as to keep disruption to a minimum. This, however, diluted Britain's real control. Collaborators needed to be appeased. Later they proved less willing, especially as Britain's prosperity and strength came to look more vulnerable. That, in the end, was what brought the empire down, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the process of decolonization began.

The empire left legacies on both sides. For the ex-colonies it brought stability for a while, though sometimes only by bottling up natural conflicts that were bound to erupt later. It helped the spread of capitalism, Christianity, parliamentary institutions, English as a lingua franca, and (most beneficially) cricket. Afterwards it conferred automatic membership of a new club, the Commonwealth of Nations, of which most ex-colonies availed themselves. So far as Britain is concerned, the balance sheet is controversial. She may not have profited as much as she thought from the empire. It can be argued that it held her back industrially; for example, by boosting the public schools, whose paternalist ethos was necessary to furnish its governors, but disastrous for the entrepreneurial spirit. Its collapse was felt as a loss, however, economically and emotionally. Many of the country's problems in the second half of the 20th cent. were undoubtedly aggravated by her difficulty in coming to terms with its disappearance. On the other hand it provided the later British film industry, while it lasted, with some splendid locations and plots.

Bernard Porter


Lloyd, T. , The British Empire, 1558–1983 (Oxford, 1984);
Porter, B. , The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850–1983 (1985).

British empire

views updated May 09 2018

British empire Overseas territories ruled by Britain from the 16th to the 20th century. Historians distinguish two empires. The first, based mainly on commercial ventures (such as sugar and tobacco plantations), missionary activities and slave trading, resulted in the creation of British colonies in the Caribbean and North America in the 17th century. This ‘First Empire’ was curtailed by the loss of 13 US colonies, at the end of the American Revolution (1775–81). The ‘Second Empire’ was created in the 19th century, with Queen Victoria its empress. The East India Company acquired a larger trading empire as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Colonialism increased dramatically from the 1820s. British expansion was predominantly in the Far East, Australia (initially with the penal colonies), Africa and India. As a result of the Indian Mutiny (1857), the British government assumed direct responsibility for the administration of India. In the “scramble” for Africa, imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes were thwarted in their desire to create a continent-wide empire by the South African Wars. By 1914 the empire comprised c.25% of the Earth's land surface and population. Virtually all the constituent members gained independence in the period after World War II. Most subsequently became members of the Commonwealth.

About this article

British Empire

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic