Useful Notes / The British Empire

To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.

"Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!
Britons never never never shall be slaves!"
Thomas Arne, "Rule Britannia!", fifth stanza

Formerly the world's largest empire, covering a quarter of the globe and roughly the same again of its population. Because of the rotation of the earth illuminating different areas of the globe, it was often stated, and technically true (even today, due to the remaining overseas dependencies such as Pitcairn Island), that the sun NEVER set on the British Empirenote . Home of men in red coats and pith helmets, being served lots and lots of tea by the locals.

All that remains now is part of Ireland, a place with a load of apes-- er, monkeys that the Spanish want back because they took it off them 300 years ago and another place with a load of penguins.

Romantic notions aside, what kept the British Empire together in its day were ultimately the principles of Divide and Conquer and argumentum ad baculum. There would not have been a British Empire in the first place if its constituent peoples were free to leave it whenever they were so inclined, and a steady stream of assassinations, imprisonments and bribery was required to maintain control. More occasionally the locals would attempt rebellions. For the most part the frequently brutal counter-measures were restricted to that small minority of people who were related to or came from the same community as known or suspected communists, and for the most part the British merely endeavoured to deport the populations which supported rebels to temporary housing zones/camps for population-concentration as per Boer War policy. The most embarrassing successful suppression of a rebellion was undoubtedly the 1952-60 Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, where it ultimately proved impossible to fully conceal the ad hoc measures required to eradicate the Communists. Interestingly, Barack Obama's father seems to have been interrogated in the usual fashion due to suspected anti-British sympathies.

Morality aside, the empire was a good thing for general economic development as it enforced a free-trade area over a quarter of the globe with no tariffs (zero) in or out of it. Though of course there were tolls and stamp taxes and such. This resulted in a lot of rather lopsided economic development, with some highly-developed areas right next to or in the middle of totally untouched ones. Profit margins, stability and ease of rule determined whether or not an area would be modernised and developed or not; in most cases, the British were content to rule by proxy (like the Hegemonic Empire of Ancient Rome) rather than stirring things up too much by bringing people 'civilisation' in earnest - with the muddled exception of Missionaries, who had a habit of making these arrangements rather awkward. (This differentiates the British style from the French who ruled directly more often and even where they didn't rule directly had a habit of extensive meddling in things the British generally left alone, such as providing public education and healthcare.)

Though some people like to ignore its thuggish brutality so they can look upon it with a sense of pride, emphasising things like its use of its vast commercial, political and naval power (via the West Africa Squadron) to unilaterally eradicate the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade after a Heel Realization on the subject, and others think upon it with a sort of disapproving ambivalence, others are glad it's gone. While the first sentiment is usually (but not invariably) confined to the British, the other two are most definitely not.

For instance, the Peoples' Republic of China's Department of Education textbooks portray the Opium Wars as a clear-cut case of the British acting as The Aggressive Drug Dealers who used China as a dumping ground for opium because the Brits ran out of silver to buy more tea and the Chinese were uninterested in buying anything else. While that misses a great deal of nuance, and most of all Chinese traders' desire to make a killing off selling high-quality drugs, it's a powerful and simple argument for fostering Chinese nationalism and xenophobia.

Once more showing Chinese government priorities, people are encouraged to feel outraged about the looting and torching of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing and not the looting and torching of the city of Beijing itself. This occurred in the Second Opium War of 1856-60, in which a regiment of British and French Troops were sent to the Emperor under truce to negotiate a surrender. The soldiers were captured, imprisoned, and all but two were tortured to death. In retaliation Lord Elgin decided to strike a dramatic and symbolic personal blow against the Emperor: the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, held to be one of the oldest and most beautiful examples of Ancient Chinese architecture. It took 3500 soldiers three days to set fire on the complex, much larger than Vatican City. Several commentators such as Victor Hugo considered this a horrible act of vandalism and the memory of this event, the justification for it remains a contentious issue. Note that the torching of the city of Beijing itself goes pretty much unremarked upon. After all, the suffering a bunch of dirty peasants doesn't make for a good story.

The British have a pretty bad rep in India as well, where they are blamed from the time that the British East India Company first managed to crowd out the Dutch and French East India Companies and rise to prominence. Although India saw development and modernisation under the Empire, the unrestrained nature of British trade and investment saw the country develop along rather skewed lines which put them in an awkward position when they tried to adopt protectionist policies in the aftermath of independence. The main gripe people had with The Raj was, curiously enough, that its government was far too small; the Indian Civil Service had 2000 personnel at its height, and these Britons ran 2/3 of the entire subcontinent on a ridiculously tiny budget. While this was okay by the standards of the 19th century, the lack of Government spending on education or healthcare began to tell as the twentieth century went on and various European nation-states began to really invest in these things for the first time. Moreover, this kind of 'hands-off' approach was often disastrous during natural disaster and famines as the relief-efforts organised by charities were almost always insufficient - only the government had the power to save everyone, but doing so (as with investing in proper education or healthcare) would require greater taxation... which would rock the proverbial boat when all the East India Company and Raj wanted to do was keep things quietly ticking over (preventable deaths or no!). Speaking of which, the Indian nationalist and independence movements were also defined quite specifically in opposition to Britain, and the promotion of Indian nationalism in the 1950s-70s invariably meant embracing anti-British sentiment.

Many historians distinguish between the First and the Second British Empire, with the first being pre-American-rebellion and the Second being everything else. It should also be noted that much of the Empire, being pre-Industrial and often pre-Agrarian, was actually a bit of a money pit, costing a lot more to maintain and control than it generated in profits. 'Empire on a Shoestring', it has been termed. This led to the grants of "responsible government" colonies with substantial English-speaking White populations (e.g. Canada and Australia)—the idea was that these regions would pay for their defense themselves. The grants of independence after World War II were also motivated by a desire to save money; had it not been for the war—which stretched the British budget to the breaking pointnote  something similar would probably have happened in the typically slow, no-fuss way the British Empire tended to operate.

Technically a Vestigial Empire due to the economic disasters that World War I and especially World War II imposed on Britain, which essentially ate up all the savings they'd accumulated after a century of massive overseas investment (the country as a whole invested something like a third of its savings abroad). They then had to give up their political and military powers over their colonies, though British economic influence was much slower to fade despite the nationalisation of many British corporations' assets (e.g. the Anglo-Iranian Oil corporation). Now replaced by The Commonwealth of Nations, where the locals get to make their own decisions, and don't necessarily have the Queen as Head of State if they don't want to. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the main players in the Commonwealth, and are generally good friends with Britain. The latter two even bear the British Flag as an ensign, although New Zealand tried (and failed) to change theirs, partly because it looks very similar to their neighbour's flag.

Particular sub-areas:

  • Ireland: Although generally not counted as part of the British empire the history of Irish-British relations has been iffy to say the least. Ireland was part of the UK itself during the 19th century and throughout the long shared history of Britain and Ireland there has been a significant population cross over with around 25% of modern Brits having at least one Irish grandparent. Nowadays Anglo / Irish relations are pretty good, but there are certain issues such as Northern Ireland where people should be very, very careful how they approach this topic.
  • The Raj: What is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and the Oil Islands (the latter of which are still British and consist of a Joint UK US Airbase and GPS ground station on Diego Garcianote ). Called the "Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire"; Winston Churchill once noted, "The Indian empire was the finest achievement of the British people". Began after the Mercenary Rebellion of 1857, when Westminster woke up to the fact that Corrupt Corporate Executives make for negligent rulers (many of the problems would never go away, though) and was then ruled directly by the crown until a cascade of events - The World Wars, The Non-violence movement by Gandhi, the Resistance under leaders such as Bhagath Singh & Netaji Bose, and the post-war riots eventually forced the British to leave. The most populous, developed and invested-in of all Britain's overseas possessions, it was one of the few Crown possessions that actually ran at a surplus (chiefly by a lopsided investment in raw-resources and primary industries because of the way the country was 'exposed' to the outside world by the lack of tariffs). When Canada and Australasia stopped contributing tax-revenue upon their independence, it was sole bit of the Empire (Singapore, Hong Kong, British-influenced-Arabia aside) that wasn't running at a (huge) loss. Hence "The Jewel".
    • Includes the North West Frontier, on the border with Afghanistan, an area which was beset with native uprisings and small wars right up until the British left. Possibly the nearest Britain got to having a Wild West. A popular setting among authors at one time, especially Rudyard Kipling; also notable as the theatre in which Doctor Watson was wounded.
  • Bits and pieces of Southeast Asia, largely confined to Malaya, Singapore and Burma (which was in fact governed as part of the Raj until 1937). Sites of brutal battles against the Japanese during the Second World War. Burma gained independence in 1948 and has been renamed by the ruling Junta as Myanmar (though the BBC and most of the rest of the world still calls it Burma.) The others gained independence by the late-1960s, Malaya and Singapore becoming Malaysia then Malaysia and Singapore (which Malaysia still hasn't quite forgiven them for). Oil-rich Brunei is a special case, having remained a British protectorate until 1984.
  • Hong Kong: Seized from Qing China during the First Opium War, with more territory taken after the second. The core territory—Hong Kong Island and Kowloon—was taken in perpetuity, while the remaining territory was under a 99-year lease (when the lease expired, the whole thing was given back for reasons of practicality). Considered in mainland China to have been a convenient mouth for pouring opium into the Chinese throat. One inhabited by traitors to the Chinese nation, at that. Often referenced in economics textbooks as the closest thing to a true 'free-market' economic system the world has ever seen. It was one of the last colonies to leave the Empire, the lease expiring in 1997 - by which time it was such an economic success story that more investment flowed from Hong Kong to Britain than the other way around.
    • The British had wide ranging concessions in other parts of China, predominantly along the Yangtze river. The British also leased Weihai on the coast of northern China between 1898 - 1930, mainly to keep an eye on German, Russian and Japanese designs in the region. These were all given up upon Britain's forced entry into the Second Sino-Japanese War, a.k.a. the Pacific Theatre of WWII.
      • Until 1998, Hong Kong was also somewhat infamous for its primary aviation terminus, Kai-Tak airport, frequently listed as one of the top ten most dangerous airports in the world until its closure in mid-1998 and the simultaneous opening of a new airport named Chek Lap Kok.
  • Bits and pieces of the Middle East: Aden on the southern coast of Yemen at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Gulf States, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and what became the United Arab Emirates.
    • League of Nations Mandates: After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, the British came to control Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, nominally on behalf of the League of Nations. Iraq gained independence in 1932, Jordan in 1946 and Palestine (as Israel) in 1948, though not everyone is happy with the arrangement.
  • Egypt: British troops occupied Egypt in 1882 to crush a rebellion against the government the British and French had installed to ensure that Egypt paid back its loans (a gullible ruler had been sweet-talked into borrowing huge amounts to fund the construction of the Suez Canal when the plan to sell shares in Britain and France didn't work, and also borrowed stupid amounts of money to support a foolish campaign against Ethiopia). The British stayed on to guard the route to India via the Suez Canal. This created an odd situation where although Egypt remained technically part of The Ottoman Empire, it was in reality ruled by an Albanian dynasty obsessed with French culture (the language of the Egyptian court was French, the upper classes were all French-educated, and the Egyptian legal system was steadily Frenchified during the period) that nonetheless took its marching orders from the British "Resident General". Egypt was given nominal independence in 1922 but British troops would remain until 1956.
  • The Sudan: Britain's Darkest Africa setting. Notable for the Mahdist wars, in which Kitchener and a young Churchill fought against a fanatical Dervish army led by the Mahdi, a supposed messiah-figure according to some Muslims.
  • British East Africa/Kenya Colony (then pronounced "Keen-yah" as opposed to the modern pronunciation "Ken-yah"). Older British people sometimes still use the former pronunciation.
  • British Uganda: Had a railway, scorpions, and the young Idi Amin. It is, occasionally, up for discussion.
  • Bechuanaland Protectorate: Now Botswana.
  • Rhodesia: Now Zimbabwe and Zambia. Named for Cecil Rhodes, who colonised the region. A national hero in his day, he is generally perceived as a less pleasant individual by modern audiences; he also established the Rhodes Scholarships for non-British postgraduate students (with a particular eye to binding Americans to Britain). This area had one of the messiest decolonisations, when the predominantly white local ruling class unilaterally declared independence (with the tacit support of hard-right-wing elements in the UK Conservative Party). Fifteen years of war against Communist guerillas (who were backed by the USSR, China, and North Korea) followed. The entire thing was a violent geopolitical mess, and let's leave it at that. The fall-out is still the cause of a whole lot of trouble.
    • Was the subject of the autobiography, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.
  • Nyasaland: Now Malawi. Explored by Livingstone, we presume.
  • West Africa (the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria): Had an unpleasant background as slave stations, although Sierra Leone was actually founded by Freedmen, for Freedmen (even today, the capital of Sierra Leone is still known as Freetown); Britain was one of the first western countries to outlaw slavery and influenced many others to do so.
    • Indeed some West African nations (and Zanzibar on the East coast) were brought into the Empire specifically to close down the slave trade at source.
    • Mozambique deserves special mention. Colonized by Portugal, it is the only member of the present-day Commonwealth that was not part of The British Empire.
      • This now includes Rwanda.
  • The West Indies: Welcome to the Caribbean, Mon!. Included Jamaica and Dominica.
  • A seemingly random selection of bits of the Mediterranean grabbed from wars with Spain and Napoleon onwards: Gibraltar, as mentioned above, Cyprus, where the UK still has military bases, and Malta, which after World War II was considered so patriotically British, parliament actually considered making it a county of England and is the only EU nation other than Britain and the Republic of Ireland to have a branch of the Campaign for Real Ale. Seriously. Try the Milk Stout: Itís good.
  • The Dominions: Places which largely ran themselves, and turned out nicely and are still close to Britain (two of them have the Union Jack in their flag). These had and have extremely large Anglo-Saxon populations, the exception being South Africa.
    • South Africa British South Africa is best remembered for the Boer War, which was the cause of South Africa and Scouting.
    • Canada, eh?, also kept the Union Flag until The '60s.
    • Newfoundland went bankrupt during the Great Depression, voluntarily returned to direct British rule, and later voted to join the Canadian Confederation.
    • Australia One of those who kept the Union Jack Flag.
      • Nauru, which split from Australia in 1968.
    • New Zealand The other country what kept the Union Flag.
  • Fiji
  • The United States of America, which started out as thirteen British colonies. They later got into some serious disagreements with Britain over taxation laws and Parliamentary representation, which led to them revolting and ultimately leaving the empire in 1783.
    • An unusual case, The United States left the empire before the Conquest of India, which is why it's not often included in the empire classic.
    • Historians sometimes refer to North America, and occasionally specifically North America prior to Britain gaining the French colonies in it as the "First Empire", and the "classic" version as the Second Empire.
    • Also, the United States and the British Empire used to have a territorial dispute over a piece of land which the Americans called Oregon and the British called Columbia. Eventually, the Oregon Treaty of 1846 drew a line at the forty-ninth parallel. The land to the north of that line would become the Canadian province of British Columbia and the land to the south would become the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Works set in The British Empire: