Was the British Empire a force for good?

The Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo ended in the defeat of Napoleon and marked the beginning of Pax Britannica. Image: The Battle of Waterloo, by William Sadler II | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Debates about the British Empire used to be pretty much nonexistent outside academic circles. Now, thanks to a combination of social media, and a growing awareness of Britain's colonial past and its impact on not just the UK but the world, it’s a subject that’s brought up on a regular basis.

Where once the empire was a source of unquestioning pride in Britain, public opinion has now shifted as more and more people question Britain's dark past of colonialism. But was the British Empire all bad, and is it possible to acknowledge some of the good things it achieved while condemning the bad when Britannia truly did rule the waves?

The Abolition of Slavery

Britain’s decision to abolish the international slave trade in 1807 and outlaw it throughout its overseas territories in 1833 is now, quite rightly, seen as one of the important acts ever undertaken by the British Empire.

Thanks to its overwhelming superiority at sea, Britain was able to back up its words with action. For those who would have preferred the trade to carry on, the empire used its vast navy to make life for slavers virtually impossible. Britain’s West African Squadron, for example, was specifically set up to catch ships carrying slaves to colonies in the Americas, and throughout its time patrolling the seas the squadron managed to free an estimated 150,000 slaves.

By 1888, through both diplomacy and strong-arm tactics, Britain and her allies had all but wiped the trade out, with Brazil the last country to abolish slavery in that year. The British Empire entered the 19th Century second only to Portugal as the main slaving nation in the Atlantic. By the end of the century, slavery was illegal throughout Europe and the Americas. The practise was declared illegal throughout the world in 1948, with Mauritania becoming the last nation to declare slavery illegal in 1981.

The Banning of Suttee

The British presence in India stretched from the early 17th Century to just after the Second World War, and the ferocious debate over whether the empire’s rule was a good or a bad thing overall will undoubtedly go on forever. Something undeniably good that did come out of British rule in India was the banning of suttee. Suttee was the practice whereby Hindu widows were burned alive atop the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.

At first, the East India Company tolerated the practice, but the protestations of Christian missionaries changed the authorities’ minds and by 1829 the practice was officially banned. Further legislation followed throughout the 19th Century that strengthened the law, and the practice was all but wiped out by the 1870s. Unfortunately, the practice reared its ugly head at the end of the 20th Century, leading to a clampdown by Indian authorities in the 1980s.

The spread of the English language

One of the positive byproducts of an empire that spanned the globe was the spread of the English language. Today, English is the largest language by terms of speakers in the world and the third most spoken native language. This has made global communication much easier as even those without a good command of English can get by in it remarkably well in a way they cannot in, say French or Mandarin.

Today, English is either the leading language or one of the most commonly used languages in fields such as science, law, navigation and diplomacy, as well as being the principal language used on the Internet. The spread of English also led to the distribution of English culture, in particular English Literature, which has had a long-lasting impact on the literary cultures of other countries such as the United States. It also makes it rather handy for the notoriously second language-phobic British and Americans when they go on holiday.

Mother of nations

Like all colonisers, Britain gave birth to many nations around the world. Not all of them were successful, and several descended into civil war and bloodshed after the British packed up and left - sometimes with indecent speed. For instance with India, Britain's wish to drop its former Jewel in the Crown as quickly as possible after the Second World War led to partition along religious lines and the bloodbath that followed. Tensions in some former British colonies stretch into the present day.

There are, however, a number of nations that began as British colonies that evolved into some of the wealthiest and most successful countries on the planet. The United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were forged in the fire of empire and they are today some of the country’s strongest allies and friends.

India, meanwhile, is now the world’s fifth-largest economy and is developing rapidly into one of the 21st Century’s economic powerhouses and cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong lie at the heart of global finance.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I saw the end of what was known as ‘Pax Britannica’. This was a near hundred-year period of relative peace and stability in Europe following the defeat of Napoleon and the normalisation of relations with the United States following the war of 1812. The stability of Pax Britannica afforded the empire the chance to expand its reach, grow new markets and stabilise trade routes throughout the world, stamp out the slave trade in the Atlantic, clamp down on piracy around the most important trade routes and spread the fruits of the Industrial Revolution throughout the empire and beyond.

Invention after invention burst forth into the world not just from Britain, but from other rapidly industrialising nations to the extent that within a hundred years, Western Europe, in particular, was unrecognisable. However, this rapid advancement would eventually lead to a form of warfare the world had never witnessed before as the Pax Britannica was brought to an abrupt and bloody end.

The First World War of 1914-1918 was the first mechanised war and the slaughter that was on an industrial scale touched every village, town and city in Britain and beyond. The sheer size of the British Empire meant it was able to meet the demands of this new type of warfare with an almost inexhaustible supply of troops and material, and after four years of carnage, the empire, along with its allies, emerged victoriously. By the end of the war, the British Empire was battered but still standing, whereas the Ottoman, Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires had all collapsed.

World War II

The British Empire was the only belligerent to fight the entirety of the Second World War. From the last man standing against Nazi tyranny in 1940 to facing the fiery death of Imperial Japan in 1945, the empire was a vital cog in the Allied war machine. Troops from Britain and its empire fought in both the European and Pacific theatres in all branches of the armed forces, from Canadian pilots in the Battle of Britain to Indian troops handing the Japanese Army her first-ever defeat at the Battles of Kohima and Imphal in 1944. The resources the empire could draw upon were immense. At the war’s end, over eight and a half million men from Britain, the empire and the Dominions had served.

Nearly 400,000 would never see their homelands again. Thanks to the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would see their plans for world domination spectacularly thwarted. The war crippled Britain financially and fundamentally changed its status in the world. The new superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union overtook the empire’s dominant position in the world which led directly to the end of the British Empire itself. The age of the European empires was over, and Britain can take a huge portion of the credit for ushering in their demise - including the demise of its own.

The UK today

Perhaps the most enduring positive legacy of the British Empire is what happened to the United Kingdom itself. With colonies spread far and wide across the globe, many former subjects saw Britain as the ‘mother country’, and so it was natural that when their thoughts turned to making a better life for themselves and their families, it was to their former colonial master that they travelled.

Some, such as the West Indians of the 1940s and the Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis of the 1970s were invited to work and settled in Britain, carving out distinctive communities for themselves in not only the capital city but also in Britain’s industrial towns and cities such as Manchester, Leicester, Bradford and Birmingham. Others sought refuge in Britain such as the Indians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s; others still came for economic and cultural reason, such as the steady influx of Australians who emigrated to a country that seemed youthful, diverse and alive. With these immigrants came their own arts, cultures, religions and cuisines, and this has led to a transformation that has not been replicated anywhere else in Europe.

Thanks to the empire, Britain today is a multicultural melting-pot, forever changed by wave after wave of immigration, not just from former colonies, but those from Europe who came to the UK, after Britain entered the Common Market in 1973. Of course, not everyone is happy about immigration and the effect it has had on many aspects of British life, and they’ll tell you all about how unhappy they are over a plate of Chicken Tikka Masala washed down with a few pints of Foster’s!

Written by:

BP Perry