Empire

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The Empire is a "...vast system of unemployment relief for the upper classes.." John Stuart Mill
The Empire was founded on slavery.  The earliest known English slave trading voyages to Africa and America were the London-owned ships Salomon, Swallow and Jonas in 1562, during the reign of Elizabeth 1. The last known voyage was the Liverpool ship Kitty’s Amelia in 1807.   In the intervening 245 years, over 11,000 other slaving voyages left from English ports to Africa for slaves, carrying some 3.3 million enslaved Africans from their homeland to the Americas.  England was the largest slave trader in the Atlantic
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in the Empire in 1833
Britain's conquest of India began in 1757 with the victory of Robert Clive's British led Indian forces over the French supported Indian troops of the Wazir of Bengal.  The conquest of all of India was almost complete by 1830.  Blanchett and Roberts were part of the force which conquered India and Burma  and attempted the conquest of Afghanistan.
Britain's Indian Army fought Britain's colonial wars in India, and Burma and throughout Asia, The Middle East and North Africa including  Sudan, Iraq, Tibet, Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal and parts of Equatorial Africa. 
 Kipling's "Take up the White Man's Burden"
 "Far-called, our navies melt away;   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
 Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
 Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
 Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
 Lest we forget -- lest we forget!"

Rudyard Kipling, "Recessional," 1897

 

I was born in the British Empire, in September 1933.   To all appearances the Empire was still at its height. George V, Emperor of India, reigned supreme.

Nowhere in history’s record of imperial endeavor is there anything to compare with the British Empire.  At it’s peak a nation of 45 million people in a country of 94,000 sq miles directly ruled colonies containing nearly 500 million people spread across 13 million square miles of the Earth’s surface.   80 percent of these 500 million lived in India: the land of my birth, the colonial Jewel in the Imperial Crown of the British Empire.

Twenty five percent of the world’s population owed direct allegiance to the King of England.  "Ind. Imp." (Emperor of India) was part of the insignia on much of the world's money.

“Underdeveloped” countries, like China, whose citizens did not owe direct fealty to the British Crown, lay powerless under her gun boat commerce.  The world in 1933 was at "peace".  Pax Britannica  was kept by the Royal navy in every ocean and in most major river mouths of the world.

The Empire started with Elizabeth I in the 16th century, and wound down 400 years later under Elizabeth II.  The first successful British colony was Jamestown, Virginia, founded 1607.  Roberts and Blanchette were doing their patriotic duty defending and extending the Empire in the West Indies and India between 1800 and 1850.  Virtually all former colonies had gained their Independence by 1960.  Hong Kong was the last to go in 1997

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Empire depended for its founding and its financing on the trading and labor of slaves in the lands of the Atlantic Ocean.  In the 18th and 19th centuries it depended for its financing on the taxation of Indian labor and goods,  on the exploitation of raw material from its other colonies, and on the forced sale of opium to China.  For its growth in the same centuries it depended on the massive armies of its Indian mercenaries.  For its defense in the 20th century it depended on the forces of the Empire.  One million Indians fought for Britain in WW1 and two million Indians fought in WW II.  

The Empire  was at its largest and most confident in 1900 at the end of Victoria's long reign.  London was "...The new Rome..."  the capital, according to the London Times, of the "..Mightiest and most beneficial Empire known to man".  The coronation ceremony of Edward VII in 1902 was rewritten to give the British the opportunity for "...the recognition, by a free democracy, of a hereditary crown, as a world wide symbol of the dominion of their race".   A photograph of a few of the citizens of this "..most beneficial Empire" are shown on the left.  Understating their contribution to world morality has never been a British trait.  Rewriting history has. 

The Empire began to unravel at the end of the reign of George VI almost exactly 50 years after the coronation of Edward VII.  Indian Independence in 1947 pulled the keystone from the arch of Empire.  By 1962 the Empire had all but disappeared. 

I was there at the beginning of the end.   In August 1947, when I was 14, I witnessed the birth of Independent India.  In January 1948 I attended the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi -- the chief architect of the fall of Empire.  In 1953, when I was 19, I was in England where I witnessed (via TV) the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  The title of "Empress"  of the four previous Monarchs disappeared with her lost colonial possession, India, the "Jewel in the Crown", the single land which justified that title.  Sic Transit Gloria. 

The legacies of the British Empire are:

  • A global language, English, which has supplanted French as the primary international language
  • "The Commonwealth" countries, a set of  loosely united former colonies, which share similar ideas of governance and some of whom still consider the Queen to be their head of state 
  • A bipolar world of rich (mainly) white countries and poor (mainly) non-white countries
  • A bitter antagonism with much of the Muslim world caused by double dealing with both Arabs and Jews by the earlier British Empire and their successors, the United States of America

The end of the British Empire marked the close of all classical Empires.  Conquering distant lands and ruling them from a home base was widely regarded as a legitimate activity before the 20th century.  Even in the middle of the 20th century relics like Winston Churchill continued to insist that Britain rightfully ruled her colonies. 

Enlightenment ideas of the early 18th century, together with the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century eliminated the morality of colonialism.  Nevertheless in the 19th century the western powers continued their scramble for Empire, buttressed in the late 19th and early 20th century with the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism.  Science had decreed that the blue eyed Nordic "race" were designed (by nature for the godless, and by God for the godly) to inherit the earth by "Natural Selection" and "Survival of the Fittest". 

19th century English clarions of liberty like John Stuart Mill could denude whole forests with their writings on liberty while they justified Britain's enslavement of  India.  In fact, in the 19th century, Mill and his father James Mill worked for the HEIC for nearly fifty years between them while they set and defended its policies.  As late as 1942 Winston Churchill was denying freedom to India while he bayed about  "freedom" being lost in Europe.      

The world wars of the 20th century, and in particular the success of Japan in her Russian wars, disabused Asian and other colonial peoples of any inferiority they may have felt, and set the stage, for better or worse, for their freedom from western domination. 

Britain’s exhaustion from WW II and it’s internal postwar problems convinced Britain’s new Labor government to accept the recommendations of the Viceroy of India that India was now ungovernable.  India’s freedom from the British yoke was the first step in the disappearance of classic Imperialism.   While the 20th century saw the sunset of  "Imperialism Classic", it witnessed the birth of  "Imperialism Lite". 

At the dawn of the 21st century America is perfecting her own version of the “White Man’s Burden”.  This new Imperialism will  have some superficial differences from the classic model.  No longer will  a Western power be able to send its representative clothed in a funny uniform, on an open ended sojourn to wreak his Imperial will on the body of a supine people.  This new Imperialism will send its army on short trips to "install democracy".  It will often be started by force, and will be implemented and maintained by banks and corporations and legions of lawyers working through suborned, compliant local cabals.  Intentionally undefined concepts like "Democracy", "Terrorism", "Rogue Nations", "Weapons Proliferation", "Axes of Evil", "WMD's", "Open Markets", "Free Press" will provide the new moral underpinning.

Hysteria about the Bolsheviks of the early 20th century, and the  "Red Menace" and "Godless Communism" of the last half of the 20th century has, now in the 21st century, been replaced with paranoia about "International Terrorism" and "Islamic Fundamentalism".  The Muslim Moor, the bogeymen of the 14th and 15th centuries, has been replaced by the Muslim Fundamentalist, the bogeymen of the 21st.  These bogeymen will no doubt be replaced by the "Yellow Peril" and the "Chinese hordes" last heard of in the late 19th century.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose --The more things change, the more they remain the same.  On to The Raj and Us


Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj

[Preface] [Full Circle] [Empire] [The Raj and Us] [India]