Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 16: What Makes the British Commonwealth Hold Together? (1946)

Both in area and character the Empire that grew into the Commonwealth differs greatly from the one we left 170 years ago. It is almost a brand-new one—but not quite. Our Revolution weakened the first Empire, but did not destroy it. Thirteen American colonies revolted, but seventeen remained loyal. Most of these were West Indian islands; the others included Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, while in the remote north the Hudson’s Bay Company had its fur-trading stations.

Outside America the old Empire consisted of two slave-trading posts in West Africa, a spice-buyers’ depot in Sumatra, ports of call at St. Helena and the Falkland Islands, the naval base at Gibraltar, and some territory which the British East India Company controlled in India.

This catalogue of colonies was not impressive. Our Revolution had reduced the Empire’s white population from 2,000,000 to about 170,000 and half these were French Canadians. No wonder, therefore, that some Britons felt that the empire business was played out and that the game was not worth the cost. It seemed ridiculous to spend vast sums of money defending and developing colonies if they broke away as soon as they felt strong enough to do so. Other colonies would probably want to follow the example of the ungrateful thirteen. Like apples they would drop off the tree when they were ripe; like children they would leave home when they grew up. Well, let them, argued these Britons, but meanwhile don’t bother to plant any more apple trees or have any more children.

This doubt concerning the value of an empire influenced British policy for almost a century. True, the British did not abandon empire building, but they lost all enthusiasm for it. World trade was the business in which they became interested, and for a long time their colonies provided only a small fraction of that commerce. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century debates on colonial questions were dull and listless. Any political party, it was said, would rather lose a colony than a vote in the House of Commons. No large sums of money were allotted for overseas development, and the post of secretary of state for the colonies was one of the least attractive cabinet offices.


The new British Empire

Yet the Empire grew, as the series of maps on page 9 makes clear. There is grim humor in the fact that we and the French, who combined to wreck the old Empire, gave the first impetus to the building of the new one.

When we drove out those colonists who remained loyal to England during the Revolution, about 30,000 of them made their homes in Nova Scotia or in the new colony of New Brunswick, next door to Maine. About 6,000 others settled among the French Canadians in Quebec or in the wilderness of Upper Canada, now the province of Ontario. The latter were sturdy backwoodsmen from upstate New York. They knew how to create farms out of the forest lands that were given them. Then they wrote to their friends back home in the United States to join them.

The invitation was eagerly accepted by thousands who were more interested in the quality and low price of the land underfoot than in the pattern on the flag overhead. By 1812 this migration had given Upper Canada a population of 80,000. Yet when we tried to capture Canada in the War of 1812, there was little fifth-column help up there. British North America had become strong enough, with aid from Britain, to preserve its independence and lay a firm foundation for the building of a dominion that eventually stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Our Revolution had another early effect on the British Empire. British judges had for a long time been sentencing minor offenders to “transportation” to some overseas colony. When the Revolution stopped these shipments to our shores, a new destination had to be found. Someone remembered that in 1770 the British explorer, Captain Cook, had discovered fertile land on the east coast of Australia. When a batch of convicts and their guards landed there in 1788, Australia got its first settlers. Soon vast grazing areas were discovered beyond the coastal mountains, and sheep ranching spread rapidly. Free settlers went out to supplement and then supplant the “transportees.” By 1850 Australia had become the world’s largest wool producer, just as in the same years we had become the world’s largest cotton producer.

Spoils of the Napoleonic Wars

While we thus stimulated these two developments, the French provided a third. From 1793 to 1815, France and Britain were locked in a gigantic struggle. At times Napoleon had virtually all Continental Europe under his thumb or on his side. For reasons of our own we teamed up with him in 1812. Yet British sea power, backed by a strong home front, wrecked Napoleon’s dreams of world dominion. His fleet was smashed by Nelson at Trafalgar and a British army gave him the final knockout blow at Waterloo.

Britain emerged from the struggle so powerful that it could have kept all the French, Spanish, Dutch, and Danish colonies it had captured. But Britain had no enthusiasm for large-scale empire building. Its only interest was in naval bases and ports of call. It kept strategically placed Singapore and Malta, and the Dutch colonies of Ceylon, Guiana, and the Cape of Good Hope, but returned the rich spice islands. Of the French possessions it retained only Mauritius and three West Indian islands. In this way Britain further fortified the sea lanes along which its merchantmen must travel to its own colonies or to foreign markets and increased its ability to protect those colonies and ships against any naval power that might challenge it in the future.

No such power did challenge it for nearly a century, until Germany, having become a large industrial nation, resolved to be a great naval and imperial power as well. For just under a hundred years, 1815–1914, the world at large enjoyed a period of peace.

Enterprise and expansion

In such a world the British Empire could move easily along the three lines already laid down, as an empire of settlement, of trading posts or areas, and of naval bases or ports of call.

Force played its part at some points, as it did in our own westward movement which was taking place at the same time. British school history books list about a score of noteworthy colonial wars, chiefly in India and Africa. Yet the use of military force for spreading political control over new areas was less important than was the energy with which explorers, missionaries, traders, settlers, shipowners, miners, and railroad builders swarmed to the frontiers and there went about their self-chosen tasks.

Sometimes settlement and trade followed the flag. Quite as frequently, however, the flag followed the settler and the trader, either because they cried out for its protection or because they clamored for its support in their desire to expand their field of operations.

All this energy at the circumference was matched by abounding vigor at the center. For in Britain there was a rapidly increasing population which was discovering new methods of manufacturing vast quantities of good cheap articles. It was building the ships to take them out. It was developing the banks and trading firms to handle the business. It was saving money to invest abroad. And it was ready, willing, and able to absorb whatever foods or raw materials the colonists—or anybody else—cared to send to British ports.

It was this private enterprise of men at the hub and on the rim, rather than the plans of London governments—which for much of the time were apathetic toward imperial affairs—that made the Empire grow as it did.

The empire of settlement

Settlement went ahead in Canada and Australia. After 1815 South Africa began to attract a few British settlers. Some Afrikanders (Dutch South Africans) did not like them, their rulers, or their opposition to slavery, and moved into the interior. New Zealand began to attract settlers after 1840. The story in these four regions is very much like our own, except that we could move overland while the British colonists had to make a long jump overseas before they began to swarm over the new land.

None of the areas was so rich in resources as was the United States, and progress was therefore much slower as well as smaller. Gold discoveries, the building of railroads, the importation of capital, the rise of manufactures, the coming of the steamship, good times and lean years all played their part. Staple commodities—lumber, wheat, wool, and metals, and later dairy produce, meats, fruit, and other perishables—were produced and exported, chiefly to Britain.

In all areas government came close on the heels of the frontiersmen, if it was not there first. Since the colonists insisted on having a share in making or administering the laws, self-government and democratic institutions spread.

Today the empire of settlement in North America, Africa, and Australasia covers about 9,000,000 square miles. It contains about 24,000,000 people of European origin, of whom 12,000,000 are in Canada and 9,000,000 in Australasia.

Britain supplied virtually all the settlers for Australia and New Zealand.

Canada started with Frenchmen and Americans. Then the British were the chief immigrants till about 1900. Since then there has been a large influx from the United States and from Continental Europe. Hence a third of Canada’s population is of French descent, a half of British, and the remainder has been drawn from the United States or Continental Europe.

In South Africa half the 2,000,000 white people are of Dutch stock, half of British. There are 7,000,000 natives, and nearly 1,000,000 people whose ancestors were Asiatic.

The empire of commerce

The empire of trading posts or areas grew during the nineteenth century. The British had an expanding output of manufactured goods to sell and hence could buy far more of the produce of Asia and Africa. India supplied the jute needed for sacks and bags. Its black tea displaced green China tea in popularity. Its indigo was in growing demand, and it had a surplus of cotton and wheat for expert.

In return India became a market for British factory-made cotton goods, hardware, machines, and railroad equipment. It grew to be the largest single customer for British manufactures. The development of its resources and railroads was a fertile field for British investments of capital. And its exports of bulky commodities provided freight for a great part of the British merchant marine.

Chaos and anarchy forced the East India Company to pass from trading to ruling. That passage was long. When it ended, about 1,000,000 square miles had become “provinces” ruled by British officials. The remaining 600,000 square miles were left in the hands of hundreds of native princes, who were bound by treaty to let the British supervise their relations with other princes in order to put an end to wars with neighbors. In return they were guaranteed possession of their states and thrones. The job of ruling such an India was too large a responsibility for a trading company. The task therefore passed by stages into the hands of the British government, and in 1858 London took complete control of Indian affairs.

Elsewhere in Asia trading outposts were secured. Hong Kong, a pirates’ rocky nest, was taken from China in 1842 to serve as a base for trade with that country. Singapore grew to be the gateway to the Far East.

When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 a new problem had to be faced, since that canal offered a short cut to India, Australasia, and the Far East. Britain therefore bought nearly half the shares of the canal company, obtained possession of Cyprus to guard the approach from the Mediterranean, gained control of affairs in bankrupt Egypt, and established a protectorate over a bit of Somaliland at the exit from the Red Sea.

In West Africa the slave-trading posts lost their importance when slavery was abolished in the United States, but by that time West Africa and the tropics generally were be coming valuable as sources of supply of a number of newly needed materials. Palm oil was being used in making soap, candles, and cooking fats. Cocoa was becoming a popular drink or ingredient in candy. Peanuts yielded cattle feed and the oil that went into margarine. Rubber was wanted for tires, and so on down a long list.

The new imperialism

At the very moment that this demand for tropical products grew strong, about 1870, a number of countries—France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the United States in a smaller way—began to develop an acute desire to build empires and acquire colonies. It was not a desire for empires of settlement, since the tropics were too unhealthy for white men. It was rather a search for raw materials, markets, fields where capital could be invested, and for strategically valuable outposts.

The thirty years before World War I, therefore, were swept by a wave of “new imperialism.” Africa was partitioned, mostly by peaceful bargaining. France took Indo-China. Britain rounded out its possession of Burma. We took control of Cuba, annexed Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and divided the unclaimed islands of the Pacific with Britain, France, and Germany. Various nations got footholds on the coast of China.

The British government at first took little interest in this new scramble, for it felt that more colonies would mean more expenditure on defense, more taxes, and more colonial or diplomatic headaches. It had to be pushed hard by the Australian colonies and by impending German expansion before it consented to take southeastern New Guinea, even after Germany had acquired the northeast part. It resisted many attempts by Cape Colony politicians to expand northward, though Germany had set foot on the southwest coast of Africa.

When an East African sultan invited a British company to take charge of his coast line in order to prevent it from being seized by Egypt, the British Foreign Office refused to approve the deal. Even when an area had been recognized as a British sphere, no elaborate government was set up. The early development was left to be carried out by chartered companies which resembled those of Hudson’s Bay and East India, except that they did not get a monopoly of their trading area.

Such companies undertook the development of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Northern and Southern Rhodesia in Africa, and of North Borneo in the East Indies. They had to fight the slave traders, negotiate treaties with native chiefs, try to bring peace and order, meet the rivalry of French and German companies, make roads and build railroads, wrestle with tropical disease, face the constant criticism of missionaries and humanitarians who sought to protect the natives from being exploited, and meanwhile try to organize production or trade in the hope of making a profit on their capital.

“Old Joe” Chamberlain

The double task, political and economic, was often too large, too costly, and usually too meager in profit—for the tropics do not abound in easy riches. Yet it was not till 1895 that any important British statesman felt that there was merit in the companies’ work or value in the areas they were trying to develop.

In that year Joseph Chamberlain, one of the top men in the Conservative party, surprised his colleagues by asking for the post of colonial secretary. With him the policy of imperial indifference ended. The government of the company areas was taken over by the Colonial Office, and a policy which sought to combine the development of resources with the welfare of the natives took shape.

The new imperialism had its effect in strengthening the network of imperial trade routes and strategic bases. When Germany and others began to acquire footholds along the ocean routes or near British colonies, or when new navies appeared on the oceans, the British had to meet the changing strategic situation.

The mandates

The latest chapter in the building of the Empire came with the first World War. German colonies in the Southwest Pacific were quickly captured by Australia and New Zealand, while South Africa soon had German Southwest Africa in hand. Since Turkey was an ally of Germany, her empire round the eastern Mediterranean was overthrown by British and Anzac armies with Arab support.

At the peace settlement no one wished to return these lands to their former rulers. Yet someone had to look after them till they could stand alone.

The United States declined to take on any part of the job, and Italy was not regarded as suitable. Hence the former enemy colonies were entrusted as “mandates” to the British, French, Belgians, and Japanese. Each mandatory power was to regard its task as a trust, put the welfare of the natives first and foremost, ban any traffic in slaves, liquor, or arms, and be responsible to the League of Nations as a faithful steward. Where possible, self-government was to be granted as soon as any area was ready for it.

On these terms the British Commonwealth received the greater part of the mandates. Britain was given control of Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq, but in 1932 Iraq became independent. It also received ex-German East Africa, which lay between two British colonies. South Africa kept the German territory it had captured next door. Australia retained ex-German New Guinea, which lay alongside her territory of Papua; and New Zealand obtained Samoa.

The Commonwealth was thus increased by about 800,000 square miles and 9,000,000 people. South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand became empires in a small way. In a way, Canada had been an empire ever since the dominion government at Ottawa took over the Hudson’s Bay Company territories—including the Canadian prairies-in 1870 and the whole arctic region beyond 60° north latitude a little later. Britain’s children by their own efforts and insistence now have children of their own, and it would not be wholly incorrect to speak of the “British Commonwealth of Empires.”

Next section: Growth of the Empire