Imperialism: The Birth of a Worldview

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1776 may have been the most significant year in the history of the British Empire. In March, Adam Smith more or less invented modern economic theory when he published his tome, The Wealth of Nations. Edward Gibbon released the first volume of his magnum opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Finally, on 4 July, treacherous colonial subjects in a far-flung corner of the empire declared independence. Combined, these three events destroyed the intellectual, economic and political foundations of the British Empire, and in doing so changed the very idea of imperialism itself.

It is impossible to say on which day Britain awoke to discover that it had acquired an empire. Early expansion was a truly haphazard venture, driven at an uneven pace by exploration, economic rivalry and the whims of powerful men on the spot. As Europeans began sailing the world’s seas and discovering lands previously unknown to them, they started establishing outposts, settling new colonies and demanding tribute from local rulers. None of this was done according to a government backed plan for world hegemony, but was based on the short term economic interests of private companies and private individuals, who saw equal profits in both trading and raiding.

By 1775, the British Empire consisted of a loose collection of trading posts and lucrative North American provinces, while the East India Company wielded great sway in the Indian Subcontinent. To the extent that the British Empire of these years possessed a raison d’être, it was the proto-economic theory of mercantilism. This, in effect, called for the continuation of war by other means – mercantilism declared that all states were in an eternal economic zero sum game, and that the only way to gain financial power was to take it from a rival by maximising national exports while minimising imports. For a mercantilist, colonies were the route to prosperity, since they could be drained of resources, stripped of their wealth and forced to buy goods from the mother country. Based on this theory, France, Spain and Britain had acquired footholds in every inhabited continent because they believed that doing so would bring them untold prosperity. 

Smith’s theory (which was later refined by Ricardo) was that the global economic system was not a zero sum game, and that two states could both gain financially when they trade; indeed, he showed that it was often wiser to import a good from abroad than to attempt to produce it at home. Furthermore, he argued that it usually cost far more for an imperial power to conquer and suppress a region than it could ever hope to economically extract from the local populace. Instead of fattening the mother country, empires simply sapped resources from the centre. The great British political titans of the era – Burke, Pitt and Fox – all read Smith’s work and were forced to face the fact that colonies were, from a financial perspective, “a cause of weakness of rather than of strength.”

Pessimism was added to uncertainty when Edward Gibbon released Volume I of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Though it took him considerably more words to present his case than it had taken Smith, Gibbon persuasively argued that the greatest empire in European history had not been brought down by barbaric hordes or by economic collapse, but rather by an internal rot of complacency and civic decay. Institutions had withered, officials had grown corrupt and the legions simply lost the momentum which had once made them masters of the Mediterranean. For Gibbon’s readers, the parallels practically drew themselves; the land-grabbing, money-draining practices of the old British Empire were simply unsustainable.

Events in America only seemed to prove these findings. Having spent several fortunes securing its North American holdings and shattering French influence on the continent, Britain had won for itself a veritable mountain of debt. A panicked Parliament attempted to meet the titanic costs of the conflict by raising taxes on the colonies it had protected for years against French incursions. The colonies reacted by declaring independence. Britain attempted to try and impose its will on its renegade subjects, only to prove Smith’s central assertion – that it cost more to forcibly control a region than could be extracted from it – utterly accurate. When it became clear that it was fighting a losing battle, Britain gave up on the Thirteen Colonies.

The British Empire was thrown into a crisis of confidence. Affairs only grew worse in 1787, when Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of the East India Company, was hauled before Parliament for his impeachment trial. Ironically, Hastings was one of the least corrupt colonial officials in the empire, but that did not stop the mellifluous Burke from portraying him as the personification of venality, as “the Captain-General of iniquity” who was “gangrened to the core.” It was the trial of the century, and for seven years almost every misdemeanour and act of greed the Honourable East India Company had performed in India was made public – women in the viewing gallery were said to have fainted on hearing of the some of the worst offences. The old style of empire, popularly personified by Warren Hastings, was put on trial, torn into and lampooned. 

For a brief moment, the very idea of imperialism seemed to hang in the balance, and it appeared that the European empires may go the way of mercantilism. Influential tracts, the calamitous loss of thirteen colonies and the extensively well-publicised trial of an imperial official could well have destroyed the logic behind colonial conquest. But then, Britain found a mission from God.

The Clapham Sect, perhaps some of history’s first modern lobbyists, had long been clamouring for an end to the slave trade. Led by William Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay, the group had pushed for abolitionism on distinctly moral (and distinctly Christian) grounds. Slowly, they swayed the British public to their side, and the slave trade was finally outlawed in 1807. Yet the movement still had momentum, and the persuaded populace began demanding ever greater action. With the zeal of a convert, Britain first outlawed all forms of slavery in the empire in 1837 and then resolved to rid the entire planet of the diabolical trade. The British navy swept the seas to intercept slave vessels, and gunships were sent to the coasts of Africa to persuade local rulers to ban the wicked practice. Britain had declared a moral crusade. 

This set a precedent in the minds of the British populace. Whereas the old empire had been merely a means of economic extraction, the new empire existed to build a brighter future. Missionary societies became far more influential – in 1795, the London Missionary Society was founded, and four years later was followed by the Church Missionary Society. Most preachers spent their time converting the African continent, but by 1809, the tentacles of evangelism had reached as far as New Zealand.

The British had become addicted to, as they saw it, making the world a better place. Imperialists began seeing Britain as a beacon of civilisation, an enlightened bastion of moral modernity. From there, it was just a small intellectual step to seeing other, non-European states first as inferior, then as backwards and finally as uncivilised. The British resolved to remedy this reality, and Whiggish intellectuals began to preach that it was Britain’s mission to rule the planet in order to modernise it and usher in a sort of worldwide utopia. The attitudes of much of the British public towards its empire was aptly summed up by Cecil Rhodes, who noted to his fellow Englishmen “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

To Clive, Pitt the Elder and the strictly pragmatic generation of old imperialists, it would have seemed absurd to try and interfere with local customs and native institutions – doing so risked backlash and revolt, both of which might threaten Britain’s bottom line. Indeed, many men (such as Warren Hastings) were deeply impressed by and respectful towards the cultures they ruled over. Yet it now seemed absurd to their successors not to try and interfere with local customs. Britain passed a Regulating Act in 1784, a blatant attempt to increase government control of the Indian Subcontinent. Princely states which had once merely payed a tribute were directly annexed, and the EIC was abolished in 1874. Practices the British deemed as abhorrent were outlawed – suttee, the ritual burning of widows, was abolished in 1829 and thuggee, a ritualised form of murder, was suppressed from 1836 onwards. 

Armed with new ideological fervour, the British Empire once again began expanding in all directions at once. Australia and New Zealand were quickly acquired, while swathes of the Indian Subcontinent were brought into the imperial fold. Footholds were gained in South Africa and South America and, as the century progressed, vast tracts of Africa were shaded in imperial pink. Soon, the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth’s surface.

When it realised the empire had a long life still ahead of it, Westminster resolved to find a way to benefit. Smith had shown extracting financial sustenance from colonies was all but impossible, but he had said nothing about acquiring a more direct form of power. Natural resources like gold, diamonds and later oil could be drawn from subject states. A global empire would allow Britain to control the all-important maritime shipping lanes, and naval choke points like Singapore and Suez were pursued with a ruthless resolve. India – nicknamed by one imperial official a “vast barracks in the Oriental Seas” – became Britain’s new source of manpower, and the Indian Army allowed Britain to exert force in Abyssinia, China and everywhere in between. Yet realpolitik made for a poor rallying cry, and so the civilising mission remained the ideological, if not practical, foundation of empire. All the while, the empire remained relatively economically unimportant. By the dawn of the 20th Century, both Germany and the USA possessed GDPs which exceeded Britain’s, despite the fact their colonial holdings paled in comparison. But the British Empire allowed the mother country to continue to compete in the game of great power politics and provided the men and material needed to play a major role in the World Wars.

The events of 1776 had left the future of British Empire in doubt; its foundations, both territorial and intellectual, had been destroyed, and something new was needed in their place. The following years witnessed a period of profound soul searching, but, in a seismic shift, Britain eventually discovered its ‘civilising mission’. Empires had existed since the dawn of time, but never had they been backed by so potent, so ceaseless and so morally insistent an ideology as that which Britain began to champion. Just as much as technological advantages and industrialised economics, it was this new model imperialism which allowed Victorian Britain to reach its globe-spanning zenith.

Brendon, P., 2008. The Decline and Fall of The British Empire. Vintage

Darwin, J., 2013. Unfinished Empire. Penguin

Ferguson, N., 2004. Empire. Penguin

Woodward, W., 1902. The Expansion of the British Empire. Cambridge University Press