| In 1901 Britain ruled about a
quarter of the world, an empire inhabited by some 400 million
people. It encompassed the Indian subcontinent and large parts
of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia. A census of
the empire in 1901 estimated that India had by far the largest
population of these regions, at 274 million (England's population,
by contrast, was about 41.5 million).
An empire of two sorts
British imperial rule was exercised in one of two ways:
through '"enlightened" despotism [or]
representative government', as the historian Wm. Roger Louis
puts it. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South
Africa, which were viewed as white settlement colonies,
took the second path. By 1910 all four had achieved dominion
status, giving them a measure of autonomy from Britain.
The Commonwealth of Australia, with its own Parliament and
judiciary, was established at the beginning of 1901 (legislation
passed by Australia later in the year sought, via a language
test, to encourage white immigration).
For more on Australia, link to Australia's Story.
Britain's willingness to grant self-governing status to
the dominions seemed to indicate that the empire was adapting
to meet the challenges of the new century. However, some
doubt existed in Britain about the long-term viability of
the empire and Britain's ability to govern it.
Africa in 1901
In the colonies, however - the rest of the empire - British
rule was authoritarian, and, in Africa in particular, British
military expansion was still in full swing. In fact, the
empire did not reach its full extent until after the First
In 18845 the European powers had carved up Africa
between them (a process known as 'the scramble for Africa'),
and in 1901 they were still extending direct control to
states and societies unwilling to surrender their independence.
In the British Somaliland Protectorate (now absorbed into
Somalia), a nationalist movement headed by Sayyid Muhammad
had rebelled against British rule in 1899. These fighters,
known as 'dervishes' to the British, were subdued in 1904
(although war was resumed in 1909 and it was not until 1920
that the firepower of the RAF led to their defeat).
|In west Africa, Nigeria was coming increasingly
under British sway. The protectorates of Northern and Southern
Nigeria had been established in 1900, and this was followed
by bloody campaigns to enforce British rule. Meanwhile, in
Ghana (then the Gold Coast), the fall of the ancient Asante
(Ashanti) empire was complete by 1901. The kingdom had been
conquered in the 19th century: in 1896 the king, Prempeh I,
had been exiled to the Seychelles.
The fall of Prempeh was an open wound, and in 1900 a new
and inexperienced British governor provoked a rising by
making demands on the Asante including the surrender of
their 'golden stool' or ceremonial throne. The military
campaign was led by the Queen of the Asante state of Edweso,
Nana Yaa Asantewaa, whose husband was in exile with Prempeh.
It was defeated, and in 1901 the leaders of the uprising
Asantewaa has given her name to a Black Arts and Community
Centre in London.