Citizenship home page
Citizen or subject Rise of Parliament Struggle for democracy Brave New World
The struggle for democracy
 
Making History
Citizenship 1799-1906
Britain and the French Revolution
Child labour
John Lovell
Local history
Birmingham
Document studies
Trade unionism
Getting the vote
Citizens of Empire
Quiz page

Citizens of empire


The 19th century was the 'golden age' of the British empire. New lands acquired included Singapore (1819), Hong Kong (1841), Cyprus (1878) and Burma (1886). British imperial expansion in Africa included Sierra Leone (1787), Cape Colony (1814), the Gold Coast (1874), Egypt (occupied in 1882), Rhodesia (1889) and British East Africa (Kenya) in 1894.
The Great Exhibition, 1851 - opens new window
Great Exhibition, 1851
Document
Indian officers (photograph), 1902 - opens new window
Indian officers, 1902
Document
British influence in the white-dominated territories of Australia, Canada and New Zealand and in the vast lands of India - the 'jewel' in the imperial crown - was also consolidated during the 19th century. By 1905 the British empire was the largest empire in the world, with an estimated population of 345 million people.

Who ruled?

Given the British empire's vast size and complexity, no attempt was made to run it as a single political and administrative unit during the 19th century. However, some historians have highlighted the differences between 'formal' and 'informal' empire - that is to say between territories ruled directly by the British government and territories where Britain had economic and political influence without formal control.

Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace Others have pointed to the differences between areas populated by established communities of white British settlers and areas gained by conquest and annexation. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, Britain allowed the local white elites increasing control of their internal affairs. By 1910, they had all been granted 'dominion' status as self-governing colonies within the British empire.
In contrast, the political rights granted to black colonial subjects in newer imperial possessions (such as those in Africa) were minimal. Even in India, where some local princes were given a degree of independence, British military and political power was ultimately decisive. Crystal Palace
Discrimination in Cape Colony, 1901 - opens new window 
Discrimination in Cape Colony, 1901
Document (135k) | Transcript

Elitist opinions

Until as late as the 1870s, many British people saw formal imperial commitments as - in the words of the Tory politician Benjamin Disraeli - 'millstones round our neck'. But by the late Victorian era, the cause of empire was much more popular. Writers and politicians gained public support for a more aggressive brand of imperialism and imperial themes in newspapers, books, postcards and songs became an important part of popular culture.

The motives of British imperialists were mixed. Some were attracted by the economic benefits of empire, which provided access to new markets, trading routes and sources of raw materials. Church missionaries saw it as their duty to 'civilise' parts of the world untouched by Christianity. Crystal Palace
'The flag that rules the world' (poster), 1900 - opens new window
'The flag that rules the world', 1900
Document | Transcript
Fundamentally, the attitudes of many Britons were heavily influenced by racial stereotypes and prejudices. The writer Rudyard Kipling stated in 1899 that it was the 'white man's burden' to rule over the 'sullen peoples' of the world. Cecil Rhodes, a passionate imperialist, believed that the British empire should be run and ultimately populated by members of the 'Anglo-Saxon' race.
Imperial rule provoked a variety of responses among British colonial subjects. Local English-speaking elites were needed by Britain to ensure the smooth running of government affairs. Even when pushing for greater control of their own affairs, these elites had close ties with Britain as the 'mother country'.
Imperial acquisitions (map), 1915 - opens new window
Imperial acquisitions, 1915
Document (562k) | Transcript
Crystal Palace Nevertheless, imperial rule offered few benefits to the colonised, and local cultures were often marginalised. Women and non-whites had few, if any, political rights and rarely made economic gains. Dissatisfaction with British rule during the Victorian era occasionally led to serious unrest - most notably among indigenous troops (sepoys) in India in 1857 and among descendants of Dutch settlers (Boers) in South Africa during the South African War (Boer War) in 1899-1902.

The Irish question

The most troublesome unrest for Britain was perhaps in Ireland. The Act of Union passed in 1800 (which came into effect in 1801) created a new constitutional entity, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Many people in Ireland saw this as a colonial takeover, and some British administrators in Ireland regarded their Celtic neighbours as an inferior race.

'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1801' - opens new window
'United Kingdom of Great Britain
and Ireland', 1801
Document | Transcript
'Taking the (Irish) bull by the horns' (cartoon) - opens new window
'Taking the (Irish) bull by the horns.'
Document | Transcript

The union was soon challenged by political, religious and social problems. In the 1840s Catholic politicians such as Daniel O'Connell began to campaign for Irish 'home rule' (self-government within the framework of the British empire). Worst of all was the potato famine (1845-9), which killed approximately 1.1 million Irish people. Many of those who survived emigrated, particularly to the USA . As a result, the population of Ireland decreased drastically in the second half of the 19th century.


From the 1860s onwards, the 'Irish question' was a permanent headache for the British government. Groups such as the Home Rule League (founded in 1870) and the Irish Land League (founded in 1879) used constitutional means to push for better land and political rights for the Irish population. Irish nationalist groups - such as the Fenian Brotherhood and, later, Sinn Fein - were prepared to use violence to achieve their more radical aim of a united and independent Ireland.
Complaint from American consul in Dublin, 1866 - opens new window
Complaint from American consul
in Dublin, 1866
Document | Transcript

Crystal Palace

Ireland also divided Britain's two main political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Conservative party (and a minority of 'Liberal Unionists') strongly opposed home rule. The Liberal Party under the leadership of William Gladstone, which had previously passed Acts reforming Irish land rights (1870, 1881) and limiting the power of the Irish Protestant Church (1869), supported home rule from the mid 1880s onwards. However, three successive Home Rule Bills were defeated in Parliament in 1886, 1893 and 1912. During this period opinions on both sides hardened. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Ireland was on the brink of civil war.

 

back to top of page