Britain in the World
Events gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Events of 1901
Old Friends and Enemies?

As 1901 dawned, Britain's empire and its hold on the rest of the world seemed secure. In regions beyond direct British control - in the decaying empires of Morocco, China, Persia (modern Iran) and Ottoman Turkey - Britain enjoyed a form of 'empire on the cheap', having established an unwritten supremacy.

The world - link to an enlarged version
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However, there were also shadows in the picture for Britain, whose supremacy was no longer quite unquestioned. Besides the war in South Africa, from the 1880s Britain had quarrelled with its main rivals in Africa and the Middle and Far East. In the face of potential threats from these countries, Britain had not only to administer its colonies, but also to defend them.

In these circumstances senior figures within the British government began to question the Prime Minister's policy of 'masterly inactivity': Britain's increasing isolation in the world was causing concern. At various points in 1901 Britain considered alliances with France, Russia, Japan, the USA and Germany.

Anglo-German antagonism began to emerge in the last decades of the 19th century. Increasingly, nationalists in both saw their countries as diverging ideologically: Britain was seen by German critics to have held to its liberal beliefs (including free trade), whilst in Britain, the Conservative administration installed in 1895 raised concerns about protectionist economic policies, the navy and Germany's growing commercial might.
In 1884, 1894 and 1896, Germany sided in conflicts with Britain's opponents, thus apparently bearing out the popular view that it was too often ready to take advantage of Britain's misfortunes. Yet a more widespread fear of a German threat did not develop at senior political levels until 1902. At bottom was the issue of whether British and German strategic interests were compatible. As the American naval theorist A.T. Mahan argued in 1902, to preserve its existence as a world power Britain must command the approaches to Germany. Germany's population was considerably greater than that of Britain and in 1900 its regular army was over twice the size. It was also a strong economic competitor. The Kaiser writes to his uncle- link to an enlarged version

Watch a film clip Watch film of the Kaiser and Edward VII at Queen Victoria's funeral.

Yet, although a proposed commercial alliance with Germany effectively fizzled out in the spring and summer of 1901, German imperial ambitions were still relatively limited. The second German Navy Law of 1900 alerted Britain to potential naval rivalry with Germany, but in 1901 a complete breakdown in relations was not inevitable.


After decades of Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia, alarm persisted among Britain's military planners in 1901. These fears were not unfounded, because Russia was pursuing an expansionist policy in Persia (now Iran), Afghanistan and Manchuria, and also in Mongolia and China, just at the time when Britain's armies were committed in South Africa, in Somaliland and elsewhere.

British analysts were concerned about the relative strength of British and Russian armies, communications and military spending. True, Russia's industrialisation lagged behind that of Britain and other European countries, but its population was almost equivalent to that of Britain, France and Germany together: it was estimated that if Britain had to field an army on the frontiers of India, it would be outnumbered by twelve to one.

In response, Britain tried to cement old alliances with the new Amir of Afghanistan, continued to sponsor exploration and intelligence gathering in the belt of territories separating Britain from Russia, and also tried to improve its own diplomatic relations with Russia. Above all, however, Britain looked to an alliance with Japan to ease its position in Asia.

Old Friends and Enemies? The Problem of Isolation The Empire Moving to Britain The South African War Censorship Methods of Barbarism?