By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
It is hard for 21st century people to comprehend a geographic institution so huge and long-lasting that at one time it was assumed that the sun would never set upon it.
Today, the sun can’t even find it – but its legacy, in terms of language, laws, international organizations, and models of governance, are with us still.
At its height, the British Empire, which lasted half a millennium, spanned the world, from the Arctic shores of northern Canada and the deserts of Australia to the humid tropics of India and the beaches of Fiji. A quarter of the globe was coloured pink on maps.
By 1921, it contained a population of some 460 million people, then approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered more than 35 million square kilometres.
The empire was decentralized, as there had never been a master plan of conquest. It wasn’t governed from an imperial centre, as others, like the French or Spanish ones, were.
Much of it was created piecemeal, and happenstance and chance were often involved in the absorption of all of the bodies of land on every continent and the numerous islands throughout all the world’s oceans that eventually comprised the empire.
Britain frequently found itself unintentionally the owner of new territories through the actions of individuals whose policies had either not been thought through in London or even sanctioned.
Indeed, much of its most important possession, India, was initially the property of a private enterprise, the East India Company, which expanded its holdings on the subcontinent over the decades. Other regions, too, were originally owned by firms such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British South Africa Company.
“The British Empire was nothing more than a series of improvisations conducted by men who shared a common culture but often had very different ideas about government and administration,” concludes Kwasi Kwarteng in his 2011 book Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World. “There is very little unifying ideology in the story of Britain’s empire.”
Kwarteng agrees that it was created, as the famous phrase has it, “in a fit of absence of mind.”
Bernard Porter, in British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, and Empire Ways: Aspects of British Imperialism, both published in 2016, concurs with this assessment.
He maintains that Britain was “a less imperial society than is often assumed.” The empire was neither monolithic nor guided by an overarching vision that defined its function and objectives.
British possessions had little in common with each other beyond the fact that the Union Jack flew over them.
This pragmatic approach enabled powerful colonial officials, often described as “men on the spot,” to direct policy in each jurisdiction with little supervision from London.
Such individualistic behaviour meant that procedures developed over the years by one governor could simply be reversed as a new one took his place. They were elitists who sought to wield power without much oversight.
Nonetheless, while the empire-building enterprise involved colonial settlement, missionary activity, and administration, the primary goal was usually to make huge amounts of money through trade.
Profits from all these far-flung outposts, especially India, ultimately found their way back to enrich the centre.
Most shameful of all was the purchase and sale of people. More than three million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to toil in Britain’s American, Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies for more than two centuries.
Slavery on an industrial scale was a major source of the wealth, based upon the West Indies sugar trade and cotton crop in North America was based. Slavery was finally abolished in Britain's colonies in 1833.
The empire began to be wound down not long after the Second World War; Britain could no longer sustain it. And while decolonization was sometimes a brutal affair, as in Aden, Cyprus or Kenya, it was mostly a fairly orderly process.
But in places with deep-seated religious rivalries, such as India and Palestine, both destined to be partitioned, the British simply lost control.
Even toward the end of empire mainstream opinion in Britain retained an unshakable confidence in the endurance of its values and centrality to world affairs.
Perhaps this was understandable. After so many centuries as the world’s pre-eminent nation, it took a long time for the British to come to terms with the fact that they were no longer a superpower.