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Imperial power and modern globalisation

Historians are increasingly challenging the idea of globalisation as a very recent, post-1945 phenomenon. In doing so, they are showing that the longer history of globalisation stretches back through the histories of Empires and that empire, imperial power and globalisation are bound together.

Rather than looking at Empires as closed systems of colonies, they see them as very transnational, spreading trade routes and communication systems throughout the globe. It could be argued that if it was not for the British Empire and the growth of the US economy westward the transatlantic cable would not have been laid in 1866, nor would there have been the impetus for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The tools of communication and transport became both tools of empire and tools of globalisation.

Empire speeded up global interconnectivity, global integration and the spread of global ideas. As an example, one side effect of the spread of the British Empire is the spread of liberal concepts and the dissemination of the texts such as On Liberty by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill.

Another aspect is the global spread and integration of cultures. It is now taken for granted that the English language is spoken, at least as a second language, in most of the world. We have seen how missionary groups from the western world took Christianity to Asia and Africa. These groups are often referred to as religious imperialists, enforcing western religions upon subordinated cultures, but it is also important to consider the extent to which the ideas they brought with them may have been welcome to some.

Trade and finance are strongly associated with the concept of globalisation. Here we can consider the spread of the pound sterling in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the opening up of new markets through informal free trade imperialism, and the global expansion of financial investments. The City of London became the hub of this global financial system. In an earlier week we saw how these ideas have been explored by Hobson, Robinson and Gallagher, and Cain and Hopkins. Finally, we cannot ignore what has been hiding in plain sight throughout our look at the British Empire: migration. Several million Britons went abroad, in particular to the United States and to the white settler colonies of South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Globalisation occurred as a result of people transporting themselves, their ideas, and their culture - not to mention the trade and financial ties they also took with them.

  • What other examples of the relationship between globalisation and Empire can you share with us?

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This article is from the free online course:

Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism

University of Exeter