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Britain’s imperial century

The Indian ‘Mutiny’ (Sepoy Rebellion) and the second Boer War, led by Paul Kruger, influenced the British psyche. Watch Andrew Thompson explain more.
Hello, my name’s Professor Andrew Thompson. I’m Professor of Modern History here at the University of Exeter where I also direct our centre for imperial and global history, which is one of the country’s leading centres for studying the colonial past, but also the legacies of that past for the post-colonial present.
In the mid 18th century, British expansion in the Indian subcontinent began in an earnest, initially in rivalry with the French. Over the next century, huge swaths of Indian territory were to come under British control. India was to assume a new importance to Britain, economically, strategically, and militarily. After the loss of the 13 American colonies at the end of the 18th century, India was to fix its place in the British imperial imagination in a way that it hadn’t done before. Indeed, India was to become or be known as the jewel in the British imperial crown in the Victorian period.
And by the first time that a census was taken in India in 1871, 236 million Indians were to come directly under British control or indirectly in the so-called native or princely states. In 1857, a rebellion or mutiny broke out in India, and the shock to the British imperial psyche was profound. The Indian numbered just over a quarter of a million troops, but only 50,000 of those were European, and it was therefore particularly significant that this rebellion broke out in the Indian army. Large tracts of territory in north central India, particularly in Awadh and Bihar, were completely out of control.
The mutiny took over a year to suppress, and it led to a major change in the way that the British would rule India. The mutiny might be likened to a double edged sword. Of course, yes, it was a test of imperial will, and a test through which the British may have felt they emerged victoriously in 1857. The East India Company, which had previously ruled India at arms length, was to have its powers removed and transferred to the British crown. The British in the second half of the 19th century therefore would rule India directly, the so-called British Raj. But on the other hand, Britain’s confidence had certainly been punctured by the events of 1857.
In the first half of the 19th century, Britain had sought to transform India– to westernise it, to modernise it– to recreate India in Britain’s image. That was no longer to be the case in the second half of the 19th century when a passion for improvement was to give way to a concern for law and order. The mid Victorians’ confidence was to evaporate in the second half the 19th century. Imperialism was to become a much more defensive thing, and we see that in Africa where so many moves that were made by Britain were defensive moves. They were moves to anticipate, to fend off, and to contest the extension of influence that they saw or anticipated being exerted by other imperial powers.
The 19th century is a period that witnesses dramatic changes in Europe’s relations with Africa. With the exception of the slave trade until the last quarter of the 19th century, Africa hasn’t really been caught up in the ground processes of European imperial expansion, but all of that is about to change and indeed to change quite dramatically. Over the last quarter of the 19th century, 10 million square miles of territory are going to be partitioned amongst Europe’s major imperial powers. Britain, of course, but also France, and Germany, and Portugal, and Italy. By 1914, 90% of Africa’s territory will have fallen under their sway.
And this process has sometimes been called a new imperialism or a scramble for Africa, or indeed, the partition of Africa. If Empire was about natural resources, and money, and trade, and the power that came with those three things, nowhere was this truer than in southern Africa. In the mid 19th century, the British by and large had been happy for the Dutch Boer settlers in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal to have their independence. Indeed, in 1880, after the First Anglo Boer War, the Transvaal had been granted independence under the Pretoria Convention, but all that was about to change.
The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in the Orange Free State in the 1870s and then the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal state the following decade in the 1880s brought Kruger, and the Afrikaners, and the British into headlong conflict with each other. The decade of the 1880s witnessed huge changes in the Transvaal in particular, southern Africa more generally. Southern Africa became a very unstable part of the world. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand gave Kruger the economic resources to underwrite the political independence of the Transvaal. It also, though, meant that 74 million pounds of foreign capital flooded into the region, much, if not all of which, Britain held.
Kruger was grappling with a very rapid economic transformation of the region, trying to control the pace of change in order to preserve an independent Afrikaner cultural and political identity. Kruger was also a big threat to the British. He was even planning to build a railway line to Delagoa Bay in modern day Mozambique, which would have given him transport and communications links beyond Britain’s control. The second Anglo Boer or South Africa War which broke out in 1899 did not appear from nowhere. Both sides had long been spoiling for a fight. Both sides were equally determined to control the economic and political future of the region.
The South African war of 1899 to 1902 was a much longer war, a much more fiercely fought conflict, and indeed a much more expensive one than the British had ever anticipated. But by 1902, apparently the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had been securely incorporated into the British Empire. And indeed, for the next several years Milner and his kindergarten of colonial officials were to reestablish Britain’s control in the region. It didn’t last for very long. By 1914, the political weather was definitely being made not by the British, but by Botha and Smuts, two Afrikaners who had bitterly opposed Empire during the South African War.
The South African War was also to sink its teeth very deeply into the fabric of British society, and we can see this in three ways. Firstly, we can look at propaganda. It was a war the legitimacy of which was bitterly contested, not just between Britain and South Africa, but within Britain itself between those who were in favour of the war and the anti-imperialists or pro-Boers who opposed it. A huge pro-war propaganda effort had to be mounted by the British government to get the British public broadly on side.
Secondly, the war gave rise to a massive charitable relief effort to support the troops whilst they were in the field, to support their families back home, and to support the very large numbers of injured and disabled soldiers who returned back to Britain in 1902. And finally, the war was extensively commemorated. 900 or so war memorials were erected in Britain after the South Africa War, testimony to how deeply that war had affected the British psyche, and also in some ways pre-figuring the massive commemoration in 1918 after the First World War.

Some historians refer to 1815 – 1914 as Britain’s ‘imperial century’. During this period there was an unprecedented expansion of formal empire: rather than securing authority and influence through cultural, commercial and diplomatic means, there was increasing resort to the direct rule of colonies. It was the century which lay the foundations for the world we know today.

In this video Andrew Thompson uncovers the expansion of formal empire in Indian and Africa through the 19th century. He explores two key milestones; the Indian ‘Mutiny’ (or Sepoy Rebellion) in 1857 and the second Boer War (or Second War of Independence), fought from 1899 – 1902 between the British and the Afrikaners (Boers) led by President Paul Kruger. Andrew reflects on how these events influenced the British imperial psyche.

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Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism

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