The British Essay, Research Paper
The British Imperial Century
The British imperial century took place from 1815, the end of the Napoleonic Wars until
the year 1914, the beginning of World War I. During this century, the British empire stretched all
over the globe extending its language, its culture, and its economy throughout Africa, India, Asia,
and the Chinese and Ottoman empires, and further. For the most part, the British preferred to
rule its empire informally for reasons such as finances, fear of conflict, and governmental
responsibilities and burdens. There were times when formal rule was required, and Britain s self
image of power and superiority gave it the will to use force if necessary. Imperialism is the way in
which a group gains formal or informal influence over another group s politics, society, and
economy. The British imperialism that expanded the British empire in the nineteenth century
happened suddenly and unexpectedly and led to great global changes on the way to the first world
Why Britain Sought to Gain the World
There is no one explanation for why Britain gained so much global power so suddenly. It
has been said that perhaps it was due to British superiority economically as well as its technology
and modern society. Because it was the first industrial nation in the world, the imperial power has
also been explained by the British needs for new markets for trade, materials, and such. Whatever
the reason, those who complied with British imperialism were offered many benefits such as
political powers and alliances, access to new trade opportunities, and exposure to Western culture
and education. For some, these benefits were worth it. For others, they were not.
The only way that Britain maintained such a huge empire as long as it did was due to its
support from at least part of many different populations of people. Without this support, Britain
would have been forced to use its military manpower and resources that it just really did not have.
The imperialism that occurred caused a mixing of people and culture that was considered to be
British but was actually made up of widely differing parts.
One of the main reasons for Britain s desire to expand control over different parts of the
world had an economic basis. Regions that were in a good economic location were attractive to
Britain. During the beginnings of Britain s first empire, great changes took place. Mercantilism,
the old economic system, was not compatible with British ideals on free trading markets. The
British were also committed to ending slavery, which caused conflict due to lost labor, decrease in
production, economic demands, and the illegal continuation of the slave trade.
Another reason for the widespread British influence came from Christians who felt
obligated to bring Christianity to those non-Europeans, who were considered less fortunate and
backwards. This group of people was largely involved in the movement to abolish slavery,
considering it to be inhumane and immoral. The desire to spread Christianity coincided with
missions to spread British culture as well.
The mid-nineteenth century British empire was controlled mostly informally, but several
threats to the stability of the empire eventually began to point toward a need for formality. The
Indian Mutiny caused great discomfort and tension between the British and the Indians in 1857,
and in 1873, the Great Depression also tested Britain s strength. By the latter part of the century,
Britain shifted to a formal empire and was more likely to use force in controlling and adapting its
people to British ways. It was actually conceptualized that Charles Darwin s ideas about fitness
applied to non-Europeans. Those who could not adapt to modern society and recognize Britain s
superiority were less fit and seen as being at an early evolutionary stage. This was yet another
excuse for British imperialists to rule because they believed that the non-Europeans were
incapable of ruling themselves.
The entire British Empire was complete by the start of the twentieth century. It had
grown by 100,000 square miles per year at mid-nineteenth century, an awesome accomplishment.
Though impressively huge and widespread, the British empire never had a uniform society with
one language, religion, and body of laws. As mentioned before, Britain s empire was maintained
only by the imperialists gaining support from at least a small group of population. In order for
this to be successful, they recruited local people in a population to serve as governors, officers,
and soldiers. This method of indirect rule allowed for many diverse cultures to maintain most of
their original beliefs, religions, and languages.
India s Place in the Empire
The greatest of Britain s possessions by far was India, which was ruled by Britain for over
two hundred years. It was important for Britain to maintain stability in India to keep the free flow
of commerce and tax collection possible. Indians made up most of the British army and served as
administrators for the British East India Company.
Problems came about when Britain tried to established an Anglicized middle class of
Indians by changing education. English literature was used to provide a Western education for
the Indians without converting them to Christianity. This was a success only in education, but it
did not change the cultural roots of the Indian people. It merely was seen by them as a way to
strengthen Indian society through knowledge. The British realized to the full extent in 1857 that
they could not restructure Indian society. In that year the Indian Mutiny revolt occurred. The
result of this Indian action was the British decision to take a firmer hand in ruling India. After this
major event, British Lord Charles Canning established the Raj, a great Indian power, as a reward
to British-loyal Indians. The Raj carried on an economic relationship with Britain that favored
The British and Africa
Another important region of the British empire was Africa, though there lay much unrest
concerning the British abolitionist movement. In an attempt to offer the Africans alternatives to
slavery, the British established legitimate commerce but it did not reduce slavery to a desirable
extent. British imperialists were impressed with African markets and raw materials, which they
needed. The Royal Geographic Society of 1788 began to explore uncharted areas of Africa in
order to gain economic information about Africa s unknown geography. They discovered many
economically strategic areas, resources, and the source of the Nile River during these
Britain was very determined to rule Africa informally. Though there seemed to be few
prospects of riches from Africa right away, the British imperialists saw it as a long-term
investment. Britain had to eventually use a formal force in Africa in order to defend against
competition from French and German imperialism. The relationship between British imperialists
and Africans changed monumentally when formality came about. The Berlin Conference of
Europeans in 1884 that divided Africa stripped African rulers of their power. A war was
eventually fought due to imperial rivals gaining too much influence in Africa. The British won
this war, because Africa s diverse cultures, religions, and languages deemed them powerless as a
whole under British rule.
The Ottoman and Chinese Empires
The British did not have quite as much success in their rulings in the Ottoman and Chinese
empires. The reasons for this were that both empires had complex economies and strong unified
religions (Islam and Confucianism) along with a strong belief of superiority above Christians.
Britain was able to gain some ground due to internal problems within the two empires and also
the widespread of opium addiction of the Chinese.
Pros and Cons of the Imperial Century
So was the British conquering of the world a good thing? Britain was never able to unite
its empire into a single unit, but it did break down political and geographic barriers in a successful
globalization process. The imperialist century resulted in diffusing cultures from all over. Though
the British language, law, and religion were the most dominant in the empire, the British also had
to understand and allow differences in those that they ruled. Many cultures held on tightly to their
roots and often, the British even adopted certain aspects of the cultures their people.
The bad part of the imperialist movement was the fact that it destroyed cultures, spread
diseases to people and animals of previously isolated areas, exterminated certain populations, and
caused breakdowns in cultural unities that had existed before. British imperialists justified these
results once again using the Social Darwinist perspective of fit societies. One way that the
British were able to gain support of their ruled was by simply making British culture a major key
to modern advancement. Some people were able to absorb British culture without totally
submitting to imperialism.
It was impossible for British to influence its empire without parts of its empire influencing
it as well. So though the exchange was not always equal, it did exist. A global empire changed
Britain just as it changed other parts of the world. Though the British power and the empire were
romanticized, the power was not always there and was not always strong. Non-western aspects
of life, dress, language, architecture, and decoration influenced Britain throughout the imperialist
The imperialist century changed the world. It broke down barriers that had never been
crossed before. Social unrest and problems caused rumors to fly that Europeans invented the
plague and other such disasters to simply gain power for the British. People were dissatisfied,
they sometimes resisted, and they sometimes died. Though a global diffusion may have had some
good results economically, as a whole the devastations that arose from the imperialist century led
down a road straight to the first world war and destroyed institutions and peoples that would
never be regained.