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Was the British Empire driven by Power and Greed? Imperialism and Colonialism

Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power.
Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power.

Was the British Empire driven by power and greed or was there no overarching set of motives for imperial expansion?


Not many academics are brave enough to defend the record of the British Empire.


After writing a positive review of Bruce Gilley’s article The Case for Colonisation, ‘all hell broke loose’ for the Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar.


Instead of backing down from the criticism, Biggar responded by starting the Ethics and Empire research centre in Oxford, dedicated to investigating the balance sheet of the rights and wrongs of British imperialism. 


Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning


However, his new book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, was pulled by Bloomsbury Publishing right before its release because ‘public feeling’ was ‘not currently favourable’. The book had already gone through rigorous peer review from some of the world’s most prominent academics on the subject.


Colonialism by Nigel Biggar (Cover)
Colonialism by Nigel Biggar (Cover)

Biggar’s book was not cancelled by its publishers for a lack of research, but rather a fear of backlash from anti-colonial activists.


As the British historian Niall Ferguson put it in one review:


‘those who wish to accuse the Victorians of genocide… will probably not risk being “triggered” by reading this book. But they really should.’

Any inquisitive observer of Western history should read this book because it is even-handed and balanced, accounting for every sin and good deed of the Empire while asking difficult moral questions.


What follows is a summary of the first chapter of his new book which asks, ‘Was the imperial endeavour driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate?’ 


Britannia Rules the Waves by Nicholas Habbe, 1876, in the Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria
Britannia Rules the Waves by Nicholas Habbe, 1876, in the Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria

The Motives Behind British Imperialism


‘Anti-colonialists often talk about "the colonial project", as if an empire such as the British one was a single, unitary enterprise with a coherent essence.’


This implies a single or simple cluster of motives developed out of an original plan to violently dominate, invade, and exploit colonies. But as Biggar points out, ‘there was no essential motivation behind the British Empire.’ 


For example, one of the original catalysts for the expansion of the Kingdom of Wessex (which would later form the British Empire) was its desire to defend itself against Danish and Welsh invaders. Additionally, the settlement of North America was largely in response to the growing imperial threat of Catholic Spain which was committed to eliminating Protestant Europe.


Other factors like the prospect of wealth for British privateers who raided Spanish ports and established colonies propelled competition. Many of these motivations were ironically ‘anti-imperial’ in which colonisation ensured self-defence and an advantage in international competition. 


The British Empire: Trade and Foreign Adventure


More popular motives were ‘the intention to trade and the excitement of foreign adventure.’ Biggar gives the example of John Malcolm, one of the East Indian Trading (EIC) company’s most senior officials.


Malcolm was born in south-west Scotland and left home at the age of twelve because his father had gone bankrupt and could not afford to feed his seventeen children. A year later he joined the EIC, fighting battles in Maratha, learning the Persian language, writing its history, and becoming the governor of Bombay.


Like many other civil servants, the reasons Malcom travelled to India were to escape poverty and earn a living, ‘without any desire to fleece its inhabitants.’ 


East India House in the City of London, England (Credit: M&S Literary Adventures via Flickr)
East India House in the City of London, England (Credit: M&S Literary Adventures via Flickr)

As the EIC continued to trade with the plurality of states left behind from the dissolution of the Mughal Empire in India, British commercial interests began to entail security interests of peace.


After hiring and training mostly Indian troops, the EIC with the support of the British Navy secured key trading ports to ensure safe trading. Many of the Indian rulers who keenly enlisted the British military paid the EIC through taxes and even the acquisition of land, which at times was excessive financial compensation but was equally encouraged by wealthy Hindu businessmen.


As the historian Tirthankar Roy points out, 


Turning the emergence of the empire . . . into a battle between good and evil creates melodrama; it invites the reader to take sides in a fake holy war. But if good soap opera, it is bad history. The empire was not an invasion. Many Indians, because they did not trust other Indians, wanted the British to secure power. They preferred British rule over indigenous alternatives and helped the Company form a state . . . The empire emerged mainly from alliances. It emerged from lands ‘ceded’ to the Company by Indian friends, rather than lands it ‘conquered’ . . . The Company came to rule India because many Indians wanted it to rule India.

Interestingly, profit was not the only motive driving EIC officers.


Both John Malcolm and Warren Hastings took a keen interest in Persian, Hindu and Bengali culture, learning their languages and pioneering the revival of Indian Sanskrit.


It was also agreed by EIC officers like Malcolm and James Abbott, that to leave India would be dangerous because it would cause a power struggle between warring states.


British Decolonisation in Africa
British Decolonisation in Africa

The British on the Continent of Africa


In Africa, there was also a confluence of factors that led to British expansion. 


  1. After the Abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century, Britain became committed to ending slavery across the world—particularly in Africa. Britain subsequently occupied more ports, patrolled the coastlines, and moved to stop the inland slave trade. 

  2. Second, Britain wanted to stop the spread of Militant Islam to protect trade with Uganda and Nyasaland. 

  3. Third, Britain was also motivated by a desire to end internecine warfare between kingdoms like the Zulu and Ndebele, which was a cause of human misery, slave trafficking and trade disruptions. 

  4. Fourth, as Lord Salisbury argued in the 1890 Anglo-German Agreement Bill, the acquisition of land would stop the escalation of European nations going to war over local conflicts. 

  5. Fifth, in places like Egypt, Britain was duty-bound to protect their investments in the Egyptian government which was on the verge of bankruptcy. London’s aims in Cairo were not to directly govern, but to enact fiscal reform to the benefit of both countries which was the view of the British comptroller general in Egypt, Lord Cromer. In fact, the colonial office did not want to directly govern Egypt because of the financial responsibility and burden of administration, the exact reason it declined the offer of exclusive control over Gladstone by the Ottoman Sultan. 

Edited map of the world showing the British Empire in 1886
Edited map of the world showing the British Empire in 1886 (Stuart Rankin via Flickr)

Britain in the Middle East & Elsewhere


In the Middle East, Britain came to occupy Iraq and Palestine because it entered conflict with the Ottoman Empire in 1914. 


After the disillusion of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, it assumed the role of overseeing Mesopotamia to rebuild Arab states and protect Jewish and Christian minorities at the request of the United Nations.


Britain stayed in Iraq at the wishes of King Faisal, who believed their evacuation would lead to certain political instability. This was despite the wishes of the Secretary of State Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who believed Britain had no vital interests in Iraq.


As early as Sir Thomas Munro, the governor of Madras from 1819-27, Britain saw its role in many of its colonies as the precursor to self-government. This reality was made pertinent after the American War of Independence, which saw Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa granted the status of self-governing dominions.


Britain Was Not Driven by Power


As Biggar concludes, there was no overarching ‘set of motives that drove the British Empire’. It was a collection of reasons which differed between ‘trader, migrant, soldier, missionary, entrepreneur, financier, government official and statesmen.’


These motives ranged from,


‘…the aversion to poverty and persecution, the yearning for a better life, the desire to make one’s way in the world, the duty to satisfy shareholders, the lure of adventure, cultural curiosity, the need to make peace and keep it, the concomitant need to maintain martial prestige, the imperative of gaining military or political advantage over enemies and rivals, and the vocation to lift oppression and establish stable self-government.’ 

As Biggar points out, ‘There is nothing morally wrong with any of these. Indeed, the last one is morally admirable.’


Of course, many of these were corrupted by individual agents which sometimes led to actions of disproportionate violence in some circumstances. But as we have seen those vices were not essential motivations to the British Empire.

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