THE british empire
“I raise up my voice, not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard...we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.
We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”
Malala Yousafzai (1997-)
the birth of an empire
How did English become one of the world's most spoken languages? How did a relatively small island come to rule nearly one-quarter of the world's population by 1921? Moreover, how did the British manage to dominate about a quarter of the land?
These questions force us to have a look at the rise and fall of the British Empire.
What do you understand by "empire"? Most encyclopedias would define an empire as a group of countries ruled over by a single monarch or ruling power. The British Empire was composed by the "mother country", Great Britain, and worldwide colonies. It was by far the largest empire in history, both in population, land and dominion. It had land on every continent, some of which are the most powerful and populous countries exisiting today, such as the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and India. It crossed the Equator and different time zones, and it was commonly said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire". Furthermore, it included a vast variety of climates and vegetation types. Some of the world's most famous landmarks used to be part of the British Empire, say the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the palace of Taj Mahal and the Himalayan National Park in India , the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru in Australia, and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. They are all on UNESCO's World Heritage List. These are all places that have a particular value to humanity and should therefore be protected for future generations to appreciate.
Great Britain was the world's most powerful nation for more than a century. In the 15th and 16th century the pioneers among British explorers gave birth to what would become the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The explorers established colonies all over the world, but initially the first settlements were founded in North America and the Caribbean. As time went by, the Empire expanded by also incorporating colonies in Africa and Asia. However, Britain was not alone in this quest for more land. France, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain and other European countries all have a past tainted by the imperial dream. To get some perspective on the extent of the British Empire it is useful to know that it included twice as many colonies as both France, Portugal and Spain. The Empire was never static and also either lost or incorporated new land through conflict and rivalry, for instance when France was defeated by Britain in 1763 and had to hand over the territory of Canada and most of the land east of the Missisippi River.
Timeline of the empire
The British Empire lasted for about 300 years and can be divided into two main periods; the First and the Second British Empire.
The first empire
Britain began establishing its first colonies in the 16th century, and by 1783 the British had built a great empire with colonies in both America and the West Indies (the Caribbean). This first period of the empire lasted until right after the American War of Independence (1775-1783). During the reign of King Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the invention of the compass and new methods of navigation made exploration, discoveries and trade possible. The British East India Trading Company was established in the early 1600s, and Britain began to take advantage of trade. The Company traded in cotton, tea, silk and indigo dye. Elizabeth sent expeditions to North America, and the colony of Virginia was created in her name. As time went by, 13 colonies were founded, and they came to be the at heart of the First Empire. However when the colonies gained their independence through the American War of Independence, Britiain had to look elsewhere for new colonies. Canada remained loyal to the Crown, but during the 17th and 18th centuries Britain also took control over Australia and New Zealand.
The second empire
Then, in the 19th century, the British established their "Second British Empire", with the colonisation of India and several conquests in Africa, including Egypt and Kenya. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) it doubled its size, making it the largest empire in history. The years between 1815 - 1914 are thus often called "Britain's imperial century". Britain was now a major sea-power and had acquired more advanced technology, such as the steamship, the railroad and the telegraph. In the late 18th century industrialisation had really sparked off in Britain, and especially textile factories were the reason why a great number of people moved to the cities in order to find work. The cities grew, as did the poor conditions in which people lived.
The decade of the 1880s is known as "the scramble for Africa", since Britain now competed against other European nations in colonising African countries, for instance France and Belgium. The Transatlantic Slave Trade, from the 16th to the 19th century, was a system where several European countries kidnapped Africans and brought them as slaves to plantations in America. Cotton, sugar, tobacco and rum were sent back to Europe to be refined in the factories there and sold for a good profit. The Transatlantic Trade, and the extensive trade with India and the trading posts in Asia, turned out really well for Britain. The ports in Britain were always full with ships from far and wide carrying goods, and this eventually made Britain a very wealthy nation.
In 1869 the new Suez Canal provided a direct link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, making the voyages from Britain to India much easier and quicker. In 1876, when the East India Trading Company was closed down, Queen Victoria was crowned the "Empress of India". The East India Company had gone from being a mere trading company to becoming the governor of India. When Victoria became the Empress, the control was transferred to her. India was to be known as "The Jewel in the Crown" of the Second British Empire, since it became the the most important of all the British colonies during this period.
the age of exploration
Sir Francis Drake was a British explorer and slave-trader in the service of England. He led the second expedition around the world in the late 1570s (Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan having led the first one). He was also known for being a privateer, that is, a pirat working for the British government. His cousin, Sir John Hawkins, was a privateer too and the first British slave trader. He was disliked by the Spanish slave traders because he threatened their slave-trading business in the Spanish West Indies, today known as the Caribbean. During one of his voyages with Drake their ships were attacked in Mexico by the Spanish fleet. This led to a war between the two countries. The conflict ended when England crushed the Spanish Armada in 1588. Now England truly became the dominant world power.
Another famous, British explorer was Sir Walter Raleigh. He led several expeditions to America in an attempt to find gold, increase trade with the "New World" and found new settlements. In 1585 he explored the east coast of North America and established a colony in the area he named Virginia, in honour of Queen Elizabeth I, also known as "the Virgin Queen" because she never married. During her reign, often called the Elizabethan Age, the uptil then small kingdom rose as a major European power in politics and trade.
At about this time Sir Humphrey Gilbert, also a privateer, made it to North America and founded an English settelement in Newfoundland in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. Moreover, in the early 1600s Captain Christopher Newport transported settlers to the first permanent English colony in America, Jamestown, in the state of Virginia. Among these was Captain John Smith, who was to become one of the leaders of the colony.
Furthermore, in the early 1600s a group of British traders founded the East India Company, in order to trade with India and Asia. However, as time went by, the company got involved in politics and became a representative of the British Crown. They seemed as such to be acting more as conquerors and governors than traders. By 1858 the British Crown was firmly established in India, ending a century of control by the East India Company.
We cannot forget the well-known Captain James Cook, an explorer and astronomer, who carried out numerous expeditions around the world, including to the Arctic and Antarctic. In 1770 he reached the east coast of Australia and claimed it for Great Britain. He also put New Zealand on the map.
By the end of the 1700s the British took Cape of Good Hope, near Cape Town in South-Africa, from the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch War. However, they returned it a few years later. The Cape marks the turning point between the Atlandtic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, and is thus important in terms of trade. When Holland and Napoelon became allies during the Napoleonic Wars, the British recaptured the colony in 1806 in order to protect the sea route to their Asian empire. The first British settlers arrived in 1820, some of whom settled in what is today known as Port Elizabeth. Others settled in Eastern Cape in order to defend the border against the native Xhosa people.
When the British forbade slavery in 1835, many Afrikaners travelled to the interior of the country to found their own republics. An Afrikaner, or Boer, is a white African, generally of Dutch origin. Different opinions reagarding slavery and the discovery of gold and diamonds a couple of decades later sparked off the Boer Wars between the British and the Afrikaners. During the second war, the Afrikaners were put in concentration camps and their farms burned down. The Afrikaners realised there was no alternative but to surrender, and signed a peace treaty with the British in 1902.
the Jewel in the crown
What do you know about India? What is the relationship between India and Great Britain? Have a look at the images and talk to your peers.
* The name "India" comes from the River Indus.
* India is the second most populated country in the world, after China.
* It is the seventh largest country by area.
* India is situated on the continent of Asia, and shares borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Burma and Bhutan.
* The capital city is New Dehli, but the most populated one is Mumbai (Bombay).
* The national symbol of India is the endangered Bengal Tiger.
* India became an independent country in 1947, ending British rule which began in 1858.
* India was one of the richest countries in the world until it became a British colony, attracting amongst others Cristopher Columbus who wanted to find a sea route to it.
* India has great geographic diversity and periods of heavy rain called Monsoon.
* It is a country of immense contrasts between the hypermodern society and millions of people living in extreme poverty.
* It is the world's largest democracy, considering parliamentary elections.
* Hinduism and Buddhism were born in India, about 80% of the population being Hindus.
* Islam is the second largest religion in India.
* India has the world's largest film industry, but most of the films are not Bollywood.
* India is a very multilingual country, the big six languages being Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu and spoken by more than 50 million people.
* English and Hindi are both official languages of India.
* Martial arts, yoga, chess and algebra are originally from India.
* The most popular sport in India is cricket.
* The first university in the world was established in India 700 BC.
During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), when the British Empire was at its hight, India was often referred to as "The Jewel in the Crown". How did it get this nickname?
Britain needed to find fresh resources abroad, so in 1600 a group of London businessmen set up the British East India Company to make money trading valuable spices from South Asia, mainly from India. It was supported by Queen Elizabeth I, who signed the founding document. The demand for spices in Europe was great, but the supply was limited, so therefore the prices were high. Spices such as pepper, cinnamon, ginger cloves, and nutmeg were needed to give more taste to the food and to make medicine. Until 1588 the spice trade had been monopolised by Spain and Portugal, but after Britain destroyed the Spanish Armada, Britain got its share of this wealthy business and managed to make a very good profit through the East India Company.
Gradually the Company extended its trade to different Asian countries. From China, for instance, it imported porcelain, tea and silk. At first the British traded it for silver, but worried that Britain was exporting too much silver, they started trading for opium instead, creating a big drug problem in China.
In addition to importing spices from India, the British started trading in beautiful and cheap Indian textiles made of cotton and silk, rice, and indigo dye, as well as tea. These products became more and more popular in Britain and Europe, making India an increasingly valuable part of the Empire. Textile workers in Britain argued that the import of Indian textiles threatened their business, but the demand for cloth in Britain soon silenced their protests.
The Industrial Revolution which hit Britain at the end of the 1700s created new possibilities for English businessmen. The fantastic growth of industry, improved farming techniques and the consequent population growth made it even more important to find land to put the population and sell their products. Uptil then it had been difficult to compete with Indian textiles producers, who had largely supplied Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas with their products. However, now English businessmen could import cheap raw cotton from plantations in North-America and produce their own textiles in factories at home. Factory-made cloth was much cheaper than Indian hand-made, so when they began exporting it to India, Indian textile-workers lost their job and income. In this way, India became not just a place to get resources, but also a large market where Britain could sell their British-made goods. Moreover, India had the largest army outisde Europe and they needed cheap textiles to make uniforms for their soldiers. Hence, controlling India through trade became equal to controlling its army.
Furthermore, the East India Company had to face competition from other European countries, and therefore set up its own military department and administration in India. Until then India had been ruled by several Indian emperors, who were all Muslims, but the dominance of the British military weakened some of them. Gradually, the East India Company got more and more control of India, until it governed most of the country, including Bengal, India's richest province. Now India was truly a colony of the British Empire.
The British had very little respect for the culture and religions in India, which had a tradition of religious tolerance. Religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, were able to live side by side. The East India Company started making changes without asking the Indians. Soon the Company tripled land taxes, leaving Indians in powerty and causing millions to die of famine. One of these taxes was the salt tax. The British declared it illegal for Indians to collect their own salt, but, on the other hand, the salt tax made it too expensive for ordinary Indians to buy salt from the British. The British government became concerned about how the Company was governing India, and sent a person to take the role of the first British Governor of India. Moreover, in 1813 the British government ended the Company's monopoly of all the trade with India.
Gradually there was a growing resentment against the British. The Indians were not happy about all the changes, and in 1857 there was a rebellion in the Bengal Army, which spread to other parts of the country. The deeper causes of the revolt remain uncertain, but what we do know is that the British had ordered the Bengal Army to use rifle cartridges which had an outer wrapping that needed to be bitten off before firing. There were rumours that the cartridges were covered in pig and cow fat. For Muslims pork is unclean, while Hindus look upon the cow as a holy animal. The soldiers felt offended, and a series of cruel fights started which lasted for more than a year. Eventually the British managed to recover the control, but the anti-British feelings continued to grow. The British then became even stricter, something which just made things worse.
Finally the East India Company was closed down, and in 1876 Queen Victoria was crowned "Empress of India". Now the British government was in direct control of the country. From now on the British tried to change their strategy and rather concentrate on making India progress, of course, also because it would benefit themselves. They built lots of railways and roads, besides helping industry grow. The British educational system was used as a model, and English started to be used at schools and in administration. The invention of the telegraph in the mid 1800s had made communication within the Empire easier, as did the telephone a couple of decades later. By the end of the 19th century the Empire had increased to such an extent that the British colonies had a population of 345.000.000, while the United Kingdom had 40.500.000.
India's Road to Independence
The Indian movement for independence, which started with the rebellion in the Bengal Army in 1857, lasted until India gained its independence from British rule in 1947. The period in which India was governed by the British is also known as the Raj. The independence movement included both armed and more pacific struggle, and different organisations and individual people were part of it, the most famous being Mahatma Gandhi.
Even though Britain somehow tried to change its strategy for governing India when Queen Victoria became the Empress, there were growing demands for independence among the Indians. Gandhi came from a well-off family and had studied law in England, before he travelled to South Africa, where there was great demand for labour. There he experienced how coloured people, including himself and other Indians, were discriminated by the British rulers. Being a lawyer, he found this terribly unjust, and he began his lifelong struggle for the poor and less privileged. In 1915, the year after the beginning of World War I, he returned to India, where he became the leader of the Indian Nationalist Movement. His dream was to see India as a free and independent state, where Hindus and Muslims could live together in peace.
Gandhi did not believe in violence, but rather supported a way of protest known as civil disobedience. He fought against what he considered unjust by peaceful means. This great leader showed his followers that one can fight and win a battle without using weapons. When he disagreed with a law, he protested against it by breaking it. He was then sent to prison, where he would go on a hunger strike. Seeing this, other Indian leaders would copy his example, and then ordinary people would follow. Consequently, the movement kept growing until it became impossible for the British to ignore it. Millions of people started following Gandhi, and during the following years he was put in prison countless times by the British. He was a very determined man who would not give up his ideas.
The British were baffled by this way of protesting and found it difficult to handle. Gandhi had given Indians the courage to face up to the colonial power, without using violence, but still risking their lives. The British responded by arresting thousands of protesters, until the prisons were full. Then, in 1919, the British shot men, women and children taking part in a peaceful protest in Punjab. This led to an even tenser relationship with the British. The following year Hindus and Muslims joined forces in a campaign to stop cooperating with the British, and many people gave up their jobs and stopped buying British products. Only Gandi had been able to unite these two religions for the sake of a common cause.
Gandhi protested against some of the rules that the British had imposed on India in the 18th century. Britain had forbidden the Indians to produce their own textiles, and rather let cheap, British, factory-made textiles take over the market. This had thrown millions of Indians into poverty. By encouraging the Indians to spin their own cotton and weave their own clothes, Gandhi and his followers would harm the British, who depended on the Indian market. Gandhi also refused to accept the British salt tax and the rule that made it illegal for Indians to collect their own salt. British salt became too expensive for ordinary Indians, making the salt tax a major problem for more or less the whole population. Gandhi regarded salt a basic necessity, so in 1930 he organised a 380 km salt march from the village of Ahmedabad to Dandi on the coast. The march, also known as the Dandi march, was peaceful and very successful, even though Gandhi was arrested after the march.
After World War II, Britain realised that it had become impossible for them to keep controlling the country, and eventually they agreed to give India its independence on August 15, 1947. However, many Muslims feared living in a country which was ruled by Hindus and where Hinduism was the major religion, and therefore the British decided to divide India into two separate states. India became the country for the Hindus and Sikhs, while Pakistan for the Muslims. This was a period of great unrest and cruelty on both sides. Muslims and Hindus who had been living side by side, now started fighting each other. About 17 million people left their homes in fear of their lives, and more than half a million were killed. Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus to India. Where there had been peace, now there was hatred. Mahatma Gandhi was against the idea of two separate states, and in 1948 he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic. Then, in 1965, India declared war on Pakistan, and finally, in 1971, East Pakistan was separated and became the country of Bangladesh. The British Partition of India turned out so sudden and violent that even today the countries are full of suspicion and hostility for each other.
the commonwealth of nations
The flag of The Commonwealth
At the beginning of the 20th century many of the countries which were colonies of the British Empire gained their independence and became self-governing dominions within the Empire. This process of becoming independent nations is called decolonisation, and it continued throughout the century. For instance, Canada had already become independent in 1867, while South-Africa, Australia and New Zealand got their independence in the first decades of the 20th century.
After becoming independent nations, the countries still remained united by their loyalty to the British Crown and through being members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The organisation consists of 53 nations. The members have a common history and culture as a result of having been part of the British Empire. One such big, shared interest is sports, and the Commonwealth countries frequently take part in the Commonwealth Games.
The Commonwealth was founded in 1926 and changed its name to the Commonwealth of Nations in 1949 in order to show that all member states are equally important. The Head of the Commonwealth is HM Queen Elizabeth II, but all the member countries have their own independent governments. In order to be part of the Commonwealth all the states need to be democratic countries and respect human rights. This is why some countries might be expelled if they go through a military coup or until they can prove that they no longer violate any human rights.
Are there any advantages of being a member of the Commonwealth? Well, it works for economic and social development, which has increased living standards in many of the member countries. Many of the countries are fairly poor, have a huge debt, and face big environmental problems. The Commonwealth also works for education, equality, diversity, and democratic values. In fact, diversity and unity may be said to be the cornerstones of the organisation.
English as a world language
How did the English language become so big? More than 335 million people speak English as their first language, being thus native speakers of English. This places English at third place, only beaten by Chinese, with its 1197 million natives speakers, while Spanish, with approximately 400 million native speakers, is the second most widely spoken language. English is the native language in 101 countries, and can be found on six continents. If we include people speaking English as a second language, the number would be a lot larger.
However, it is difficult to measure the amount of second language speakers and there are different ways of carrying out the statistics, so the figures always have some degree of uncertainty. If we look beyond this, English still has the status of the world's most important international language. For instance, if we take the amount of Internet users and number of articles published on Wikipedia, English rules without doubt. This is also true when it comes to the amount of books being published.
When the British established their colonies throughout the world and built their empire, they also brought their language, culture and politics. They imposed their own system of government, introduced their science, built railroads, set up schools based on their view on education, and, not to mention, demanded that the natives learnt English. The British, as did colonial rulers from most European countries, considered themselves superior to the natives. They oppressed the people and their culture, and, as a consequence, felt morally forced to bring "civilization" to the non-white population.
Heger, Halvor og Wroldsen, Nina; Crossroads 10A, Forlaget Fag og Kultur AS, Bergen, 2008; s.12-17 og 30-38.
past joins present