In defence of the British Empire

In defence of the British Empire, by Richard Tombs.

The [politically correct view] has become over the last generation an orthodoxy: that the British Empire was a system of racism, slavery and exploitation; that it impoverished its colonies to such an extent that many have never recovered; that Britain’s wealth was founded (some say entirely founded) on these ill-gotten gains. Consequently, we should be ashamed of crimes against humanity that stain our whole history (‘It’s our Holocaust’, as I heard one well-known historian put it). …

It is a convenient way of combining various ‘intersectional’ grievances and nourishing a sense of victimhood. In short, this is not really a debate about history. Many of the assertions made are historically meaningless and are not made about other empires – the Ottoman, the Mughal, the Chinese. This is politics masquerading as history. …

The British Empire … has been aptly called ‘a global mosaic of almost ungraspable complexity and staggering contrasts’, so any generalisation is hazardous. Though it was fairly short lived — Clive of India’s pet tortoise outlived the Empire Clive helped create — it took place at a time of profound global change, to which it was a response and without which it could not have existed. …

No British government pursued all-out expansion: some countries asked to join the Empire and were turned down. It grew by persistent and usually reluctant mission-creep – what the historian John Robert Seeley famously called ‘a fit of absence of mind’.

The Empire was not a massive power structure. As one official put it in the 1920s, it was ‘a brontosaurus with huge vulnerable limbs which the central nervous system had little capacity to protect, direct or control.’ Under Queen Victoria the Indian Civil Service numbered only 2,000, and Uganda had just 25 British officials. It only functioned because most of its subject peoples were willing, and sometimes eager, to acquiesce in a system that offered (though could not always deliver) peace, order and access to trade.

The great imperial cities – Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Cape Town and so on – were built by the economic dynamism of their citizens, not by imperial fiat. The Empire was a joint creation of rulers and ruled, which gave it unusual legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects, millions of whom fought for it.

If the Empire was a system of exploitation, it was a very inept one. The British paid far more in tax than their European counterparts, much of it for imperial defence, while subjects of the Empire paid less tax than people outside it. Their defence, communications and trading systems were underwritten by Britain, which provided a large and open market for their exports. …

Whether Britain benefitted economically from having an empire is doubtful. …


Perhaps the most emotive [accusation] concerns slavery. During the 18th century, the peak of the huge and lucrative Atlantic slave trade, British merchants bought slaves from African rulers — on average, 120 people every day by the 1780s — and sold them primarily to French, Portuguese-Brazilian and British planters. Was this the source of Britain’s wealth, and the fuel of the Industrial Revolution? Profit from the slave trade made individuals rich, but accounted for about one per cent of national income. The Industrial Revolution’s key element was coal, of which Britain had a lot.

Where the British Empire’s relationship with slavery was unique was in combatting it. Britain abolished its own slave trade in 1807. In 1834 it abolished slavery throughout the Empire. British subjects were forbidden to own slaves anywhere in the world.

It also made strenuous international efforts. It inserted into the 1815 Treaty of Vienna a commitment to end the trade ­– the first human rights article in any treaty. The Royal Navy mounted permanent anti-slavery patrols, mainly off West Africa – where it freed 160,000 captives, including the boy who became the first African Anglican bishop – and also in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific as late as the 1880s. Diplomatic pressure, bribery and even force were used against African, American and European governments. In the second half of the century, Britain made a similar effort to stop the huge slave trade from Africa to the Muslim world, involving millions of victims.


One can blame everything on the Empire as long as one forgets everything else. There was indeed violence, harshness and disastrous error, recorded in British official documents which, notes one historian, give more detail of policy failings than one would get from United Nations reports today – or from the independent governments of some former colonies.

But for many violent and disturbed parts of the globe, the British Empire managed to stop endemic warfare, bring relative peace and order, and in some regions create substantial economic development. …

We should not accept the caricature which portrays us as living shamefully amid the ruins of a decadent evil empire. It seeks to demoralise and divide us, and displays a haughty contempt for the lives of those thus misrepresented.

Christian societies have nearly always eschewed slavery, only getting talked into it briefly by the Arabs and blacks. Soon afterwards they banned slavery, and forced a worldwide ban on slavery.

A key insight of Christianity, which forms the basis of western law, is that we are all equal in the eyes of God. If this life is but a prelude or test for the afterlife, you’d better behave in this life. Thus, might does not make right. This was revolutionary politics for the Roman era, which was rife with slavery and heavy sexual exploitation.

hat-tip Stephen Neil