Lessons we can learn from the British Empire

There is much we can learn from the largest empire in history, the British Empire.

At its height in 1920, the British Empire theoretically controlled nearly one fourth, 24%, of the Earth’s land area, The World Atlas estimates. Yet less than a century later in 2019, all that was left of the Empire was 14 islands and military outposts, The Telegraph reports.

The culture, ideology, and institutions of the British Empire, however, still have a huge effect on the world. English, for instance, is the global language in finance, entertainment, business, aviation, and other fields.

Capitalism; the economic system of the British Empire, is now the globe’s economic system. Additionally, it was the British who exported industry, steam engines, railroads, repeating firearms, joint-stock companies, and the telegraph around the world and laid the basis for our global civilization.

British contributions to global culture include; the world’s most popular sport; football (soccer to Americans), cricket, spy stories, action movies (they started with James Bond), detective stories, mysteries, the most influential playwright Shakespeare, and pop music.

Notably, it was British bands like the Beatles that took American rock music around the world. Hence, the British Empire’s cultural influence looms larger than ever even though its political and military structures are history.

Studying the British Empire can show us the course today’s empires; such as the United States and the People’s Republic of China, could take. In addition, we could avoid some of Britain’s mistakes by studying the history of its empire.

Lessons we could learn from the British Empire Include:

Lesson One, bad government can last for a long time and grow in power

One of the most interesting features of the British Empire was how badly they governed it.

For instance, Sanghita Sanya estimates there were 31 famines in British India. In contrast, in his book; Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, Mike Davis claims there were 17 Indian famines in the 2,000 years before the British conquest.

Notably, the last of these catastrophes; the Bengal Famine famine, occurred in 1943 four years before the end of British rule. Critics blame British leaders; including Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, for the four million deaths in the Bengal famine.

Significantly, there has been no major famine in India since the British left in 1947. The Republic of India; a notoriously corrupt and inefficient government, has avoided famine while the supposedly enlightened British Raj could not.

Thus, the British Raj badly ruled India from beginning to end. Sadly, the Indian famines are only one example of Imperial British incompetence. Other examples of Imperial bungling include:

The American Revolution

Triggered by clumsy British policies like the Stamp Act, and the Boston Port Act. British strategy in that war was a carnival of errors which allowed outgunned and outnumbered Americans to win.

For example, the British commander Lord Howe refused to link his New York-based army up with the forces of General John Burgoyne which were invading from Canada. Had Howe done that the British could have split the 13 colonies in two and won the war. Instead, Howe invaded Pennsylvania where he did not even bother to destroy George Washington’s rag-tag army which was practically starving at Valley Forge.

Notably, American forces destroyed Burgoyne’s army at the Battle of Saratoga, because Howe was not there to support it. That victory convinced the French to intervene in the Revolution on the American side which led to British defeat.

The horrendous British casualties in World War One

The British Army suffered over 700,000 combat deaths in the First World War. Poor strategy and bad tactics caused many of those deaths. For instance, the Gallipoli campaign; in which killed or injured 73,485 men, in attempts to take a heavily fortified location in Turkey.

The British could have avoided many of those casualties and the war possibly shortened had they landed at the lightly defended city of Alexandretta (modern Iskenderun) instead. By conquering Alexandretta the British could have seized half the Middle East with the help of mutinous Arab troops in the Turkish army. 

In contrast, at Gallipoli the British Army never got off the beach. See Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia for a good overview of bad British decision making in World War I.

The Second Boer War

The Boer War, officially the Second Boer War, was the largest and costliest British conflict between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Largely caused by clumsy British attempts to seize the Witwatersrand gold-mining complex the world’s largest gold mine.

Over 100,000 people died in the Second Boer War. Those casualties include over 26,000 Boer; Dutch South African, civilians who died from malnutrition and disease in British Army concentration camps.

Despite all the bungling, the British Empire lasted for nearly 350 years. In addition, the British Empire grew after some of its worst catastrophes. For instance, the Empire reached its apex in 1920, two years after a near defeat in World War I. In addition, the Empire’s power grew to new heights after the catastrophic defeat in the American Revolution.

The British Empire shows bad governments often endure for a long time and sometimes grow in power. Hence, history often disappoints those who expect bad regimes to collapse because of folly.

Resources Drive the Course of Empire

The British Empire fought many wars for resources. For example, the fur trade sparked the French and Indian; or Seven Years War, in the mid-18th Century.

To explain, fur was a lucrative resource in the 18th Century. The French and Indian War broke out because American settlers were threatening France’s North American fur trade.

After the British drove the French out of North America, they inherited the French problem. American settlers began threatening the British fur trade and powerful Scottish commercial interests. British efforts to restrict American settlement beyond the Proclamation Line of 1763 helped provoke the American Revolution.

The conflict over fur continued after the Revolution. The British maintained military and trade outposts in areas claimed by the United States until the 1790s. British efforts to organize Native American resistance to American expansion; and protect the fur trade, continued until the War of 1812.

In the 1890s, the clumsy British attempts to seize the world’s largest gold mine Witwatersrand in South Africa provoked the Second Boer War. The Boer War was the costliest British imperial conflict in the 19th Century.

During the 20th Century, efforts to control Middle Eastern oil shaped British foreign policy. During World War II, Britain used most of its forces to protect the Middle Eastern oilfields and the Suez Canal from the Nazis and the Italians.

Oil provoked the 1956 Suez Crisis, the event many historians mark as the end of the British Empire. To explain, Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden tried to seize control of the Suez Canal with British, French, and Israeli troops.

The canal was the main artery through Middle East Oil reached Britain. However, Egyptian President Gamal Nasar seized the canal; which runs through Egyptian territory, for his country. Eden wanted to take the canal back for Britain.

Instead, the canal seizure effort; Eden’s government, and the remains of the British Empire collapsed when U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) refused to back Eden’s imperialism. Eight years later in 1964, Her Majesty’s Government withdrew its forces from points “East of Suez;” effectively pulling out of Asia, ending the Empire.

Notably, the British were willing to fight for oil at Suez, but not in India where there was no oil. The British pulled out of India, the so-called “Jewel in the Crown,” without a fight in 1947.

Territories Seized for Security Lead to War

Unlike the Spanish, the Russians, or the Japanese, the British did not set out to be imperialists. Instead, the British began as traders.

However, efforts to secure resources and “protect British interests” transformed trade into imperialism. The East India Company launched British military efforts in India to defend its trading posts.

Mission creep began, and by 1800 the East India Company had an army of 200,000 men. That gave Britain one of the largest armies in the world. In fact, the East Company’s Army was twice the size of the British Army fighting Napoleon.

To finance its army, the East India Company started collecting taxes and seizing political control. The British government turned India a territory administered by the Crown after the Great Mutiny; or Indian War for Independence, in 1857 and 1858. Ironically, the Mutiny was a revolt against the East India Company by disgruntled Indian soldiers.

In 1877, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed Queen Victoria Empress of India. India had become a key British territory and protecting India became almost the only object of British foreign and military policy.

For instance, the British bought the Suez Canal in 1875 to control the main shipping route to India. In 1882, 40,000 British troops invaded Egypt to put down a nationalist uprising that threatened British control of the canal. After the invasion, the monarchs, or Khedives, of Egypt became British puppets.

The occupation of Egypt embroiled Britain in two war in Egypt’s colony; the Sudan. The Madhist War in 1884 and 1885 and the conquest of the Sudan between 1896 and 1899. Thus, Britain’s efforts to secure the Empire by seizing more and more territory led to more and more war.

Another British effort to “secure” the Suez Canal spread World War I to the Middle East. In 1906, the British seized a large area of the Sinai Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire. The idea was to create a Buffer Zone between the Canal the Ottomans.

Instead, the seizure drove the Ottoman Turks into an alliance with the Germans. When World War I broke out, the Turks sided with the Germans and the British had to deploy tens of thousands of troops to the Middle East to protect the canal.

Finally, in World War II, most of Britain’s military effort and combat deaths came from efforts to protect the colonies from German, Italian, and Japanese attack. For example, Britain’s most important land battle in World War II El Alamein was a defense of Egypt; and the Suez Canal, from the German Afrika Korps.

Thus, the more territory Britain seized, the less secure it became; because the Empire was constantly at war. To explain, when Britain seized territory it had to deploy forces to protect and police those territories.

Moreover, by colonizing regions the British became responsible for the regions’ defense. For instance, the British fought several wars in Afghanistan to secure the main invasion route between Central Asia and India.

Hence, the Empire became a drain on Britain’s security and defense. For example, His Majesty’s Government had to beg the United States for military resources to protect the United Kingdom from Nazi attack in 1940 and 1941. One reason Britain lacked the resources for its own defense in 1940 was that most of the military resources were being used to “defend the Empire.”

Hopefully, the history of the British Empire can teach today’s leaders in Washington and Beijing the folly of imperialism. Empire leads to insecurity and war, not to a lasting peace.