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Title: The Character of the British Empire
Author: Muir, Ramsay, 1872-1941
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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NOTE.--_The following essay is based mainly upon a book by the same
author entitled "The Expansion of Europe," in which an attempt is made
to estimate the part played by various nations in extending the
civilisation of Europe over the whole world. A few references are
therefore given to the fuller treatment of various aspects of the
subject contained in the book._


Nearly all the great self-governing nations of the world are now
combined in a desperate struggle against the scarcely-veiled military
despotism of the Central European Powers, and the object of the struggle
has been well denned by President Wilson as the securing of freedom for
democracy, so that it shall be safe from the threats of militarist and
conquering empires.

In the forefront of the group of States engaged in the defence of
democracy stands the British Empire, the greatest dominion that has ever
existed in history, which covers a quarter of the earth's surface, and
in which a quarter of the earth's population is subject (at any rate, in
form) to the rule of two small European islands.

The very existence of this huge Empire seems to many people to stultify
in some degree the cause for which the world's democracies are fighting.
It seems, at first sight, to be simply the greatest example of that
spirit of conquest and of military dominion against which we are
striving. This is the view taken by some neutrals. "Imperialism is the
enemy," says one Swiss writer; "whatever form it takes, German or
Russian, British or French, it is equally the foe of free government."
The Germans themselves make great play with this notion. They describe
the British Empire as a vast, greedy tyranny, built up by fraud. They
invite us to free the oppressed millions of India before we talk
hypocritically about liberty. They assert that the naval supremacy of
Britain is far more dangerous to the freedom of the world than the
military power of Germany could ever be. Some people even in the allied
countries are affected by doubts of this kind. The Russian Socialists,
for whom imperialism has in the past meant nothing but a hideous
repression of freedom, are ready to assume that the British Empire,
because it is called an empire, must mean the same ugly things. And
criticism of the same kind can sometimes be heard in France, in Italy,
in the United States, and in Britain herself.

Our purpose, in this short paper, is to examine the truth of these
superficial impressions. But before we do so there are two preliminary
observations worth making.

The first is that men's minds are extraordinarily easily influenced by
mere _words_. The word "Empire" suggests, to many, conquest and dominion
over unwilling subjects. In so far as it does so, it begs the question.
As we shall try to show, this word is really misapplied to the British
realms. The character of their government and of the bond which holds
them together would be much better expressed by a phrase which is now
being widely used in Britain--the British _Commonwealth of Nations_. Of
course, that title also begs the question in a way. But the reader is
asked, at the outset, to keep in his mind, while he reads, the question,
"Is the title 'Empire,' or the title 'Commonwealth of Nations,' the
truer description of this extraordinary aggregate of lands and peoples?"

The second preliminary observation which we shall make is, that there
are certain outstanding features of the war which must have thrown a
striking light upon the character of the British Empire.

Over a million volunteer soldiers have come from the great
self-governing Colonies of the British Empire without any compulsion
being imposed upon them. The princes and peoples of India have vied with
one another in their generous and spontaneous gifts to the cause, while
Indian forces have fought gallantly in all parts of the world, and at
the same time India has been almost denuded of British troops. That is
not the sort of thing which happens when the masters of a tyrannical
dominion find themselves fighting for their very life. Apart from the
unhappy troubles in Ireland (which were the work of a small minority)
and the rebellion in South Africa (which was promptly put down by the
South African Dutch themselves), there has been no serious disturbance
in all the vast realms of this Empire during the three years' strain of
war. Even the most recently subdued of African tribes have shown no
desire to seize this opportunity for throwing off "the foreign yoke." On
the contrary, they have sent touching gifts, and offers of aid, and
expressions of good-will. It appears, then, that the subjects of this
"Empire" have, for the most part, no quarrel with its government, but
are well content that it should survive.


The creation of the British Empire has been simply a part (though,
perhaps, the greatest part) of that outpouring of the European peoples
which has, during the last four centuries, brought the whole world
under the influence of western civilisation. That is a great
achievement, and it has brought in sight the establishment of a real
world-order. It is merely foolish to condemn the "lust of conquest"
which has driven the European peoples to subdue the rest of the world,
though, of course, we ought to condemn the cruelties and injustices by
which it has sometimes been accompanied. But without it North and South
America, Australia, and South Africa would have remained deserts,
inhabited by scattered bands of savages. Without it India would have
been sentenced to the eternal continuance of the sterile and fruitless
wars between despotic conquerors which made up her history until the
British power was established. Without it the backward peoples of the
earth would have stagnated for ever in the barbarism in which they have
remained since the beginning. The "imperialism" of the European nations
has brought great results to the world. It has made possible that
unification of the political and economic interests of the whole globe
which we see beginning to-day. It is one of the fine aspects of this
grim and horrible war that it affects the interests of the whole world,
and that the whole world knows this.

The giant's part which has been played by Britain in the conquest of the
world by Western civilisation, and the peculiar character of her work,
have been due to two things--British institutions and the British Navy.

It ought never to be forgotten that down to the nineteenth century (that
is, during all the earlier part of the process of European expansion)
Britain was the only one of the greater European States which possessed
self-governing institutions. She has been, in truth (this is not a
boast, but a mere statement of indisputable historical fact), the
inventor of political liberty on the scale of the great nation-state, as
Greece was the inventor of political liberty on the scale of the little
city-state. And wherever free institutions exist to-day, they have been
derived from Britain, either by inheritance, as in America and the
self-governing British colonies, or by imitation, as in all other cases.

When the outpouring of Europe into the rest of the world began, the
British peoples alone had the habit and instinct of self-government in
their very blood and bones. And the result was that, wherever they went,
they carried self-government with them. _Every_ colony of British
settlers, from the very first, was endowed with self-governing
institutions. _No_ colony ever planted by any other nation ever obtained
corresponding rights.[1] That is one of the outstanding features of
British expansion. In the eighteenth century, and even in the middle of
the nineteenth century, Britain herself and the young nations that had
sprung from her loins were _almost the only free States existing in the
world_. It was because they were free that they throve so greatly. They
expanded on their own account, they threw out fresh settlements into the
empty lands wherein they were planted, often against the wish of the
Mother Country. And this spontaneous growth of vigorous free communities
has been one of the principal causes of the immense extension of the
British Empire.

Now one of the results of the universal existence of self-governing
rights in British colonies was that the colonists were far more prompt
to resent and resist any improper exercise of authority by the Mother
Country than were the settlers in the colonies of other countries, which
had no self-governing rights at all. It was this independent spirit,
nurtured by self-government, which led to the revolt of the American
colonies in 1775, and to the foundation of the United States as an
independent nation. In that great controversy an immensely important
question was raised, which was new to human history. It was the
question whether unity could be combined with the highest degree of
freedom; whether it was possible to create a sort of fellowship or
brotherhood of free communities, in which each should be master of its
own destinies, and yet all combine for common interests. But the
question (being so new) was not understood on either side of the
Atlantic. Naturally, Britain thought most of the need of maintaining
unity; she thought it unfair that the whole burden of the common defence
should fall upon her, and she committed many foolish blunders in trying
to enforce her view. Equally naturally the colonists thought primarily
of their own self-governing rights, which they very justly demanded
should be increased rather than restricted. The result was the unhappy
war, which broke up the only family of free peoples that had yet existed
in the world, and caused a most unfortunate alienation between them,
whereby the cause of liberty in the world was greatly weakened.[2]

Britain learned many valuable lessons from the American Revolution. In
the new empire which she began to build up as soon as the old one was
lost, it might have been expected that she would have fought shy of
those principles of self-government which no other State had ever tried
to apply in its over-sea dominions, and which seemed to have led (from
the imperialistic point of view) to such disastrous results in America.
But she did not do so; the habits of self-government were too deeply
rooted in her sons to make it possible for her to deny them
self-governing rights in their new homes. On the contrary, she learnt,
during the nineteenth century, to welcome and facilitate every expansion
of their freedom,[3] and she gradually felt her way towards a means of
realising a partnership of free peoples whereby freedom should be
combined with unity. Its success (although it must still undergo much
development) has been strikingly shown in the Great War.

Thus British institutions--the institutions of national self-government,
which are peculiarly British in origin--have played a main part both in
determining the character of the British Empire and in bringing about
its wonderful expansion. The more the British Empire has grown the more
freedom has been established on the face of the earth.

The second great factor in the growth of the British Empire has been the
power of the British Navy, which has been the greatest sea power of the
world practically since the overthrow of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

It is a striking fact that in all her history Britain has never
possessed a large army, until the necessities of this war suddenly
forced her (as they are now forcing America) to perform the miracle of
calling her whole manhood from the pursuits of peace to arms, of
training them, and of equipping them, all within two years. In 1775 it
was the fact that she possessed only a tiny armed force (some 40,000 men
for the defence of all her dominions), which made it necessary for her,
for example, to hire Hessian troops in a hurry for the purposes of the
American War of Independence. Is not this an astounding paradox, that
the power which has acquired dominion over one-quarter of the earth has
done it without ever possessing a large army? And does it not suggest
that the process by which this empire was acquired must have been very
different from the ordinary processes of military conquest? This is a
paradox which those who speak of the British Empire as if it were a mere
military dominion must somehow explain.

But there has been the supreme British fleet. It has made the creation
and preservation of the Empire possible by securing the free transit not
merely of soldiers, but, far more important, of settlers, merchants,
administrators, organisers, and missionaries. Scattered as it is over
all the seas of the world, the British Empire would undoubtedly be
broken into fragments if the security of the ocean high-roads by which
it is united were ever to be lost. But although the British Navy has
made the growth of the Empire possible, and has held it together, it has
not conquered it. A fleet _cannot_ conquer great areas of land; it
_cannot_ hold masses of discontented subjects in an unwilling obedience;
it _cannot_ threaten the freedom or independence of any land-power. It
is strong only for defence, not for offence.

There are two aspects of the work of the British Navy during the last
three centuries which deserve to be noted, because they also help to
indicate the character of the work done by the British Empire during
this period.

In the first place, the British naval power has never been used to
threaten the freedom of any independent State. On the contrary, it has
been employed time and again as the last bulwark of freedom against
great military Powers which have threatened to overwhelm the freedom of
their neighbours by mere brute strength. That was so in the sixteenth
century, when Spain seemed to be within an ace of making herself the
mistress of the world. It was so a hundred years later, when the
highly-organised power of Louis XIV. threatened the liberties of Europe.
It was so again, a century later, when Napoleon's might overshadowed the
world. It is so once more to-day, when the German peril menaces the
liberty of nations. During each of these desperate crises the British
Navy has seemed to neutrals to be interfering unduly with their trade,
in so far as their trade helped the enemy. In this connection it is
worth noting that it has been for two centuries the invariable rule of
the British Navy that in no circumstances must a neutral vessel ever be
sunk, and in no circumstances must the lives of non-combatants be
sacrificed. But is it not reasonable to say that in each of these great
wars the theoretic rights of neutral trade were justly subordinated to
the struggle for the preservation of liberty? In all the great crises of
modern European history, then, British naval power has been the ultimate
bulwark of liberty.

But how has this power been used in times of peace? The Spanish naval
power, which preceded the British, enforced for its people a monopoly of
the use of all the oceans of the world except the North Atlantic. The
Dutch naval power, which carried on an equal rivalry with the British
during the seventeenth century, established a practical monopoly for
Dutch trade in all the waters east of the Straits of Malacca. But the
British naval power has never for a moment been used to restrict the
free movement of the ships of all nations in times of peace in any of
the seas of the world. This, again, is not a boast, but a plain
statement of undeniable historical fact. The freedom of the seas in
times of peace (which is much more important than the freedom of the
seas in times of war) has only existed during the period of British
naval supremacy, but it has existed so fully that we have got into the
habit of taking it for granted, and of assuming, rather rashly, that it
can never be impaired. What is more, it has been entirely during the
period of British naval supremacy, and mainly by the work of the British
fleet, that the remoter seas have been charted and that piracy has been
brought to an end, and the perils of the sailor reduced to the natural
perils of wind and wave. This also is a contribution to the freedom of
the seas.

British institutions, the institutions of self-government, and the
British Navy, which has at all times been a bulwark of liberty, and has
never interfered in times of peace with the use of the seas by any
nation--these have been the main explanations of the fabulous growth of
the British Empire. We cannot here attempt to trace the story of this
growth, but must be content to survey the completed structure and
consider on what principles it is governed.

[1] See "The Expansion of Europe," Chapters II. and III.

[2] See "The Expansion of Europe," Chapter IV., where this view of the
American Revolution is developed.

[3] See "The Expansion of Europe," Chapter VI., where the
"Transformation of the British Empire" during the nineteenth century is


The vast realms of the British Empire fall naturally into three groups:
the great self-governing dominions, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New
Zealand, and Newfoundland; the lands of ancient civilisation, India and
Egypt; and the wide protectorates (mainly in Africa, but also in Asia
and the Pacific) which are inhabited by backward and primitive peoples.
There are other regions also, such as the West Indian Islands, or the
military posts and calling stations like Gibraltar, Malta, and Aden,
which do not fall into any of these three categories. But they are of
relatively minor importance, and it will be convenient to concentrate
our attention upon each of the three main groups in turn.

Regarding the self-governing dominions, the intelligent reader scarcely
needs to be told that they are to all intents and purposes entirely free
States, which remain in association with the Mother Country only by
their own free will. If they were to claim complete independence, there
would certainly be no attempt made by Britain to force them to remain in
partnership, though the breach would be a great sorrow to the Mother
Country. They make their own laws; they appoint all their own officials
(except the Governors, who perform almost purely formal functions,
corresponding to those performed by the King in the "crowned republic"
of Britain); they levy their own taxes, and both may and do impose any
duties they think fit upon imports from Britain equally with those
coming from other States. They pay not a farthing of tribute to the
Mother Country. They are not even required to contribute to the cost of
the Navy, which protects them all, though some of them make voluntary
contributions. The only restriction upon their political independence is
that they do not pursue an independent foreign policy or maintain
ambassadors or consuls of their own in foreign countries. The
responsibility (and the total cost) of this function falls upon Britain.
If Britain should be drawn into war, the great dominions are also
technically at war, and if Britain were to pursue a warlike or
aggressive policy, this would soon alienate some or all of these young
democracies. But it is only by their own free will that they take any
part in a war in which Britain is involved, and the Mother Country has
neither the right nor the power to demand military aid from them. Yet we
have seen what whole-hearted and generous aid they have all given. Would
it have been as great, or as valuable, if it had been compulsory?
Gradually they are beginning, through their Prime Ministers or other
representatives, to take a more and more effective part in the direction
of the common policy of the Empire. The meetings of what was called the
"Imperial War Cabinet" in the spring of 1917 marked a definite stage in
this development, and incidentally afforded a very striking proof of the
elasticity and adaptability of the British system of government. It is
certain that this method of co-operation will be carried still further
in the future.

Clearly, so far as concerns the great dominions, the British Empire is
far from being a military domination imposed by force. It is a voluntary
partnership or brotherhood of free peoples, a Commonwealth of Nations.
It is a wonderful achievement in the combination of unity and freedom,
an experiment in the unforced co-operation of free States such as has
never before been seen in human history. If _that_ is the meaning of
Imperialism, who will cavil at it?

Only one series of events has prevented a large part of the world from
realising that this was the spirit in which the British Empire was
governed. The South African War made Britain appear, in the eyes of most
of the world, a vast, greedy, tyrannical power, which, not content with
an already immense dominion, must fall upon and devour two tiny, free
republics, merely because they contained gold! But the world did not
appreciate the real meaning of the South African War.[1] In the British
South African colonies (the Cape and Natal) the fullest equality of
political rights was enjoyed by Dutch and British residents alike, and
their institutions were the same as those of other British dominions.
But in the semi-independent Dutch republics of the Transvaal and the
Orange Free State (especially the former) no such equality of rights
existed. The ideal they aimed at was that of Dutch predominance, and
some of their leaders hoped in time to drive the British out of Africa,
and to establish there an exclusively Dutch supremacy. This did not
matter so long as the inhabitants of these lands were only a few Dutch
farmers. But when the discovery of gold and diamonds brought an immense
inrush of British and other settlers, who henceforth produced nearly all
the wealth of the country, this denial of equality of rights became
serious, and the programme of Dutch conquest, prepared for mainly at the
cost of the new settlers, began to seem dangerous. This was the real
cause of the South African War. It might, perhaps, have been avoided,
and, if so, those who precipitated it unnecessarily were much to blame,
whether they were Boers or Britons. There were faults on both sides. But
essentially the war was, on Britain's side, a war for equality of
rights. What were its results? So far as Britain was concerned, the
bones of thousands of her sons lay on the African veldt, and her public
debt was vastly increased. She made no direct material gains of any
sort: the gold-mines remained in exactly the same hands as before. But
so far as South Africa was concerned, the result was that in a very few
years the conquered republics were given full self-governing powers, on
the basis of equal rights for both races, and a few years later they and
the older British colonies combined in the Union of South Africa, a
great, free, federal state, in whose affairs Dutch and British have
equal rights, and in which a new nation, formed by the blending of the
two races, can grow up. _That_ was what British imperialism led to in
South Africa.

And now observe the sequel. When the great war began (scarcely more than
a dozen years from the time when Dutch and Britons were fighting
bitterly) the Germans tried to bring about a revolt among the more
ignorant Dutch. It was put down by the forces of the Union, mainly
Dutch, led by Louis Botha, who had once been the commander-in-chief of
the Transvaal army, and was now the prime minister of a self-governing
dominion within the British Empire. And then, still led by Botha, a
combined force of Dutch and Britons proceeded to the conquest of German
South-West Africa, suffering casualties which, by a happy chance, were
exactly equally divided between the two races. And then a South African
contingent was sent to East Africa, and the supreme command over them,
and over British regulars and Indian regiments and native levies, was
assumed by the Dutch General Smuts, once a formidable leader against the
British. And, lastly, General Smuts came to England to join in the
deliberations of the Imperial War Cabinet, and to make speeches of
profound foresight and political wisdom to the British people, in which
he sang the praises of the British Commonwealth of free nations as
something that deserved every sacrifice from the peoples enrolled under
its sheltering ægis.

Is there any parallel to these events in the history of the world? And
is the Empire whose spirit leads to such results to be spoken of as if
it were a mere, ruthless military dominion?

[1] See "The Expansion of Europe," Chapters VI. and VIII., for an
analysis of British policy in South Africa.


The second great group of British dominions consists of those ancient
and populous lands, notably India and Egypt, which, though they have
been able to develop remarkable civilisations, have never in all their
history succeeded in establishing the rule of a just and equal law, or
known any form of government save arbitrary despotism.

It is impossible to trace here, even in the baldest out-line, the steps
by which Britain acquired the sovereignty over India and Egypt.[1] They
form two of the most curious and romantic episodes in history, for the
strange thing is that in both cases British intervention was begun with
no thought of conquest, and in both cases the responsibility of
political control was assumed by Britain with very great reluctance.
This may sound incredible, but it is an indisputable historical fact. We
must content ourselves with a very brief analysis of the character and
results of the British dominion.

What, then, has the establishment of British power meant in India? Until
the British power was established, India had in all her long history
never known political unity. She had seen nothing but an almost
uninterrupted succession of wars, an endless series of conquests and
evanescent dominions. Always Might had been Right; Law had represented
only the will of the master, and the law courts only the instruments of
his arbitrary authority, so that the lover of righteousness could only
pursue it by cutting himself off from all the ties of society and living
the life of the ascetic. India was the most deeply divided land in the
world--divided not only by differences of race and tongue (there are 38
distinct languages in India to-day, and some of them differ more widely
than Russian and Spanish), but divided still more deeply by bitter
conflicts of creed and, most sharply of all, by the unchanging,
impermeable barriers of caste, which had arisen in the first instance
from the determination of conquering peoples to keep themselves free
from any intermixture with their subjects. Nowhere in the world are
there to be seen, cheek by jowl, such profound contrasts between
distinct grades of civilisation as are represented by the difference
between (say) the almost savage Bhils or the out-caste sweepers, and the
high-bred Brahmin, Rajput or Mahomedan chiefs. One result of these
time-worn distinctions is that through all the ages the ruling castes
and races have been accustomed to expect, and the mass of humble men to
offer, the most abject submission; so that British administrators have
often had to complain that the chief difficulty was, not to make laws
for the protection of the humble, but rather to persuade those for whose
benefit they were made to take advantage of them.

To this divided land the British rule has brought three inestimable
boons: a firmly organised political unity; the impartial administration
of a just and equal system of law, based on a codification of Indian
usages; and the maintenance of a long, unbroken peace. To this may be
added the introduction not only of the material boons of western
civilisation--railways, roads, irrigation, postal facilities, and so
forth--but of western learning. This has had to be conveyed through the
vehicle of English, because it was impossible to create, in all the 38
vernaculars, a whole literature of modern knowledge. And the consequence
is, that all the members of the large and growing class of
University-trained students, whose existence for the first time creates
an instructed public opinion in India, are able freely to communicate
with one another, and to share a common body of ideas, to an extent that
has never before been possible in all the earlier history of India. Out
of all these causes, due to the British rule, there has begun to arise
in this deeply divided land a sentiment of national unity, and an
aspiration after self-government. This sentiment and this aspiration are
in themselves excellent things; their danger is that they may lead to a
demand for a too rapid advance. For national unity _cannot_ be created
by merely asserting that it exists. It will not be fully established
until the deeply-rooted differences which are only beginning to be
obliterated have largely ceased to determine men's thoughts and actions,
as they still do in India. And self-government, on the amplest scale of
modern democracy, cannot be achieved until the traditionally ascendant
classes, and the traditionally subject classes, have alike learned to
recognise the equality of their rights before the law. But the
foundations have been made of advance towards both of these aims; they
are the result of British rule.

There are discontents in India; there is much sharp criticism of the
methods of the supreme Government, especially--almost exclusively--among
the new class of western-educated men. But the criticism has not gone so
far, except with a very few fanatics, as to assert that British rule is
itself unjust or evil; on the contrary, all the best opinion in India
desires to see that great land steadily progressing towards greater
national unity and greater political liberty under the guidance and
protection of British rule; all the best opinion in India recognises
that the progress already made has been due to British rule, and that
its continuance depends upon the continuance of British rule; all the
best opinion in India desires that India, even when she becomes, as she
will steadily become, more fully self-governing, should remain a partner
in the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was a real satisfaction of
one of the aspirations of India when three representatives of the Indian
Government, an Indian prince, an Indian lawyer, and an Anglo-Indian
administrator, came to London in the spring of 1917 to take part in the
councils of the Empire during the crisis of its destiny. Criticism and
discontent exist. But their existence is a sign of life; and the freedom
with which they are expressed is a proof that the Government of India
does not follow a merely repressive policy, and that the peoples of
India have at last been helped to escape, in a large degree, from that
complete docility and submissiveness which are the unhappy signs that a
people is enslaved body and soul.

India does not pay one penny of tribute to Britain. She pays the cost of
the small, efficient army which guards her frontiers, but if any part of
it is borrowed for service elsewhere, the cost falls upon the British
Treasury. This rule was, indeed, broken in regard to the first Indian
contingents in the present war, but only at the request of the Indian
members of the Viceroy's Legislative Council. India contributes not a
penny towards the upkeep of the British fleet, which guards her shores;
nor does she defray any part of the cost of the consuls and ambassadors
in all parts of the world who protect the interests of her travelling
citizens. She is a self-dependent state, all of whose resources are
expended on the development of her own prosperity, and expended with
the most scrupulous honesty and economy. Her ports are open, of course,
to British traders, but they are open on precisely the same terms to the
traders of all other countries; there is no special privilege for the
British merchant. Recently she has entered upon a policy of fiscal
protection, with a view to the development of cotton manufactures. This
policy was directed primarily against Lancashire. But because Indian
opinion demanded it, it has not been resisted, in spite of the fact that
the bulk of British opinion holds such a policy to be economically
unsound. Nor have British citizens any special privileges in other
respects. It was laid down as long ago as 1833, as an "indisputable
principle," that "the interests of the native subjects are to be
consulted in preference to those of Europeans, wherever the two come in
competition." Where will you find a parallel to that statement of policy
by the supreme government of a ruling race?

India, in short, is governed, under the terms of a code of law based
upon Indian custom, by a small number of picked British officials, only
about 3,000 in all, among whom highly-trained Indians are increasingly
taking their place, and who work in detail through an army of minor
officials, nearly all Indians, and selected without respect to race,
caste, or creed. She is a self-contained country, whose resources are
devoted to her own needs. She is prospering to a degree unexampled in
history. She has achieved a political unity never before known to her.
She has been given the supreme gift of a just and impartial law,
administered without fear or favour. She has enjoyed a long period of
peace, unbroken by any attack from external foes. Here, as fully as in
the self-governing Colonies, membership of the British Empire does not
mean subjection to the selfish dominion of a master, or the
subordination to that master's interests of the vital interests of the
community. It means the establishment among a vast population of the
essential gifts of western civilisation--rational law, and the liberty
which exists under its shelter.

What has been said of India might equally be said of Egypt, _mutatis
mutandis_, but space does not permit of any detail on this theme. Enough
to say that the achievements of the short period since 1882, when the
British occupation began, in the rescuing of the country from
bankruptcy, in the abolition of the hideous tyranny under which the mass
of the peasantry had long groaned, in the development of the natural
resources of the country, in the introduction of western methods of
government and education, in the removal of the peril of returning
barbarism which threatened from the Soudan, and in the establishment of
a just and equal system of law, is something which it would be hard to
match in the records of history.[2]

Both in India and in Egypt lands of ancient civilisation have been
rescued from a state of chaos and set upon the path which leads to unity
and freedom. And in both countries, if the kind of political liberty
which consists in the universal diffusion of a share in the control of
government has not yet been established, it is because the peoples of
these countries are not yet ready for that, and because the premature
establishment of it, by enthroning afresh the old ruling castes, would
endanger the far more real gifts of liberty which _have_ been
secured--liberty of thought and speech, liberty to enjoy the fruits of a
man's own labour, freedom from subjection to merely arbitrary superiors,
and the establishment of the elementary rights of the poor as securely
as those of the powerful.

Empires, like men, are to be judged by their fruits.

[1] India is dealt with in Chapters III., IV., VI., and Egypt in Chapter
VIII. of "The Expansion of Europe."

[2] The causes of the British occupation of Egypt, and the development
of Egypt under British control, are discussed in "The Expansion of
Europe," Chapter VIII.


Lastly, we come to the vast regions inhabited wholly or mainly by
backward or primitive peoples. Most of these are territories of
comparatively recent acquisition. And it is here, and practically here
alone, that the British Empire comes into comparison with the recently
created empires of other European states, France, Germany, Italy and
Belgium; none of which possess any self-governing colonies, or any
extensive lands of ancient civilisation like India, unless the French
colonies of Algeria and Annam are to be regarded as falling within the
latter category.

The establishment of European control over most of the backward regions
of the world has been, for the most part, a very recent and a very rapid

The rush for extra-European territory which has taken place since 1878
is frequently regarded as a merely sordid exhibition of greed and of the
lust for power; and indeed, some features of it deserve condemnation.
But it ought to be recognised that this huge movement was, in the main,
both necessary and beneficial. It was necessary because modern
scientific industry needed the raw materials produced in these lands,
and the primitive savagery of their occupants could not permanently
stand in the way of the triumphant march of material progress. And it
was (or was capable of being made) highly advantageous, not only to the
industrial world, but to the backward peoples themselves, who, apart
from it, might never have emerged from the unchanging barbarism in which
they have mostly rested since the beginning of time. Whether that was to
be so or not, depended, of course, upon the spirit in which the task was
undertaken. We have seen some hideous examples of depraved cruelty in
the treatment of backward peoples, as in Leopold of Saxe-Coburg's
administration of the Congo (which improved beyond recognition as soon
as it was taken over by the Belgian Parliament), or as in the ruthless
German slaughter of the Hereros in South-West Africa. But on the whole,
and with exceptions, the establishment of European control has been as
beneficial to its primitive subjects as it has been advantageous to the
development of modern industry.

In spite of the vast extent of her Empire in other regions, Britain has
taken a far larger share of this work than any other single power;
perhaps, all things considered, she has taken as great a share as all
the rest put together. What are the reasons for this?

The first reason is that Britain had begun long before any of the other
powers. Both in Africa and in the islands of the Pacific, the work of
exploration was mainly done by British travellers; British traders had
almost alone been known to the native populations; and British
missionaries, who were extraordinarily active during the nineteenth
century, had planted themselves everywhere, and played an immensely
important part in civilising their simple flocks. Wherever the
missionary went, he undertook the defence of the primitive peoples to
whom he preached, against the sometimes unscrupulous exploitation of the
trader. It was the constant cry of the missionaries that the British
Government ought to assume control, in order to keep the traders in
order. They, and the powerful religious bodies at home which supported
them, did much to establish the principle that it was the duty of
government to protect the rights of native races, while at the same time
putting an end to such barbarous usages as cannibalism, slavery, and
human sacrifice, where they survived. Often, too, native chieftains
begged to be taken under British protection; while the better type of
traders were anxious to see civilised administration set up, because it
is only under civilised administration that trade can permanently
thrive. Thus the British Government was under continual pressure from
all sides, while the governments of other European countries as yet took
no interest in colonial questions. The British Government was extremely
loth to assume additional responsibilities, and did its best to avoid
them. But some annexations it could not avoid.

Thus before the great European rush for colonies began, Britain, and
Britain alone, had acquired a very wide experience in the government of
backward peoples, and had worked out fairly clearly defined principles
for the government of such peoples. What is more, in all the regions of
this type which she controlled--indeed, throughout her whole Empire,
everywhere save in the self-governing Colonies--it had become the
practice of Britain to throw open all her ports and markets to the trade
of all nations on exactly the same terms as to her own merchants. She
is, in fact, the only great colonising Power which has adopted this
principle. If a British merchant goes to the Philippines, or to
Madagascar, or to Togoland, he finds that he has to compete with his
American, French, or German rival on unequal terms, because a tariff
discriminates between the citizen of the ruling people and the foreign
trader. But if an American, French, or German merchant goes to India, or
to any British Crown Colony or protectorate, he is admitted on exactly
the same terms as the Briton. That distinction had already been
established before 1878, though it has been accentuated since that date.

The British method of administering backward regions as worked out
before 1878 was therefore based upon two principles, first the
protection of native rights, and secondly the open door to all trading
nations; and Britain may fairly be said to have learnt to regard
herself as being, in these regions, a trustee--a trustee on behalf of
her subjects, and on behalf of the civilised world. Is it not true that
if these principles had been universally adopted, half the bitterness
which has been due to the rivalry of the European Powers for colonial
possessions would have been obviated? To-day these principles are being
advocated by many earnest men as representing the only mode by which the
supremacy of western civilisation throughout the world can be reconciled
with the avoidance of bitter rivalry and war between the civilised
states; and they are preached as if they were a new doctrine of
salvation. Yet they have been consistently practised by Britain during
the greater part of the nineteenth century, and they are still practised
by her to-day.

When the great rush began, the main object of the European states which
took part in it was to obtain a monopoly-control of the regions which
they annexed. But in all the available regions of the world, British
trade had hitherto been preponderant. British traders saw before them
the prospect of being absolutely excluded from lines of traffic which
had hitherto been mainly in their hands, and they were naturally urgent
that the only means of protection available should be taken, and that
the areas in which they had been most active should be brought under
British administration. If the new colonising Powers had been prepared
to follow the policy of the open door, to which Britain had so long
adhered, there would have been no reason to fear their annexations;
rather there would have been every reason to rejoice that other nations
were taking their share in the work of giving civilised government to
these regions. But since their object was monopoly and exclusion, it was
inevitable that Britain should undertake great new responsibilities. Her
doing so was, indeed, the only practicable way of preserving the
trading rights, not merely of her own subjects, but also of all the
other trading Powers which had not themselves joined in the rush, or had
only a small part in it. Yet even now the British Government was
extremely unwilling to take action, or to expand still further the
already vast domains for whose good governance it was responsible. It
had to be forced into action, mainly through the activity of trading

In the vast new acquisitions of the period since 1878 (which were mainly
in Africa), as in the earlier acquisitions, the old principles long
pursued by Britain in the government of these backward regions were
still maintained--protection of native rights and the open door. And
thus it has come about that to-day these British realms present almost
the only undeveloped fields to which all nations may resort on equal
terms and in whose development all may take a share. The Germans have
made a very large use of these opportunities.

Another point ought to be made. Immense as these regions are, and
recently as they have been turned from barbarism, order and peace are
maintained within them by extraordinarily small military forces: only
the absolute necessary minimum. Yet they have been on the whole
extraordinarily free from unrest or rebellion, such as has repeatedly
disturbed the German colonies in Africa. There has been in their history
no episode like the ruthless slaughter of the whole Herero race in
German South-West Africa, after long, desperate, dragging campaigns. And
while it would be absurd to claim that no abuses of the power of the
white man over his coloured subjects have been known in them, at least
there have been no outstanding or notorious atrocities. Their subjects
are loyal, and are reconciled to peace, because they recognise that they
are justly treated. That, it may fairly be claimed, is what the British
Empire has meant in the backward regions of the earth. And if it be
true that the institution of civilised government in these regions was
necessary in the interests at once of modern industry and of the
backward peoples themselves, it is equally true that there are no other
backward regions in which the interests of the native subjects have been
more solicitously considered, and none in which the interests of all the
industrial nations, and not merely of a single dominant race, have been
so steadily held in view, as in these regions of the British Empire.

[1] On these events see "The Expansion of Europe," Chapter VII.


If we now turn to consider as a whole the character of this vast
Empire,[1] whose principal regions we have been examining, the first
thing that must strike us is that, while it is by far the biggest of all
the world-dominions which have come into existence in modern times, it
is also the most loosely organised of them all. It is rather a
partnership of a multitude of states in every grade of civilisation and
every stage of development than an organised and consolidated dominion.
Five of its chief members are completely self-governing, and share in
the common burdens only by their own free will. All the remaining
members are organised as distinct units, though subject to the general
control of the home government. The resources of each unit are employed
exclusively for the development of its own welfare. They pay no tribute;
they are not required to provide any soldiers beyond the minimum
necessary for their own defence and the maintenance of internal order.

This Empire, in short, is not in any degree organised for military
purposes. It is strong for defence so long as it is sure of the command
of the sea, since it is open to attack at singularly few points by land.
But it is incapable, by its very nature and system of organisation, of
threatening the existence of any of its rivals or of making a bid for
world-supremacy. For, vast though its population and resources are, they
_cannot_ be made available for war except under the impulse of a great
enthusiasm simultaneously dominating all its members, like that which
has led them all to share in this war; and if its directors were to
undertake an aggressive and conquering policy, not only could they not
count upon general support, but they would probably bring about the
disruption of the Empire.

The life-blood of this Empire is trade; its supreme interest is
manifestly peace. The conception of the meaning of empire which is
indicated by its history is not a conception of dominion for dominion's
sake, imposed by brute force. On the contrary, it has come to be
regarded as a trust, a trust to be administered in the interests of the
subjects primarily, and secondarily in the interests of the whole
civilised world. That this is not the assertion of a boast or of an
unrealised ideal, but of a fact and a practice, is sufficiently
demonstrated by two unquestionable facts, to which we have already
referred, but which cannot be too often repeated. The first is the fact
that the units of this empire are not only free from all tribute in
money or men, but are not even required to make any contribution to the
upkeep of the fleet, upon which the safety of all depends. The second is
the fact that every port and every market in this vast empire, so far as
they are under the control of the central government, are thrown open as
freely to the citizens of all other States as to its own.

Finally, in this empire there has never been any attempt to impose a
uniformity of method or even of laws upon the infinitely various
societies which it embraces; it not only permits, it cultivates and
admires, varieties of type, and to the maximum practical degree it
believes in self-government. It includes among its population
representatives of almost every human race and religion, from the
Australian Bushman to the subtle and philosophic Brahmin, from the
African dwarf to the master of modern industry or the scholar of
universities. Almost every form of social organisation known to man is
represented in its complex and many-hued fabric. It embodies some of the
most democratic communities which the world has known. It finds place
for the highly organised caste system by which the teeming millions of
India are held together. It preserves the simple tribal organisation of
the African clans. To different elements among its subjects this empire
appears in different aspects. To the self-governing dominions it is a
brotherhood of free nations, co-operating for the defence and diffusion
of the ideas and institutions of freedom. To the ancient civilisations
of India or Egypt it is a power which, in spite of all its mistakes and
limitations, has brought peace instead of turmoil, law instead of
arbitrary might, unity instead of chaos, justice instead of oppression,
freedom for the development of the capacities and characteristic ideas
of their peoples, and the prospect of a steady growth of national unity
and political responsibility. To the backward races it has meant the
suppression of unending slaughter, the disappearance of slavery, the
protection of the rights and usages of primitive and simple folk against
reckless exploitation, and the chance of gradual improvement and
emancipation from barbarism. But to all alike, to one-quarter of the
inhabitants of the globe, it has meant the establishment of the Reign of
Law and of the Liberty which can only exist under its shelter. In some
degree, though imperfectly as yet, it has realised within its own body
all the three great political ideals of the modern world. It has
fostered the rise of a sense of _nationality_ in the young communities
of the new lands, and in the old and once decaying civilisations of the
most ancient historic countries. It has given a freedom of development
to _self-government_ in a variety of forms, to which there is no sort of
parallel in any other empire that has ever existed. And by linking
together so many diverse and contrasted peoples in a common peace it has
already realised, for a quarter of the globe, the ideal of
_internationalism_ on a scale undreamt of by the most sanguine prophets
of Europe.

Long ago, in the crisis of the American Revolution, when the
faithfulness of Britain to her tradition of liberty was for an unhappy
moment wavering in the balance, the great orator Burke spoke some
glowing sentences on the character of the British Empire as he conceived
it. They read like a prophetic vision of the Empire of to-day, linked by
ties which, in his words, "though light as air, are strong as links of
iron," yet joining in an heroic comradeship to defend the threatened
shrine of freedom. "As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign
authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple
consecrated to our common faith, wherever the sons of England worship
freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply,
the more friends you will have; the more ardently they love liberty, the
more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It
is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they
may have it from Prussia. But freedom they can have only from you. This
is the commodity of price, of which you have the monopoly. Deny them
this participation of freedom, and you break that sole bond, which
originally made, and must still preserve, the unity of the Empire. Do
not dream that your letters of office, and your instructions, and your
suspending clauses, are the things that hold together the great
contexture of the mysterious whole. These things do not make your
government. Dead instruments, passive tools as they are, it is the
spirit of the English Constitution that gives all their life and
efficacy to them. It is the spirit of the English Constitution which,
infused through the mighty mass, pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates,
vivifies every part of the Empire, even down to the minutest member."

The spirit of Burke was wounded in 1775; it is rejoicing to-day.

[1] The passages in this section are mainly quoted directly from "The
Expansion of Europe."

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