Second in the series of essays on Britain in the 19th and 20th Centuries

British imperialism of the nineteenth century was fueled by economic considerations, with political and strategic interests adapting themselves to the requirements of this primary motive.


From the earliest days of empire in North America, commerce had been the underlying motivation for England’s colonization efforts. In time, the engine of England’s economy drove almost every aspect of her national life, and also became her chief vulnerability. Throughout the later history of England, when her enemies attacked her it was chiefly through her economy. Destroy her trade and you would destroy England; such was the conclusion of conquerors from Napoleon to Hitler. Is it any wonder, then, that during her imperial phase England sought to reinforce this greatest of assets?


The East India Company had been the original synthesis of economics and government and remained so into the nineteenth century, despite the waxing and waning of British imperial aggression. The British attitude toward aggressive imperialism might have changed throughout the century, as clearly it did, but the reasons for imperialism in the first place did not. Above all other considerations was whether or not imperialism made good economic sense. “…During the 1830’s and 1840’s this empire seemed at times a dubious advantage. At a time when tariff barriers were falling, when navigation acts were being abolished, when the principle of free trade was triumphing, the…justifications for colonies had largely ceased to matter” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 63). Yet even at the low point of imperialism’s appeal, the chief considerations were not strategic or political, they were economic. What influenced the opinion and motives of the moment more than anything was imperialism’s economic impact. This remained true throughout the century, even if we view it in a negative context. That is, if we accept Disraeli’s precept that the ruling Liberal Party spent forty years of the eighteenth century trying to dismantle the empire solely for economic reasons. In his opinion the Liberals, “looked upon the colonies of England…as a burden on this country, viewing everything in a financial aspect…” (Arnstein, The Past Speaks, page 272).

One economic side benefit to imperialism was England’s ability to transfer population to her colonies, such as Canada and Australia, which would then open new markets for her goods and would allow production to keep increasing. To this end the government often either subsidized or paid for the passage of emigrants to far away colonies such as Australia. This emigration relieved domestic pressure on housing, food stores, jobs and improved the overall quality of life on  a small island susceptible to over-crowding, which could, in its turn, bring economic benefits and their attendant political advantages. Arnstein comments on the chief reasons for the Pax Britannica thusly: “the Pax Britannica rested largely on economic and political foundations…” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 65).

Acquisition of territory for its own sakes was not of particular interest to the English of this period, but instead those territories were assumed to be on the path to eventual independence, dominions-in-training, as it were. And their economic development would, in turn, help grow the economy of the mother country, as Arnstein makes quite clear. “The eventual independence of the colonies had been looked upon as inevitable; and although most Britons acknowledged the value of India, they saw the encouragement of trade rather than the acquisition of territory as their prime purpose overseas” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 174). The British were not averse to acquiring new lands as such, but they had a vision for their empire with England as the center of a trading conglomerate with her colonies and dominions. Trade and profit was the point, not spreading English laws or customs all over the globe. In the latter part of the century these people were called ‘consolidationists’, because, as Arnstein says, they “preferred to develop the empire that already existed rather than to acquire new responsibilities…” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 174). And, not to belabor the point, students were being taught that England did not want to expand, at least not in places where they had no prior commitments. “As late as 1883, a British textbook on colonies took it for granted that ‘the policy of England discourages any increase of territory in tropical countries already occupied by native races’” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 174). This last quote is particularly instructive, as it implies that the official government policy that was widely known and accepted by the public was that territorial expansion was not considered a positive exercise. The just concluded Zulu War in South Africa, with its horrific destruction of the 24th Regiment of Foot and attached auxiliaries at Isandlwana, surely must still have been fresh in the public mind, even though England eventually crushed the Zulus.

In the later 1880’s this attitude changed rapidly, with acquisition of new lands taking on a new life in the political mind. The impetus, however, was still economic in nature. England’s industrial revolution had been going on for some while by this time, but during much of that time her progress was not mirrored in other countries. That all began to change after the American Civil War and the subsequent depression in the 1870’s when the United States began to undergo its own industrial revolution. Where once England had held near monopolies for her finished goods, dominating trade, now she had competition, not only for her exports but also for the raw materials she needed to import. With more buyers competing for the materials her industries needed imperialist expansion once more seemed a feasible alternative. England also needed to make certain that she had a market for her finished goods, and what better way than to supply herself with built-in colonial consumers? There was no doubt that economics was driving the late nineteenth and twentieth century rounds of imperialism, though, as Vladimir Lenin himself acknowledged in the title of his 1916 book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 174).

The costs associated with seizing and maintaining colonies could be exorbitant, however, both in terms of lives and capital. William Rathbone Greg’s 1851 treatise on the virtues and defects of the British colonies focuses almost entirely on the economic reverberations, making them central to his argument for the importance of the colonies. He does give a passing nod to an early version of The White Man’s Burden as being a reason for maintaining the empire, but even then economics underlies the argument. “To cast our colonial empire to the winds, with the sole aim of saving two millions a year,- is a line of policy which we sincerely think, is worthy only of a narrow and niggard school…” (Arnstein, The Past Speaks, page 271). Virtually by definition many of the new colonies lacked infrastructure and strong government, the presence of either of which might have made their susceptibility to colonial conquest less than it was, so before England could digest them and develop their economic potential she would often have to build both the physical and governmental infrastructures needed. For example, in the middle of the century imperialist expansion was seen as somewhat counter-productive, yet in colonies such as India the process of configuring the land to an English pattern to maximize economic potential went forward. “Reform also meant an unprecedented degree of law and order over much of India” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 115). This could be and was quite costly, but chaotic colonies could not contribute fully to the national economy. This necessarily required political assent from the mother country and the strategic assets to protect the colonies from predation by other major powers, since protecting the colony became synonymous with protecting a huge investment of national resources. No sense building a major road network for some other country to seize and use.

It should also be noted that in the period post-1880 until the beginning of World War One, England was not the only imperial power looking to add to its empire. France had always been a competitor, but a trio of new rivals sprang up to put even more pressure on England to grab what she could. Germany, Japan and even the United States all became players in the game of empire, which often led the English to expand or acquire even when it was not advisable to do so. The Boer War is a good example of this pressure, as England incorporated the semi-autonomous Boer provinces into South Africa before they could become influenced or allied with the growing German presence in southern Africa. European expansion in Africa also motivated the British to think bigger than they previously had in terms of tying their sprawling holdings together. The best example of this is South African diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes’ dream of a Cape-to-Cairo railway traveling through British lands for the entire length of Africa. It should also be noted that England had re-taken possession of Cape Colony, on the western coast of South Africa, in 1806 to protect the trade routes around Africa to India, a good example of imperial expansion in the service of economics.

Another factor in the rush to imperialism was the re-introduction around the globe of trade tariffs. Whereas free trade had been normal for many years, beginning in the 1860’s the great powers all began to look to their own merchants and industries with an eye to keeping competition to a minimum. “The United States led the way with the protectionist Morrill tariff of 1861. Germany and Austria-Hungary followed suit in the 1870’s and France in 1892. In a world divided by rising tariff barriers, colonies began to regain some of the value they had possessed in an age of mercantilism” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 175). This trend began to untangle trade relationships, foster competition for new colonies and engender hostility among the great powers. The war that erupted in 1914 had been simmering for a long while, largely because of trade conflicts and a race for colonies that almost caused the war to break out before it historically did, as England’s political machine lend its support to her economic expansionists. Arnstein finds an appropriate quote for this stance from 1895. “It was the government’s business, declared Prime Minister Salisbury, ‘to make smooth the paths of British commerce…for the application of British capital, at a time when…other outlets for the commercial energies of our race are gradually being closed’” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 175). Private capital was not necessarily going into the new colonies, but in reference to the question at hand this clearly makes the case that at the end of the Victorian era imperialism was being driven by economics and was supported by politics.

Strategically, the English viewpoint was no different than it had been in 1756 or 1815, with the protection of trade routes paramount above all else. As an island England was hard-pressed to survive without importing a variety of items not available domestically, and to pay for the items she imported it was necessary to export goods also. Possessing the largest merchant fleet in the world, the mission of the Royal Navy was to protect that fleet by safeguarding the trade routes they followed. It is no coincidence that in both World Wars the German naval strategy was to attack English merchant shipping, not only with submarines but in World War Two with warships designed specifically for the purpose, as the French and Americans had preyed upon British shipping in earlier wars. As naval technology progressed and warships became powered by steam turbines using coal as a fuel, the need arose for coaling stations around the world where the Royal Navy could put in to refuel. Had those ships not been needed to protect the trade routes, there would have been no need for coaling stations.  Thus, English strategy remained essentially as it had for centuries, only with new weapons’ systems and a worldwide empire to protect.

How pervasive was this marriage of economics and the English character? Within the imperialist movement were those whose individual motives may have been altruistic instead of exploitative, who believed in ‘the white man’s burden’ to uplift ‘inferior’ races, or to bring God to heathens through missionaries. Yet even within those sub-movements within imperialism, economic thought was never far away. As Arnstein mentions, “…H.M. Stanley once estimated that if Christianity were able to teach the natives of the Congo no more than to cover their nakedness with a single Sunday-go-to-meeting dress apiece, this alone would create a market for ‘320,000,000 yards of Manchester cotton cloth…’” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 176). Anything and everything could be used to make an extra shilling, including church services and bible readings, although church groups could soften the hard edge of colonial administrations. Romanticism also played its part in late Victorian imperialism, with fanciful tales of adventure filling the pages of newspapers and novels as each medium competed for readers. This romanticism, of course, was its own economic trend, as the publishing industry supported imperialism for its own financial reasons.

By diversifying her worldwide colonies England largely isolated herself from the loss of this or that source of raw materials, or manpower, or trade partners. England had long been known as a nation of shop-keepers, and while the industrial revolution changed the nature of English business during the nineteenth century, it did not change the empire’s fundamental outlook on the relationship between government and the economic sector. Imperialism was at various times considered both a liability and an advantage, but regardless of other conditions, economics were always the main impetus for both maintaining the empire and expanding it, with political and strategic considerations tied directly to how best to exploit the colonies for the fullest economic impact.