Understanding the British Empire

written by Jo Frew


Over the last few years a significant amount of public debate about the British empire has been generated, proving to be hugely emotive as today’s Brits grapple with the country’s imperial past and its legacies. But it is sometimes difficult to navigate the opposing views in the media to understand the breadth of the empire and why it’s possible that completely contradictory stories can be told.

Watch to this talk show video in which Nick Ferrari defends the Empire’s record, while Afua Hirsch uses the example of a previously colonised country to critique its legacy.

These contradictory interpretations, and others like them, are both part of the story. The empire brought freedom, wealth and unimaginable power to some, slavery and destitution to others. It spread global ideas about the rule of law and parliamentary democracy, as well as Christianity, whilst destroying other forms of social and political organisation, religious practices and cultures.

This page can only give a few of the broad brush strokes of the British empire, in the hope that it might help you to locate or place some of the more particular stories you hear and read elsewhere.

Origins and Founding Ideas

European nations, including Britain, began overseas trade and expansion in order to, simply put, get richer. The desire for wealth was driven by competition among European rulers, many of whom were at war on and off from the late sixteenth century into the late eighteenth century. Britain began by encouraging privateers (licenced pirates) to operate in South American and Caribbean seas, using force to, in effect, steal other European’s goods. With protected sea lanes established, chartered companies began to plough the Atlantic trade routes.

Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British colonies of settlement were formed across north America, then in Australia and New Zealand. Some emigres were persecuted religious minorities (such as Huguenots, Puritans and Quakers), some were destitute, doing time or running from the law. All sought a better life, whether through wealth or the creation of a more Godly society. This worked for the Crown and for society’s elites because these new settlements produced raw materials for British manufacturing and consumption, which in turn increased trade and incoming wealth.

Yet, this early phase of British imperialism was sustained by more than just naked competition and visions of new societies. In contrast to much of Europe, one historian says that Britons’ self-conception was that they were “Protestant, commercial, maritime and free.”[1] In other words, Britons believed that they lived with a degree of certainty under a parliamentary system of laws because they were Protestant (rather than living under an arbitrary (Catholic) monarch). That meant they had freedom to go about their business, including trade and manufacturing. British naval prowess allowed the growth of that commerce. This self-conception meant a great deal to Britons who began to see the empire as a network of distinctive British societies across the globe, ‘dominions’, linked by a commitment to God, Crown and parliamentary democracy.

Part of the confidence in going out in to the world was built on having first unified Britain: pacifying Scottish clans and noblemen and colonising Ireland. Catholic noblemen who sought support from France and Spain throughout Britain’s turbulent seventeenth century were ousted in favour of Protestants and parliamentarians. The Irish and Highlanders were considered backward and uncivilised and unifying Britain was a victory for the Protestant, parliamentarian and commercial elites. Some historians argue that there was no Britain without empire.

If this self-belief seems to have a whif of superiority about it, that’s because it did. Over the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Britain was going through a period of vigorous change in philosophy, religion, demographics and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. This was proof enough to Britain’s elite that it was a favoured nation. However, in reality as you are probably aware that the excesses of power and wealth could hardly be described as having Godly had foundations.

[1] David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press: 2000)

Trade, Settlement and Displacement Across the ‘White Dominions’

These three words – trade, settlement and displacement – define what is often called the First British Empire; that network of white colonies, self-governing to one degree or another, built around trade routes. But the success of these colonies of settlement, and the goods that were traded, owed their existence to the displacement of many millions of people.

Colonies of Settlement

The white settler colonies were thought of as outposts of Britain where various types of people built a new life. Initially, settlements in the south and the Caribbean were established for a plantation economy and in the north, regions were largely populated by religious non-conformists from Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

At first, in southern areas such as Virginia, the Carolinas and Caribbean, plantation owners brought indentured servants to work on their plantations. Indentured servants were people who entered a kind of slavery to pay back debts or pay for crimes. They were obliged to work for their masters for either 7 or 12 years but through that work, bought back their freedom, thus in time making up more of the white ‘settled’ population.

The Quakers, Puritans and Huguenots sailed across the Atlantic to the areas they called Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New England, New York and New Hampshire, with aspirations of developing godly utopian communities, free from the sins of the societies they left behind. Later Scottish and Irish people displaced by new land holding arrangements, changes to farming, industrialisation and famine in Ireland found their way to the American colonies. There were thousands of others too – English, French and Dutch – who sailed to the northern American colonies for a new life.

As for Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand was first a whaling colony and Australia settled as a penal colony but both grow in to flourishing settler colonies, appropriating land and resources and developing large-scale agriculture and pastoral farms.

Displacement and slavery

The most obvious example of displacement, and the primary way it took place in terms of numbers, distance and rupture from one’s own society, was the ‘triangular trade’, aka the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As plantations grew and numbers of indentured servants decreased, enslaved people were transported from Africa to America; sugar, cotton, wood and tobacco were shipped to Britain; manufactured products were sold to American colonies and to African rulers. In total, it is thought that the transatlantic slave trade transported around 12mn Africans, with 2mn dying during the (Atlantic) middle passage and 10mn put to work in European colonies.

Life on a sugar plantation was backbreaking, hot, dangerous and relentless. Slaves were treated brutally by overseers while sugar barons became famously wealthy and powerful in both new Caribbean societies and Britain. Yet, despite the abhorrent treatment, indignity and injustice suffered by Africans and their descendants, enslaved people developed a dynamic culture, including farming, markets, new family ties and cultural practices, as well as networks of resistance and liberation.

Furthermore, it was not just Africans who were displaced to allow for the growth of British colonies in America, the British empire and economy more broadly. Indigenous Americans were, from the first settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, forced from their land, as settlers used a combination of coercion and brute force to secure land. As Europeans pushed west across the continent, more Native American societies came under pressure to cede land and resources. They were also allied to, or used by, the different European powers who were vying for power in the continent. In particular, the British and French used indigenous armies to help bolster their numbers against each other. Opposing indigenous armies fought each other with British or French backing but ultimately all lost out to the burgeoning European societies.


How was all this justified? Two important ideas that ran throughout the course of the British empire and helped justify imperialism were racism and private landholding.

Firstly and most obviously, ideas about race/racism were crystallised and cemented through the practice and defence of chattel slavery. Not everyone in Britain supported enslavement and a pamphlet war was waged across the Atlantic creating and denouncing philosophical and legal justifications for the practice. Eventually the transatlantic slave trade was abolished but not before the position of black people and other people of colour in the British empire was purposefully and systematically diminished. The slave trade was eventually ended but racist attitudes remained throughout and excused other abuses, ill-treatment and destruction of culture.

Secondly, Native American, Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori societies did not appear to Britons to be "advanced" societies. The British system of private landholding was, for British elites, the cornerstone of enlightened society, providing both order in society and autonomy for individuals through advanced laws and governance. Britons, conveniently, could not recognise the landholding patterns or social and political organisation of the societies they encountered in other lands. This helped to justify appropriation of land and resources because they were not ‘owned’ in the same way. As whole societies were cast as backward and inferior, British people could cast themselves as progressive and superior, sustaining their justifications for colonisation.

Rupture and Change: from the first to the second empire

The beliefs (or myths) about the character of empire that underpinned the confidence of imperial Britons suffered a severe blow in the second half of the eighteenth century. By that time, the white settler colonies were fully functioning societies yet still under parliamentary and Crown rule from England. In America, the imposition of a tax on tea sparked an armed rebellion against British rule in 1775 that lasted until 1783. The American War of Independence led to Britain’s Thirteen Colonies becoming the independent United States of America.

The loss of the Thirteen Colonies shocked the British government, king and public. Confidence in this eighteenth century version of ‘global Britain’ – a world-wide community of civilised white people united under God and King, advancing a network of modern societies – was shattered. Yet it was probably an inevitable consequence after decades of development of a new society. It had been a harsh life in both the Americas and Australia for initial settlers but as these societies flourished, the different landscapes and ways of existing led to customs, habits and laws that diverged from Britain’s ancient, stifling class structure and created new nationalities.

The rupture of the American rebellion was accompanied by another important shift in Britain’s empire, namely that the empire in India and Asia was growing. In other words, the imperial world included an ever increasing number of non-Europeans. Moving from an empire of predominantly 'free' white settlers to one that governed foreigners who were not enslaved was a psychological and philosophical shift that caused much angst and hand-wringing in Britain about what that meant for the imperial centre, and the identity of Britain as a whole. This was the beginning of the second empire. Although there is no exact date at which one ended and the other began, these are reasonably helpful concepts to explain the differences between, for instance, Britain’s empire in the mid-eighteenth century and the late Victorian period and why it is possible to tell different stories about empire. Before outlining what the second empire looked like in general, it is helpful to understand the shift by looking at India’s experience of British imperialism.

India: Trade, Conquest and a new kind of Empire

The East India Company had been trading in and with India since the early 1700s and East India Company servants, as they were called, stayed at first in ‘forts’ at the main trading centres or as ‘residents’ in the palaces of Indian rulers. Because most Company servants did not plan to stay forever in India, there were no settlements populated by families like America or Australia. However, in this early period many Company servants had a deep respect for Indian people and their culture, albeit that their job was to make good trade deals and financial return for the Company.

Over the late eighteenth century, the Mughal empire that ruled most of the Indian sub-continent began to disintegrate. As a power vacuum opened up, European trading companies (backed by their sovereigns and governments) stepped in, making alliances with different rulers and ensuring their economic interests were protected. Inevitably, this led to a series of wars and the East India Company, after winning the battle of Plassey in 1757 against the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, was given the ‘diwan’ of Bengal (landholding rights and the power to collect taxes).

The Company’s governors in India, most famously Robert Clive, then carried out a series of expeditionary wars drawing more and more territory under the Company's control. Looting and landholding, the privilege of victors, enriched numerous individuals as well as the Company.

Although Indians were subjected to onerous tax regimes in areas under Company control (as wealth and resources were extracted from the country and remitted to Britain, or used to pay for the wars that ravaged the subcontinent), they were not initially governed by the Company in any other meaningful way.

However, as the Company’s power extended across the subcontinent, a sea change was underway. Effectively the Company became executive, legislator and judiciary over millions of people. Coupled with the fantastic wealth of returning governors and generals, this caused consternation in Britain. The fact that a private company was the main power in a vast continent, governing people with an entirely different culture, was decried by some leading thinkers in Britain. It was not befitting for a country that was a parliamentary democracy governed by a separation of powers to allow such a ‘despotic’ exercise of power.

As a result, over the course of the first half of the 19th century, numerous parliamentary acts were passed to give Parliament more control over the Company’s actions, but in effect increased the presence of the British government in the lives of ordinary Indians. And the more involved Britons became in governing India, the less respect and the more racist or paternalistic the attitudes drove policy (e.g. in education, religion and who could occupy positions in government and courts etc).

The co-existence of parliamentary and private company rule continued until the Indian uprising of 1857, after which the Crown and government took complete control of India, establishing the British Raj.

The Second Empire and Direct Rule

Direct rule, like that in India after 1857, became a defining feature of the second empire. After the British establishment made their peace with governing India, direct rule over alien cultures half-way across the world was justified as a “civilising mission” and helped to bolster and defend imperialism.

Civilisation, Christianity and Commerce

However, the moralistic Victorian empire sat uneasily alongside the rapacious greed of the business men of the world’s leading industrial nations. Yet many, including Britain’s most famous missionary David Livingstone, believed that ‘Christianity and commerce’ went hand in hand.

Although nineteenth century evangelical Christianity helped to spur on the abolition of the slave trade and funded missionary outposts, schools and hospitals across the empire, new extractive industry wreaked havoc for people and eco-systems across the globe, and in particular Africa as a new site of empire. Plus, this civilising mission allowed for the use of violence (through war, conquest and policing) meted out on the bodies of indigenous populations who were ‘conquered’ yet ‘uncivilised’ and a potential threat to empire.

For example, diamond mines in southern Africa and cattle ranching in the east of the continent wrought permanent damage to landscapes, environments and societies. Not to mention the routine use of violence on those who got in the way and were then forced in to the empire’s labour market. Moreover, Britain’s opium trade between India and China was effectively state-endorsed drug trafficking in the name of free trade. After pushing opium into China so that many became addicted, two wars were fought with China to force open ‘free’ trade routes.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the competition between Europeans for resources and control over ‘new’ territories led to wars of direct conquest, especially in Africa which was carved up and parcelled out between European states at the conference of Berlin in 1884. Still, the competition among European nations grew so fierce that, ultimately, it culminated in the First World War. A "world war" because European empires drew on the resources and manpower of their colonies, as well as fighting in sites across the globe.

Final expansion and ultimate unravelling

Ostensibly fought for democracy against tyranny, it seemed a bad fit to carve up the Ottoman empire and Germany’s territories for the victorious European states. Yet that was ultimately what happened, despite attempts to make it look different.

Britain already governed Egypt and Sudan as ‘protectorates’, and gained Iraq and Palestine as ‘mandates’, while France gained control of the areas that are now Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Theoretically, protectorates and mandated territories would be self-governing, but only when they were ‘ready’; an ill-defined moment that would be decided by France and Britain. The hypocrisy of this was not lost on Middle Eastern rulers and their subjects who revolted against the imposition of European rule. These movements for liberation were deadly, politically messy and continue to have repercussions today across the Middle East and North Africa.

Although the British Empire reached its territorial height immediately after World War One, things began to change. Ireland, the first colony, was also the first to end British rule over most of the island. The over-zealous British response to the Easter Rising in 1916 galvanised the republican movement and ultimately assured Irish independence in 1921. India, and others, took inspiration and independence movements grew across the empire.

Europe was still in crisis and both fascism and Bolshevism were on the rise. Continued fears about the rise of Germany and communist Russia excused the continuance of Imperialism. However, after the Second World War, devastated European economies could not sustain control over the many rebellions that arose. Moreover, Britain’s new Labour government was somewhat less nostalgic than the Conservative party about empire and there was little energy among the exhausted British public to continue subscribing to the idea that Britannia should, or could, rule the waves.

Independence movements from the Caribbean, across Africa and in to the Pacific continued to wrest their nations away from British control. In many sites, deadly wars were fought (such as Kenya, Egypt and Palestine), or badly drawn borders and/or the historic favouring of one ethnic group over another, led to civil war and ongoing abuses of power in the aftermath of independence. For example, Biafrans tried to cede from Nigeria and South Africa created an apartheid state. The partition of Indian and Pakistan upon independence saw one of the biggest and bloodiest forced displacements in history as Hindus and Muslims made their way to ‘their’ side of the hastily and badly drawn border. The horrendous situation that Palestinians find themselves in can be traced back to the mandate period and the ill thought out actions of the British government and army.

When empire ended is a difficult question. Although most colonies are independent states, Britain still controls fourteen islands in three of the world’s oceans and seas, as well as Northern Ireland. Moreover, in the flows of migrants, in the economic relationships between countries, in the structural and everyday racism and the dominance of European culture, as well as host of other ways, the legacy of the British empire (and European empires in general) are part of the reality of the modern world. It is impossible to completely undo empire. For some the legacy is neutral or even positive - empire created an interconnected modern world, built on sound principles of government. For others the ongoing dominance of western culture has solidified a heinously unequal global economy, which follows the same racist patterns that empire created.

The final word in this very brief overview is given to Shashi Tharoor to help illustrate the complex impact and legacy of British imperialism.

In conclusion: Connecting to other faith justice issues


The British empire did not invent prejudice based on ethnicity or skin colour, nor did it invent slavery. However, it does bear responsibility for formalising or institutionalising racism through the transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing systemic racism in every site it colonised. Using an unchangeable characteristic (skin colour) to deem someone or entire groups inferior, allowed conquest, exploitation and slavery to continue. It was used to develop laws about who was in an who was outside of legal protection; who was civilised, who was not; who was capable of self-governance and who was to be treated like children and ‘taught’ to run their own societies. This was based on the assumption that Christianity (Protestantism in particular), private landholding, parliamentary democracy and the British system of laws was ‘right’ and others were wrong. Although some historians and political theorists continue to argue that democracy, free markets, the school and university system and legal protections as we understand them are the best ways to organise societies across the world, this assumes the same superiority and racism that excused the destruction of cultures during the time of formal empire.

The Environment and Climate Change

There is a growing field of research into exactly how the British empire changed landscapes and ecosystems and impacted the environment of the places it colonised. It is undisputed that it did. In all four corners of the globe, indigenous plants were cleared to make way for crops that were grown for sale (and hunting for sport). Vast areas were given over to sugar, tobacco, rice, tea, cotton, cattle, mining for precious metals and much more. This was an extractive economic model that saw these raw materials shipped to Britain to be consumed or processed in the country’s growing industrial centres.

This form of extraction continued for the war effort. Whole forests were felled, coal and food were drained from other countries and famine was not uncommon in India.

It was not only the extraction of raw materials or the huge cattle and sheep farms that changed landscapes in the British empire, but also the introduction of plant and animal species that were brought from Britain. This was particularly the case in the eighteenth century when doctors and biologists took a great interest in empire and its flora and fauna, plus how European plants would fare in other climates. There was scientific interest in experimenting with different species but also a lack of understanding about the consequences of introducing species native to Britain elsewhere. The clearest example is of the introduction of rabbits to Australia who decimated the vegetation leading to the building of a 2,000 mile rabbit proof fence in western Australia.

Arms Trade: Policing and Militarism

It is said that Britain invented concentration camps, aerial bombing campaigns and anti-insurgency techniques. Through the need to pacify the empire for its extractive and strategic purposes, arms companies and tacticians developed a range of weapons and techniques for this new type of coercive control.

Colonial policing and military intervention however, often happened in what could be described as contested legal regimes. As colonial governors were faced with insurgents, new legal frameworks had to be created to defend them (in other words, justify the meting out of violent repression). From the early rebellions of enslaved people across the Caribbean, to the Indian mutiny and the massacre at the Jallianwa Bagh, to aerial ‘policing’ (bombing) of Iraq, and early concentration camps in Kenya, these violent reprisals became part of what it meant to civilise recalcitrant ‘natives’. What would never have been excused in Britain, became legitimised in empire and those who carried out massacres received as much (or more) support as they did censure.


Patterns of migration are perhaps the most obvious way in which the British empire has changed the world. The mix of different heritages in Britain is no accident. For example, the horrendous “communal violence” (a convenient phrase which absolved the British Raj of responsibility) associated with the partition of India resulted in thousands seeking sanctuary in the UK. However, the numbers of people who felt British enough to come to the UK shocked the government and immigration controls began to be implemented, limiting the numbers of people coming in to the UK. You could only come if you had British grandparents, which effectively barred most people of colour at the time, unlike the white settlers of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Similarly South Asians who moved to East Africa sought sanctuary when African leaders wanted them out. Jamaicans were invited to the UK after the war to help rebuild the country, but, as has come to light in the Windrush scandal, more recent tightening of immigration rules left many without status who had lived in the UK legally for decades, or indeed were born in Britain. Of all the legacies of the empire, the Windrush scandal highlights the structural racism, apathy and disregard towards people from former colonies.