British Imperialism in the 19th century

‘In what ways did British Imperialism change over the course of the 19th century?’

Empires in 1900

In order to examine the changes in British Imperialism throughout the course of the 19th century it is necessary to define what exactly is meant by the term imperialism; it has been defined as “the process by which an expanding state dominates the territory, population, and resources of less powerful states or regions.”[1] It is possible to divide the changes that occurred in British imperialism during the 19th century into three distinct phases. From the late 18th century up to the early 19th century Europe was still in the first wave of colonisation until the American Revolution and the fall of the Spanish empire marked the end of this phase. A period of free trade ensued before this came to an end with the emergence of new imperialism towards the end of the 19th century. Throughout these three phases there were political, cultural and economic changes occurring in the British Empire.

At the end of the 18th century Britain along with France, Russia and the Chinese and Turkish empires was one of the world’s major states. However the Age of revolution, the period encompassing 1775-1825, witnessed a major setback for European Imperial fortunes. The American Revolution of 1775-83 resulted in the loss of thirteen colonies in North America and independence, while other countries including France lost colonies such as the French island of St Domingue while mainland Portugal and Spanish America successfully gained independence. These thirteen colonies had been some of Britain’s oldest and most populous and so the shock of these losses felt by the European powers “reinvigorated expansion elsewhere, particularly in Asia”.[2] Throughout the 1830s the old colonial powers of Britain, the Netherlands and France were strengthening their empires in what was known as “the orient” whilst maintaining control of their remaining American colonies. However, along with the loss of the America’s, other colonies such as the West Indies started to lose importance during the 19th century as expansion was focused elsewhere, in 1815 the West Indian islands were contributing £15.4million or 17.6% of Britain’s trade however by 1913 their economies only generated trade with Britain of £6.6million or 0.47% despite the population rising from 877,000 to over 2million by 1911.[3] This was largely because the slave trade had been a very profitable business for cities such as Bristol and Liverpool since they played a large part in the triangular trade with the Americas and Africa and slave emancipation had begun to come into effect as a result of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1807.

There are historians who believe that the loss of the thirteen American colonies completely changed Imperial policy and caused an era of free trade to be established.[4] In 1815 the Corn Laws were introduced and are often seen as an example of British mercantilism, and restricted other nation’s economic growth as they could not import goods such as corn to Britain or its empire since the prices were too high for people to afford. However the pressure for freer trade was increasing and so in 1815 the Navigation Acts declared that heavy duties placed on American shipping in British ports should be reduced; furthermore the President’s of the Board of Trade bestowed these concessions to European powers as well resulted in a shift to freer trade. However the East India Trading Company lost its hold over the Indian trade in 1813 and it became apparent by the 1830s that Britain’s global trade network could only be secured by use of power but the President of the Board of Trade was not going to destroy the colonial system. Despite this intention by 1860 the acts had gone with the repeal of the Corn laws in1846 the turning point; people became convinced that international success could be achieved by cheap food imports and Europe and the United States were becoming serious rivals, the colonial system was not feasible once people had become convinced that this was the way to success and so it was not expected to last much longer.

A new kind of European Imperialism began to emerge in the 1830s and was influenced by “industrialization and the rise of three related ideologies: liberalism, nationalism, and scientific racism.”[5] Scientific racism refers to the sense European nations held that they had superior institutions and other areas would benefit from them while ‘social Darwinism’ supported the idea that some races were more advanced and therefore had the right to dominate others. As economic ties began to erode between competing nations European powers began to rely upon colonisation of formal empire, in the last two decades of the 19th century the race to acquire new colonies became more dramatic as Britain competed for control over Asia and Africa often known as the ‘scramble for Africa’.

British expansion in south-east Asia up was part of a dramatic resurgence in world-wide British imperialism, after being hit by the crisis in America in the late 18th. India was often referred to as the jewel in the crown because it became the most valuable and heavily populated colony in the British Empire. Military conquest allowed Britain to further increase their control into the north-east of India during the 1820s, into the north-west during the 1840s and into Burma in the 1850s. “In 1815 her world trade stood at only £8 million but grew to £120 million with Britain alone by 1913.”[6] Other colonies that Britain acquired in Asia were not considered to be as important as India but added to a growing empire nonetheless; these included Hong Kong, Singapore, and parts of Borneo.

British expansion into Africa was different to that of India and Asia in the sense that it gained the empire a large amount of territory but did not have a large economic significance. In 1815 Britain’s territory in Africa was limited to small coastal footholds and this hardly changed until the 1860s when over the course of the next fifty years “colonial expansion inland brought her territory in every quarter of the continent.”[7] By the end of the 19th century British Africa covered 2.8 million square miles. Britain gained control of the Cape Colony in 1806 having occupied it in 1795 to prevent the French acquiring it. British immigration to the Cape Colony area started to increase after 1820 and the Boers were pushed northwards to establish their own independent republics. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869 and once its strategic value became apparent it became an important route way of the Empire.

Political changes also occurred within the British Empire in the 19th century since the empire had a big influence on Britain’s international relations; imperial issues and foreign policy were often inseparable and commitments in Asia and Africa were as likely to increase Britain’s power as to create difficulties. Developments in Britain’s position as colonial rulers encouraged political inventiveness among rulers and ruled and there was a rise in variety of government institutions and practice at home and abroad. In 1801 most colonial business was brought together under the secretary of state for war and colonies until 1854 when responsibilities were distributed between separate war and colonial offices. The work in this office changed in the 19th century; until 1840 issues associated with slavery and the administration of crown colonies was undertaken, in the mid-century problems of white settler colonies and practice of self-government was handled and in the later century they coped with territorial consequences of African partition.

It is clear that there were huge changes in British Imperialism throughout the 19th century, some more significant than others but all having an impact nonetheless. One of the main ways that British Imperialism changed was the area in which the empire expanded during the 19th century. There was a step back from imperialism in the America’s and the West Indies, especially after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and large expansions were undertaken throughout Africa and Asia, in particular south-east Asia and India which became Britain’s most valuable colony. However there were also significant economic changes, after the abolition of slavery the West Indies were no longer producing such a significant amount of trade for Britain while the abolition of the slave trade also impacted cities back home such as Bristol since they had played an important role in the triangular trade.



[1] A.L. Conklin and I.C. Fletcher, European Imperialism 1830-1930 (United States of America, 1999) p1

[2] A.L. Conklin and I.C. Fletcher, European Imperialism 1830-1930 (United States of America, 1999)

[3] A. Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume III The Nineteenth century, (Oxford,  1999) p5

[4] Harlow, Second British Empire,

[5] A.L. Conklin and I.C. Fletcher, European Imperialism 1830-1930 (United States of America, 1999) p3

[6] A. Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume III The Nineteenth century, (Oxford, 1999) p 6

[7] A. Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume III The Nineteenth century, (Oxford, 1999) p 6


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