Ruling the Waves – Episode 4 – ‘Greater Britain’

Greater Britain exhibition

Stefan Piotrowski
Against the Current Productions

Communications technologies have played a sizable role in the shaping of political communities – national and otherwise. Not only had the invention of the telegraph brought about an immediacy in communication with far flung parts of the globe, this so-called collapse of space and time had also – in some minds – opened up the possibility for the creation of a new trans-national British state. By the second half of the nineteenth century, individuals within Britain’s political elite had begun to try to come to terms with the Empire as some kind of conceptual whole.

These technological developments were accompanied by a more general shifting of attitudes towards Britain’s settler colonies. Whereas in the first half of the century these lands had been seen as places for criminals, the disgraced or destitute, from the 1850s and 60s they increasingly came to be seen in a more positive light, as extensions of a clearly superior British civilisation or even as better versions of a tired and degenerate motherland.

This second view of the settlement colonies – as places of improvement and transformation – captured the imaginations of those on both left and right. To socialists the development of democratic ideals in the southern hemisphere had the potential to renew Britain’s hierarchical and profoundly unequal political system. To conservatives the Empire could act as a safety value for industrial discontent and associated radicalism – emigration could transform an urban underclass into property owning settlers.

The idea of Greater Britain – the title of Duncan Bell’s excellent book – was clearly not a straightforward one. Often at the edges of the political mainstream, its advocates couldn’t decide amongst themselves what form this British future should take, nor how to go about achieving it; one of the reasons these schemes remained very much in the political margins. But what these debates also revealed was the contentious limits of British belonging, something Stephen Howe captures nicely at the end of the film.

Which peoples were to be included in this Greater Britain? What about the Irish or Afrikaners? Could it be extended to include Americans, they were after all descended from the same ‘Anglo-Saxon’ tree? And perhaps most contentious of all, what about the Empire’s non-white subjects?

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