Empires ancient and modern are large, hierarchical organizations, structurally founded on deep inequalities of risk and reward. The British Empire in Asia was no exception. At the front lines of imperial power were, all too often, common men (and some women) who were tricked, cozened, misled, coerced, and whipped into serving as the cannon-fodder of Empire. The temptation to desert was often present and the thought of mutiny cannot have been absent. These plebeian men were ‘kept in line’ men of status who served as commercial agents and military officers. But even among them, kickbacks and commissions were omnipresent and could grow into serious leakages of revenue or foment major acts of treason. Furthermore the wholesale desertion of a dynasty by its elite subjects was not unknown. In Britain in both 1660 and 1688, the political establishment and key army units deserted their established government to side with an invader sponsored by a foreign power. We could multiply such examples.
Transoceanic empires built by corporations like the British and Dutch East India Companies faced even greater problems because they lacked the sacred aura that surrounded kings and helped maintain nominal loyalties. It took nearly half a year for an inquiry or command to reach a functionary in Asia and it took many more months before a report or an excuse would come back. The military, commercial, or political situation could change dramatically in the interim. Many readers will be aware, for example, that the British and Americans continued to fight for six weeks in 1815 after the peace treaty was signed between the two powers. One of these peace-time battles cemented Andrew Jackson’s reputation and propelled him to the presidency. Asia was much further away and across more dangerous waters. Continue reading “Did the British Empire depend on separating parents and children?”→
US Economic Imperialism within a British World System
Historians have been busy chipping away at the myth of the exceptional American Empire, usually with an eye towards the British Empire. Most comparative studies of the two empires, however, focus on the pre-1945 British Empire and the post-1945 American Empire.[i] Why this tendency to avoid contemporaneous studies of the two empires? Perhaps because such a study would yield more differences than it would similarities, particularly when examining the imperial trade policies of the two empires from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.
For those imperial histories that have attempted such a side-by-side comparison, the so-called Open Door Empire of the United States is depicted as having copied the free-trade imperial policies of its estranged motherland by the turn of the century; these imitative policies reached new Anglo-Saxonist heights following US colonial acquisitions in the Caribbean and the Pacific from the Spanish Empire in 1898, followed closely by the fin-de-siècle establishment of the Anglo-American ‘Great Rapprochement’.[ii]
Gallagher and Robinson’s 1953 ‘imperialism of free trade’ thesis—which explored the informal British Empire that arose following Britain’s unilateral adoption (and at times coercive international implementation) of free-trade policies from the late 1840s to the early 1930s—has played a particularly crucial theoretical role in shaping the historiography of the American Empire. In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), William Appleman Williams provided the first iteration of the imitative open-door imperial thesis, wherein he explicitly used the ‘imperialism of free trade’ theory in order to uncover an American informal empire. ‘The Open Door Policy’, Williams asserted, ‘was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free-trade imperialism’.[iii] The influence of Williams’s provocative thesis led to the creation of the most influential school of US imperial history—the ‘Wisconsin School’—which would continue in its quest to unearth American open-door or free-trade imperialism for decades to come.[iv] As a result, the contrasting ways in which the American Empire grew in the shadow of the British Empire have largely remained hidden. Continue reading “Empire by Imitation?”→
It took some time in 1852 to convince the Imam of the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul, but James Felix Jones eventually got the permission he needed to climb up the stairs of the famous “hunchback” minaret. It was from this vantage point that Jones, an Indian army surveyor and officer, started to take measurements. He established the leaning minaret’s longitude and latitude, one of the first fixed points from which it became possible to triangulate the plain of Al-Iraq and to begin an accurate mapping of the area with mixed results (fig.1).
In the early 1850s, Mesopotamia stood in the middle of the overland route to India and, surprisingly, no reliable map of this territory existed until Jones published an account in 1855. Austen Henry Layard’s discovery of Nineveh in the mid-1840s and Francis R. Chesney’s exploration of the Tigris and the Euphrates a decade before had helped placing the area from a European standpoint, but, all in all, many in France or Britain failed to grasp the geography of the Ottoman province. Some of Jones’s original maps were even lost in India and his pioneering work partly forgotten: a testimony to the disorderly nature of Western knowledge in the area. Continue reading “Of Maps and Empire: Charting an Evasive East”→
‘Our world mission is the maintenance and development of the heritage of Empire,’ the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Sir Oswald Mosley, declared in the BUF’s journal, Fascist Quarterly, in 1936. Although often overlooked by scholars of British fascism, this pro-imperial sentiment was central to the ideology of the BUF. For the BUF, the maintenance of the British Empire was imperative – key to keeping Britain’s place within the world and ensuring living standards in the domestic sphere. Continue reading “Australia & the Fascist Idea of Greater Britain”→
Greece’s potential financial downfall and semi-colonial economic status monopolized the news this summer. Much ink has been spilled on the apocalyptic consequences the crisis might yet hold for European Union finances and for the global monetary system. However, much less is known of a similar situation that happened more than a hundred years before in Uruguay, the effects of which would also reverberate across the Atlantic to shake the very foundations of the global financial world. Continue reading “How Uruguay Helped Spark a Global Financial Crisis in 1890”→
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. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 4 – ‘Greater Britain’”→