Was the British Empire a force for good or bad?
This question is searched for a lot on this site and appears as a suggested search term when looking up things on the empire. It isn’t a particularly sound question and isn’t one that you’d expect to be used in a classroom. However, as it is asked a lot, we’ll try and address it.
Firstly you need to consider what the purpose of an empire is. For the nation that is imperialistic, it will lend itself to power, prestige, economic growth. There may be social motivation to spread a certain type of civilisation. Empires throughout history have set out to do these things, be that the Romans wanting to conquer the known world and impose their ideas, the Mongol Horde seeking to dominate or the spread of religious ideas and a way of life, as seen in the expansion of the early Islamic empire. The British Empire is little different in that regard. It set out to make England, then Britain, more powerful. It sought to gain commercial advantages over it’s competitors. Some expansion was done with missionary work in mind, with education as one of the aims. Other elements were done purely for financial gain.
Why then do people ask if it’s a good or a bad thing?
Surely economic prosperity, inventiveness, education, new technologies etc are good things? Well, yes. However there is a dark side to some of the methods employed. It is this darker side, some of the methods, that leads to questions about the British Empire being a negative.
- The Slave Trade. It doesn’t need much in the way of explanation to show that using Slaves as part of the mechanics of building the empire is something that is just plain bad. You do need to consider the context of the day and look at the questions around how it came about, why it continued and what the implications are but it’s clearly wrong on every level.
- Culture. The people in colonised parts of the world often found their language and traditions repressed. Being forced to accept someone else’s beliefs is not a good thing. This happens a lot when empires grow. In the British Empire it happened with indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand, as two examples. It also happened inside the British Isles. The Scottish Highlands were cleared, with Highland culture targeted. Ireland also saw it’s cultural identity challenged. On our Facebook page a colleague from Ireland sums this view up:
It benefited the British. But a negative thing for the colonies. In Ireland a tactic of divide and conquer was implemented. With Catholic and Protestant divides still felt today. In the 1840s over a million Irish people starved to death while enough food to feed the countries population twice over was being exported by the British. Ireland suffered horrendously because of an 800 year campaign to destroy the language, way of life and freedom of its people. Ó Dubhlaoich M Luucass 19/07/2018
- Economic exploitation. An argument that a colony is stripped of its resources with little or nothing being given back. The Settlement of Ireland is one such example of this.
Is it all bad then?
No, the Empire has negatives but also many positives. Though the Empire has now been replaced by the Commonwealth, many now independent nations choose to be members of that organisation. This simply would not happen if the Empire had not had benefits for them as well as for Great Britain. Many parts of the Empire benefited from access to high quality technology and education. This gives them a firm basis upon which to develop as independent nations. The network of trade that Empire and the Commonwealth established has led to specialisms in many fields being traded globally, something that smaller nations may struggle to achieve without links such as those forged through Empire. 53 countries are members of the Commonwealth, including 31 that are classified as smaller states. Not all former parts of the Empire are in the Commonwealth. Countries that have become Republics are excluded from joining. Others have chosen not to join.
The British Empire – Making of the United Kingdom – Economic Consequences of the British Empire – How did the Empire affect Great Britain? – Society changes: Political Thought and the British Empire – Questions about the British Empire – British Empire Teaching Resources