Pax Britannica – The Zenith of the British Empire

Pax Britannica – The Zenith of the British Empire

In literature and history many examples of this famous and familiar theme can be found. Thucydides in his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ details the well-known dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians in the sixteenth year of the war with Sparta: “when the Athenians were asked why they wanted to conquer Melos they replied that it was a ‘law of nature’ that the strong should conquer the weak and that was all that needed to be said about it.”3 Thomas Hobbes in the ‘Leviathan’ placed acquisition and acquisitiveness as the first principal cause of conflict:

“So that in the nature of man we find three principle causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first makes man invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation.”4

It is also worth adding to what has been said that imperialism or colonialism is not a question of different political systems opposing each other such as Capitalism versus Communism as the Marxists argue nor the cause of the “march of progress towards the independence and equal dignity of all people”5, as Mr. Nehru and Dr. Sockarno used to say. It is simply one aspect or example, “of the immemorial conflict in the history of mankind between reality and the ideal, between the world as it is, with some states and peoples having more power than others, and the world as it might be, with all states and people equal.”6 This is, at bottom, the clash between Kratos and Ethos which has existed since the beginning of recorded history. The unusual thing about such struggle is that it does not seem to have begun on the plane of international relations, but on the plane of individual experience and aspiration. “The demand for equality, as de Toqueville pointed out, is in the last resort irresistible; once people begin to feel that they are equal human beings and have a right to be treated as such, it takes immense power, or force, to compel them to be satisfied with their inequality. From that point on, imperialism – the international form of inequality – becomes intolerable, not only to the subject peoples, but to people within the imperialist state itself.”7 Our subsequent studies will reveal that de Toqueville’s statement is not far from the truth.

A Short History of the British Imperial Expansion

Empire was advocated in the United Kingdom in the 1880s by Joseph Chamberlain in opposition to the “Little Englanders” who favoured a policy of isolationism. To defend his argument, Chamberlain declared that the expanding influence of France and Germany must be counterbalanced by the expanding influence of the United Kingdom.

However, “the origins of the British Empire, like the form of it, were random.”8 The British Empire goes back many centuries before the time of Chamberlain. It was only in the 1880s that the empire had reached its greatest extent. The British possessions overseas can be traced to the days of the Normans, who brought with them title to the Channel Islands and parts of France, and who presently seized Ireland too.

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