Pax Britannica – The Zenith of the British Empire

Pax Britannica – The Zenith of the British Empire

The component parts of the Empire were linked together by the English language, English legal and constitutional procedures, English educational standards and the British monarch. The full weight of Britain’s diplomatic resources could be put at the Empire’s service. The Royal Navy, which had helped to create and had grown with the Empire, patrolled the high seas. Apart from diversity in the human and geographical characteristics in the Empire, there were diversities in the way of running the Empire as there had been in its acquisition. It could be said that the Empire fell into three categories.

First of all, there was the colonial Empire, the colonies. These were the West Indies, and leftovers from the disintegrated North American Empire, which by the start of the twentieth century were characterised by an extensive history of impoverishment and unemployment. The once prosperous sugar islands now offered problems rather than profits. Starting in the Mediterranean, Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Somaliland on the one flank and Aden and the Persian Gulf protectorates on the other, together with strategically important points such as Gibraltar, Malta, and Cyprus, marked out the vital route to India. Ceylon with its naval base at Trincomalee was an essential staging post on the run to the Far East and Australia. On the route to South Africa was the colonial African empire, the most complicated category of British possession.

Second, there was the great dependency of India. Most of it was ruled directly by the British, and even in the states governed by the Indian princes, British advice prevailed. “Since 1876 India had been formally an Empire in its own right, thus bestowing on the British monarch the somewhat hybrid title of Queen – or King – Emperor. The British Raj in India was fundamentally autocratic, the domination of one race over a subject people. No amount of benevolent and imperial administration could alter that fact. True, Parliament and Cabinet in London could over-rule the Viceroy, but distance and the complexities of governing India made this unlikely.”17 It was spice trade in the early seventeenth century that initially stimulated British interest in India. By the end of the nineteenth century not only was half the British army stationed in India at India’s expense, but a numerous and readily available Indian army was also maintained. Moreover, India provided Britain with her largest and most profitable market within the Empire. Few would have disagreed with the Viceroy Curzon when he said, “As long as we rule India we are the greatest power in the world.”

Thirdly, and finally, there were the self-governing communities of mostly British stock. In theory their constitutions, based on the Westminster model, made them subordinate to the British government and parliament, but in practice Britain gave them a free hand in their domestic affairs, although dominating their foreign policy for the simple reason that she guaranteed and largely paid for their defence.

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