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The Impact of Imperialism on British Identity

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MG is an air warrior with a distinguished career and now a corporate advisor, writer, and intrepid traveler and novelist

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Introduction

In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, Britain's empire was so large that it was truly the global superpower. Much of Africa, Asia, and America had been colonized. British tentacles had spread far and wide. The British concepts of culture, religion, health, sexuality, law, and order were all imprinted on the colonized countries. The empire covered the entire globe and I don't think history has recorded such a gigantic empire in the four thousand years of recorded history. The British population was about 50 -55 million but they ruled over subjects that numbered over 600 million. The brightest jewel in the empire was India with its 350 million people.
There is considerable debate whether British rule over its colonies was beneficial or not. There is also considerable debate whether the colonies contributed substantially to the British economy. Both these points are discussed, but very little literature is available as to what impact the British Empire had on the average British citizen. There is no doubt that the British denuded the colonies of precious material and minerals to the tune of $5 trillion but there were fringe benefits for the local population in terms of modernization and infrastructure.

the-impact-of-imperialism-on-british-identity
Empire increasingly relied on Sikh soldiers in Europe, China and Middle East

Empire increasingly relied on Sikh soldiers in Europe, China and Middle East

Empire and the middle class

The British Empire is a fact of history that cannot be wished away. The major architects of this empire were the British middle class. Doctors, scientists, geologists, explorers, soldiers, administrators, entrepreneurs got an opening that would have been ordinarily denied to them. This middle class was articulate in furthering British interests and at the same time, they also had a reason to strive forward. The middle class supported the aristocracy, which in turn gave the middle-class unfettered access to the colonies to work and earn. Many also did a lot of good. One can think of Dr. David Livingston in Africa and the innumerable explorers and scientists who flocked to India to map the nation and set up new enterprises. A lot of research was done by Britishers on ancient Indian culture and also the foundation of saving the ancient monuments was led by the Archaeological Society of India(ASI) which was basically a British brainchild. Basically, the colonies gave the middle class of Britain a chance for self-expression.
The Empire instilled a sense of pride in the average Britishers. He began to feel that he was part of the chosen race to rule the world. Thus, Kipling’s comment about the colonies as the ‘White Man’s Burden’ gained currency. For close to 100 years till 1939, which can be considered as the heyday of the British Empire, the average Britishers especially the middle class felt it was their god-given right to rule the world. As a spinoff, a lot of good that happened for the colonies cannot be questioned. One cannot forget that the entire Tibet was mapped by brave entrepreneurs guided by the officers of the Raj. The two famous explorers of Tibet Chain Singh and Nain Singh who are Indian school teachers were guided by the British bosses to work and map Tibet.
The working class in England however was not much involved with the empire. With the Industrial revolution sweeping Europe, the working class did not have much time to think of the empire, enmeshed as it was in its attempt to survive. That is the reason Karl Marx and his theory gathered steam. This is graphically brought out by Charles Dickens in his novel 'Hard times.'
The middle class in great Britain prospered and had a chance to make a name for themselves. The British middle class had a great say in the exploration of Africa, colonization of Australia, the conquest of India, and subjugation of China.


It lasted only 2 years after WW II

It lasted only 2 years after WW II

Grand finale

The British Empire was at its zenith in 1939 and they assumed it would continue like this for the next 200 years. But within two years of the end of the second world war, the British Empire collapsed like a pack of cards, and one wonders how they survived for 200 years!

In 1939, the first cracks appeared in the Empire with the consolidation of power by Adolf Hitler. Hitler lost the war, but he did enough to rupture the British psyche and destroy the British economy, where holding the colonies and the Empire became an extremely tenuous task. The middle class cracked, and Lord Attlee decided the time had come to dismantle the empire. Hitler unleashed forces so strong that the empire could not face the nationalist movements which he supported like the Indian National Army and the Burmese National army led by Subash Chandra Bose. These developments badly affected the psyche of the British middle-class and they wondered what had happened. Adolf Hitler destroyed the British Empire despite going down himself. It reminds me of the destruction of the temple of heathens by a blinded Samson.
In 1945 Britain still nurtured the hope that the Empire could be saved, but a strong nationalist movement coupled with a poor economy at home swung the coin in favor of dismantling the empire. Many in Britain did not realize at that time that the age of imperialism was over, and the sun had set on the empire. In this entire scenario, the role of the United States is suspect and for over 100 years they allowed themselves to ally with the British, making no attempt to put any pressure on the British to free the colonies.

Britain could not hold on to any of its colonies and even in Hong Kong, they threw in the towel after Deng made it clear that in case the British did not honor the lease agreement he would just occupy Hong Kong. The British are now reduced to a fifth-grade power dependent on the United States and one will have to wait and see how long the US can continue its imperialistic policies. That calls for a separate article.

References

Running the show: The extraordinary stories of the Men who Governed the British Empire by Stephanie Williams (Paperback, 2012)

The Indian Mutiny by Christopher Vincent Latham

The Illustrated Rise and Fall of the British Empire Hardcover by Lawrence James (Amazon)


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