34. The British Imperial Century (1815 – 1914)

Summary Through the help of the Industrial Revolution and the Royal Navy, the British Empire dominated worldwide politics during the British Imperial Century between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the beginning of World War I in 1914. At its territorial peak the British Empire controlled the Indian subcontinent; an about 7000 km long land strip through Africa; the white colonies Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; and Malaya and Iraq, apart from having trade privileges in Qing China. That time of relative peace in Europe and the world is called the Pax Britannica.

Keywords Globalization; History of Africa; History of South Asia; History of Western Europe; Seafaring; Technological Superiority; Workshop of the World

British Empire 1921

The British Empire at its territorial peak in 1921. It was the largest empire in world history by controlled land area. User:Vadac / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The British Empire was the most influential state worldwide in the 19th century, and much of its political power originated from the Industrial Revolution which had started in Britain during the decades around 1800. The Industrial Revolution gave the British Empire technological advantages over other states, advantages which became apparent to the world during the Great Exhibiton in London in 1851, such as steamships and the telegraph. Due to its industrial production capabilities at that time Britain was known as the workshop of the world. The Royal Navy, which was the naval warfare force of the British Empire, was the world’s most powerful navy from the mid-18th century to the 1940s. Companies were important in the establishment of British colonies, for example the British East India Company in India and the Royal Niger Company in Nigeria. Due to the dominance of the British Empire the time between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the beginning of World War I in 1914 is called the British Imperial Century. This century was a relatively peaceful period, with no major clash between the world powers, a circumstance which is called the Pax Britannica.

Together with France and the Netherlands, Britain became an important colonial power during the 17th century, as the old colonial powers Spain and Portugal lost in relative importance. While the United States, at that time merely a stripe along the north American east coast, became independent from Britain during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the British Empire continued to expand worldwide thereafter. On the eve of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) – a series of international conflicts which followed the French Revolution of 1789 – the British Empire controlled the white colonies of eastern Canada and eastern Australia; through the British East India Company as its trust, it controlled Bengal (today’s Bangladesh and West Bengal), Bihar, Bombay (today’s Mumbai) and Madras (today’s Chennai) in India; and it additionally controlled some trading posts in Africa. Until 1815 the British Empire acquired the white Cape Colony from the Dutch and additional territories in India and the Caribbean. Additionally to its overseas expansion, the United Kingdom itself was formed in 1801 when the Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1801) acquired Ireland, which is the second-largest island of the British isles after Great Britain itself. The Kingdom of Great Britain had initially formed in 1707 by the merger of the Kingdoms of England and of Scotland. While the Atlantic slave trade was a lucrative business for Britain and other European states since the 16th century, it was abolished in the British Empire in 1807.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter Family of Queen Victoria

A painting of Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901), Prince Albert and children in 1846. The time of her reign is called the Victorian era, and it was an important part of the British Imperial Century. (© Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

India became the centerpiece of the British Empire soon after. The British Empire, often represented by the British East India Company (EIC), obtained the control over larger and larger portions of the Indian subcontinent through several wars, such as the Anglo-Maratha, the Anglo-Mysore, the Anglo-Sikh and the Anglo-Afghan Wars. The British Empire soon became India’s dominant political power, after the Mughal Empire had already been significantly weakened during the 18th century. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was suppressed, and in 1858 the British Crown took the rule over India from the EIC. The following time of direct Crown rule is called the British Raj – derived from the Hindustani word raj for “rule” –, and the British Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) assumed the title Empress of India in 1876. The long time of Queen Victoria’s rule is also called the Victorian era.

Also China under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was heavily influenced by the British imperialistic interests: While China prospered in the 18th century – and was widely admired by European scholars in a fashion which was called Chinoiserie –, its power declined in the 19th century. The Chinese “century of humiliation” began with the First Opium War (1839-1842), when the technologically advanced British navy forced China to open its markets and to buy opium which was grown in British-controlled India. The British effectively acted as drug dealers, and they took control over Hong Kong. China was repeatedly defeated by the British Empire and other imperialistic powers during other following wars, such as the Second Opium War (1856-1860), and it was heavily shattered from inside during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).

As of other world areas, in the early 19th century the British Empire had control over Singapore and British Malaya, and New Zealand was beginning to be colonized. Through much of the 19th century the British Empire and the Russian Empire competed with each other about the dominance in central Asia, a struggle which is known as the Great Game. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882. Soon after the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), in which the European imperialistic powers Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and others divided Africa among them, the British Empire took control over Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan and Rhodesia (today’s Zambia and Zimbabwe, named after the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes).

World War I (1914-1918) resulted in the British Empire taking control over Tanganyika (in today’s Tanzania), which was formerly controlled by the German Empire. The British Empire now controlled an about 7000 km long land strip from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo through the whole African continent. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East was reorganized according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), and Britain temporarily controlled Iraq and parts of Jordan. The largest part of Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1921 and Egypt became independet in 1922. While the white British colonies Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand gradually gained their independence before World War I, the vast majority of the non-white British colonies became independent after World War II (1939-1945), beginning with India in 1947.

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