English Imperialism


THE rise of imperialism has been the natural, the almost inevitable consequence of English experience during the century that is closing. The lessons were so obvious that they were easily learned. Our most important acquisitions are economic truths, in regard to which the people of the United States have been our principal teachers.

(1.) Just seventy years after the Declaration of Independence, the commercial and industrial policy which England had pursued for three centuries was not merely discarded, but totally reversed. We had been consciously endeavoring to build up the power of England as a maritime country by every expedient, — to subordinate all private interests at home and abroad to this end. Industry was guided into the directions that seemed most profitable for the nation ; lines of commerce that proved desirable for the nation were fostered ; colonial development was controlled in the national interest. Eventually, at the close of the Napoleonic wars, we began to feel that we had been acting rather foolishly ; for it appeared as if all the legislation by which our naval power had been promoted was quite unnecessary. The effort to maintain the control of the crown in America had led us into a war of which we were heartily ashamed; attempts to retain exclusive commerce had drawn us into the quarrel of 1812, with all its disastrous results on our industry and trade.

Hence, under the influence of the classical economists, we definitely set aside the national economic policy we had pursued, and became consciously and frankly cosmopolitan. Academic writers had demonstrated truths which experience confirmed ; and practical men were convinced that the best market for our goods, the best food supply for our people, and the largest field for the employment of our shipping were to be found by encouraging the freest communication with all the world. The leading Englishmen of that date were of opinion that political control was useless for commercial and industrial advance, while it was terribLy costly. In 1846, the new movement had its most signal triumph by the repeal of the Corn Laws; national ambition was denounced as an evil, and political entanglements of every kind were dreaded as possible dangers. Cobden and Cobden’s ideas became dominant, and the old exclusive policy of nationalism was abandoned, never to be revived subsequently by England. From that time forward, all our economic policy has been, not national, but cosmopolitan in character. And this result has been largely due to experience we acquired in our commercial relations with the United States. Doctrinaires might have written any number of disquisitions without producing much result; practical men are guided by concrete instances. The fact that there had been an expansion of trade between England and America, in the last decade of last century and the beginning of this century, exhibited the futility of striving to retain political control as a basis of commercial intercourse.

(2.) Those statesmen who urged the adoption of this cosmopolitanism as the true economic policy for England were conscious that they were taking a course that entailed new and very serious national dangers; but they entered upon it boldly, and the men of later generations have constantly tried to guard against the imminent risk under which we in England habitually live. For our food supply we are dependent on commercial intercourse with other countries, and we must have a navy strong enough to guard our mercantile marine. Cobden, peace-at-any-price man as he appeared, saw this clearly. We are bound to keep up our navy. America can do as she likes in the matter, —for her it is a question of prestige ; but for England it is an absolute necessity to maintain intercourse with distant lands at all hazards. The expense of the royal navy is heavy, but it is the premium England has to pay to insure her people against starvation.


This was the standpoint from which Cobden looked hopefully forward, and his attitude was generally adopted in England during the fifties and sixties ; but it was a position which could not be permanently maintained. The advocates of free trade believed that the advantages of cosmopolitan intercourse were so great that when the example had once been set, all other countries would soon follow it; they imagined that England, without political expenditure, would have easy access to all the markets of the world. In this they were grievously mistaken ; they failed to see that commercial intercourse, which was essential for our very existence, was of far less importance to other nations, and that there might be more pressing interests for which they had to care. Friedrich List showed clearly that though England found it worth while to take up a cosmopolitan policy, other nations were still at a stage of development where the national scheme of economic regulation, which she had pursued so long and then discarded, might be persistently followed with advantage. This has been the view of practical politicians in many countries. As a matter of fact, free trade has not been generally adopted; and England is being gradually excluded from the markets of foreign countries, and of the lands which come under the influence of foreign powers. The attempts of Russia, Germany, and France to acquire great tracts of territory in which our commerce shall be placed at a disadvantage, together with the high tariffs which are imposed in the United States, have wakened us out of our Cobdenite dream. If we are to hold our own and preserve that large trade upon which we depend, we cannot dispense with political influence in distant places. We must have political influence, not to pursue a nationalist policy of our own, but to keep neutral markets open to cosmopolitan trade, and to give our own industry a fair chance. We are driven back into seeking political influence in Asia and Africa by the economic conditions in which we live. We had given up our scheme of national advance, and had believed that we could pursue peaceful commerce and friendly intercourse without political entanglements. But the people of the United States have been among the instructors who have taught us our mistake; we have learned that we must expand the area of our political control, if we are to have fair play for our industry and commerce.


The imperialist policy of England at the present day is easily confused with the nationalist policy which we have abandoned ; but the two are absolutely and entirely different. Last century we sought to maintain political power in America, so as to continue to control and direct and develop the resources of this territory in the interest of England ; we make no such attempt anywhere today. It is the constant complaint of our manufacturers that they have to contend with obstacles in our own dependencies ; that Lancashire mills are restricted in their operation by factory acts which do not apply in Bombay ; and that our own colonies set up hostile tariffs against us. According to the present economic policy of the English government, we never grasp at exclusive advantages for English producers or consumers, but simply insure fair play for all, English, American, French, and German alike. It is a cosmopolitan policy, — the policy that is necessary for ourselves, but a policy which leaves all others free to take full advantage of the markets and the industrial opportunities afforded by any territory under the government of our Parliament.

The difference between the old nationalism and the new cosmopolitanism comes out very clearly in the attitude we take, in our new possessions, toward the capital and industry of other civilized nations. We are exercising a control in Egypt with considerable difficulty and under great provocation ; but the French capitalist does not want to get rid of us. He is taking a large part in the industrial and trading development of the country. We have lately opened up the Nile Valley, at our own expense ; but we do not restrict the enjoyment of the industrial advantages of this area to Englishmen. Our government know that the American method of bridge-building is more rapid, and they adopt it; and our own ironmasters get very little sympathy, either from the government or from the public, when they grumble. We think the English engineers had better learn by experience, and that it is good for them to be made to keep up with the times. The English subjugation of India by Clive was of no direct advantage to the colonies in America, for at that time we were working on national lines ; but the policy of England in Egypt and on the Nile, at the present day, is just as beneficial to the American as to the English manufacturer. The United States are reaping advantage from our imperialism, and we do not grudge it to Americans.

There is an equal difference in our attitude toward subject races, under the old order of nationalism and the new methods of imperialism. Last century the government of India was conducted on a commercial basis ; the colonies were not depleted for the sake of the mother country, but their development was controlled, and to some extent hampered, so as to avoid any risk of impoverishing England. Of India it is true to say that it was partly exploited in the interest of certain Englishmen. The shareholders of the East India Company had a valuable franchise, and the officials of the company had great opportunities of adding to their private income. As the company was unwillingly forced to enlarge its political responsibilities, a greater and greater area of the country and a vast population came under the government of a joint stock company, which made no pretense of considering the good of the natives or any other object than the increasing of trade. There is an extraordinary difference in the attitude of the average Englishman toward India today : there never has been, in the history of the world, such a body of rulers as the Indian Civil Service, —so earnestly anxious as they are to study the people whom they govern, so free from corruption of any kind, so deeply conscious of their responsibilities, and so careful to make the very most not only of that marvelous country, but of all the various races of men who inhabit it. This service offers the finest career to which a British subject can aspire, and a desire to enter it rouses the laudable ambition of the best men in our universities.

The revolution in the character of the English government in India — from the time when it was conducted in a huckstering spirit to the conditions which we find to-day —was not a sudden thing. The real change in that spirit of administration may perhaps be dated from the sentiment that was roused by the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the governorship of Lord Cornwallis. In the later days of the company, there were many individual officials who had a deep sympathy with native tradition, and attracted to themselves an enthusiastic personal devotion. But the recasting of the system as a system was forced upon us by the most terrible of all our experiences in this century. It was the Indian mutiny which compelled Parliament to take the matter in hand, and has brought the vast populations of India under the direct control of the English Empire ; they are subjects of the crown, but they are not, as we see, fit for selfgovernment. We have to keep the mountain tribes from pillaging the peaceful population of the plains; we have to keep the Hindus and the Mahommedans from flying at one another’s throats. We give them opportunities for local selfgovernment ; we open to them appointments in the Indian Civil Service, and place on them all the responsibility they can bear. We do not expect to assimilate them or make them English ; we offer them the opportunity for development in every way ; we only deny them the power to oppress and misgovern one another. We furnish effective police control at the expense of the great dependency ; we gain nothing for ourselves, but we insure such law and order as India has never known before.


The contrast between English imperialism and English nationalism may be most clearly seen in our Eastern empire. Neither India nor America gained much from the successes of the East India Company; both have reaped advantages from the expansion of the English Empire. But this work of establishing an effective police control over diverse races and subject populations is not confined to India ; it is coming to the front in every part of the globe. It is the modern problem par excellence to combine free self-government with effective police control over large areas which are inhabited by men of different races, who have different standards of duty and different capacity for self - government. In the ancient world, when citizenship meant membership of a city, the problem did not arise as it does with us. But as intercourse develops more and more between the highly civilized peoples and the less advanced races, the problem becomes more pressing. It was felt in India long ago, when we had mere commercial settlements, established for export trade. It was felt more decidedly when our merchants began to undertake internal trade; it became necessary that there should be some authority to which they could appeal in civil suits. Systematic commercial intercourse between the white man and the black involves common civil authority of some sort; and if white men are to be allowed to use their capital in developing industries, or in carrying on mining, or in opening up the country, they must have a recognized status. The traders and the capitalists of the West are not to be kept out of undeveloped regions ; and wherever they go, they are apt to demand protection for themselves and their property. There is need of effective police control, too, not only to protect the white trader, but to protect the black man. It is not a satisfactory condition of things when the strong man armed takes the law into his own hands, and punishes offenses with indiscriminate ruthlessness. The problem of governing diverse races on the same soil is the political problem of the future ; and it is one which England has dealt with in India, with terrible difficulties and many mistakes, but yet with such success that she does not shrink from trying to face it in other parts of the globe. This is the meaning of English imperialism. We see that police control is necessary, if the contact of civilization and barbarism is not to be a continued curse to mankind; there must be strong civil authority established to keep the peace and punish the wrongdoer, whether black or white ; and Englishmen are ready to undertake this police control wherever they are called on to exercise it.

We do not grasp at it; we know the strain it involves and the jealousy it breeds; but we will not shirk the responsibility when it comes to our hands. The thing must be done ; there must be the maintenance of law and order somehow, and we are prepared to do our best. If others will join us in it, good and well. We invited France to share the work in Egypt, and she left us to do it alone ; we have combined with Germany and America to attempt it in Samoa, and we wish we had left it to them, or they had left it to us. Conventions do not work quite easily ; under the imperialist system there is far less danger that a squabble about the succession to a barbarian chieftainship should endanger the peace of two friendly European powers. The position of the English imperialists is this : it is necessary that some civilized power should exercise effective police control in every part of the globe : if other people like to do it, good and well; if they leave it to us, so much the better. It is preferable, from our point of view, on two grounds : first, because, with our experience of governing conflicting races, we are as likely to set about the task satisfactorily as anybody else ; secondly, because any country that is under our political control, and that is not ripe for self-government as our colonies are, will pursue a cosmopolitan economic policy, and so give a fair chance — no preferential advantage, but only a fair chance — to our trade. The spread of English imperialism. with its free play for the commerce of all nations, is the chief factor in diminishing the risks of commercial quarrels between civilized powers. It is the one practical step that is being taken at the present day to secure the peace of the world, and at the same time to afford the greatest possible scope for national self-development. The men of the eighteenth century could not have understood it; and those who are still standing on the eighteenth-century platform, so far as political experience goes, cannot recognize it. But that is what we English think about our empire, and that is why it rouses our enthusiasm.


English imperialism is the outcome of our national experience, and it has a solid basis in our economic condition and requirements : but it is not merely a hand-to-mouth expedient; for it has been to a great extent an academic movement, thought out and advocated by the late Regius Professor of History in the University of Cambridge. Sir John Seeley was a writer whose work was admired on both sides of the Atlantic, but only those who knew him intimately or attended his conversation classes realize the personal influence he exercised. Lord Rosebery recognized the service he was doing to the country, and his writings awakened an eager response throughout the colonies. It is happy for any country when the best intelligence of the land and its ripest scholarship are brought to bear in shaping the political enthusiasms of the day ; and that is the work which Seeley did in our English Cambridge. Nor is it only in beautiful and academic prose that these aspirations have found expression. He was a wise man who held that if he wrote the songs of the people, he did not care who made their laws. We English imperialists know that Rudyard Kipling writes our ballads, and we do not much care how the constitutions are devised.

Of course it is a decadent age. We have pessimists among us who warn us that this new empire cannot hold together ; that it is a great drain on our resources, and so forth ; that the colonies gain nothing by their connection with the mother country, and that the whole magnificent polity must break up sooner or later; that as one set of colonies demanded their independence once, so will all other colonies and dependencies in the course of time. We do not much dread it if they do, but we do not think it very likely that they will. There are no bonds of interest, it is true, but there are ties of sentiment which are strengthening and growing ; the loyalty to the crown in England has been intensifying very markedly during the last thirty years, but to Londoners it was a surprise to find how strong this feeling was in the colonies, as they saw it in the response that was elicited at the great jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The royal and imperial crown gives a rallying point for English sentiment throughout the world ; and our distant colonies value the symbols of authority that connect them still with the great traditions of the past of the Anglo-Saxon race.

On the other hand, the English sentiment of paternity is very deep. We are proud of the achievements of all our colonists, for we count them as indirectly our own ; and in that feeling America and American achievements are included. Whatever readiness there is in England to appreciate the triumphs of the industrial development of the United States, and to rejoice in the success of their army and navy, rests, not on any calculation of English interests, but on the sense of kinship, since we feel that Americans come of the old stock. English pride has its advantageous side. There are serious, perhaps widening differences of opinion and interest between the Old England and the New; but the paternal pride we feel in all American successes is the true guarantee, so far as England is concerned, of continued peace and deepening friendship. We believe that England had no small part in making America what she is. The first settlers had a heritage of training in selfgovernment when they landed here, and it was under British leadership that the vital question between French and AngloSaxon ascendency on this continent was decided. England may not have been a very wise or a very kindly parent, but after all she did her bare duty by her offspring. She gave her colonies a good education and a start in life ; and Englishmen of this generation feel a genuine pride in the great things America has achieved in her independent career. The English parental pride in America is very strong, and it is assuredly no weaker sentiment that attaches us to the more dutiful children of the mother country. The bond of sentiment is increasingly powerful, and the occasions which gave rise to trouble in the past are not likely to recur.

There were two grounds of difference that no longer exist. Loyalty to their religious principles impelled the Pilgrims to cross the water and claim freedom from the Anglican Church. But the Anglican Church is not imposed on English colonists to-day ; it has its hold upon some of them, because they find in its services the fullest witness to their Christian faith and the best expression of their religious devotion. Religion and religious association are no longer a badge of differences, but a stronger bond of union.

Then there was that other cause of difference, — the commercial disabilities which had been imposed on our colonies. That too is a thing of the past. Englishmen are not now trying to develop colonies in the interest of the mother country ; in this respect we have learned the lesson America taught us.

It is thus that we Englishmen look out on the twentieth century : in no decadent humor; with much anxiety, indeed, but with no misgivings as to the result. We know that our national debt is large, and that our coal is being exhausted ; our material advantages are not so great as they once were ; but for all that we seem to have the men who are fitted to do the very thing the world needs most, and we hope to rise to any new responsibilities that the future may have in store.

William Cunningham.