Tuesday , October 27 2020
Home / Political Thoughts - the magazine / Was the British Empire worth it?

Was the British Empire worth it?

Summary:
Recently the children and grandchildren of ex-colonials who work for the BBC etc. have been getting a major attack of conscience about the British Empire.  Most of us just regard the old Empire as something that ended in or before the days of our grandparents but if you have family that returned from the colonies or were expelled from the colonies you might feel guilty.How much did the British Empire benefit the British?  We should be sceptical about the economic impact of Empire because the rapid growth in British incomes relative to our European neighbours began before the huge expansion of Empire in the nineteenth century.  The British domestic economy was making the British rich so how did Empire help?Traditionally it is assumed that imperial trade provided a huge boost to the UK

Topics:
John considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

J. writes Is Terrorism Becoming Official Islamic Policy?

J. writes Biden to win the US Election. What then?

J. writes The Future of the United Kingdom

J. writes In Praise of Trade

Recently the children and grandchildren of ex-colonials who work for the BBC etc. have been getting a major attack of conscience about the British Empire.  Most of us just regard the old Empire as something that ended in or before the days of our grandparents but if you have family that returned from the colonies or were expelled from the colonies you might feel guilty.

Was the British Empire worth it?

How much did the British Empire benefit the British?  We should be sceptical about the economic impact of Empire because the rapid growth in British incomes relative to our European neighbours began before the huge expansion of Empire in the nineteenth century.  The British domestic economy was making the British rich so how did Empire help?

Traditionally it is assumed that imperial trade provided a huge boost to the UK economy.  Overseas trade requires that in the long run it is balanced. The customers must have enough money to buy goods and services and the producers must have the resources and capital to produce them. As part of this equilibrium the wholesalers, retailers and other middlemen must benefit equally at both ends of the trading.  Harmony can only be achieved if the trading countries are producing the same value of similar goods. Of course, we then need to wonder why large scale overseas trade was necessary in the first place. The answer to that question is that, as in all other commercial activities, it makes some entrepreneurial people wealthy.

The classic picture of imperial trade is that the UK produced manufactured goods in return for raw materials.  However, the evidence is that in the nineteenth century much of the raw materials for manufactures, such as coal, iron, copper, tin etc. were produced in the UK.  The raw materials obtained from the Empire were cotton, sugar, tobacco and wood.  Of these cotton was by far the most important, in around 1825 processed cotton goods were about 40% of UK exports whilst imports of sugar etc added together were of relatively low value.  

However, much of British cotton was imported from the USA:

Was the British Empire worth it?
Source: Olmstead AL and Rhode, PW. (2016)

The USA was not part of the British Empire after 1776.  The rise in British cotton imports from India was a result of the American Civil War as can be seen from the massive fall in imports from the USA in 1862:

Was the British Empire worth it?
Source: Surdam

Although Indian cotton was only about 35% of cotton imports in 1870 and US supply rapidly returned. 

There is no doubt that Britain was a major trading power in the nineteenth century:

Was the British Empire worth it?
But the distribution of this trade was largely outside of the British Empire: 

Was the British Empire worth it?

If we remove the seventy percent or more of British trade that went outside the empire we are left with perhaps 20-30% of trade within it.

Was the British Empire worth it?

This confirms that having an Empire was a fairly pointless exercise throughout the nineteenth century from the viewpoint of trade. Much of the "Empire Share" of trade would probably have been available without an empire.  Why did Britain have an empire?

The Empire began as a mixture of the seizure of the overseas possessions of other European powers in the wars of the eighteenth century and the entrepreneurial activity of bodies such as the East India Company.  These new possessions were colonised and the Empire then became an exercise in protecting the colonists.  Much of the apparently large wealth of the British Empire was in fact the wealth of the colonists.

Why did Britain have an Empire?  Another answer to that question is that, as in all other commercial activities, it makes some entrepreneurial people wealthy.  Some of the British people who went overseas, colonising and trading, got richer than they could have expected at home. Some of their descendants then got kicked out of the colonies, came back to the UK, and joined the BBC to lecture us on the evils of the old Empire as if it still existed.

The colonists who stayed overseas turned out to be a huge boon to the world. Without them we would be speaking German.

See also Slavery and British Wealth in the 18th and 19th Centuries


7/10/2020

Olmstead, AL and Rhode, PW. (2016)  Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism.

Surdam, David G. “King Cotton: Monarch or Pretender? The State of the Market for Raw Cotton on the Eve of the American Civil War.” The Economic History Review, vol. 51, no. 1, 1998, pp. 113–132. 

McKeown TJ (1983). Hegemonic Stability Theory and Nineteenth-Century Tariff Levels in Europe. International Organization · February 1983

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *