Chapter 19

The Sun Never Sets - But It Don't Shine Either

In This Chapter

● How the British got an empire without meaning to

● Empire building in America, India, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Africa

● What went wrong in India and in South Africa

One historian once said that the British got their Empire in “a fit of absence of mind”, as if they had gone out to the shops one day and come back with a huge Empire without any recollection of having bought it. There’s some truth in the idea. The point is that no-one ever sat down and said, “Right, this Empire then. Which bits of the world are we going to need?” It was much more haphazard, and the British often opposed it. After all, if you take somewhere over, you’ve got to defend it and maintain it, and that costs money. And in the end, money was one of the main things British imperialism was all about.

Figure 19-1 shows the Empire at the peak of its expansion in 1920. Many of the countries in the Empire at this time had been taken from Germany at the end of the Great War (see Part VI for more on the later history of the Empire); other countries - such as the American colonies - would have featured on an earlier map, but had long since been independent by this time (see Chapter 17 to find out why).

Anyone writing about the British Empire nowadays has a problem. On the one hand, the Empire was an appalling story of greed, cruelty, massacre, genocide, theft, and pretty cynical self-interest by white Europeans exploiting weaker people all over the world. But it was also a tale of high hopes and dreams, of enormous energy and enterprise, of people who really did believe they were making the world a better place and helping those less fortunate than themselves. The Empire spread huge technological and political advantages all around the globe, but it did so at a terrible and shameful cost in human suffering. For historians, getting the balance in the story right can be tricky.

Figure 19-1: The British Empire, 1920.

New World Order

To understand how the British Empire got started, you have to go back to the sixteenth century and Tudor times - doublets and hose and men with doilies round their necks (see Part IV to find more about these people). An Italian sailor called Giovanni Caboto arrived at the court of King Henry VII. Would the King be interested in stumping up the cash for a voyage to the New World? Now, a few years earlier Henry had turned Columbus down, and he didn’t want to make the same mistake again. So he said yes, and John Cabot - the English couldn’t cope with his real name - sailed west until he hit “New-found-land”. He didn’t know it, but he was also founding the British Empire.

Newfoundland proved very good for fish, which was big business in those days - no meat allowed on Fridays or in Lent, so demand was big - but what the English really wanted was to get into the highly profitable spice trade with the East, and to do that they needed to get past the New World and on to Asia, if they could only find the way through. But they couldn’t. One group did try to settle in the New World in Henry VIII’s reign, but there was so little food, they ended up eating each other. So by Elizabeth I’s time, the English had come up with a much better way of making money out of America: robbery.

Imperial Spain was the world superpower, thanks in part to her South American gold and silver mines. The Spanish forced the locals to mine it and then shipped it off to Spain. The English simply ambushed the ships (see Chapter 11 for more about these English sea dogs).

Colonies in the New World

In Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) the English had another go at setting up a colony in America.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh found a site at Roanoke in Virginia (named after Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”), but the colony only lasted a year. By the time a second colony was set up at Jamestown in 1607 King James I’s anti-smoking drive had reduced the demand for tobacco. Virginia collapsed. In addition, the colonists tried to swindle the local tribes, so they massacred the colonists.

The failure of the Virginia colonies would have been the end of the story of British colonialism had it not been for all the religious strife back in England. (Have a look back at Chapter 13 to see what this was all about.) The Pilgrim Fathers, the most famous religious refugees in history, hired the Mayflower in 1620, sailed to the New World, landed in Massachusetts, and set up another colony. That this group made it through the first winter was a bit of a miracle - and solely due to the local tribes who stepped in and lent a hand - but the colony survived. In 1630, John Winthrop led another group of Puritans to Massachusetts, and two years later Catholic colonists arrived in Maryland. The Scots decided to join in with a Scottish colony at what they called Nova Scotia (New Scotland), and this might have worked had it not been for politics: Charles I lost a war with France, and as part of the peace deal, he agreed to hand Nova Scotia over to the French.

By the end of the century, the English had enough colonies in the New World to rival the French and the Spanish.

Hey, sugar sugar

To start with, the English didn’t really know why they wanted these colonies. When the government asked the Pilgrim Fathers what they were going to do in the New World once they arrived, the Pilgrim Fathers looked a bit embarrassed and mumbled something about maybe doing a bit of fishing.

Once the English got to the New World, of course, they found all sorts of useful things to sell. There were furs - European winters were getting a lot colder then, so these were very welcome - tobacco, fish, and potatoes. But the king of all products, the one that brought the pound signs to the eyes, the one that really mattered was sugar.

Sugar made all the travails of colonisation worthwhile. You could eat it, you could shape it, you could use it to sweeten anything from cakes to drinks, and it tasted good! But harvesting sugar took a lot of hard work - which is why this British Empire in the New World was based so heavily upon slavery. To see the sordid connection between the sugar and slave trades, refer to Chapter 16. What’s important to know here is that the slave trade made the sugar islands rich, so rich, in fact, that the British seriously considered giving Canada back to the French in return for just one sugar island in the Caribbean. Even ports that never saw a slave made money out of the slave trade. Bristol and Liverpool were small seaside towns: The slave trade made them the richest ports in Britain.

After many years of arguing about it, the British finally abolished the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. By then they had worked out a way of growing sugar beet at home, so there was less need for slave labour in the Caribbean colonies anyway.

India Taken Away

The story of the British in India begins on the very last day of the sixteenth century, when a group of merchants met in London to set up the East India Company to conduct trade with the East. The first Englishman to go out,

Sir Thomas Roe, worked out a very good deal with the Mughal Emperor which gave the English a trading base in Surat on the west coast. Then King Charles II (you can find out more about him in Chapter 13) married a Portuguese princess called Catherine de Braganza, and she gave him the Indian port of Bombay (Mumbai) as a wedding present!

Gradually the English, like the French and the Portuguese, who also had trading bases in India, got sucked into the violent and unpredictable world of Indian politics which basically meant taking sides in a series of very complex and bloody civil wars. These European trading companies began to set up their own armed forces of Indian soldiers under European officers, and by the eighteenth century the British East India Company (we can call it British by the eighteenth century - see Chapter 15 to see why) had a full-scale army with which to square up to the French East India Company - and its own full-scale army. In 1751 the British Company’s army, under its rather wild young commander Robert Clive, defeated the French Company army at Arcot and more or less drove the French out of southern India.

Black Hole in Calcutta

In 1756 the British heard disturbing news from Bengal: The Nawab of Bengal had attacked the British garrison in his capital, Calcutta, beaten them and taken many of them prisoner. He locked them up in a small cellar overnight, but the night was stiflingly hot, and in the morning many of the prisoners had died. It became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The “Black Hole of Calcutta” is important, because it was one of the main reasons the British gave for taking India over, and for years British children learned about it as a terrible atrocity and a sure sign that Indians were not to be trusted. Exactly how many people died is a matter of some dispute. The British claimed that 146 men were locked in and only 23 survived, but historians dispute this, and in any case it’s by no means clear that the deaths were intended. As so often in history, it’s not what actually happened that matters, but what people thought had happened. The British were convinced that the Nawab killed the men deliberately, and they set out for revenge. And that meant regime change in Bengal.

Clive headed north and met the Nawab and his French allies at Plassey in 1757. Clive had 3,000 men, British and Indian; the Nawab had 68,000 Bengali and French troops. Think of that as 3 against 68. Yet Clive won. How? Easy. He cheated (mind you, with odds like that, it’s hard to blame him). Clive made a secret deal with the Nawab’s relative Mir Jaffir. If Mir Jaffir would keep his troops out of the battle, the British would put him on the throne of Bengal. Which they did, though much good it did him. After Plassey, the Mughal Emperor handed Bengal over to the British, so Mir Jaffir was no more than a puppet controlled by a British governor. He was the first of many.

The Battle of Warren Hastings

Everyone knew what went on in the East India Company: shady dealings, back-handers, and chaotic accounting. By the 1770s the company was nearly bankrupt (think Enron). Clive was hauled back to England to face corruption charges. The man sent out to India to clean things up was Warren Hastings. He had studied Indian culture and languages, and he was very good at admin. Unfortunately, he was also very difficult to get on with. He got into bitter arguments with the three-man council he was supposed to work with and even wounded one of them in a duel, which didn’t help. It was also during his time in office that a terrible famine hit Bengal which killed five million people - a third of the entire population.

Hastings’ enemies had friends in London, and they got him recalled to face a long list of charges. The trial was held in Parliament with some of the leading Whig politicians heading up the prosecution (see Chapter 15 to find out about who the Whigs were). The trial dragged on for years. Eventually Hastings was found not guilty, but his career was in ruins. The government decided it was no good leaving India to be governed by a private company, and it started gradually taking over India itself.

Great game, great game!

After Warren Hastings (see the preceding section) the British took a new line in India. Instead of trying to fit into the Indian way of doing things, they would make the Indians do things the British way: British laws and British education. They stopped bothering to learn Indian languages and Indian history and even let Christian missionaries in. But the British were worried about the Russians moving in too - if you look at a map, you’ll see it wasn’t that silly an idea. So the Brits sent spies and secret agents up to the North West Frontier to keep an eye on the Russians. They called it the “Great Game”. India’s neighbours were going to join in, whether they liked it or not:

Afghanistan, 1839-42: The British were afraid that the Russians were going to invade India through Afghanistan, so they sent an army into Kabul and put their own man in charge, a hapless character called Shah Sujah. The Afghans knew a British puppet when they saw one. They started shooting British soldiers in Kabul and took command of the narrow passes through the mountains, so the British were cut off. When the British finally did retreat, the Afghans shot them to pieces. Then they did the same to Shah Sujah.

Invasions of Afghanistan have a habit of going badly wrong. The British imposed another puppet government in 1878 and the Afghans overthrew that one too. The British had to launch a Second Afghan War and even after that they didn’t have much control of the country. In 1980 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a pro-Russian government, but after eight years of guerrilla fighting they too had to pull out. Afghanistan is one area of the world where it is well worth knowing your history!

● Sind, 1843: British commander Charles Napier took the North West Indian state of Sind basically in revenge for what had happened in Afghanistan the year before. You could call the attack unprovoked aggression, and you’d be right. He even sent a joke message - Peccavi! which means “I have sinned” in Latin. Get it? Quite.

Punjab: This Sikh kingdom was falling into chaos after its great ruler Ranjit Singh died. The Sikhs invaded British territory, and after two tremendously bloody campaigns (1845-6 and 1848-9), the British drove them back and took over.

● Burma: The British attacked Burma three times (1824-6; 1852; 1885-6) and finally took the whole country over. Why? Mainly so the French couldn’t have it. Burmese opinion didn’t come into it.

This is Mutiny, Mr Hindu!

What, you may ask, did the Indians think of what the British were doing? The British hardly seemed to wonder. They assumed the Indians were happy and that everything was hunky-dory. Boy, were they wrong. In 1857 India rose in revolt, and there were three main reasons:

The “Lapse” rule: This was an interesting system the British came up with for when an Indian ruler died. If there was no heir according to British rules, then the succession “lapsed” to Britain - i.e. the British took it over. The fact that there was an Indian heir according to Indian rules didn’t count!

● Greased cartridges: Indian soldiers, or sepoys, were issued with new bullets that were coated in grease. According to the rumours, the grease was either cow fat, which Hindus couldn’t touch, or pig fat, which Muslims couldn’t touch. Whatever the truth was, the British told the sepoys to stop grumbling and use the bullets.

● An old prophesy: An old story said that British rule would end a hundred years after the battle of Plassey in 1757. Now it was 1857. Spooky!

In 1857, the sepoys at Meerut in northern India refused to use the bullets, killed their officers, and started a huge rising against British rule. They dragged the old Mughal emperor out of his happy retirement and told him he was to lead them; various Indian rulers seized the chance to get their kingdoms back; and the British found themselves cut off in towns like Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow.

Make no mistake: This rebellion was very bloody. At Kanpur, the Indians cut the bodies of British women and children up and threw them down a well. The British sewed captured Muslims up in pig skins, hanged prisoners from trees without any sort of trial, made Indians lick blood up from the ground, and used an old Indian practice of tying prisoners to cannons and blowing them to pieces.

Afterwards, both sides were quite shocked by the violence. The British government took over completely from the old East India Company and tried - very reluctantly - to give Indians more of a say in governing the country. The Indian Mutiny, as the British insisted on calling it, was a terrible warning of what could happen if they got it wrong.

Cook's Tour: Australia and New Zealand

While the British were busy conquering India (see the preceding section), some very different empire building was going on further south. The British had got

keenly interested in the possible uses of exotic plants, and the Admiralty sent out ships, like HMS Bounty, to go and find them. We all know what happened to the Bounty, but Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour was rather more successful. In 1770, he sailed into such a rich collection of plants that he called the place Botany Bay (in what is now New South Wales, Australia), and claimed it for Britain before going on to explore the rest of the Pacific. The people who actually lived at Botany Bay had tried to stop Cook and his men from landing. And they weren’t the only Pacific islanders who smelt trouble when the British arrived - Cook was killed by islanders in Hawaii - but the British weren’t going to let that stop them.

The British had been used to sending prisoners over to the American colonies - it was cheaper than looking after them in prison - but after America became independent, they had to look elsewhere. “How about Botany Bay?” asked some bright spark. “It’s on the other side of the world, so if they do survive, there’s a good chance they won’t come back”. The first shipload arrived in 1788.

The convicts were treated like animals, even though the only crime some of them had committed was stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family at home. When these prisoners were released, they simply pushed the Aborigines off their land. But the situation was much, much worse in Tasmania. It’s a small island with lots of poisonous snakes, so the British thought it was the ideal place to dump their hardest criminals. These bushrangers as they were called hunted the Aborigines for sport - with official encouragement. Within 70 years the Aborigines were dead. All of them. If you want an example of genocide, British Tasmania is a good place to start.

New Zealand didn’t escape. The Maoris were luckier than the Tasmanians - the Brits had a habit of recognising some peoples as “noble savages”, normally based on how well they fought, and they reckoned the Maoris fitted the bill. By the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, the Maoris handed the country over to the British and the British nobly refrained from wiping them out. Instead, they flooded New Zealand with European settlers and simply drove the Maoris off their land. Depressingly familiar, isn’t it?

Opium? Just Say Yes: China

With all of the wars the Brits fought to secure land and routes throughout the world, you could at least pretend that the British were trying to promote trade or good government or something. But even at the time, the British themselves couldn’t come up with much of an excuse for the opium wars with China.

A Franklin's Tale

One thing the Brits never gave up on was the idea that there must be a way into the Pacific round the north of Canada. (There is, but it's so far into the Arctic Circle that it's hardly worth bothering about.) In 1845, Sir John Franklin, a naval commander, Trafalgar veteran, and former governor of Tasmania, set off with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to find that wretched North West Passage. And he probably did, but he never came back to tell the tale. The two ships got trapped in the ice, and the men tried to get home over land. Even though they had the latest tinned food, none of them made it home. In the 1980s, some of the bodies were found, perfectly preserved by the cold. They had died from lead poisoning from the tins.

The East India Company found that it could make a packet by exporting opium to China, despite all the Chinese government could do to stop it. When the Chinese raided the drugs ships and warehouses in 1839, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston (there’s more about Palmerston and his highly original approach to international peace and harmony in Chapter 18) sent a fleet of gunboats to Canton and opened fire. The Chinese had to give up Hong Kong, agree to let the British pump them as full as opium as they liked, and not to stop honest British drug peddlers ever again. But they did. In 1856, the Chinese arrested a British ship for piracy; the Brits invaded China again. It was even easier this time because a civil war going on in China and the British had the French on their side. They took Beijing and forced the Chinese to open even more of their ports to British trade.

In the twentieth century, the Chinese called all these nineteenth century agreements “unequal treaties” and refused to consider themselves bound by them. It was what lay behind the Chinese government’s determination to get Hong Kong back from Britain in 1997. Which China did.

Wider Still and Wider: Scrambling for Africa

You might not guess it from everything so far, but until the 1880s, the British weren’t actually all that interested in getting colonies. They cost a lot of money for no very obvious return. But in the 1880s, something changed. Suddenly the British became really keen on their Empire. They didn’t just like it, they believed in it. They started calling it “The Empire on which the sun never sets” - a name with two meanings: One, the Empire was spread so far around the globe that the sun was always shining on some part of it, and two, that it would go on for ever. They called their Empire one of the greatest forces for good the world had ever seen. And they started taking over more and more of the world’s surface, especially in Africa.

For a long time, the Victorians didn’t really “do” Africa. They thought of it as the “Dark Continent”, full of jungle and disease and - well, no-one really knew. The man who changed all that was David Livingstone, the Scottish physician and missionary who first went out to Africa in 1841. Everyone loved reading his reports. And they began to dream. Maybe there was more to Africa than they thought? Like gold? Or diamonds? Or power. . . ?

Zulu!

Okay, you’ve seen Michael Caine and the gallant Welsh holding off the entire Zulu army - thahsands of them. But what really happened? It’s a story of two empires, one British, one Zulu. The Brits come into the story when they took the Cape of Good Hope - that’s the bottom bit of South Africa - off the Dutch in 1795, during the French Revolutionary Wars (see Chapter 17 to find out what these wars were all about). The Cape of Good Hope was such a handy base to have, half-way between Britain and India, that the British decided to keep it. The Dutch didn’t like it, and they liked it even less when the British abolished slavery in 1833. The Dutch lived by slavery. So they upped sticks and set off on the Great Trek to get away from the British and find some new Africans they could enslave.

The Dutch set up two states, called the Transvaal and the Orange Free State; while the British were left thinking “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we could take over the Dutch areas?” but not doing anything about it. Yet.

Meanwhile, a small local tribe called the Zulu was doing rather well for itself under its - shall we say, totally ruthless? - king, Shaka and setting up a large empire which even made the Dutch very nervous. In 1879 the Dutch asked the British for help and the British Governor of Cape Colony, Sir Bartle Frere, came up with a Cunning Plan. “Why not help the Dutch by picking a fight with the Zulu (who had no quarrel with the British) and wiping them out? The Dutch will be so grateful, they won’t notice when we take their land over as well.” Not a great exponent of moral philosophy was Sir Bartle Frere. So in 1879, without any provocation, a British army under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. And immediately hit trouble.

Dr Livingstone, I presume?

In a story with precious few heroes, David Livingstone does stand out as a good guy. Everyone liked him - except slave traders. He was a doctor and a missionary, and he went to Africa to spread the gospel, heal the sick, and find out a bit more about the place. He managed all three. Unlike the people who came after him, Livingstone respected the Africans and didn't seek to disrupt their way of life. It's said that he once found some diamonds but threw them away because he knew what would happen if other people found them. He would have been horrified if he had been able to see what would happen as a result of his reports. He got a taste of it when he met Henry Morton Stanley, the Welshman sent out by the New York Herald to "find Livingstone". (Livingstone wasn't actually lost; it was just that everyone else wanted to know where he was). Stanley was an appalling man, dishonest and a sadist to boot - it's hard to think of anyone less suited to working with Livingstone. Livingstone died loved by all and was buried in Westminster Abbey; Stanley went on to help King Leopold of the Belgians set up a brutal tyranny in the Congo. He got a knighthood (a British one).

The Zulu wiped out an entire British army column at Isandhlwana. The British had guns, but they couldn’t open the ammunition boxes because they hadn’t brought the right spanners! The Zulu went on to attack the small base at Rorke’s Drift - that’s the battle in the film Zulu, and yes the Welsh did hold them off, though by rifle fire rather than massed Welsh male voices singing (though that would have done just as well). Bartle Frere’s little plan was going badly wrong.

The British won in the end: Even Lord Chelmsford couldn’t lose a whole campaign with rifles and cannon against spears and shields. But even worse was to come.

The wild Boers

Two years later, the British marched into the two Dutch republics (see the section above). They thought the Dutch Boers (farmers) would be only too pleased for British protection, but they weren’t. They fought back, and these farmers proved deadly accurate marksmen: They slaughtered the British at the Battle of Majuba Hill. The Brits pulled out of the Transvaal as fast as they could run. (For Round Two of these Anglo-Boer Wars, see the section “The Anglo-Boer War: A hell of a lesson and a hell of a shock” a bit later on in this chapter).

One for you and two for me - cutting up Africa

You would think that after being cut to pieces by the Zulu and by the Boers, the British would have had enough of Africa, but you’d be wrong. Within a year they were back, this time in Egypt. Egypt was important to Britain because of the Suez Canal - easily the best way to Britain’s colonies in India and the Far East, and the canal was run by the French and British governments. So, in effect, was Egypt, which is why a sort of Egypt-for-the-Egyptians movement got going. So Gladstone, of all people (and see Chapter 18 to see why this was so surprising) sent in a military force under Sir Garnet Wolseley to deal with the insurrection. Which he did, though the British now found they were lumbered with all Egypt’s problems, whether they liked it or not.

Khartoum Kapers

The biggest problem was the Sudan, which was ruled by Egypt but didn’t want to be. There was a big Muslim fundamentalist rising going on in the Sudan, led by the Mahdi (a sort of Muslim Messiah). The government in Cairo sent an army into the Sudan to deal with the Mahdi under a British officer called Hicks, but Hicks and his men got wiped out (this was becoming a habit). Gladstone decided there had been enough military disasters in Africa, and that it would be best if Cairo (which was now controlled from London, don’t forget) pulled out of the Sudan altogether. There were some Egyptian civil servants and Europeans still in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, so in 1884 Gladstone sent General George Gordon to get them out. Bad choice.

Gordon was another religious fanatic, but this time a Christian one. He wanted a trial of strength with the Mahdi, so instead of evacuating Khartoum, he fortified it. He didn’t have many troops but he hoped that Gladstone would send him some. Gladstone thought Gordon should have stuck to his instructions, and refused to send him any reinforcements - even though the press and the Queen were screaming at him to do it. When he finally gave in and sent a force out to Khartoum it was too late: The Mahdi had taken Khartoum and Gordon was dead. Public opinion in Britain was outraged (they changed Gladstone’s nickname G.O.M - Grand Old Man - to M.O.G - Murderer of Gordon) but Gladstone thought it served him right.

The other countries in Europe didn’t see why the British should have all the fun in Africa. So the French started taking over North and West Africa, the Italians moved into Tripoli (Libya) and Ethiopia (though they moved out again pretty sharpish when the Ethiopians whipped them), and the Germans moved into East Africa. King Leopold of the Belgians took over the entire Congo basin as a sort of private estate and ran it as a massive slave labour camp. It was a mad scramble - the Scramble for Africa.

The British, of course, didn’t like all these foreigners moving in on “their” area, so they started taking more land, too. Sometimes they set up companies, like the Royal Niger Company which created Nigeria by drawing straight lines on maps right through different tribal areas. It’s why Nigeria fell apart in civil war in 1967 and why Nigeria remains a deeply divided country to this day.

Cecil Rhodes, the gung-ho British Prime Minister of Cape Colony, dreamed of running a railway on British territory all the way “from Cairo to the Cape”; unfortunately the French had a similar idea, only they wanted French territory across Africa from West to East. Someone was going to have to give.

Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere

The big showdown between the British and the French in Africa happened at a tiny place called Fashoda in the Sudan. There is nothing at Fashoda. Nobody wanted it, probably not even the Fashodans. But in 1898, it hit the headlines when it was the meeting place for two very different military expeditions.

The British, heading North to South: A large British army under General Hubert Kitchener had set out to conquer the Sudan and to get revenge for what happened to Gordon (see the preceding section, “Khartoum Kapers”).

The French heading West to East: A small French expedition consisting of Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, three bearers, and a dog, but with a very big French flag, was out to claim the Sudan for la Belle France.

Kitchener’s men won the battle of Omdurman against the Sudanese due to them having taken the precaution of stocking up on machine guns for mowing the enemy down in large numbers. Just as they were settling down to their postmassacre tea and biccies, French Captain Marchand arrived and, after much bowing and saluting, told them, in a very high voice, to kindly get the hell off French territory - Zut alors! General Kitchener told the little chap that he admired his courage but that he had ten thousand British troops at his back plus a large number of cannon and, if Captain Marchand did not turn round and march back the way he had come pretty sharpish, he would feel the imprint of some of their boots on his backside. “Zis means war!” fumed Captain Marchand, as he sat down to write a very stiff postcard to Paris. And, unbelievably, it nearly did.

The French took I’affaire Faschoda very seriously (they still do). When the British had stopped laughing, they gently reminded the French that, at that stage, the French had only one friend in the world and that was the Russians, and they weren’t going to lift a finger to help. The whole thing blew over. No, my friends, when it came to fighting wars in Africa with the whole world lined up against you, no-one could touch the Brits. (You can see this in the section “The Anglo-Boer War: A hell of a lesson and a hell of a shock” a bit later in this chapter.)

The Colonies Grow Up - As Long As They’re White

If you had asked British people in the nineteenth century what their Empire was for, they would say that they were governing all these people until they were ready to govern themselves. And if you asked when that might be, they would point proudly to colonies that were doing just that:

Canada: The French Canadians couldn’t stand the English, English couldn’t stand the French, and the whole place had had to be divided in two back in the eighteenth century. By 1867, the country’s all joined together again and allowed to govern itself.

Australia: Complete shambles, especially after the gold rush of 1851. Proper government introduced state by state until, in 1901, the Aussies are ready to rule themselves. Damn shame we taught them to play cricket. Perhaps they’d teach us.

● New Zealand: Economy doing well. Lots of sheep. Gold there, too. More sheep. Ready to govern itself by 1907. Did I mention the sheep?

If you happened to point out that this steady march to self-government seemed a tad white, you would get a lot of talk about how, of course, coloured people weren’t so well advanced, and would take longer to be ready to govern themselves, and it wasn’t in their nature and so on and so on. And if you persisted, you might learn about the riots in Jamaica, which the British took as proof that some people (read that as non-white people) needed British rule (read that white British rule) for their own good. For the details about the events in Jamaica, see the sidebar “Rum goings-on in Jamaica”.

Lion Tamers

A lot of people will tell you that the British won their empire by using cannon and machine guns against people armed with spears and clubs, but that’s by no means always true. In many cases - India is a good example - they were up against people as well armed and trained as they were. There were always people ready to stand up to the British and tell them where to get off.

Rum goings-on in Jamaica

Jamaica's economy collapsed when Britain got rid of slavery in 1833 and didn't think through what to put in its place. By the 1860s, the blacks in Jamaica were desperately poor and asked the government to reduce their rents. When the government said no, a group of women marched into Kingston and stoned some sentries. All hell broke loose. There was very serious rioting, with sickening violence. One man had his tongue torn out, another was thrown into a burning building, a third was literally hacked to pieces - and then Governor Edward Eyre took a hand.

Eyre hunted the rioters down and shot them or hanged them without even stopping to inquire if they had had anything to do with riots. He even made them hang each other. He had a thousand homes burned to the ground and 600 people flogged, often with wire whips. He reckoned the trouble had all been caused by the Revd. G.W. Gordon, a member of Jamaica's House of Assembly - the Jamaican Parliament - so he had him arrested and hanged, and no, he didn't bother with a trial. The Revd Gordon was black, you see.

What happened to Eyre? He was sacked and recalled to face trial. Some people thought he was a murderer, others thought he was a hero. The trial found him Not Guilty. One last point though. Before the trouble, Jamaica had at least given black people the vote. Now they lost it. Hardly worth abolishing slavery, was it?

What about the Irish?

The Irish were very active in the Empire, but they didn’t see why they should be treated as a colony at home. Despite the Act of Union (see Chapter 15 to see the shenanigans when that was passed) a British colony was more or less what Ireland was, with thousands of Irish tenants kept in utter poverty by landlords who often couldn’t even be bothered to come and visit their own estates. So the Irish decided to initiate change.

They campaigned for a fairer system of rents - you know, a system that didn’t involve them being evicted and having their cottages demolished by the local constabulary. The campaign got nasty: Landlords who evicted tenants were boycotted - completely shunned, as if they’d got the plague - and if that didn’t work they often got shot. Gladstone’s government gave the police special powers to lock people up, but in the end, Parliament had to tackle the rent question, and it did, quite successfully. (If they’d done that to start with, it would have saved everyone a lot of bother.)

By then, however, the Irish had moved onto the question of Home Rule, which didn’t quite mean being independent, but did mean getting the Irish Parliament back (see Chapter 15 for why they had lost it in the first place). The leader of the Home Rule League was an Irish Protestant MP called Charles Stuart Parnell (pronounced Parnul), and he knew just how to drive Prime Minister William Gladstone up the wall. He obstructed Parliamentary business by just talking for hours on end (and when his throat gave way another Irish MP took over) until he forced Gladstone to do something about Home Rule. Parnell’s own role had to stop when his love affair with Kitty O’Shea - er, Mrs Kitty O’Shea - became public knowledge, but by then Gladstone had decided that he had always believed in Home Rule anyway. Unfortunately Parliament didn’t agree: Gladstone split his party and in 1886 his Home Rule bill was thrown out. He tried again in 1893 with a stronger majority, but this time the House of Lords threw it out. The Irish were going to have to wait.

The Anglo-Boer War: A hell of a lesson and a hell of a shock

The Boer republics in South Africa (see the earlier section “Wider Still and Wider: Scrambling for Africa” for the background to this section) found they were sitting on some of the world’s largest diamond mines. The British wanted them. Many British people went to work in the Boer republics, and the British government complained loudly that they weren’t allowed to vote, but that was just an excuse really. In 1895, London and Cape Town secretly backed an illegal raid into the Transvaal led by a hot-headed adventurer called Dr Starr Jameson - the idea was to spark off a rising by the British settlers, but the Transvaal government got wind of the plan and arrested the raiders. London and Cape Town then desperately tried to deny they had known anything about it. No-one was convinced.

The Boers reckoned (probably rightly) that the British would launch a full-scale invasion, so they decided to attack first. In 1899 they invaded British territory. At the Battle of Spion Kop, they slaughtered the Highlanders; they cooped the Brits up at Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley; and they so trounced the Soldiers of the Queen that it was, as Kipling said, one hell of a lesson.

In the end, sheer weight of numbers (the British outnumbered the Boers) was bound to tell, but even when the British had taken all the Boer towns, the Boer commandos (guerrillas) took to the veldt and started guerrilla raids. That was when General Kitchener came up with the idea of concentration camps. The idea was to herd the entire Boer population together where they couldn’t hide or supply the commandos. Unfortunately, without proper water, sanitation, or food supplies thousands of people were bound to die in these camps, and they did. And not just white South Africans either; there were black camps, too. Yes, Britain won the Anglo-Boer War, but she won precious little credit for it. The great Imperial Dream was turning into a nightmare.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!