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The British Empire

A/N: Part I, paper 10 essay from Michaelmas term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. E. Foyster at Clare.

What impact did the growth of empire have on how the British saw themselves? Discuss with reference to the eighteenth century.

During the course of the eighteenth century the British Empire, as it is understood by history, came into being; the numbers over which it ruled swelled from a mere 12,000 or so colonists in 1630 to around a fifth of the world’s population by 1820. Such a huge and rapid expansion could not but have had some effect on how the British saw themselves, and by British I mean to say natives of the home islands as opposed to British colonial identities. It is the extent and nature of this impact that has provided historians with the fodder for their arguments over empire and identity; Wilson, for example, argues that empire was instrumental in the construction of a national British identity, as it provided a focal point for the heterogeneous peoples of the British Isles. Colley is less optimistic as to how far the first stage of empire succeeded in establishing nationalism and a shared sense of identity, pointing to pluralistic tendencies in terms of class, gender, religion and geography. Yet this is not the whole story of the impact of empire on how the British saw themselves; the growing empire also forced people to re-evaluate their understandings of individual identity. In the 1730s Hume had been able to claim that the self was a biological factor, ‘invariable and uninterrupted… through the whole course of our lives’, but by the end of the eighteenth century this view had been superseded. It was possible for identities to change; a British subject, so it was believed, could, through the effects of foreign climates and association with ‘savage’ natives, become degenerated into a savage state. In short empire had a huge impact on British understandings of self in both a national, and individual, context.

Nationalism and, linked with that, national identities have not had a good press in recent years; the concepts tend to be invariably linked in the modern mind with uncomfortable notions of racism and superiority. Something of this modern awkwardness has resulted in a reticence in some quarters to deal with past imperialism or otherwise to paint it wholly in a negative light; yet the national identity that came into being during the eighteenth century was complex and not founded solely on ideas of racial superiority. To be British was not necessarily to be white, and likewise to be white did not necessarily amount to being British; something which was to become obvious during the American Revolutionary war. For all the colonial sympathisers maintained that the American rebels were ‘brethren’ the dominant view within Britain was that, whilst they may once have been British, they had since degenerated. In the words of John Fletcher, writing in 1776, the Americans had grown to prefer ‘the lawless liberty of a savage, who lives under no sort of government’ and therefore had given up their claim to what Wahrman contests was the foundation stone of British identity: civil liberty. Here we see a way in which empire forced the British to pin down and give name to what made them different, and even superior, to other nations.

Similarly the growth of empire was to create a growing sense of national pride and a sense of the righteousness and necessity of British rule. Colley has written at length about the impact on the eighteenth century mindset of the threat of being held captive by foreign nations, particularly in our period the ‘Barbary’ Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Stories like those of Thomas Pellow and John Kay, of being misused as a slave by people who were understood to be less civilised, and generally inferior threatened the concept of the ‘free born Briton’, something which by mid-century encompassed the Celtic fringes in addition to England itself. Although this fear never really abated during the eighteenth century it did begin to wane, the more secure British dominance became the more arrogant the national outlook seemed to become; the Sultan Fateh Ali Tipu of Mysore serves as a useful example of this view. At the height of his power and influence a nuanced understanding of his captive taking was the norm, it was understood in the 1780s that British military action in the region was partly responsible and the man himself was described as ‘fair, with a pleasing countenance’, signifying to the contemporary British mindset that he was civilised and similar to themselves. Such a view coincided with the more general pessimism about empire at this time; the loss of the American colonies was a harsh blow and the classical example of the fall of Rome from (it was believed) over expansion had never seemed to hold more resonance. Yet by 1799, the year of Tipu’s death, when the British Empire was larger and stronger than ever and optimism reigned once more, Tipu was described in feminine terms, with extra emphasis on his being black. Whilst, as already discussed, skin colour might not in practice mean exclusion from British identity, to theoretical understanding it was crucial; to be black meant otherness, and more importantly, inferiority. Thus by 1799 empire had engendered a sense of superiority and pride amongst the British, by 1810 C.W. Pasley could write that common belief amongst the British was ‘that one Englishman is equal to two foreigners.’

This movement towards a more aggressive and expansionist approach to empire inevitably resulted in a jostling of how the British saw themselves. In the early days of empire it was argued that British rule was not something that was necessarily wanted, it had been pushed upon the British through necessity; the acquisition of Minorca in 1708 as defence against the Spanish for example. The understanding, already outlined, that overexpansion had been the downfall of the once great Roman Empire moved contemporaries to call for moderation. To reconcile the two concepts religion was increasingly brought into play; expansion was not just for the good of Britain but also for the good of the lands brought under British rule. For, British rule, would act as a civilising agent, and nowhere was this to be clearer than in attempts to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity. To the modern ear such justifications sound hollow and self-serving but to contemporaries the possibility of saving millions of souls was certainly a worthwhile cause. The London Missionary Society was founded in 1795 to spread the Christian message and activities only continued to grow; Dickens was to lament in the 1840s on the preference of people to send their money to the Bible societies for the benefit of those in Borrioboola ba and other far flung places whilst there were thousands starving to death on their own doorsteps. Empire then was a major factor in the resurgence of religious devotion within Britain; it offered the British not only a justification for empire but also an increasing sense of personal moral superiority and a better sense of their individual position in an ever changing world. 

Significantly however empire did not just result in religious growth, it also prompted a wave of scientific growth. The Scottish enlightenment had already by 1760s established the idea that there were stages of man, emphasising the notion of social progress over time. The masses of information brought back to Britain by explorers of new peoples, animals, and places also began the craze for cataloguing that was to become an obsession in the Victorian period; such classification and cataloguing would be important to providing a historical sense of self for the British. Science too sought to make sense of the differences between the British and the indigenous peoples encountered. This led first to Primitivism as a concept, and later the harsher nineteenth century concepts such as phrenology. Wilson argues that this coincided with the popularity of Captain Cook as a national hero; the rage was for a sympathetic understanding of native peoples, William Wales for example on describing the propensity of the natives of Vanuatu to sodomy was quick to point out that gender confusion was probably to blame, as ‘no person had been attempted who had not … a softness in his features’. This sympathetic view later gave way to a harsher view, exacerbated by Cook’s death at the hands of the Hawaiians. Empire then radically affected scientific outlooks which, in turn, had a huge impact on how the British saw themselves and others. Primitivism provided a sense of superiority in that the British had reached a much higher state of civilisation than the peoples they encountered and later scientific opinion only served to confirm this notion.

Following on then from this revolution of sorts in religious and scientific understandings, empire must also be seen to have had a profound impact on how the British saw their historical selves. Colley points out that in the early eighteenth century Britain itself was highly pluralistic and there was doubt as to what extent the Celtic fringes were part of Britain at all, the union between Scotland and England having only taken place in 1707 and union with Ireland not to be enacted until 1800. Empire however served as a focal point for the disparate peoples of the British Isles. By 1760 the Scots Magazine estimated that as many as a quarter of Scots of military age were serving with the British army and navy; such facts helped to overcome lingering Jacobite sympathies. This and the increasing focus on liberty as the cornerstone of British identity led to a rethink of British history; far from being the bringers of liberty the Normans at this time began to be seen as suppressors of the traditional liberty of the Anglo-Saxons – something the English had then had to reassert with Magna Carta. This new inclusive version of the British past coupled with the turmoil of the American war to instigate a new interest in provincial Britain; it came to be recognised that Welsh or Scottish identities, simultaneously romanticised and catalogued by the likes of Walter Scott and Lady Llanover, were not a precursor to exclusion from a British identity. With America off-limits in the 1770s and 1780s the so called ‘Celtic Fringes’ also became a focal point for religious dissenters, the dominance of non-conformist religion in Wales remains to the present day. This divergence helped instigate a more religiously tolerant nation along with the forced acceptance of religious difference abroad, the recognition of Catholicism in the 1774 Quebec Act for example. Empire, then, was radically changing not only what it was to be British, but even WHO could be British.

Attention has also been drawn to how empire was impacting on more personal understandings of self; empire can be seen to have forcefully challenged and restructured understandings of gender identity. This can most obviously be seen in changing attitudes towards women; regarded since the middle ages as closer to original sin than men women continued to symbolise the evils of society. By the 1780s however this view was changing and women were becoming to be regarded as more virtuous and morally superior to men. This led to a new bench mark for reckoning how civilised a society was; the better treated its women the more civilised a society was, thus the beautiful healthy women of Tahiti were seen to show that Tahiti had progressed further through the stage of mankind than a people like the Maori who used their women as little more than punch bags or pack horses. Here we could say that Empire sowed the seeds of later nineteenth century understandings of ‘separate spheres’ of gender by stressing women’s domestic and moral virtues; by the time of the American war the female camp followers were becoming seen as less and less acceptable and society’s appetite for scandalous stories of transvestism amongst the troops and other tales of gender confusion grew as the subject became more taboo.

It was not just femininity that was challenged by the growth of empire, men too found their understandings of masculinity being questioned. The new focus on religion and moral supremacy led to the new ideal of the aristocratic man that was to later filter down to the middle and lower classes; the cult of Captain Cook for example drew heavily on his perceived moral restraint exemplified by his monogamous marriage and demands that his crew refrain from promiscuity with the natives. Kuchta argues that this new, more sombre, approach to masculinity is also visible in changing male fashions; the bright colourful fashions of the early eighteenth century began to be scorned as effeminate, something which was seen as increasingly derogatory. It referred in the eighteenth century both to a feminine man (enamoured with the trinkets and adornments increasingly seen as the realm of women) or a man addicted to women, thus implying that a male so described had no self-restraint. As the empire grew in size and prestige, as noted earlier, the trend was to ascribe this effeminate status to the new subject peoples. Sober women may well have been the virtuous backbone of empire but overt showiness could easily degenerate the mind, this fault in men was seen to be worse as it meant their character was weaker even than the average woman’s. In the foreign context it was seen to symbolise the inferiority of the natives and their need for the moralising guiding hand of British rule. Empire, then, was helping to redefine the boundaries of acceptable gendered behaviour.

No discussion of the impact of empire on how the British saw themselves would be complete without consideration of class identity. Although for a long time reckoned to be a construct of the industrial age of the nineteenth century modern historiography has come to recognise the existence of class awareness, if not a unified class consciousness, long before this. Empire forced an awkward questioning of the established hierarchical structure of British society. Encountering new societies with radically different social structures was difficult for contemporaries to come to terms with and visiting native delegates were regularly described in the familiar terms of royalty, on encountering American-Indians for example the government had crowns of plated silver and paste jewels made up: inferior materials may have been used but the symbolism is obvious, by masking differences in such ways the British were able to cling to the ‘natural’ concept of monarchy. Later in the century the traditional hierarchy was to face a more overt challenge in the rise of American republicanism and the toppling of the French monarchy in the 1790s. Additionally the captivity narratives published in the eighteenth century challenged ideas of subservience, stories came out of North Africa of masters who treated their British slaves as surrogate sons and allowed them to own property and marry. Undoubtedly such stories were to add fire to the anti-slavery movement of the later eighteenth century; the idea that Barbars were dispensing more liberty than Britain, the perceived birthplace of liberty, was unacceptable. Additionally the failures of aristocratic rule exemplified by the failure of Admiral John Byng to hold Minorca against the French caused resentment and sparked awareness. From the 1780s calls for universal male suffrage were linked to the fact that all men were liable to be called up for military service. Empire did not create a coherent class system as outlined by Marxist ideology but it did encourage a re-evaluation of the status quo and lead to fears of the power of the ‘mob’, something which would later become a unifying factor for the middle classes.

Before drawing any conclusions about the impact of empire of how the British saw themselves during the eighteenth century it is important to note that empire was not the only factor impacting on understandings of identity. The growth of industrialisation and large scale agricultural production impacted greatly on class awareness. Religion too could have a more direct domestic impact on senses of self; the Gordon Riots of 1780 for example saw the ‘mob’ rise up against tolerance of Catholicism within Britain. War too had a huge impact on the British psyche, whilst often linked to empire the distinction may well have been lost to contemporaries on many occasions. Britain was formally at war with France seven times between 1689 and 1815, the cost of war must have seemed to many to differ little no matter who the enemy. War meant upheaval and its end generally resulted in widespread unemployment and waves of petty crime, things that may well have played more heavily on domestic understandings of morality than activities happening on the other side of the world, out of reach to the vast majority of the population. Such assertions do not detract from the importance of empire on the reformation of national and individual identities but serve to check over emphasis on a single factor.

In conclusion the growth of empire during the eighteenth century had a huge impact on how the British saw themselves. The rapid expansion of empire called for justifications of British rule which manifested itself with the concept of British superiority so uncomfortable for people today. By creating a mythology of British liberty stretching back into the ancient past a national identity was forged that managed at once to be more inclusive to the natives of the British Isles, incorporating the Scots and Welsh to a larger extent than ever before, visible in the idea of the ‘free born Briton’ for example, whilst simultaneously denying British status to colonial subjects. Attempts to reconcile these seemingly contradictory positions resulted in new ways of looking at British morality; the hyper religiosity of the early nineteenth century was part of this process of justifying British dominance. Additionally empire challenged understandings of gender identity, both genders were idealised to an almost unachievable extent as women’s morality and virtuousness was seen to provide a supporting crutch to enable male self-restraint and intelligence to prosper; again the perceived superiority of British society is glaringly apparent, something that would only further mutate to the perceived superiority of the British middle classes. Phrenology and other pseudo-sciences established in the wake of a scientific movement to explain the difference between the British and the indigenous peoples she encountered came to be used to explain the degenerate and savage nature of the underclass. Colley uses Alfred Adler’s work on psychology to suggest that this insistence on British superiority stemmed from a sense of inferiority to other European nations, whilst containing some truth it seems likely that the view emerged also as a way of mitigating the guilt of aggressive expansionism and easing the fear that an expansive empire would result in the same fate as that which awaited ancient Rome. Empire than had a large direct and indirect impact on British understandings of their national identity and more personal understandings of self.

Empire Bibliography 

  • P.J. Marshall (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century (1998), introduction. 
  • J.P. Greene, ‘Empire and identity from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution’, in P.J. Marshall (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century (1998). 
  • K. Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715-1830 (1995), chapters 3 and 5. 
  • K. Wilson, The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (2003), Intro, chapters 2-4.  
  • L. Colley, Captives: Britain, empire and world, 1600-1850 (2003). M. Pittock, Inventing and Resisting Britain (1997), chapter 4. 
  • D. Wahrman, ‘The English problem of identity in the American Revolution’, American Historical Review 106 (2001). 
  • L. Colley, ‘Whose nation? Class and national consciousness in Britain 1750-1830’, Past and Present 113 (1986)


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