The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

8

Critics of Empire in Britain

NICHOLAS OWEN

'Few, if any, pronounced anti-imperialists exist,' wrote the British Proconsul Lord Cromer in 1913, 'but a wide divergence of opinion prevails as to the method of giving effect to an imperial policy.' 1 Such a comment might easily be dismissed as proconsular short-sightedness. It reveals, however, a problem familiar to all historians of the British Empire: the ambiguity of the terms 'imperialist' and 'anti-imperialist'. Both are porous terms: disputed territory on which both combatants and conflict may vary with circumstances of geography and history. Did anti-imperialism merely mean resistance to the annexation and direct rule of colonies in the non-European world, or did it also entail opposition to the strengthening of links with the semi-autonomous White Dominions or to the 'informal empire' of commerce and trading privileges enjoyed by the British in Argentina, China, and elsewhere? Which manifestations of British power and influence were unacceptable? The coercive policing? The 'advice' offered by British representatives to indigenous rulers? The proselytizing of missionaries and teachers? The operations of traders and the investments of venture capitalists? The 'protection' afforded by the Royal Navy? Even during the period 1900-64, the constituent elements of 'imperialism' altered greatly, forcing compensating shifts in what composed 'anti-imperialism'. Like all movements of protest, 'anti-imperialism' was forced to be as multifaceted and mutable as its opponent.


1900-1918

The critique of Empire fashioned at the turn of the century in response to the South African (Boer) War and the programme of 'constructive imperialism' championed by Joseph Chamberlain owed much to its nineteenth-century inheritance. The war reinforced the beliefs of critics that the old imperialism of emigration and free trade was giving way to a more aggressive alternative. Radicals had long regarded the chartered company as inefficient and irresponsible, motivated

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1
Quoted in Bernard Porter, The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1900 (London, 1975), p. 194.

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