Colonialism and Development: Britain and Its Tropical Colonies, 1850-1960

By Michael Havinden; David Meredith | Go to book overview

2

The tropical colonies in the mid-Victorian age (1850-70)

Opportunities and problems


THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF THE TROPICAL COLONIES

The 1850s make a good starting point for an analysis of the development of the tropical empire, because they were the critical decade during which vital decisions had to be taken as to whether it was worth retaining tropical colonies at all, since the process of granting responsible government to the settlement colonies was in full swing. The economic difficulties experienced by the West Indies after the final ending of slavery in 1838, the high costs (both in money and lives) of maintaining the navy’s anti-slave trade patrols off the West African coast, and the generally disease-laden and unpromising aspect of tropical areas, made many people in Britain feel that the retention of tropical colonies (let alone their expansion) was a foolish and costly enterprise. Disraeli’s famous comment in 1852 about the colonies being a ‘millstone around our necks’ captured this mood, but in the event it proved to be only a passing phase. 1 Despite much agonising Britain did not give up its tropical colonies. On the contrary it began a process—slow and hesitating at first—of gradually expanding them, so that by 1885, (even before the scramble for Africa) the size of the tropical empire was very considerably greater than it had been in 1850. 2 The reasons for this were varied and complex and will be considered in more detail for each region in due course.

What then was the inheritance of tropical colonies whose uncertain future the Colonial Office controlled in 1850? In Table 2.1 the tropical colonies are listed with their populations in the early 1850s, and in 1881. In that period of about 30 years their population virtually doubled from around 3.1 million to 6.1 million. The Asian colonies were the most populous at both dates: Ceylon leading the way with a population of a little over 1.7 million in the early 1850s, followed by the Straits Settlements in the Malayan peninsula with just over 200,000 inhabitants and Mauritius with just under that figure. The Asian colonies increased their population from nearly 2.2 million in 1850 to 3.85 million in 1881,

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