The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

PREFACE

The years 1815 to 1902 were pre-eminently ' Britain's Imperial century', and they provide the core of traditionally triumphalist Imperial narratives. At both dates Britain emerged the victor from major wars. The peace treaties of 1814-15 not only acknowledged Britain's dominance in Europe; they confirmed her conquests made during the wars with France since 1793. Colonies everywhere were thus relieved from fears of attack, political upheaval, and financial loss, and new possessions were converted into fresh bridgeheads for British advance or keystones in the naval defence of Britain's trade. In 1902 the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the South African War, from another perspective also coincided with the final phase of Africa's partition. Although victory was bought at a high price, one indicative of future problems, for the moment at least it marked Britain's final emergence as the dominant power in the last colonized continent. Imperial co-operation was manifest in the colonial presence at Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901 and military contributions to the Transvaal's defeat.

However, there is also a 'long nineteenth century', bounded at one end by the events of the 1780s and at the other by those Of 1902-14, revealing more of the uncertainties and fluctuations in Imperial fortunes. Peacemaking with a newly independent United States of America, and the reshaping of government for Quebec and British India, from 1782-91, were defensive measures against events which had seemed seriously threatening or uncontrollable. With hindsight, they can be seen as pointers to new connections and influence with both British settlers overseas and the peoples of Asia. Equally, the establishment of Freetown in 1787, of societies in London to promote African exploration and to end slavery, and a penal colony in New South Wales, heralded significant nineteenth-century developments. But resumption of war with France in 1793 left Britain's Imperial future still seriously threatened. Similarly, at the beginning of the twentieth century Britain's renewed sense of isolation and vulnerability to challenges from other imperial powers--Russia, America, Germany--coincided with problems of Imperial defence freshly exposed on India's frontiers and in South Africa; Britain's economic and administrative difficulties encountered nationalist demands in colonial territories. These conditions intensified earlier misgivings, and prompted a reconsideration of Imperial relations and colonial rule which not only anticipated but survived the war Of 1914-18.

This, then, is a history integrally related to and overlapping that of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In organizing the volume, account has been taken

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