The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

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

1
Introduction: Britain and the Empire in the
Nineteenth Century

ANDREW PORTER

At the end of the eighteenth century Britain already stood alongside France, Russia, the Chinese and the Turkish empires, as one of the world's principal states. Thereafter the history of her Empire was bound up with her nineteenth-century record as an expanding Great Power. This was clear in various ways. First, the Empire, even if conceived simply in terms of territory and economic wealth, constantly interacted with the development of Britain's modern capitalist economy at home and overseas. Both grew enormously, but Britain's emergence as the world's richest nation rested on no simple causal relationship with Empire. Secondly, Empire exerted a major influence on Britain's international relations, with Imperial issues and foreign policy frequently inseparable from each other. Britain's possession of an Empire was felt to confirm her Great Power status; protection of that status and her growing presence overseas involved an increasing range of Imperial commitments in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, which in their turn were as likely to create difficulties as they were to increase Britain's power. Thirdly, developments in Britain's position as a colonial ruler stimulated constitutional and political inventiveness among both rulers and ruled, and gave rise to a growing variety of governmental institutions and practice at home and abroad. Finally, the possession and expansion of an Empire also markedly influenced Britain's 'cultural'--that is, social, institutional, religious, and intellectual--development and her citizens' views of the outside world. It did the same for many of the settler societies and colonized peoples over whom she claimed authority. Imperial and colonial cultures and institutions constantly played upon each other. These four types of relationship provide this volume with its central themes.

In approaching Britain's nineteenth-century Empire, scholars now acknowledge both its complexity and its place in the broader history of indigenous societies outside Europe, as well as the history of international affairs and British domestic change. The nature of empire is no longer taken for granted, and historians show a better sense of proportion in assessing its significance.

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