The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

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

6
British Policy, Trade, and Informal Empire in the
Mid-Nineteenth Century

MARTIN LYNN

To focus solely on colonial possessions in examining Britain's expansion overseas in the nineteenth century is to ignore the multifaceted nature of Britain's international position.1 The increases in foreign trade, in the balance of credit abroad, and in the numbers of emigrants settling overseas in these years were but part of a wide-ranging expansion of British society that also took military, naval, religious, and cultural forms and spread far beyond the territorial holdings of Britain's Empire. The naval officer in the Atlantic, the missionary in Africa, and the trader in China were as much agents of potential British influence as the colonial administrator in India. Yet the nature and significance of this influence, its impact, and the British government's role in sustaining it remain elusive.

This chapter examines, from a metropolitan perspective, the government's approach to the expansion of British influence beyond the territorial Empire in the mid-nineteenth century and the nature of the relationship that developed between Britain and several regions where such expansion occurred. Its focus is primarily economic, not because other forms of British expansion--cultural, religious, demographic or political--were unimportant, but because commercial and financial intervention was recognized at the time as critical to reshaping such areas in Britain's interests, however those interests were ultimately defined. It offers a general assessment of both Britain's success in this reshaping and the degree to which, in these years, the British economy in practice asserted its influence over such regions outside the colonial Empire.

British expansion overseas between 1820 and 1880 was extensive, and its nature a major point of controversy at home. For contemporaries the question was how far expansion overseas should be welcomed, given its implications for domestic society and politics. Expense, economy, retrenchment, the 'condition of England',

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1
John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, "'The Imperialism of Free Trade'", Economic History Review (hereafter EcHR), Second Series, VI ( 1953), pp. 1-15.

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