The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

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

9
Imperial Institutions and the Government of Empire

PETER BURROUGHS

Fundamentally, the British Empire was concerned with power. But power had to be converted into systems of authority, exercised by agents through bureaucratic structures. Not all these instruments of influence and control were arms of the state. In certain circumstances, commercial organizations and missionary societies could embody and uphold Imperial authority. Nevertheless, the management of a global empire required a network of governmental institutions at home and overseas, bureaucratic channels evolved to implement metropolitan directives and meet colonial challenges. Constantly obliged to adjust to circumstance and opportunity, pressures and constraints, Britain's governance of Empire involved dynamic processes, not static structures and inert constitutional frameworks, as some earlier imperial historians imagined. Even routine administration was a two- way process of communication and accommodation. Unlike the Spanish and the French, the British never attempted to rule colonies directly from the metropole; neither their resources nor their inclinations pointed towards centralized direction, and the colonists themselves, to varying degrees, encouraged a tradition of devolved authority and local systems of association. At the core of Imperial administration, therefore, lay a continuous interplay between mother country and colonial communities, between centre and periphery, a series of essentially bilateral relationships which entailed constant negotiation rather than the imposition of rule and the acceptance of subjection.

Another enduring characteristic of British administration was that it tended to be reactive rather than initiatory, with governmental authority lagging behind, not leading, overseas expansion. The familiar slogan, 'trade followed the flag', is misleading in the sense that the bureaucratic standard-bearers of British rule usually trailed in the wake of traders, missionaries, explorers, and settlers, and were charged, like firefighters or troubleshooters, with tidying up the chaos left by private entrepreneurs and trying to impose some order and regularity. Even with territories which the Crown formally acquired by conquest or cession, Governors trod in the footsteps of soldiers and diplomats, and often had to accommodate alien institutions as well as peoples inherited from France, Spain, or Holland. Only

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