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Victorian Political History December 9, 2005

Posted by Iglika in La vie politique.
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With the end, in 1815, of the Napoleonic Wars, the last of the great imperial wars which had dominated the eighteenth century, Britain found itself in an extraordinarily powerful position, though a complicated one. It acquired Dutch South Africa, for example, but found its interests threatened in India by the southern and eastern expansion of the Russians. (The protection of India from the Russians, both by land and by sea, would be a major concern of Victorian foreign policy).
At this time, however, the empires of Britain’s traditional rivals had been lost or severely diminished in size, and its imperial position was unchallenged. In addition, it had become the leading industrial nation of Europe, and more and more of the world came under the domination of British commercial, financial, and naval power.This state of affairs, however, was complex and far from stable. The old mercantile Empire was weakened during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by a number of factors: by the abolition in 1807 of slavery in Britain itself, a movement led by the Evangelicals; by the freeing in 1833 of slaves held elsewhere in the Empire; by the adoption, after a radical change in economic perspective (due in large part to the influence of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations), of Free Trade, which minimized the influence of the old oligarchical and monopolistic trading corporations; and by various colonial movements for greater political and commercial independence. The Victorians, then, inherited both the remnants of the old mercantile empire and the more recently acquired commercial network in the East, neither of which they were sure they wanted, since Smith maintained that “under the present system of management Great Britain derives nothing but loss from the dominion which she assumes over her colonies.”During the Victorian Era, however, the acquisition of territory and of further trading concessions continued (promoted by strategic considerations and aided or justified by philanthropic motivations), reaching its peak when Victoria, at Disraeli’s instigation, had herself crowned Empress of India in 1876. Advocates of Disraeli’s imperialist foreign policies justified them by invoking a paternalistic and racist theory (founded in part upon popular but erroneous generalizations derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution) which saw Imperialism as a manifestation of what Kipling would refer to as “the white man’s burden.” The implication, of course, was that the Empire existed not for the benefit — economic or strategic or otherwise — of Britain itself, but in order that primitive peoples, incapable of self-government, could, with British guidance, eventually become civilized (and Christianized). The truth of this doctrine was accepted naively by some, and hypocritically by others, but it served in any case to legitimize Britain’s acquisition of portions of central Africa and her domination, in concert with other European powers, of China.

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