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Great Britain's Global Empire
At the same time as the British government began organizing direct control over India, other British colonial possessions were growing quickly. Discovery of gold in Australia and South Africa, for example, drove huge increases in these British settlements, often producing conflict. In South Africa, British settlement brought conflict with the earlier Dutch settlers, known as Boers or Afrikaners, who, in order to escape British rule, trekked north and established the colonies of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
In the picture below, we see the aftermath of the Battle of Ulundi, which took place on July 4, 1879. This battle, won by the British, ended the military resistance of the Zulus and put Zululand under British control, even if the British chose at first to divide the land into thirteen regional states each led by a different Zulu chief. With each defeat of native peoples and the Dutch or Boer/Afrikaners, the British advanced toward complete territorial control over South Africa. Nonetheless, the South Africa that Gandhi found when he arrived in 1983 was a complex mix of native Africans, British colonists, and Afrikaners, all increasingly under the dominion of the British Empire.
In Australia, the rising number of Europeans – from around 430,000 in 1851 to over one million a decade later – meant increasing conflict with Native Australians, the Aborigines. The results of British settlement in Australia for native peoples mirrored that of early American settlement. It is estimated that some 750,000 Aborigines inhabited Australia before British contact. By 1900, a combination of Old World disease (mainly smallpox) and settler violence reduced the number of Aborigines to 93,000. In nearby New Zealand, the results were similar. Discovery of raw materials led to a wave of immigration. From 1845 to 1872, British settlers fought a series of protracted wars against the native New Zealand Maori peoples, eventually conquering nearly all territory on the islands. By the end of the century, an estimated 95% of New Zealand’s land was European owned. By the late nineteenth century, the British had a firm hold on huge swathes of territory throughout Asia and the Pacific. A transportation revolution -- the use of large-cargo ships and the railroad -- meant that goods could flow from these territories to the home country and that finished products could move in the reverse direction. The invention and spread of the telegraph likewise contributed to tying together Britain’s far-flung empire.
We now have some basic idea of the extent and importance of the British Empire before the First World War, and especially of India, the most lucrative of Britain’s territories. The British Empire spread far and wide, and wherever it spread it meant confrontation with native peoples - Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, Zulus in South Africa, Bengalis in the Indian province of Bengal, Gujaratis in Indian Gujarat, Egyptians, Africans along the continent’s west coast. The economic history of these imperialist conquests tells the story of wealth accumulation in Britain and the concomitant destruction of traditional modes of agriculture and manufacturing throughout the world. The British imposition of taxes on its conquered subjects was one main agent of this social transformation. For example, after the fall of Zululand, the British imposed a so-called "hut tax" on each native dwelling. To get money to pay the British taxes, subjects from India to Africa were forced to give up their traditional practices and to accommodate themselves to the reality of the British economic world. This often meant working for wages on large-scale plantations, in mines, or in large-scale capital-intensive projects like railroad construction. Kinship and tribal networks suffered devastating blows.
Below is a depiction of the famous Battle of Omdurman, where British forces decimated the Sudanese Madhi Army. This victory avenged the loss of Khartoum over a decade before when Charles Gordon's army was besieged by over 50,000 men. The British victory at Omdurman secured the eastern Sudan under Egyptian-British rule and gave the British a decisive advantage against the French in the contest for regional influence and domination.
European colonialism began in earnest in the 15th century, as first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English projected their newly found power onto the world stage. The initial quest was for control of the Indian East/West trade, which had until the 1400s been dominated either by the great Asian land empires or by the principle Mediterranean marketplaces and their merchants, above all those in Italy, the Levant (modern day Israel/Palestine, Syria and Lebanon), and Egypt.
Beginning in the 1490s, European states cast themselves out into the world, eventually occupying vast amounts of territory. The Spanish conquered much of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and large chunks of the North American west and south. The Portuguese carved out Brazil, a tremendously lucrative area once sugarcane and coffee were introduced. The Dutch took for themselves islands in the Caribbean, Indonesia and small pieces of North America, which they were not destined to hold. In the painting below, the Javanese Prince Dipo Negoro is shown surrendering to the Dutch conquerors. The Dutch Java Wars were part of a broader series of Dutch wars of conquest in the East Indies, allowing for the Dutch to set up a lucrative trade in local commodities based on a centrally controlled plantation system. Like most representations of conquest in this era, the surrender of Dipo Negoro is styled here as a peaceful, calm, honorable, and reasonable transfer of power. A relative latecomer to the Age of Exploration, Britain formed settlements on the east coast of North America and on islands in the Caribbean. In Africa, the major European powers established trading posts, from which they could engage in trade with local African powers, the most important of which was providing guns in return for African slaves. This guns-for-slaves exchange grew to become one of the central pillars of the emerging Atlantic economy. In East Asia, European powers jockeyed for control of the spice trade, capturing coastal cities, bombarding ports, attacking competing vessels with newly built ships with on-board cannons.
By the 1700s, the need to keep large navies in distant waters was becoming a real burden on the finances of European states. Wars for control of trade were costly; ships with cannons were costly, paying the salaries of thousands of sailors was also costly. While the private business sector provided much of the capital for these ventures, the states were also large contributors. Moreover, the quickening of trade with Asia accelerated a long-standing trend in relations between the east and west, which saw Europeans paying gold and silver for Asian goods. This meant that money in Europe was scarce and states had to go to banks time and again for loans. European countries in the 1700s sought to reverse this spiral. The answer to this trade imbalance was to take control not just of trading routes but also to reorient local taxation schemes and the economic production of conquered territories. We see emerge, thus, the beginning of massive agricultural plantations based on cash crops like sugar, tea, coffee, cotton, black pepper, and tobacco. We see the creation of European-owned mining and timber operations. We also see the dismantling of traditional modes of economic behavior, like the destruction of the Indian cloth industry. Above all, we see the imposition of taxes on local residents of the newly acquired territories, taxes that forced local producers to abandon their positions as small-scale farmers or manufacturers and to enter the world of wage labor.
India was the prime example of this transformation from British trading partner to British subject. The Indian subcontinent had once been ruled by a powerful and wealthy dynasty, the Mughals, but internal turmoil between the Muslim dynasty and the Hindu provinces ripped the empire apart in the early 1700s. Both Britain and France took advantage of this chaos to establish territorial domains in India. Over the course of the next one hundred years, the British East India Company, backed by the power of the state, would gain control of most of India, winning out over the French. The process of reorienting the Indian economy began immediately, sped up by the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the textile industry. In a matter of decades, India went from the world’s largest producer of cotton cloth to an exporter of raw cotton and an importer of finished cloth. Additionally, the East India Company began to transform parts of northern India into poppy plantations to create opium for export to China. By the mid-1800s, as India passed from company rule to government rule, its economy and society were being transformed to meet British needs. This often came with utter disastrous consequences, like the Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed millions of people.
Other areas of the world fared no better in terms of preserving their traditional social and cultural practices. British and Dutch settlers in South Africa fought bloody wars against the Zulu peoples, forcing them off their land and into the British and Dutch controlled farms and mines. In Egypt, British control over the economy grew to such an extent that the Britain moved to militarily seize control of Egypt when its economic and trade interests were threatened. France pushed deep into Africa from the west coast. Germany, a new-comer to the colonial scramble, carved out territories in southwestern and eastern Africa. Even in areas of the world where the Europeans did not have direct control, like China and Japan, their influence could be strongly felt. By 1900, this long process of imperialist expansion had left few parts of the world untouched.