Eighteenth Century British Imperialism

CJ Sweigart

Eighteenth Century British History & Literature

Professor McMillen

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eighteenth Century British Imperialism

As the British Empire rapidly and purposefully expanded through the Eighteenth Century its power throughout its acquired territories became increasingly uneven and fractured. Looking at this period of expansion is particularly important as it provides an incredibly unique window and scope to the developments and basic concepts of “empire.”

However, before delving into what lies at the core of imperialism, it is pertinent to understand and consider the different classifications of the term. British Imperialism during this time period differed from the imperialistic nature of other empires in different time spans. The imperialistic tendencies of the British Empire are not easily aligned with nations who strove to colonize for pure conquest. Conquest concerns a different element of control where as the colonizing done by the British was first and foremost a capitalistic move with tactical economic gains in mind. The historian Bernard Porter sums up this idea best in his essay entitled, “Cutting the British Empire Down to Size.” Porter claims that “the expansion of British trade and finance into the wider world generally came before the more formal kind of imperialism; in other words the flag followed trade rather than vice-versa” (24). That being said, colonization and imperialism always carry the weight of subjugation with them regardless of the initial intention.

While the eighteenth century is by no means considered the ‘golden age’ of imperialism it still provides valuable insight into not only the economic basis for British imperialism, but the social groundwork as well. In examining the social structure of British imperialism during this period one begins to see a strong sense of nationalism or the idea of “Britishness” emerge. The British began to see themselves as helping the inferior races that were indigenous to its colonized lands while privatizing and economically benefiting from their resources. From this thesis, further justifications for British expansion arose. The occupation of Eighteenth-Century India is a prime example of how the original aims of British imperialism evolved and escalated. The historian Robert Travers covers this somewhat briefly in his critical study of the British occupation of India entitled, “Death and the Nabob: Imperialism and Commemoration in Eighteenth-Century India.” Travers examines one justification in stating, “As British conflicts with Indian rulers intensified in mid century, the perceived threat that small British communities would be wiped out by Indian rulers offered a powerful justification of British conquest” (86). Travers is essentially claiming that once these colonies were established the British government felt it necessary to militarily mobilize in order to protect mainland British citizens who had gone overseas. In doing so they convinced the population of mainland Britain that it was a necessity to explore further military conquest to protect their fellow citizens from cruel foreign rulers. From this a strong nationalistic fervor grew as mainland citizens felt that the expansion of Great Britain was paramount and essential to the security of British women and children. It is this type of backward thinking that led to the domino effect style escalation of British Imperialism – that is no land can be happily occupied and exploited by foreigners.

The British, as a result of this approach, became the most powerful colonizer in the 18th and 19th centuries, and thus, were presumably most able to impose their will and extract resources from colonial subjects. Yet the colonies of the British Empire ended up better off in a number of different ways than experienced by other empires.. The British ended slavery and forced labor earlier than other colonizers, and more gradually devolved power to indigenous institutions. British colonies also ended up with more education and infrastructure than other colonies.  While it may be easy in hindsight to question Great Britain’s imperial motivations, the mix of altruistic and material motivations rather than power and acquisition for its sake alone appears to have resulted in greater democracy and stability in the long run.

Works Cited

Porter, Bernard “Cutting the British Empire Down to Size.” History Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

Travers, Robert. “Death and the Nabob: Imperialism and Commemoration in Eighteenth Century India.”


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