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The History Of England - A Study In Political Evolution
A Century Of Empire
by Pollard, A. F.


1815-1911

The British realms beyond the seas have little history before the battle of Waterloo, a date at which the Englishman's historical education has commonly come to an end; and if by chance it has gone any further, it has probably been confined to purely domestic events or to foreign episodes of such ephemeral interest as the Crimean War. It may be well, therefore, to pass lightly over these matters in order to sketch in brief outline the development of the empire and the problems which it involves. European affairs, in fact, played a very subordinate part in English history after 1815; so far as England was concerned, it was a period of excursions and alarms rather than actual hostilities; and the fortunes of English-speaking communities were not greatly affected by the revolutions and wars which made and marred continental nations, a circumstance which explains, if it does not excuse, the almost total ignorance of European history displayed in British colonies.

The interventions of Britain in continental politics were generally on behalf of the principles of nationality and self-government. Under the influence of Castlereagh and Canning the British government gradually broke away from the Holy Alliance formed to suppress all protests against the settlement reached after Napoleon's fall; and Britain interposed with decisive effect at the battle of Navarino in 1827, which secured the independence of Greece from Turkey. More diplomatic intervention assisted the South American colonies to assert their independence of the Spanish mother-country; and British volunteers helped the Liberal cause in Spain and Portugal against reactionary monarchs. Belgium was countenanced in its successful revolution against the House of Orange, and Italian states in their revolts against native and foreign despots; the expulsion of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons from Italy, and its unification on a nationalist basis, owed something to British diplomacy, which supported Cavour, and to British volunteers who fought for Garibaldi. The attitude of Britain towards the Balkan nationalities, which were endeavouring to throw off the Turkish yoke, was more dubious; while Gladstone denounced Turkish atrocities, Disraeli strengthened Turkey's hands. Yet England would have been as enthusiastic for a liberated and united Balkan power as it had been for a united Italy but for the claims of a rival liberator, Russia.

Russia was the bugbear of two generations of Englishmen; and classical scholars, who interpreted modern politics by the light of ancient Greece, saw in the absorption of Athens by Macedon a convincing demonstration of the fate which the modern barbarian of the north was to inflict upon the British heirs of Hellas. India was the real source of this nervousness. British dominion, after further wars with the Mahrattas, the Sikhs, and the Gurkhas, had extended up to the frontiers of Afghanistan; but there was always the fear lest another sword should take away dominion won by the British, and in British eyes it was an offence that any other power should expand in Asia. The Russian and British spheres of influence advanced till they met in Kabul; and for fifty years the two powers contested, by more or less diplomatic methods, the control of the Amir of Afghanistan. Turkey flanked the overland route to India; and hence the protection of Turkey against Russia became a cardinal point in British foreign policy. On behalf of Turkey's integrity Great Britain fought, in alliance with France and Sardinia, the futile Crimean War of 1854-1856, and nearly went to war in 1877.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 introduced a fresh complication. Relations between England and France had since Waterloo been friendly, on the whole; but France had traditional interests in Egypt, which were strengthened by the fact that a French engineer had constructed the Suez Canal, and by French colonies in the Far East, to which the canal was the shortest route. Rivalry with England for the control of Egypt followed. The Dual Control, which was established in 1876, was terminated by the refusal of France to assist in the suppression of Egyptian revolts in 1882; and Great Britain was left in sole but informal possession of power in Egypt, with the responsibility for its defence against the Mahdi (1884-1885) and for the re-conquest of the Sudan (1896-1898), which is now under the joint Egyptian and British flags.

Meanwhile, British expansion to the east of India, the Burmese wars, and annexation of Burma (1885) brought the empire into a contact with French influence in Siam similar to its contact with Russian in Afghanistan. Community of interests in the Far East, as well as the need of protection against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy produced the entente cordiale between France and Russia in 1890. Fortunately, the dangerous questions between them and Great Britain were settled by diplomacy, assisted by the alliance between Great Britain and Japan. The British and Russian spheres of action on the north-west, and the British and French spheres to the east, of India were delimited; southern Persia, the Persian Gulf, and the Malay Peninsula were left to British vigilance and penetration, northern Persia to Russian, and eastern Siam to French. Freed from these causes of friction, Great Britain, Russia, and France exert a restraining influence on the predominant partner in the Triple Alliance.

The development of a vast dominion in India has created for the British government problems, of which the great Indian mutiny of 1857 was merely one illustration. No power has succeeded in permanently governing subject races by despotic authority; in North and South America the natives have so dwindled in numbers as to leave the conquerors indisputably supreme; in Europe and elsewhere in former times the subject races fitted themselves for self-government, and then absorbed their conquerors. The racial and religious gulf forbids a similar solution of the Indian question, while the abandonment of her task by Great Britain would leave India a prey to anarchy. The difficulties of despotic rule were mitigated in the past by the utter absence of any common sentiments and ideas among the many races, religions, and castes which constituted India; and a Machiavellian perpetuation of these divisions might have eased the labours of its governors. But a government suffers for its virtues, and the steady efforts of Great Britain to civilize and educate its Eastern subjects have tended to destroy the divisions which made common action, common aspirations, public opinion and self-government impossible in India. The missionary, the engineer, the doctor, the lawyer, and the political reformer have all helped to remove the bars of caste and race by converting Brahmans, Mohammedans, Parsees to a common Christianity or by undermining their attachment to their particular distinctions. They have built railways and canals, which made communications and contact unavoidable; they have imposed common measures of health, common legal principles, and a common education in English culture and methods of administration. The result has been to foster a consciousness of nationality, the growth of a public opinion, and a demand for a greater share in the management of affairs. The more efficient a despotism, the more certain is its supersession; and the problem for the Indian government is how to adjust and adapt the political emancipation of the natives of India to the slow growth of their education and sense of moral responsibility. At present, caste and racial and religious differences, especially between Mohammedans and Hindus, though weakening, are powerful disintegrants; not one per cent of the population can read or write; and the existence of hundreds of native states impedes the progress of national agitation.

A somewhat similar problem confronts British administration in Egypt, where the difficulty of dealing with the agitation for national self- government is complicated by the fact that technically the British agent and consul-general is merely the informal adviser of the khedive, who is himself the viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey. Ultimately the same sort of dilemma will have to be faced in other parts of Africa under British rule--British East Africa and Uganda, the Nigerian protectorates and neighbouring districts, Rhodesia and British Central Africa--as well as in the Malay States, Hong Kong, and the West Indies. There are great differences of opinion among the white citizens of the empire with regard to the treatment of their coloured fellow-subjects. Australia and some provinces of the South African Union would exclude Indian immigrants altogether; and white minorities have an invincible repugnance to allowing black majorities to exercise a vote, except under stringent precautions against its effect. We have, indeed, improved upon the Greeks, who regarded all other races as outside the scope of Greek morality; but we do not yet extend to coloured races the same consideration that we do to white men.

So far as the white population of the empire is concerned, the problem of self-government was solved in the nineteenth century by procedure common to all the great dominions of the crown, though the emancipation, which had cost the mother-country centuries of conflict, was secured by many colonies in less than fifty years. Three normal stages marked their progress, and Canada led the way in each. The first was the acquisition of representative government--that is to say, of a legislature consisting generally of two Houses, one of which was popularly elected but had little control over the executive; the second was the acquisition of responsible government--that is to say, of an executive responsible to the popular local legislature instead of to the home Colonial Office; and the third was federation. Canada had possessed the first degree of self-government ever since 1791 (see p. 169), and was rapidly outgrowing it. Australia, however, did not pass out of the crown colony stage, in which affairs are controlled by a governor, with or without the assistance of a nominated legislative council, until 1842, when elected members were added to the council of New South Wales, and it was given the power of the purse. This development was due to the exodus of the surplus population, created by the Industrial Revolution, from Great Britain, which began soon after 1820, and affected Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Various companies and associations were founded under the influence of Lord Durham, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, and others, for the purpose of settling labourers in these lands. Between 1820 and 1830 several settlements were established in Western Australia, in 1836 South Australia was colonized, and gradually Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania were organized as independent colonies out of offshoots from the parent New South Wales. Each in turn received a representative assembly, and developed individual characteristics.

Cape Colony followed on similar lines, variegated by the presence of a rival European race, the Dutch. Slowly, in the generation which succeeded the British conquest, they accumulated grievances against their rulers. English was made the sole official language; Dutch magistrates were superseded by English commissioners; slavery was abolished, with inadequate compensation to the owners; little support was given them in their wars with the natives, which the home government and the missionaries, more interested in the woes of negroes in South Africa than in those of children in British mines and factories, attributed to Dutch brutality; and a Hottentot police was actually established. In 1837 the more determined of the Dutch "trekked" north and east to found republics in Natal, the Orange River Free State, and the Transvaal. Purged of these discontented elements, the Cape was given representative government in 1853, and Natal, which had been annexed in 1844, received a similar constitution in 1856.

Meanwhile, Canada had advanced through constitutional struggles and open rebellion to the second stage. It had received its baptism of fire during the war (1812-1814) between Great Britain and the United States, when French and British Canadians fought side by side against a common enemy. But both provinces soon experienced difficulties similar to those between the Stuarts and their parliaments; their legislative assemblies had no control over their executive governments, and in 1837 Papineau's rebellion broke out in Lower, and Mackenzie's in Upper, Canada. Lord Durham was sent out to investigate the causes of discontent, and his report marks an epoch in colonial history. The idea that the American War of Independence had taught the mother-country the necessity of granting complete self-government to her colonies is a persistent misconception; and hitherto no British colony had received a fuller measure of self-government than had been enjoyed by the American colonies before their Declaration of Independence. The grant of this responsible self-government was one of the two principal recommendations of Lord Durham's report. The other was the union of the two provinces, which, it was hoped, would give the British a majority over the French. This recommendation, which ultimately proved unworkable, was carried out at once; the other, which has been the saving of the empire, was left for Lord Elgin to elaborate. He made it a principle to choose as ministers only those politicians who possessed the confidence of the popular assembly, and his example, followed by his successors, crystallized into a fundamental maxim of British colonial government. It was extended to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1848, and to Newfoundland (which had in 1832 received a legislative assembly) in 1855.

To Lord John Russell, who was prime minister from 1846 to 1851, to his colonial secretary, the third Earl Grey, and to Lords Aberdeen and Palmerston, who succeeded as premiers in 1852 and 1855, belongs the credit of having conferred full rights of self-government on most of the empire's oversea dominions. Australia, where the discovery of gold in 1851 added enormously to her population, soon followed in Canada's wake, and by 1856 every Australian colony, with the exception of Western Australia, had, with the consent of the Imperial parliament, worked out a constitution for itself, comprising two legislative chambers and a responsible cabinet. New Zealand, which had begun to be sparsely settled between 1820 and 1840, and had been annexed in the latter year, received in 1852 from the Imperial parliament a Constitution Act, which left it to Sir George Grey, the Governor, to work out in practice the responsibility of ministers to the legislature. Other colonies were slower in their constitutional development; Cape Colony was not granted a responsible administration till 1872; Western Australia, which had continued to receive convicts after their transportation to other Australian colonies had been successfully resisted, did not receive complete self-government till 1890, and Natal not until 1893.

The latest British colonies to receive this livery of the empire were the Transvaal and the Orange River colonies. A chequered existence had been their fate since their founders had trekked north in 1837. The Orange River Free State had been annexed by Britain in 1848, had rebelled, and been granted independence again in 1854. The Transvaal had been annexed in 1877, had rebelled, and had been granted almost complete independence again after Majuba in 1881. The Orange Free State, relieved of the diamond fields which belonged to it in the neighbourhood of Kimberley in 1870, pursued the even tenor of its way; but the gold mines discovered in the Transvaal were not so near its borders, and gave rise to more prolonged dissensions. Crowds of cosmopolitan adventurers, as lawless as those who disturbed the peace in Victoria or California, flocked to the Rand. They were not of the stuff of which Dutch burghers were made, and the franchise was denied them by a government which did not hesitate to profit from their labours. The Jameson Raid, a hasty attempt to use their wrongs to overthrow President Kruger's government in 1895, "upset the apple-cart" of Cecil Rhodes, the prime minister of the Cape, who had added Rhodesia to the empire and was planning, with moderate Dutch support, to federate South Africa. Kruger hardened his heart against the Uitlanders, and armed himself to resist the arguments of the British government on their behalf. Both sides underestimated the determination and resources of the other. But Kruger was more ignorant, if not more obstinate, than Mr. Chamberlain; and his ultimatum of October 1899 precipitated a war which lasted two years and a half, and cost the two republics their independence. The Transvaal was given, and the Orange River Colony was promised, representative government by the Conservatives; but the Liberals, who came into power at the end of 1905, excused them this apprenticeship, and granted them full responsible government in 1906-1907.

British colonies have tried a series of useful experiments with the power thus allotted them of managing their own affairs, and have contributed more to the science of politics than all the arm-chair philosophers from Aristotle downwards; and an examination in their results would be a valuable test for aspiring politicians and civil servants. The Canadian provinces, with two exceptions, dispense with a second chamber; elsewhere in the empire, second chambers are universal, but nowhere outside the United Kingdom hereditary. Their members are either nominated by the prime minister for life, as in the Dominion of Canada, or for a term of years, which is fixed at seven in New Zealand; or they are popularly elected, sometimes on a different property qualification from the Lower House, sometimes for a different period, sometimes by a different constituency. In the Commonwealth of Australia they are chosen by each state voting as a whole, and this method, by which a big majority in one locality outweighs several small majorities in others, has sometimes resulted in making the Upper House more radical and socialistic than the Lower; the system of nomination occasionally has in Canada a result equally strange to English ideas, for the present Conservative majority in the House of Commons is confronted with a hostile Liberal majority in the Upper House, placed there by Sir Wilfrid Laurier during his long tenure of office. The most effective provision against deadlocks between the two Houses is one in the constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, by which, if they cannot agree, both are dissolved.

Other contrasts are more bewildering than instructive. In Canada the movement for women's suffrage has made little headway, and even less in South Africa; but at the Antipodes women share with men the privilege of adult suffrage in New Zealand, in the Commonwealth of Australia, and in every one of its component states; an advocate of the cause would perhaps explain the contrast by the presence of unprogressive French in Canada, and of unprogressive Dutch in South Africa. Certainly, the all- British dominions have been more advanced in their political experiments than those in which the flighty Anglo-Saxon has been tempered by more stolid elements; and the pendulum swings little more in French Canada than it does in Celtic Ireland. In New Zealand old age pensions were in force long before they were introduced into the mother-country; and compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes, payment of M.P.'s, and powers of local option and prohibition have been for years in operation. Both the Dominion and the Commonwealth levy taxes on land far exceeding those imposed by the British budget of 1909. Australia is, in addition, trying a socialistic labour ministry and compulsory military training. It has also tried the more serious experiment of developing a standard of comfort among its proletariate before peopling the country; and is consequently forced to exclude by legislation all sorts of cheap labour, which might develop its industries but would certainly lower its level of wages. It believes in high protection, but takes care by socialistic legislation that high wages shall more than counterbalance high prices; protection is to it merely the form of state socialism which primarily benefits the employer. It has also nationalized its railways and denationalized all churches and religious instruction in public schools. There is, indeed, no state church in the empire outside Great Britain. But the most significant, perhaps, of Antipodean notions is the doctrine, inculcated in the Queensland elementary schools, of the sanctity of state property.

Finally, the colonies have made momentous experiments in federation. New Zealand's was the earliest and the briefest; after a few years' experience of provincial governments between 1852 and 1870, it reduced its provincial parliaments to the level of county councils, and adopted a unitary constitution. In Canada, on the other hand, the union of the Upper and Lower Provinces proved unworkable owing to racial differences; and in 1867 the federation called the Dominion of Canada was formed by agreement between Upper and Lower Canada (henceforth called Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Prince Edward Island and British Columbia joined soon afterwards; and fresh provinces have since been created out of the Hudson Bay and North-west Territories; Newfoundland alone has stood aloof. Considerable powers are allotted to the provinces, including education; but the distinguishing feature of this federation is that all powers not definitely assigned by the Dominion Act to the provinces belong to the Dominion. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where each individual state is the sovereign body, and the Federal government only possesses such powers as the states have delegated to it by the constitution.

In this respect the Australian federation called the Commonwealth, which was formed in 1900, resembles the United States rather than Canada. The circumstance that each Australian colony grew up round a seaport, having little or no overland connexion with other Australian colonies, kept them long apart; and the commercial interests centred in these ports are still centrifugal rather than centripetal in sentiment. Hence powers, not specifically assigned to the Federal government, remain in the hands of the individual states; the Labour party, however, inclines towards a centralizing policy, and the general trend seems to be in that direction. It will probably be strengthened by the construction of transcontinental railways and by a further growth of the nationalist feeling of Australia, which is already marked.

The Union of South Africa, formed in 1909, soon after the Boer colonies had received self-government, went almost as far towards unification as New Zealand, and became a unitary state rather than a federation. The greater expense of maintaining several local parliaments as well as a central legislature, and the difficulty of apportioning their powers, determined South African statesmen to sweep away the old legislatures altogether, and to establish a united parliament which meets at Cape Town, a single executive which has its offices at Pretoria, and a judicature which is located at Bloemfontein. Thus almost every variety of Union and Home Rule exists within the empire, and arguments from analogy are provided for both the British political parties.

Two extremes have been, and must be, avoided. History has falsified the impression prevalent in the middle of the nineteenth century that the colonies would sooner or later follow the example of the United States, and sever their connexion with the mother-country. It has no less clearly demonstrated the impossibility of maintaining a centralized government of the empire in Downing Street. The union or federation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa has strengthened the claims of each of those imperial realms to be considered a nation, with full rights and powers of self-government; and it remains to be seen whether the federating process can be carried to a higher level, and imperial sentiment crystallized in Imperial Federation. Imperial Conferences have become regular, but we may not call them councils; no majority in them has power to bind a minority, and no conference can bind the mother-country or a single dominion of the crown. As an educational body the Imperial Conference is excellent; but no one would venture to give powers of taxation or of making war and peace to a conclave in which Great Britain, with its forty-four millions of people and the navy and army it supports, has no more votes than Newfoundland, with its quarter of a million of inhabitants and immunity from imperial burdens.

Education is, however, at the root of all political systems. Where the mass of the people know nothing of politics, a despotism is essential; where only the few are politically educated, there needs must be an aristocracy. Great Britain lost its American colonies largely through ignorance; and no imperial organization could arise among a group of states ignorant of each other's needs, resources, and aspirations. The Imperial Conference is not to be judged by its meagre tangible results; if it has led British politicians to appreciate the varying character and depth of national feeling in the Dominions, and politicians oversea to appreciate the delicacies of the European diplomatic situation, the dependence of every part of the empire upon sea-power, and the complexities of an Imperial government which has also to consider the interests of hundreds of millions of subjects in India, in tropical Africa, in the West Indies, and in the Pacific, the Conference will have helped to foster the intellectual conditions which must underlie any attempt at an imperial superstructure.

For the halcyon days of peace, prosperity, and progress can hardly be assumed as yet, and not even the most distant and self-contained Dominions can afford to ignore the menace of blood and iron. No power, indeed, is likely to find the thousand millions or so which it would cost to conquer and hold Canada, Australia, or South Africa; but a lucky raid on their commerce or some undefended port might cost many millions by way of ransom. A slackening birth-rate is, moreover, a reminder that empires in the past, like that of Rome, have civilized themselves out of existence in the competition with races which bred with primitive vigour, and had no costly standards of comfort. There are such races to-day; the slumbering East has wakened, and the tide which flowed for four centuries from West to East is on the turn. The victory of Japan over Russia was an event beside which the great Boer War sinks into insignificance. Asiatics, relieved by the Pax Britannica from mutual destruction, are eating the whites out of the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and threatening South Africa, Australia, and the western shores of America. No armaments and no treaties of arbitration can ward off their economic competition; and it is not certain that their myriads, armed with Western morality and methods of warfare, will be always content to refrain from turning against Europe the means of expansion which Europe has used with so much success against them. The British Empire will need all the wisdom it can command, if it is to hold its own in the parliament of reason or the arbitrament of war.



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