« 38.8 Europe Between 1848 and 1878 |Contents | 38.10 The Indian Precedent in Asia »

38.9 The (Second) Scramble for Overseas Empires

Figure 976

Figure 976: Comparative Maps of Asia

—(a) As part of hemisphere, (b) Mercator’s projection; to show the relative sizes of Asiatic Russia and India in the two cases.

We have suggested that in the political history of Europe between 1848 and 1878, the mechanical revolution was, not yet producing any very revolutionary changes. The post- revolutionary Great Powers were still going on within boundaries of practically the same size and with much the same formalities as they had done in pre-revolutionary times. But where the increased speed and certainty of transport and telegraphic communications were already producing very considerable changes of condition and method, was in the overseas enterprises of Britain and the other European powers, and in the reaction of Asia and Africa to Europe.

The end of the eighteenth century was a period of disrupting empires and disillusioned expansionists. The long and tedious journey between Britain and Spain and their colonies in America prevented any really free coming and going between the home land and the daughter lands, and go the colonies separated into new and distinct communities, with distinctive ideas and interests and even modes of speech. As they grew they strained more and more at the feeble and uncertain link of shipping that joined them. Weak trading-posts in the wilderness, like those of France in Canada, or trading establishments in great alien communities, like those of Britain in India, might well cling for bare existence to the nation which gave them support and a reason for their existence. That much and no more seemed to many thinkers in the early part of the nineteenth century to be the limit set to overseas rule. In 1820 the sketchy great European «empires» outside of Europe that had figured so bravely in the maps of the middle eighteenth century, had shrunken to very small dimensions. Only the Russian sprawled as large as ever across Asia. It sprawled much larger in the imaginations of many Europeans than in reality, because of their habit of studying the geography of the World upon Mercator’s projection, which enormously exaggerated the size of Siberia.

The British Empire in 1815 consisted of the thinly populated coastal river and lake regions of Canada, and a great hinterland of wilderness in which the only settlements as yet were the fur-trading stations of the Hudson Bay Company, about a third of the Indian peninsula, under the rule of the East India Company, the coast districts of the Cape of Good Hope inhabited by blacks and rebellious-spirited Dutch settlers; a few trading stations on the coast of West Africa, the rock of Gibraltar, the island of Malta, Jamaica, a few minor slave-labour possessions in the West Indies, British Guiana in South America, and, on the other side of the world, two dumps for convicts at Botany Bay in Australia and in Tasmania.

Figure 978

Figure 978: Map — The British Empire in 1815

Spain retained Cuba and a few settlements in the Philippine Islands. Portugal had in Africa some vestiges of her ancient claims. Holland had various islands and possessions in the East Indies and Dutch Guiana, and Denmark an island or so in the West Indies. France had one or two West Indian Islands and French Guiana. This seemed to be as much as the European powers needed, or were likely to acquire of the rest of the world. Only the East India Company showed any spirit of expansion.

In India, as we have already told, a peculiar empire was being built up, not by the British peoples, nor by the British Government, but by this company of private adventurers with their monopoly and royal charter. The company had been forced to become a military and political power during the years of Indian division and insecurity that followed the breakup of India after the death of Auraugzeb in 1707. It had learnt to trade in states and peoples during the eighteenth century. Clive founded, Warren Hastings organized, this strange new sort of empire; French rivalry was defeated, as we have already told; and by 1798, Lord Mornington, afterwards the Marquis Wellesley, the elder brother of that General Wellesley who became the Duke of Wellington, became Governor-General of India, and set the policy of the company definitely upon the line of replacing the fading empire of the Great Mogul by its own rule. Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt was a direct attack upon the empire of this British company. While Europe was busy with the Napoleonic wars, the East India Company, under a succession of governors-general, was playing much the same role in India that had been played before by Turkoman and such-like invaders from the north, but playing it with a greater efficiency and far less violence and cruelty. And after the peace of Vienna it went on, levying its revenues, making wars, sending ambassadors to Asiatic powers, a quasi-independent state, a state, however, with a marked disposition to send wealth westward.

In a previous chapter we have sketched the break-up of the empire of the Great Mogul and the appearance of the Mahratta states, the Rajput principalities, the Moslem kingdoms of Oudh and Bengal, and the Sikhs. We cannot tell here in any detail how the British company made its way to supremacy sometimes as the ally of this power, sometimes as that, and finally as the conqueror of all. Its power spread to Assam, Sind, Oudh. The map of India began to take on the outlines familiar to the English schoolboy of to-day, a patchwork of native states embraced and held together by the great provinces under direct British rule. . . .

Now as this strange unprecedented empire of the company grew in the period between 1800 and 1858, the mechanical revolution was quietly abolishing the great distance that had once separated India and Britain. In the old days the rule of the company had interfered little in the domestic life of the Indian states; it had given India foreign overlords, but India was used to foreign overlords, and had hitherto assimilated them; these Englishmen came into the country young, lived there most of their lives, and became a part of its system. But now the mechanical revolution began to alter this state of affairs. It became easier for the British officials to go home and to have holidays in Europe, easier for them to bring out wives and families; they ceased to be Indianized; they remained more conspicuously foreign and western—and there were more of them. And they began to interfere more vigorously with Indian customs. Magical and terrible things like the telegraph and the railway arrived. Christian missions became offensively busy. If they did not make very many converts, at least they made sceptics among the adherents of the older faiths. The young men in the towns began to be «Europeanized» to the great dismay of their elders.

India had endured many changes of rulers before, but never the sort of changes in her ways that these things portended. The Moslem teachers and the Brahmins were alike alarmed, and the British were blamed for the progress of mankind. Conflicts of economic interests grew more acute with the increasing nearness of Europe; Indian industries, and particularly the ancient cotton industry, suffered from legislation that favoured the British manufacturer. A piece of incredible folly on the part of the company precipitated an outbreak. To the Brahmin a cow is sacred; to the Moslem the pig is unclean. A new rifle, needing greased cartridges—which the men had to bite—was served out to the company’s Indian soldiers; the troops discovered that their cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and swine. This discovery precipitated a revolt of the company’s Indian army, the Indian Mutiny (1857). First the troops mutinied at Meerut. Then Delhi rose to restore the empire of the Great Mogul. . . .

The British public suddenly discovered India. They became aware of that little garrison of British people, far away in that strange land of fiery dust and weary sunshine, fighting for life against dark multitudes of assailants. How they got there and what right they had there, the British public did not ask. The love of one’s kin in danger overrides such questions. There were massacres and cruelties. 1857 was a year of passionate anxiety in Great Britain. With mere handfuls of troops the British leaders, and notably Lawrence and Nicholson, did amazing things. They did not sit down to be besieged while the mutineers organized and gathered prestige; that would have lost them India for ever. They attacked often against overwhelming odds. «Clubs, not spades, are, trumps», said Lawrence. The Sikhs, the Gurkhas, the Punjab troops stuck to the British. The south remained tranquil. Of the massacres of Cawnpore, and Lucknow in Oudh, and how a greatly outnumbered force of British troops besieged and stormed Delhi, other histories must tell. By April, 1859, the last embers of the blaze had been stamped out, and the British were masters of India again. In no sense had the mutiny been a popular insurrection; it was a mutiny merely of the Bengal Army, due largely to the unimaginative rule of the company officials. Its story abounds in instances of Indian help and kindness to British fugitives. But it was a warning.

The direct result of the mutiny was the annexation of the Indian Empire to the British Crown. By the Act entitled An Act for the Better Government of India, the Governor-General became a Viceroy representing the Sovereign, and the place of the company was taken by a Secretary of State for India responsible to the British Parliament. In 1877, Lord Beaconsfield, to complete this work, caused Queen Victoria to be proclaimed Empress of India.

Upon, these extraordinary lines India and Britain are linked at the present time. India is still the empire of the Great Mogul, expanded, but the Great Mogul has been replaced by the «crowned republic» of Great Britain. India is an autocracy without an autocrat. Its rule combines the disadvantage of absolute monarchy with the impersonality and irresponsibility of democratic officialdom. The Indian with a complaint to make has no visible monarch to go to; his Emperor is a golden symbol; he must circulate pamphlets in England or inspire a question in the British House of Commons. The more occupied Parliament is with British affairs, the less attention India will receive, and, the more she will be at the mercy of her small group of higher officials.

This is manifestly impossible as a permanent state of affairs. Indian life, whatever its restraints, is moving forward with the rest of the world; India has an increasing service of newspapers, an increasing number of educated people affected by Western ideas, and ail increasing sense of a common grievance against her government. There has been little or no corresponding advance in the education and quality of the British official in India during the past seventy years. His tradition is a high one; he is often a man of exceptional quality, but the system is unimaginative and inflexible. Moreover, the military power that stands behind these officials has developed neither in character nor intelligence during the last century. No other class has been so stagnant intellectually as the British military caste. Confronted with a more educated India, the British military man, uneasily aware of his educational defects and constantly apprehensive of ridicule, has in the last few years displayed a disposition towards spasmodic violence that has had some very lamentable results. For a time the great war altogether diverted what small amount of British public attention was previously given to India, and drew away the more intelligent military men from her service. During those years, and the feverish years of unsettlement that followed, things occurred in India, the massacre of an unarmed crowd at Amritzar in which nearly two thousand people were killed or wounded, floggings and humiliating outrages, a sort of official’s Terror, that produced a profound moral shock when at last the Hunter Commission of 1919 brought them before the home public. In liberal-minded Englishmen, who have been wont to regard their empire as an incipient league of free peoples, this revelation of the barbaric quality in its administrators produced a very understandable dismay. . . .

But the time has not yet come for writing the chapter of history that India is opening for herself. . . . We cannot discuss here in detail the still unsettled problems of the new India that struggles into being. Already in the Government of India Act of 1919 we may have the opening of a new and happier era that may culminate in a free and willing group of Indian peoples taking an equal place among the confederated states of the world. . . .

The growth of the British Empire in directions other than that of India was by no means so rapid during the earlier half of the nineteenth century. A considerable school of political thinkers in Britain was disposed to regard overseas possessions as a source of weakness to the kingdom. The Australian settlements developed slowly until in 1842 the discovery of valuable copper mines, and in 1851 of gold, gave them a new importance. Improvements in transport were also making Australian wool an increasingly marketable commodity in Europe. Canada, too, was not remarkably progressive until 1849; it was troubled by dissensions between its French and British inhabitants, there were several serious revolts, and it was only in 1867 that a new constitution creating a Federal Dominion of Canada relieved its internal strains. It was the railway that altered the Canadian outlook. It enabled Canada, just as it enabled the United States, to expand westward, to market its corn and other produce in Europe, and in spite of its swift and extensive growth, to remain in language and sympathy and interests one community. The railway, the steamship, and the telegraphic cable were indeed changing all the conditions of colonial development.

Before 1840, English settlements had already begun in New Zealand, and a New Zealand Land Company had been formed to exploit the possibilities of the island. In 1840 New Zealand also was added to the colonial possessions of the British Crown.

Canada, as we have noted, was the first of the British possessions to respond richly to the new economic possibilities the new methods of transport were opening. Presently the republics of South America, and particularly the Argentine Republic, began to feel, in their cattle trade and coffee growing, the increased nearness of the European market. Hitherto the chief commodities that had attracted the European powers into unsettled and barbaric regions had been gold or other metals, spices, ivory, or slaves. But in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century the increase of the European populations was obliging their governments to look abroad for staple foods; and the growth of scientific industrialism was creating a demand for new raw materials, fats and greases of every kind, rubber, and other hitherto disregarded substances. It was plain that Great Britain and Holland and Portugal were reaping a great and growing commercial advantage from their very considerable control of tropical and sub-tropical products. After 1871 Germany and presently France and later Italy began to look for unannexed raw-material areas, or for Oriental countries capable of profitable modernization.

Figure 985

Figure 985: Africa about the middle of the 19th century

So began a fresh scramble all over the world, except in the American region where the Monroe Doctrine now barred such adventures, for politically unprotected lands. Close to Europe was the continent of Africa, full of vaguely known possibilities. In 1850 it was a continent of black mystery; only Egypt and the coast were known. A map must show the greatness of the European ignorance at that time. It would need a book as long as this Outline to do justice to the amazing story of the explorers and adventurers who first pierced this cloud of darkness, and to the political agents, administrators, traders, settlers, and scientific men who followed in their track. Wonderful races of men like the pigmies, strange beasts like the okapi, marvellous fruits and flowers and insects, terrible diseases, astounding scenery of forest and mountain, enormous inland seas and gigantic rivers and cascades were revealed; a whole new world. Even remains (at Zimbabwe) of some unrecorded and vanished civilization, the southward enterprise of an early people, were discovered. Into this new world came the Europeans, and found the rifle already there in the hands of the Arab slave-traders, and negro life in disorder. By 1900, as our second map must show, all Africa was mapped, explored, estimated, and divided between the European powers, divided with much snarling and disputation into portions that left each power uneasy or discontented. Little heed was given to the welfare of the natives in this scramble. The Arab slaver was indeed curbed rather than expelled, but the greed for rubber, which was a wild product collected under compulsion by the natives in the Belgian Congo, a greed exacerbated by the pitiless avarice of the King of the Belgians, and the clash of inexperienced European administrators with the native population in many other annexations, led to horrible atrocities. No European power has perfectly clean hands in this matter.

We cannot tell here in any detail how Great Britain got possession of Egypt in 1883, and remained there in spite of the fact that Egypt was technically a part of the Turkish Empire, nor how nearly this scramble led to war between France and Great Britain in 1898, when a certain Colonel Marchand, crossing Central Africa from the west coast, tried at Fashoda to seize the Upper Nile. In Uganda the French Catholic and the British Anglican missionaries disseminated a form of Christianity so heavily charged with the spirit of Napoleon, and so finely insistent upon the nuances of doctrine, that a few years after its first glimpse of European civilization, Mengo, the capital of Uganda, was littered with dead «Protestants» and «Catholics» extremely difficult to distinguish from the entirely unspiritual warriors of the old régime.

Figure 986

Figure 986: Africa, 1914

Nor can we tell how the British Government first let the Boers, or Dutch settlers, of the Orange River district and the Transvaal set up independent republics in the inland parts of South Africa, and then repented and annexed the Transvaal Republic in 1877; nor how the Transvaal Boers fought for freedom and won it after the Battle of Majuba Hill (1881). Majuba Hill was made to rankle in the memory of the English people by a persistent press campaign. A war with both republics broke out in 1899, a three years’ war enormously costly to the British people, which ended at last in the surrender of the two republics.

Their period of subjugation was a brief one. In 1907, after the downfall of the imperialist government which had conquered them, the Liberals took the South African problem in hand, and these former republics became free and fairly willing associates with Cape Colony and Natal in a confederation of all the states of South Africa as one self-governing republic under the British Crown.

In a quarter of a century the partition of Africa was completed. There remained unannexed three comparatively small countries: Liberia, a settlement of liberated negro slaves on the west coast; Morocco, under a Moslem Sultan; and Abyssinia, a barbaric country, with an ancient and peculiar form of Christianity, which had successfully maintained its independence against Italy at the Battle of Adowa in 1896.

« 38.8 Europe Between 1848 and 1878 |Contents | 38.10 The Indian Precedent in Asia »

comments powered by Disqus

Table Of Contents