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British Imperialism

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Imperialism, Second Empire

The second British Empire was the creation of bureaucrats and generals and was based on a political relationship known as Imperialism. Imperialism involved an effort to rule native peoples by importing British institutions and values, intervening in local affairs, and maintaining a strong military presence. The shift in goals and methods was gradual. The most important colonies of the first empire had developed in sparsely populated regions where native populations were brutally cast aside to establish British colonies. The second empire involved the domination of colonial peoples.

British naval power enabled Britain to control a far-flung empire, especially after the development of steam-powered warships. Geographical emphasis shifted from the west to the east; the most important dominions were located in the South Pacific, South Asia, and Africa. India was the centerpiece of the British Empire. British rule in India began with the expulsion of the French from Bengal in 1757 and grew as the British used military conquest to gain direct control over areas of India. Wars in Afghanistan and the Punjab in the 1840s led to British annexation of the northern Muslim provinces. The British created a unified India out of hundreds of separate kingdoms and principalities. The conquest of the eastern territory of Burma (now Myanmar) began in the 1820s and ended following the second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852.

Successive governors-general attempted to bring to the Indian subcontinent what they regarded as Britain’s superior system of law and social relations. They governed through a vast civil service transplanted mainly from Britain. Although the British made significant inroads against the extremes of poverty and disease that existed among most Indians, they generally viewed Indian society as less cultured than their own and treated the indigenous population with contempt. Inevitably a clash of cultures took place. In 1857 there was a mutiny by sepoys (Indian troops in the British military), who sought to protect their social and religious traditions. The sepoys seized garrisons and killed British officers and civilians. British relief forces repeated the process in reverse, and the Sepoy Rebellion left a legacy of mutual hostility.

British expansion into Africa was fueled by the race for colonies in which all of the European powers participated during the decades that followed the 1880s. British traders had long been present on the western coast of Africa, where they dominated the Atlantic slave trade. With the abolition of slavery after 1833, interest in Africa shifted to the east, where the British drove the French from Egypt. In 1882 the British gained control of the Suez Canal, a vital link between Britain’s eastern and western empires.

British explorers such as David Livingstone helped open the interior of Africa to Europeans, while entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes exploited its vast mineral wealth. Rhodes acquired one of the great fortunes of the second empire by gaining control of African diamonds and gold. He dreamed of unifying the eastern side of the continent by establishing a railroad from Cape Town in the south to Cairo in the north, passing only through British controlled territory. Rhodes’s efforts helped trigger the Boer War (1899-1902), in which British troops fought Dutch colonists for possession of some of the richest gold and diamond mining areas of southern Africa. The Scramble for Africa created conflicts between the European powers, and Rhodes’s scheme faltered because of the powerful German presence in eastern Africa.

Seeking to expand the opportunity for trade along the Chinese coast, the British acquired the island of Hong Kong in southern China following the first Opium War (1839-1842) with China. The war broke out when Chinese officials in the port of Guangzhou seized the opium shipments that merchants were illegally importing into China. The British responded by sending a naval force and occupying Hong Kong in 1841.


David Livingstone below


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