s many observers have pointed out, throughout much of its history the British Empire was regarded with curious ambivalence by government and people. In fact, many of its largest colonies entered the empire almost by default, certainly often without any long-range plan or scheme. Before the European imperialist land-grab of the 1870s and '80s, anti-slavery agitators and missionaries (often the same parties) forced the government's hand in parts of Africa, placing a most unwilling government in the position of having to accept the rule of unwanted territories. India, the largest of British imperial possessions, became part of the British Empire when the government decided that it had to take over its rule from a private corporation, the East India Company.
The explanation for the British government's ambivalent embrace of imperialism lies, according to Nicholas Tarling, in its fundammental assumption that
commercial and financial interests came first. . . . With its early advantage on industrialsation, its concerns were with the opportunities for trade: if that were free, it could benefit. Dominion was not in itself desirable: it were desirable if there were no other way of providing for the stability of the countries with and in which the British traded and for the security of their homeland, their possessions, and their trade routes. [Tarling, 50]
Burma, as Tarling points out, exemplifies this kind of almost accidental imperialism. The British, who merely wanted to protect the borders of India, ended up having to conquer Burma, in which they were not interested. As it turned out, the British established their power in Bengal about the same time as the Burmese achieved control of Arakan. The Burmese, like the British, were simultaneously extending their dominions, and when they bumped into each other, "their political dynamics clashed." The problem from the British point of view was that a "Burman monarch had universalist claims" (52). In other words, like the Chinese empire (but unlike the British one), the Burman empire assumed that it was the essentially omnipotent center of the world. The basic political attitudes and assuptions of the Burman rulers precluded any way of dealing with someone like the British: "Dealing with Burma on the basis of equality was difficult to conceive, given that the Burmans did not accept that such a dealing could be accompanied by an effective recognition of a difference in power and often indeeed had to be" (52). These fundamental differences led to three Anglo-Burmese wars, the last of which resulted in the British conquest of Burma.
Porter, Bernard. Critics of Empire. 1868 (reissued 2008).
Claeys, Gregory. Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 1850-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The history of anti-imperialism in Britain has been strangely neglected. For every hundred books on imperialism published over the past fifty years, there cant have been more than one on its critics. . . . Claeys's new book . . . adds quite a lot to the picture of an ideology that, however significant it may or may not have been in earlier historical terms, could claim to have been one of the most powerful and effective of the second half of the twentieth century, right through to today. — Bernard Porter, TLS (18 March 2011): 24.
Tarling, Nicholas. Nations and States in Souutheast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Text last modified 16 April 2001; bibliographical additions 2 August 2011