Decorated initial P

s the authors of Africa and the Victorians (1961) explain, Victorians understood an expanding empire as the benign result of their belief in “the gospels of restricted government and free trade. That moral improvement and intellectual enlightenment attended the growth of prosperity, that all three depended upon political and economic freedom, remained their characteristic and passionate beliefs” (2). In other words, as paradoxical as it may at first appear, the greatest empire the world has ever known, an empire that imposed its notions of justice and good government upon other nations, derived from a government dedicated to the least amount of governing possible. “In the Utilitarian science of political economy, the earlier Victorians beheld the rules for improvement everywhere. They were not the first, nor were they to be the last people, to project their own image as the universal ideal, nor to mistake fortunate trends of national history for natural laws and bend foreigners to obey them” (2).

Nineteenth-Century Great Britain saw itself prosperous and wanted to share that prosperity with other nations and peoples, for “Expansion in all its modes seemed not only natural and necessary but inevitable: it was pre-ordained and irreproachably right [because] it was the spontaneous expression of an inherently dynamic society” (2). This inevitable, fundamentally natural “expansion was not essentially a matter of empire but of private commerce and influence”. True, “exertions of power and colonial rule might be needed in some places to provide opportunity and to protect. But empire tended to be thought of as an auxiliary, in much the same way as the liberal state at Home. The main engine of expansion was enterprise.” (3)

In other words, individual British merchants and traders would ideally become partners of people in less advanced nations and thereby create prosperity, peace, and liberal reforms. They would thereby improve the lives of people in other countries. Despite such ideals, or rather as part of them, the English saw them interwoven with extensions of British power. Therefore, “trade and hegemony were manipulated deliberately as reciprocating. Political influence was used so as to extend and secure free exchange; commerce and anglicisation to spread political influence and weld alliance.” (5). Occasionally, power, sheer brute force, might have to “break open” a recalcitrant nation or territory, and annexation of foreign territories, even recalcitrant ones, was to be avoided, in part because it went again liberal belief in self-determination for all, and in part because it would cost the government too much money. Preferably, “power was extended in its subtler forms — prestige, cajolery, threat, the dangled loan reinforced occasionally with blockade, bombardment or expedition. By such means foreign tariffs and monopolies were broken down, the gouty empires of China and Turkey opened to British influence, and innumerable lesser sheikdoms, sultanates and chieftaincies were drawn into the invisible empire of informal sway.” (4).

Related material


Robinson, Ronald, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism (1961). Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1968.

Stokes, E. The English Utilitarians and India (1959), 47-81, 140-233.

Last modified 9 August 2020