Monday, November 28, 2011
The Grand Old British Empire
Of course, none of these men were perfect from Raleigh to Clive to Rhodes. Neither was every page of British imperial history a proud one. Individuals will always be fallible, some policies were benevolent and some were rather horrible; such is the history of human beings. The eradication of the Thugee cult in India, for example, was a great service to the subcontinent. The Opium Wars, on the other hand, were a terrible injustice (not perpetrated by Britain alone) and quite a shameful episode on the whole. However, the relatively few ugly incidents should not blind us from the immense good that was accomplished by the British Empire nor intimidate proud Britons from defending their exceptional place in history. Were it not for the British Empire the world today would be a very, very different place and, I happen to think, were it still around it would be a better place for a great many people in the world.
For example, when the British took over the French territory of Canada, early indications were that British rule would be harsh and intolerant. However, the British won the loyalty of the local population by recognizing French law, granting toleration to Catholicism and removing references to Protestantism in the oath of allegiance. It was a winning policy as in the American Revolution that followed later, not only did Canada remain loyal but French Canadian leaders and bishops zealously supported the royal cause. South Africa was another example. The war against the Dutch settlers had been bitter and ferocious (even seeing the first use of the concentration camp) but once Britain was victorious they did not treat the Boers as a conquered enemy but made them partners in the British Empire, ensuring the staunch support of the South Africans in both World Wars that followed. Ultimately the former enemies worked together to make South Africa the most advanced and prosperous country on the African continent. In India, where Britain has been much criticized, the fact remains that local traditions, customs and religions were maintained under British rule. Intolerance and wars of religion only emerged after independence. The extent to which the British were able to work well in cooperation with the native population is seen in the fact that such a relatively small island, half-way around the world, was able to administer an entire sub-continent with fewer troops than the French republic garrisoned in Indochina alone.