Or, the expansion of the British Empire as a symptom of weakness


While Great Britain maintained her naval supremacy, the Channel afforded adequate protection from foreign powers. During this time Britain's foreign policy could consist of, as Lord Salisbury put it, 'floating lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions.' That this line of policy would become outmoded is in hindsight signified by the Crimean War, which inaugurated just over a decade of events that shook Britain's confidence in herself and the rest of the world's respect for her. The conditions that had allowed Britain to be passive in her foreign affairs were eroded by a shift in the balance of economic power and by the actions of other states. As the century wore on Britain came to need a more pro-active foreign policy because her vital interests were increasingly threatened.

These interests maintained the same shape throughout the last half of the century, but the means by which to secure them had to change with the times. British politicians remained sceptical of foreign entanglement and large commitments abroad on the one hand, but on the other took pride in the Empire and were willing to protect it and extend their control if they had to. Gladstone may have lamented that Britain had become a 'government of Egypt' after Britain intervened over the Suez canal, but the troops were not withdrawn for many decades. For a great commercial Empire that considered itself the 'metropolis' of the world, a proper course in foreign policy was to maintain the balance of power so as to maintain peace, and to encourage free trade throughout the globe. As in many other aspects the Victorian state took an essentially laissez faire attitude to foreign policy and Empire, until world events demanded otherwise.

Formal vs. informal Empire

Two historians, Robinson and Gallagher, perceive continuity in Britain's imperial policy throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, thus repudiating the claim that the mid-Victorian era was a period of 'anti-imperialism'. They point out that even 'formal empire' expanded between 1841 and 1851 (with the annexation of, among other territories, New Zealand, the Gold Coast, Natal, and the Punjab). In their view, the basic aim of Victorian imperialism was to integrate areas of the world into the expanding British economy. Usually this took the form of 'informal empire', essentially ad hoc arrangements with the locals without formal rule. Where this could be accomplished without formal annexation it was, but where more direct political control was needed the Victorians were willing to go this far.

The difference between formal and informal empire is hence one of magnitude rather than fundamental principle, but as the last quarter of the century saw a huge rise in formal empire we can see that British perceptions of their imperial situation was changing. From 1874 to 1902, 4,750,000 square miles and 90 million people came under the control of the British Empire. While still not being enthusiastic about annexation (the strategically important territory of Sudan, for instance, was not annexed until 1898), the British ruling elite had pessimistically accepted the need for it. The increase in the size of the British Empire was not a policy of strength from a power with complete freedom of action, it was a defensive policy designed to stop Britain being eclipsed by her rivals.

Decline in Europe

The first major difficulty the British encountered after 1850 was the Crimean War. Although they were on the winning side, it was no secret that the war was won more by French arms and by diplomacy than by the British army, which performed appallingly. Britain was traditionally very nervous about standing armies, which it considered not only too expensive but detrimental to liberty. Although the Crimean War provoked considerable concern about the state of the nation's armed forces, it also precluded Britain entering into such a venture again for some time. The result was for a new affirmation of the fact Britain was an Asiatic power which did not need to intervene in European affairs. The Continent could be kept peaceful by the balance of power so long as too many powers did not have a great interest in overturning it.

This state of affairs began look shaky during the 1860s, when virtually every power was a 'revisionist' in that it sought changes to the geopolitical map. It was increasingly suspected that Britain could not back up her words with action, and hence that what was her source of domestic strength – liberalism and a laissez faire economy – was the source of her weakness in Europe, i.e. her lack of a powerful military. Britain's prestige in Europe declined and she took little part in the emergence of the new European map, which had a united Germany as its centrepiece. The exception to this was Disraeli’s action over the Eastern Question (what would happen when the Ottoman Empire collapsed) in 1875 – 8, where he threatened war with Russia and after which the Berlin Congress of 1878 forced Russian concessions.

The decline of British power relative to the rest of the world was largely due to economic factors. Throughout the 1860s Europe rapidly industrialised, and Britain continued to develop itself. But after the 1873 depression set in and economic optimism became slightly harder for Victorians, although to abandon the principles of laissez faire would have been unthinkable.


As other powers became more assertive and began to extend their own imperial commitments, Britain was forced to react to protect her own. The Suez Canal is a case in point. The canal was completed in 1869 with French capital, and it was apparent that it would be very important for Britain as a route to India. The joint Anglo-French control of Egypt's finances that was established in the 1870s, the lease of Cyprus from Turkey in 1878, and finally the occupation of Egypt in 1882 were all entered into so as to secure British control of this important route to India.

This was consistent with previous British policy, as control of South Africa had been important to protect the flank of shipping going around the Cape to India. Britain had needed to take action in Egypt for fear that another power would move in and take exclusive control. This was not to say that Britain wanted to control Egypt entirely herself, as Gladstone repeatedly tried to get other powers involved in the enterprise and eventually succeeded. However, it is telling that Gladstone, who had been so critical of Disraeli's more aggressive foreign policy, had seen the occupation of Egypt (initially meant to be short) as a necessity and that he had been willing to risk destabilising the Ottoman Empire in doing it. This shows that when something so fundamental as Indian trade was threatened, Britain would happily intervene and establish formal control – providing the adversary was sufficiently weak.

The scramble for Africa was not directly or solely occasioned by the British occupation of Egypt, but rather by their bilateral agreement over the Congo with the Portuguese. The Berlin West Africa Congress was convened in 1884 – 5 and laid the foundations for formal European control of Africa, an object militarily achievable but until now not considered politically necessary. However, as soon as one power extended formal influence in Africa, the others felt compelled to follow suit to prevent the decline of their influence and prestige. Britain was no longer the only expansive society in Europe and could not afford to be left behind in the scramble, although the free trade clauses of the Berlin treaty made it slightly irrelevant exactly which bits of Africa came within her sphere of influence.

However, the exact definition of British interests had certainly changed, and the logic of why can be traced back to the growing assertiveness of other Imperial powers and Britain's relative weakness to them. The continued occupation of Egypt and the Congo treaty with Portugal had been occasioned by concern over the influence of other powers (in the case of the Congo, France), which had in turn occasioned the West Africa conference, which had then in turn led to the expansion of British formal control over Africa. That this was considered undesirable in China shows how important the spatial element was in determining imperial policy – Lord Salisbury repeated with approval Disraeli’s words that 'in Asia there is room for all of us', which made sense before people started to fear that a scramble for China would follow the scramble for Africa. Different regions of the globe demanded different policies depending on the possibility of challenges from other great powers.

Solution: alliance in Europe?

Since Canning's time Britain had been militarily disengaging from the European balance of power and hence had avoided entering into mutual defence treaties with any Continental power. The balance of power, it was felt, was fine for autocratic and underdeveloped Continentals, but not something Britain need engage in herself directly: it also attracted unfavourable comparisons to the Holy Alliance of reactionary monarchies from liberals.

However, throughout the 1890s there was increasing demand in Britain from the 'new imperialists' to combine a policy of aggressive Empire-building with alliance with another European power. Although Bismarck put out diplomatic feelers and then-fashionable racial theories indicated that Brit and Teuton were natural allies, Lord Salisbury rejected them. Although the accession of William II to the German throne in 1890 would eventually see the rise of Anglo-German enmity, this process was slow. By 1900 British interests had still not been redefined as lying with France and Russia against Germany, although the German Naval Laws and emergent German Weltpolitick surely had made this change inevitable eventually. Russia was still the enemy because of her ambitions in the Balkans and supposed designs on Constantinople. But a German navy powerful enough to challenge the Royal Navy, backed by the powerful German army, appeared to be a threat of the sort Britain had not faced for a very long time.


For almost all of the nineteenth century, Britain had essentially the same interests. However, she operated in an increasingly hostile and unpredictable environment. A.J.P. Taylor has stressed the fact that British foreign policy could be proactive rather than been dictated to her by her neighbours, unlike most nations's, for so long as geography and the Royal Navy could keep enemies off Britain's shores. Her naval pre-eminence secured her control of large parts of the world through informal means, and allowed ties that were economic rather than political to be sufficient. As the century wore on Britain's position began to be eroded were it mattered to her most, which was not on the Continent but in Africa and the Orient. Lacking any real power to determine events in Europe, Britain focused on securing her vital interests in Africa and India.

The importance of India to the British is amply illustrated by the preoccupation with the Russian menace, and the interest shown in Egypt after the constructions of the Suez Canal. As the world changed, the exact specifics of British interests changed. For so long as her economic dominance could be maintained and the rest of the world left to its own affairs safe in the knowledge they would not be detrimental to the British interest, Britain did not need an extensive formal Empire nor need to become entangled in the balance of power on the Continent. The massive growth of the British Empire in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was seen as new means to a traditional end, but showed that British foreign policy was increasingly dictated by the world situation she found herself in. The global status quo was becoming less sanguine for British interests, and hence she was forced to take more measures to change it than ever before.


This is incomplete, as I've lost my list. A fuller one pending...

John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, 'The imperialism of free trade', The Economic History Review (1953)
Oliver MacDonagh, 'The Anti-Imperialism of Free Trade', The Economic History Review (1962)
D. C. M. Platt, 'The Imperialism of Free Trade: Some Reservations', The Economic History Review (1968)

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