A common assertion about the Pax Britannica is that this period was the time of ‘British prosperity and imperial confidence’ (Watts 2007, pg 547) between 1815 and 1914, Great Britain succeeded in sustaining their naval supremacy and was the first to establish the largest industrial empire in history. Indeed, it is tempting to label this period as a time of benevolent hegemonic leadership, having said that, in this essay I shall contend that the Pax Britannica was a period of savagery and depredation. Britain’s military and domestic accomplishments were due to colonial possession, forced assimilation and absence of accountability.
Going back to the original question, firstly, I will address the accomplishments of the British Empire between 1815 and 1914. Secondly, I will look at whether the Evangelical missionaries in West Africa that occurred from 1804 onwards had a positive impact on native peoples and the British Empire. Thirdly, this essay will mention the significance of the Napoleon war, the East India Company and the Boer War that took place between 1899 and 1902. Furthermore, I shall conclude that it is unfair to commend the period of Pax Britannica as a benevolent and hegemonic leadership.
Firstly, to understand the nature of Pax Britannica, it is vital to discuss in depth the accomplishments gained by Great Britain, which will bring together the inconsistent assumption that this period was the time of benevolent and hegemonic leadership. With a population of more than 400 million Britain held the largest empire with its consistent global power (Niall 2004). What’s more, the Great Britain seized the advantage of having the superior geographical position globally. In terms of raw materials, by 1800, the consumption of sugar in Great Britain had increased by 2,500 per cent in 150 years (Walvin 2001, pg 5). Overseas; white settlers from Great Britain had a responsibility (and succeeded) in elevating the native cultures to the prestigious level of British civilisation. Understandably, there is a large belief that survives in Britain that the Pax Britannica was an enlightening enterprise that brought the benefits of civilisation abroad inevitably with collateral damage. George Orwell correctly phrases;‘They built a prison and call it progress.’(Jackson 2013, pg 3). Additionally, the accidental global power Great Britain gained is attributed to the failures of the Napoleon wars between 1803 and 1815 and the lack of domestic threat from European states.
The imperial rhetoric of benevolence was the assumption that colonisation was an inherent necessity for indigenous people and their traditional cultures. Frederick Weld, a governor of several British colonies held the belief that supported this ideology of benevolence. He expressed that:
‘The material work of colonization — taking over the land, “civilizing” or eradicating or evicting the indigenous inhabitants — becomes the accepting of an invitation not merely from the ruler of Empire, but from God, whose creative powers have been co-opted to the provision of pastoral resources. Colonization, naturalized as pastoralism, comes to constitute a benevolent and beneficent project’ (Gilbert and Tiffin 2008, pg 80)
Weld’s attitude towards colonialism is one of many as to why Great Britain held an altruistic view towards cultures abroad they felt were indecent. Despite this, it was this belief that caused the death of innocent indigenous peoples, once resistance was displayed. The word ‘benevolent’ has connotations such as charity, philanthropy, and decency, all terms describing the act of great of care for others. Aforementioned, the Pax Britannia is known to be the period of relative peace, when Great Britain stipulated services such as abolishing the slave trade in 1807; this in turn outlawed slavery in all the British territories. Although Great Britain was a popular advocate for antislavery, there was still a grave desire to civilise the ‘Dark Continent’ in West Africa. The cultures of native peoples commonly known as the ‘savage customs’ began to be reevaluated by explorers, missionaries and scientists in the name of civilisation. One should use the phrase forced assimilation rather than the word benevolent, due to the violent transition imposed by white settlers, on the native indigenous peoples using subjection and colonial dominance. Benevolence indeed justified the force used in West Africa, by firstly teaching the natives English, improving their standard of housing and clothing and of course teaching the religion of Christianity. (Currently the reason for widespread growth of Catholicism in African countries after independence). With the expansion of the industrial industry, Britain believed its colonial policy was essentially benevolent due to the unintentional racist doctrine that humanitarian aid was necessary for those in West Africa perceived to be morally inferior. White teaching was vital, the uncolonised were to be colonised. Edward Said explains this:
‘The power of culture by virtue of its elevated or superior position to authorise to dominate, to legitimate, demote, interdict and validate’. (Said 1983, pg 9)
Through the indigenous narrative, cultures abroad were denied their voices; white settlers from Great Britain became complicit in silence, this turned into violence for anyone who displayed signs of resistance. Alas, the romanticism of abolitionism introduced the broad policy of westernisation and the increasing authority of colonial government by devout precepts. The Pax Britannica is believed by the British to be a constructive but bountiful period due to the cultural and economic maturity given to ‘uncivilised’ nations. Nonetheless the erasure of native inhabitants through colonial violence (clothing, academia and architecture) contradicts the definition of Pax Britannica.
Secondly, the other commonly held belief about the Pax Britannica is related to the hegemonic nature connoted to this period. David Cameron implied that Great Britain succeeded in being a great empire, because ‘Britannica didn’t rule the waves with armbands on’ (Watt 2011). Cameron’s quote shows the avoidance to challenge this generic rhetoric, and fails to address the challenges regarding the hegemonic nature of the Pax Britannica. To be a true hegemonic power, it is crucial to gain dominance through consensual (but fair) glory and global acknowledgement not through unintended results in imperial wars. The Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815 resulted in the eradication of the Holy Roman Empire, thus leading to the decline of the power Spain held over its colonies. The Treaty of Paris on 20th November 1815 consolidated Britain’s prestigious global power. Another crucial possession for Great Britain was the East India Company, as it was responsible for international trade, (including raw materials such as silk, tea and cotton) the East India Company held the fruits towards the glorious beginnings for the British Empire. With such an authoritative status, Great Britain could not be challenged. Unfortunately, Britain was met with several challenges to their structural power; the Indian Rebellion of 1857 dissolved the East India Company in 1858 using violent methods. Moreover, the East India Company failed to demonstrate Britain’s mature hegemony as they caused widespread famines in India. Between 1865 and 1866, over a million civilians died from a drought in Odisha, which, regrettably Lord Salisbury, British Secretary State for India failed to combat these tragic events. Pax Britannica may have generated mass wealth and recognition; however this illustration is a clear demonstration as to how Great Britain failed to show their hegemonic leadership due to the lack of accountability once a series of unfortunate events occurred.
Nonetheless, Pax Britannica showed Britain’s leadership and great skill through successful wars, but with success it came with intentional ‘collateral’ deaths. The Second Boer War lasted for two years from 1899 to 1902, which resulted in the British Empire gaining autonomy over the Orange Free State (South Africa). Moreover, Great Britain was responsible for the deaths of 28,000 Boer civilians, 20,000 of them being young children between June 1901 and May 1902 due to starvation and systematic torture. (Harris 2001). Originally, the British created refugee camps for women and children homeless from the war, however due to the high threat of the militia of the Boer people, these refugee camps became concentration camps to monitor this threat. Britain managed to use their power to manipulate the rest of the international community that humane tactics were in place in order to keep Boer soldiers and civilians’ safe. It could be argued that although Great Britain managed to show their hegemonic power by consolidating valuable colonies as a result of successful wars, unnecessary amounts of civilians died during these wars.
To characterise the period of the Pax Britannica as the time of benevolent hegemonic leadership would be disastrous simply due to the risk of erasure. It is true, that the British Empire managed to maintain their power and show their structural humanitarian side by abolishing the slave trade in 1805 for instance. However, the term erasure used in this context is a collective term that challenges the idea that the British Empire gained their power with a minimum degree of force and native acceptance. The period of Pax Britannica was the fruit of brutal wars that involved cultural extinction and forced assimilation. Additionally, the Pax Britannica achieved their global status by incidental means due to the decline of powers in the European sphere. It is unfair to characterise the Pax Britannica as the time of benevolent hegemonic leadership as this would be implying that the British Empire had an altruistic influence abroad, which clearly was not the case.
Ferguson, N. (2004) Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. United States: Basic Books.
Gilbert, H. and Tiffin, C. (2008) Burden or Benefit?: Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies. United States: Indiana University Press.
Harris, P. (2001) British Hid Horror Conditions At Boer Concentration Camps, Rense. British Hid Horror Conditions At Boer Concentration Camps. Available at: http://www.rense.com/general17/britishhidhorror.htm (Accessed: 4 January 2015).
Jackson, A. (2013) Buildings of Empire. Oxford University Press.
‘Secular Criticism’ (1983) in Said, E. The world, the text, and the critic. United States: Cambridge, Mass Harvard University Press, 1983.
Walvin, J. (2001) ‘Chapter 1: Consuming Passions’, in Walvin, J. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Watt, N. (2011) ‘David Cameron Speech: Lets show the world some fight’, The Guardian, 5 October.
Watts, C. P. (2007) ‘Pax Britannica’, in Hodge, C. C. Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800-1914. 2nd edn. Greenwood Press.
By Gabriella Obeng @angryblackfemmy
These views do not represent the views of all Rmovement members but individual members.