Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Sep 8, 2022, provoked worldwide mourning and praise for her influence on her country and the world during her 70-year reign. However, many other people around the world, especially in the former British colonies, have conflicted reactions toward her legacy. According to Julius Malema, head of the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party in South Africa, "We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth, because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa's history" and "Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952, reigning for 70 years as a head of an institution built up, sustained, and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanization of millions of people across the world".  Queen Elizabeth II was considered as “the last living link” to the British Empire. Her death symbolizes the end of an era.
There is an old saying “The sun never set on the British Empire”. During the Age of Discovery, 1400-1500, the British extended their influence to Asia, Africa, and the Americas through territorial expansion, domination, and aggressive imperialism. By 1912, the British controlled 412 million people—roughly 23 percent of the world’s population. At its height, the British owned territory on almost every continent, known as the most extensive empire nearly rivaling the size of the Mongol Empire, the Russian Empire, and the territory ruled by the Qing Dynasty. From the 19th to early 20th centuries, the British Empire had significant technological, economic, and military advantages and its global power and dominance were unrivaled. Although the end of World War II and the Suez Crisis marked the end of the British Empire, its cultural, governmental, and linguistic legacies linger to this day.
Many argue that the British Empire brought Western culture and advanced technology to other parts of the world. According to a YouGov poll in 2020, thirty-two percent of UK citizens feel the British Empire is "more of a source of pride than shame”. However, many more feel the British Empire had a harmful influence on indigenous populations in economics, political system, and morality. Even the prior British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, publicly denounced the British Empire, describing it as a “cringing embarrassment about our history.”
It is undeniable that the British Empire transformed the world. What is debatable is whether or not those changes were overall for better or worse. Some of these changes included innovations in medicine, science, and technology. The British built roads, bridges, and canals to help improve infrastructure and communication in their dominions. They designed and developed the Suez Canal to establish safe and efficient sea passage from Europe to India. They constructed 1062 kilometers of railway in Uganda. They also built railroads and paved roads in India. Undoubtedly, British investment in infrastructure was one positive benefit of British Imperialism. Many regions within the Empire benefited from higher education and technology. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were able to acquire an advantageous head start over other nations, allowing them to prosper and thrive even to the present day. One can even argue that Britain treated its colonies better than its peers in Europe. Belgium, for example, is infamous for its crimes in Congo and Germany committed genocide in Namibia. Even so, while the British Empire made positive contributions to the world, it should not be remembered as a benevolent superpower.
Sympathizers of the British Empire claim that its rule positively impacted its colonies through investment in infrastructure, technology, and education. While true, this colonization also led to political and economic upheaval in many countries around the globe. Furthermore, the British Empire prospered largely because administrators and top-level officials throughout the world forced the colonies, dominions, and protectorates to enrich the homeland or suffer the Empire's wrath. By subjugating citizens and enforcing the development of a monoculture, the British performed a grave disservice to the nations they ruled.
One example of the deleterious economic impact of the British Empire is India where it plundered the nation’s wealth and resources. During the colonial era, the British forced India to only farm cotton. This directive left India’s economy in ruins since the population became reliant on Britain for finished goods and food products. Railroads and industrial centers built in India were mainly used to transport cotton. Furthermore, Indian people and businesses were taxed heavily. Many sources claim that the British stole 45 trillion dollars from India. The British Empire's taxation left few Indians with little to show for their back-breaking labor.
To add insult to injury, the British failed to support India when it faced hard times. After the Indian rebellion in 1857, the British took formal control of India from the British East India Company. Famines had become a horrifying part of life in the Indian subcontinent. The Great famine between 1876 and 1878 claimed 5 million to 15 million lives, and the Bengal famine of 1943 caused up to 3 million deaths. The British policy of cotton monoculture was devastating, preventing Indians from addressing and mitigating their food production woes. However, these catastrophes ultimately did lead to a series of policy changes that stabilized food production and distribution.
The way the British Empire treated China in the nineteenth century is another example of economic suppression. Although it was not a colony or protectorate of Britain, China remained under European and British control in the nineteenth century. In 1839, during the First Opium War, Britain invaded China for commercial advantages while also interfering in the country’s economic, social, and political affairs. There was a high demand for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain in the British market. However, Britain did not possess sufficient silver to trade with the Qing Empire. To address this shortfall, the British began to export Indian opium to China. One of Britain’s first acts of war was to occupy Hong Kong, a sizable port city integral to British influence within China. During this time, China was not only subjugated but also forced to trade with Britain. The result was an exponential increase in opium use in China between 1790 and 1832, creating an entire generation of addicts as well as significant social instability.
Some argue that the British brought democracy and liberalization to the world. They believe European “enlightenment” was crucial to developing progressive social ideals. However, the British Empire destroyed indigenous political institutions both before and after colonization. The British promised freedom to many burgeoning countries but subjugated them as protectorates. Today, many former British colonies endure turmoil and degradation, partly due to their historical exploitation. Not only are many of their economies in ruin, but several have also experienced bloody civil wars.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is yet another manifestation of the artificial geopolitical strife created by the British. Continuous hostilities in the region have arisen because Israel claims the contested territory of Palestine as its rightful homeland. This conflict was completely avoidable. During World War I, the British had promised to give the Palestinians freedom to rule and govern their rightful homeland in exchange for helping them to defeat the Ottoman Empire. However, the British backed out on their promise and instead turned the region into a colony. However, after World War II, with the Balfour Declaration, the British government split the territory in half, thereby creating powder keg conditions between rival groups and sowing the seed of perpetual contention. Over 5000 people died as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Many rightfully argue that anticolonial movements rather than colonizing powers were responsible for spreading democratic ideals throughout the world. From the Haitian revolution in 1791, the first successful slave revolt, to the Quit India movement, and the struggles of the American Revolution to the independence movements in Sudan and Ghana after WWII, people living under British rule fought for their independence and freedom striving to bring democracy not only to their own country but to the world.
Finally, the British Empire caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Although these atrocities have been downplayed by historians compared to other colonial empires, the British conducted purposeful massacres of indigenous civilian populations and were some of the leading perpetrators of the slave trade. One of the most infamous bloodbaths conducted by the British was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or the Amritsar massacre in India. On the afternoon of April 13. 1919, British commanding officer Reginald Dyer fired upon a crowd of approximately 10,000 men, women, and children who gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh to engage in a peaceful protest, precipitating 379 deaths and wounding 1,200 dissidents.
British participation in the slave trade also destroyed families by marketizing human lives. After being involved in the trade for more than three centuries, Parliament finally passed a law in 1807 to outlaw the slave trade. However, irreversible harm had already been done. No law could ever atone for the deaths of millions of innocent African people unwillingly ripped from their homes and thrust into captivity and servitude. Altogether, it is estimated that British ships transported roughly 3.1 million African slaves across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the Caribbean and North America. The Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean tragically resulted in a mortality rate of 1 in 7 or approximately 400,000 to 500,000 slaves who died en route to the New World under some of the most horrendous conditions imaginable. For centuries, the British profited heavily from the slave trade, significantly contributing to their financial success at the expense of others.
Discussion & Conclusion
It is undoubtedly true that no nation on earth has an untarnished historical record that is free of criticism. To be fair, historians must acknowledge both the good and the bad. While they must not excuse immoral acts, they also have a duty to contextualize actions within the milieu of their era. Today, we view the past quite differently than people in previous periods. Yet, we must understand why these events happened and how they were justified and criticized at the time they occurred. Armed with new insights gained from the vantage point of hindsight, policies can be reversed.
Looking back in time, it is particularly crucial not to single out the British Empire as uniquely unjust and inhuman. Many other imperial centers existed then, especially in Europe, such as France, Spain, and Russia. Each of these Empires sought to expand their influence and exert dominance in the world through colonial and territorial acquisition. These competing powers led to the rise of empires as each nation fought to achieve an advantage over their technologically similar neighbors. While the British Empire increased in size in large part to its vulnerable and dependent status as an island nation and competitive rivalry with neighboring nations for riches and glory, it would be unfair to blame any people, including the British, for the actions of their ancestors.
To measure and assess the historical balance sheet of the British Empire requires a careful analysis through three distinct lenses: economic, political, and moral. While the UK did contribute many improvements and advancements to the world by introducing these innovations to their colonies, they did so at a very high cost. Events such as the Amritsar massacre, Bengal famine, Opium Wars, slave trade, and Boer concentration camps are unforgivable. The British Empire should serve as a lesson for all humanity that it should never again exploit other people and nations for profit and greed.
Ronald Feng is a junior at Rye Country Day School. Ronald has an interest in history and public policy. Ronald has done research on policies that he hopes will become his major in his college.
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