The british empire: good or bad?

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Victoire Ndong

History 161: The British Empire

Instructor: Kavita Datla


Whether the British Empire was a good or a bad thing depends on the perspective from which we look at it and it also depends on the colony we’re talking about. However, overall, the British Empire has had both good and bad effects on its colonies. If we were to count the pros and the cons of the British Empire, I would say the harm it caused to certain colony was greater than the benefits they took from. The British went abroad for economical and political reasons and during the process of empowering their own nation, they did harmed many colonies on an economical and a cultural level. Even so, have to give the British some credit for having established things like a common language (English) and means of communication that are today very helpful to the former colonies.

The first thing we have to look at to understand the British Empire is the motive force that drove them abroad. The first reasons that caused the British to go for a search of new colonies were that the British population was growing fast and they needed new lands to export their population; they also needed new markets to sell their excess of product and get raw materials. In some parts of Africa, conquest happened because the British were following the road of Gold and they needed places where to stop and refuel. Looking at it from that perspective, we can only expect in colonization things that will profit the British people, not the native.

The first colonies like the USA and Canada were settlement colonies, and they were established on the basis of freedom, democracy and equal opportunity for the people who were running oppression in England and were looking for better opportunities. Those countries are the most developed in the world nowadays and like Ferguson said, they should be somehow thankful to the British Empire. In contrast, other colonies like West African countries and India are still facing important problems such as poverty and corruption.

British people moved to new land in search of raw materials and markets for their own interest. The two sets of countries that I talked about earlier are different in the way that the first one are settlement countries with white people and the second group is made up of countries with were black or brown people. That aspect of the colonies was very important because when making policies in the colonies, the British considered the racial composition.

In Ferguson’s essay, he praises the British Empire for its big achievements and the way it civilized countries that would have been lost without British rule. True the British Empire has had good effects such as bringing ideas like freedom and democracy but only to the settlement colonies. When it came to other colonies, the British were acting in a way that was very contradictory to what they were advocating. The slave trade is a big example of how contradictory their ideas of freedom were to what they actually did.

About the good achievements the British Empire made in the colonies (different from the settlement ones), there is the establishment of English as a common language that connects many people. That is important especially in Africa where there are many languages. The other good thing they brought to their colonies was means of communications like railroads and they also brought their own technologies. Those things were helpful to the colonies but they were made mainly for British benefit; they needed to communicate with natives and they also needed to move from place to place and oversee the different regions (Raychaudhuri 364).

The British didn’t go oversea for humanitarian reason, they went for financial and political ones and in the process of achieving their goal, they stepped over many people and their culture. When reading Georges Orwell’s Burmese days, I was shocked by the treatment that was inflicted to the Burmese people. The British came with ideas of civilizing the “savages” and acted in a very condescending way towards the natives; that is at a human level unacceptable. They undermined cultures that were already in place by bringing their language and their own religion. They also disturbed the social structures present by making themselves the new rulers and removing traditional institutions that were the foundations of some societies.

In many of the colonies, there was a big system of exploitation of the native population and their country’s resources (Raychaudhuri 364). In West Africa just like in India, peasants were forced into growing cash crops like cocoa in Africa and cotton in India. The famine of 1876-1878 showed how bad the situation was; hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation in India (Davis 314) while England was enriching itself. While people were starving to death, the Queen Victoria to celebrate her declaration as Empress of India threw a week long feast (class lecture). Peasants in India were heavily taxed and they were in chronic debt. The British imported cheap textile destroying the domestic manufactures (Davis 313-314) and they put the native in situation where they had to grow what the British needed in order to survive.

The other important thing that Empire caused was separation of many people by establishing arbitrary borders and dividing countries in a disordered manner. People from same tribes have found themselves in different countries with people they shared almost nothing. For that reason, there are many civil wars and conflicts tribal conflicts. Some native got frustrated about the fact that they belonged in one country but they were living in a foreign one.

Today many countries are still living in poverty and corruption. The British transferred the power to educated elites that are corrupt especially in Africa (Falola 347). Aids are given but they are not enough to replace everything that was lost during the colonial rule (Falola 355). The British Empire left the colonies broke and the natives were untrained to continue the job. They exploited all the resources and left the colonies bare of what could help them survive. That’s why some colonies are still dependant on the colonists even after their independence.

The ideas that were brought in settlement colonies were totally different. They were a good base for building strong nations like the US or Australia. However, the British Empire was very discriminatory and didn’t allow the same things for black people and white white. Even in the colonies they settled in, they oppressed the natives and brought diseases that killed them. The Native American (in the US) and the aborigine populations have drastically decreased and they are underrepresented in their own countries.

Overall the British Empire was a bad thing for most of the colonies. It plunged them into a cycle of poverty and chronic dept from which it is not easy to escape. The colonies are still dependant from developed countries, they were bared from their resources and left to survive after the British left. The Empire was only a good thing for white settlers and it was mainly a good thing for Britain and its economy. If Britain is the country it is today, it’s partly because of all the benefits it has taken from the colonies.

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