Empire Ruling Techniques

1Marykathryn Huffman (mar: Gough) / 2/16/06 J. Bratt / Essay 1; STBR 372

Ruling Techniques of the British Empire

 After losing Calais in France in 1558, England’s attention spread essentially everywhere. Soon its focus was almost entirely on building an empire across the Atlantic Ocean and in India. After somewhat of a trial run in Ireland, England moved on to the Americas. Rationalizing with all kinds of well-spoken intentions of righting what the Spanish were bungling up terribly, they ended up holding to a very similar operative ideology as was seen in the conquest of Ireland. This geo-strategic colonization, besides allowing them to one-up Spain, also quite conveniently accomplished several other things. It expelled disagreeable and unproductive people from the country, serving as what one visitor termed ‘a refuse heap’ for Britain (re: Barbados, RAFotBE, 37). It converted a social debit into a social asset, placing these disagreeable people in a place where either they died or proved some use to the empire, harvesting where Britain itself had not sown. Also, the trade between these places and the travel required the building of ships and created all kinds of jobs that did not exist before, almost literally creating an exchange of money out of thin air which boosted the British economy. It was a win-win situation all around, in the eyes of England. Its various methods of rule, thoroughly intertwined with the economic intricacies and the volatilities of different populations brought it to a different end in each place– North America, the West Indies, and India

Those who left their homes in Britain or somehow gathered enough money to board a boat and travel overseas to the Americas often had to sell everything they had, including land that had been in the family for generations. Betting everything on a dangerous voyage, they set out for a life-threatening and inarguably toilsome way of life once their destination was reached. Many colonists were not in fact voluntary travellers, but were coerced into their voyage through life circumstances or even kidnapping, becoming indentured servants upon reaching land. Early on there were few women travelling to overseas, and most colonies had many more men than women simply because of the work required to begin and maintain life under the conditions there. The Massachussetts Bay Company in the 1630s was the most idyllic and successful colony (RAFotBE, 39). This colony was full of families which meant that the sex ratio was very balanced (as opposed to Jamestown in Virginia, which was populated mainly by enterprising young rich men with no real skills who starved to avoid work, preferring to gamble and complain in discomfort). Massachussetts had high nutrition, literacy levels, voting rates, and family and town centered communities. The key ingredient in developing and keeping all of this was religion; these were not people who came to New England intending to strike it rich, but rather hard-working, God-fearing people who held in common a desire to contribute to each other’s lives. Rather than having a strong drive to put as much difference between themselves and their neighbors as possible, their goal was a holy commonwealth; their individual aims were modest. Many of the people who made up this community were varied artisans of the middle class, and this helped with the balance of work in the colony. But Massachussetts was a lonely star among many poorer examples of communal living; due to bad luck or bad discipline in the harsh unfamiliar land, many colonies lived in misery, toiled to no end, took by force, or just failed and died. Life was hard.

By the 1700s though, the colonies in New England were beginning to flourish. Women were healthy enough to live through multiple childbirths — the survival rates of the women and their babies at this time in the colonies was the highest in the known world. By the late 1700s the population of the colonies was doubling every twenty years, and the colonists were getting so numerous that they were no longer without question dependent on Britain. Britain therefore begins worrying about how they can keep this lucrative asset on a leash — the seeds of the American Revolution. New England had now worked through its dangerous infancy and youth, and had reached a stage of adolescence where it was, in a sense, seeking recognition as an adult. This was said in so many words by some leaders of the day. Britain, however, was becoming deeper and deeper in (war) debt, and needed the colonies to bolster it as it sought to make up for huge amounts of money. America saw this as an overbearing and unnecessary wielding of might — selfishness on a national scale, and refused to pay their own way. England and France were at war again as well, and when the fighting broke out on American soil, the set up for the Revolution and America’s declaration of freedom was complete as eventually the Americans and the French fought the English together. In this way, Britain lost half its empire in the west.

The other half, the Caribbean, was preserved and remained in English hands. In New England many of the structural hierarchies were preserved and submitted to in the same manner as in England — property and wealth and gentlemanliness being symbols of power commanding respect and obedience — but in the Caribbean the increasing slave population and the resulting chaos of emotion and uncertainty made more stringent laws and their enforcement necessary. These were sugar plantations, as opposed to the colonies in New England, in which people settled into more of a town or community structure. The color of one’s skin determined one’s place in the social hierarchy here more than anything else. In 1673 the ratio of slaves to whites was approximately 3:2, and as more and more work was done by slaves the white population decreased even as the slaves continued to flood in, and in 1712 the ratio of slaves to whites became almost 3:1 (RAFotBE, 41). In 1690 the slave trade was thrown open to private enterprise and this acted like a bomb on the industry. By 1715 the trade is dominated by the English, and it is the most lucrative commodity in the Empire, ‘commodity’ being thought of in the most positive way. Unsurprisingly, given the racial inequality of the region, there was a lot of insecurity among the whites here. This was shown clearly by an uprising in 1690 where 500 slaves killed several whites on a plantation in the middle of one island (RAFotBE, 42). The working conditions were horrendous, and many of the slaves worked in the hot sun over boiling liquid for much of the day. But this treatment was justified by the slaves’ skin color — they were obviously inferior for many reasons, not the least of which being their ‘barbarous, wild, savage natures’ (RAFotBE, 42). Given how many many blacks there were compared to whites, the whites began to fear the possibility of a massive, bloody rebellion and uncontrollable destruction. The overall emotion was one almost of paranoia. And yet the economic gains from Barbados and the West Indies were meaningful — one little island was more precious to England than the whole of Canada. Most of what came from these islands was “white gold”, or sugar. Also tobacco, tea, rum, and slaves were constantly in transport across the ocean. In order to keep this valuable resource in line, Britain laid out and enforced harsh laws, subjecting slaves to even more brutal and inhuman treatment. Scapegoat theory at the heart of its being most admirably played out. Trample on one people for the sake of another people and yourself, and gain the loyalty of an area through the resulting unity of purpose or need.

During this time, England’s East India Company was exploding in growth. With the resources it had gained from the Americas as well as its own resources, it was able to trade everywhere. Having set up colonies in India for the first time around 1660 as well, there was a massive trading business spread over two oceans and across much of the globe. The biggest export from the colonies in India was cotton, which was used for all sorts of things including underwear for the common people (rich people used linen, which was quite expensive). Tea was another big export of India, especially as the common people began to be able to buy china by way of the Dutch, who started making Delftware in imitation of the Chinese. Sugar completes the picture and you have the ingredients for the tradion of hospitality that has developed in Britain today of sitting guests down for tea. Originally it was the new cool thing to do for the less-than-wealthy classes, to be able to make a show of being able to get costly imported items for less. In 1760 the British defeat the French in India and just as North America moves beyond its reach a whole new spectrum of possibilities opens up. And yet the British government began to fall in with Adam Smith’s economic theories in about 1793, and the East India Company began to lose its monopoly, as the King was its chief investor (RAFotBE, 123). Soon it found other ways to continue its trade, as the cotton industry moved from India to Lancashire and getting tea from China in exchange for Bengali opium, but it was nowhere near as massive as it had been (RAFotBE, 123). The technique of expansion used in India wouldn’t be well-described by the word conquest; it was more of an infiltration, a slow erosion — perhaps a kind of seduction. India was both culturally and economically a very rich land, and the way England had dealt with the West Indies and New England and Ireland simply could not be repeated. The people had been there for a long time and were well developed culturally — in some ways India’s rootedness and richness loomed intimidatingly over England’s short history and religiously disjointed past. In no way could these people be construed as inhuman, barbaric, or in need of help like the savages the Brits had come into contact with in previous countries. Their tactic here was subtle and political, as the muslim Mughal empire began to decline and they saw that the new political situation allowed for increasing and well-placed leverage and exploitation.

By 1815, Britain had gained an empire across the Atlantic Ocean, lost a goodly portion of it, and turned its attention to retaining the West Indies and to building another empire in India. The intricacies of interdependent economies and the unpredictable emotions and fears of multi-ethnic populations made it necessary to use different methods of rule in these three domains. North America looked to be a spoiled oldest child, given much leeway originally and almost ignored except for the economic wealth they were able to offer the empire. When the laws needed to be tightened finally, when England was strapped for cash because of its war with France, New England simply refused to be taken for granted any longer. War ensued, and England lost half its empire in the West. In the West Indies the population differences caused the whites there to be rife with fear and suspicion, and the laws were strict and harsh for the negro slaves who worked in such horrible conditions on the sugar plantations. This was needed. In India, the careful infiltration of the political situation in the 1700s seemed to give due respect to the people there, but nevertheless slowly undermined their own control of their country. The lassaiz-faire (sp?) approach in New England failed outright, the West Indies were held in an iron fist, as it were, and remained there, and India was given the right to be itself but deceived and overpowered in the end.


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