The British Empire comprised the colonies, dependencies, dominions and mandates ruled over by Great Britain. At its peak it stood as the largest empire the world has ever seen. Its imperial power grew out of the barrel of a gun. On the ground, Britain’s Empire was built off the labor and resources of colonized people, managed by colonial administrators and military men, and propped up by colonial troops. Yet, it was also sanctioned, conceived and governed by an eclectic cadre of highly influential individuals from the imperial center.
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) famous essay On Liberty (1851) stands as one of the most famous defenses of individual freedom against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ ever written. However, despite his status as the leading liberal thinker of his day, he was a staunch advocate of empire and vigorous supporter of the subjugation of non-European peoples. Alongside support for individual life and liberty Mill defended colonization throughout his life.
In his writings, Mill argued that colonial territories were not yet European, but potentially capable of refinement and ‘civilization’ through proper guidance and administration. Self-government was for those deemed ‘ready’. In 1823, at the age of seventeen, Mill began his career as a colonial administrator of the British East India Company, a role he held until 1858. His belief in the backwardness of Indian society and ‘benevolent despotism’ as a means to improve it, played a significant role in the formation of public opinion on colonialism.
Major-General Robert Clive (1725-74) started as a clerk in the East India Company, became a soldier and rose to become the first British Governor of Bengal. A highly resourceful and ruthless military commander, his greatest victory was the Battle of Plassey (1757), which laid the foundation for East India Company rule in India. Clive’s two terms as the Governor of Bengal (1758-60 & 1764-67) were defined by rampant plunder. He returned to Britain in 1767 with a personal fortune of £180,000 (over £25 million in 2023) which he had remitted through the East India Company.
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Upon his return, Clive was accused by British MPs of misrule and greed. He defended himself with characteristic conviction, claiming instead to be “astounded by [his] own moderation”. In 1774, he took his own life, the prevailing view of his motives was that his conscience finally caught up with his crimes.
Cecil John Rhodes (1855-1902) ranks as one of the most zealous imperialists that ever lived. He played a pivotal role in the late-nineteenth century ‘scramble for Africa’, where he orchestrated the annexation of vast territories in southern Africa for the British Empire. In 1871, Rhodes entered the diamond trade and went on to found De Beers in 1888. His strategy was to expand the British Empire in Africa by launching mining ventures, and securing mineral concessions from local African rulers. His dream of colonizing “Rhodesia” (modern-day Zimbabwe) was realized when his company was granted a Royal Charter in 1889.
Above all, Rhodes believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined for greatness. As Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony (1890-1896) he restricted black voting, laying the foundations for apartheid. The extreme violence of his British South Africa Company in Rhodesia, marks one of the darkest chapters in British colonial history.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was one of Britain’s most brilliant modern writers and its greatest evangelist of empire. From The Jungle Book (1894) and Just So Stories (1902), to poems like
Mandalay and Gunga Din (1890) his imperialist worldview loomed large. Although born in Bombay, the great trauma of Kipling’s young life occurred in 1871 when he was sent to school in England. He didn’t return to India until he was seventeen. In 1889, aged twenty-three, he moved to London for good. His fascination with the culture of British India never left him.
In England, Kipling emerged as the de facto voice for Anglo-Saxon imperialism. Most infamously, he implored the United States to take up The White Man’s Burden (1899) and assume the responsibility of civilizing the non-European “heathens”. Revered by some and reviled by others, Rudyard Kipling remains one of the most authentic voices of the culture of the British empire.
When Queen Victoria (1819-1901) ascended to the throne at the tender age of eighteen, Britain was primarily a trading power. However, by the time of her death, Britain was in possession of the largest colonial empire the world has ever seen. The Government of India Act (1858), which dissolved Company Rule and placed India under the rule of the British Crown was directly influenced by her and her husband Albert. Accordingly, in the 1860s, she styled herself as “Empress of India”, officially receiving the title in 1876.
Critically, Victoria forged the first modern relationship between monarchy and empire, a precedent later embraced by her successors, from Queen Elizabeth II’s zeal for the culture of empire, to King Charles III’s contemporary enthusiasm for the Commonwealth. The literal embodiment of national and imperial pride, Queen Victoria stands as the most influential figure in the history of the British Empire. She presided over an empire on which “the sun never set.”