The Ideological Origins of the British Empire


Unlike the Roman and other European empires, the concepts behind the rise of the British Empire did not describe it as a legal entity but rather a construct. During its formation, there was no uniformity of laws, the imperial constitution, or revered offices of the emperor. The adventurers and pirates that seized and stole from the Spanish mainly in a bid to have a share of the New World’s wealth are associated with the very first roots of the empire. Backed by the Royal decree, the ideas of an empire were then fueled by enforced labor, capitalism, criminalization of the weak, rigid hierarchies, and free trade. One fundamental factor that bolstered the rise of the country was mercantilism following the decline of feudalism. Here, there was the formulation of policies that resulted in the accumulation of bullion and merchant marine. Additionally, it was the establishment of colonies that were fashioned towards the attainment of balanced trade. It is thus sensible to presume that the origin of the ideological system of the British Empire depended on many historical factors that changed due to the power of mercantilism at the center of the economic system, forced missionary campaigns, which ensured the predominance of the influence of the fleet over the army and shaped the cultural views of the society.

The Economic Policy of Mercantilism and the Formation of the British Empire

The policy on mercantilism played a considerable role in the development of the British Empire. As an economic theory, mercantilism described that the prosperity of a nation relied on the supply of capital and that it was not possible to change the global volume of international trade (Armitage, 2000). Mercantilism presented higher tariffs and other related policies that supported an imperialistic vision of the trade in both Britain and France. This hugely contrasted with the theory of free trade which describes that a country’s economic well-being can be improved through free trade and the reduction of tariffs. The higher duties led to the retention of wealth by the nation and limited the amount of export to the neighboring countries. On the other hand, the higher tariffs allowed for the importation of raw materials from other nations, a phenomenon that led to the accumulation of billions, the development of industries, and the establishment of colonies (Pincus, 2012). It was believed that the best way to improve the prosperity of a country was through the accumulation of gold reserves at the expense of other countries, a situation that was fueled by high tariffs and granting of state monopolies to only specific firms, particularly the ones that majored in trade and shipping.

As previously alluded to, the government monopolies were the main force of commerce in Britain before the civil war. Although the monopolies did not solely create the British Empire, its sustenance significantly depended on them (Armitage, 2000). The one-way trading system in England between the 1600s and 1900s led to economic prosperity. This was primarily imposed by the British East India Company on the surrounding countries and their colonies. For instance, the raw materials would be imported from American colonies and processed by only the factories within England (Thornton, 1859). What followed was a sale of the finished products to the same countries the raw materials were obtained, but at a premium. To sustain the monopoly, the state could almost go into combat with the opposing nations, the best example being China (Crowley, 1990). When the latter tried to stop the illegal importation of opium by Britain, the army from the British East India campaign forced China into submission through a beating. Subsequently, the opium channels were left open, further leading to the possession of more free trading ports by the British Empire.

One of the tools that strengthened control in the British colony was mercantilism. As is alluded to in the abovementioned factors, bullionism was an essential definitive item in mercantilism, during which the British accumulated foreign currency reserves, as well as silver and gold reserves (Dodwell, 1932). The explanation was that through gold reserves, the prosperity of the country would be sustained and increased exponentially. Mercantilism also saw a restriction on imports through the institutionalization of quotas, non-tariff, and tariff barriers (Crowley, 1990). Additionally, the foreign vessels were prohibited from engaging in the coastal trade while at the same time India was required to purchase from only the domestic industries in Britain, occasionally leading to protests.

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Religious and Humanitarian Missionaries as a Way to Expand the Empire

In India and Africa, the locals agreed to become Christian and supported the imperial rule in exchange for charitable acts by the British missionaries toward the eradication of hunger and disease (Thorne, 1999). The missionaries’ persuasive power rested on the fact that they were more associated with organized religion than other colonial lobbies. The missionaries understood that other than offering charity to the Indian and African nations, they also had a responsibility in advocating for liberal imperialism that involved acts of community service and provision of higher education. The imperial rule by the British Empire was also sustained by Christin missionaries when they helped local communities rebuild and reconcile after fragmentation by ethnic conflicts. Notably, the missionaries maintained that the only way through which the fragmented communities in India and Africa could be rejoined was through the Gospel as an Instrument (Gascoigne, 2008). Consequently, the beneficiaries hailed the imperial rule from which the missioners had come in exchange for new materials to rebuild their habitats and other gestures that pointed towards the eradication of hunger and diseases.

Another best example is the help and support from the British Empire towards rebuilding the political system in the Malay states, back in the 1700s. The presence of the British in the states was reflected by several patterns as explained (Thorne, 1999). At Borneo, there was corporate control by the British Empire while the Straits Settlements were faced with direct colonial rule. Additionally, the British rule protected the Malay farmers from cultural and economic changes as well as maintained the traditional class divisions that were characteristics of the Malay states. Although many Malay and Bornean villages were faced with faced colonial taxes, the Malay elite was able to function as civil servants in the new colonial order (Webster, 1998). The British Empire ended up using the Malay states in supporting their power within the territories.

The Defense of the Country as the Primary Tool for Maintaining the Empire

Unlike most countries, Britain paid more attention to the development of the fleet than the army because of what their territories expanded under the pretext of protecting the allies (Jackson, 2013). The English and Scottish fleets were all organized as a single unit despite a later decline in the efficiency of the Navy. The country was also able to assemble many small ships that flocked and blockaded the ports that were supplying the state with raw materials from different colonies. The ships were also strategically placed to supply their armies with prerequisite firearms adequately. The army was in turn used for the protection of the allies, something that led to further expansion of the British Empire territories (Tumblin, 2016).

When an uprising took place within the territories of the small countries, the countries asked for help from the British Empire, bearing that the British fleets were available and they had easy access to the political systems of other countries (Jackson, 2013). Through imperialism, Britain was able to use its military and missionary influence into acquiring new territories. Consequently, the dominion gained both economic and political control of the smaller countries. At one point in time, the colonies under the British Empire spanned across the globe, leading to them being nicknamed as “the empire in which the sun never sets” (Tumblin, 2016). Through mercantilism and the imposing of tariffs on imports, the English were able to grow their economic and political sectors from the importation of raw materials, firearms, and labor from the colonies. Subsequently, the British fleets were revamped, while the political system was in the best shape to sustain and offer relief to any colonies that were in need.

Cultural Aspect as a Reason for the Subordination of Less Developed Regions

The ideas and the rule by the British Empire were irresistible to many small countries, owing to Britain being a center of progress. The progress was especially inspired by the adaptability of the promoter and builders, which for long remained unmatched (Marshall, 2001). How the British recruited interest groups and local elites as collaborators remained as the hallmark of imperialism by the British. Also, their versatility in method and outlook painted it as a center of progress and became overly irresistible by the smaller countries. Further expansion of the influence and submission by colonies would be realized when Britain held onto India, secured victory at Waterloo, and the victory at Vienna.

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Subordination of the less developed regions was also evidenced by slavery which was widely favored as it helped enrich the empire and secure its borders. The British society also viewed other races as inferior, and thus led to the policy that inculcated subordination of the other less developed countries (Koditschek, 2013). The invasion of African countries by the Europeans for enslavement purposes dates back to the 14th century. Among the most significant participants in the Atlantic slave trade were the British merchants. The captured natives of West Africa were transported to Europe and the New World and sold as slaves. Most of them were the commodities that were imported and exchanged for unguaranteed goods with the traders from the captives’ areas of origin. While men were used in the domestic duties and sometimes as an expansion of the military troops, women were utilized in the domestic labor and the harems of the rich as concubines (Inikori, 1992). However, some of the slaves could rise in the ranks of the army, intermarry, and bear children that were not necessarily servants anymore. This continued until 1833 when the bill to abolish the slave trade was passed. The passing of the bill was initiated by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Notably, some of the factors that inspired abolishing of the slave trade included a change in economic interests, resistance by the enslaved people, and the elimination of certain companies and religious groups (Huzzey, 2012). Nevertheless, the subordination of less developed regions through the slave trade significantly contributed to the rise of the British Empire.


Thus, not only the economic dependence of many regions did influence the formation of the British Empire, but also cultural, religious, and political views that governed countries and colonies in the early formation of ideology. An imperialistic vision of trade in Britain was fueled by mercantilism, an economic theory that institutionalized higher tariffs and related policies controlling imports as well as exports. On the same note, the monopoly by the empire became the main force of commerce and for a long time sustained the empire. They would also expand through the support of the imperial rule of the Indian and African societies that got ‘charitable gestures’ from British missionaries. Other states indirectly subscribed to the dictates of the British Empire when they got support from the empire, especially through the rebuilding of their crumbled political systems. Thus, a myriad of ideological factors contributed to the rise of the British Empire as discussed, each playing a unique role in what later came to be an established world power.

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