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The Origins of the British Empire

Saul David is a British academic military historian and broadcaster. He is best known for his work on the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Anglo-Zulu War, as well as for presenting and appearing in documentaries on British television covering imperial and military themes.

Lawrence Goldman

Good afternoon and welcome everyone to this History Reclaimed webinar, one of a series where leading historians explain a central problem in recent history. It’s my great pleasure to introduce this afternoon Saul David, a very well-known military historian and broadcaster. Saul was educated at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities and he’s the author of many books and articles, mainly on military history. I suppose he’s best known for a series of works on the Indian Mutiny published in 2003, a history of the Zulu Wars published the following year and a more general history of imperial wars, Victoria’s Wars, The Rise of Empire in 2007 and all three of those books were published by Penguin.

His most recent book, published a couple of years ago, was a history of the Special Boat Service in the Second World War. He’s now at work, indeed finishing and to be published next year, a study of British airborne forces, parachutists, in the Second World War to be entitled Sky Warriors. So that’s one to look out for. But today, I’m delighted that he’s moved back in time to consider the eighteenth century. And his title for us is The Rise of the British Empire, 1763 to 1815.


Saul David

Thanks so much, Lawrence. It very much takes me back to the Indian Mutiny and of course the context for what would become my book, Victoria’s Wars, looking at the rise of the British Empire in this key period. In his book, The Expansion of England, published in 1883, historian John Robert Seeley argued that the growth of the British Empire was made possible by the defeat of Louis XIV’s France in the War of the Spanish Succession, that of course was 1701 to 1714. He added, and of course this the relatively well-known quote, “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.”

The truth of course is much more nuanced, as I’m sure we know, but with little political capital to be made from imperial ventures and mindful of the expense, home governments tended to discourage imperial expansion and that it took place at all therefore was chiefly the responsibility of individuals on the ground.

Diplomats, soldiers, trading houses and occasionally maverick adventurers. In 1615, wrote Niall Ferguson in Empire: How Britain made the Modern World, the British Isles had been an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class entity, 200 years later, Great Britain had acquired the largest empire the world had ever seen, encompassing 43 colonies and 5 continents.

Now there were 3 main elements to this rise of empire, commerce, conquest and colonisation. To illustrate all 3 empires, I propose to look at the period from 1763, the end of the 7 years wars, to 1815 and victory for Britain in the Napoleonic Wars. On the tenth of February 1763, Britain, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris with Portugal in agreement and formally brought the 7 Years War to a close. It had been fought across the globe, partly for reasons of imperial competition and partly to settle the age-old question of which power would dominate Europe by Britain and Prussia on the one side and France, Austria and Spain on the other. As with previous treaties, this one ensured that the majority of conquered territories were restored to their former owners.

Only Britain, it turned out, was ceded large tracts of new territory. Chiefly in North America, where she received Canada and Louisiana, east of the Mississippi, not including New Orleans from the French, and Florida from the Spanish. The peace left Britain the master of North America, the possessor of lucrative new sugar islands and slave stations, and France all but finished as a political and commercial power in India. This slide will give you a sense of where we are in 1763.

Now let’s concentrate on India a little bit, my area of speciality you might call it. There’s no better illustration of the contingent and unplanned nature of Empire than Britain’s long association with the Indian subcontinent. It began with Queen Elizabeth I granting of a royal charter to the London trading house known as the Honourable East India Company on 31st December 1600.

By 1700 the East India Company had permanent trading posts at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta and its only serious competitors were the French companies based at Pondicherry on the southeast coast and Chandernagore on the Hooghly River.

The company’s success was based on the seemingly insatiable demand in Europe for cheap calico, silks, fine china and tea. During the first half of the eighteenth century its annual dividends never fell below 6%, its yearly sales of 2 million made up a fifth of Britain’s total annual imports. Pre-eminent on the London stock market, it occupied a position in the city comparable only to that of the Bank of England.

The company’s gradual metamorphosis from mercantile to political power was prompted by the death of Aurangzeb, the last of the Mughal emperors in 1707. His successors fought a lengthy war of succession as the Mughal Empire began to disintegrate and former governors, vassal princes and soldiers of fortune began to carve out their own independent states.

To protect its valuable trade during this time of political flux, the East India Company stepped up its recruitment of Indian troops. It had been enlisting modest numbers of Indian soldiers or sepoys since 1684. But it was not until the wars with the French in the 1740 that the need for a permanent regular army became evident.

Led by major Stringer Lawrence and his deputy Robert Clive, these troops inflicted a string of defeats upon the French and their allies in the early 1750 as the British consolidated their economic and military presence in southern India. But the events that were to establish the East India Company as a powerful political force in the subcontinent took place in the province of Bengal, the richest and most populous in India. In 1756, jealous of the company’s favoured position, in particular its permanent trading station at Calcutta and its exemption from transit levies, the 21 year old Nawab of Bengal, Sirāj al-Dawlah, ordered his troops to occupy the East India Company’s bases at Kazim Bazaar in Calcutta. During the night of the twentieth of June, scores of European prisoners died at the Calcutta base after being crammed into a small and airless room, the so-called black hole of Calcutta. Given the task of punishing Sirāj, Robert Clive sailed from Madras with 100 European soldiers and 900 sepoys and reoccupied Calcutta on New Year’s Day, 1757. Two months later, having raised the first battalion of Bengal sepoys, Clive captured the French base at Chandernagore. He then negotiated a secret alliance with a group of Calcutta’s leading merchants and bankers and also with one of Sirāj’s senior commanders, and gave battle at the village of Plassey, 80 miles north of Calcutta on the 23rd June 1757. Though hugely outnumbered, by 3000 soldiers to 50,000, he won the battle thanks to his superior artillery and the defection of part of Sirāj’s army.

The new Nawab, Mir Jaffar, ceded tax districts to the company and dismantled the state control of inland trade. When his successor tried to reassert Bengal’s independence, his army was heavily defeated by the company forces in Buxar on the 23rd October 1764.

Thus began a long period of commercial and territorial expansion throughout India as obdurate states were annexed and the more amenable became allies. In 1773, to put the government of parts of India on a legal footing, the British Parliament passed the judicator and regulating acts which established the Supreme Court in Calcutta and the principle by which the British government could interfere in the affairs of India.

As well as creating the framework for the company’s rule, this was followed in 1884 by the passing of the India Act which gave executive control of Indian affairs to the newly created Board of Control in London, whose president was a cabinet minister and therefore answerable to parliament.

When Richard Wellesley, the second Earl of Mornington became Governor-general of Bengal in May 1798, the total extent of territories controlled by the East India Company were still relatively modest. The Bengal presidency was made up of just Bengal, Bihar and Venarez, the last 2 provinces acquired in 1775 and 1781 respectively, the Bombay presidency was confined to a relatively small area around the city of Bombay, while the Madras Confederacy was little more than a few scattered districts. And yet, within 7 years, by means of treaty and conquest, Mornington or Marquess Wellesley as he became, had added huge tracts of land to each presidency, bringing British control to roughly half the subcontinent.

Wars were fought against a number of princely states that threatened British supremacy. Mysore in the south and the Maratha Confederacy in central and northern India. The fourth and final Anglo-Mysore War ended in 1799 with the defeat of Tipu Sultan’s European trained army and the capture of his capital, Seringapatam, by Mornington’s brother, then Colonel the Honourable Arthur Wellesley. And there’s of course the well-known slide of the last effort and fall of Tipu Sultan by Henry Singleton.

Mysore was broken up and the bulk of its territory were annexed by the Eastern India Company. But Wellesley also played a major role in the company defeat of the Maratha Confederacy in a war that lasted from 1803 to 1805, including a crushing victory over the forces of Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior at Assaye on 23rd September 1803, a battle by the way that Wellington, as he became, felt was his finest victory.

Once again, the odds were heavily stacked in the local army’s favour with 50,000 men and 128 guns to Wellesley’s 7022 men, yet he decided to attack at Assaye because he believed aggression was the only way to defeat a numerically superior Indian foe. Despite suffering a crippling 1584 casualties, 650 of them British, he won the day by killing and wounding more than 6,000 of the enemy. When asked, years later, what was the best thing he ever did in the way of fighting, he replied with one word, as I’ve mentioned, not Waterloo but Assaye. While one part of the empire was expanding in the east, another receded in North America. The ostensible cause of course was financial, but this was really about imperial control of white settlers from the Metropolitan Centre.

The first successful American colony was established by the Virginia company at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. This was followed in 1620 by the arrival of 149 on the Mayflower at Cape Cod, in what became New England. A third were pilgrims, Protestant fundamentalists fleeing England for religious reasons but the majority went for economic reasons to make a living by catching fish. Another good quote by Niall Ferguson: ‘This then was the combination. That made New England flourish. Puritanism plus the profit motive.’ It was a combination institutionalised by the Massachusetts Bay Company founded in 1629. Now if we fast forward to the eighteenth century and New England had bigger farms, bigger families and better education than the Old Englanders back home. They also paid less tax. In 1763, the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year, by contrast the typical resident of Massachusetts paid a single shilling.

Being British subjects had been good for these people. So why then were they the first to throw off the yoke of imperial authority?

Well, the answer of course lies in the attempt by Britain to impose a number of centralising initiatives and to make America pay a share of the huge government debt that Britain had incurred in winning the recent war against the French. Of course the Americans have played their part in the victory during the 6 years of the French and Indian War, as it was known in North America, they had raised armies totalling 75,000 men. And during Jeffrey Amherst’s two-pronged campaign of 1759, the decisive engagement of the war, the troops provided by the 6 northern colonies had far exceeded the number of British regulars.

As well as their sacrifice on the battlefield, colonists had supplied the armies, built ships and paid exorbitant war taxes. After the fall of Quebec, Americans in the northern provinces had celebrated every bit as rapturously as Britons with bonfires, bell ringing and sermons of Thanksgiving. Their patriotism, knew no bounds. “I’m a Briton” declared Benjamin Franklin, the distinguished scientist, diplomat and man of letters, and many Americans shared his enthusiasm. Peace in 1763 promised a new era of Anglo-American cooperation, but it lasted barely a year. For not only was Britain deeply in debt, she was also committed to keeping 8500 troops in newly won Canada and the Trans-Appalachian West, populated by unruly Indian tribes and some 9,000 French Canadian Catholics. To raise the additional revenue required, George Grenville’s government increased taxes at home and abroad, raising duties on the colonists for the first time in an attempt to raise some of the 220,000 pounds of annual cost of policing North America’s new frontier.

Many MPs thought the new duties were justified. The colonies have been founded with British help, they argued, and it was only right that the inhabitants should contribute to the cost of their security. What was not discussed in parliament was the government’s hidden agenda to use trade laws and new taxes to strengthen its control over the colonies. For their part, the American colonies had never been subjected to metropolitan taxation with funds for local government vetoed by the colonists’ own assemblies.

While acknowledging allegiance to the Crown, they considered themselves independent of Parliament and their assemblies. Co-equal to it. They therefore refuse to pay the new levies and grounded their resistance on the principle that a Briton was only liable to be taxed by his own representatives, whereas they had no London MPs.

The first direct tax, and by far the most controversial, was the Stamp Act of 1765, which required all printed materials in the colonies including legal documents, magazines and newspapers, to be produced on paper embossed with a revenue stamp that had to be paid for in British currency.

It was opposed by Benjamin Franklin, by now regretting his earlier enthusiasm for Britain, and widespread protests in America and was withdrawn after barely a year. Yet at the same time parliament reasserted its right to tax the colonies, a right that Franklin and many Americans objected or rejected with the cry ‘No taxation without representation’ by passing the Declaratory Act, which insisted it had the power to legislate for the colonies in all cases whatsoever.

This was followed in 1767 by various external duties on imports such as paper, lead, glass and tea called the Townshend Acts after Charles Townshend, then Chancellor the Exchequer. The British government assumed the colonists’ objection was only to direct or internal taxes like the Stamp Act and not to indirect or external taxes on imports. He was mistaken. They regarded any tax imposed by the British Parliament as unconstitutional and their opposition to these new duties was every bit as fierce as it had been to the Stamp Act.

The final straw as is well-known was the passing of the Tea Act in 1773. To evade the tea duty, Americans have been smuggling Dutch tea and so reducing the import of legitimate tea from the British owned East India Company by almost two-thirds. The act was an attempt to shore up the company’s profits by allowing it to sell directly to America and thereby skipping England and its customs duties of 2 shillings and 6p per pound. Even with the Townshend duty of 3 deed per pound still applicable the act would have enabled the East India Company to undercut the smugglers and make tea cheaper in America. But the colonists were not prepared to pay the duty on principle nor were they happy to give the East India Company a monopoly on the Tea trade, and they refused to allow the Tea to land. This culminated in the Boston Tea Party of 16th December 1773, when American activists disguised as native Americans boarded 3 company ships and dumped 342 chests of tea in Boston Harbor.

Britain retaliated by passing the coercive acts that, amongst other things, closed the port of Boston until the East India Company had been compensated in full, and placed the local government under crown control. The American colonies responded by meeting at the first Continental Congress in 1774 and agreeing to boycott British imports until all laws concerning them since 1763 were repealed. With both sides digging in, the shooting war began in April, 1775 at the hamlets of Lexington Concord near Boston as British troops were engaged by Massachusetts militia as they attempted to arrest 2 leading rebels and destroy military supplies. It was always going to be a difficult war for the British to win. They lacked the military and naval resources to not only win battles but police a largely recalcitrant population. Their victories, and they won many, merely served to reinvigorate the power the revolutionary cause by stimulating recruitment and prompting greater unity among the rebels. They made a fatal miscalculation that loyalists were in a majority and would rally in support of the army.

They were hampered by the logistical nightmare of transporting supplies and reinforcements 3,000 miles across the Atlantic and their weak political system diluted unity of purpose. Finally, the entry of France in 1778, and Spain is 1779 on the rebel side left Britain overstretched and without a major ally.

Even so, there were opportunities for the British to win the best falling to the Howe Brothers, General Sir William and Admiral Richard, Army and Naval Commanders, from 1776 to 1777 respectively, who failed to follow up victories at New York to trap and destroy George Washington and the Continental Army and attack and burn ports along the coast. They were not taken, explained Andrew O’Shaughnessy in the men who lost America because the brothers and I quote ‘Favoured a more humane approach to war in order to win both the support of the people and create the conditions necessary for a harmonious postwar reconstruction of civil government’. Even later in the war, says O’Shaughnessy, the weakness of the revolutionary central government and its virtual state of bankruptcy might have still turned the war in Britain’s favour, but the loss of naval supremacy after the strategic defeat at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in 1781 caused Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown and marked the beginning of the end.

The Treaty of Paris signed in September 1783 confirmed the independence of the new American Republic, including the trans-Appalachian West of the Mississippi River and the contested states of Georgia and South Carolina, but not Canada, which remained under British rule. Separate treaties were also signed with France, Spain and Holland that led to the return of all possessions conquered during the war, though Britain was also forced to relinquish territory in Africa and India to France and Menorca and Florida to Spain.

The terms of the treaty with France would undoubtedly have been worse had not Britain in the form of Admiral Hood, defeated the De Grasse’s French fleet at the Battle of the Saints in April 1782.

Britain had been attracted to the continents of Asia and America by trade and land respectively. The allure of the third continent, Australia, with its red earth, eucalyptus trees and kangaroos was for a diametrically different reason: because it was impossibly remote and a natural prison. Thus, within a few years of its discovery by Captain Cook in 1770, New South Wales had been identified as the place to send criminals. Transportation of criminals to the colonies have been in practice since the early 1600s, though it did not become a formal part of the penal system since until 1717. For the next century and a half, minor offenders could be transported for 7 years instead of being flogged or branded while men on commuted capital sentences could be transported for 14 years.

By 1777, 40,000 men and women had been transported to the American colonies. With the loss of these colonies, a new repository was required and Australia seemed to fit the bill. It was also a strategic consideration to settle New South Wales before an imperial rival did so. On the eighteenth of January 1788 therefore, the first fleet carrying 736 unwanted British convicts including 188 women and 210 marine guards, reached Botany Bay in Australia. The harsh hinterland was completely unexplored and yet within a few years the dregs of British society had established a viable settlement that would grow into the city of Sydney.

The commander of the convict fleet and the first governor of New South Wales was Captain Arthur Phillips RN. The plan had been to settle in Botany Bay but a quick reconnaissance caused Philip to prefer the neighbouring inlet of Port Jackson. “We had the satisfaction”, he wrote, “of finding the finest harbour in the world in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security”.

For his landing site he chose a cove 7 miles inside the harbour with good anchorages and level ground. He named it Sydney Cove in honour of Lord Sydney, the minister in charge of the colony. Forced to rely on an ever-dwindling food ration, life was tough for the early settlers. Some stole food and were hanged, others tried to escape with one party achieving the second longest open boat voyage in history before it was recaptured on the Dutch island of Timor.

Yet by late 1792 when Philip departed, more than 4000 people had survived the Sydney experiment. Brick houses have been built, land cleared, and trade was beginning to flourish. In 1807 the first consignment of Merino wool was shipped to Britain at a time when the Yorkshire cloth industry had just been deprived of its Saxon and Spanish imports. Demand soared and by 1821 there were 290,000 sheep in Australia.

In all from 1787 to 1853 around 123,000 men and 25,000 women were transported to Australia from crimes ranging from forgery to sheep stealing. Among the convicts were political prisoners including Luddites, food rioters, toll puddle martyrs and chartists. Yet unlike the American colonists, Australians stayed loyal to the imperial project, fought for Britain in 2 world wars and still retain the monarch as head of state today.

It is fashionable of course, to assert today that no good came out of the British Empire and needless to say, I do not agree. Of course, imperial sins need to be acknowledged. The empire was never altruistic per se. Britain grew rich on the slave trade with 3 million of the 10 million or so Africans who crossed the Atlantic before 1850 doing so in British ships.

Yet Britain, it should be acknowledged, was just as zealous in trying to stamp out slavery in the nineteenth century. Other sins include the practice of forms of racial discrimination and segregation that today we would find abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged, the response tended to be brutal. When famine struck, the reaction was negligent at best. A favourite charge made against the East Company in particular by popular historians such as Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple is that its officials were venal and its violent subjugation of the subcontinent an economic disaster for Indians.

These claims were exploded by the 2021 publication of “An economic history of India: 1707 to 1857 by Professor Tirthankar Roy of the London School of Economics, India’s leading economic historian who gives a data-based assessment of the Mughals, of why the Mughal world was in deep decline well before the dominance of the East India Company and why company officials far from ruining India gave it an institutional and economic model on which modern nationhood could be built.

Many Indians, writes Roy, because they did not trust other Indians, wanted the British to secure power. They preferred British rule over indigenous alternatives and help the company to form a state. Moreover, the company succeeded in trade because it could pull in a lot of capital, offer incentives to its employees, build stable collaboration with Indian agents and brokers, understand and study markets and get goods manufactured to exact specifications.

Roy is aware of the company’s shortcomings pointing out that its greatest failing was prioritising military spending over public goods, thus failing to transform rural livelihoods apart from some investment in canals. The best defence of that dismal record, says Roy, is that the Mughals or the Marathas were no better at meeting that challenge.

Roy’s findings contradict the popular drain theory that blames the company and the Raj for divesting India of its wealth by payments of silver abroad. In reality, says Roy, the colonial government was a tiny part of the economy and its remittances abroad were offset by silver that flowed in by India’s trade surplus.

He also points out that the return of peace to northern India under company control from 1800 was a major stimulus to trade linked downriver to the world market via Calcutta. Overall, says Roy, there was economic decline in India between 1689 and 1813 followed by recovery under colonial rule.

Britons imperial project had many faults. Yet Niall Ferguson was surely right to conclude: “No organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire and no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order, governance around the world”.


Lawrence Goldman

Well, thank you very much indeed, Saul, for that fascinating cross-section of the empire over half a century and more. And we’ve seen it’s decline in North America, but as you so interestingly tell us, it’s rise in India. And it’s really there that I’d like to start, if I may, with a question. You used the phrase “imperial project” and yet you could easily, given the way you’ve structured your talk, say “is this a project?” It’s three very remarkable but very different types of colonialism, or simply types of economic and social development. There isn’t a common thread to what went on in Australia to what went on in India to what went on in in North America. That might be Seely’s absent-mindedness. I’m not sure if it is absent-minded. It just looks like three very different forms of development and colonisation. And I wonder if we might start there.


Saul David

Absolutely right. And the use of the term “imperial project” certainly wouldn’t have been used at the at the time, Lawrence, you’re absolutely right. As you can see from the three different examples, there are multiple different reasons for the expansion of Empire and none of them are really driven from London. In India, the East India company is driving it. So trade is at the heart of it, but you also get ambition. You get people like Wellesley coming in there in the 1790s or his brother of course, who wanted to make a name for himself as a general. So you can’t underestimate the “empire building” of people on the ground.

Generally speaking, both the period I’ve spoken about and certainly in the nineteenth century, in a political sense, empire building was a way to lose votes. It was a way not to get you elected. It wasn’t popular with the British electorate, really only towards the end of Victoria’s reign do we see the rise of jingoism and a kind of sense of some pride in the empire. Although I would argue even then it was never a majority of Britons who felt like that. The general assumption among for the British government for most of this period is that Empire is expensive and as you can see, one of the reasons we lose our empire in North America is because we expect it to help pay for its own defence. And if you move forward into the nineteenth century, Lawrence, you get the determination among the British government to begin the process of confederation both for Canada and also they consider for South Africa. One of the reasons why you have all those wars at the end of the nineteenth century in South Africa, including the Boer war is there’s a determination to create a confederation which will be self-governing to a certain extent and will be able to mostly pay for its own defence.

So an idea that there was some kind of central project in which we would create this empire for all these different reasons, but one of the main ones would be political, was never really a factor. It was factors that were more relevant on the ground.  Although of course you could argue that the creation or at least the start of what becomes the Australian bit of the Empire was for reasons of domestic policy we had to do something with the prisoners. So it’s not entirely to do with the individuals out there, that was a decision that was taken at home. But generally speaking, empire was perceived to be expensive and therefore it was these other actors who were really driving it forward.


Lawrence Goldman

Yes, I think it’s Disraeli, a surprising source, who refers to the colonies in the mid nineteenth century as “millstones round our neck” and that was a very common view really until the 1870s and the 1880s when empire becomes popular for different reasons because it’s being challenged for the first time by other empires.

But I wonder actually if I press you a little bit on that remarkable point that you and Niall Ferguson and others have made that in 1615 Britain is a minor power. An island off the coast of Europe and not a big player militarily and so forth. Two centuries later as you’ve explained it is the dominant force in the world and ask you as a military historian perhaps, why you think that should be? What is it that drives this? Is it technology? Is it military expertise and you talked about Wellington for example and his use of sepoy troops and so on. Or is it actually better administration? Although we have the American example of failed administration, you do have the sense that British government is perhaps more in control of these events or at least more able to organise an imperial project than say other European governments at that time. So I just wonder if there’s a domestic way of explaining this.


Saul David

The answer is there is. I think it comes down to multiple different things. One of my earlier books was on the story of the British Army from its creation in the late seventeenth century to the period we’ve just been discussing and Waterloo. What you can see as the British Army fights its way around the world is two things really underpinning it. The technological changes and of course we tended to benefit from being a kind of leading industrial nation. But secondly and vitally, finance, the creation of the Bank of England towards the end of the seventeenth century, which was just at the period in which we were fighting what was going to become one of the longest global conflicts in our history and that of course is the war of the Austrian succession.

So it’s not a coincidence that the rise of Britain as a kind of serious player in European politics and certainly in global affairs with empire was the war of the Austrian succession. So what’s going on there is that first of all you’ve got this solid underpinning, this ability to borrow money for the government and therefore be able to finance a long world war, but you’ve also got extraordinary technological developments going on such as they were at the time: the flintlock, the bayonet…they don’t sound much do they today Lawrence but at the time they were actually absolute game breakers in terms of the way armies fought and they allowed the British army to become the most formidable on the battlefield and supplant the French, which had always had that reputation from the seventeenth century, in particular Louis XIVth armies. So this was a huge change and of course allied to all of this I mustn’t forget as a military historian who tends to specialise in the army but we mustn’t forget the development of the Navy too, I refer of course to Nicholas Rogers’ wonderful books on the Navy.

I haven’t even mentioned Marlborough. We were very fortunate to coincide with the finance and the technology, but also to have a number of absolutely brilliant commanders and of course in the war of the Austrian succession it is the Duke of Marlborough, the reason that the Palace of Blenheim is the largest private house in the country is because the nation was very grateful for Marlborough’s almost unbroken run of astonishing military successes over the French and others during the war of the Austrian succession. So you’re right to query whether something was uniquely happening in Britain at that time but I think the single most important factor was probably finance in all of this and the ability of British governments from the end of the seventeenth century onwards to be able to finance wars was, you know, a really important factor. When you’re fighting the French who didn’t have anything like the same ability to borrow money in the end, you had a huge advantage.


Lawrence Goldman

I wonder also if perhaps the way Britain governs its colonies has some contribution to make to this story of the rise of Empire. Although in some ways you present a counter example, the American example, where because Britain is so lightly governing those colonies for 150 years since the early seventeenth century, the first attempt to exert a more centralised control, and obviously with that comes taxation, leads to a colonial rebellion. But nonetheless often people make the point that the British Empire is organised differently from other European empires which are much more centralised which are much less flexible and that allows for a more kind of empirical, less directed approach, which in a sense makes for that flexibility that allows the Empire to grow, perhaps organically, rather than a kind of imposition of a particular policy, as in the case of France or Spain or whatever, and I wonder if that has something to do with it also.


Saul David

I think it does and I think the greatest example of that is India. I mean I spoke about the expansion of the empire in India but to kind of drill down into that a little bit you have a most extraordinary system where the British government is really allowed a business in effect, a large and successful trading company to rule on behalf of it.

It creates this kind of extraordinary dual system whereby it has overall control, I mentioned some of the acts in which the British government was trying to impose some kind of control because there have been certain controversies over venality and the idea that actually you know we’re going to control territory in India the British government must have some kind of say in all of that but it was an extraordinary dual system all the way up until the Indian Mutiny, the Great Rebellion of 57. It’s only after that the mutiny that the government is forced to come in and create a more traditional form of government. And yet even then, it is relatively light touch. Yes, they’ve got these district officers and commissioners, this kind of system of centralised control but it is a relatively lightly worn system that gradually of course in the years after 1858 when full crown control is imposed there’s a desire to now co-opt the Indians into this system. Another very interesting point made by a historian of empire is the British Emperor was in built with a time frame that was bound to run out eventually and I think that makes it unique also among other European colonial systems in the sense that there was always an assumption that sooner or later we would create conditions where the people we were ruling could rule themselves.

Now that may have been for some people like Churchill a long time in the future but nevertheless it was there so there was a shelf life to the empire, an assumption that sooner or later we would we would hand it back to you know to the indigenous populations.


Lawrence Goldman

Do you think that actually comes out of the American Revolution? Do you think it’s the experience of the 1770s and 1780s, the recognition that settlers will eventually want to govern themselves and indeed, as we see with those settlers, they will adopt what they believe to be British modes of government, British ideology, the sense of the people taxing itself and governing itself, this is what it is to be a Briton in the eighteenth century. And that having negotiated and failed in the 1770s and gone to war, we learn a lesson and we then begin to think about the evolution of empire and indeed begin to think about having an empire that will eventually dissolve itself into self-governing nations and states.


Saul David

Yes, I do think it’s not unconnected to the experience there, but it’s also not unconnected to the financial aspect of empire and the point I’ve already made which is that the assumption that governing most of the empire was actually going to be more costly than it was going to be beneficial to the British crown. There are there are certain bits of the empire that did produce money for Britain, but on the whole big chunks of it did not. And so the quicker you can allow the locals to run things for themselves, particularly in terms of security which is always expensive, the better. And I think that was an important factor. But there was also a genuine belief, like that lovely quote by Kipling, “white man’s burden”, which has often been misconstrued, but the white man’s burden was, run things until the locals could take over. It was sort of morally incumbent on us to do that. That was the assumption but there was still a belief ultimately that you would create the right conditions for the locals to rule themselves when the time came.

The assumption was also that you’d have created sort of commonwealth scenario where people are naturally going to feel some affinity to the old mother country, and in a security sense they will support you in times of war, which is exactly what happened, certainly with the white colonies and to a certain extent with India too. Although of course how many would genuinely have behaved without us still ruling in the First and Second World War in terms of the support for Britain is another matter. And certainly there seems to be a fair amount of evidence by the by the time of the Second World War that colonial rule is not terribly popular, but for obvious reasons that we can understand from the from the First World War onwards.


Lawrence Goldman

If I can play Davil’s advocate here. You quote Niall Ferguson who, of course, argues in “Empire” that the empire was a great force for modernisation and in that sense brought huge advantages and blessings to many of the places where the British planted the flag. And you also quote Professor Roy from the LSE, making the point that what the British Empire succeeded, the decline of the Mughal Empire was much worse than what the British brought with them and gave to India. But if you apply a different view to that, that doesn’t preclude exploitation. That doesn’t preclude looting of cultural artefacts and so forth. That doesn’t altogether preclude the sort of Dalrymple view, which may be extreme, but nonetheless, it’s possible to think of the 2 together. Yes, there are blessings and benefits, but at the same time, there is violence and there is exploitation and so forth. Can we balance those two as Nigel Bigger has attempted to do in a moral reckoning of empire or are the two views simply incompatible and we have to either choose one or the other.


Saul David

No, I wish people hadn’t chosen one or the other. As with some of the Roy quotes I gave he’s not saying he’s now kind of great fan of the British Empire per se. He has coldly and dispassionately looked at the detail and the data and come to his conclusion. But maybe we need to get away from the balance sheet sort of approach per se, maybe that’s part of the problem. If that’s sort of what you’re hinting and if it is I’d rather agree with that. You’re certainly not saying one or the other and you’re certainly not saying well you know there was a lot of good as well and therefore you know what’s the beef. I mean frankly if Britain had been and of course was I suppose at one stage as part of the sort of Norman Empire. The locals then, the Anglo-saxons would have had every reason to resent the arrival of the Normans. And of course the Normans behave incredibly brutally. So the broader point here is that the nature of empire, I think because it is imposing its will, whatever a few benefits accrue out of that will always be resented by a section of the population.

What the British were terribly good at doing is co-opting local elites, and soldiers of course in the case of India, they paid an awful lot of people to become mercenaries for them. They co-opted the princes at various times to support their rule. And that enabled them to, in one sense have a veneer of legitimacy, “look, some of the locals are actually supporting British rule”, but also to be able to control huge areas without needing vast armies. The whole point about the British Army is it’s never been that big. It does make the story of the British Empire the most remarkable story in the history of the world. How is this tiny little trading nation with a relatively small army able to control what ultimately becomes a quarter of the world’s surface. The moral element of it needs to be removed to a certain extent. What we’re trying to do as historians is understand how it happened, but we also want to be accurate. And so you can condemn aspects of the empire as indeed I mentioned in my talk without absolutely suggesting, as some people will do today as we all know, Lawrence, that no good ever came out of Empire. And that’s seems to be a pretty facile view to hold because first of all, world history is about empire so you may as well throw out the baby with the bathwater and stop bothering the study of history frankly. But we do need to not do the full totting up in the end but just recognise it for what it is, that’s frankly the approach I’ve always taken in my history.

If you read my Indian mutiny I’m no fan of Empire in that book. I make it quite plain that there were lots of failings that led to the cause of the rebellion in 57 that the cause in my view was very different from the cause that a lot of other scholars have taken, like William Dalrymple, who have cited caste and religion as the main factor. That’s just historians disagreeing. That’s what we like to do. But what we don’t like to be told is we can’t write books about a subject and we can’t really talk about a subject if we’re going to do anything other than not criticise it. That is ahistorical in my view.


Lawrence Goldman

Precisely and I think that History Reclaimed exists to counter the moralisation of history. There is a place, there must be a place for telling the story and doing it in a reflective but nevertheless an empirical and academic and sober way. I completely agree. And in fact, this discussion we’re having draws upon some early discussions in this webinar series where we talked about the ubiquity of Empire. Human history is the history of empires and indeed we’ve considered the project by Nigel Bigger to  advance a different view of Empire, although he’d be the first to recognise, as he says in his book on Empire as a moral reckoning, that he’s not writing history, he’s actually engaged in a debate and a polemic. But there are those like yourself who write history, who want to take empire away from that moral framework and tell us what actually happened. There must be an academic space for that it seems to me. It’s very important that academics can continue to write and talk about imperial projects, British, French or whatever without having constantly to look over their shoulders as if what they are doing, depending upon their conclusions, might be considered to be immoral or lacking in in a moral dimension. So I think we’re in agreement on the need to keep history and moralisation, separate. Because they have entirely separate roles to play when we think about the academic study of the past. So yes, absolutely. I’m sure we’re in agreement. Saul is there anything that you feel we haven’t discussed? Anything more that you would like to add to our session this evening?


Saul David

No, it’s been very refreshing for me frankly, because as we were chatting before Lawrence, I’ve been working on the Second World War and in recent books from a purely selfish and commercial point of view it’s still a conflict apparently black and white, of course it’s never as black and white as it seems, that people find it very easy to make up their minds about the good and the bad in it. And as a result, it tends to do quite well commercially. It’s also the greatest story in town, so to speak. There’s never been a conflict before and probably never will be again, we hope, that can compare in all its horror and complexity and viciousness. So it is really refreshing actually to go back to some of my earlier work and to look back into the eighteenth century. Because it’s so important that we write the type of history that you just been referring to that we continue to write it and therefore people continue to read it is because it informs everything. You can’t hope to understand the Second World War without a pretty long tail, a pretty long context leading up to that, and for us to understand any of the sort of current issues that are troubling the world, Ukraine, Palestine, even Brexit, you need to have a pretty good understanding of British history but world history more than that. So it is useful for me to remind myself actually that I’m not writing in the vacuum of the Second World War that an awful lot that’s highly relevant has come before it.


Lawrence Goldman

And you use the word “complexity” and I think actually that’s crucial to the historian’s craft and that perhaps there hasn’t been enough focus on complexity when people have come at the past in recent times and it’s our responsibility to remind people of complexity so that we don’t rush to simple moral judgments but actually consider the history in all its dimensions.

I want to say that that’s what you’ve done this evening. Three fascinating case studies, each different: North America, India and Australia. All parts of Empire in the late eighteenth century, but each case different and thus we need to get deep into the historical reality of these situations rather than generalise and moralise from afar.

So I thank you very much indeed for a fascinating glimpse into imperial history with all its complexity and with all its interest.

About the author

Saul David

Saul David

Saul David is professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His thirteen books include The Indian Mutiny (2002), Victoria’s Wars (2006), Operation Thunderbolt (2015) and Crucible of Hell (2020). Website: www.sauldavid.co.uk