Britannia Waives the Rules

The Truth of Empire


‘N is the Navy
We keep at Spithead,
It’s a sight that makes foreigners
Wish they were dead.’

From the ABC for Baby Patriots
A Victorian nursery book


In Britain and Ireland, the suppression of the democratic ideals thrown up by the French Revolution culminated in the defeat of the United Irishmen. On the first of January 1801 the 500 year-old Irish parliament was dissolved and the Act of Union came into effect. A new flag, the Union Jack, was unfurled - which added the cross of Saint Patrick to those of Saint George and Saint Andrew. British soldiers would take this new symbol of empire to the far corners of the world as they were used in a long series of engagements to extend the boundaries of British control.

From Tudor times the state had gradually been constructed into a fiscal system capable of financing the building of an empire on a world scale. Global profiteering, trade and taxes (especially on income) provided the surplus money that financed the technological advances of the industrial revolution and led to the expansion of empire. In Britain the rural poor and Irish emigrants flocking into the ever expanding industrial cities worked long hours on starvation wages to facilitate the factories prolific output. For the ruling class, cheap labour at home and plunder - combined with trade monopolies - abroad became the order of the day.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued for a policy of government non-interference in economic affairs and for giving free rein to the ‘magic hand of the market.’ The moves toward a laissez-faire economic policy led to the Reform Acts, from 1832, which consolidated the hold of capitalism over parliament, strengthening the middle class and gave ever-increasing power to the entrepreneurs. The administration of government, centred in Whitehall since the 16th century, was also modernised after the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1845 – extensively increasing the number of civil service mandarins and their departments.

From Cromwell’s time to the start of the 19th century Britain’s rulers had sent their armed forces to fight 10 wars against European rivals. The Seven Years War, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, had shown how Britain, through force of arms, could extend the Empire at the expense of other colonialists. French territory was seized in Canada, America, India, West Africa and the West Indies - and Florida, Manila, Havana and Minorca were taken from Spain. The quest for empire went on apace and was undertaken through state power and force of arms:

England’s wars led to the acquisition of new territories and new markets. Contemporaries had few doubts that, in the words of Lord Holderness, ‘our trade depends upon a proper exertion of our maritime strength’. ‘The rise of the British economy’, writes Professor Wilson, ‘was based, historically, on the conscious and successful application of strength; just as the decline of the Dutch economy was based on the inability of a small and politically weak state to maintain its position against stronger states’ .[1]

1: Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967.



The Hulks

In the early days of capitalism in England little heed had been taken of the plight of the poor. Later, as the demand for soldiers and sailors multiplied, unemployed and homeless youths were seen as potential cannon-fodder for the army and navy. In the 18th century the rich had formed ‘societies’ to recruit and train these youngsters:

The more blatantly chauvinist societies tried to encourage good conduct among ordinary soldiers and sailors. Each boy recruited by the Marine Society was supplied with a new set of clothes and with a new set of ideas: You are the sons of freemen. Though poor, you are the sons of Britons, who are born to liberty; but remember that true liberty consists in doing well; in defending each other, in obeying your superiors and in fighting for your King and Country to the last drop of your blood.

... Just how many of the boy-sailors were able to read and understand these words is unclear. What is certain is that many of the Marine Society’s more affluent supporters ... advocated recruiting orphans and unemployed men for the Royal Navy as a sterling solution to crime, disorder and poverty. Stronger national defence was to go hand in hand with clearing the streets of potential thieves, beggars and disturbers of trade. And perhaps it worked. Of the 4,787 boys recruited by the Marine Society during the Seven Years War, only 295 could be accounted for at its end .[2]

In the British Army and Navy, it was the upper class, who had much to gain from colonial conquests, that provided the ‘superiors’ - whom the ordinary soldiers and sailors must obey. But now and again some of the rank and file disagreed with the actions they were ordered to carry out. In 1870, Poetry of the Pavement carried a poem called The Hulks, with this introduction: ‘The Hulks are old vessels kept for the convenience of imprisoning disobedient sailors, who presume to have a conscience opposed to the destruction of foreigners who have no wish on their part to interfere with the private affairs of other countries. But a warrior should never think, and if he keeps a conscience he must soon learn to surrender it to the call of duty (which means the doing of acts contrary to his inclinations, and which may therefore be defined as unnatural morality), or he will soon feel the reason why.’ The poem followed:

The youth now leaves his home, his work, his friends;
All social happiness on earth he ends,
And learns assassination as a trade,
Which does his Christian feelings deep degrade.
Conscience at last will claim the power to speak,
And now for conscience brave, for duty weak,
In calm refusal to engender strife,
He earns with conscience clear the hulks for life.

Awake - free trade! and teach us better things;
Show earth is for the people, not for kings;
Show man should send his produce to exchange,
Not armies over other lands to range,
And claim possession through success in war.
Free trade! we ask that you at once restore
The Nation’s sense of justice, and disperse
Kings, Priests, and Warriors, every nation’s curse.

Free trade had been promoted as a liberating force, but big-business, while demanding that no restriction were put on it, ensured that ‘foreign interests’ were shackled. Laissez-faire had not led to social emancipation - but rather to the growth of monopolies and the increased exploitation of workers and natural resources. The ethos of empire was conquest and profit - not ‘free trade’ - so the plea from Poetry of the Pavements fell on deaf ears.

2: Britons- Forging the Nation 1707 - 1837,
by Linda Colley,
Vintage 1996.



The Victorian Colonial Wars

With the police and emergent intelligence forces now taking the front line role in preserving the status quo at home - and with ‘the world’s largest navy’ to protect national interests - the army was left relatively free to concentrate on colonial conquest. So, while the navy protected the Empire and its trading routes at sea, it was the army that forced its extension on the ground. During Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 to 1901, the British Army carried out the following colonial campaigns:

  • Anti-colonial revolt in Canada, 1837
  • Capture of Aden, 1838
  • First Afghan War, 1838-42
  • Against Boers, South Africa, 1838-48
  • Opium Wars in China, 1839-42
  • War in the Levant, 1840
  • War in Afghanistan, 1842
  • Conquest of Sind, India, 1843
  • Gwalior War, India, 1843
  • First Sikh War, India, 1845-6
  • Against Native Africans, South Africa, 1846-52
  • North-West Frontier of India, 1847-54
  • Second Sikh War, India, 1848-9
  • Second Burmese War, 1852
  • Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854
  • War with Persia, 1856-7
  • North-West Frontier of India, 1858-67
  • Storming of the Taku Forts, China, 1859-60
  • Maori Wars, New Zealand, 1861-4
  • Operations in Sikkim, India, 1861
  • Ambela Expedition, 1863
  • Yokohama, Japan, 1864-5
  • Bhutan Expedition, 1865
  • Expedition to Abyssinia, 1868
  • Red River Expedition, Canada, 1870
  • Ashanti War, West Africa, 1874
  • Expedition to Perak, Malaya, 1875-6
  • Galekas & Gaikas war, Cape Colony, 1877
  • North-West Frontier, India, 1878-9
  • Second Afghan War, 1878
  • Third Afghan War, 1879
  • Zulu War, 1879
  • North-West Frontier of India, 1880-4
  • Transvaal Revolt or First Boer War, 1880-1
  • Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882
  • Expedition to the Sudan, 1884-5
  • Third Burmese War, 1885
  • Suakin Expedition, Sudan, 1885
  • End of the Nile Campaign, 1885
  • North-West Frontier of India, 1888-92
  • Minor Operations in India, 1888-94
  • Siege & Relief of Chitral, India, 1895
  • Mashonaland Rising, East Africa, 1896
  • Re-Conquest of Egypt, 1896-8
  • Tirah Expeditionary Force, India, 1897-8
  • North-West Frontier of India, 1897-8
  • Boxer Rising, China, 1900-1[3]

Besides these conflicts, the Crimean War, 1853-6; the Indian Mutiny, 1857-8; and the Boer War, 1899-1902, involved the British Army in major warfare during this period. Troops also continued to be active in Ireland especially during the Famine, the Young Ireland revolt of 1848 and the Fenian Rising of 1867. Some historians have described this time as the period of Pax Britannica - the smooth and almost peaceful rise of a great empire. In fact, in the 100 years from Wellington’s victory at Waterloo to the start of the 1st World War, there were only 15 years when Britain’s forces were not engaged in bloody conflict in some part of the world.

3: Details of these Wars are given in
Colonial Small Wars 1837-1901,
by Donald Featherstone,
David and Charles Ltd. 1973.




To counteract critical voices and win support for further conquests, the expansion of Empire was accompanied by waves of popular jingoism back home. During the Victorian era the music halls often promoted this type of sentiment in songs, like Another Little Patch of Red:

This John Bull is now a mighty chap, boys
At the world his fingers he can snap, boys
Eastward - Westward - you may turn your head
There you’ll see the giant trail of red
Dyed with the blood of England’s bravest sons
Bought with their lives - now guarded by her guns

Red is the colour of our Empire laid
England will see the tint shall never fade
For of pluck he’s brimming full
Is young John Bull
And he’s happy when we let him have his head
It’s a feather in his cap
When he’s helped to paint the map
With another little patch of red.

Jingoism came to stand for the belief that England had the right to conquer and exploit other countries and to decide conflicts of interest in Britain’s favour by armed force. The word itself came into use after 1878, from these lines in G. W. Hunt’s music hall song:

We don’t want to fight; but, by Jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
we’ve got the money too.

While the fighting qualities of Britain’s forces were glorified at home, it was really the superiority of military technology that in many cases won the day. In 1898, at the battle of Omdurman those fighting under the Union Jack fired 3,500 shells and 500,000 bullets. The British suffered 28 dead while 11,000 Sudanese Dervishes were killed. Most died from Maxim machine-gun fire: ‘It was not a battle but an execution ... The bodies were not in heaps - bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composed with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces...’ [4] Wounded Dervishes were shot or bayoneted where they lay. Afterwards General Kitchener boasted that his victory had opened all the lands along the Nile ‘to the civilization influences of commercial enterprise.’

W. E. Henley also wrote verse which exalted Empire. He did not deem the casualties suffered by the conquered worth considering. The suffering of his own side was portrayed as a glorious sacrifice:

What if the best of our wages be
An empty sleeve, a stiff-set knee,
A crutch for the rest of life - who cares,
So long as the One Flag floats and dares?
So long as the One Race dares and grows?
Death - what is death but God’s own rose?
Let but the bugles of England play
Over the hills and far away!

Other writers like G. A. Henty, once editor of The Union Jack - a ‘One Penny Weekly Boy’s Paper’, wrote adventure books for boys which glamorised colonial warfare. His fictional public school characters were put into real life actions and were always ‘honourable’ and ‘manly’ and exuded ‘character’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘authority’. Yorke Harberton, a typical ‘hero’ who went With Roberts to Pretoria was: ‘A good specimen of the class by which Britain has been built up, her colonies formed, and her battle-fields won - a class in point of energy, fearlessness, and the spirit of adventure, and a readiness to face and overcome all difficulties unmatched in the world.’ Henty, who was the eldest son of a stockbroker mine-owner, hated trade unions and wrote his books to foster ‘the imperial spirit’, stating that ‘the Negro is an inferior animal and a lower grade in creation than the white man.’ [5]

For many British youngsters, indoctrination started even earlier, with pro-imperial themes appearing in nursery books like the ABC for Baby Patriots:

A is the Army
That dies for the Queen;
It’s the very best Army
That ever was seen.

I is for India,
Our land in the East
Where everyone goes
To shoot tigers and feast.

N is the Navy
We keep at Spithead,
It’s a sight that makes foreigners
Wish they were dead.

4: With Kitchener to Khartoum,
by G. W. Steevens.

5: The British Empire,
vol. 4,
Orbis 1979.



Racism and Slavery

While the empire was built by violence, superior arms and ‘divide-and-rule’, the justification for it was usually made in racist terms. Conquest and colonisation had always brought with it changes in attitude towards the conquered and the slave trade, which required ignoring and justifying the suffering of the slaves, deepened that process. In his book, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, the historian, Christopher Hill, wrote:

Early references in English literature to people with non-white skins - Pocahontas, Othello, Massinger’s The City Madam, many early seventeenth-century poems about flirtation between black and white, Mrs Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko - all suggest that an attitude of racial discrimination was the result, not the cause, of the profitable slave trade: in the seventeenth century far greater generalized contempt seems to have been shown for the Irish than for Negroes.[6]

Hill continued: ‘The consequences of the slave trade in brutalizing English opinion, and in fostering the Puritan tendency to hypocrisy, should not be underestimated.’ Control of the West Indies had opened the way for the slave trade as conquest and exploitation went hand in glove. From 1500, over the next three-and-a-half centuries, some twenty million African slaves were shackled in irons and forced aboard ships so they could be transported to the ‘New World’. About a quarter of the slaves did not even survive the journey, dying from trauma and illness due to the conditions in which they were kept - and from the brutal treatment of their captors.

The City of London boomed with wealth and ports like Bristol and Liverpool expanded dramatically during the slave trade, which also became a major source of funding for the industrial revolution. Slavery, the ultimate exploitation of human beings, made fortunes for those who ran and controlled it:

‘All this great increase in our treasure proceeds chiefly from the labour of negroes in the plantation’, said Joshua Gee in 1729, with a frankness that few historians have emulated. The slave trade was essential to the triangular imperial trade which grew up under the Navigation Acts. It seemed to economists an ideal trade, since slaves were bought with British exports, and transported in British ships...

When I think of the colossal banquets of the Barbados planters [wrote Richard Pares], of the money which the West Indians at home poured out upon the Yorkshire electorate ... of the younger William Beckford’s private orchestra and escapades in Lisbon, of Fonthill Abbey or even of the Codrington Library, and remember that the money was got by working African slaves twelve hours a day on such a [starvation] diet, I can only feel anger and shame.[7]

Captured Africans were treated like animals and not humans, with slave traders even using branding irons to brand their initials on slaves. This was justified by calling the Africans ‘barbaric heathens’ and saying they were not Christians. Ottobah Cugoano was a 13-year-old when he was kidnapped in Ghana and shipped to the West Indies as a slave. After he was eventually brought to Britain and freed, he questioned the morality of those who had enslaved him: ‘Is it not strange to think, that they who ought to be considered as the most learned and civilised people in the world, that they should carry on a traffic of the most barbarous cruelty and injustice, and that many ... are become so dissolute as to think slavery, robbery and murder no crime?’ [8]

Slavery continued as a lucrative trade for British ships until the early 19th century, when it was banned in 1833 throughout the Empire. While many sincere people campaigned against slavery, it also came to an end because industrialisation demanded an ever expanding exploitable labour market, which was best provided by workers who were free - but unorganised, property-less and poverty-stricken. The clash between the requirements of old and new capitalism was also a major cause of the American Civil War, where the needs of the northern industrialists clashed with those of the plantation-owning aristocracy in the south. Afterwards, although ‘freed’, former slaves received little help towards social integration, while the North’s victory dramatically accelerated industrialisation and increased the wealth and power of the bankers.

6: Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967.

7: Ibid - Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill.

8: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain,
by Peter Fryer,
Pluto Press 1984.



‘Scientific’ Racism

During the Victorian expansion of empire suspicious and hateful attitudes towards foreigners became widespread in Britain, sustained by jingoism and new pseudo- scientific theories of race. A hierarchy of races was proclaimed, with white Teutonic Anglo-Saxons at the top and black ‘Hottentots’ at the bottom. In between were the Irish, the Jews and the British working classes - about whom it was claimed that they had darker skin and hair than the upper classes. Even an ‘index of nigrescence’ was produced, so the racial components of any population could be deduced.

The British establishment hailed the quest for empire as a civilising mission and took it upon themselves to become the arbiters of world morality - representing conquest as a duty and exploitation as a noble task. ‘Scientific’ racism fuelled these prejudiced views, which were propagated in the music halls and in the writings and poetry of the pro-imperialists. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling encapsulated this sanctimonious ideology in a poem:

Take up the White Man’s burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden -
The savage wars of peace -
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to naught.

As the superiority of British weaponry and technology over native peoples became greater, so racist feelings increased. Where there had been interest and sometimes admiration for aspects of other peoples’ culture and religion, there was now, all too often, only contempt. Britain is still permeated by these attitudes today.



The Officer Class

Throughout the empire there were frequent revolts against English rule. Even in Britain, despite the waves of pro-imperial propaganda, many people had misgivings about the morality of taking and holding other peoples’ land by armed force. This often gave rise to contradictory feelings about Britain’s soldiers, which were expressed by Francis Adams in his poem England in Egypt:

From the dusty jaded sunlight of the careless Cairo streets,
Through the open bedroom window where the pale blue held the palms,
There came a sound of music, thrilling cries and rattling beats,
That startled me from slumber with a shock of sweet alarms.
For beneath this rainless heaven with this music in my ears
I was born, and all my boyhood with its joy was glorified,
And for me the ranging Red-coats hold a passion of bright tears,
And the glancing of the bayonets lights a hell of savage pride.

So I leapt and ran, and looked,
And I stood, and listened there,
Till I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air!
And “England, England, England,”
I heard the wild fifes cry,
“We are here to rob for England,
And to throttle liberty!”
And “England, England, England,”
I heard the fierce drums roar,
“We are tools for pious swindlers
And brute bullies evermore!”

And the silent Arabs crowded, half-defiant, half-dismayed,
And the jaunty fifers fifing flung their challenge to the breeze,
And the drummers kneed their drums up as the reckless drumsticks played,
And the Tommies all came trooping, tripping, slouching at their ease.
Ah Christ, the love I bore them for their brave hearts and strong hands, -
Ah Christ, the hate that smote me for their stupid, dull conceits -
I know not which was greater, as I watched their conquering bands
In the dusty jaded sunlight of the sullen Cairo streets.

And my dreams of love and hate
Surged, and broke, and gathered there,
As I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air! -
And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
I heard the wild fifes cry,
“Will you never know the England
For which men, not fools, should die?”
And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
I hear the fierce drums roar,
“Will you always be a cut-throat
And a slave for evermore?”

In order to perpetuate their rule and counteract critical voices the establishment had developed the public [actually private] school system. By the 19th century nearly all officers came to their regiments via public schools, which, often followed by spells at Oxford or Cambridge, had become the training ground for all the ruling class:

Around 1800 - over 70 per cent of all English peers received their education at just four public schools, Eton, Westminster, Winchester and Harrow. And in the first half of the nineteenth century, sons of the peerage and the landed gentry together made up 50 per cent of the pupils of all the major public schools ... Removed from the private, introspective worlds of home and rural estates, they were brought into protracted contact with their social peers, were exposed to a uniform set of ideas and learnt how to speak the English language in a distinctive and characteristic way.[9]

The cadet forces in public schools were steeped in patriotic traditions and these became the seedbeds for the officer class. This concentration of young aristocracy and gentry, in institutions which moulded their perceptions and formed their ideology, helped create a cohesive and integrated ruling elite:

Patriotic duty was stressed in practical ways, as when public-school masters encouraged boys to participate in national subscriptions and to celebrate British military and naval victories. And patriotism of a kind was embedded in the classical curriculum. The emphasis on Greek and Roman authors and ancient history meant a constant diet of stories of war, empire, bravery and sacrifice for the state.

... Classical literature was doubly congenial because the kind of patriotic achievement it celebrated was a highly specific one. The heroes of Homer, Cicero and Plutarch were emphatically men of rank and title. As such, they reminded Britain’s élite of its duty to serve and fight, but in addition, affirmed its superior qualifications to do so.[10]

In 1864, a Royal Commission stated that public schools were: ‘The chief nurseries of our statesmen; in them, and in schools modelled after them, men ... destined for every profession and career, have been brought up on a footing of social equality, and have contracted the most enduring friendships, and some of the ruling habits of their lives; and they have perhaps the largest share in moulding ... the character of an English gentleman.’

9: The British Empire,
vol. 4,
Orbis 1979.

10: Ibid -The British Empire,
vol. 4.



‘Old Boys’

In the past primogeniture had tended to restricted opportunities in ruling families to all but the male first born, but empire and industrialisation now opened the way for all ‘gentlemen’ to gain fame and fortune. James Mill described the colonies as being ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes’ and, armed with a comprehensive view of their superiority and right to dominance, ‘old boys’ spread out into positions of power and influence both at home and abroad. In 1878, G. A. Denison, the son of a Nottinghamshire landowner, wrote Notes of My Life, in which he told of his brothers and sisters:

Six of us were at Eton, one at Harrow ... My eldest brother John, Viscount Ossington ... after 30 years of Parliamentary life, became Speaker of the House of Commons ... William went from Eton to Woolwich, then into the Engineers ... After employment at home and abroad, he became in 1846 Governor of Van Dieman’s Land; Governor-General of Australia, KCB, 1855; Governor of Madras, 1861. Stephen, ... was for many years Deputy Judge Advocate. Alfred, after some 20 years of laborious, honourable, and successful life in Australia, returned finally to England, and became Private Secretary to the Speaker. Charles was in the 52nd Regiment, and became Colonel in it. He had sundry Staff employments in India; and afterwards ... was Chief Commissioner of Civil Service at Madras.

My sister Charlotte, ... married Charles Manners Sutton, then Judge Advocate General; afterwards, for seventeen years Speaker of the House of Commons.

The British Army’s primary role as an imperial guard was affirmed in the Cardwell reforms in the 1870s, which strengthened the links between the officer corps and the government as well as recommending innovative procedures and logistics. The linked-battalion system would see one of a regiment’s battalions away on Imperial duty while the second unit remained in Britain. This system allowed a flexibility for individual units to develop their own techniques and procedures for waging colonial warfare. It also ensured there was, throughout the army, a shared experience of such methods. The second battalion, stationed at home, was handily available to use a refined version of this type of warfare against any internal threat. Other Western countries had also carved out colonial empires. However, in the rest of (landlocked) Europe the primary role for most national armies was to provide defence from any external threat.

Conventional warfare was the normal function, with colonial duty, entailing more irregular forms of warfare, tagged on. In island Britain the main defensive role fell to the navy, leaving the army relatively free to concentrate on the task of conquest and subjugation overseas. While the foot soldiers came from the poor and colonised, the officer corps, produced by the public school system, ensured the perpetuation of the status quo. The history of the army can be traced back to Cromwell’s time, but its enduring character was forged, and the hierarchy strengthened, during the Victorian colonial wars. It was then that the British Army acquired its contemporary reputation among the armies of the major powers of the world as a ‘counter-insurgency’ force.

Pictures for Little Englanders was a Victorian book for young children. Under a sketch of Kitchener the soldier and Kipling the writer, the following lines were written:

Men of different trades and sizes
Here you see before your eyses;
Lanky sword and stumpy pen,
Doing useful things for men;
When the Empire wants a stitch in her
Send for Kipling and for Kitchener.

In the last years of Victoria’s reign England did send for Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the ‘great warrior hero’ of Khartoum and the battle of Omdurman, who was dispatched to South Africa to deal with the Boers who were waging guerrilla warfare against the British forces. He ordered that Boer homesteads be burnt and the women and children herded into ‘concentration camps’. Over 60,000 ended up in conditions that an Australian reporter called the ‘criminal neglect of the simple laws of sanitation.’ By the end of the war 28,000 Boer detainees had died - 22,000 of them were children.



The East India Company

In 1942 George Orwell wrote, in a review of A Choice of Kipling’s Verse by T. S. Eliot, that Kipling ‘was the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase .... and also the unofficial historian of the British Army ...’ Orwell continued:

It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realise, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelising. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed ‘natives’, and then you establish ‘the law’, which includes roads, railways and a court house.

... His outlook, allowing for the fact that after all he was an artist, was that of the salaried bureaucrat who despises the ‘box-wallah’ [business man] and often lives a lifetime without realising that the ‘box-wallah’ calls the tune.[11]

India, Kipling’s birth place and where he spent his early life, was exploited ruthlessly by the East India Company and English ‘box-wallahs’ like Sir Josiah Child and Robert Clive.

Given its first charter and monopoly privileges under Queen Elizabeth I, the East India Company was first set up in 1600 when 125 London merchants launched the company ‘for the honour of this our realm.’ The company’s stock rose ninefold in the period of Cromwell, who protected it from competition, allowing the company to set itself up for future expansion: ‘The Charter of 1661 recognised the company’s right to tax, and gave it power to wage war against non-Christian peoples. By 1684 Sir Josiah Child was advocating “absolute sovereign power in India for the Company”. In the mid-eighteenth century Clive, began to execute this policy, to his own and the company’s great financial advantage.’ [12]

Bengal was brought under East India Company rule after Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757 and the land tax was tripled. Million of ‘the soft Bengalese’ died during the subsequent famine, while the company continued to extract wealth from the country. Many more Indians were to die from war, pestilence and famine in the years to come, including tens of millions in the last three decades of Victoria’s rule alone. Others were forced to move to different areas of empire, as semi-slave labour.

As it expanded, the East India Company manipulated and moulded the indigenous order and rulers to accept company domination and swiftly moved to extinguish any opposition. Divide-and-rule tactics gradually allowed a tiny group of colonial administrators and soldiers to dominate the vast continent and impose their strict central control over the areas occupied. To enforce its exploitation, the company also formed its own navy and army and built a network of forts, taxing the Indian population to pay for their upkeep. Clive served as a military officer and then governor of East India and he, with other ‘box-wallahs’ like Warren Hastings, used the money they extorted to gain fame and influence back home:

The great wealth won by the plunder of India enabled the plunderers to buy their way into English politics. Clive himself acquired first a Parliamentary seat, then a peerage. It was alleged that between 1757 and 1766 the company and its employees received £6 million from India as gifts. Warren Hastings prided himself on never defrauding the company: before accepting money he asked himself only ‘this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own’. In thirteen years he remitted to England over £218,000 which he had saved from black men. There had been nothing like it in history since the Spanish conquistadors looted the Aztec and Inca civilisations of America in the early sixteenth century.[13]

Back in London in 1773, with the East India Company on the verge of bankruptcy, Clive and others were criticised by a parliamentary inquiry for enriching themselves while ‘oppression in every shape has ground the faces of the poor defenceless natives.’ Clive, whose military victories had paved the way for company expansionism and made him a great British hero, replied that he was ‘astonished at his own moderation’ for taking so little. Exonerating him, the House of Commons ruled that while Clive had pocketed £234,000 he had performed ‘great ... services to the state.’ However, Clive found it difficult to refute his detractors and suffering from depression committed suicide the following year.

11: Horizon, Feb.

12: Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967.

13: Ibid - Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill.



State Drug Trafficking

The East India Company was saved from bankruptcy and forcibly extended its operations into China to trade opium for tea. The company became the biggest drug trafficker in the history of the world by forcing Indian peasants to grow the poppies and harvest the opium crop. In 1830 nearly 450 tons of opium reached China and the next year a House of Commons report stated that: ‘The monopoly of Opium in Bengal supplies the Govt. with a revenue amounting to £981,293 per annum; and the duty amounts to 302% on the cost of the article. ... It does not appear advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue.’

When the Chinese tried to stop the drug trade, Britain resorted to warships and soldiers to crush any resistance in the Opium Wars of 1839-42. The defeated Chinese were forced to hand £2,000,000 and Hong Kong over to Britain and four ‘treaty ports’ opened up China to foreign (mainly British) trade.

The East India Company had lost most of its autonomy under the India act of 1833 and in 1857 its demise was ensured when many native soldiers rebelled. The Indian ‘mutiny’, which rocked British rule in India, was ruthlessly suppressed by British and loyal native troops. Many rebels were executed and some were hanged out of hand. But others were dispatched by a new method:

Hanging ... was usually thought too good for mutineers. When the facilities were available, it was usual to blow them from guns. It was claimed that this method contained “two valuable elements of capital punishment; it was painless to the criminal and terrible to the beholder”. The ritual was certainly hideous. With great ceremony the victim was escorted to the parade ground while the band played some lively air. The victim’s back was ranged against the muzzle of one of the big guns and he was strapped into position. Then the band would fall silent and the only sound would be the faint crackle of the portfire, as it was lowered to the touch-hole. With a flash and a roar, an obscene shower of blood and entrails would cover both the gunners and observers.[14]

State drug trafficking expanded after the East India Company was abolished in 1858 and the crown took over direct control of India. While 2,000 tons of opium was exported to China in 1843, this had soared to 5,000 tons by 1866. In 1875 alone £6,500,000 was made from the trade in opium. On the 1st of January 1887 Queen Victoria was formally proclaimed Queen-Empress of India, meanwhile Indian peasants continued to die of starvation and in China tens of millions were dying from the effects of opium addiction.

14: The British Empire,
vol. 2,
Orbis 1979.



Cobbett & Ireland

Towards the end of the 18th century William Cobbett had spent nine years in the British Army, rising through the ranks to become a regimental sergeant-major. Officers could buy their commissions and often cheated their men out of pay, equipment and rations. As Cobbett remembered, the soldiers received only six-pence a day, hardly enough to keep them alive:

We had several recruits from Norfolk (our regiment was the West Norfolk); and many of them deserted from sheer hunger. They were lads from the plough-tail. All of them tall, for no short men were then taken. I remember two went into a decline and died during the year, though when they joined us, they were fine hearty young men. I have seen them lay in their berths, many and many a time, actually crying on account of hunger. The whole week’s food was not a bit too much for one day.[15]

Cobbett left the army in 1791, fed up with the attitude of some officers who disliked his habit of reading books. He then set about exposing some of the corrupt practices he had witnessed among officers, but had to flee to France for a time to escape retribution. Perhaps not surprisingly, with his sergeant-major background, Cobbett’s views then were fairly conservative. After moving from France to America, where he lived for a period, he wrote articles denouncing the French Revolution and supporting the British government’s military actions against the United Irishmen.

Back in England Cobbett’s attitudes began to change and he started to publish a campaigning paper called The Political Register. In 1809 at Ely, five soldiers were sentenced to 500 lashes each for ‘mutiny’ after protesting in a ‘threatening manner’ over having to pay for a knapsack, on top of arrears of pay. Cobbett, in his paper, attacked the soldiers’ sentences in a forthright and sarcastic way: ‘Five hundred lashes each! Aye, that is right! Flog them! flog them! flog them! They deserve a flogging at every meal-time! Lash them daily! Lash them daily! What! mutiny for the price of a knapsack? Lash them! etc.’ Cobbett was arrested, charged with ‘sedition’, and sentenced to a £1,000 fine and two years in Newgate jail. He continued to publish The Political Register from prison.

Cobbett had been brought up on the land and in 1821 he began his famous ‘Rural Rides’ around England. His findings about the conditions of the land, society and the ordinary people were printed in his paper over the next nine years. Cobbett then tried to have his voice heard in the House of Commons and after a few failures was elected a member of parliament for Oldham in 1832 at the age of 69. In Parliament the opposition to Cobbett’s views was overwhelming. At Westminster, Cobbett forged an alliance with the Irish MPs who were led by O’Connell and in July 1834 Cobbett wrote about Ireland in The Political Register:

I have resolved to see this country with my own eyes, to judge for myself, and to give a true account of it, as far as I am able, to the people of England. I am resolved to go, as if to a country about which I have never said a word. I have now, for two sessions of Parliament, listened to such contradictory statements, both coming from gentlemen of unimpeachable veracity, that it is impossible I should not desire to have the evidence of the facts before me. ... In short, I have a desire to know the whole truth; and if I cannot get it by seeing the country, very few men can.[16]

Later that year Cobbett sent a series of letters from Ireland to the paper. In the 4th letter he described some of his findings: ‘I have now been over 180 miles in Ireland, in the several counties of Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford. I have, in former years, been in every county in England ... I have been through the finest parts of Scotland. I have lived in the finest parts of the United States of America. And here I am to declare to all the world, that I never passed over any 50 miles ... of land so good on an average during the whole way, as the average of these 180 miles. ... And yet here are these starving people!’ Cobbett went on to describe why this was happening:

In coming from Kilkenny to Waterford, I ... came through a little town called Mullinavat, where there was a fair for cattle and fat hogs and apples. There might be 4,000 people; there were about 7 acres of ground covered with cattle (mostly fat), and all over the street of the town there were about THREE THOUSAND BEAUTIFUL FAT HOGS, lying all over the road and the streets. ... Ah! but there arose out of this fine sight reflections that made my blood boil; that the far greater part of those who had bred and fatted these hogs were never to taste one morsel of them, no not even the offal, and had lived worse than the hogs, not daring to taste any part of the meal used in the fatting of the hogs! The hogs are to be killed, dried or tubbed, and sent out of the country to be sold for money to be paid to the landowners, who spend it in London, Bath, Paris, Rome, or some other place of pleasure, while these poor creatures are raising all this food from the land, and are starving themselves.[17]

Cobbett told his readers about the hovels where most of the poor lived and the rags many used as clothing. Just a decade before the famine that would devastate Ireland’s population he also explained to his readers how the poor people were forced to rely on ‘lumpers’, the worst quality of potato, for food. In his 5th letter he also hinted at the coercive system that was used to allow such a situation to exist:

From Clonmell we came to Fermoy ... Fine land; a fine country; flocks of turkeys all along the way; cattle, sheep, hogs, as before; and the people, the working people, equally miserable as before. ... From one side of this valley there rises up a long and most beautiful chain (miles in length) of gently sloping hills, and on those hills and on their sides, corn-fields and grass-fields are interspersed with woods and groves. But, standing on the bridge, and viewing this scene, my eyes were blasted by the sight of three BARRACKS for foot, horse, and artillery; buildings surpassing in extent all the palaces that I ever saw; elegant and costly as palaces; buildings containing, they say, three thousand windows and capable of lodging forty thousand men![18]

15: The Rambling Soldier,
by Roy Palmer,
Penguin Books Ltd 1977.

16: Not by Bullets and Bayonets –
Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835
by Molly Townsend,
Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983.

17: Ibid - Not by Bullets and Bayonets –
Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835.

18: Ibid - Not by Bullets and Bayonets –
Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835.



Barracks and Famine

There were barracks for British soldiers all over Ireland. Fermoy, built overlooking the Blackwater River in County Cork, was a huge barracks around which the town was built to service it. The largest garrison, the Curragh, was first established in 1646. Built on a large plain near Kildare, the barracks occupied one side of the Dublin road with the race-track on the other. Ireland became crisscrossed with large army barracks situated at strategic locations, and the smaller, but much more numerous, fortified buildings of the Irish Constabulary (IC).

During the period of the famine there were 1,600 IC barracks throughout the country, situated in villages, towns and cities. Backed by soldiers when necessary, armed IC men assisted in enforcing evictions, protected landlords and their agents, and guarded the foodstuffs that were still being shipped abroad for profit. An extensive prison network was also constructed, as the system of transporting prisoners was ending. By the time of the famine 26 new prisons had been built to augment the 18 already in existence. In these buildings political prisoners, especially, faced a harsh regime of control, punishments and forced-labour.

In 1856, Frederick Engels visited Dublin and gave his view of the country: ‘ Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony ... the so-called liberty of the English citizen is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country and the sodden look of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here amongst the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.’ Thirty years later, in 1887, Francis Adams also visited Dublin and recorded this image of the city in his poem, Dublin At Dawn:

In the chill grey summer dawn-light
We pass through the empty streets;
The rattling wheels are all silent;
No friend his fellow greets. Here and there, at corners,
A man in a great-coat stands;
A bayonet hangs by his side, and
A rifle is in his hands.

This is a conquered city;
It speaks of war not peace;
And that’s one of the English soldiers
The English call “police”.

Located just a narrow strip of water away, it was inevitable that Ireland would become an early victim to English expansionism. While land and exploitation were the main motive behind the drive to subdue the Irish, there was a second reason. In the past, O’Neill and Tone had forged links with England’s enemies, Spain and France, who had both landed troops in Ireland. This had fuelled England’s determination to control Ireland and ensure it could never again pose a military threat. Cobbett also thought that Britain’s security should be protected, but he knew that the use of repressive laws and military might in Ireland was wrong and counterproductive. He believed that ‘a real union of the hearts’ could be achieved between the people of Britain and Ireland if reason was used instead of force:

It is not by bullets and bayonets that I should recommend the attempt to be made, but by conciliation, by employing means suited to enlighten the Irish people respecting their rights and duties, and by conceding to them those privileges which, in common with all mankind, they have a natural and legitimate right to enjoy.[19]

Cobbett’s appeals fell on deaf ears, even a tragedy like the famine brought no change in policy. In 1846, a new Coercion Act designed to control possible insurrection by the starving Irish people was enacted. It was the eighteenth Coercion Act to be brought in since the 1801 Act of Union. As Lord Brougham remarked, the new bill, ‘possessed a superior degree of severity’. As over a million Irish people died from starvation and subsequent diseases, ships still left Irish ports laden with meat, flour, wheat, oats and barley.

19: Not by Bullets and Bayonets –
Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835
by Molly Townsend,
Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983.



The Amritsar Massacre

In 1897 Queen Victoria was applauded by large crowds as she travelled from her palace to St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate her jubilee. Accompanying her in the vast procession were soldiers from all parts of the Empire. Reporting this event, the Daily Mail commented on the troops:

White men, yellow men, brown men, black men, every colour, every continent, every race, every speech - and all in arms for the British Empire and the British Queen. Up they came, more and more, new types, new realms, at every couple of yards, an anthropological museum - a living gazetteer of the British Empire. With them came their English officers, whom they obey and follow like children. And you began to understand, as never before, what the Empire amounts to ... that all these people are working, not simply under us, but with us - we send out a boy here and a boy there, and the boy takes hold of the savages of the part he comes to, and teaches them to march and shoot as he tells them, to obey him and believe in him and die for him and the Queen.[20]

However, not everyone shared the Mail’s attitude towards the Empire. In Ireland and India opposition was building up and challenging British rule - which responded with repressive legislation and military force.

At the end of the 1st World War many Indians had expected positive moves towards ‘self-governing institutions’ as a reward for the men and money they had supplied for Britain’s war in far off Europe. Instead, new repressive measures were introduced. In 1919, twenty-two years after Victoria’s jubilee and 5 months after the end of the ‘Great War’, outraged people across India joined mass protests against the coercive Rowlatt bill, which brought in internment without trial and introduced no-jury courts for political trials.

In the city of Amritsar some of Britain’s troops of empire entered the Jallianwala Bagh, a garden enclosed by high walls, and started firing into the mass of Indian people who were taking part in a peaceful protest meeting. The order to fire was given by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and was carried out by 50 riflemen of his Sikh and Gurkha soldiers. They continued shooting for over ten minutes, firing 1,650 rounds directly into the crowd. Many of the heavy bullets passed through the bodies of their first victims to claim others beyond. When the firing had ceased thousands of men, women and children lay dead or wounded.

A century before, during the British conquest of India, the Gurkhas of Nepal had been defeated after a period of bloody conflict with the East India Company. Impressed by the Gurkhas’ fighting qualities, the company, following the British tradition of employing the ‘martial races’ it had defeated, secured the rights to raise battalions of Gurkhas for their forces in India. During the Indian ‘mutiny’, of all the native troops it was the Gurkhas who proved to be the most loyal and dependable. Indeed, the Gurkhas loyalty to British interests was so highly rated that after Indian independence, while most native troops joined the Indian army, Britain ensured that some Gurkha battalions would stay within the British Army.

Nepal , an independent state between north-east India and Tibet, continues to supply soldiers for Britain. Famed for their stealth and silent killing techniques, these Gurkha troops have subsequently been used to protect British interests in other parts of empire. In 1974 when Gurkhas were sent to reinforce the British sovereign base areas in Cyprus, local papers objected to the ‘Mercenaries in Her Majesty’s uniform.’ At that time there were 6,500 Gurkhas serving in the British Army.

With nearly half the population living below the poverty line, the money earned by Gurkhas serving as British soldiers was Nepal’s largest source of foreign currency. However, sympathy for the economic reasons that were a factor in why so many men from Nepal joined the British Army, should not blind us to the role the Gurkhas were happy to play for their English masters. After taking part in the Amritsar killings some Gurkha soldiers gloatingly told a British official, ‘Sahib, while it lasted it was splendid: we fired every round we had.’

20: Daily Mail, 23rd June 1897.
Quoted in The Cause of Ireland - From the United Irishmen to Partition,
by Liz Curtis,
Beyond the Pale Publications 1994.



Indian Political Prisoners

Brigadier-General Dyer, who ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd at Amritsar, said that: ‘For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same.’ However, while Dyer clearly saw his military actions as part of a war, Indian independence activists who were captured knew they would not be treated as PoWs. At the end of the Indian ‘mutiny’ the British authorities had established a penal colony on the remote Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. After 4 years, 3,500 prisoners out of 8,000 transported to the islands had been killed or had died from fever because of the unsanitary conditions.

For the next 80 years the brutal prison regime attempted to break the will of a constant stream of Indian political prisoners by subjecting them to forced labour, torture, executions and medical experiments. The prison was finally closed after the deaths of several prisoners during a hunger strike in 1937. Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, one of the leaders of the movement for Indian independence, sent the prisoners a telegram saying: ‘... TRYING BEST TO SECURE RELIEF FOR YOU’ and a wave of support swept across India forcing the authorities to repatriate the prisoners and close the prison. [21] After the Amritsar Massacre the Indian National Congress purchased the Jallianwala Bagh to ensure the victims would be remembered. On the site is recorded these words:


A decade after the massacre Gandhi visited England and was asked for his view on ‘Western civilization’. He replied: ‘I think it would be a good idea’.

21: Guardian Weekend magazine,
article by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy,
23rd June 2001.

22: The Amritsar Massacre - Twilight of the Raj,
by Alfred Draper,
Buchan and Enright 1985.



The Myth of Free Trade

Towards the end of the Industrial Revolution Frederick Engels’ book, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, had exposed the terrible slum living environment in British cities and the brutal working conditions in factory, mine and mill. The Chartists were campaigning for change and against the ‘old Corruption’ in parliament. Because only the comparatively wealthy were enfranchised, the Chartists demanded an extension to voting rights - and wanted to remove the fixers, who rigged the electoral system, and the Victorian equivalent of today’s ‘spin doctors’.

In1842, during the Opium Wars, the Chartists presented a six mile long petition of 3,317,702 signatures to parliament calling for the adoption of a Charter of Rights which demanded: Universal male suffrage; Equal electoral districts; Annual parliaments; Payment of MPs; Secret ballots and No property qualifications for MPs. The ‘Peoples Charter’ was dismissed in Westminster by 287 votes to 49. Riots and strikes broke out, but were suppressed by the police and soldiers.

Engels had written that: ‘England was to become the “workshop of the world”; all other countries were to become for England what Ireland already was - markets for manufactured goods, supplying her in return with raw materials and food’. In The Economic History of India, the Indian historian Rumesh Dutt wrote that: ‘The East India Company and the British Parliament ... discouraged Indian manufactures ... in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England. Their fixed policy ... was to make India subservient to the industries of Great Britain, and to make the Indian people grow raw produce only, in order to supply material for the loom and manufactories of Great Britain.’

The traditional Indian production of silk and cotton goods was suppressed by laws and tariffs and the raw materials sent to England for manufacture in ‘the dark satanic mills’. The effect was catastrophic for Indian artisans as a Select Committee of the House of Commons heard in 1840: ‘ Dacca, which was the Manchester of India, has fallen off from a very flourishing town to a very poor and small one; the distress there has been very great indeed.’

While ‘free trade’ had been claimed as the justification for the activities of organisations like the East India Company, in reality trade was only free one way and remained a stitch-up for the native peoples. British business interests bitterly resisted any attempt to impose public control over their activities, but demanded that governments impose all manner of protective measures on their behalf. Moral issues did not play any part in decision making, because it was the profit motive which predominated and ensured that a monopoly of manufactured goods was maintained - with the cards kept stacked against ‘foreign interests’.



The Butcher’s Apron

Old empires, like Rome, had seized booty and extracted tribute from those they conquered. Later, Spain became the richest European country by plundering gold and silver from South America. The British Empire was bigger than all previous subjugations because of the system that lay behind it. Early empire and the slave trade had brought the accumulation of capital that was used to fund the industrial revolution, which in turn, by exploiting cheap labour at home, produced surplus goods to be sold for great profits in the parts of empire where indigenous production had been stifled.

East India House, in the City of London, was one of the nerve centres from which this system operated. Situated a short distance from the Bank of England, this grand building, with its elaborate facade, stood as a striking monument to ‘imperial achievements’. It was demolished after the company’s demise and it is fitting that the Lloyds building now stands in its place, because, in its own time, the East India Company was an integral part of a global economy:

  • Opium from India bought tea from China, which was sent to Britain with Indian raw materials like cotton.
  • Imported raw materials were processed into textiles and other manufactured goods in British factories, which were then exchanged for slaves in west Africa.
  • African slaves were bartered for sugar and tobacco and/or sold for gold and silver in the West Indies and America.
  • The gold and silver helped fund the industrial revolution and the subsequent monopoly of manufactured goods, combined with cheap labour at home, ensured British dominance of world trade.
  • The sugar, produced by slave labour, was combined with the tea, obtained from opium trading, to produce what became England’s national drink.

This system was protected by an army and navy, controlled by the officer-class, with its rank and file drawn mainly from the Celtic fringe and the urban and rural underclass. With mercenary units of soldiers and colonial police, recruited from the previously conquered, often playing a crucial role.

Pro-imperialist historians often brag that, at its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and contained a population of over 400 million. They neglect to tell us, however, that it was drug trafficking and the slave trade that helped put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain. Or that the famines in Ireland and India, that caused tens of millions of deaths, were the result of an unyielding market ideology - backed by official callousness.

While ‘civilisation’ and ‘Christianity’ were the oft-declared motives for empire, many of the subject peoples, over whose countries the Union Jack flew, had their own view of British rule. They called Britain’s flag ‘the butcher’s apron’ and when British politicians boasted that the Empire ‘was the place where the sun never sets’ they added ‘and the blood never dries’.

In our own age of the US-led new imperialism we should remember that, while profits multiplied in the City of London during the heyday of the British Empire, at home and abroad the poor faced oppression, slavery, misery and death.



......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................


Now read chapter four of Oliver’s Army
John Bull's Other Island

The Road to Partition