Why did Britain win the race for empire between 1870 and 1914?
The territorial expansion of the various European empires between the years 1870 and 1914 was historically unprecedented. In those years, territory equivalent to one quarter of the earths landmass came under the control of the various European colonial powers. For instance, the majority of Africa was only colonised in the decade following the 1885 Berlin Congress. The main beneficiary of this growth was Great Britain, which had clearly emerged as the largest colonial power by the end of the nineteenth century. There were several reasons for this, but the primary ones were a stable political climate and greater economic progress at an earlier stage than her European rivals. To understand the roots of this expansion and success vis-à-vis her rivals, one needs to first examine the 30 year period prior to 1870 when the foundations for imperial growth were laid down. Accordingly, that period shall be the key focus of this essay, with specific concentration on the three most powerful imperial states, Britain, France and Germany.
Firstly, the political sphere. The UK had enjoyed a relatively unbroken period of internal stability following the Williamite Succession (otherwise known as the Glorious Revolution) of 1688. This ‘revolution’ cemented the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy, and remains the bedrock of the unwritten English constitution. In spite of regionalised outbreaks of disorder or subversion like the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1746, the institutional framework put in place by this revolution was to eventually prove irreversible, and the end of any realistic Jacobite threat by 1746 effectively removed future external threats to political stability. This was compounded by the fact that future social movements which might possibly challenge or seek to overthrow the system were generally concerned more with integrating themselves into this framework than with overturning it. An example of this is the Chartist movement, which was the embodiment of 19th century working-class radicalism in Britain. The high water mark of this movement were the ‘Peoples Petitions’, based on the Peoples Charter, which were presented to parliament in 1842 and 1848, containing over five and a half million signatures between them. The key points in the Charter, however, did not call for an overthrow of the system or for its replacement, but merely for a large scale extension and reform of the voting system and procedures. This political stability had a knock on effect in terms of economic stability in that it allowed the industrial revolution to develop without any of the events which affected industrial developments at the same time in other European countries. This political unity and stability is credited by some writers like Fernand Braudel and Sayer with providing the firm basis on which capitalism was able to develop earlier than in other competitor countries.
In her two most important rivals, the German Empire and France, the situation was very different. Although there were no major European wars in the half century following the defeat of Napoleon, both polities were rife with political instability. To take the example of Germany. Germany remained politically divided into a federation of 39 different states each governed separately following the conclusion of the German Confederal Treaty in June 1815. The two greatest powers in the Confederation, Austria and Prussia, both vied for leadership of it and as a result there were ongoing political tensions between them which damaged unity and hindered the emergence of a united polity. To take one example, when Prussia tried to introduce a customs union which would have made trade easier and removed internal barriers (something Britain had done long before), the Austrians tried to undermine this by horse-trading at the different courts of the Confederation, and then by sponsoring their own customs’ union which would have economically divided the Prussian territory, split as it was into eastern and western components. Although they eventually succeeded in implementing their vision of the Customs Union (which came into force in 1834), this is illustrative of the political instability which hindered moves towards political union in Germany and which placed it at a relative disadvantage to Britain.
The next key factor in explaining why the German Reich which emerged in the wake of the 1870-71 War didn’t win the race for empire was the fact that during the period immediately preceding the period 1871-1914 (that is to say from 1848 onwards), the German states were concerned with internal moves towards unification. During this period, a series of wars were fought to incorporate territory into the Prussian a Prussian dominated German state, including the Danish-Prussian War of 1863-64 over the fate of Schleswig-Holstein, and most importantly the war with Austria in 1866 which resulted in the dissolution of the German Confederation and its replacement with the Prussian dominated North German Confederation, the progenitor of the Reich and thus of modern Germany. These wars, however, consumed the attention of the Prussian ruling class, the nucleus of the future Reich, and diverted its attention from foreign expansion or preparations for same at a time when Britain and France were sponsoring expeditions such as that of the British against Persia in 1857 or Faidherbe’s expansion in the Senegal from 1854 onwards. This is of course without taking into account the great Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 which absorbed the energy of the North German Confederations armed forces.
The other great military-political consideration which hindered the German Reich in the race for empire was its lack of a strong fleet. The British fleet remained the greatest in the world, while the German Reich didn’t experience any systematic expansion of its navy until the 1890s under the guidance of Wilhelm the Second, who rightly considered it necessary for the creation of the colonial empire which was his dream. By that stage, the lions share of the colonial expansion had already taken place, and there were little more than isolated scraps left over for Germany.
France suffered from relative political instability as well which hindered its external expansion. Subject to revolutions in both 1830 and 1848, the former which deposed a king and the latter of which resulted in the final overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy, France was rife with political instability at the time.# Following the bloody uprisings by the Paris mobs in June 1848, a republic was established in November of that year with a conservative constitution which nevertheless entrenched some of the gains won by the earlier, more moderate phase of the revolution. However, this Republic proved short-lived, and was characterised by contemporaries as being in ‘a chronic state of revolution’, and Louis Napoleon, the President elected in the 1849 elections, bided his time to eventually crush the Republic and then found the Second Empire, which came into being in 1852. The resulting widespread censorship and political repression attracted the attention of the imperial élite for most of its existence. Extensive laws muzzling the press, banning free assembly, and restricting political freedoms were introduced- alongside of this, measures were taken to improve the material conditions of the working class populace, such as the introduction of price controls on bread and meat and the abolition of tax on rents below 250 francs per month.
Notwithstanding the expansion in the Senegal mentioned above, it should be clear from these examples that the French government was mostly concerned with internal problems at that time, and that such expansion as did take place was at the behest of administrators or soldiers in the colonies themselves, and not from the Metropolitan.
As well as its internal suppression of dissent, the French government was chiefly concerned at this time with the rising power of the Prussian-led North German Confederation which threatened French interests in the region and her influence over her traditional south-west German client states. During the Austro-Prussian War, Napoleon backed Austria and her allies as a counterweight to Prussian influence over the smaller states of western Germany- his aim was the continued existence of a divided Germany with Prussian ambitions directed to the North and held in check by its rivalry with Austria to the South. However, when this backfired with the Prussian victory, and with tensions running high during the Luxembourg crisis and the Spanish succession as well as discontent in the army and among the population, Louis Napoleon was pushed into declaring war on Germany in the hope of reasserting France’s privileged position in European affairs of the time. The resulting war, French defeat, internal upheaval (i.e. the Paris Commune), and punitive treaty conditions which forced the payment of five billion francs and the permanent annexation to Germany of coal-rich Alsace-Lorraine all weakened France politically and economically, and for some years after the defeat she was focused on reconstruction of the economy and the rebuilding of her armed forces. For instance, it took almost fifteen years for Paris to recover the level of industrial production it had prior to the massacre of communards in the wake of the ‘Semaine Sanglante’ in Paris in May 1871.
These then are the political reasons why France and Germany failed to match Britain in the race for empire. Both countries were concerned with internal affairs and European problems in foreign policy, whereas because Britain was to an extent powerless in European affairs (due to her negligible land army), she had little interest in any of the conflicts or tensions on the continent- for instance, Britain was able to contemplate a reunified Germany with little concern, whereas this prospect was anathema to France. Consequently, Britain was largely able to escape the political ramifications of the German unification wars in the medium term, while the energies of her rivals were focused on them.
The other key reason, apart from these political considerations, as to why Britain won the race for empire was her economic head start over her two rivals. The key to understanding why Britain won this race is to be found in the theories of capitalist monopolisation and capital export.
Marxist theoreticians, notably Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, posited a theory of imperialism as a stage of capitalist economic development. Lenin was the writer who formulated this most clearly in his pamphlet ‘Imperialism- the highest stage of capitalism’. According to Lenin’s theory, imperialism and colonial expansion was commensurate with the development of monopolies in capitalist production as production reached a certain level, accompanied by the rise of finance capital, which resulted in capital export gaining in importance over commodity export. This drive to export capital resulted in the expansion of colonies in search of fresh markets and opportunities for the monopolies to export their capital in search of an increase in profit. The huge power of these new monopolies means that governments are beholden to them and will undertake moves that are in their interests at their instigation, Lenin giving the example of the campaign launched by Deutsche Bank in 1911 which sought the creation of a state monopoly over oil. These monopolies were the driving force behind the expansion of the colonies as they sought new markets where high profits could be made because of cheap raw materials, and large new reserves of labour. The contradictions inherent to capitalism, which drive monopolies to continuously expand in a drive to increase profits, saw the resulting increase in terms of territory controlled by the colonial powers as railroads etc were built to enable more efficient economic exploitation of the colonies, so that the British Empire expanded by 5.5 million square miles between 1860-1880 and in terms of population by another 122.8 million inhabitants.# Violence was integral to this as rival states whose economies had reached the imperialist stage fought to control these new sources of raw materials, markets and to maintain the pace of capital accumulation, something which happened after the end of the race for empire. Explained in these terms, the reasons for Britain winning the race to empire are clear- her economic development reached the stage of monopoly prior to that of her rivals.
The reasons for this are quite clear. The British economy developed into an advanced capitalist form earlier than any analogous European state. The American economist Rostow put forward a three stage hypothesis to explain why this was so- a single take off industry, in Britain’s case cotton, modernised and grew rapidly, stimulating the economy and allowing for reserves accumulated to be invested in related industries, which in turn extended across other sectors until the entire economy attained industrial ‘maturity’. In the case of Britain, this stage was reached roughly around the years 1850-1860, whereupon Britain became the worlds leading economy and imperial power. Lenin identified this period as being the one where the free trade period, which he categorised as the stage of development prior to the rise of monopoly capitalism, came to an end, and noted that it was in the 20 years between 1860-1880 that the British Empire experienced its greatest expansion in terms of territory. This coincided with an unprecedented explosion in the amount of capital invested in British colonies abroad. For instance, the amount of capital invested rose from the equivalent of 15,000,000,000 francs in 1872 to 42,000,000,000 in 1893, a 283% increase in the amount of capital invested in a period of just 21 years.