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The Gandhi-Smuts Agreement of January 1914

Denis Judd - Empire imageChapter 18 from ‘Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present’ by Denis Judd

On 21 January 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jan Christian Smuts reached an agreement aimed at settling the long struggle over the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa.  From 1860 tens of thousands of Indian indentured labourers had been brought to Natal to work on the sugar plantations.  They were followed by other Indians who crossed the Indian Ocean either to work as labourers in South Africa or to open businesses there. As the businessmen, many of whom were Muslims, prospered, the white community saw them as an increasingly powerful and dangerously influential element in South African society.

When the indentured labourers completed their contracts, they and their families overwhelmingly chose to stay in South Africa, particularly in Natal.  When Natal became a fully self-governing colony in 1893, the newly established responsible government began a campaign to strip Indians of any political privileges they enjoyed and to obstruct the full citizenship of the Indian immigrant population as a whole.  The 1896 Franchise Act passed in the Natal parliament effectively disenfranchised Indians, who were not mentioned specifically in the legislation, by ingeniously denying the vote in Natal to anyone whose home country did not have its own parliamentary representation.  In 1897 the Natal parliament forbade the immigration of any Indians who had not signed indentures, and allowed the trading licences of Indians to be cancelled without appeal to a court of law.  These were the predictable responses of a white minority community insecurely settled among a much larger black majority.  The Europeans were generally resentful of further non-white immigration, and feared the competition of Indian migrants in trade and in the job market.

As Indians moved to other parts of South Africa, particularly to the Transvaal, a series of legislative and judicial obstacles were raised to their entering into full citizenship.  Among the stratagems devised by the whites to harry and demoralise Indians and their families, were hefty taxes, challenges to their rights to enter the country and a legal ruling which appeared to declare Hindu marriages illegal.

In 1894, the young London-trained Gujerati lawyer, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was invited by the wealthy and often well educated Indians who had established the Natal Indian Congress to come to South Africa to join the struggle to protect their rights.  Until 1906, Gandhi, employing a mixture of conventional legal and political devices, attempted to defend and advance the civil rights of Indians in Natal and even further afield.  Although some modest successes were recorded, it was not until September 1906 that Gandhi was able to lead his Indian followers to more substantial success.  The turning point was his decision to abandon the conventional methods of resistance practised hitherto and to launch the first satyagraha campaign.

This step may be viewed as an important turning point in the history of the resistance to imperial rule, and in the development of peaceful techniques to assert the claims of indigenous nationalism.  Satyagraha, which literally means ‘the force of truth’, was shaped into a powerful personal political philosophy through Gandhi’s genius for organisation and leading through example.  Drawing on ancient Indian tradition, certain aspects of the philosophy of Count Lev Tolstoy – for instance the notion that evil could best be countered by non-resistance –  and even upon the recent activities of the Suffragettes in Britain, satyagraha, which became associated with non-cooperation and civil disobedience, became a potent weapon in Gandhi’s hands.  It was a non-violent means of confronting the big battalions of imperial and white settler supremacy.  No physical threat was offered to one’s opponent.  Instead, protesters used techniques like the non-payment of taxes, the burning of passes, the renunciation of honours and positions of authority, and, in extremis, the refusal to cooperate with authority.  Gandhi also encouraged his supporters to follow the Christian precept of turning the other cheek in the face of physical aggression.

The overriding aim of satyagraha was to occupy the moral high ground and to unsettle and win over one’s opponents, not through acts of physical aggression, but through restraint and passivity, and, above all, by setting them an example which would eventually convince them of the righteousness of those they attacked.  Between 1906 and 1914, Gandhi and his supporters in South Africa pushed the white regimes that dominated the self-governing colonies, and  later the Union government, to their limits.  In the end, General Smuts, the minister for defence and native affairs in the South African administration led by Louis Botha, decided to capitulate to Gandhi’s demands.

The Gandhi-Smuts agreement led to the passing, six months later, of the Indian Relief Bill which acceded to all the protesters’ demands: the £3 annual tax was abolished, marriages considered legal in India became legal in South Africa, and the domicile certificate became sufficient right to enter the Union.  There was, of course, more to it than Smuts simply recognising the moral strength of the Gandhian campaigners.  For one thing, it was possible to see the fairly small but increasingly influential Indian community in South Africa as potential allies in the real race conflict in the sub-continent – that between the whites and the blacks.  For another, an agreement would almost certainly rid the country of Gandhi, and when he sailed from Durban in July 1914 Smuts remarked ‘The Saint has left our shores; I sincerely hope for ever’.

The apparent triumph of Gandhi’s satyagraha tactics in South Africa was full of portent.  Within three years of his return to India, he was using the same tactics with increasing confidence and success against the British Raj.  It also provided an example which gave hope to all those who wished, in one way or another, to strike a blow against British rule or even simply to irritate, embarrass and exasperate their rulers.

But it also represented an important psychological turning-point in the mounting desire of colonial peoples to free themselves from British overlordship.  The success of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign began a process of liberating the leaders of colonial resistance groups from a subservience to British political methods and from the assumed superiority of European culture.  As writers like Edward Said have so persuasively demonstrated, the European imperial powers carried out a devastating and generally highly successful assault upon the integrity of indigenous culture and civilisation during the imperial age.  Western statesmen, writers, missionaries, historians, journalists and many other opinion-formers described and defined the native cultures with whom they came into contact in such derogatory and dismissive terms that imperial rule became, by definition, a necessary and  civilising act.

Having projected upon large numbers of indigenous societies all manner of delinquencies, inadequacies and barbarities, the European imperial powers could, to a very large extent, rid themselves of guilt as they overcame, manipulated and frequently abused colonial subjects.  There was even something in it for the conquered and the colonised.  Cecil Rhodes believed that the linchpins of British imperialism were philanthropy plus a 5% dividend on investment.  Kipling, as so often, put this philosophy into bumping, jangling verse:

We broke a king
And we built a road.
A court house stands
Where the regiment go’ed,
And the river’s clean
Where the red blood flowed,
At Kumasi.

If the definition and delineation of inferior cultures may be described as ‘orientalism’, there was also a reverse or opposite set of perceptions.  ‘Occidentalism’ existed side by side with ‘orientalism’.  The occidentalists were those colonial and subject peoples who respected, admired and idealised the West, and in particular Britain.  Good, noble and exalted values were projected upon British institutions, methods and personalities.  Queen Victoria became the great white queen over the water, as benign, caring and omnipotent as some deity.  British justice was imagined to be the best in the world, British culture the most refined, British political institutions the most liberal and humane, British people the most tolerant and kindly.  In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela, for  example, wrote that in his youth he believed that ‘the best ideas were English, the best government was English government and the best men were Englishmen.’   For much of his early manhood Gandhi, too, idealised what he perceived as British virtues, wishing his sons to be ‘proper English gentlemen’ and assuming that the British Empire was devoted to the equality and well-being of all its subjects.  Such commonplace reactions are an awesome testimony to the phenomenal success of the propaganda, both conscious and unconscious, purveyed by Britain and by the British during much of their imperial hegemony.

But Gandhi’s decision to employ satyagraha as a political and social tool from 1906 onwards marked the beginning of the end of his romantic and idealised perception of Britain and Britishness.  His conversion was signalled externally by his decision to wear simple, Indian garments and to set aside the three-pieced suits, collars and ties of the Westernised Oriental lawyer.  He ate only simple food, and eventually renounced all pleasures of the flesh, including those of sex.

His change of heart was also brought about by the manifest failure of the institutions and administrators of the British Empire to recognise the justice of the Indian case in South Africa, let alone do anything about it.  Despairing, at least in the short term, of British justice, Gandhi instead put his hopes into self-help and the celebration of indigenous culture rather than its rejection.  This in turn led to an increasing alienation from Western civilisation.  Within a short time, Gandhi had become the persausive and consistent critic of Western education, Western materialism and Western industrialisation.

All of this unleashed forces of such power that the struggles of colonial people to attain self-determination, or at the very least a greater degree of respect for themselves and their cultures, received a permanent boost.  Naturally, Britain’s imperial supremacy did not melt away overnight.  British military technology, the apparently ubiquitous strength of the Royal Navy, British understandings with collaborating local leaders and elites, and the skilful use of the techniques to sustain imperial power were formidable obstacles to overcome.

It is important to realise, however, that to some extent Gandhi and the other opponents of imperial rule were pushing at the door which was, if not open, at least ajar.  The strenuous attempt to promote the imperial ideal which had characterised the last decade of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, reflected uncertainty and pessimism as much as self-confidence and optimism.  The pronouncements of imperial proconsuls like Milner or Curzon, passionate and clear-cut as they were, were fundamentally attempts to rally a distracted, passive and sometimes actively hostile audience.  For every public figure who preached the gospel of Empire there were literally hundreds of thousands of men and women whose main preoccupation was balancing the household budget and finding adequately paid employment.  This was at least one reason why Chamberlain strove so hard to equate empire with full employment and prosperity.

How strong was anti-imperial sentiment within the United Kingdom and the Empire in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War?  Despite the attempt in many quarters to promote the ideals of King, Country and Empire, there were substantial numbers of British citizens who declined to buy the whole package.  It was the poet and author G.K. Chesterton who remarked in 1901, during the Boer War:

‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case.  It is like saying ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

During the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, opposition to both British imperialism and militarism had been freely and sometimes powerfully expressed.  The mid-Victorians had expressed at the very least ambivalence over the need to expand the formal Empire.  Richard Cobden and the free traders of the Manchester School had argued that colonies were expensive to maintain, and thus a burden to the tax payer, especially since trade with them would flourish whether or not they were ruled by Britain, as had been clearly demonstrated by the booming Anglo-American trade after the loss of the Old Thirteen Colonies.  The Cobdenites also asserted that the formal possession of colonies was a threat to international peace, since they provoked jealousies among other imperial powers and conflict over their frontiers.  Cobden also maintained that one of the main reasons why colonies were retained was in order to find profitable employment for the younger sons of the English aristocracy in the imperial administration and in the army.

The Victorians, especially once the ideology of the free market was firmly established, became preoccupied with a policy that they called ‘Retrenchment’.  A large number of politicians and statesmen believed that it was their duty to cut down on wasteful expenditure, to keep the role of the state to the minimum and as a consequence to save as much of the tax payers’ money as possible.  It thus followed that existing colonies must be financially independent and pay for their own administration out of their resources.  Loans to colonial governments were discouraged, and the cost of combating, for example, famines in India placed firmly on the shoulders of the Indian government.  The acquisition of new colonies seemed to many to be an unnecessary headache and a potential drain on revenue.  In 1865 the Select Committee reporting on the British possessions in West Africa gave strong advice against ‘all further extension of territory or assumption of Government, or new treaties offering any protection to native tribes’, and even recommended, perhaps rather wistfully, that Britain should abandon three out of her four colonies on the West African Coast.

These misgivings did not, in the event, halt the process of imperial expansion.  The West African colonies remained in the Empire; indeed, their territory was augmented. The imperial frontier inexorably advanced, despite the distant complaints from Westminster and Whitehall.  The real problem was that, when it came to a crisis, no British government could abandon white settlers or business interests to the depredations of hostile local populations.  But when it was deemed safe to do so, as in the case of New Zealand in the 1870s, British troops were withdrawn and a triumph for Retrenchment recorded.  But in South Africa, the West Indies, in parts of Africa and elsewhere it did not prove possible to make white settler communities bear the costs and responsibility of their own defence.  In the process there emerged a curious equation between anti-imperialism and feelings of resentment towards those indigenous people whose rebellions, resistance and intransigence necessitated the intervention of British forces.  In other words, it was ‘their’ fault that there was trouble and expense, not ‘ours’.

Even during the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, anti-imperialist sentiment, although it may have declined in volume and quantity, never disappeared.  This was true right across the political spectrum.  Despite Disraeli’s attempt to hitch the Conservative party to the fiery chariot of Empire, he was by no means universally successful.  Most Conservatives saw themselves as the party of low taxation, and even if they were content to be identified as the party of Empire they overwhelmingly wanted imperial administration and expansion on the cheap.  It took a Liberal Unionist like Joseph Chamberlain, supported by pro-consuls of Liberal antecedence like Milner and Cromer, to articulate the gospel of the New Imperialism with consistency and fervour. Neither of the two Conservative and Unionist Prime Ministers between 1885 and 1905, Salisbury and Balfour, gave the impression of a passionate commitment to the imperial ideal.  Salisbury, as we have seen, spoke gloomily of the perils of ‘splendid isolation’, and Balfour expressed genuine misgivings over both the Jameson Raid and the Chamberlainite machinations that led to the outbreak of the Boer War.

Of the two major political parties, the Liberals contained most anti-imperialists within their ranks.  Once in office, of course, the Liberal party was caught in a dilemma.  What happened in practice was that Liberal governments tended to uphold Britain’s imperial interests, although often giving the impression that they felt some ambivalence, even guilt, in the process.  Liberal backbenchers were, however, allowed to exercise their consciences and denounce imperialistic and militaristic excesses, so long as they didn’t actually vote to bring down the government.  Even when the Liberal Imperialist section of the party became so influential towards the end of the 19th century, Liberal MPs often felt able to express their criticisms of the workings of the British Empire.  The South African Act of Union of 1909 provoked bitter opposition from a minority of Liberal MPs who denounced it, with undeniable accuracy, as nothing short of a sell-out of the political rights of non-European peoples in South Africa.

Liberal opponents of the South African Act of Union were joined by the relatively small number of Labour representatives in the House of Commons.  Keir Hardie, the first Labour M. P. to enter Parliament in 1892 and Chairman of the party from 1906-08, told the House of Commons that he believed it would be only a matter of time before the ‘colour-blind’ Cape franchise was destroyed as an anomaly and a threat to white supremacy:

for the first time we are being asked to write over the portals of the British Empire:  ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’….I, hope, therefore, that if only for the sake of the traditions of our dealings with natives in the past, this Bill…will be so amended as to make it a real unifying Bill in South Africa.  At present it is a Bill to unify the white races, to disenfranchise the coloured races, and not to promote union between the races in South Africa, but rather to still further embitter the relationship.

The Labour movement, however, was in a dilemma.  In ideological terms, socialists disapproved of the exploitation of any group: trade unionists, the poor, and colonial people.  But increasingly the Labour party was becoming the organisation which articulated the demands of mass trade unionism.  Many in the trade union movement made a connection between the consolidation and expansion of the British Empire and the provision of full employment at home.  When asked to choose between adequate wages and good job prospects and the oppression of colonial subjects, many trade unionists were tempted to put their own interests first.   H. G. Wells caught the dilemma neatly in his great Edwardian novel Kipps, published in 1905, when the underpaid, over-worked drapers’ apprentices, penned into their garret ‘over the shop’, discuss the news of the proposal to extend the Indian franchise, and generally do not welcome the proposals, trapped as they are amid their own impoverishment and disenfranchisement.

The controversy over ‘Chinese slavery’ in the Transvaal from 1904 onwards provides a nice illustration of the Liberal, socialist and trade unionist dilemma.  The importation of 50,000 indentured Chinese labourers to boost gold production on the Rand after the conclusion of the Boer War provoked one of the most dramatic political controversies of the Edwardian age.  The undoubted abuses – the illegal deduction of wages, the dishonouring of promises of higher pay and harsh punishments, including flogging –  which attended the introduction of Chinese ‘coolie’ labour led to widespread denunciations of the government’s policy in Britain.  At the general election of 1906 it was assumed that the ‘Chinese slavery’ issue lost the Conservatives and Unionists  thousands of working class votes.  There is no doubt that many trade unionists and workers switched their vote from the Unionist party to the Liberals.  But many also abandoned the Liberal party and went over to the embryonic Labour party.  If they were voting to any extent on the issue of ‘Chinese slavery’ they may well have been protesting against competition from dirt cheap ‘yellow labour’ as much as in support of humanitarian principles.

Apart from the left-wing and progressive political parties, many other groups and organisations expressed, in varying degrees, anti-imperialist sentiments.  There were peace groups, humanitarian organisations and Non-conformist churches that expressed a wide range ofopposition and misgivings.  There were the ‘busy bodies’, like Emily Hobhouse, Secretary of the Woman’s Branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, who campaigned persistently against the establishment of concentration camps during the Boer War, and who so exasperated Kitchener and the military high command.  There were journalists who pried into the darker corners of the imperial enterprise and who sometimes embarrassed supporters of Empire with their revelations.  There were the writers, novelists and playwrights, some of whom were to become the mainstays of the Bloomsbury Set during the interwar years, who ridiculed imperial pomposity and, sharp-eyed and persistent, attempted to deflate the more extravagant assertions of patriotism.  Among the Edwardian literati were many socialists, such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and the children’s writer Edith Nesbit.  At the very least, many of these influential writers expressed humanitarian sympathies, even if they did not deliberately, and as a matter of course, denounce the British Empire.  Wells was perhaps the most persistently critical of them all, apt to ridicule the Empire as being at best the provider of a cheap postal system and the services of a narrow minded and unsympathetic officialdom.

Whereas many radicals and reformers in the mid-Victorian period had seen colonisation as an opportunity for valuable experiments in social engineering, several of their Edwardian equivalents denounced Empire, and a seeking of quick profits overseas, as damaging to the prospects of reform at home.  The influential J. A. Hobson argued that ‘Finance manipulates the patriotic forces which politicians, soldiers, philanthropists and traders generate; the enthusiasm for expansion which issues from these sources, though strong and genuine, is irregular and blind.’  As a result, Hobson claimed that the exporting of capital overseas left workers in Britain at the mercy of poverty caused by under-employment.   H.N. Brailsfoot, in a very widely read book, The War of Steel and Gold, asserted that ‘The capitalist must rush abroad because he will not fertilise the demand for more commodities at home by the simple expedient of raising wages.’

One of the main problems for those who wished to promote the imperial ideal was the inertia and ignorance of so many of the British public.  Although there were periodic indulgences in jingoistic displays, especially at times of crisis and war, this was not the same thing as a considered, deep-rooted imperial patriotism.  The celebrations which attended the relief of the siege of Mafeking owed a good deal of their fervour to the fact that the news arrived in the United Kingdom at the weekend when large numbers of people had finished work on Saturday afternoon and had their wages in their pockets to spend on a celebratory drink.  When asked to choose between tariff reform, with its prospect of closer imperial union at the price of a modest rise in food prices, the electorate overwhelmingly plumped for the status quo and a cheaper loaf of bread.  Attempts to persuade the British people that imperialism could fund social reform also went largely unheeded.  Milner bitterly regretted that he was never able to find ways of convincing the British public, ‘these d – d fools’, of the reasons why the Empire was central to their futures.

Anti-imperialism could be found  throughout the Empire.  Even within the United Kingdom, Celtic resentment at English domination of the union was liable regularly to erupt.  The Irish, the Ulster Unionists aside, were the most persistent and hostile critics of the imperial system.  The eighty or so Irish Nationalist MPs who sat in the House of Commons frequently made use of their parliamentary privileges to support certain colonial causes and to criticise and embarrass the government of the day over imperial issues.    But in Scotland and Wales, too, dislike of English snobbery, overlordship and Toryism was widespread, manifesting itself in the tendency to vote for Liberal, and later Labour, Parliamentary candidates, and in national  rejoicing whenever English soccer or rugby teams were beaten at Hamden Park, Murrayfield or at the Cardiff Arms Park.

Within the Dominions, anti-British, and thus by definition, anti-imperial feelings were sometimes so endemic that they threatened the generally cordial relations with the Mother Country.  For the Afrikaners of South Africa and the French Canadians, of course, Britain was not the Mother Country, rather the conqueror and oppressor.  Irish Australians often disliked England and the English more than they admired the British Empire; the ‘whingeing Pom’ is not a 20th century construct.  In New Zealand, despite the myth of Maori equality, the indigenous population could hardly avoid seeing themselves as a subjugated people; a people, moreover, overwhelmingly denied equality of opportunity in employment, education and housing, and only grudgingly admitted to the franchise.

In the Indian Empire, by the late nineteenth century,organised political movements were challenging the smooth running of the administration, and were soon to threaten the very existence of the Raj.  The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 with enthusiastic British support, had, after twenty years, outlived its original role as a harmless talking-shop.  The high-handed, abrasive, reforming viceroyalty of Lord Curzon from 1898 to 1905 had in the end transformed Congress into a far more radical and effective organisation.  Curzon had hoped, through demonstrating the impartiality and effectiveness of British rule, to bind India permanently to the Raj.  His partition  of Bengal in 1905, on the grounds of administrative efficiency, had been perceived by a wide range of Indian opinion as a brutal assault upon one of the one of the most heavily populated and politically sophisticated of the sub-continent’s provinces – the home, indeed, of the much resented ‘Bengali babu’.  The Bengal partition had aroused such bitter controversy that Congress was revitalised in the process.  The foundation of the Muslim League in 1906 was another warning that the post-Mutiny settlement, based upon administrative conservatism and minor concessions to Indian constitutional progress (as expressed in the 1892 Indian Councils Act) had broken down.  When Gandhi returned to his home country in 1915, the scattered and varied forces of Indian nationalism were to gain their most skilful, shrewd and populist leader to date.

The strength of the Indian reaction to the 1905 partition of Bengal, and the 1908 split between congress ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’, had encouraged the Liberal government in Britain to introduce the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 to 1910.  The 1909 Indian Councils Act modestly extended the franchise, but quite substantially increased the numbers of elected and nominated Indians on the provincial and central legislative councils of the Raj.  In a way, the reforms were a confidence trick.  The British, by holding out the prospect of progress, at some time to be decided by themselves, toward responsible government, were undoubtedly hoping to contain and defuse the forces of Indian nationalism.  Thus the extension of democratic institutions was used as a means of shoring up the fundamentally autocratic British Raj.  The ambiguous nature of the reforms of 1909 to 1910 was demonstrated by the correspondence between the Indian Secretary of State, Morley, and the Viceroy, Lord Minto over which Indian should be nominated to sit on the Viceroy’s Executive Council.  The key appointment eventually went to S.P. Sinha, whom Minto preferred to the other potential appointee on the grounds that ‘Sinha is comparatively white, whilst Mookerjee is as black as my hat!’

If so crucial an appointment could be made, at least in part, on the grounds of acceptable skin colour, what hope was there for the many well educated Indians of participating in the administration of their own country?  Although the Indian Civil Service was theoretically open to Indian competition, the fact that the entrance examinations were held in the United Kingdom, and the weight of official disapproval at their advancement, ensured that only a handful of Indians had been appointed to the ICS by 1914.

Indeed, British hostility to the ‘educated native’ increased rather than decreased as the 20th century began.  The jumped-up ‘Bengali babu’ had been an object of ridicule and contempt during the second half of the 19th century.  The spirit of Macaulay’s great Indian education reforms of the 1830s was subverted by the growing need to keep India, with its expanding economy and its supplementary army, within the Empire.  Elsewhere in the Empire, for example in the British colonies of the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, the numbers of Africans holding positions in the local civil services was actually sharply reduced between 1870 and 1914.  In 1873 Lord Kimberley, Secretary of State for the Colonies in the Liberal government, had issued a directive that ‘excepting quite subordinate posts we cannot safely employ natives’.  A decade later a colonial office official described educated Africans as ‘the curse of the West coast’.

For the vast majority of colonial citizens, imperial rule, whether welcome or not, was a fact of life to which they simply adjusted.  The struggle for subsistence was sufficient preoccupation for the vast majority of Britain’s subjects in Asia, tropical Africa and the Caribbean.  Nor could any save a handful aspire to serving in colonial civil services or local administrations.

As a consequence,  the final response to misfortune, ill treatment or exploitation throughout the dependent empire was to riot or rise in revolt.  This involved the British army and its colonial subsidiaries and mercenaries in a ceaseless round of confrontation, repression and the enforcement of law and order.  During the reign of Queen Victoria there was not a single year when the British armed forces were not involved in some sort of military campaign, from full-scale international conflicts like the Crimean War to skirmishes on the north-west frontier of India, or where imperial interests clashed with those of  local potentates and indigenous people in Africa and South East Asia.

Whether the British forces were engaged in a relatively routine act of retribution, like burning a village in India, or facing the Boers in a major battle on the high veld, their activities underpinned the gigantic, complex, and sometimes unsound, imperial structure.  In the last resort, the Pax Britannica, as enforced throughout the Empire, was only made possible by the ceaseless activities of British and colonial land forces, and by the capacity of the Royal Navy to intervene swiftly, efficiently and cheaply.

Although for much of the 19th century there was little to choose between the two main parties in terms of their determination to maintain the Empire by whatever means necessary, including the use of force, the policies of the Liberal government from 1905 to 1915 provided a sharper contrast than usual with the ‘forward’ expansionist policies of the Unionist administrations between 1885 and 1905.

There was certainly continuity, however, in one crucial area of imperial overlordship: the need to seek out, negotiate with and, in the last resort, control collaborationist groups within the Empire.  This meant different things in different contexts.  In India it meant leaving a third of the country in the hands of local princes; in Northern Nigeria it meant the establishment of a system of ‘indirect rule’, whereby the British collaborated with the Muslim emirs; sometimes it meant backing one tribe or faction against another, as in the support of anti-Mahdist elements in the Sudan, or occasionally profiting from any friction between the Masai, the Luo and the Kikuyu in Kenya.

The Liberal governments led by Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith also went out of their way to offer concessions to certain local interest groups and to pursue a policy of conciliation rather than confrontation whenever that was deemed expedient and unavoidable.  The granting of internal self-governing status to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and the introduction of the Morley-Minto reforms in India, were the most dramatic, and probably the most significant, examples of the Liberals’ policy of conciliation.  But there were other, more low-key, diplomatic gestures made in other parts of the Empire.  This policy certainly made life less exciting for the British public, who were thus denied their diet of triumphalist headlines and articles in the rapidly expanding mass circulation popular press, but it was undeniably effective.

Conservatives, Unionists and imperialists reacted with both dismay and fury to the concessions made by the Liberal administrations.  As leader of the opposition, Balfour denounced the concession of internal self-government to the Transvaal in 1906 as ‘the most reckless experiment ever tried in the development of a great policy.’   Curzon, who had resigned from the viceroyalty in 1905 after a bitter and protracted quarrel with Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, over the control of military policy, expressed alarm at the proposed Morley-Minto reform, which he described as ‘a futile and fantastic dream’, and had previously remarked, ‘It is often said why not make some prominent native a member of the Executive Council?  The answer is that in the whole continent there is not an Indian fit for the post.’     Another out-of-office proconsul, Milner, asserted in 1908 that ‘the idea of extending what is described as “Colonial Self-Government” to India…is a hopeless absurdity.’

Despite these predictable denunciations, the Liberal policy of mixing kindness with the minimum coercion  seemed to bear fruit, at least in the short term.  Critics of the government’s imperial policies attempted to raise the alarm over what they perceived as endemic weakness and vacillation, and for good measure accused the Liberals of simply not caring enough about the Empire to pursue a stronger line.

There were, nonetheless, a considerable number of violent incidents, rebellions and disturbances between 1905 and 1915.  There were riots in British Guyana, Egypt and India.  There was a rebellion in the north-west of Nigeria in 1906, and determined tribal resistance to the consolidation of British rule in what became the colony of Kenya.  The Zulu rebellion in Natal, which began in 1906, was put down with great brutality and substantial losses of African lives.  At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, some 10,000 Afrikaner rebels staged a short-lived uprising against South Africa’s involvement in the conflict.

In general, however, there were considerable achievements for Liberal imperial policy.  The bid for conciliation, and the moderating of the more radical, hectic and confrontational policies which had been particularly associated with Chamberlain’s tenure of the Colonial Office between 1895 and 1903, all helped to promote a welcome period of stability.  The Liberal government kept a close watch on abuses of proconsular power, tried to keep various colonial bureaucracies under control, insisted on higher administrative standards, and tried to contain imperial militarism and the monopolistic ambitions of big business.

There were attempts to rationalise parts of the imperial system.  One such bid centred on the promotion the Crown Colony form of government as the model to which various dependencies and protectorates should routinely aspire; this was an entirely logical approach which took note of the Crown Colony’s  long history and clear-cut constitutional structure, and which recognised the benefits that could accrue from the routine surveillance exercised by the Colonial Office and Parliament over such colonies.  The Dominions Department of the Colonial Office, which had been first proposed by Balfour’s outgoing Unionist government, provided for better communications with the self-governing colonies.  The colonial service rule-book was revised and rendered more humane and acceptable.  In 1909 a circular from the Colonial Secretary, Lord Crewe, forbade concubinage with local women, although co-habitation between colonial officials and indigenous females flourished for many decades.  More money was put into research into tropical disease and into more efficient and profitable forms of colonial agriculture.

In 1914 the Empire seemed to be set on a relatively even keel.  There were, naturally enough, a vast range of unresolved problems, tensions and conflicts. To begin with, the constitutional status and international identity of the Dominions needed further definition and clarification.  The burgeoning nationalist movement in the Indian Empire had won some modest constitutional concessions from Britain, but had so far not even begun to address the interests and concern of the sub-continent’s huge population.  The mobilisation of India’s masses against the Raj had not yet been achieved, although, ominously, Gandhi was in the process of returning to his homeland from South Africa.

In Africa, the Caribbean, South-East Asia and the Pacific a huge number of  colonial possessions presented a wide variety of challenging problems – centring on their future viability, profitability, constitutional and economic development and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled – as well as numerous opportunities and consolations.    The late-19th century drive to consolidate the Empire and to stiffen its backbone through the promotion of projects like imperial federation, reciprocal tariffs and a binding set of military obligations, had come to nothing.  The British economy was still clearly in decline, claiming only 14.7 per cent of the world’s manufacturing capacity in 1910 as opposed to 31.8 per cent in 1870.  Although the economy did rather better than expected in the few years  before 1914, there were manifold signs of the continuing success and diversification of the economies of Britain’s chief competitors: ‘Upon the outbreak of war…the British government found to its alarm that all the magnetos in use in Britain came from Stuttgart.  And so did all the khaki dye for uniforms.  London’s ‘Underground’ was built between 1900 and 1914 by American expertise, with plenty of American plant, and with more foreign that British investment.  In 1914 one third of all motor cars in Britain were imported….Americans owned or dominated 70 firms in Britain – the invasion had begun with Singer sewing machines in 1867.’

To some extent, the Liberal government seemed content to let imperial development take its own course.  Since one of the main paths marked out was the high road to local devolution and political freedom, which the Liberals claimed as their own territory, they were content to proceed accordingly.  The more benign Liberal approach to colonial claims for greater self-determination, to local discontents, and to sheer colonial cussedness seemed to be paying dividends.  Almost everywhere, the countries of the Empire were enjoying a relative tranquillity, and at least some of the benefits of peace and progress.  Where all this would have led, but for the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, it is impossible to say.


Denis JuddDenis Judd has been Head of History, and is now Professor Emeritus of Imperial and Commonwealth History, at the London Metropolitan University. On Monday, 22nd June, he will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about ‘Gandhi’s Return to India 1915: The Beginning of the End for the British Empire.’