Looking at maps of the 19th-century globe, you get the impression of a solid, complete (and a solidly and completely pink) British empire. That’s a “cartographical illusion,” says John Darwin in his Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain . We forget that “this was always an empire-in-making, indeed an empire scarcely half-made.”

It was not one empire, but several. Darwin writes, Both at home and abroad, empire took different forms and assumed different meanings. It attracted different allies, often with little in common.” In her TNR review of Darwin’s book, Maya Jansanoff describes three different imperial methods: “There was an empire of conquest, made up of colonies acquired by military force, and ruled directly by British agents. There was an empire of settlement, known as “Greater Britain,” composed of colonies populated chiefly by white British and Irish emigrants, and granted a high degree of self-government. There was an empire of free trade, which ranged well beyond the formal territorial limits of the British Empire, in which British investors, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers dominated overseas markets and resources. Each of these three kinds of empire had its preeminent actors; each had its emblematic locations; each had its moments of particular historical salience.”

These three forms of empire were not sequential, but existed simultaneously. The empire was plural from the outset. Jansanoff writes,

“England’s simultaneous projects in the early 1600s to found a ‘colony’ for settlement in Virginia and to establish a ‘factory’ for trade in India set the empire on course to develop—legally, militarily, economically, culturally—in two distinctive directions. In the colonies of settlement, Britons justified their annexation of territory on the grounds that the regions they approached were ‘empty,’ and lacked recognizable states.”

What was common across the vast pink expanse of the empire was not some method of imperial expansion but the unique combination of government and business: “The British Empire was quite simply the biggest public-private partnership in history: a collection of projects launched by private entrepreneurs, and chartered and assisted by the state.” Britain’s first incursions into India were under the control of the British East India Company, and private firms also led the settlement empire in the Americas. Eventually, the British government took control, usually to protect commercial interests on which Britain had come to depend back home.

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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