Imperial Britain Was a Blessing, Not a Curse

From the July 2011 Trumpet Print Edition

Slandering the British Empire is the sport of scholars and pseudo-intellectuals. But it needs to be challenged—because it is a dangerous hoax.

Take one recent and particularly outrageous example. British Prime Minister David Cameron was in Pakistan in April and was asked for his view on Britain’s role in settling the nation’s dispute with India over Kashmir. To this rather unremarkable question, Mr. Cameron gave a remarkable answer: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”

Talk about odd. The prime minister took a routine question from a Pakistani college student and transformed it into an assault on the former British Empire. He even expanded his answer beyond Kashmir, inferring that the British Empire was responsible for “so many of the world’s problems.”

The statement revealed a stunning ignorance, or blatant rejection, of the facts of history.

The legacy of the British Empire, like every empire and civilization, race and tribe, has its dark aspects. The story of human civilization is one of competition and conflict, subjugation and exploitation, violence and murder. Evil lies within the nature of all humans. It is this inherently selfish nature—not the British Empire—that is the ultimate cause of all of the world’s problems.

The fact that evil is endemic to human existence does not justify it; it simply means that Britain’s mistakes were entirely unexceptional; compared to other empires, its conduct was quite exemplary. Measuring the character of an empire (or nation or race or individual) by considering its mistakes alone only confirms that it was comprised of humans. The more accurate method of gauging an empire’s quality is to consider its fruits, and especially the extent and importance of its contributions to human civilization.

By this standard, the British Empire is unrivaled.

Encouraging Global Trade

Consider global trade and commerce, a phenomenon we take for granted today. No nation or empire in history has done more to promote the free flow of goods and capital around the world than Britain at the height of its empire. It was England’s prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and rapid economic growth, that created its insatiable appetite for raw materials for industry and for luxury items. Overflowing with cash, English bankers went on a buying spree.

The colonized responded, often eagerly, working harder and faster—building, sowing, digging—to sell their wares and get their cut of English wealth. As England’s demand for goods grew, so did the gush of money flowing into the colonies, and trade between the colonies and England. Between 1750 and 1914, the total value of global trade increased fivefold. During the 1800s, global shipping tonnage grew from 4 million to 30 million tons, thanks primarily to Britain’s promotion of free trade. When piracy became a problem, the British Navy stopped it. When new laws and policies were needed to promote free trade, British lawyers responded.

Critics say the explosion in world trade did not benefit the poorer nations, but actually resulted in their exploitation. Not true. Consider Zambia, an example cited by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson in his book Empire. Zambia’s gross domestic product per capita is currently 1/28th of Britain’s, meaning the average Zambian is 28 times poorer than the average Briton. In 1955, at the end of colonial rule, Zambia’s gdp per capita was one seventh of Britain’s. Since the British left, Zambia has gotten four times poorer compared to Britain. “The same is true of nearly all former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa,” Ferguson writes (emphasis mine throughout).

During British imperial rule, London was the world’s central bank. Each year, tens of millions of pounds would flow from England to the rest of the world. Naturally, like any bank, the empire sought a return on its investment; hence the boatloads of merchandise that flooded in from its colonies. But the flow of goods into Britain is only half the story. The other half is the hundreds of millions of English pounds reaching foreign shores and filling the pockets of local farmers, tradesmen, shop owners and bankers, greasing the wheels of colonial economies.

In India, the jewel of the empire, agricultural production exploded under the British Raj. Between 1891 and 1938, the amount of irrigated land more than doubled. The British built 40,000 miles of railway track in India, as well as postal and telegraph systems. Millions were employed. British rule, wrote Tirthankar Roy in his book The Economic History of India, “appears to have done far more than what its predecessor regimes and contemporary Indian regimes were able to do.”

The same occurred in British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. As the empire expanded, English bankers, engineers, architects and tradesmen invested time and money constructing vital infrastructure in Britain’s colonial lands. In India, Roy notes, “the railways, the ports, major irrigation systems, the telegraph, sanitation and medical care, the universities, the postal system, the courts of law, were assets India could not believably have acquired in such extent and quality had it not developed close political links with Britain.”

Beyond the vast material construction, the British in many instances created vital and revolutionary political, legislative and educational infrastructure for the colonized peoples. In many colonies, the rule of law was established, aiding economic growth and political and social stability. Britain’s superior legal system was also exported to the far corners of the Earth, where it often replaced brutal tribal laws and rituals with the more civilized and fair English system of justice.

Defending the World

Finally, the British Empire played the key role in protecting the world from tyrants. It’s no coincidence that the 19th century, when much of the world dwelt under Pax Britannia, was a century of relative peace. In the early 20th century, the British Empire emerged as the savior of the free world, almost single-handedly stopping the march of tyranny. During that period, writes Niall Ferguson, the British Empire “more than justified its own existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. And without its empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them” (op. cit.).

Then there’s the issue of slavery. Revisionists love to recall Britain’s participation in the global slave trade. They neglect to mention that it was Britain that made the unilateral decision to ban slavery. Slavery had been practiced for thousands of years and was a key component of the economies of the colonial powers. The decision to be the first to eliminate the slave trade was brave and risky. Once made, it began to be enforced globally by British lawyers and guns!

When we measure British imperialism by its contribution to its colonies and the rest of the world, it has no parallel. Historian Andrew Roberts summarized: “The British Empire provided good government, uncorrupt public administration, inter-tribal peace, the rule of law, free trade, the abolition of slavery, famine relief, the abolition of barbaric customs …, huge infrastructural advances such as railways, roads plus irrigation projects, and in every colony nurtured its native peoples towards running their own countries once they were ripe for independence” (Frontpage interview, Feb. 26, 2007).

Not much to apologize for there!

“The fact remains,” writes Ferguson, “that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world” (op. cit.).

In addition to the vast material, institutional and ideological blessings bestowed on human civilization through imperial Britain, there is an inspiring dimension to this empire we need to recognize—one that helps us put its history into proper perspective.

Put simply, the British Empire came about as an act of God!

Fulfilling a Promise

It’s true! England’s (and America’s) sudden emergence onto the world scene in the 19th century occurred because God was fulfilling a promise that He had made nearly 4,000 years earlier to Abraham. You can read the original promise in Genesis 12. Here, God delivers a two-part promise to Abraham, the first part in which God promises Abraham that his descendants will acquire terrific and unprecedented material wealth and prosperity.

When you understand it, this promise is at the heart of Western civilization.

By the time the events recorded in Genesis 48 and 49 unfold, the original promise to Abraham has been conferred onto Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, the descendants of whom are Britain and America today, respectively. In Genesis 49:22, Jacob uses a colorful analogy to describe the time when Ephraim and Manasseh would finally inherit the birthright promise.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough,” Jacob says, “a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall.” In other words, when the moment came for God to fulfill His promise, the descendants of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh would explode into a fruitful people, a colonizing people—a people whose presence, whose trade and commerce, whose culture and government, would extend far beyond their national borders.

There isn’t a more beautiful or apt description of the former British Empire. Do you find it intriguing how England—a tiny nation planted amid the seas, with no global aspirations—suddenly in the 19th century sprouted branches that quickly grew and began to reach into every continent, at one point covering a quarter of the Earth’s surface?

If you do, then you urgently need to request and read our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. This book not only tells the truth about that empire—and why the sun has since set on it—but also why this knowledge is vitally important to your personal future.