Joined: Jan 2012
Including vs. excluding lands in British Empire (does it get smaller under scrutiny?)
It's a rough and painful road to be an Atlanticist-leaning diplomat these days in light of world events post-financial crisis. It's made even rougher by the fact that the historical core of our belief system, anchored originally in the old British Empire, is so much under question that even we're becoming confused about our own roots. We're a team of diplomats reared in this persuasion, and it's becoming difficult to count how many times we've been burned by a foreign national who challenges our inclusion of Country X, Y or Z as a part of the old British Empire, and cites apparently powerful evidence to the contrary. For our line of work, this is not merely an academic or trivial matter. It's perilous to bungle core elements of history as this can be deeply insulting to those we are trying to win over, nowhere more so than for the sensitive topic of colonisers and the colonised. A number of Webpages, wikis and articles have been tackling this and we've cited both what we've heard and what we've seen written, which we frankly cannot adequately answer. We were hoping that some of you wiser-than-we historians could help salve our wounds and comment on the puzzles we continually encounter on this topic.
More specifically, we have encountered or engaged in historical disputes over varied territories- Persia, Greenland, Tibet, Argentina, Afghanistan, Antarctica (!), Canada, Tanganyika, Nepal, parts of the US, India, Pakistan, the Middle East- that either were or were not within the British Empire and, if so, when. For us, a standard litmus test is whether we can legitimately and knowledgeably argue that a given land was indeed part of the British empire, even to a skeptical audience of foreign nationals in a delicate diplomatic setting. Would those countries’ citizens and historic traditions concur with our assertions? The number of such lands that meet criteria for inclusion, recently, has been shrinking considerably. As a reminder, we are not debating whether or not the British Empire was a net benefit or detriment, merely the more technical issue of its size. Ghana, Ireland and Kenya would pass this test of inclusion however favourably (or not) their citizens may view the Empire, Afghanistan or Tanganyika far less so.
A second test is whether a concrete, centralised administration was in place that exercised acknowledged authority, that is to say, did the imperial authority truly govern, issuing specific edicts that governed the territory, that had to be followed, and that would induce untoward consequences if disobeyed? This second criterion merits particular emphasis. Possessing a sphere of influence or protection, or trading and military posts, is not in itself sufficient, as this renders the concept of Empire rather meaningless in more recent centuries- latter-day dominant powers would be attributed the largest “empires” merely by virtue of modern telecommunications, transport and the more global nature of their geopolitical interests.
For example, the US and China today both have significant interests throughout Africa and Central Asia, with many of the regional states approximating the status of protectorates in the past. The Americans have hundreds of overseas bases and thus sovereign US territory in 120-odd countries, and troops occupying Afghanistan and Iraq until recently. The local rulers refrain from actions that would anger the interests of these major powers, fearing economic or other repercussions. But are Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Japan or even Iraq part of an American or Chinese Empire? Some Americans advocate this, but we find such arguments to be dubious. These nations may be under varying levels of American (or Chinese) control and sway, their foreign policy no doubt constrained, but they have their own leaders, mint their own coins, run their own affairs. Yet if we challenge the Americans on this issue, we must apply the same rigour to our own. (To any Americans reading this, British schools themselves still debate the precise frontiers of the Empire- in our Sixth Form history classes, our maps and articles would variously block off anywhere from one-tenth to one-third of the world as former British Imperial territory at its height.)
Nor is mere cultural influence or a strong trading relationship a proxy for empire. Throughout history, Sunni Muslims have traditionally owed loyalty to the Caliphate whatever their location, and prosperous merchants would have undoubtedly exercised influence over their communities. We have thus heard it argued that the Ottoman-controlled Caliphate and its predecessors exercised “sovereignty” over far-flung countries with sizable Sunni communities- including much of Indonesia and the Philippines, where Sunni Islam spread through trading as opposed to direct Imperial decree. Events in the heart of the Caliphate, or the Ottoman Sultanate, would no doubt reverberate in these distant lands, but there was no centralised administration within those regions that recognised a chain of command from the Caliphs or Sultans. (This would be different from arguments supporting for example the USSR as the largest or near-largest empire in history, as the ideology in this case was directly linked to the chain of command binding Cuba or South Yemen, for example, to the Soviet Union's dictates.) Such skepticism must therefore also be applied to the British Empire also.
Now on to the specific territories that have sown dispute as being within or outside the British Empire, commencing with the most problematic of cases:
1. Afghanistan. Afghans do not consider their nation to have been a subject of the British Empire, and diplomats risk considerable offence by suggesting otherwise. Britain of course fared miserably in the three Anglo-Afghan Wars, the first of them likely the worst imperial defeat of the Victorian period. It is true that in spite of this, we exercised some power after the treaties that concluded the second war, but what is sometimes recorded as “Afghanistan’s independence day” in 1919 takes on a different cast in Afghan eyes: more a conclusive cessation of what they saw to be foreign meddling. It is likewise difficult to argue that Afghanistan was part of the Soviet sphere after the 1970’s coup, even though the USSR had powerful sway over the country’s governance for a while and stationed troops there.
2. Tibet. Several of us have tried and chronically failed to argue that Tibet was indeed a British Imperial domain, as many of our old school texts clearly indicated on maps. There were British advisors in the land as well as the McMahon line and its history, but consider the first litmus test above. It is well-nigh impossible to comfortably argue that Tibet was in any way a part of the British Empire. There was little administrative control there, certainly nothing comparable to what we would have seen in Ghana or in more traditional empires like the Romans, Mongols or Assyrians.
3. Persia. There were British petroleum interests in the country and some imperial sway no doubt, but Persia was never administered from London, not even in the loosest of interpretations. The Persian historical tradition does not recognise British Imperial authority, nor do Persians in general- a highly doubtful addition to the maps.
4. Greenland. There was a brief visit by Frobisher’s crew, but there was neither settlement nor sovereignty by England or Britain. Greenland has been either Danish or self-governing at various points in recent history, so inclusion as a British imperial domain would appear farfetched.
5. Antarctica. It was and continues to be explored by many nations and their scientists, owned and controlled by none. The moon was explored and walked upon by Americans, yet this does not make it US territory, likewise for Antarctica. This has never been an issue for us in particular, but some of our maps in school did indicate Antarctica as a British territory in some fashion.
6. India, Pakistan and Burma. A puzzle when it comes to drawing Imperial borders due both to waxing and waning European powers and the Princely (Native) States issue. The Native States and the British Empire seem to have been defined in mutual exclusivity to each other, and Indians and Burmese are adamant that the former were never domains of any of the European powers in the Subcontinent. (Residents of Hyderabad for example often insist, rightly or wrongly, that their economic success owes to its unbroken independence.) This view appears to be borne out by the historical record. Whilst there was an unequal power balance between the Maharajas and the Europeans, the Native States manifested all the trappings of sovereign countries: minting their own coins, signing treaties or alliances with the European powers (Dutch, French, Portuguese as well as British), saluting their rulers, voluntarily joining India after 1947 and citing an unbroken historical tradition that often predates even the arrival of Vasco da Gama. These States, as well as the largely ungoverned frontier of NW Pakistan, constitute close to one half of the land and population of India/Pakistan and a large segment of Burma too.
7. Nepal. The courage and loyalty of the Gurkhas are legend, but Nepal itself was not ruled by the East India Company or the Crown despite some maps showing otherwise. Perhaps because of those very same Gurkhas fighting Western armies.
8. Egypt and Sudan. Another notoriously ambiguous case, and both tests would seem to argue against inclusion. Nelson crushed Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir Bay, then Muhammad Ali’s Ottoman Albanian forces defeated the British in the Alexandria Expedition of the early 1800’s. So from there on, Egypt remained fully outside of the period’s leading Imperial powers. Things get murky with the Suez Canal however, and especially from 1882. Undoubtedly the British exercised some sway in Egypt from that point, but the authorities in London always insisted that occupation was temporary, in support of Egypt’s rulers. They did not formally include it within the British Empire, Egyptian affairs being conducted from the Foreign Ministry rather than the Colonial Office. Such tiptoeing was perhaps a function of delicate power balances and other European influence, but insisting that Egypt was “de facto” within the Empire incurs the same problems that arise with Americans arguing that their network of bases and influence are de facto imperial domains. The French also exercised influence in Egypt especially after de Lesseps, but declaring them an imperial power is likewise problematic.
9. Elsewhere in Africa. Tanganyika, Somaliland and Cameroon, in whole or in part, had Protectorate status, but many maps and articles omit them from the British Empire proper, certainly a different status as compared to Kenya or Sierra Leone. We’re not sure what to make of these, and we haven’t encountered strong opinions by these countries’ nationals either way, but there does not seem to have been much of an administration here.
10. Canada and Australia. Various issues harped on here: degree of control in aboriginal regions and sparsely-populated lands, autonomous regions, Dominion Status, connection to Empire after 1867 and 1901. Most of these do not seem to matter much. The Romans among other empires frequently issued grants of autonomous status to aboriginal peoples. The issue of the uncharted islands is much more problematic. Otto Sverdrup, Roald Amundsen and Knud Rasmussen were all exploring uncharted lands about the Northwest Passage well after Canada’s independence in 1867, and some of their findings led to territorial disputes well into the 20th century. Norway laid claim to some of the discovered territories well after the Hudson’s Bay Company and London had relinquished control.
There is an enormous sweep of territory and population in these increasingly questionable inclusions, and so it would seem that the British Empire at its height would have been not only well smaller than the Mongol Empire, but perhaps smaller than the Iberian empire after fusion of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the 1500’s and 1600’s. Would be interested to see how the historians address these.