The Beginnings of the British Empire: Slave Trade and their Colonies

The British Empire was one of the longest standing and biggest Empires of the modern world and was part of the power structure amongst the Major Powers in Europe, leading into the 19th Century. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and to some extent Germany, the Netherlands and even Belgium, had colonial possessions and protectorates, in Africa, Southeast Asia and North America, as Britain held Canada after the brief war of 1812, between America and Great Britain.

Otto von Bismarck had instigated the Berlin Conference in 1884, amongst many of the Major Powers with the intent of carving up the African continent amongst several European nations. Von Bismarck originally held a dim and disinterested view on the possibility of German colonial possessions, he thought them too expensive to administer, before and after the unification of Germany but was persuaded to change his mind in the late 1870’s.

The British Empire like many before it would also reach its twilight and fade into obscurity, leaving behind the Common Wealth of Nations, countries and states that were once part of the Empire.


The Beginnings of the British Empire: Slave Trade and their Colonies

The Beginnings of the British Empire: Slave Trade and their Colonies

Also Read: The Wars of German Unification (1805-1871)

The Empire is believed to have started during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500’s. Elizabeth would task the famous explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585 to set up a colony on Roanoke Island in what is today modern America. The colonies inhabitants had several difficulties to contend with, chiefly a lack of trust between the local natives and the settlers which often ended in violence, the colony could not survive its circumstances and was closed in 1590. King James I’s venture to Virginia in 1607, would succeed but as a commercial handling and shipping base only.

Jamestown would be a direct raw material source to his, The Virginia Company, which created much needed revenue for Britain, unfortunately the Virginia Company would cease trading in due course through the high costs of shipping and trading. One in five citizens during the height of the Empire at the time would become British colonial subjects. Four hundred million subjects were essentially under British rule by 1913.

Britain believed in spreading Christianity and the British way of life, gaining more capital through new colonies and in efforts to ‘civilize’ the new world. Britain would gain and lose colonies over the years. Portugal and Spain were the earliest powers in Europe to explore and colonize territories on the South American, Southeast Asian Basin and African continents. Britain’s colonial possessions were in the America’s, Australasia, Asia and Africa.

The colonial treatment of the British Empire and its administrators was often cruel and violent. Britain wished to gain the wealth that Spain enjoyed, but both powers used the same direct methods, particularly through the slave trade.

The British monarch and with it, the government became envious of the Iberian Peninsula’s interest and success in exploration and colonization, so it was that Britain started its own exploration and eventual colonial empire. Spain for example, controlled 80 percent of the worlds silver refining and trade at its height, mostly extracted from South America in vast quantities.

The need to find new sources of raw materials was certainly a major driving factor, as Britain, Holland, and Portugal would set up their own trading companies that would manage the shipping, handling, and distribution of materials. Shipping trade routes to India and who controlled them were also important to powers who wished to monopolize them, especially during conflicts.

A number of these enterprises were called East India Companies in England Portugal and Holland. James I in England took great personal interest in the Virginia Company in James Town Virginia, North America in 1607. The British-East India company was operated from and controlled by the government in London. The Dutch East India company generally preferred to and operated in South America, the southern tip of Africa and in Southeast Asia.

Holland did not want confrontations nor could the Dutch defend their interests at sea with other major powers, the loss of shipping as booty to privateers from Britain and France, not an acceptable consequence of plying the trade routes. The Dutch East India Company or known generally as the VOC, lasted until 1798 when it went bankrupt in Amsterdam. Britain had 13 colonies in North America by 1774, but the American Revolutionary War of 1775-79 ended Britain’s control there, so the government in London promoted the further expansion of the Empire.

In the scramble for Africa in the 1880’s, the British Empire would control 30 percent of Africa’s population, but blotted their own copy book by destroying several African kingdoms in the process. When the British colonised the Kingdom of Benin, they exiled the kingdoms leaders, looted the kingdoms treasures, and burnt down much of Benin city killing many of its citizens. The Empire was not as many colonial empires were, averse to atrocities in the colonies for gain.

Portugal’s exploration and trading period lasted for 150 years, from the very early 1300’s – 1554, or the greater part of the 14-15th Century. Portugal would lose its brief Empire, based chiefly on exploration, trading and slavery, due to bankruptcy. It was never to rise again.


The Slave Trade

The trade in slaves from many locations around the world via the sea and ocean routes, started as soon as the Major Powers in Europe put fleets on the high seas, although Africa was used mainly for the capture and transportation of slaves by Portugal and England.

Britain had a strong naval and maritime structure and trade early on. The strength of Britain’s Royal Navy could not be equaled by any other European nation, before and after the Napoleonic wars, Britain’s fleet grew stronger. With the capabilities of the navy and its dominance on the major oceans, Britain soon became literally in control of all the ocean routes of all five continents.

Slave trading had been going on during the times of the Roman Republic BCE. Captured soldiers and population groups would be moved to mainland Italy or used in conquered territories as slave labour. The same too happened during the time of the ancient civilisations. The Islamic traders also kept, sold, and traded in slaves during the early centuries ADE, most via routes on land, from the Mediterranean, and in  North and Central Africa. The slave trade in Britain had been in use before the Roman occupation of the Island, up until the 11th century.

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066, gradually merged the pre-conquest institution of slavery into serfdom - or the peasants. Because of Britain’s maritime power, British merchants were a significant force behind the Atlantic Sea Trade, especially between the 16th – 19th Century. British slavers practiced the trade between the African West coast and the West Indies. Slave traders such as Henry Colston were dominant personalities of the slave trade in England.

The Portuguese slave trade would be centered on Africa and Brazil. A significant slave Abolitionist Movement formed in the 18th-19th century. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 essentially abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but slave trading did continue. It was not until 1833 and the Slavery Abolition Act, that slavery as an institution was abolished in Britain and the Empire.


The Empire and India

In 1757 the British East India Company began to control much of India. The capital that was made from the exploitation of local rulers and rural workers, which would feed the progression of the Industrial Revolution, was a strong motivation for the British Government to control Asia. India would become an official colony of Great Britain in 1858. India was described as the Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire.

Indian workers would also be sent to other parts of the Empire such as South Africa, in 1867, 364 Indian labourers were sent to the colony due to a shortage of labour there. The South African Indian community today was founded on these workers.

India had been a large state even before Britain had absorbed the country into the Empire. India’s population was about 300 million during the empire. Britain gained much economic advantages from its association with India, trading and exporting to this huge market during its time in the Empire.

India had been trading for many centuries during the ancient Neolithic period as had China, with parts of Africa and through the Spice Routes with Asia minor and Europe.  Everything from fine cloths and furniture were traded for ivory and precious minerals.

In the 1700 and 1800’s, India experienced several extensive draughts and famines, which took many lives, this had been the same before British rule, but British policies often made the situation worse. The British Raj forced Indians into growing crops such as tea, which was sold at high prices internationally. The indigenous Indian population were stricken by famine during periods of poor weather, which effected the crop yield and a shortage of food, causing mass starvation. On several occasions, millions of indigenous people died when the British administration did not organise large enough relief efforts.

The punishment for uprisings were severe, uprisings and anti-British riots were punished by execution and in some cases the open shooting of civilians during protests, such as the massacre at Amritsar. India also had a large army, which the British were able to call upon in times of conflict for the British Empire. Indian soldiers fought with the British during several conflicts, including the Anglo-Boer War and World Wars I and II.

The British held their own foreign office governors who lived separately from the local populace and who insisted that the indigenous languages of the colonial people was of lesser importance, with the colonial subjects forced to converse mainly in English. Many ex-colonies years later still converse in English, so too, do  the old French colonies in Africa, Haiti and some parts of Southeast Asia.


Conflict in the colonies

During the period of the Empire several internal wars occurred which meant that Britain would need to station British Army units to quell uprisings and wars. In 1889, the three Dutch Boer Republics objected to British colonial rule in the three free states of Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Natal. Their leaders President Paul Kruger and President Martinus Steyn of the Orange Free State became resistance leaders after declaring war against the British regular forces in the Transvaal and the Free State.

Britain’s administration had tried to annex and control the whole of Southern Africa for the Empire. The Boer settlers did not want to be under British rule and set up the three Republics independently. The trek or migration of over 10,000 Boer farmers and families further North into literally unknown territory from 1832 – 1838, when the biggest of the migrations occurred in 1838, meant that these settlers wanted their own autonomy from the Cape Peninsula and British rule.

When gold and diamonds were discovered in the Transvaal mainly in the early 1870’s, the British administration supported by the mining magnate and Englishman Cecil John Rhodes wanted to annex the three Boer states, and claim Southern Africa for the British Empire, the Boers vehemently objected. The British Army was sent to march on the Transvaal capital Pretoria. The Boers under President Paul Kruger declared war on Great Britain and a civil war ensued in 1889.

Rhodes wanting a British Empire which he believed should rule from Cairo to Cape Town. The native population was caught in the middle with the Boers treating them as servants, labourers, and slaves without integration into the republics in which they lived and the British exploiting them as labourers with no rights.

The British Army experienced some disastrous battles against the Boer Army and lost the war. A treaty was signed in which the Boer Republics would govern their own affairs, with the right to maintain their two main capitals. Pretoria and Bloemfontein. The indigenous population were not included in the treaty’s provisions.

The British did not leave South Africa and built up a large military contingent to consolidate their expenditure in Southern Africa. War broke out again, ten years later as the Boer leaders objected to further incursions into the Boer Free States. War would be declared again in 1899. The British Army lost certain important battles again but gained the upper hand with more experience and a greater army available to them, under General Kitchener.

The Boer Republics lost the conflict in 1902 and shortly after this a new South African Union as a country was formed under very astute thinkers and leaders such as General Louis Botha and Jan Christian Smuts, who saw the value of a united country. Both would become Presidents of the Union of South Africa, both becoming world renowned and respected, Particularly Jan Smuts.


The Empire and the economy

Britain’s Colonial Empire at the end of the 19th century was effected at home with economic down turns and the effect of stronger and more competitive economies amongst the other powers in Europe, as the extent of the Industrial Revolution reached its heights.

The colonies contributions could not change the poor economic woes Britain was experiencing and was in fact evident during the latter part of the 19th century, with Britain’s economy fluctuating up and down. The colonies would with time, cost more to administer than the income that came from them could provide.

The Empire started to wane during the period just after the second Boer War and during the very volatile reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Britain’s Naval power was reduced during the provisions of The North Atlantic Naval Treaty, agreed to by the United States, Great Britain and France and Japan.

The treaty restricted the number of capital ships the Royal Navy could use in the future, the idea being that defensive navies from several friendly nations, including the United States could protect the Atlantic Ocean routes in unison to its own interests in America.

Britain could concentrate as necessary in the North Sea and the English Channel if necessary, but could provide protection to its colonies if needed. The intent was to open an opportunity to grow the United States Navy as a world military power and allow European  signatory states the opportunity to build their own sea power equally.

As the British Empire was nearing its end, it was considerably also a very wise economic choice for the British Admiralty. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Germany were not involved in the treaty in Europe, and its provisions, as he would not accept being party to German arms reduction or maritime controls.

Wilhelm believed that Germany should be as equal if not a greater naval force than the Royal Navy, a threat the Major Powers in Europe took very seriously, as he had increased the German Kaiserliche Marine considerably without restriction, using  German submarine warfare very capably at will through Europe and the Atlantic during World War I.

His surface fleet performed well at the unexpected Battle of Coronel against a Royal Naval force, off the coast of Chile, South America in November 1914, under Vice Admiral Maximillian von Spee and his East Asia Fleet, of the Kaiserliche Marine expeditionary force. Von Spee, met Royal Navy commander Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock.

The battle would quickly be concluded, initiated when Vice-Admiral Sir Cradock was in the process of capturing German possessions. Cradock lost 3 ships and von Spee none. The incident shocked Britain and the Admiralty sent a much stronger force to destroy von Spee’s fleet. They met at the Battle Of The Falklands off the South American coast line in December 1914, where von Spee’s fleet was decisively beaten.

The Kaisers Fleet overall would be disappointing as it was only used in a single large naval force  engagement at the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea 31 May 1916, and never used again throughout WWI. It would remain in German ports until late 1918.

France and Belgium during World War I were the centres of the conflict in the First World War as a theatre of stalemate between the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s attacking force and the French, British and Commonwealth forces opposing them. Both Germany and Great Britain used vast amounts of horse driven equipment more mainly military and other logistical tasks.

As the war went on Germany started to run out of fresh  horses from the German state. Great Britain and the allies had a larger source of horses available to them in the trenches, from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. The availability of horses would be one of several contributing factors that would force the eventual surrender of Imperial Germany late in 1918.


World War II

The British Empire would more directly reduce its possessions  before the Second War World began, primarily  because of the effects on the economy of Great Britain during the Great Depression of 1929, and the unrecovered military costs of conflict with Imperial Germany in the 1914-18 War.

Britain had not been able to recover effectively after the First World War, the economy was still recovering from the effects of the great depression and a government geared to preventing another Great War. Britain was not prepared for a new arms race, at home and amongst members of the Commonwealth, focusing more on the countries National Industrial Economy, and the need to dismantle  the Empire.

With the outbreak of World War II, having declared war on Nazi Germany during the attack on Poland, Britain would have to accept that an alliance of the Commonwealth Nations was needed once again, even perhaps drawing on the United States of America to assist once again.

Britain would fight Nazi Germany in the air to prevent the Nazi German Luftwaffe air force, from trying to destroy and capture the British Isles. This did not happen, Commonwealth pilots and those from occupied territories would join the Royal Airforce and in less than one year, destroyed much of and defeated the German Luftwaffe.

With the joining of the United States once again as in World War I, the joint alliances would remove Nazi German forces from Western Europe. The greater success of the attacking Red Army forces would push the invading Nazi Army back towards its own borders in Russia and Eastern Europe, into East Prussia and into Germany proper where the capital of Nazi Germany was destroyed, and its remnants finally surrendered on 10 May 1945.



Britain would go through changes in its Empire in the late 1940’s. Palestine in the middle East would still be British but there was Nationalist agitations for independence. Israel became a new state after the Jewish Nationalists under David Ben-Gurion, the Nationalist Jewish leader became the new Sovereign state of Israel’s first Prime Minister in 1948.

India also wanted independence from Britain, with the marvelous unselfish work of Mahatma Gandhi, assisting the people and Government in England to create a peaceful and non-violent transition into the new state of India.

Mahatma Gandhi first became noticed as an Indian lawyer in the Union of South Africa in the early 1920’s, with his method of silent protest in the country, standing up to abuse and racist state excesses. India gained its independence on August 15th, 1947, although with that the Hindu Indians would split into their own Islamic State of Pakistan, as its new neighbor.


The Winds of Change Speech 

The British Prime Minister Sir Harold MacMillan had made a visit to Africa for a month to visit several colonial African states on 03rd February 1960. He would make the famous speech whilst on a visit to South Africa. The intention of the British labour government at that time was to commit to granting independence to many old African colonial possessions, by the British Government.

South Africa would receive its independence on 31 March 1961. Other states further north in Africa would receive such independence between 1961 – 1966, thus effectively ending the British Empires colonial control in Africa.

Other colonial possessions were also given their independence in the Far East and parts of the middle East, during the 1950’s – early 1960’s, especially when the Suez Canal was commissioned and opened, between North Africa and the Mediterranean.



The period of the British Empire was a long-standing affair with many changes and unpleasantries involved during its time, of rule and administration. The British Empire though did some good out of the Empire one could say in other ways. Imperial Germany could not expand rapidly throughout Europe which was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s ambitions for the Greatest German Empire ever.

The need for self-determination was a slower process for many colonies especially in Africa. The Commonwealth of Nations from the era, also held their own national pride but that too in recent times has also been seen as outdated.

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