Democracy And The British Empire Essay Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: England, India, Government, Company, Politics, Colony, Democracy, Zealand

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2020/12/17


“”Democracy’ means government of the people, by the people and for the people; ‘empire’ does little more than describe a state exempt from outside interference. The on connotes internal autonomy, the other external sovereignty; the terms are complementary, not contradictory” (Hearnshaw 1920, p. 19). Hearnshaw a professor a British professor of history. This quote is from a lecture he gave at the Royal Colonia Institute in 1920. He was trying to justify the concepts of “democracy” and “empire” and their coexistence. What he failed to explain was the lack of democracy for the indigenous populations of the territories and countries the British incorporates into their empire.
At the height of the British Empire during the Nineteenth century, England boasted colonies and territories in the Caribbean Sea, North America, South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the Pacific Ocean. England began amassing these lands when they began exploring the Atlantic Ocean and colonized the eastern edge of North America. They were in fervent competition with Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands.
Exploration of the world began during the 15th century when Europeans decided they needed to find a more direct route to Asia so that regular trade could be stabled. Marco Polo’s excursion to the Far East was a difficult trip by land and through many hostile locations. The conception that the world was indeed a sphere and not a flat plane, offered hope and promise to find a quick, oceanic route to Asia. When Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean (what we now call the Bahamas), he coined the term “Indians” to describe the inhabitants, thinking he had arrived in India. The next one hundred years saw a race to explore and claim as much of this New World as possible. Battles, attack and skirmishes were common among the European powers over rights and claims to parcels of land.


England established its first permanent colony, Jamestown in 1606. It was established as part of the London Company (later it became known as the Virginia Company). The company was incorporated for the purpose of establishing this new colony and growing tobacco. England would use this same strategy in other colonies using incorporated companies such as the East India Company in India and the Plymouth Company in Massachusetts (Gascoingne 2001).
The Jamestown colony saw several years of strife and illness until the colony began to show signs of growth and stability. Their local government was a council of seven men with one chosen as president, who formed the government of the colony. The council was responsible to the company who in turn was responsible to monarch. The council changed presidents almost every year. The council was responsible for making laws and settling disputes. In Massachusetts, the Puritans were charged by the Massachusetts Bay Company to incorporate a similar style of government. Due to the strict religious beliefs of the Puritans, their governmental councils were actually a part of their church’s organization. Each town that sprang up around Boston had a church that was the heart and soul of the community. The men in power within the church, were also the men that compromised the local council. These system in theory were the rudimentary beginnings for democracy in America. Those who sat on the councils held their seat not based on birthright but on virtue. In reality, however, they operated as an oligarchy (Gascoingne 2001).

The Caribbean

The first colony in the Atlantic was an accident. In 1609 a ship bound for Jamestown was caught in a storm and shipwrecked on Bermuda. This was the beginning of the colony. Bermuda came under the supervision of the Virginia Company and later the Somers Isle Company. Like the colonies in America, Bermuda self-governed through the House of Assembly.
Over the next thirty years, England begins to acquire islands in the Caribbean as territories: St. Kitts; Barbados; Antigua; Nevis and Montserrat. In 1655, England invades Jamaica and takes it from Spain (Fraser 2003, p. 357). The islands prove to be lucrative for the growing of sugar. By this time, disease had annihilated the natives of these islands. Plantation owners were desperately in need of laborers to work the sugar plantations. The Dutch introduce slave trade to the region. Jamaica becomes the major hub and market for the slave trade Gascoigne 2001).
The dominant form of government was the House of Assembly made up of wealthy landowners. A British appointed governor oversaw the operations of the island and the assemblies. Later on islands that had very small populations of white plantation owners such as, Dominica, Grenada and the Grenadines which were ceded by France after war and later the islands of the Bahamas were all under the rule of a British appointed governor. Some of the islands did have assemblies and there were a variety of residual local governments but for all practical purposes, the governors rules the islands. The islands of the Caribbean were grouped as the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands (Meditz & Hanratty 1987).
The assemblies on the islands were not particularly effective and England was wary of them. Not all members of these assemblies were English or white. The wealthy plantation class was becoming a smaller and smaller minority on the islands. Finally in 1865, a riot in Jamaica resulted in the British establishing Crown Colonies on several of the islands. Although there is truth in the perception that this type of rule was for the benefit of the colonists through social, educational and economic reforms, this style of government was narrowed the social base of political power (Meditz & Hanratty 1987).

The Dominions: Canada, Australia and New Zealand

John Cabot first discovered Newfoundland and/or Cape Breton in 1497 and claimed them for England. The attraction to the area was the rich fishing waters. Between 1534 and 1535 Jacques Cartier explored and claimed land inland near what is now known as Quebec for France. France had claimed Canada and named it New France. The first settlement in Canada by the French was located near Dochet Island and later another settlement near the Bay of Fundy by Samuel de Champlain in 1604. These settlement were not successful. Under the Treaty of Ultrecht signed in 1713, France gave fishing right and most of the eastern coast to Britain. The French and the British both occupied separate regions of Canada for many years. It was a tense and uneasy situation. Finally in 1763, France ceded all of its claims on Canada to England in the Treaty of Paris. In 1867, England passed the British North America Act that made Canada a dominion of England.
The British North America Act granted ultimate sovereignty to the British monarchy. Canada’s government is a federal state with a democratic parliament. The British North America Act created the style of government that has been in place to this day. The head executive is the prime minister who is elected by the populous. The French and the British did have their differences and problems with each other, but they did learn to coexist and negotiate with each other. Based on America’s form of federal and democratic government, Canada was the first British colony to be granted a democratic form of government (Wrong 1917).
Australia was claimed in 1770 by John Cook who had landed on the east coast. In 1778, the first settlers arrived in Botany Bay and established the first penal colony on the continent. It was called New South Wales. Several more colonies were established on the continent including: Tasmania; Victoria and New South Australia. The colonies were run by autocratic governors who were appointed to their positions. During the early 1850’s, the colonies were granted self-rule democracies and constitutions. In 1901, Australia became a commonwealth of Britain. The colonies were renamed states and a bicameral legislative democracy was established. The government is headed by prime minister and his cabinet (History of Australia 2014).
After Cook’s exploration and claiming of Australia in 1770, he also explored the coast of New Zealand and proclaimed it too was a territory of Britain. For the next thirty years or so, New Zealand was a stopping point for many explorers as a place to rest and recoup before continuing on with their journeys to other lands. Many Europeans who came into contact with the natives of New Zealand, the Maoris, met with disasters and death. The Maoris are now seen as defending themselves and they were often mistreated or deceived by the Europeans. During the early 1800’s Europeans and Americans arrived in New Zealand for the whaling and timber and other natural resources. The British slowly began to settle New Zealand in the early 19th century. The New Zealand Company was founded in 1837 to begin official colonization of New Zealand. Relations with Maoris was generally positive although there were occasional altercations. In 1839, the New Zealand Company sent William Hodson to New Zealand. He was charged with convincing the Maoris to cede to the English Crown. The governor of New South Wales in Australia was appointed the governor of New Zealand as well. In 1840, many Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British government. The treaty assured rights and freedoms for all Maori. This was a first for England. Instead of wiping out (purposefully or through disease) an indigenous people, they made them equals in society. New Zealand became an official colony in 1841 and was given some autonomy in 1852 with the New Zealand Constitution Act


The relationship between Britain and India is long and complex. Unlike other colonies and settlements where the native peoples were smaller in population and easier to fight or control, India was a huge country with a complex society, effective rulers and a very large and diverse population. The British East Indies Company was founded in 1599 with the sole purpose of quiet and successful trade. In the earliest days, the English were in direct competition with the Dutch and the Portuguese, but after a few years, the company began to become a powerful force in India and the surrounding lands.
In 1612, Sit Thomas Roe entered an agreement with the Mughal Emperor, Nurrudin Salim to set up a factory and living quarters in Surat. Portuguese bases of operation such as Bombay were turned over to Britain for the marriage of Catherine de Braganza to King Charles II. Bases were also established in Madras and Calcutta. A joint maritime attack with the Dutch East Indies Company won ports on the coast of China as well.
There was always a power struggle between the Company and Parliament. At one point in 1698, Parliament created a new competitor, the East India Trading Company. Within a couple of years, however, the companies merged and became one entity. Fighting between the French and English was causing many difficulties. The resulting Seven Years War (1756-1763) had consequences for France all over the globe. In India, they lost any hold or control, Britain and the East India Company gained control of trade with India (Val 2007).
The Company expanded the number of soldiers they had from 3,000 in 1750 to over 67,000 in 1778. The effectively defeated resistance from smaller princes and expanded the company’s control. In 1757, Robert Clive defeated Siraj ud Daulah in Bengal. This greatly upset the Emperor (Siraj was his ally) and caused a fissure in the relationship between the Mughal and the British. Over the next 100 years, the role of the Company began to evolve into an administrator of the region and not so much as a trading business.
The attitude of the British towards the Indians was divided and debated. One faction were tolerant and accepting of the natives, their language and their culture. They allowed them to take positions within the government. The other side refused to acknowledge the natives and their culture and would remove them from office when they were in power. This conflict continued for nearly 80 years. This began to allow the widening of the gap between the British and the Indians (Val 2007).
Missionaries were also causing problems. Although their intentions to convert the Indians to Christianity was a noble intention, the Indians grew increasingly resentful of the practice. They already had established religions, Hindu and Islam and did not want to be converted. The introduction of the railroad, technology and business practices flew in the face of traditional Indian lifestyles. These tensions resulted in a mutiny in 1857. A misunderstanding resulted in a huge rebellion that the British were able to quash quickly. This turn of events led to the dissolution of the Company and direct British rule of India.
In 1858, the Government of India Act was passed. It made major changes to the way government would be structured in India. The imperial government was located in London with Queen Victoria as empress. Also located in London was the Secretary of State for India and a 15 member Council of India. The Secretary made decisions but had to consult the Council. In Calcutta, the Governor General or Viceroy, remained the head of the government there and directly responsible to the Secretary. The Councils Act allowed for a Legislative Council in India made up of 12 members, 6 were British officials and 6 were Britons and Indians who were not allowed to vote. The smaller princely states of India were loyal to the British and abided by their laws (Butler 2007).
In 1937, the Council of India was discontinued and a modified system was put in place. The Secretary of State acted as a representative for India in London and was assisted by a group of 8 to 12 advisers. The Viceroy of India was appointed by the monarch and was assisted by his Executive Council. Eventually a Legislative Assembly of 141 members was created. The Indian National Congress was established in 1885. Their actions began the movement towards independence. Initially, their goal was to obtain more rights for Indians and more say in government, but over the years the focus was increasingly on complete independence (Ganguly 2011).
The Indian National Congress was effective in making the changes needed to obtain independence for India from British Rule. This Congress had already had many years of practice at debate and compromise. When it became the official congress for India, it was ready to perform. The Indian Constitution drew heavily from the American and Irish Constitutions as well as British law (Ganguly 2011).


The first colonists in South Africa were the Huguenots form the Netherlands. They settled the area and conveniently enslaved the local black population. This population became known as the Afrikaners or Boers. The English took control of the area in the early 1800’s. South Africa proved to be a problem for the British between the Boers and local tribes. South Africa had their own legislature and managed themselves. The British were not interested in South Africa as a colony, they were merely protecting their rout to India and the Far East.
England also had control of Egypt and Sudan as part of their empire. These were key holdings for the British because of their strategic locations in relation to the Suez Canal, Europe’s direct route to India and the East. British rule began in 1882. British rule took the form of a protectorate. They had established themselves in Egypt to protect their interests. The British could not control Egypt, there were continuous uprisings and protests. Britain finally withdrew in 1947.


At the beginning of England’s rise to power in the global politics there was no democracy and there was no globe. England, along with Spain, Portugal, the Dutch and the French were on the leading edge of exploration, discovery and colonization. Their motives in the beginning were to find a quick and efficient sea route to the Far East and establish trade. Their surprise and awe when they discovered the New World in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s had them considering new options for development of these lands.
Democracy was not a form of government in place at the time. The British had their Parliament which was the closest form of a democracy that existed. The philosophies of John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau were pioneers in a government that is created by man to serve man. It was the Thirteen English Colonies who were founded by England 170 years earlier, to form a democratic government.
England also approached each of its colonies with very different views and actions. The native tribes of America did not pose much of a threat to the British colonists who eventually settled and took over in America. The natives of the Caribbean Islands were wiped out by disease. Africans were stolen from their home and forced into slavery. The settlement of Australia was also quite unremarkable and the Aboriginals were easily pushed inland.
Oher areas were much more complex. New Zealand’s Maori were a tightly knit and organized group. South Africa was composed of the Afrikaners of Dutch heritage and several different African tribes that had their own established societies. Egypt and India represented societies that were incredibly complex and in place for thousands of years.
The British in some cases acted with restraint and tried to encourage independent colonies that had a modicum of “democracy”, such was the case with the councils of Massachusetts and Jamestown. In the case of India, the British felt they know what was best for the Indians and stepped in ready to fight and force their European ways on these populations. As the idea of democracy grew, with its success in America and eventually France. Many countries aspired to this ideal as well. This led to the decline and eventual demise of the British Empire.


Butler, Chris 2007, British Rule in India (c. 1600-1947) Available from:
Fraser, Rebecca 2003, The Story of Britain from the Romans to the Present: a Narrative
History, WW Norton & Company, New York.
Ganguly, Sumit 2011, The Story of Indian Democracy, Foreign Policy Research Institute vol. 16, no. 5, pp. 1-4.
Gascoingne, Bamber from 2001, History of the British Empire. Available from:
Hearnshaw, FJC 1920, Democracy and the British Empire, Constable & Company, London.
History of Australia, 2014. Available from:
History of New Zealand, 1769-1914, 2015. Available from:
Meditz, Sandra and Hanratty, Dennis, 1987. Caribbean Islands: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress. Available from:
Val, Lanay, 2007, British India Available from:
Wrong, GM 1917, ‘The Creation of the Federal System in Canada’ The Federation of Canada 1867-1917 Oxford University Press, Toronto, pp. 1-38.

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