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The Invention of the Modern World 2.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

WE START WITH brute force. The energy which projected what I shall argue was an unusual and early modernity through the world came through political, economic and imperial domination.  For most of the most influential period of British history, the ‘long’ nineteenth century (about 1780-1914), the British Navy ‘ruled the waves’. England had been a serious trading nation from the twelfth century. After the final victory over their main rivals, the Dutch, in the eighteenth century, and then over Napoleon at the start of the nineteenth, the British navy and merchant fleets were unchallenged until the early twentieth century.

This takes us into the curious history of British warfare. There are several significant features of the role of war in British history. One is that England has been almost constantly at war over the last thousand years. For example, in the 126 years between 1689 and 1815, when the industrial and agricultural revolutions were at their height, England was at war for 73 years.1 Sorokin published a table which shows that England in the period 1100 to 1900 was at war for more than half the time.2

Battle of Omdurman. Click images to enlarge.

England was part of one of the most war-like civilizations in history. The constant warfare in Europe was different from the long periods of peace in Japan or China. The constant recurrent strife led to rapid technological and scientific evolution through a process of Darwinian selectionary pressures – the survival of the ‘fittest’. Guns, boats, navigation, knowledge of physics and chemistry, all rapidly improved. The ships which crushed the Chinese in the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century were enormously different from the primitive medieval boats which would have been no match for a Chinese armada in the fourteenth century. So England benefited from the positive effects – but others paid the cost. Thus, at the battle of Omdurman, the British had six Maxim guns. The result was 28 British dead, and eleven thousand of their enemies were slaughtered.3

Being an island, England tended to fight her wars on other people’s territories. From the medieval wars in Scotland, Wales and France, through to the eighteenth century wars in the Americas or India, she fought abroad – and brought the plunder home. Invaders did not periodically destroy the British cities and crops.

Even within the country the civil wars were relatively mild. The Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century and the seventeenth century English Civil War were by European or Asian standards small affairs. There was  nothing like the horrors of the Taiping or Boxer rebellions in England.

The English were exceptionally fortunate within Europe: France, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe were constantly subjected to terrible warfare, for example in the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century something like one third of the population of Germany was destroyed – and much of the infrastructure. Yet England, peaceful at home and guarded by its navy and mercenary soldiers, profited from the wars.

I shall come back to this under the heading of ‘law and violence’ when I describe a law-abiding, peaceful country with few weapons or forts, and no standing army and an unarmed police force. Yet it was also one of the most belligerent and confrontational of nations. The foundation of the British Empire was force – military and economic, based on superior technology.

EUROPE WITH ITS highly diverse ecology, economy and political units was long accustomed to widespread trade. And within this complex, the British Isles was particularly fortunate. In Britain itself, the micro-differences between different parts of the country, as well as the deeply indented coastline and hence the cheapness of water and sea transport made it particularly propitious for trading. It was also fortunate in that it was situated, like a northern Venice, as a fulcrum for trade from Scandinavia, much of continental Europe, and later the Americas and, by way of the Cape of Good Hope, the Far East.

Even in the Anglo-Saxon period, England was a serious trading nation and even more so in the medieval period. Yet it was from the sixteenth century with the opening up of the Americas and the Indies, that trade became the central thread of British wealth.

As Tocqueville put it in a note: ‘For manufacture and trade are the best-known means, the quickest and the safest to become rich. Newton said that he found the world’s system by thinking about it the whole time. By doing the same, the English have got hold of the trade of the whole world’.4 It was a point which had also been made by Voltaire a century earlier: ‘What has made the English powerful is the fact that from the time of Elizabeth, all parties have agreed on the necessity of favoring commerce. The same parliament that had the King beheaded was busy with overseas trading posts as though nothing had happened.’5

The great theorist of commercial empires was Adam Smith. Teaching in Glasgow, Smith discussed with the sea captains and merchants the mechanisms of trade in the great Atlantic trade with the West Indies. He described trade as the foundation of the richest commercial nation the world had ever known, synthesizing this in 1786 with the publication of The Wealth of Nations. His basic assumption, stated near the start of the book, was that human beings are traders and exchangers, socially contractual creatures. He believed that Britain had the good fortune to be a ‘nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers’.6 The English were, along with the much smaller Dutch or Italian republics, the first to pioneer the idea of a whole country basing its wealth chiefly on trade rather than military predation.

This trade began to spread all over the world and some recent writers such as Pomerantz have argued that it was the colonial trade of the expanding British Empire which accounts for what they believe to be the sudden ‘divergence’ between the west and China after 1800. It is therefore worth reminding ourselves that most of the wealth from trade up until 1800 was derived from inter-European trade. The point has been made recently by Joseph Bryant. ‘The revisionist position also misleadingly discounts the preponderant role of intra-European trade, which dwarfed in volume and value all colonial exchanges. Even for England, the world’s foremost trading nation by 1800, commerce beyond the bounds of Europe contributed less than 10% to the English total … And as economic historians have extensively documented, it was not the comparative cheapness of colonial resources that provided Europeans with their decisive advantage, but the astounding productivity gains that came with mechanization and the factory organization of labour.’7

THIS TRADE WAS based on power, on an underpinning of military force and organization and it was when war and trade came together that one of the most distinctive of British contributions to world history, a new kind of Empire, emerged.

Most Empires in history have been military and ideological. The desire to conquer, pre-date, absorb peoples in pursuit of an ideology or as a source of power and wealth, or to prevent external attacks, are the main motives. The main oddness of the accidental Empire that emerged in Britain was that its primary goal was, as befits a nation ruled by shopkeepers, to make money. This switch from the military and religious empires of previous imperial powers, to the kind of Empire which has characterized the world in the twentieth century, American and now Chinese economic imperialism is one of the turning points in history.

Being an island with no wealthy continental neighbours to conquer, once the English had absorbed Wales and Scotland, it became evident, certainly after the defeats in France in the fifteenth century, that it was too expensive to hold onto large European territories by force. The costs would far outweigh the benefits. There were no military advantages, nor were there any particular ideological advantages. For a calculating shopkeeper it was a bad deal. So the overseas possessions in France, the first and only true military empire which England had owned, were abandoned in the fifteenth century.

Instead, the English let their trade find its own territories. They sucked in the wealth of the new equatorial crops particularly sugar, opium, cotton, tea, tobacco, coffee and later rubber. They found or forced markets for their manufactured goods. These products were particularly important as the industrial revolution proceeded from the later eighteenth century and profits could be made by mass production.

The first great step was in America. One part was in the colonization of North America and Canada. The deep structure of North America, its language, law, politics, class-structure, religion, kinship system, associational nature was all laid down by English colonists.8 In the twentieth century America would then spread out these values and institutions to the rest of the world as the power of Britain waned.

The other part of the second, American, Empire, was in the West Indies, and particularly Barbados and then Jamaica. In combination with the three-way trade of slaves, the sugar, coffee and tobacco trade was part of the basis of the wealth which Smith saw throwing up new and prosperous businesses in southern Scotland and along the west coast of England.

Then in the early nineteenth century the pivot of the British Empire moved from the second, American, Empire to the Third, in India and later Burma. This was won by conquest and force of arms mixed with diplomacy. There the wealth derived from cotton and opium – forced onto China in exchange for tea and silk – was the heart of East India Company profits. This third Empire was supplemented by the white Empire of Canada, Australia and New Zealand and to a certain extent Africa.

THE BRITISH EMPIRE was huge – almost a quarter of the land surface of the world in the middle of the nineteenth century. It endured for a long period, over three and a half centuries from the first settlements in North America. What was particularly striking is the fact that such a relatively small island with a population of only a few million could hold together such a vast Empire. It could not do so by sending native troops from England to hold down the numerous races and peoples it held, for there was no standing army in England, and it was a tiny country with very few who could be sent, even when Scotland, Wales and Ireland made their contributions. It could only provide a few thousand trained individuals for the whole Empire so it could only supply the very top of any administrative organization. So England had to develop a different strategy.

The effectiveness of this alternative is shown in the musings of one administrator who wondered aloud, why the British needed only 500 men to rule India, with its population of 300 million, while the French were unable to get by with less than 200 fonctionnaires for one and a half million Cambodians.9 Or, as George Orwell, who himself had been a policeman in Burma, wrote: ‘The Empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been. Throughout its vast extent, nearly a quarter of the earth, there were fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state.’10

So how was the Empire held together? The method was developed in India and then spread to the African colonies, namely the technique of  indirect or delegated rule. Power is devolved down and the energies and skills of local rulers are harnessed. The skill was in accomplishing the ‘difficult task of ruling without actually appearing to rule at all’. The essence, wrote a Lieutenant-Governor of Southern Nigeria, was ‘authority combined with self-effacement’.11 The archetype of this was the imperial hero, T.E.Lawrence, who ‘was entranced by the conviction that he was controlling the Arabs without their even realizing it’.12

The philosophy was later summarized for Africa by Frederick Lugard in The Dual Mandate when he wrote that the theory was necessary ‘when a few score are responsible for the control and guidance of millions.’

‘His courage must be undoubted, his word and pledge absolutely inviolate, his sincerity transparent. There is no room for “mean whites” in tropical Africa… They lower the prestige by which alone the white races can hope to govern and to guide.’ This would produce, for example, the ideal District Officer – ‘permanently on tour, manfully resistant to bureaucratic interference from headquarters’, and ‘winning the trust and loyalty of [his] charges by [his] integrity, fairness, firmness, and likeableness’.13

Much of the military force comes from local troops, recruited either within the British Empire, for example Punjabis or Sikh regiments, or in neighbouring states, as with the Gurkhas of Nepal. They were used to police the system under the direction of British officers. They were also employed as sepoys to force opium onto China or to help fright off threats to the Empire.

Let us compare the success of large imperial adventures. The Portuguese, Spanish and French modelled their Empires on their own centralized bureaucracies – trying to create a culturally united system which included their colonies – based on one religion, language, educational system and national identity. The British model in India was not one of absorption but of tolerance of diversity, so that as long as British interests in making money were not threatened, people were allowed to retain their local customs and culture. The local inhabitants would never become ‘British’.

In many ways the model of the British Empire, with a uniformity of laws and governing language and bureaucratic models, with a tolerance for huge diversity of cultures, is similar to the Chinese quasi-Empire, for example as described by Jacques.14 The central Confucian order, now transmuted into the Communist Party, reaches into every area, but it allows considerable autonomy to the fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities. China now is roughly comparable to the British Empire at its height and is structurally quite similar.

WAR, TRADE AND Empire  are an inter-connected package, all mutually supporting each other. Britain controlled the most powerful military and naval machine and became the largest trading nation in history by the nineteenth century. It was also the largest Empire in the nineteenth century when the full force of industrial civilizations in the west was giving a part of the world a huge lead in terms of military and other force. This conjuncture has shaped the possibilities of our world. Among other things it has flavoured the kind of trade, war and Empires that are now emerging.

It is also the essential context for much of what I shall write below. There I shall argue that the politics, social structure and ideology of the British, and particularly the English, are unusual and ‘modern’ in various ways. These features were unprecedented in the past but have now spread over much of the world so that we tend to take them for granted as both inevitable and somehow natural.

The set of characteristics spread so fast and so deeply because of the War-Trade-Empire complex. Firstly it gave birth to America, which in its imperial conquest in the second half of the twentieth century took much of its basic practice from Britain. Then the British Empire deeply influenced much of the rest of the world, particularly Asia and the Pacific and parts of Africa.

It was trade and Empire which carried forth the games, hobbies associations, language, arts and culture, politics and law and many other aspects of Britain which we consider to be part of the package of ‘modernity’. They were partly adopted and accepted because of their intrinsic merit. They were also attractive because they were symbolically associated with ‘modernity’ and the overwhelming power located in one part of the world.

IN ONE SENSE the English and British part of this story is over. It was just as I was preparing to become an imperial ruler and carry on the family tradition in the 1950’s that the British Empire withered away faster than almost any Empire in history. When I was six, India gained its freedom, when I was sixteen the Suez debacle dramatically showed the end of British power and the first parts of the Empire in Africa gained their independence. A half-century on, the British Empire is now just a ghost.

Yet ghosts, as the Chinese know well, continue to haunt us. The modern world lives on in the afterglow of a period of over a century or so when the force of history was channelled through a small island off the north west of Europe. Personally I was deeply shaped by this through my family and education. As I examine my life and thoughts I realize increasingly that war, trade and Empire have shaped my nation’s history and through that my own identity. As I travel  I see so many traces of a world made by way of the British Empire.

So we need to understand that central imperial phase – the worst of all Empires, except perhaps the rest which were even worse. The cost in terms of lives destroyed in slavery, opium and conquest is unbearable. Yet it was also the context which allowed the most massive material and economic transformation in human history since the discovery of agriculture to occur, namely the industrial revolution.

China’s decision to turn away from navigation in the early fifteenth century, when it was well in advance of anywhere else in the world, closed off this whole route of development. Instead of the predatory, outwardly expanding type of seaborne Empire that Britain represents, hoovering up the assets of the rest of the world, China built walls and tried to keep out the barbarians, including the British, from the Middle Kingdom. It may have been a good strategy for a century or two, but despite the northern and southern silk roads, it became ‘bounded and not leaky enough’ (Gerry Martin). The enormous potentials of overseas raw supplies and markets were largely ignored  because they were not needed. China had plenty to export – especially silk, tea and porcelain. But it let others do the transportation. And then those others arrived in their gunboats and humiliated China.

THE IMPERIAL PHASE of the British is over. Yet, in Huizinga’s words,  we can note its extraordinary nature. Without this Empire, the English ‘would never have been able to spread the language and the way of life of the tight little island over half the world, found the greatest of all modern empires, rule the seas, amass vast wealth as well as knowledge, and sample and collect great treasures of art…During my travels in India and Pakistan I saw what tremendous things the British had done in this vast, teeming and fascinating continent. I saw the monuments, like the sombre vice-regal splendours of New Delhi, that testify to the immense imperial self-confidence which had enabled them, with a handful of administrators and a minimum of force, to subdue, rule and transform this Asiatic world. I discovered how strong and, in many ways, beneficent was the imprint left behind by their relatively short period of rule.’ Huizinga was over-awed. ‘The more I saw of what their empire-builders had done and how they had done it, the more I was inclined to agree that the British Empire, if only because of the disproportion between its vast size and the absurdly small number of those who had founded and run it, was indeed something little short of a miracle…’

And it largely achieved something even more astonishing – returning the Empire to its constituent peoples with relatively little resistance. The magnitude of gaining of a vast Empire and the proportionate difficulty of leaving it are described by Tocqueville. He wrote to Lady Theresa Lewis that ‘Nothing under the sun is so wonderful as the conquest, and still more the government of India by the English. Nothing so fixes the eyes of mankind on the little island of which the Greeks never heard even the name. Do you believe, Madame, that a nation, after having filled this vast place in the imagination of the whole human race, can safely withdraw from it? I do not.’15 Yet, after the experience of trying to hold on to its first Empire in North America and finding that it did even better by leaving it to run itself, the British looked as if they had learnt something.

After his second visit to Africa in 1948 Huizinga wrote that ‘on second thoughts I was far from certain that the British schoolmaster had not acted wisely in starting to pack his bags even before his pupils grew so unruly as to be difficult to handle without a policy of open repression. For the more I saw of the colonial world the more I realised that in this democratic age its masters could hardly have retained sufficient courage of their colonial convictions to practice such a policy with success.’16


A video of the lecture on which this chapter is based:

 2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 2 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane. © 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. Mokyr, Industrial, 219.
  2. Sorokin, Sociological, 324.
  3. Paxman, English, 64.
  4. Tocqueville, Journeys, 105.
  5. Quoted in Landes, Wealth, 234.
  6. Smith, Wealth, II, 129.
  7. Bryant, ‘Divergence’, 434.
  8. Fischer, Albion’s, Veliz, Gothic, Bennett, Anglophere.
  9. Tidrick, Empire, 110.
  10. Orwell, Lion, 58.
  11. Tidrick, Empire, 208.
  12. Tidrick, Empire, 210.
  13. Tidrick, Empire, 213, 216.
  14. Jacques, China, chapter 7.
  15. Tocqueville, Memoirs, II, 409.
  16. Huizinga, Confessions, 240.
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