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The Accidental Empire

It has long been a common saying that the British Empire happened by accident.

Some have disagreed with this, saying that the drive of the British scattered around the world , making things happen,

and bringing parli aments and steam railroads into being everywhere from India to Canada and back aga in , was too purposeful a development to be called accidental.

Maybe so, but there was no master plan, only a drive to get out in the world and be doing.

 The world was open to the British, as the world ‘s first uni versa l sea power,

and as early starters in the industri al revolution that was changing the way people lived everywhere,

with unparalleled resources for investment, they had not only the will but the means to be out and doing.

And the empire really worked, both for the British and also for the numbers of people-full y one quarter of the worl d’s population-who made up its body.

Those hundreds of millions could hardly have been held in check by the minor British ganisons scattered around the globe,

had the subject peoples really wished to break away.

Unfairness certainly existed within the Empire, notably in race and class prejudice.

But these evils had existed in even greater degree among the colonies, notably in the Indi an caste system.

Slavery had long been illegal in Britain, as being against basic British law, and was outl awed in the rest of the Empire in 1832-thirty years before it was abolished in the United States, fifty years before it was abolished in Brazil.

Queen Victoria, who rul ed from 1837 to 1901 , delighted in the variety ofraces in her empire.

And for many Britons, as James MoI Tis (later Jan Morris) wrote in his splendid Pax Britannica, ”

the whole vast panoply of Empil.ereally was a community, multicolored,

inconceivably dispersed, yet still a brotherhood of sorts, in which it was a man’s job to encourage the backward, comfort the neglected and honor the Queen.”

The Queen, indeed, while not a person of driving ambitions or overweening pride, became a mysti c fi gure for all sorts of different peoples around the world.

She had a sense of mission, but it was limited and practical, and her administrators,

as the Empire gradually developed them, dealt mainly in practical things.

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