Was the British Empire evil?

22 May 2023. Nigel Biggar for The Hub.

A look at the global historical context tells a more nuanced tale than black and white judgements allow for.

Queen Victoria Statue, Kingston Upon Hull
Queen Victoria Statue, Kingston Upon Hull by David Dixon is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Today the country is taking a statutory holiday in honour of Queen Victoria, the figure perhaps most emblematic of colonial empire. It requires a bit of cognitive dissonance given that colonialism itself has an almost uniformly bad reputation. Canadians can enjoy the day off as long as they don’t think deeply about the underlying purpose.

Yet depth and nuance is justified in thinking about the British Empire. Its legacy—including its ill effects—deserve to be placed in a larger context.

Let’s start with a basic definition and brief history. An empire is a single state that contains a variety of peoples, one of which is dominant. As a form of political organization, it has been around for millennia and has appeared on every continent. 

The Assyrians were doing empire in the Middle East over four thousand years ago. They were followed by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. In the sixth century BC the Carthaginians established a series of colonies around the Mediterranean. Then came the Athenians, followed by the Romans, and after them the Byzantine rump. 

Empire first appeared in China in the third century BC and, despite periodic collapses, still survives today. From the seventh century on Muslim Arabs invaded east as far as Afghanistan and west as far as central France. 

In the 15th century empire proved very popular: the Ottomans were doing it in Asia Minor, the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent, the Incas in South America, and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. 

In North America, the Iroquois reconquered the St Lawrence Valley in the late 1600s before expanding westward as far as present-day Illinois. Shortly afterward the Comanche began extending their imperial sway over much of what is now Texas, eventually running what one historian has called “a vast slave economy.” 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic to the south the Asante were expanding their control in West Africa, and in the 1820s King Shaka led the Zulus in scattering other South African peoples to several of the four winds. 

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