The Principles that Saved the British Commonwealth
There have been two British Empires, and now there is the British Commonwealth of Nations. That, in as few words as possible, is a statement of the most remarkable political development of modern times.
The first British Empire came to an end in 1783, at the close of the American War of Independence. It is not so easy to say when it began. Should we say it was in 1583, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert took formal possession of the island of Newfoundland, in the name of Queen Elizabeth, and so founded the first of British colonies? Or was it as late as 1763, when Britain’s victories in the Seven Years War with France resulted in the acquisition of French Canada, and at about the same time a little band of British adventurers brought a considerable expanse of the Indian peninsula under British rule?
The point is unimportant. Whenever it was, King George III had good reason to be proud of the extent of his dominions. So far as territory went, most of this first British Empire lay across the Atlantic, where the whole of the North American seaboard from Newfoundland to Florida was under the British flag, as well as a vast indeterminable area inland, reaching up to the Great Lakes and the shores of Hudson Bay. Then there were a number of islands in the West Indies, the Bermudas and the Bahamas, Jamaica (won by Cromwell’s troops in 1655) and the rest, and some strips on the seaboard of Central America. Closely linked with these American islands were some scattered trading-posts on the coast of West Africa, which supplied the Negro slaves who formed the labour-force on the West Indian plantations.
In Asia, the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula, from Calcutta to south of Madras, was included within the commercial empire of the East India Company; and although, strictly speaking, this huge area was not part of the British Empire de jure, it certainly was de facto, since the Company operated under the patronage of the British Government at home, and could always rely on British arms for its defence and in the prosecution of its expansionist policies. Finally, there was a little group of strategic naval stations strung out across the world, including Gibraltar and Minorca in the Mediterranean, St Helena in mid-Atlaritic, and a post in the Falkland Islands in the far south.
This was the Empire that confronted the young George III when he looked at the map, and although it was small indeed compared with the realm of his grand-daughter Queen Victoria, for the times it was immense. Tremendous distances separated the component parts, and in those days of sailing-ships the distances were far more formidable than now. There was no sense of imperial unity, no imperial organization worthy of the name. The one thing that held the sprawling mass together was British sea-power, and the motive behind it all was not political grandeur but commercial greed. The overseas possessions of the British Crown were regarded primarily as sources of raw material for British industry, and as markets for the disposal of British manufacturers and other products.
In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that it was so shortlived. Something less than twenty years saw its decline and fall, for it was in 1775 that the American colonists were driven into revolt by the fiscal blunders of the Home Government and in 1783 their independence was recognized and the United States was born. The enemies of Britain were full of rejoicing, and there were many even in England who thought that Britain’s sun had set.
These gloomy forebodings were not entertained for long, however, and in fact the situation was never so black as it had been supposed. The most prosperous and promising of British possessions had broken away and set up for themselves, but there was still a great deal left. In Asia and Africa, British expansion continued, and even in America by no means all had been lost. The West Indies remained under the British flag, and, strangely enough, what had been French Canada refused to join the thirteen revolting states and preferred to remain under British rule. Some forty thousand loyalists in what had become the United States refused to live under the new government, and migrated into Canada, where they set about the establishment of new British communities in the midst of a somewhat alien environment.
The Second British Empire in this way came to birth, and it was an open question whether its rulers would be able to avoid the mistakes that had wrecked its predecessor. That they might well succeed in doing so was first shown by the Canada Act of 1791, passed by the government of William Pitt the Younger, which divided the old province of Quebec into two provinces, Upper and Lower Canada, corresponding roughly to the Ontario and Quebec of the present. In the latter, where the bulk of the French population lived, the French language and system of law and the Roman Catholic religion were fully guaranteed; in the former, where lived the bulk of the Loyalist newcomers, English law was introduced and English ways were supreme.
Nothing in the nature of self-government was granted as yet beyond what had been enjoyed by the American colonies before the rebellion; but although the Imperial Parliament was paramount, it was distinctly asserted in the Act that there would never again be any attempt on the part of Parliament in London to tax the colonies for revenue purposes.
But the real importance of the Act of 1791 lay not in what it did but in what it made possible. As Pitt’s chief associate expressed it, “We will not pretend to give Canada the same constitution as we ourselves live under. All we can do is to lay the foundation for the same constitution when increased population and time shall have made the Canadians ripe to receive it.” Although they did not say so in so many words, it was clear that the British Government now admitted that British citizens in Canada had a right to enjoy, in the fullness of time, the same political status as British citizens in Britain.
This promising step forward in policy was accompanied by a vast expansion in territory. Captain Cook’s voyage of 1769-1770 had brought Australia and New Zealand into the sphere of world politics; the French and Dutch were beginning to cast envious eyes on the new lands in the Antipodes, but it was British sea-power that proved to be the determining factor. Australia and New Zealand were included within the British Empire, and in 1788 the first settlement was made at Sydney under Governor Phillip. The motive behind it was a severely practical one: it was no urge to imperialist expansion but the over-riding necessity to find a place into which to discharge Britain’s unwanted convict population, now that they could no longer be got rid of in the colonies in America.
But before long free settlers went out to the new lands and made good there; and it should also be said that the convicts were by no means, all of them, the set of ruffians and pickpockets and street-walkers that they have sometimes been said to have been. Many a man transported to the new penal settlements had committed no worse crime than daring to stand up to the petty tyrant of his village, and in the fresh and freer surroundings he started a new and better life. Transportation of convicts 10 New South Wales continued until 1840, and for another thirteen years to Tasmania, but then it was stopped altogether. By this time some measure of self-government had been accorded to the Australian colonies, mainly as the result of the acceptance of a new imperial policy that had been worked out in Canada.
When the Canada Act had been passed, it had been hoped that the two races in Canada would work amicably together and in time merge. But it had not happened thus. There had been friction and jealousy, and in both Upper and Lower Canada there was often conflict between the Executive, the members of which were appointed by the Crown, and the elected legislative assembly. It was representative government in a way, but it was not responsible government.
The victory of the Whigs in England and the passing of the great Reform Bill in 1832 aroused hopes in Canada that there would be reforms there also. But when the Whigs showed no signs of moving in that direction, a little group of Canadian hotheads actually rebelled. The revolt was a very small-scale affair and was soon put down, but it scared the Government in England, and in 1838 a brilliant young statesman, Lord Durham, who had been one of the authors of the Reform Bill and a member of the Cabinet, was sent out to Canada to find out what was wrong and to suggest means of putting it right.
Durham was in Canada six months, and was then forced by political intrigues against him in London to resign and return home. But in those few months he had mastered the problem, and before his lamentably early death he, and his two assistants, Gibbon Wakefield and Charles Buller, drafted what became known as the Durham Report. Briefly, this urged that the principles of the British Constitution, which had stood the test of time so admirably, should be applied in Canada as in England. Government should be not only representative but responsible; on nearly all matters, the people of Canada should have the right to decide what was best for them and how they should achieve it. Durham also recommended that the two Canadas should be rejoined, in a kind of federation of all the North American colonies, and as a first step an Act was passed in 1840 creating one large province, federation being left to a later date.
Durham’s principal recommendation was accepted in theory, until in 1849 the right to responsible government was fully acknowledged when Lord Elgin, the Governor of Canada, ruled that the ministers must be chosen from the ranks of the majority party in the Assembly and that in local matters their advice must be followed. It was a prosaic enough decision on the face of it, and yet it was of the very greatest importance. It is not too much to say that it was then made clear that the Second British Empire would not fail or be wrecked like the First, and it was the Durham Report that had established the principle that had now been recognized as the key to future progress.
Canada now moved on from the establishment of responsible government to that of national government, which was achieved in 1867, when the provinces were federated. Meanwhile, the principles of the Durham Report were applied very successfully in Australia, where as early as 1853 New South Wales was granted responsible government after the Durham model. Two years later the principle was extended to Victoria and Tasmania, and eventually to the other provinces as they grew in population and resources. In 1900 Australia became a Commonwealth, but with its components retaining rather more local power than the Canadian provinces. New Zealand achieved self-government in 1853, and was constituted a “Dominion” in 1907.
In South Africa a similar process was at work, although the conditions were very different. When the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope was annexed to Britain at the close of the Napoleonic Wars there was already a considerable white population of Boer farmers, who as they trekked inland in their ox-waggons were resisted by tribes of Bantus, who at that same time were moving south from the African interior. British settlers established themselves at the Cape and in Natal, while the Boers set up republics in the Transvaal and on the Orange River over which Britain exercised only a vague suzerainty.
Cape Colony was granted responsible government in 1872 and Natal some years later, but the republics remained aloof. It was not until 1909, after the South African War of 1899-1902, that the colonies and the republics united to form the Union of South Africa. High hopes were entertained for this fusion of races and cultures in a political experiment, but unfortunately these were destined to be frustrated.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901 the war in South Africa was drawing to its end, and the British Empire was at the height of its greatness. A very large part of the map of the world was coloured a British red, and the expansion continued right up to the period of the First World War, particularly in Africa, where Cecil Rhodes’s vision of British rule extending from the Cape to Cairo seemed well on the way to fulfilment. The war strained the imperial edifice, but it weathered the storm, and the British Empire now covered. a fifth of the globe and included a population of approaching five hundred millions of every race and creed and of every stage of political, economic and social development.
From time to time Imperial Conferences were held in London under the presidency of the British Prime Minister, and the Conference of 1930 prepared a new formula defining the relationship of the great Dominions with Britain, that in the following year was enacted as the Statute of Westminster. The preamble to the Statute included the words, “Inasmuch as the Crown is the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and as they are united by a common allegiance to the Crown…”, and the Act went on to state that the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) “are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”.
By a process of peaceful change, the British Empire gave place to a British Commonwealth of Nations, comprising a great number of lands and peoples at various stages of political development, but the largest components already enjoying independence and others well on the way to achieving it. The Second World War speeded up the process, and when it was over there were many alterations in the Commonwealth fabric. India, divided into the two countries of India and Pakistan, was granted independence in 1947, and Ceylon in the following year similarly became a self-governing dominion. The states in Malaya were federated in 1957 as an independent country within the Commonwealth. Within the next few years Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Tanganyika, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and several more of the former colonies achieved independent nationhood within the Commonwealth. A notable exception was the Union of South Africa, which in 1961 became a republic and withdrew altogether from the Commonwealth.
At the present time the area of the British Commonwealth is estimated to be about fourteen million square miles, and its total population is about 750 millions. It is the largest and most comprehensive, and most extraordinary, political complex the world has ever seen, and it is still developing, still changing, still growing.
While its heart is still the British Isles, and most of its members acknowledge in some way the supremacy of the British Crown, the great majority of its people have black, brown or yellow skins, and profess other religions than Christianity and speak many other tongues than English.
If one of the statesmen of Lord Durham’s generation could see what the Empire had become he would rub his eyes in wonder and find it hard to believe that he was actually seeing what he did see. Impossible that such a motley collection of states and peoples should hang together, he would surmise. And yet it does. The British Commonwealth exists, and it works, and it has a future of boundless promise.
And none of this modern development would have been possible if British statesmen had taken a different road a hundred years ago. To speak more particularly, none of it would have come about if Lord Durham in 1838 had not argued so convincingly in favour of the grant of responsible government to the constituent members of the British family. As he lay dying, this man who had done more than any man to save the Second British Empire, was heard to murmur, “Canada will one day do justice to my memory.” He was right, but not only Canada should do justice to his memory but the whole British Commonwealth of Nations, for (it is not too much to say) but for his Report it could have never been.