Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Mike Butler: The British Empire – a force for good

The British Empire – a force for good, a new book, is a refreshing antidote to the current zeal for decolonisation, which encourages us to reimagine history as “a morality play in which white men are the baddies”.

Author John McLean, a writer and publisher, who has a MA in history and a Bachelor of Law from Victoria University in Wellington, and did Bar finals at Grays Inn in London, tells the stories of Britain’s 101 colonies established over 400 years, capturing the boldness and zeal of the pioneers who built the empire.

The story of the British Empire starts during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

“Her defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 gave her people pride, patriotism, and self-confidence which led them to believe that in that buccaneering age they could do great things for themselves and their country”, McLean wrote.

At that time, south and central America had already been carved up by Spain and Portugal, and Pope Alexander VI had issued a papal bull which established the Doctrine of Discovery which drew an imaginary vertical line west of the Azores that gave to Spain all land to the west of it, and to Portugal all land to the east.

Britain, which was in the Elizabethan age no longer part of the Pope’s Catholic empire, took territories in North America, claimed by proclamation by Sir Walter Raleigh, the adventurer who brought tobacco and potatoes from the new world to the English Queen.

After a failed attempt to build a colony at Cape Cod in Massachusetts, three ships carrying 105 colonists set out for Virginia, arriving on May 6, 1607.

That first colony at Jamestown was the trigger for all future British colonisation, and a variation of this basic pattern was used in New Zealand 233 years later.

The first charter to the Virginia Company outlined the basic plan for British colonisation. The British Crown never wanted to bear to cost of colonial projects so directed such efforts to private enterprise.

The monarch, who was at that time James I, assigned land rights to colonists (as sub tenants) for the creation of a settlement which could be used as a base to export commodities to Britain and to create a buffer to prevent Spanish control of the coasts of North and South America.

The Virginia Company financed the project, recruited settlers, and developed the colony which was governed by a council in London, used English law, spoke English, and operated on Christian beliefs and ethics. The monarch took a 20 percent cut of all profit.

Subsequent schemes that adapted to locations and international relations at the various times different colonies were established, refined organisation so that colonies were increasingly self-governing with international relations controlled from London and protection implied by Britain’s extensive armed forces.

British colonies were the building blocks of the British Empire, spreading the English language, customs, law, property rights, and Christianity to more than 100 locations around the globe, creating much of the developed world that we live in today.

That is one reason why McLean can write without fear of contradiction that the British Empire was a force for good.

McLean provides further evidence of this force for good in 20 pages on slavery, and on the sustained efforts Britain took, at great expense, to stamp it out.

Slavery was made illegal in Britain in 1772, the Slave Trade Act 1807 made it illegal for British ships to transport slaves, and from 1808 to 1867, Britain spent 1.8 percent of its GDP every year to seize slave ships and free slaves, McLean wrote.

Britain’s role in reducing slavery is now hardly mentioned while former British territories where slavery had existed hundreds of years ago are claiming trillions in compensation, McLean wrote.

Even more evidence of lasting benefits is the number of engineering projects that the British completed and which remain long after the Empire faded, namely railways in Canada and Uganda, bridges at Victoria Falls and Sydney Harbour, the Ganges Canal, the Hong Kong Airport, and the Otira Tunnel.

At around 600 pages, McLean’s book looks like a time-consuming read. It is easy to read with the information accessible in short chapters with each story briefly told, in a lively style, and to the point, and opiniated.

McLean covers the first 13 colonies in North America lost in the revolutionary war. He points out that this was a war over the right to retain slaves under the cover story of taxation without representation.

Canada, the Caribbean, and West Africa are discussed next. Britain was attracted by Sierra Leone’s large harbour. Freetown there was created in 1787 and settled by 400 former slaves from Britain freed in 1772.

Colonies in north, east and southern Africa are covered before moving on to the Atlantic Islands, the Mediterranean, the Middle East (the founders of Israel get a kicking), India, territories in the Indian Ocean, south-east Asia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific.

McLean shows the extent to which independence was a disaster for many colonies. He quotes a London Times report on May 8, 2000, which said that:
“Sierra Leone was among the most developed British colonies in West Africa, whose diamond wealth provided a high standard of living. But in the past 30 years, the lure of diamonds has proved to be the country’s undoing, leading to chronic instability, a 10-year uprising, and some of the worst atrocities in Africa. It is now the poorest country in the world and comes bottom of the UN misery index. Many thousands have been mutilated by rebel fighters. The capital, Freetown, has been repeatedly looted, and most of the country’s educated people have emigrated. The diamond mines have been largely wrecked.”
Sadly, that story of armed conflict, atrocities, looting, and white flight after Britain granted independence to numerous colonies has been repeated many times. Such is the legacy of decolonisation, that “morality play in which white men are the baddies”.

The British Empire – a force for good, John McLean, Winter Productions, 594 pages, illustrated, $50 (including postage within New Zealand), available at or


Erica said...

Thank you for this review on a topic that has recently, sadly been dominated by cancel culture and critical studies.It is desperately needed.

I have just learned of R.H. Thouless' Law of Uncertainty which he arrived at after observation that when there is a cause for doubt about a particular belief or conflict between approaches instead of people adopting a reasonable and moderate position of caution, uncertainty drives them to extreme views.

Recent detractors of British colonisation have focused, I suggest,dogmatically on the apparent negative aspects and refused to accept any positives at all.

Don said...

Too often are judgements made by applying 21st Century values to 19th Century actions. Colonisation and mercantilism were the dominant economic policies of the 19th Century and on balance more good than harm came from them. Like medicines, all policies have side effects, often latent and not evident until the policy has been established. It happened and could those who are critical of it suggest any better way that it might have happened?

Kiwialan said...

Erica, there can be no cancel culture if everyone ignores the minority, takes no notice and just tell them to piss off, we're too busy working and living a life. Kiwialan.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

There were still colonies when I was a young fella and I have direct first-hand experience of both British and French colonial policy and practice. I also spent time in the Dutch Caribbean. Not that there are colonies there; the Dutch Realm extends to there because the people can vote to remain with Holland or go their own way. Wisely, they stay with Holland, which ensures a continuous supply of moolah in the form of fiscal support for a very corrupt government and social security benefits.
French Polynesians too can vote at every election to sever the old ties with La Belle France but so far they have chosen to stay.
The ancient civilisations took over smaller nation-states and turned them into vassals. Sometimes, there would be a flow of migrants from the suzerain (the imperial power) to a vassal, turning them into colonies - a colony, strictly speaking, being a place where migrants from the imperial power go to settle,
For those that became independent, it would be an interesting debating point whether ex-British or ex-French colonies have done better. What we can say with certainty is that the local people's lot improved under colonial administration. No more tribal warfare, no more arbitrary rule by despotic 'strongmen' leaders, health care and education for ordinary people (especially under the French).
The charges that lefty ideologues level at European imperial powers tend to stick much better when levelled at 'indigenous' empires like the Aztec, the Maya, the Ashanti, the Zulu.......

Robert Arthur said...

If the sacrifice, energy and application of the early colonists were taught a whole new proud public attitude would likely emerge, more as pre 1960s when NZ was a country of note. I recently read a book about life of Britishers in Malaya and surrounding areas pre war. Clearly had a hugely beneficial effect on order and progress.

Hazel Modisett said...

"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

The idea that Monarchies still exist in the modern age is absurd & the Windsor/Hapsburgs have no relevance to NZers whatsoever.
It is long overdue that NZers author their own Constitution & Bill of Rights & retake ownership of our country from globalist, elitist, narcissistic, psychopaths that would have us all corralled into smart city prisons, eating bugs & all working happily for the govt.
Fortunately there is still enough of us left that say "whuck that" & are happy to fight for the inalienable rights of our children, grandchildren & ourselves & what can "they" do, call in the UN, the US, NATO ? I think not & the Police certainly do not have the manpower or resources to cope with a full blown insurrection & I seriously doubt that the enlisted men & woman of our NZDF would raise arms against their own countrymen.
If NZ politics does not shift radically towards it's original purpose of protecting the interests of "We the People" as opposed to marching lockstep in line with the US, UN, WEF, WHO, IMF, BIS etc, then we will certainly end up on the brink of Civil War like the US & half of Europe.
Charlie Jug Ears is NOT my king...