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British Empire

The Second Empire

The voyages of Capt. James Cook to Australia and New Zealand in the 1770s and new conquests in India after 1763 opened a second phase of territorial expansion. The victories of the Napoleonic Wars added further possessions to the empire, among them Cape Colony, Mauritius, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, British Guiana (Guyana), and Malta. During the second empire mercantilist ideals and regulations were gradually abandoned in response to economic and political developments in Great Britain early in the 19th cent. Britain's new industrial supremacy lent greater force to doctrines of free trade, which, as part of their critique of mercantilism, questioned the economic value of political ties between the colonies and the mother country.

The plight of large nonwhite populations within the empire became a matter of concern to humanitarians. Abolition of the slave trade (1807) and of slavery (1833) was accompanied in the colonies by efforts to improve the lot of indigenous groups. Better communications and the establishment of a regular civil service facilitated the development of a more efficient colonial administration. But the growth, notably in the English-speaking colonies, of national identity and of relative national self-sufficiency, as well as a trend of opinion in Britain favoring colonial self-government, made the British, now engaged in liberalizing their own governing institutions, willing to concede certain powers of self-government to the white colonies. In 1839, Lord Durham, in response to unrest in Canada, issued his "Report on the Affairs of British North America." Durham stated that to retain its colonies Britain should grant them a large measure of internal self-government.

The British North America Act of 1867 inaugurated a pattern of devolution followed in most of the European-settled colonies by which Parliament gradually surrendered its direct governing powers; thus Australia and New Zealand followed Canada in becoming self-governing dominions. On the other hand, the British assumed greater responsibility in Africa and in India, where the Indian Mutiny had resulted (1858) in the final transfer of power from the East India Company to the British government. To govern territories with large indigenous populations, the crown colony system was developed. Such colonies, of which one of the most enduring was Hong Kong, were ruled by a British governor and consultative councils composed primarily of the governor's nominees; these, in turn, often delegated considerable powers of local government to local rulers.

In the later decades of the 19th cent. there occurred a revival of European competition for empire in which the British acquired or consolidated vast holdings in Africa—such as Nigeria, the Gold Coast (later Ghana), Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Egypt—and in Asia—such as Burma (Myanmar) and Malaya. The size and wealth of the empire and the anxieties produced by European colonial competition stimulated a desire for imperial solidarity. The Imperial Conference, begun in 1887, represented an attempt to strengthen Britain's ties with those colonies that had become self-governing territories.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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