The British Empire Imperialism Post-Colonialism Literature

Flag of the British Empire

The Rise and Development of the British Empire:

“His Majesty’s dominions, on which the sun never sets.” – John Wilson

During the nineteenth century, industrialization shifted the economy of Great Britain to primarily large-scale industries, and with this, competitive commercial companies began being founded. The East India Trading Company and others began seeking materials from foreign territories, as the British people could afford more luxuries than ever before. In territories such as India, the British began being absorbed into the trade communities and eventually took steps to overtake the governments (Gandhi). As the British Empire developed, however, it was not without great opposition and conflict. One of the largest challenges came when the American colonies revolted in the Revolutionary War and ultimately won independence in 1776. After losing it’s stronghold in the Americas, the Empire only began expanding elsewhere in places like India, Australia, and islands in the Caribbean (Nosotro).

Map of Empire in 1897

Despite the conflicts and obstacles that the British Empire faced during its rise and development, it spread to the far corners of the world and ultimately exerted its influence in numerous territories. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Britain fought an imperial war for the Boer republic in Africa and won political and economic control but faced much criticism from the British people. When the world found itself facing the First World War in 1914, Britain’s affinity for imperialism meant that a fourth of the world’s people under the Empire dominion (“Historical Background”). When the Treaty of Versailles ended the war in 1919, the British Empire was awarded large portions of Africa, Palestine, and Iraq. Although the Empire contained over 400 million people and covered the span of 13 million miles at this point, it would not be able to hold control of its colonies for much longer (Gandhi). Under the increasing resentment of the colonies, Great Britain began granting independence after the second World War to countries such as Ireland and India. Ultimately, the billions of dollars worth of debt following World War II marked the ultimate cause of the Empire’s fall by forcing Britain to “[rev-evaluate] the value and cost of its colonial possessions” under pressure from the United States and United Nations (“A History of the British Empire”). Though the process of decolonization had begun, the effects of British dominance would last for decades to come (Gandhi).

Post-Colonial Aftermath:

After World War II, with England’s economy recovering and mounting pressure for independence from colonized territories, British colonial rule throughout the world weakened. The British Empire was transformed into the Commonwealth in which numerous states gained independence, but voluntarily associated with Great Britain (Luscombe). However, the legacy of British colonialism left a lasting impression on many parts of the world, leaving the former colonies politically, economically and socially unorganized.

As a direct result of the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) (in which European colonial powers “carved up” Africa and drew arbitrary borders grouping different ethnic groups together and dividing others), and the retreat of colonial powers after World War II, various ethnic and civil wars took place, creating a destabilizing effect among newly independent states (“Berlin Conference of 1884-85”). After independence, many of these new nations made an attempt at democracy, but had little or no leadership and eventually succumbed to one-party or authoritarian rule (Huntington). Although many countries have adopted either representative or parliamentary forms of democracy (as a result of the British influence), ethnic and civil strife still exists in Africa today. In other areas such as India, nationalist movements began as early as 1906, finally culminating in independence in 1947.

Indian Salt March for Independence in 1930

Dates of independence for individual colonies can be found here: Click here! (Luscombe) (Note: dates of independence on this chart for the American colonies are shown as 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War, not 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.)

Throughout the era of British colonial rule, taxes were levied upon the colonies in support of the mother-country. Various forms of taxation were employed including a poll (personal) tax, income tax, a “hut” tax and import duties. For example, goods imported to the Gold Coast in 1924 totaled approximately £23 million. Since European settlers were a very small portion of the population in the colonies, the tax burden usually fell upon the indigenous population (Bridglal). Therefore, native populations remained impoverished and did not share in the profitability of their colony. In the aftermath of colonial rule, many newly independent nations found themselves facing immature economies and depleted natural resources. Research has shown that after over 40 years of independence, trade between the former colonial powers and former colonies decreased by 65 percent, further devastating the economy of the former colonies (Head). In addition, many newly independent nations soon found themselves under authoritarian or “patrimonial rule” in which the state controlled the economy, implementing various protective measures, such as high duties on goods (Bridglal). Under these regimes, the economies of newly independent nations became stifled, spurring widespread discontent among citizens. As a benefit of colonization, many former colonies gained infrastructure (i.e. roads, schools and hospitals), but many lacked the monetary capability and coherent leadership to keep them running efficiently.

Throughout the period of British colonization, the English language spread throughout the world to each of its colonies. “Britain [and France] insisted on the use of their language[s] in [their] colonies. Following independence, however, most of the former colonies attempted in varying degrees and with varying success to replace the imperial language with indigenous ones” (Huntington). While native languages were preserved and often used in literature as a “backlash” against colonization, English became a first or secondary language for most of the former colonies. In many nations, a “blending” of the English language and native languages has taken place and evolved to become its own dialect over time (“Nation and Language”). In addition, English is used almost universally at the university-level and throughout the world for intercultural communication (Huntington). Since missionaries were usually among the first “settlers” of colonized areas, religious conversion also took place. Missionaries established churches, schools and hospitals, introducing Christianity, education and “modern” health care. The conversion to Christianity also impacted traditional society and religious practices in colonized areas.

In the aftermath of British Colonialism, many citizens of former colonies shared a cultural connection with the former mother-country, England. In the decades following decolonization, a phenomenon called “Reverse Colonization” took place in Great Britain. As shortages in labor continued after World War II, migrants from the “New Commonwealth” settled in England and led to an increasingly diverse, multicultural Great Britain. Among the settlers were immigrant writers from India, Africa and the West Indies (“Historical Background”). Not only did these writers write about the post-colonial or immigrant experience, they shed light on the “identity struggle” of colonized peoples and created a new genre of British literature.

Literature from the Age of Imperialism:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people, and I maintain that our rule does, and has, brought security and I maintain that our rule does, and has, brought security and peace and comparative prosperity to countries that never knew these blessings before.”- Joseph Chamberlain, The True Conception of Empire

The literature of the British Empire falls mainly into two different camps that reflected the different opinions of the time. One camp thought that it was the Empire’s obligation to expand its borders to improve the quality of life in the world. Some examples of this idea would be Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden and Chamberlain’s True Conception of an Empire.

The other camp thought that the Empire’s ideals of goal of improving the world was a facade to mask the exploitation of the Empire’s foreign citizens. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gives readers a very vivid picture of what is wrong with imperialism. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study also points out flaws with the imperial system, stating that the system is not improving the colonies quality of life, but instead are being exploited for their wealth.

Literature from the Post-Colonial Era:

With the end of World War II the British Empire was broken, the jewels from its Imperial Crown were gaining independence one country at a time(Greenblatt 1832). The writers of these colonies started to create their own works of literature in the English language (Greenblatt 1832). This was the most dramatic geographic shift of English literature in history (Greenblatt 1832). The work of these writers hybridized their local traditions with their experiences of their time in the Britsh Empire (Greenblatt 1832). Some examples of these post-colonial writers are: Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipul, and J.M. Coetzee, all of which were winners of the Nobel Prize (Greenblatt 1832). Post colonial literature dealt with many issues; some common themes would be: The Empire’s effects on a colony’s way of life, how one who was educated in the British Tradition related to his previous generation, or other experiences that resulted from the Empire’s influence.


“A History of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations.” Commonwealth Nations Research Society. Web. 18 May 2012.

“Berlin Conference of 1884-85.” New World Encyclopedia. Web. 8 May 2012.

Cooper, Frederick. Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Gandhi, Arpan. The British Empire. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. “The Twentieth Century and After.” The Norton
Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1827-849. Print.

Head, Keith, Thierry Mayer, and John Ries. “The Erosion of Colonial Trade Linkages After Independence.” Diss. University of British Columbia, 2010. The Erosion of Colonial Trade Linkages after Independence. 18 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 May 2012.

“Historical Background.” 1962. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. E.d. M.H.
Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. 2. 2006. 1827-1843. Print.

“History of Zimbabwe.” The Embassy of ZImbabwe. The Embassy of Zimbabwe. Web. 9 May 2012.

Huntington, Samuel. Clash of Civilizations. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 59-62. Print.

Luscombe, Stephen. “The Rise and Fall Of The British Empire.” The British Empire. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

“Nation and Language.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M.H. Abrams
and Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol 2. 2006. 2461-1462. Print

Nosotro, Rit. “The Rise and Fall of the British Colonial Empire.” Hyper History. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

Panchai, Bridglal. “Taxation.” Colonialism: An International Social, Cultural, and Political Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2003. 574-75. Print.

Simensen, Jarle. “Africa: The Causes of Under-Development and the Challenges of Globalisation.” Utenriksdepartementet. Web. 7 May 2012.

Images (In Order Of Appearance):

“Flag of the British Empire”

“Map of Empire in 1897”

“Indian Salt March for Independence in 1930”