It has been suggested that citizens of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms be given their own “fast lane” at UK Points of Entry. This will be good news for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the smaller realms. If the idea is approved, it will be a first step toward restoring closer Commonwealth ties that ended when Britain joined the EU.
While Britain has been a member of the European Union, EU citizens were able to go through the fast lane, while the rest of us waited for up to two hours, slowly inching forward in the “Aliens” line.
Post-Brexit, it will certainly be in Britain’s best interests to enter into closer trade and defense ties with the countries that share Britain’s parliamentary system and all have the same Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II. Other Commonwealth countries have opted for a republican form of government, recognizing the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth but not retaining her services as their own sovereign.
It will also mean that, for the first time, the United Kingdom is reversing five decades of history and turning its attention again to its former Empire.
The word “Empire” has been a pejorative for two generations. Before World War One, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the British Empire around the world in territories that constituted the “empire upon which the sun never set.” Over a quarter of the world’s people lived under the British flag. Imperialism was in vogue and inspired millions of people to help develop other nations.
Today, people forget what a blessing the Empire was. Let’s take a look at a few of those blessings.
1. The Bible and religious freedom.
The fourteenth century philosopher and theologian, John Wycliffe, was the first man to translate all the scriptures into English. His favorite verse was Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” He struck the first blow for religious freedom and democracy by encouraging people to study for themselves and make up their own minds.
Two centuries later, the English Queen Elizabeth I, secured the Protestant Reformation by bravely sending her smaller fleet against the Spanish Armada. England defeated the Spaniards, thereby thwarting an attempt by the pope to force the country back into the Catholic Church.
In the nineteenth century, the British and Foreign Bible Society, took the Bible into dozens of different countries. The Wycliffe Bible Translation Society still exists, sending volunteers into poor and backward countries to develop a written language and then translate the Bible so that all may read it.
The most famous British missionary, David Livingstone, took the Bible with him into central Africa, to “bring light into darkness.” He was also motivated by a desire to see the end of slavery, perpetrated by Arab slave traders, who were seizing black Africans as slaves.
2. Britain was the first major country to abolish slavery.
Slavery was universal and had not been questioned until the eighteenth century. It wasn’t just Africans who were taken as slaves. One million white people were being held by Muslim slave traders at this time. (“White Gold”, Giles Milton, 2004.)
In 1772, the Somerset decision by an English court, ruled that British people could not hold slaves, that all people in Britain were free. It took another 35 years before the slave trade was abolished and a further 27 years before slavery itself was ended throughout the British Empire. (Denmark banned the slave trade in its territories a few years before Britain.)
One year after the abolition of the slave trade, the British government authorized the Royal Navy to stop ships on the high seas and free all the slaves. Wikipedia has this to say about the West Africa Squadron:
“The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron (or Preventative Squadron) at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The squadron’s task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. With a home base at Portsmouth, it began with two small ships, the 32-gun fifth-rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruizer-class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and marines.
“Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.[“1]
Because of its role in fighting slavery, Britain was seen as a Liberator around the world. Many tribes in Africa asked to be annexed into the British Empire, seeking protection from slave traders. At one point, so many African tribes were asking to join the Empire that the British were overwhelmed. “The Dualla chiefs of the Cameroon repeatedly asked to be annexed, but the British either declined or took no notice at all.” (Pax Britannica, James Morris, 1968, page 43)
In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Victorians were caught up in an enthusiastic desire to see slavery ended in Africa, and the Bible, Protestant Christianity, democracy and the rule of law introduced (“Africa and the Victorians,” Robinson and Gallagher, 1961)
Sadly, in the sixty years since the end of the British Empire, slavery is back in every single African country, according to UNESCO. The former Ghanaian President, John Kufour, condemned slavery in Ghana a few years ago on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire; he also apologized for the role Ghana’s own chiefs had played in promoting slavery by selling their own people and members of other tribes.
3. British capital developed many nations.
The definitive books on British investment around the world are the two volume “British Imperialism” by Cain and Hopkins. The books highlight “London’s role as the chief provider of economic services during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (back cover, volume one). London remains the world’s number one financial center (New York has the world’s biggest stock exchange). Not only did British capital develop every country in the Empire, it was also responsible for developing the United States, Argentina, Brazil,Chile, the Ottoman Empire and China.
Interestingly, one reason that members of the European Union are upset over Brexit, is that Britain has been a net contributor to the EU, helping to finance development in other member nations. When the UK leaves, where is the money going to come from?
4. Another blessing of British rule was its governmental system and the administration of its various colonies.
Britain’s democratic parliamentary system and its constitutional monarchy is the most stable political system in the world. It was successfully exported to all its colonies and dominions. Sixteen of those countries have retained the same system since independence, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a number of majority black countries in the Caribbean. Queen Elizabeth remains as Head of State in all of these countries.
38 other countries, former colonies of Great Britain, did not retain the Queen as Head of State but still look to her as the Head of the Commonwealth. Many of these nations have suffered through coups and counter-coups and periods of military rule. In many, corruption is rife and the people are worse off than they were when colonies.
Interestingly, it was recently suggested that the United States join the Commonwealth, as an Associate member. The Royal Commonwealth Society is opening a branch in New York City.
5. The free world’s first line of defense.
For two centuries Great Britain was the “policeman of the world.” The country brought down Napoleon, after which she was the undisputed leader of the world. A century later, with her dominions and colonies, she brought down the Kaiser. In World War Two, the British Empire was the only power that was in the war from beginning to end. With later help from the Soviet Union and the United States, the Empire defeated Hitler and his monstrous Third Reich that was the most racist regime in modern history. The Empire’s forces also kept the peace on the North-West frontier of India, in what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan and in other trouble spots around the world.
America’s pre-eminent historian, James Truslow Adams, wrote his history of “The British Empire 1784-1939” in the year that World War Two started, 1939. This is the final paragraph in his book: “In this world crisis, we in America have a great stake. We know that stability is impossible without respect for law and order, for the honesty of the written and spoken word. Without liberty of thought, speech and press, progress is impossible. What these things mean to the world of today and tomorrow has been amply demonstrated by the negation of them in certain great nations during the past few years. Different peoples may have different ideals of government but for those who have been accustomed to freedom of person and of spirit, the possible overthrow of the British Empire would be a catastrophe scarcely thinkable. Not only would it leave a vacuum over a quarter of the globe into which all the wild winds of anarchy, despotism and spiritual oppression could rush, but the strongest bulwark outside ourselves for our own safety and freedom would have been destroyed.” (page 358)
The Empire has indeed been replaced by “the wild winds of anarchy, despotism and spiritual oppression.”
It’s no wonder that, at the height of the Empire, during Queen Victoria’s reign and the first few years of the twentieth century, many people in Britain and its overseas territories, believed the Empire was a fulfillment of biblical promises made to Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Israel. In Genesis, chapter 48, we read of howJoseph’s descendants were to become a great “multitude of nations” and a “great (single) nation,” the British Empire and Commonwealth and the United States. They were to be a physical blessing to the world (Genesis 12:3). In the late Victorian period, believers published a weekly newspaper called “The Banner of Israel” — they enthusiastically tracked the daily growth of the British Empire and the United States at the time.
This belief was widely held in the trenches of World War One. It’s ironic that those same trenches shattered the religious convictions of many, who witnessed the carnage first-hand.
No empire was perfect. Britain made mistakes. Often listed by anti-imperialists is the Amritsar massacre of 1919. This was not deliberate government policy, but rather the misjudgment of the commanding officer. The 1943 Bengal famine is also often mentioned; overlooked is the fact that this was in the middle of World War II when other nations also experienced famine. Historical mistakes were made in Ireland, which caused problems to this day.
Imperialism had been in vogue before 1914; after two world wars, there was great disillusionment. Additionally, the colonial powers had serious financial problems. Decolonization followed. It was the end of the European empires.