How do empires work?
How do empires work?

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3 The British empire

By contrast, in the western corner was the British empire. This comprised two distinct components of external dominion. On the one hand there was the British East India Company (EIC), whose ships and sepoys had served at Zhenjiang (as well as many other places). The company had lost its last trading monopolies effective from 1834. It was now mainly a land empire, having expanded inland from its bridgeheads in Bengal and at trading ports, gradually supplanting Muslim and Hindu rulers. The company now controlled both its own naval forces and a vast army, which reached 300,000 before 1857, composed partly of Indian-financed British units, but mostly of Indian sepoys who served under British officers. Though technically subordinate to the decayed Mughal empire until 1858, and its emperor in Delhi, in fact the EIC commanded an Indian empire in its own right. From 1784, the company was subject to formal British supervision through a government-appointed Board of Control in London.

The second major component of the British ‘system of power’ was the British empire as controlled from London. This had a relatively small army, and relied heavily on the Royal Navy. Britain’s unique nineteenth-century strength thus came from a combination of Europe-based naval and financial power, and India-based manpower. Victory in the First Anglo-Chinese War was achieved by using the naval power to project Indian troops, alongside small numbers of European infantry and artillery, up Chinese rivers into its inland heart. The defeat of the Qing also came in part because from industrialisation onwards, between 1750 and 1850, Europe opened up a critical lead in military technology. Its sheer density of industrial development meant Europe was now always one step ahead. In the First Anglo-Chinese War, the paddle steamer Nemesis blew Chinese junks out of the water, and Chinese matchlocks were no match for European flintlock guns. By the late nineteenth century, Europeans were introducing rifled guns (lined with ridges that increase accuracy) and, latterly, the Gatling gun, just as the Chinese adopted earlier technology (Hack and Rettig, 2006).

The competition between European maritime powers for naval supremacy was intense, and was characterised by cumulative improvement in naval efficiency. This sustained an increasing gap between European and non-European naval powers, a difference captured by Figure 2, which show the Nemesis in action. European naval powers, meanwhile, were finely balanced among themselves until the Napoleonic Wars of 1795–1815, from which Britain emerged master of the seas.

The Napoleonic Wars thus ended a long period of wordwide struggles for supremacy in the eighteenth century, featuring at their core rivalry between European maritime empires. The British system of power, with its heavy reliance on naval forces and deficit financing (basically, largescale borrowing to finance wars), ultimately triumphed over a very different, and relatively short-lived, Napoleonic system. This latter had a contrasting emphasis on mass conscription, and recruitment of other countries as auxiliaries by making their leaders relatives of, or dependent on, Napoleon.

Comparing the Qing, British and Napoleonic systems of empire brings home the fact that it is not just military might per se that constitutes imperial power, but that taxation and finance – ‘military–fiscal’ matters – are vital too.

Napoleon’s final defeat came in 1815. By removing Britain’s main opponent, this allowed Britain to rule the waves for several decades. That supremacy, backed by a lead in industrialisation, led Britain to try to impose ‘free trade’, or at least trade at low tariffs, on the rest of the world. Its economic nature of its system of empire thus shifted significantly in the early nineteenth century.

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