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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 16:25 GMT
Was British imperialism a force for good?
The mention of British imperialism conjures images of a brutal slave trade and obscene profits gained through the imposition of British rule.

To add insult to injury, the colonisers saw themselves as superior to those they colonised.

India was the jewel in Britain's imperial crown and by plundering its rich resources Britain went from piracy to power, eventually holding sway over vast tracts of the globe.

But despite the indisputable causes for shame, the historian Niall Ferguson argues in his new book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, that British imperialism had its virtues, and its shortcomings were outweighed by its benefits.

It promoted the free movement of goods, capital and labour, he says, and introduced Western norms of law, order and governance, catapulting the world into the modern era.

So, was British imperialism a great historic achievement? Or did it leave nothing more than a crippling legacy that would haunt its former colonies to this day?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

The British Empire grew at a time when European countries were all competing for world domination. Comparing present day countries that were formerly part of the British Empire with those that used to be ruled by Spain, Portugal, France, or Italy, it does appear that in most instances, the legacy of the British has been better, or at least not as bad, as that of other European imperial powers.
Tang Beng Yong, Singapore (in UK)

The main drawback of British rule on India is we have to study that history for almost 3 years in school. It really is a pain to remember all the names of the governor generals and lords.
Kamal, India

It is now past history

Kaushika, India
While imperialism did bring its share of misery, it is now past history. As Indians we must now take charge of our own destiny. Unfortunately, barring some exceptions, the so-called leaders, ministers and government officials we have had over the past 50 years have done precious little to improve our lot.
Kaushika, India

Consider many of the current conflicts in the world: India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, Sinhalese-Tamil, Fijian-Indian. The common element behind them all is British rule. Draw your own conclusion from that.
Vish, NZ

The colonisation of India & the whole of South East Asia was an ongoing process by the Persians, Arabs, Moguls etc. Was the British colonisation more good than bad? certainly it was more benign than all past ones & had the positive effect of uniting India into a modern state. Any traveller to India without knowledge of the past can marvel at the great infrastructure & architecture left behind by those alien cultures, it is my opinion that modern medicine alone was a fair price to pay for the ills suffered.
John, Australia

To say that the British helped in bringing modernity to India is incorrect.

Rajesh Guha, United States
To say that the British helped in bringing modernity to India is incorrect. China did not have to undergo British rule to stand up on it's feet economically. So-called benefits in the infrastructure were implemented only for strengthening it's own rule. The only "benefit" which India perhaps got was the learning of the English language which to this day remains a drawback for a country like China even in British governed areas like Hong Kong.
Rajesh Guha, United States

The Great British Empire of yesteryears is indeed a lesson in history. One can learn from what they did right and what they did wrong. The question, then, is, does the good outweigh the bad? I cannot speak for all the former colonies. I come from Pakistan, and believe that the imperialism was a blessing in disguise. Sure, the conflict and turmoil is forever written in the history books, but the good was really good. The British came when the Mogul Empire was on its declination path. They brought law and order, and most importantly, technology with them. I do not believe that the vast lengths of Railway lines in the Indian subcontinent would have been possible without the colonization. This is just one of the many reasons why the British Empire did more good than bad.
Hamza Sheikh, USA

The British empire was, like all empires, a product of its time and place; its modus operandi today seems abhorrent in the light of accepted western liberal thought and norms of today. That said, the western concepts of civilization that have matured into what they are today (at minimum in theory, if not in practice) are far more benevolent than anyone 150 years ago might have dreamed of. Critics of history are harsh; rightly so. It should be remembered though that applying todays standards to events and regimes of the past result in an unbalanced, chrono-centric position; civilizations, whether influenced by European empires or not, are evolutionary, and develop still.
Anon, US

The effect of the empire was positive for both the rulers and the ruled.

Brian Smith, Canada
The British Empire was a trade-based empire, rather than an empire based on military conquest. The British displaced existing despots, and did so with the support of significant numbers of the local populations. There was never sufficient military presence to hold these colonies in the face of a widespread local revolt. The remote British crown was less noxious than the immediate predecessors. While it is true that Britain benefited economically, it was not a zero-sum game, and the local economies probably also improved.

If the wealth of the West had been solely based on robbing the rest of the world, one would expect the standard of living in Britain to have declined with the loss of its empire. The standard of living in Britain seems to have been improving since it divested itself of its empire, and the former empire has voluntarily retained economic affiliation through the Commonwealth. I conclude that the effect of the empire was positive for both the rulers and the ruled.
Brian Smith, Canada

Britain was no different to other imperialist nations, in that it sought to conquer other nations and thereby gain access to their resources. While it is easy to blame the British, the fact remains that most, if not all, other nations would have established an imperialist hegemony had they been able to do so. Many tried. After all, it appears to be an instinctive human desire to dominate others. If the British hadn't done it, then others would have - and arguably done a worse job! One of the biggest downsides of British imperialism is that it disturbed the state of equilibrium between different ethnic groups by redefining their territories, thereby laying the seeds for future civil wars.
Krishna Jeyachandran, UK

British Imperialism was a curates egg - mainly bad but good in parts. Imperialists were there to fill their pockets, along the way a few good things happened with the construction of infrastructure. Christian Indians say that Britain united a disparate country, Moslem Indians say Britain stopped them taking over the whole of Africa and South Asia. Too simplistic a view, but the empire is history, its time to move on.
peter nixon, england/usa

India's wounds from the British Raj are yet to heal.

Samyuktha, India
The UK sowed the seeds for the communalism that hinders the progress of India. The Divide and Rule that the British so effectively implemented in the early 1940's has been one of the major reasons for the Hindu Muslim divide that exists in the sub continent. To give the country its due, they did definitely help the country by laying the foundation for its judicial system and railways and not to forget cricket but that hardly justifies the long term damage that their rule has caused. India's wounds from the British Raj are yet to heal.
Samyuktha, India

Britain was the biggest robber of the 18th century. Reducing the once prosperous and rich India to a third world country and making itself very rich in the end. And now it is preaching to the world the morals and ethics as if it were a saint. The Kohinoor diamond is still with UK which was robbed from India. UK is still earning from its plundering by putting the diamond in a museum and earning the visitor fees. Shame on its part. Now it is acting as USA's poodle shamelessly obeying its master (US) for every action without having any individual opinion of its own.
Ravi, India

The success of 'Empire' was the success of systemic forces of global capitalism across the world. The colonization over rode a way of life which had sustained and prospered for centuries. Further, it redefined the social and economic attitudes of the colonized and it will be a long time before they would be able shed it to realize the uniqueness of their social, cultural and economic standing.
Rishi Dhanju, India/USA

In ancient days the economies were self-sufficient and prosperous. The paddy production in Sri Lanka reached a stage where it could satisfy its own demands pre-British ruling. When the British came to power they forced farmers out and planted tea for their needs. And further, Brits very often used the tactic "divisionalisation". In India the Hindu/Muslim problem originated because of British tactics to weaken the freedom struggle. Again in Sri Lanka bloody ethnic war is the result of British cheap tactics and caused more than 65,000 deaths and enormous humanitarian disaster.
Ragulan, Canada

Diverse cultures and civilisations will always clash with each other

Rajiv Sinha, USA
One can conclude that what the British achieved is a lesson in history; diverse cultures and civilisations will always clash with each other in a world growing technologically smaller by the day. Those who can adapt to the technological progress and combine it successfully with their own diversity will survive and prosper. Those who cannot develop their own unique identity and have been inclined to revert back to their post-colonial state, will eventually be left isolated and alienated from the rest.
Rajiv Sinha, USA

To say that the imperialism had benefits that outweighed the problems is like saying that the silver lining outweighs the vast tracts of dark cloud. Especially since England received the silver lining, the dark cloud was spread over rest of the world.
Anon, India/ USA

The UK was a terrorist of the 18th century who wielded the biggest gun. The majority of Asian economies were ready to enter industrialisation stage of their economy, right before the UK entered the picture. What happened was majority of the world under UK rule stopped developing economically with 0% economic growth. How can any idiot presumably think UK added any value by destroying these economies?
Steve Jenson, USA

No system or empire in history is without some faults

Igonikon Jack, USA
British imperialism might have provoked forces of evil and transgression in the past. But, the bottom line is that no system or empire in history is without some faults, and none was perfect. Against, this background, on balance, the British Empire was a driving force for modern and Western civilisation. Today, 54 nations and nearly 1.7 billion people come under the umbrella of the now British Commonwealth.
Igonikon Jack, USA

British imperialism will only be remembered as a dark period in world history. It destroyed societies that had lived peacefully and successfully for hundreds of years, it created false boundaries between people that had been united. It stole and plundered the wealth that drove ancient civilisations and above all when it was finally defeated, it left behind a legacy of deprivation, conflict and the seeds of future wars.
Mas Patel, England

Let's get things straight first; the British did not establish an empire for "charity". The driving force behind it was an economic one. But the colonised people derived great benefit from it. The British gave India the most extensive railway, irrigation and telegraph networks in the world, the best legal system, the most efficient civil service, the English language, cricket... the list is endless. Despite fulminating against the "vestiges" of colonialism, nationalistic politicians have not been able to replace it with anything better.
Nausherwan Lahori, Lahore, Pakistan

I do not think cricket was a fair exchange for decimating a nation

Arun Chawla, India/USA
The British Empire destroyed, plundered and killed. Just like any other empire would. The great rail system that they gave us was built on the blood and sweat of hundreds of thousands of "dispensable brown men". And I do not think cricket was a fair exchange for decimating a nation of all its resources.
Arun Chawla, India/USA

The Empire left in its wake most of today's problems and conflicts... it sowed the seeds of poverty and war in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Britain is prosperous today because it stole and will not return the wealth of these lands.
Ivhu Ku Ivhu

Britain and the other European (and American) empires have done more damage than can be calculated. The indigenous peoples of the world from Africa to the American natives have been brutalised. The economic, sociological and psychological damage to these peoples continues to resonate.
Patrick, USA

I visited Sri Lanka in November of last year and saw and learnt of the effects of British rule (as well as Dutch and Portuguese rule) over the centuries. The Tamil Tiger situation, I feel, directly stems from the British desire to bring in a huge workforce from southern India into the country to be used as cheap labour for the tea plantations, effectively evicting the local Sri Lankan people from the hill country and completely destroying vast areas. Both the Tamils and the Sri Lankans were badly treated in all this. Poverty is still a major problem in Sri Lanka. However, I have never met such warm welcoming and tolerant people who taught and showed me so much.
Debbie, England

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