Britain’s Colonial Legacy
The largest empire in history, as it is called, the British Empire is said to have at one point in history consisted of about a quarter of Earth’s land area. Started by England in the 15th century, the empire grew bigger with the formation of the Great Britain through the union with Scotland, and even much stronger with the establishment of the United Kingdom. After witnessing other European nations such as Spain and Portugal successfully acquire overseas territories, England had followed suit and started overseas exploration. It began with North America and the Caribbean before moving to Asia and Australia and later on into Africa, all around the earth establishing colonies, protectorates, dominions, and mandates. To date, although the colonies obtained independence, a legacy was made. There are still commonwealth realms mainly consisting of the Caribbean countries, Canada and Australia, who have the queen of England as their monarch (Sears, 2014). The question however is, are the majority of Britons right to be proud of this Britain’s colonial legacy? There is a question of what kind of legacy Britain spread all over and whether it has helped the respective countries. Both benefits of colonialism and its disadvantages need to be weighed to determine its justification. Was it just about economic and political exploitation? What were the religious implications of the missionaries and how has it shaped the world to how we know it today? These are all questions that this essay seeks to answer to conclude whether the British nation should be proud of their past Empire’s legacy.
One of the legacies of British colonial rule is a political legacy. This is because colonization involved establishing a politic system. Colonial government had its monarch as the King or Queen while the respective colonies had a commissioner or governor. For instance, British America, which later united to form the United States of America, had its first monarch as King James and the last as King George III. In Africa, the British, among other European colonies were responsible for the partition of the continent which came to define the 54 countries. The partition of India came to define the republics of India, Pakistan and later on that of Bangladesh. In short, the current boundaries of the most former British colonies are what they are today as the colonials defined them (Cain & Hopkins, 2014). Moreover, the colonialists influenced those country’s administrative boundaries as well. It is quite right to state that the thirteen colonies of North America might never have united, were it not for the British colonization. The colonialist had perhaps unknowingly set the wheel in motion for this unity. They did this by setting a similar political and constitutional structure in all the colonies. This brought the people together as they fought the injustices imposed upon them such as taxation without representation. The same case applied to colonies in Africa in the 20th century. Before the colonialist’s intervention, the political structure in Africa was based on small clans and tribes. The colonialist’s established political structures that led to these tribes uniting to form big countries. Now we have countries such as the East African states, Nigeria and much more. From all this, it is clear that the British colonialists political legacy cannot be disputed as their political structure is still partly or wholly applied in many parts of the world to date (Lester & Dussart, 2014).
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The other thing to be proud of is the linguistic legacy. English has become a worldwide lingua franca. But one might ask, how did a language originally spoken in England become a global language? Statistics now show that English is the official language in over 60 countries as well as many more non-sovereign entities such as Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands. Not only that but it is also the official language in various worldwide organizations such as the United Nations and the European Nations. Although the language has evolved in ways such as the American English, it still has its roots in the British English. As the British established colonies around the world, they also introduced formal education in those colonies in efforts to educate the native speakers. English had to be taught to facilitate communication and teaching of the syllabus. This language has brought about unity on a global level facilitating trade and other interactions all over the world. This, therefore, is a legacy that cannot be overlooked.
Christianity is one of the legacies of British colonialists. Although critics argue that the missionaries were opposed to colonialism, the relationship between the colonialism and Christianity is quite clear. In Africa, British colonialists facilitated the work of the missionaries by introducing a religious syllabus in their formal education. Through Christian education, the missionaries were able to pave the way for the colonialists. Therefore it was an advantage to both parties. Eventually, it was their undoing as the Africans became well educated, enough to fight their colonial masters (Loomba, 2015). Despite all that, Christianity including the catholic, Protestants, and Orthodoxy, has spread all over the world to become the most practiced religion. Although it is a collaborative effort of different European countries, the British had a significant role to play. To date, Christianity provides spiritual nourishment for many based on its belief for an eternal life.
The cultural aspect is yet another proud legacy of the British Empire. Throughout history, the British were known to undermine native cultures of regions they colonized and instead promoting their own culture. Culture, as used here is, however, a broad term incorporating the British language and accents, the Art including literature and poetry, the theatre, music such as the rock and heavy metal, Cinemas, television broadcasting, architecture, visual arts, and sports. These and several others consist of the culture of the United Kingdom which has spread all over the world. Former countries governed by the colonials now practice sports such as soccer and participate in literature as a consequence of the colonial rule. This has improved creativity and cultivated development in such countries, hence something to be proud of.
The British colonials also left a legal legacy. Prior to colonialism, different regions still had a law which they adhered to, as well as set out penalties for breaking such law. This formed a basis for problem solution by a council which mostly included elders. At the time, this was adequate for most regions such as Africa and India. However, with the intervention of the British colonials, the British law was introduced to accommodate the political structure and aid in governance. Even after colonialism, most countries continue to follow this type of legal system. This is mainly because it is one of the strongest laws around the world. Even where this law has been amended in consideration of the different aspects of the countries, such legislation still has its roots in the British law. The legal system, therefore, is one of the legacies the Britons have to be proud of (Thompson, 2014).
European nations greatly advanced science and technology and Britain was one of them. Be it the concept of logarithm by John Napier, water desalinization by Sir Francis Bacon, tin-can telephones by Robert hooker or even the electrostatic motors by Andrew Gordon or the light switch by John Holmes, these are just but a few of the so many inventions by the British scientists. During colonization, these inventions were exported into the respective colonies. Science and its concepts were taught through formal education to the natives. This lead to an enlightening of such people and they grew in creativity. It is worth noting that in such places as Africa, the concept of technology did not exist before colonization. The colonialists turned such people from their simple ways of only farming and herding cattle to innovative and learned people who can invent their creation. This set in motion, a process of problem-solving in many countries that employed science in its reasoning.
British colonialism led to the growth of infrastructure. In attempts to exert great economic control, the colonial masters established an infrastructure system that would enable them to fight resistance to colonialism as well as transport goods to facilitate trade. As a result, a railway system was built in the British colonies. Such construction led to the industrialization of the colonies after all the colonials were seeking economic gains. This, in turn, led to urbanization of different areas. Big cities in former British colonies grew as a result of this growth in infrastructure. To this day, some of these railway systems that were constructed as early as the 1900’s are still in use in some of these countries. British colonial infrastructure, therefore, formed the basis for development of such countries (Pella, 2015).
When the British first arrived in their colonies, only informal education existed which was in most cases traditional. Such included apprenticeship in skills such as pottery and even hunting. The colonialists were responsible for introducing a formal education based on a curriculum in such nations. Therefore, an education structure has become one of the things credited to the British Empire. This structure of starting with early childhood education (ECD) before going to primary education, secondary and finally tertiary education has become established in such colonies and around the world therefore improving world education.
When the King had first approved world exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was indeed to acquire territories, but the basis of it all lay in the desire for economic exploitation. After the British America was established, trade grew in the Empire with imports and exports to the UK increasing (McCusker & Menard 2014). In Africa, the British exported agricultural products such as tea and coffee from the fertile highlands in Eastern Africa, while importing machinery for infrastructure. In all these, the British colonialists established an economic policy in the colonies that led to their development. This legacy can still be felt to date by the various countries. Some of the currencies introduced by the British including the pound, pence, and the shilling are still in use in some of the former colonies. A good example is in east Africa where the shilling is used to date.
The British colonialism is however not without its demerits. These injustices have been widely debated, the greatest been the use of slaves in British America. Although it is the Portuguese who started the Atlantic slave trade, the British also joined in later in one of the greatest human injustices. In British America as well as Africa, colonialism resulted in the killing of many people who were resistant to their governance. This governance also consisted of displacement of Africans from their land. According to the British, Africans did not deserve the land due to their “laziness.” The impact of this is felt up to date since such land was not returned to the respective owners after colonialism ended and instead was obtained by the succeeding governments. Lastly, native cultures were ‘killed’ as the British ignored people’s culture and instead introduced their own (Furnivall, 2014).
Catholic, a majority of Britons are right to be ‘generally proud’ of Britain’s colonial legacy.’ The points stated above are enough to support this statement. Despite the shortcomings, the British colonialism has widely contributed to the civilization of this world with immense benefits. This includes a political, linguistic, legal, cultural, technological, economic and religious legacy. When one reflects on the path that the continent might have taken if the British Empire was never formed, it is quite convincing that it was a blessing to humanity. This, however, does not overlook the injustices done but rather it is, therefore, generalization.
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Lester, A., & Dussart, F. (2014). Colonization and the origins of humanitarian governance: protecting Aborigines across the nineteenth-century British Empire. Cambridge University Press.
Loomba, A. (2015). Colonialism/postcolonialism. Routledge.
Thompson, A. S. (2014). Imperial Britain: The empire in British politics, c. 1880-1932. Routledge.
Cain, P. J., & Hopkins, A. G. (2014). British Imperialism: 1688-2000. Routledge.
Furnivall, J. S. (2014). Colonial policy and practice. Cambridge University Press.
McCusker, J. J., & Menard, R. R. (2014). The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. UNC Press Books.
Pella Jr, J. A. (2015). World society, international society and the colonization of Africa. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 28(2), 210-228.
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