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More Imperialism

Britain in Jamaica, Suez, and again in Afghanistan | The British in East, West and South Africa, 1855-80 | Britain at War in and Egypt and Sudan, 1882-86 | Germans, French and British in Africa to 1900 | Samoa, Mariana and Caroline Islands to 1900

Britain in Jamaica, Suez, and again in Afghanistan

After the Crimean War (1853-56), the British continued to look after its interests abroad. In 1865 in British-ruled Jamaica, a crowd of some 400 Afro-Caribbeans, who disliked the decision of a local magistrate, attacked a local courthouse and rescued a fellow Afro-Caribbean from prosecution. Britain's governor on the island, Edward John Eyre, sought the arrest of some of those involved, and people resisting arrest killed a few of the white volunteers sent against them. Martial law was proclaimed. A white-controlled militia burned down nearly 1,000 homes of blacks and flogged hundreds of captured. Court-martials of captured blacks resulted in the summary execution of 354. note89

The whites targeted a "colored" (half-black and half-white) leader, G.W. Gordon, a Baptist minister who spoke for the grievances of black peasants. Whites saw Gordon as responsible for the rebellion. The white settlers and authorities were afraid of a revolt similar to the massacres that had occurred earlier in the century in Haiti. They believed in British order and justice. But, within a few hours of his trial, Gordon was hanged. In England an investigation was held. Governor Eyre was widely condemned and was called to London. Some demanded that he be tried for murder. He was removed from office but a grand jury refused to indict him.

Britain interest in the Suez Canal

Another area of concern for the British was Egypt. Egypt was one of the areas of frequent investment of money by French capitalists, and the French and Egyptians had been digging a 106-mile long canal (171 kilometers) between the Mediterranean and Red seas, employing around 1.5 million Egyptian workers – a ten-year project that cost 125,000 lives. The canal was a largely French-owned company, with some shares owned by the Ottoman Empire's viceroy (khedive) in Egypt, Ismail Pasha. Late in 1869 the canal was opened for navigation, with access promised the ships from all nations for a fee. The canal provided British merchant and warships a shorter route to India and points farther east, including Australia. Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera for canal's opening celebration – Aida.

Economic Fears

Meanwhile, with the arrival of economic depression in 1873, British concerns over their ability to trade internationally increased. An early leader in industrialization, Britain was holding to older machinery compared to machines in more recently developed economies. The British felt threatened by the rising economies of Germany, France and the United States. German textile and metal industries had become better organized and more technically efficient than those in Britain. British businesses were suffering from a decline in what it could charge for its products and a decline in profits. London financial houses feared that French and German investments in international markets would depress interest rates, and they were increasingly concerned about government consistency in its willingness to protect British investments abroad. The British were also concerned about inadequate sales abroad creating an unfavorable balance of trade. The British believed that they should continue as "the workshop of the world," in other words as the world leader in manufacturing and commerce – a source of their nation's strength and grandeur.

In Britain, financial houses favored more control in international affairs. Some manufacturers involved in large-scale exports such as metals and textiles turned to their government for help. Missionaries and religious organizations agreed that in non-European societies more control should be applied.

The British were concerned about a newly united Germany. And although the problem of Russian expansion had been thought solved by the Crimean War, the British were again afraid of Russian expansion against the Ottoman Empire, and against the Persians, toward Afghanistan and India. And the British were concerned about Irish agitation for independence.

Disraeli and the Suez Canal

Concerning empire, the historian Jan Morris writes:

Between 1837 and 1869, six men had been Prime Ministers of England. Three had been Conservative, three Whig or Liberal, but none could really be described as men of Empire. note90

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was something else. In 1874 he became prime minister again, a victory made possible for his Conservative Party by splits among the major opposition party, the Liberals. Disraeli was under pressure to vigorously pursue British interests abroad, and he did so appealing to the grandeur of empire and the patriotism of common people, including those attracted to trade unionism. He was an aristocrat, and his aristocratic conservatives were posing as guardians of working-class interests against unscrupulous industrialists and lesser bourgeoisie.

In 1875, Britain became part owner in of the Suez Canal enterprise. The British government through Disraeli's manipulations managed to acquire shares in the enterprise that had belonged to the Ottoman's viceroy to Egypt, Ismail Pasha. Pasha had borrowed from international bankers and had exhausted his credit, and in 1876 he declared Egypt as bankrupt. In response, Britain and France set up a Joint Control Board to regulate Egypt's economy, creating cost-saving measures for Egypt such as reducing the size of its army. Many Egyptian army officers lost their jobs – creating resentment among them toward the British and French.

The Second Afghan War

Prime Minister Disraeli was concerned also about Russia's advance to Samarkand, a couple hundred miles north of Afghanistan. Disraeli pressed British authorities in India to secure a defense against Russian expansion into Afghanistan. The Afghanis welcomed a Russian envoy to Afghanistan, but Afghan troops refused entry to a British envoy, Neville Chamberlain. On the throne in Afghanistan was Sher Ali Khan, the son of the former ruler, Dost Mohammad Khan, who had been imprisoned by the British. Sher Ali Khan shared his father's hostility to the British. The British doubled down on their aggression against Afganistan by launching the Second Afghan War, in 1878 sending troops over Afghanistan's high passes.

The British were more successful in this second war. Sher Ali Khan fled and British forces occupied Kabul. The British opened communications with Abdur Rahman, nephew of Sher Ali Khan and grandson of Dost Mohammad Khan. They viewed Rahman favorably. Rahman was described as intelligent, frank and with a courteous manner. The British said they were prepared to withdraw their troops and to recognize Abdur Rahman as Emir of Afghanistan. The war ended in 1880 with Rahman agreeing to British control of Afghanistan's foreign relations. The British decided where Afghanistan's borders would be – borders that would eventually be recognized by the Russians and remain into the 21st century.

Copyright © 2003-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.