top of page
  • Jahnavi Kirkire

Legacy: Is Empire Just?

At its height, the British Empire controlled 25% - a full fourth - of the globe. As the most successful global power in the world, the British maintained their empire from the early 1600s until the 1990s, except for the countries that are now part of the British commonwealth. Historically, the empire served as a symbol of power, status, and British identity. But can it be justified? Every nation colonized by the British was drained of its wealth and resources. Those countries have since faced economic devastation and are often now labeled as “underdeveloped” nations. Known as “former British colonies,” they have struggled against the bindings placed on them because of colonialism. How, really, can we justify the empire? Are there benefits? Are there costs?

To answer these questions, we’ll review a few cases of former colonies. In particular, Nigeria, Singapore, and India.

Nigeria was made a colony in 1884 and remained one until 1960. Nigerians under British rule suffered. While the British brought Christianity, a more formal and standardized education, and the introduction of the English language to the people of Nigeria, they also forcibly separated native Nigerians from one another to crush resistance. The British pushed cash crops into the Nigerian land, using natives to work the fields to generate profits they would never benefit from. The empire squeezed the life out of the very roots of Nigerian land for their betterment. Alongside economic devastation, the British wrought division across the nation, adopting a “divide-and-rule” policy, preventing a unified opposition to their horrific policies. Nigerians were forced to fight for the British empire in both World War I and World War II, taxed heavily to uplift the British economy, and above all, were exploited until they overpowered their oppressors in the 20th century. Nigeria serves as an example of a former colony that, on the surface, had some benefits - like education, but the destruction of the nation outweighs that massively, meaning that colonialism is not just.

Singapore is an interesting case study. One of the smallest countries in the world, Singapore first became a recognized crown colony in 1946, after years of British presence in the nation. However, unlike many other former colonies, the colony was dissolved, as it joined Malaysia rather than automatically becoming a sovereign state. In a phenomenon known as benign colonialism, Singapore is an example of a nation that actively benefitted from some of the British policies enacted in the state. The nation's current economic structure is based on the remnants of British presence, the nation’s culture is an integrated mix of British and Asian-inspired traditions, and the state itself pays homage to many of the British leaders it once had. Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, has a statue in Singapore - installed not during his tenure, but rather four years after the nation became free. In Singapore, the colonialist policies of the British seemingly helped its inhabitants more than they harmed them. In this case, there lies a possibility of colonialism being somewhat justified.

Finally, we cannot skip over the crown jewel of the British empire. There is much to say about the British Raj and its impact on India. The most succinct way to say it is as such: the British considered India its “crown jewel,” which explains why the massive diamond in the crown of the Queen Mother is, in fact, an Indian diamond, known as the Koh-i-Noor. India became an official English colony in 1858, after the transition of power from the East India Company to the Crown itself. The year before had seen the first fight in the Indian independence movement - known as the Sepoy Mutiny. India’s story is long and complex, but it is likely one of the prime examples of the horrors of British rule. Leaving behind a legacy of prejudice, discrimination, exploitation, and economic depletion, the British are a group of people that many Indians tend to find lacking. Throughout British rule, Indians were subjected to colorist ideas, servitude to British soldiers and their families that came to live there, and the ruining of their homes and lives. The British, based on modern calculations, stole upwards of $45 trillion from India alone. Now, the nation faces an upwards hill for their economy - a problem going back to colonial rule. Eventually, Indians fought for and earned their independence in 1947. The violence that followed independence due to the partition of India was primarily a result of the “Indian Independence Act” of 1947, which outlined that two nations should be formed to maintain order in the nation. There is a possibility that India and Pakistan may not have been two separate countries as they are today if it was not for colonial rule. India as a case is a nail in the coffin for the British empire – it cannot be justified on any grounds.

Empire and expansion are not difficult to understand. Collecting power and respect is a goal of many across the world, but the British took it to another level. We cannot go back in time and fix what was broken. What we can do in the meantime is work towards repairing the damage done, and making the world better for the future. Never forget the legacy of the British empire, though, for it likely impacted your entire life.


bottom of page