British Colonialism and Social Change in the Metropole

British Colonialism and Social Change in the Metropole

Common analyses of 19th century European colonialism tend to focus on the effects colonialism had on the colonized regions and peoples. Meanwhile, the analysis of the reverse, the effect of the perception of the colonies on the metropole, is not nearly as often discussed. The “colonial experience” of Great Britain in managing its massive empire had some pretty far-reaching impacts on the British understandings of their own metropolitan society. During the height of its colonial empire in the 19th century, Britain went through a number of major social reforms, the abolition of slavery, increasing care for the impoverished in England, and the beginnings of a women’s suffrage movement. While internal forces within Britain had significant impact on these movements, it’s colonial experience, as perceived by a portion of its population, helped push the mindset needed to enact these changes. British exceptionalism, cemented in the national mindset by its colonial experience, entailed elevating the living conditions of British citizens both in order to exert moral superiority and to differentiate its citizens from its colonial subjects, which led to the egalitarian and liberal thinking on issues such as poverty, women’s suffrage, and prostitution.

The British have historically seen themselves as different even from other European nations, possibly stemming from their geographic isolation, being an island separated from the rest of the continent. With this came a sense of superiority, magnified in the 19th century through a number of reasons including Britain’s key role in stopping Napoleon[1] and its relative ability to avoid the political upheavals unlike other European states. In fact, part of the British people’s justification in superiority comes from their propensity to solve issues through reform rather than revolution, something that can be seen throughout the liberal reforms of the 19th century.[2] Along with these other causes, Britain’s colonial empire was a major source of British exceptionalism. It’s ability to amass the largest empire the world had ever seen, spanning a quarter of the world’s land area, from an island smaller than most of its holdings was cause for great pride in many British people. This idea can be seen in Joesph Salter’s writings. Being a Christian missionary in London, his job was to evangelize and Anglicize immigrants including “negros” and “asiatics”, essentially “sell” the idea of British exceptionalism, making his writing a prime example demonstrating this belief.[3] In a part of his chapter “The Central Africans” from his book The East in the West, he writes about a time when a negro relayed to him “African’s perception of England”, saying: “‘You are a wonderful people…You live in a little island in the sea and you rule India and Africa. All the world serves you and sends you its product…’”[4] It is unlikely that this was the universal opinion on England of all Africans, or likely even the majority. However, given that Salter was an English writer writing to an English population, the fact that he chose this example, does more to demonstrate the English view of themselves and what they want Africans to view them as. Salter continues relaying the African’s praise, “‘If we put iron into the water it sinks to the bottom; but you make it carry your men and merchandise across the widest sea. We are afraid of the wind and the lighting, but you use them both: the wind drives your ships wherever you want to go, and the lightning carries your messages over the houses and under the sea…”[5] The British have a desire to be seen as superior, and the stark differences in quality of life between Britain and their colonized territories further entrench this mindset.

Britain was undoubtedly the most capable military power and powerful economic force in the world, far surpassing all of its colonies. Yet within England, there was a high level of inequality; not all Englishmen necessary enjoyed the benefits of their nation’s economic position. While inequality was nothing new, the 19th century saw many strides towards reforms directed at addressing it such as the Poor Laws. General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, writes in his book In Darkest England and the Way Out a response to and in the style of Henry Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent. In this piece, Booth pits Stanley’s recount of the lives of the impoverished of Africa to the lives of the impoverished on London, writing “May we find a parallel at our own doors, and discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horror to those which Stanley has found existing in the great Equatorial forest?”[6] He then later goes on to recount an “expedition” into the heart of the poorest parts of London, getting the personal accounts of the beggars who litter the streets, in order to appeal to the ethos of his reader. Booth is implying that poverty conditions in London are not too far off from those in Africa. Given Booth’s position as the General of the Salvation Army, his goal is not only to raise awareness but also to increase engagement in the active fight against poverty. For this reason, it is likely that he is appealing to the British Exceptionalism in the mindset of his British readers in order to convince them to take action against poverty in England in order to distinguish it from the uncivilized Africa. Due to the prominence of the Salvation Army at this time, Booth was able to spread this message and reach many people.

While Booth was able to use his position and powerful organization to spread this notion of using social superiority to motivate poverty elimination, this idea was not novel when he wrote about it in 1890. Thomas Carlyle, despite approaching it as a more antagonistic attack on the negroes in the colonies, still ends up making a similar appeal as Booth in his essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” as early as 1849. He writes, “The British Whites are rather badly off; several millions of them hanging on the verge of continual famine…” while sarcastically remarking that they can take solace in the fact that “the Negros are all very happy and doing well.” He is trying incite anger in his reader, by reminding them of how “unfair” it is that the they are going through hardships while blacks in the West Indies are happy and have it easy. However, Carlyle’s intentions are a bit different than Booth’s; while Booth’s goal was to use the British exceptionalism to encourage care for the poor, Carlyle is simply using it to incite anger in order to push his proposal, which is largely economic in reason. Carlyle wishes to use the West Indies and the black labor there to produce “useful crops” for the British like sugar, spices, and coffee instead of the pumpkins that the blacks were sustaining off of. Carlyle attempts to garner resentment in the British reader against this pumpkin subsistence by once again comparing it to the rough conditions at home, writing “Blacks sitting there up to the ears in pumpkins, and doleful Whites sitting here without potatoes to eat.”[7] It could be argued that like Booth, Carlyle also has plans to use the colonies to alleviate the economic issues at home, however, Carlyle’s strategy is far more hands on. While Booth suggests simply improving the lives of the poor in England to distinguish them from the colonies, Carlyle suggests an active suppression of quality of life in the colonies in the form of forced labor in order to do useful work that will economically benefit England, potentially helping the poor, while also making the English seem better off by comparison.

Along with the conditions for the poor, there are other issues that highlight the dichotomy in liberalism in the metropole and in the colonies. One such case is the question of prostitution. Booth in his piece writes about prostitution in London, “A young penniless girl, if she be pretty, is often hunted from pillar to post by her employers, confronted always by the alternative–Starve or Sin…The blood [of people] boils with impotent rage at the sight of these enormities, callously inflicted, and silently borne by these miserable victims. Nor is it only women who are the victims, although their fate is the most tragic.”[8] It is clear that in this appeal, Booth expects a reaction of disgust from the reader. While he doesn’t directly make a call for action, he implies that a large number of people believe that these injustices should be stopped. He later goes on the explain why poverty reduction will solve these issues.

Meanwhile, the reactions to the regulated system of forced prostitution that the British army set up in India were very different. Elizabeth Andrew and Katharine Bushnell write in The Queen’s Daughters in India about their travels to India in order to expose this unjust practice. What comes across clearly from their experience is that the British in India clearly have a different reaction to the type Booth suggests the British in Britain do. The British soldiers seem to display a sense of indifference to the abuse that the women go through and even play an active role in creating the abusive system. Although it is important to note, that a comparison of these reactions to those that Booth describes is somewhat unfair, as it is comparing the perspectives of general society to those of the army soldiers who benefit directly from the practice. However, Andrew and Bushnell also relay the legend, “After that experience she [a high-born lady] sought opportunity to talk with high military officials concerning the necessity of protecting high-born ladies from such risks, by furnishing opportunities for sensual indulgence to the British soldiers, and the result was the elaboration and extension of a system for the apportionment of native women to regiments.” While this story is only a tradition, it does point to the fact that the British general society in India was complicit in the creation of the prostitution rings as a way to help protect themselves.

Furthermore, differences in attitude can also be seen in the reactions of the missionaries. These liberal reformers, despite being personally angered with this, don’t attempt to reason with the soldiers or destroy the practice by appealing to morality.[9] Rather, the best their efforts can do are see if there are any ways they can make the lives for the women more bearable. This dichotomy in care for the welfare of women in England and in India is seen even more clearly in the writings of other feminists at the time. Antoinette D. Burton, in her journal article British Feminists and Indian Women 1865–1915, notes that in the later part of the 19th century, many British feminists shared prevailing views of British/White superiority and that a sense of female and white superiority helped many Victorian feminists to claim the ‘Anglo-Saxon woman’ as the most evolved female type — many assumed a hierarchy of civilization according to perceived status of women within that culture — and thus much more deserving of emancipation than Indian women.[10] This shows that even liberal reformers valued the welfare of British women over that of Indian and other colonial women.

Along with maintaining superiority over its colonies socially by making sure its citizens’ living conditions were better than those in its colonies, England’s supremacy also required a form of moral superiority over its colonies and its neighbors. This is in part due to its necessity in the justification of a “civilizing mission.” If England’s rationalization for colonization is bringing morality and civilization to the the colonized people, it needs to be more moral and civilized than its colonies. Evidence of British pride in moral superiority can be seen in Booth’s piece where he writes, “England emancipated her negroes sixty years ago, at a cost of £40,000,000, and has never ceased boasting about it since.”[11] This shows, that the British did value moral superiority and saw it as a source of pride, even if it had economic cost.

One example of Britain pushing more liberal mindsets for this purpose is in the emergence of women’s rights movements. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a prominent British feminist, in her piece “The Woman’s Suffrage Bill” writes “Nothing astonishes Orientals more than the position of women in England…Another Eastern, Syed Ahmed Khan, was amazed to find that the servant-girl who waited upon him in a lodging in London could read and write.”[12] Here, Fawcett in order to appeal to the English ego, brings up multiple occasions where foreigners were amazed to the ways in which the English already treated their women. She continues describing Khan’s reaction, “He recorded his deliberate opinion that the little scrub in the London lodging…was in reality superior in nearly all respects to Indian ladies of the highest rank.”[13] Like, with Salter’s description of the Central African’s praise, Fawcett’s cherry picked example is reflective of what she and other English want foreigners to think of them. This message is similar to the one that inspired aid for the poor; the English men need to give rights to their women (in Fawcett’s case, women’s suffrage) as to distinguish their women and make themselves superior to “the savages” in how they treat their women.

Along with being moral superior to its colonies, England also had a desire to be morally superior to its European peers, especially its imperial rival, France. Being morally superior to France is vital to justifying the British civilizing mission as “more civilizing” than France’s civilizing mission. Another of the many arguments Fawcett uses to push her agenda, is that granting women’s suffrage is a way to “one up” France. She writes, “But women’s suffrage is not even heard of in France; it does not exist there as a practical political subject. One of Gambetta’s sayings in contrasting the political situations of England and France, was to the effect that England had the advantage of France in this respect, that here the enfranchisement of women was possible and desirable, while in his own country, it was entirely out of the question.”[14] Fawcett implies that the opportunity to adopt women’s suffrage before France is an opportunity for England to exert moral superiority over its rival, something the English were always keen to do.

Through an analysis of writings of contemporaries such as Thomas Carlyle, General William Booth, Joseph Salter, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and Elizabeth Andrew, evidence emerges suggesting an interesting narrative in which Britain’s experience in colonial expansion in combination with its desire for national superiority led to support for liberal reforms, especially in the areas of poverty reduction and women’s rights. Many social activists used appeals to the national ego and the desire to be morally and culturally superior to Britain’s colonies in order to convince the British people to take a more active interest in the welfare of its citizens, even the poor and women. This relationship between national ego and liberalism is an interesting phenomenon. While the era of the British empire may be over, national exceptionalism still exists, especially in the United States of America, and understanding it can allow us to direct its energies towards progressive policies to benefit people rather than politics of hate.


[1] NAM Rodgers, “Trafalgar: The Long-Term Impact,” BBC History, February 17, 2011, , accessed October 15, 2016,

[2] Diniejko Andrzej, “Reform Rather Than Revolution. A Review of “Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832–1867,” The Victorian Web, May 1, 2014, , accessed November 02, 2016,

[3] “Joseph Salter,” Making Britain, , accessed October 18, 2016,

[4] Joseph Salter, “Central Africans,” in The East in the West 1895, ed. Antoinette Burton (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 252.

[5] Joseph Salter, “Central Africans,” 253–53.

[6] William Booth, “Why Darkest England?,” in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burton (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 238.

[7] Thomas Carlyle, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burton (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 112.

[8] Booth, “Why Darkest England?,” 239.

[9] Elizabeth Andrew and Katharine Bushnell, “The Queen’s Daughters in India,” in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burton (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 164.

[10] Antoinette M. Burton, “British Feminists and Indian Women 1865–1915,” Choice Reviews Online 13, no. 4 (1990): , accessed November 5, 2016, ScienceDirect.

[11] Booth, “Why Darkest England?,” 241.

[12] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, “The Women’s Suffrage Bill,” in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burton (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 158.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, “The Women’s Suffrage Bill,” 157.


Andrew, Elizabeth and Katharine Bushnell. “The Queen’s Daughters in India.” In Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, edited by Antoinette Burton, 164–68. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Andrzej, Diniejko. “Reform Rather Than Revolution. A Review of “Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832–1867.” The Victorian Web. May 1, 2014. Accessed November 02, 2016.

Booth, William. “Why Darkest England?” In Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, edited by Antoinette Burton, 239–42. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Burton, Antoinette M. “British Feminists and Indian Women 1865–1915.” Choice Reviews Online 13, no. 4 (1990): 295–308. Accessed November 5, 2016. ScienceDirect.

Carlyle, Thomas. Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” In Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, edited by Antoinette Burton, 239–42. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Fawcett, Millicent Garrett. “ The Women’s Suffrage Bill.” In Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, edited by Antoinette Burton, 156–60. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

“Joseph Salter.” Making Britain. Accessed October 18, 2016.

Rodgers, NAM. “Trafalgar: The Long-Term Impact.” BBC History. February 17, 2011. Accessed October 15, 2016.

Salter, Joseph. “Central Africans.” In Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, edited by Antoinette Burton, 249–53. New York: Palgrave, 2001.