British expansionism

The British Empire

The period spanning from late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century has been described as one of ‘high empire.' During this time, Britain took over a huge amount of territory and colonized a massive proportion of the world's inhabitants. The writings that emerged from both the colonizers and colonized peoples throughout the period express a self-conscious approach to the notions of empire and expansionism.

Colonialism occurs when one nation expands its territory beyond its own borders and establishes either colonies or administrative dependencies through which to rule the people native to the land. By extending their borders, the colonizers usually take control of the resources, finances, and the labour markets of the occupied countries.

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural Imperialism is the process whereby one nation dominates another, often through enforcing their culture and language upon people who have been colonized. A notable belief in the cultural superiority of the British emerges throughout the colonial writings of British colonizers. Where the work of colonization faltered, there was a real fear that degeneration would occur and the natives of the occupied territory would revert to a state of savagery.

Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella, Heart of Darkness, describes the European colonial exploitation of Africa in the late nineteenth century. In it, Marlow, an Englishman employed on board a ship owned by a Belgian trading company, recalls the experience of ‘going up that river' into the heart of the colony:

The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had once known — somewhere — far away — in another existence perhaps.


The notion of entering ‘another existence' that is ‘cut off' and far removed from the ordinary experiences of the colonial settler is a feature of much of the literature which emerged from the ‘high empire' of Britain.

In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said identifies the practice, used by Western writers, of ‘orientalizing' descriptions of colonized subjects; rendering them feminized and child-like and imposing upon them the exotic attributes that they themselves consider oriental. Rather than try to understand the reality behind the cultural values of the nation colonized, by dictating the codes through which the ‘orient' is understood, Said suggests that the colonized nation becomes a fictionalized representation.


The system of British rule in India was instituted in 1858, when the British East India Company came under the command of the Crown. In 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India and the British rule in the country lasted until 1947.

The literature of the colonized subjects in India often reflects the British education they were given and embodies the orientalist codes through which they were understood by the West. As well as embracing the sentimental approach of the colonizers, such literature could also be subversive. For instance, the female poet Sarojini Naidu often mimics the cultural structures and language of the West as she writes about her native country. The second verse of her 1905 poem, ‘Village-Song' reads,

Mother mine, to the wild forest I am going,
Where upon the champa boughs the champa buds are blowing;
To the Koil-haunted river-isles where lotus lilies glisten,
The voices of fairy-folk are calling me: O listen!


Images of technological advances and transportation systems are common in colonial writings, as they represent the progress and advancement with which the British Empire prided itself.

The Suez CanalIn 1869, the Suez Canal was opened, which meant ships no longer needed to sail around Africa to reach the east. This shortened links between Britain, India and the Antipodes and had a dramatic effect on world trade. Its establishment was a central turning point for the onset of British expansionism.

Under British rule, India saw a huge development in the construction of canals, roads, and railways. In 1863, writer George Otto Trevelyan articulated a common attitude to the Indian railway when, describing it, he claimed:

Never was I so impressed with the triumphs of progress, the march of the mind. In fact, all the usual common-places genuinely filled my soul. Those two thin strips of iron, representing as they do the mightiest and the most fruitful conquest of science, stretch hundreds and hundreds of miles across the boundless Eastern plains.

This attitude, expressing the ‘triumph' of Britain as conqueror and emphasising the benefits that India gleaned from foreign rule, highlights the justification used for the expansion of the empire in that it made civilization possible and brought with it technological wonders.

The Commonwealth

Unlike the system of rule that the British operated in India, Africa, and the West Indies, the white colonies that the Empire expanded to embrace, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, were self-governing. Receiving more encouragement and respect, the natives of these lands produced significantly more literature and art. However, their position as independent but yet still under the command of the British Empire meant that self-expression and nationalism was a difficult and contentious issue. The short stories of the New Zealand author, Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), often reflect the complexities of establishing a national identity that reflects both the British and indigenous aspects of her culture.

Further reading

  • Empire writing: an anthology of colonial literature, 1870-1918, edited with an introduction and notes by Elleke Boehmer (Oxford University Press, 1998).

This anthology includes British imperial writings alongside the literature of the natives of the colonies. It serves as a good introduction to the variety of the complexity of the notion of the British Expansionism.

  • Said, Edward W., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (Penguin, 1995).
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