Wars of Empire offers up historian Douglas Porch’s narrative and appraisal of the rise, zenith, as well as decline of the European colonial empires. The growth of the empires was often the outcome of individual devolution of command – owing to substantial geographic dispersion – or merchant adventurism. The empires were most commonly a significant financial burden for their home governments, and usually only offered international prestige as a product.
“By demanding open markets free of government regulation or monopolistic restriction, traders like Jardine, Mattheson and Dent helped to transform the emerging imperial consciousness into an ideology that equated free trade with the spread of Western civilization and the rule of law. In this way, imperialism was a revival of the Roman concept of dominion as a moral and military ascendancy over inferior peoples.
“And while some individuals profited from colonial expansion, nations seldom did. In the last years of the nineteenth century the British Empire was a revenue drain. The French paid huge subsidies to garrison and develop their unproductive colonies which accounted for less than 10 per cent of French overseas trade by 1900… Colonies devoured metropolitan subsidies and generated large defence and administrative requirements, against a return of prestige and the distant promise of an economic pay-off.
“Benjamin Disraeli… attempted to elevate empire into a province of the national imagination and, in the process, transform the Tories into the party of empire, forging the link between empire and national greatness in the popular mind. Disraeli’s Crystal Palace speech of June 1872 offered the British electorate… a choice between the ‘Little England’ of the Liberals and an empire of liberty, truth and justice that would make Britain the envy of the world.
“The primary concerns of Continental powers were, by definition, European. Imperial conquest was an add-on, a leisure activity to be undertaken only when it did not jeopardize one’s fundamental interests at home. Any politician who thought about it for more than five minutes should have concluded that he would get little credit when imperial expansion succeeded, and all of the blame when an expedition encountered setbacks.
“Russian expansion was of an entirely different nature to that of other imperial nations. In the first place, it was continental not a maritime enterprise. It was a continuation of the defensive expansion of Muscovy, and such strategic concerns supplied the most coherent rationale… The most important support for Russian imperialism came from Pan-Slavism, but this was never a mass movement.
*All excerpts have been taken from Wars of Empire, HarperCollins Publishers LLC.
Why Empire? – Douglas Porch