British Empire: global hegemony (1815-1919)

British Empire: global hegemony (1815-1919)

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The victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, paved the way for the world supremacy of theBritish empire. Indeed, it is not to Europe that Britain will now turn its efforts, but to the rest of the world. It was the construction of the Empire, which had certainly already started in the previous century, but which would continue throughout the 19th century (until 1914), to contribute to the first globalization. A british power which goes beyond the military and economic fields, bringing together on all continents a set of territories, united until 1931 by their allegiance to the British Crown.

The British Colonial Empire

Defining the British world and the Empire’s ever-shifting borders over the long 19th century is a recurring historiographical debate. Without claiming to decide it, we will say that the Empire mentioned here is made up of: Great Britain (including Ireland since 1801), the Dominions (such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand), India ( "An empire within the Empire"), the colonies of the Crown (in South Africa mainly), the protectorates (Egypt, Malaysia), the condominiums (on Sudan at the end of the century), the mandates for the post World War I (Palestine) and the singular Sarawak. To this must be added the areas where the Empire exerts a significant influence, what is called the informal Empire: these are the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, part of Latin America and China. In short, the British Empire until the beginning of the 20th century was almost the world!

The factors for this power are very diverse, but the UK is dominant in many ways. First of all, it benefits from a remarkable demographic boom, with its population rising from 10.5M in 1801 to 37M in 1901! Its supremacy is then military and naval, essential to maintain the pax britannica. It allows for the exercise of an imperial policy which leads to the height of the Empire in 1914 (33M km2, 400M inhabitants), even if the control of these territories is far from direct. Its power is also exercised at the industrial, commercial and financial levels; Great Britain thus has the greatest production, trading and lending capacity. In 1815, its GNP was already over 300M pounds; its coal production increased from 11M tonnes in 1800 to 225M in 1900! The Pound is the world's leading currency.

The domination is moreover ideological, the British way of life sets itself up as a model. Some speak of a "moral empire", with the struggle against slavery and the importance of British missions around the world. The model is also political, the Westminster model, which was exported to the dominions and as far as India (creation of the Congress party in 1885). However, we should not idealize this model, which sometimes becomes a distorting mirror, as during colonial massacres (hunting of Aborigines for example) ...

Finally, supremacy is technical. The development of transport (railways, steamers) and communication tools (telegraph, Imperial Penny Post in 1898) fosters exchanges and the feeling of belonging to a community. This allows the transmission of the British model and stimulates migration within it.

Perhaps the symbol of this hegemony is the creation of time zones from the Greenwich meridian in 1880, marking the spatio-temporal centrality of Great Britain.

British naval and military power

The weight of the army and navy is greater for the British in the 19th century than for their French or German rivals; they are the foundations of the Empire and of British rule. The navy in particular is essential to control the vast spaces that Great Britain claims to dominate. However, the problem of priorities arises because the means are not infinite: we must find a balance between defending the metropolis, defending the Empire, and maintaining balance of power in Europe.

First, the Royal Navy, to which the India Navy (of the East India Company) was linked until 1858. Its missions: protect the British Isles and maritime routes; be an instrument of influence and deterrence (in 1836, against France, off Tunisia for example; or gunboat policy in China); exercise scientific and technical functions (ethnology, botany, exploration in general). The Navy is very popular.

The army, for its part, is responsible for protecting the ports and large cities, the imperial borders, the colonists (against the natives, as in Jamaica in 1831, or Ceylon in 1848), and ensuring the maintenance of order in the settlements (riots in Montreal in 1832, 1849 and 1853), as well as in metropolitan France. This helps give it a less positive image than that of the Navy. It is further divided between men of rank recruited from the underprivileged classes (many of them Irish), and officers from the aristocracy (the fighting families).

Great Britain's naval and military policy evolved during the 19th century. Between 1815 and 1840 the imperial system was set up, in the post-french wars, which leads to a decrease in the budget (from 45M to 8M between 1815 and 1837). The Empire develops its strategic bases and its points of support, such as Gibraltar, Singapore, Aden or Hong Kong. The period 1840-1880 is that of a reorganization made necessary by a series of clashes. In 1853, 27,000 men were deployed in India, 23,000 in the West Indies and Asia, 50,000 in the settlements, which reduced the presence in Europe on the eve of the Crimean War (1854-1856) and revived the fear of the invasion with the arrival to power in France of Napoleon III. Troops are then repatriated to the metropolis, trusting the settlements (which do not necessarily agree). It was also around this time that the British gunboat policy developed, which consisted of bombing the coasts to open up markets.

China was affected in 1860, as were Jamaica (1865) and Kenya (1875, against the slave traders). At the same time, the Empire developed new networks: the Suez Canal (1869), the telegraph link (Malta-Alexandria in 1859; Great Britain-India in 1863; Great Britain-America in 1865). The last period was marked by the arms race and serial defeats: Isandlwana against the Zulus (1879), Maiwand against the Afghans (1880), plus the wars against the Boers (22,000 soldiers killed, cost of 300M pounds). British naval power was then contested, and the Naval Defense Act (1891) is enacted so that Great Britain always possesses a fleet superior to the other two principal maritime powers combined.

Great Britain, at the beginning of the 20th century, decided to develop alliances to rationalize the defense of the Empire. It succeeds with France (1904) and Russia (1907), but fails with Germany, which has become its industrial rival.

British expansion in Asia

When we think "British empire India often comes back. Yet while Britain was the jewel of the British world, the latter's power has been exercised across Asia in different forms, and not always easily, including in India.

The situation in Europe contributed to British expansion as early as the 18th century. Indeed, following the Seven Years' War, the Treaty of Paris (1763) allows Great Britain to recover not only Canada, but also to consolidate its presence in the Indian subcontinent, even if France remains there. present (in Pondicherry).

The main tool of this expansion is a trading company, theEast India Company , which, from its headquarters in Calcutta, exercises a commercial monopoly over the region. In 1784, the ’India act between the British government and the Company. The EIC acted in concert with Indian authorities who allied with the British and provided troops from the 1750s. Noble castes, the Sepoys, then made up the bulk of the Company's armies. These alliances form the basis ofBritish Raj.

India, the jewel in the crown

The British "created" India as an empire, following the collapse of the Mughals and the last independent states (Third Marathi War, in 1817), then through local alliances. In 1805, they conquered Dehli and put the Mughal lord under guardianship. Ten years later, Ceylon fell under British rule, and in 1816, an agreement gave Nepal independence in exchange for access to the mountains. Throughout this period, the British played divides between Indian lords, while relying on the EIC.

From that moment, Great Britain controlled India from Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, confirming its power in the 1850s by defeating the Sikhs (annexation of the Punjab). In 1858, the EIC being dissolved, it was succeeded by a viceroy. Indeed, British domination was fragile, and in 1857 broke out the Sepoy revolt, or Great Mutiny, a dispute within the Indian armies, where Muslims and Hindus were found, and which threatened the British presence in the region. The repression is fierce, and the rebellion crushed the following year. The government and Queen Victoria then decided to regain control by dissolving the EIC and placing India directly under British rule. In 1876, Victoria was “Empress of India”.

The outskirts of India

The success is more mixed in the regions surrounding India. If, as we said, Nepal and Ceylon are ultimately controlled more or less directly, the situation is much more difficult in Burma and Afghanistan.

From the end of the 1830s, the British Empire experienced difficulties in its desire to control Afghanistan, to counter Russian expansion in the region by forming a glacis. In 1842, it is the famous disaster of Khyber Pass, where the British army is exterminated. It took more than thirty years, and the crisis with the Russians in the Balkans, for the Empire to try again to conquer Afghanistan. The Second Afghan War (1878-1881) ended in another failure (with the Battle of Maïwand, where Conan Doyle's Watson was wounded). However, the Russian advance eventually led the Emir of Kabul to sign agreements with the British in the early 1890s.

In Burma, the problems started at the end of the 18th century, and in 1818 the Burmese took Assam (in eastern India). The British recovered it following an agreement reached after the First Burmese War (1824-1826), the stake of which was control of the Bay of Bengal. In 1852, a second war allowed the Empire to take over Rangoon. Then, in the late 1880s, Upper Burma was attached to the Indian Empire to counter the French advance into Indochina. The British then decided to consolidate their positions in Southeast Asia.

In the North, finally, there is the problem of Tibet around Sikkim. The tensions, in which between China, lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1904 a treaty was finally signed in Lhasa, which opened Tibet to British trade.

British influence in Southeast Asia

The British presence in Malaysia dates back to the late 1780s. The region is made up of princely states and sultanates with which the Empire plays the same game as in India, a mixture of alliances and offensives.

It is again the European context which contributes to the British expansion. The Dutch, present in Southeast Asia since the 16th century, controlling Malacca among others, allied with the French in 1795, justifying British intervention. The Congress of Vienna (1815) drives the point home, despite some retrocessions. In 1819, the strategic port of Singapore was created, consolidated in 1824 with the acquisition of Malacca, following exchanges of territories with the Dutch. From 1841, the British settled in Sarawak, but it was not until forty years that this small state was annexed, as were Borneo and Brunei. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, the last Malaysian states and Siam also gave up, and went under British protectorate.

Relations with China

Relations between the Empire and China are more complex, although the Middle Empire is one of the main objectives of the British.

The Opium War, sometimes explained by the loss of the EIC's monopoly on trade in the region, broke out in 1840, following a diplomatic failure to "open" China to trade. By the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), the British obtained Victoria Island (Hong Kong) and the opening of five Chinese ports (including Shanghai).

The situation is complicated by the threat of civil war in China, following the installation of the Taipings in Nanjing between 1843 and 1845. This heralds the revolt that breaks out in 1851 and undermines the ruling dynasty in China, the Qing. The British, but also the French, then tried to take advantage of it, but the situation was hardly favorable to trade, especially since other “opium wars” broke out in the years 1858-1860, one of which was the imperial summer palace is attacked. Eventually, the Europeans helped the Qing crush the Taiping revolt in 1864-1865. This allows them to see China open, constrained, to trade and "free trade".

The end of the century confirms the domination of China, in a context of competition between Europeans, especially since the Qing failed in Japan (1894-1895) and are even more weakened. Great Britain is the creditor of the Middle Empire, and settles its zones of influence and its points of support on the Chinese coasts, entering little inland. This British effort is still to be placed in the “Great Game”, in particular with the Russians, as confirmed by the agreement signed with Japan in 1902. The Boxer Revolt (including the siege of Beijing in 1900) and the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, which gave way to the Republic of China, did not change the situation.

Asia and the Indian jewel are therefore a major part of the British Empire, especially before its conquest of Africa. We can see there the diversity of systems of domination, more or less indirect, that Great Britain sets up to impose its influence and its free trade trade.

"The question of the East"

TheMiddle East holds a special place in the politics ofBritish empire in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, until the First World War. If it is not strictly speaking part of the "British world", it is nonetheless an important stake, even central, in the Great Game with Russia, then during the war, as the adventure shows. ofLawrence of Arabia. From the Eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan, passing through Egypt and the Persian Gulf, discovery of a "great Middle East" under British influence until the 1930s.

While Britain has long dominated the western Mediterranean (capture of Gibraltar in 1704), it was not until the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna (1815) that it really turned to the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant. However, it must first settle the "Eastern question", especially in the context of growing rivalry with Russia. Thiseastern question Above all concerns the Ottoman Empire which, from the end of the 18th century (loss of Crimea to Russia in 1774), began to fall into a downward spiral, which continued to worsen in the 19th century. The Greek War of Independence was a turning point because, after a certain neutrality in the early 1820s, the European powers - including, of course, Great Britain - came into play in 1827, and contributed to the independence of Greece in 1830. But the British had to react the following year to the coming to power in Egypt of Muhammad Ali, then in 1833 to the alliance between Russia and Turkey. A loss of the Empire's influence over Egypt threatens British interests in India, and according to Lord Palmerston and theForeign office the question of the straits must remain European.

Between military interventions and diplomacy

Then began an intense diplomatic and military activity of the British to maintain a certain balance in the Levant. First, to restrict the power of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, with the capture of Aden in 1839. Then, the following year, while tensions with France increased around the Egyptian question, a rapprochement took place with Russia at the Treaty of London. This helps to shatter Egypt's ambitions in Syria, and thus help the Ottoman Empire in the face of the ambitions of Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha. Meanwhile, Great Britain and La Porte signed the Treaty of Balta Liman (1838), strengthening British economic power in the region, and its influence over Turkey.

During the 1840s, Great Britain increased this influence in the Levant thanks to free trade and a network of regional customers (Druze, Armenians, etc.). The main rival then seems to be France, which is starting to experience success in the western Mediterranean. Developed among the BritishFrench scares, which led among other things to the strengthening of the fortifications of Malta (under the control of the Empire since 1800). Yet it is again Russia that is changing the game. First during its conflict with France over the management of the Holy Places (1852), then especially when Russia invaded the Ottoman provinces of the Danube in 1853. It was the start of the Crimean War, in which the Great- Brittany is committed alongside France and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the British do not want the Russian influence in the region, which could threaten as far as Persia and, moreover, they are keen on the reforms led by La Porte, positive for trade and therefore the economic power of the 'Empire. The Treaty of Paris (1856) put an end to the war, from which France and Great Britain emerged victorious, which reinforced their presence in the region, but also their tutelage over the Ottoman Empire.

The end of the 1870s was a new period of crisis for Turkey: revolt in Herzegovina, then in Bosnia and Bulgaria (1875-1876), bankruptcy in 1876, declaration of war by Russia the following year,… The German Chancellor Bismarck gathered a congress in Berlin in July 1878. The independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania was ratified, while “Greater Bulgaria” was split into two entities (Bulgaria and Roumélie). The British, who participated in the congress with Disraeli to counter Russian influence, are satisfied and even get tutelage over Cyprus. But this crisis showed that the Ottoman Empire was really unreliable, which pushed the British Empire to"Abandon Istanbul for Cairo".

Egypt: the strategic key

While the Muhammad Ali period had been devastating for British influence in Egypt, the late 1850s marked a new turning point. The Empire was then rivaled by France, around the question of the Suez Canal, the project of which was viewed with a dim view by Lord Palmerston. Nevertheless, the policy ofForeign office does not manage to prevent the success of the project in 1869, and the choice is then made to join it with the purchase of the Egyptian Khedive of its shares in 1875. France must do with it, even if it still remains the majority in the Suez Canal Company.

The Ottoman bankruptcy of 1876, and then that of Egypt, reinforced foreign influence, especially British. This provokes nationalist reactions, like that of Urabi in 1878. Great Britain intervenes by bombarding Alexandria, then by occupying the country in 1882. The British cannot however push as far as Sudan, for the moment (revolt of the Mahdi in 1885). The divorce with France was consummated, and an agreement with Austria and Italy was signed in 1887.

In fact, Egypt became a British protectorate, even if it was not officially so until 1914. Great Britain took advantage of this position to control German ambitions in the region at the beginning of the 20th century, and to serve the interests British in the question of the straits. Egypt obviously held a decisive place at the outbreak of the First World War.

From Iraq to Afghanistan

The Great Game between the British and the Russians is not played only in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also at the gates of India. The Empire wanted to counter the advance of Russia by creating a glacis around its Indian jewel, but by the 1830s, difficulties were mounting because of resistance from Afghanistan. First it was the Khyber Pass disaster (1842), then the Maiwand disaster (1880). In the end, the British won through diplomacy, convincing the Emir of Kabul to come to an agreement in the early 1890s.

In Mesopotamia, where the Ottoman Empire exercises only symbolic control, Great Britain has been present since the second half of the 18th century (Basra in 1764, Baghdad in 1798). The region is indispensable in the protection of the route to India, and the British do not hesitate to transform the coastal emirates of the Persian Gulf into protectorates, often under the pretext of fighting piracy. The agreements with Kuwait, signed in 1899, are in this spirit. We can then speak of a "pax britannica In the Arabian Peninsula.

But German rivalry in the 19th century threatened British interests; these are the projects ofBaghdadbahn, or the Hejaz railway at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, it was not until World War I that the British really took hold in the region.

The War in the Middle East: Lawrence of Arabia

When World War I broke out, the Middle East was a fundamental issue for Britain for many reasons. Beyond the fight against the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany, we have to place ourselves in the region to continue to control the route to India, but also to catch up on new strategic issues such as oil. Compared to the Americans, the British only “placed themselves” in the second half of the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century, despite the creation of Shell in 1833. In May 1914, the first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, buys 51% of the shares ofthe Anglo-Persian Oil Company (created in 1909) to control a resource that had become indispensable for the British fleet (which had been fueled in 1913), and therefore for the Empire. Most of the deposits were then in Persia.

The beginnings of the war in the Middle East were not very good for the British, notably with the disaster of the Dardanelles in 1915. Even in Egypt, their power was contested and they had to establish martial law in 1914. As soon as the war ended. the year 1914, troops from India arrive in Iraq, but they are unable to win and, worse, are defeated in April 1916! General Allenby then transferred his efforts to Sinai, then to Palestine, taking Gaza and Jerusalem between March and December 1917. He could benefit from the open front in Arabia thanks to the diplomatic and then military action of Lieutenant Thomas Edward Lawrence, known more later under the name of Lawrence of Arabia. He was hired as a volunteer in 1914, and he worked in Intelligence in Cairo. In 1916, he was sent as emissary to Emir Faisal at the time of the Arab revolt. Well accepted by the Arabs, he was one of the leaders of the offensives in the Hedjaz, where he distinguished himself by isolating the Turkish garrison in Medina, then by taking the port of Aqaba in July 1917. He then joined Allenby in Palestine. then, with his Arab allies, took Damascus and Aleppo in October 1918. In the meantime, a new British offensive allowed the capture of Baghdad (March 11, 1917). But Britain’s involvement in the region had very important consequences long after the war.

Zionism and Arab nationalism

The Zionist project appears at the end of the 19th century, in the context of the pogroms of Eastern Europe, which provoked a firstalya in Palestine, in the years 1880-1890. The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, wanted to create a Jewish state, as he claimed following the Basel Congress in 1897. This project was quickly seen as a threat by the Arabs, especially after the firstalya. Someone like Rachid Rida (who will inspire the Muslim Brotherhood), as early as 1902, saw Zionism as a project to seize political sovereignty in Palestine. The secondalya intervenes in 1914, passing theyishouv (Jewish household) to more than 80,000 people. The British then engaged in a double game, supporting Zionism on the one hand and Arab nationalism on the other.

The Sykes-Picot agreement, first signed in May 1916, just before the Arab revolt, by Frenchman Georges Picot and Briton Mark Sykes. Ratified by the foreign ministers of the two countries, it is also subject to the approval of Russia. This agreement is in line with the discussions between Sharif Hussein and McMahon, and it paves the way for"An independent Arab state or a confederation of Arab states" which France and Great Britain would be prepared to recognize. However, the deal remains secret and Hussein's supporters ignore it when they start their revolt. The other aspect of the Sykes-Picot agreement is to make Palestine a regime of internationalization guaranteed by Russia, while France and Great Britain claim this territory ...

The evolution of the war changes the situation, especially in Palestine. While the Zionists had for a time hoped for support from the Ottomans, they finally turned to the Allies, for example with Jewish fighters engaged as a unit in the Imperial Army. Then, it is British officials who begin to take an interest in the advantages that support for Zionism could bring, especially in relations with the United States. Russia's withdrawal from the war changed the game of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it was the decisive moment that led to the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. It was addressed to Lord Rothschild, of the English Zionist Federation, and supports the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The Arab populations of the region are referred to as"Non-Jewish communities", whose religious and civil rights must be guaranteed, but their status as a people and their political rights are not mentioned.

The situation becomes more complicated after the war, in the context of Franco-British rivalries in the region. The Arabs want the unification of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine with Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein, as king. But the San Remo conference in April 1920 assigned the mandates of Syria / Lebanon and Palestine / Mesopotamia to France and Great Britain respectively. Violence begins in Palestine. A nationalist uprising broke out in Iraq in 1920, and the British took the opportunity to give the throne to Faisal in 1921, in compensation for Syria, and Transjordan to his brother Abdallah. In Arabia, the British lost control when, in 1925, their ally Hussein was defeated by the Saud, which the Americans would quickly get closer to ...

In Palestine, tensions continue to mount between Jews and Arabs as Jewish immigration increases (the Jewish population doubled between 1919 and 1929). The British vowed to protect non-Jewish Palestinians, and in 1930 unsuccessfully attempted to limit Jewish immigration. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the making.

The situation in Egypt is not that much better. British influence and presence exacerbated nationalism, and Saad Zaghoul founded the Wafd party to demand independence. This was proclaimed in February 1922, and Sultan Fouad became king of Egypt, against the advice of the Wafd however. Independence does not mean the end of Britain’s tutelage, nor of tensions, and the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 came largely on the rejection of the British.

The Middle East therefore holds a special place in the British world in the 19th century and in the first part of the 20th century. Its strategic position, on the road to India, pushes the Empire to intervene regularly and to maintain itself by all means (often economic, and increasingly military), in the context of rivalries with Russia, but also France. , and obviously the Ottoman Empire. Britain's political decisions, especially at the start of the 20th century, in Palestine, Egypt or Iraq, have consequences until today.

The British Empire in Africa

L’Afrique tient une place moins importante que l’Inde ou le Canada dans le monde britannique du XIXe siècle, mais elle devient la grande affaire des années 1890-1900, notamment dans le contexte d’une rivalité avec la France. La pénétration britannique dans le continent africain est donc lente, dictée par des raisons très diverses, et pas sans opposition, l’exemple de la guerre des Boers étant loin d’être le seul. Au début du XXe siècle, l’axe Le Cap-Le Caire est constitué, et la Grande-Bretagne exerce son influence sur une grande partie de l’Afrique.

Les premiers contacts avec l’Afrique

Dès la fin du XVIe siècle, des marchands britanniques sont présents en Gambie (James Island), grâce son fleuve navigable. La Compagnie Royale Africaine est fondée en 1678 et construit un fort en Gambie. En 1787, la Sierra Leone est créée pour accueillir des esclaves affranchis ; elle devient colonie britannique en 1808.

La lutte contre la Traite et l’esclavage devient un prétexte pour intervenir en Afrique. En 1833, l’esclavage est aboli dans les possessions britanniques, et les abolitionnistes décident d’imposer cette décision aux autres puissances européennes, mais aussi aux souverains africains. A partir de la Sierra Leone, l’escadre British West African Squadron a pour mission d’arraisonner les navires transportant des esclaves. Cette politique permet aux Britanniques de s’installer plus solidement dans la région, y compris dans l’actuel Ghana (Gold Coast). Puis, elle se diffuse dans toute l’Afrique, et est en partie à l’origine de la guerre des Boers. Nous y reviendrons.

L’autre moyen pour découvrir l’Afrique, et qu’il ne faut pas négliger, est l’exploration. Dès 1770, James Bruce découvre les sources du Nil bleu, puis Mungo Park explore le Niger au début du XIXe siècle. La cité de Tombouctou est découverte par Alexander Gordon Laing en 1825, tandis que Richard et John Lander descendent le Niger jusqu’à la mer (1830). En 1862, John Speke et James Grant identifient la source du Nil au lac Victoria et, deux ans plus tard, David Livingstone atteint le lac Nyassa, puis les Grands Lacs au début des années 1870.

Entre explorations et installations progressives, manœuvres militaires et diplomatiques, les Britanniques rencontrent de plus en plus de résistance.

Les résistances à la pénétration britannique en Afrique

L’ambition de la Grande-Bretagne en Afrique se heurte à plusieurs résistances. D’abord des souverains africains qui ne veulent pas cesser l’esclavage. C’est le cas, par exemple, avec le roi de Lagos (Nigéria), Oba Kosoko, qui refuse de stopper la Traite. Les Britanniques prennent ce prétexte pour intervenir en aidant le frère du roi, Oba Akitoye, à recouvrer son trône. Cela conduit à l’installation d’un consul britannique à Lagos en 1853, puis à la création du protectorat en 1861.

L’autre grande résistance à l’Empire Britannique est plus connue : ce sont les Zulus. Ces derniers menacent les Boers, qui ont accepté d’être intégrés à l’Empire en 1877. Deux ans plus tard, la Grande-Bretagne doit régler « le problème zulu ». Cela commence très mal par la débâcle d’Isandhlwana (22 janvier 1879), où plus de 20 000 guerriers zulus massacrent un millier de soldats britanniques. Malgré la résistance à Rorke's Drift quelques heures plus tard, il faut attendre le 4 juillet de la même année pour que les Zulus soient définitivement défaits, à la bataille d’Ulundi.

La poussée britannique à partir de l’Egypte est quant à elle un temps contrariée par la révolution mahdiste qui éclate au Soudan en 1882. Le soulèvement intervient à l’initiative de Muhammad Ahmad Abd Allah, autoproclamé mahdi (imam caché dans l’islam chiite), qui s’empare de Khartoum en 1885. Le Soudan était censé être sous administration ottomane, mais il était en fait gouverné par un Britannique, Charles George Gordon, ou Gordon Pacha (immortalisé au cinéma par Charlton Heston), qui est tué lors de la prise de Khartoum. Echaudés, les Britanniques attendent 1896 pour achever la conquête du Soudan, qui devient trois ans plus tard un condominium anglo-égyptien. C’est dans ce contexte qu’éclate la crise de Fachoda qui oppose la Grande-Bretagne et la France en 1898. Une crise qui manque de peu de tourner à la guerre ouverte entre les deux puissances coloniales.

Le cas du Basutoland, enfin, est très singulier. Sous Moshoeshoe, le royaume de Sotho bénéficie d’une assemblée représentative, et n’est ainsi pas spécialement influencé par la modernité prônée par la Grande-Bretagne, et qui l’aide en partie à accroître son emprise en Afrique. Le royaume de Sotho résiste donc un temps, non seulement aux Britanniques mais également aux Zulus et aux Boers. Ils doivent toutefois demander l’aide de la Grande-Bretagne contre ces derniers en 1868, et deviennent ainsi un protectorat. Trois ans plus tard, ce qui est à présent le Basutoland est mis sous l’autorité du Cap, provoquant le mécontentement des habitants. En 1881, ils se soulèvent contre l’Empire et ont gain de cause en obtenant qu’aucun colon blanc ne vienne s’installer sur le territoire. Le Basutoland ne sera ainsi jamais annexé par les Britanniques, et les chefs locaux y conserveront un pouvoir important.

La guerre des Boers

Entre 1795 et 1815, le Cap passe successivement entre les mains de la Grande-Bretagne et des Pays-Bas, avant de définitivement devenir colonie britannique. La politique impériale est alors marquée par une volonté d’angliciser le territoire par l’immigration et l’introduction des lois britanniques. Cela provoque évidemment de vives tensions avec les colons hollandais, appelés Afrikaners ou Boers.

C’est néanmoins la question de l’esclavage qui met véritablement le feu aux poudres. Refusant d’émanciper leurs esclaves, les Boers entament le Grand Trek (1836-1844), une migration vers le Natal, puis l’intérieur des terres. Les Britanniques reconnaissent l’Etat libre d’Orange et du Transvaal dans les années 1850. Mais en 1877, la Grande-Bretagne annexe le Transvaal, en profitant de la menace zulu. Une fois celle-ci écartée, les Boers se rebellent contre les Britanniques, qu’ils battent à Majuba, le 6 mars 1881.

L’arrivée massive d’immigrants britanniques attirés par les gisements aurifères, et le refus du gouvernement afrikaner de Paul Krüger de leur accorder des droits politiques, provoque de nouvelles tensions. Les Britanniques réagissent par le Cecil Rhodes, qui contrôle la Rhodésie et le Cap, et soutient le raid Jameson en 1896 afin de renverser le gouvernement du Transvaal. La guerre des Boers éclate véritablement en 1899, avec pour enjeu principal les droits des Uitlanders, les immigrés britanniques. Elle se déroule principalement en trois phases : de fin 1899 à début 1900, période de victoires des Boers ; de janvier à août 1900, quand la Grande-Bretagne envoie des renforts et lève des sièges, avant de prendre Johannesburg et Pretoria ; de septembre 1900 à mai 1902, où les Boers choisissent la guérilla, à laquelle les Britanniques répondent par une répression féroce. La paix est finalement signée le 31 mai 1902, à Vereeniging. Les Boers obtiennent un statut d’autonomie, tout en reconnaissant la souveraineté britannique.

Scramble for Africa

L’Empire britannique s’installe véritablement en Afrique à partir des années 1880. Il se base sur ses deux principaux points d’appui, Le Caire et le Cap, et sur les décisions de la conférence de Berlin (1884-1885). Une fois encore, comme souvent dans l’expansion de l’Empire, le libre-échangisme est un moyen ou un prétexte pour prendre possession de façon plus ou moins directe de territoires. Cet axe Cape to Cairo est notamment défendu par Cecil Rhodes, un entrepreneur qui a fait fortune dans le diamant.

En Afrique de l’Ouest, c’est la National African Company qui mène l’expansion, avec un protectorat commercial dans le delta du Niger (1885) et en Gambie (1893). Le concurrent principal est alors la France. L’Afrique orientale est une rivalité contre l’Allemagne, mais la Grande-Bretagne met la main sur l’Ouganda dans la première moitié des années 1890, puis au Kenya. La création du condominium du Soudan, déjà évoquée, se situe dans le prolongement. Au Sud, outre le Basutoland, on peut citer le Bechuanaland (Botswana), protectorat en 1885, puis la Rhodésie du Sud (Zimbabwe) et du Nord (Zambie), toujours sous l’influence de Cecil Rhodes…Enfin, la réunion de deux territoires sous le nom de Nigéria en 1914 achève l’expansion britannique en Afrique.

Premières installations à visée commerciale, puis lutte contre l’esclavage, explorations, promotion du libre-échangisme et enfin actions plus strictement militaires en pleine période de concurrence coloniale entre Européens, ont ainsi conduit à faire de l’Afrique une part non négligeable, même si tardivement intégrée, de l’Empire britannique et dont les conséquences ont été décisives au XXe siècle, notamment en Afrique du Sud. En revanche, des recherches récentes effectuées par des historiens de Paris 1 tendraient à réfuter l’idée longtemps diffusée selon laquelle les Britanniques auraient eu une influence décisive sur la définition des frontières des pays africains, enjeux de conflits contemporains. Dans une grande partie des cas, ils se seraient grandement inspirés de frontières existantes.

La puissance économique et industrielle de l'empire britannique

Au XIXe siècle, l’Empire est la première puissance commerciale mondiale en volume. Elle le doit d’abord à son industrialisation, dès la fin du XVIIIe siècle et jusqu’aux années 1840. C’est la période de la révolution industrielle, avec l’organisation de la production, du développement de l’industrie du textile, des biens de consommation, puis du chemin de fer et de la métallurgie.

La puissance britannique se mesure par son taux d’exportation, avec globalement une montée de ce taux tout au long du siècle. A la veille de la Première guerre mondiale, l’Angleterre exporte environ un quart de sa production. Le tournant a lieu autour de 1840, quand l’économie britannique devient vraiment une économie d’exportation, alors qu’auparavant c’était plutôt : « d’abord à la maison, plutôt qu’à l’étranger » (Deane et Cole). Dans le surplus des richesses de l’Empire, la part du commerce est de 10% en 1820, de 20% en 1880 et de 50% avant 1914. Les Britanniques exportent principalement des produits manufacturés (« l’atelier du monde »), et importent des matières premières et des denrées alimentaires. A la fin du XIXe siècle, la Grande-Bretagne commence à subir la concurrence allemande sur les produits manufacturés, et doit même en importer.

La balance commerciale est déficitaire, condition indispensable cependant à un bon système international de balance des paiements. Le Gold standard assoie la domination de la livre, monnaie indexée à l’or, ce qui permet à la City de devenir la première place financière mondiale, et aux banques britanniques d’être les instruments de cette puissance.

Les années 1840 voient aussi la doctrine du libre-échange s’imposer. En effet, contrairement aux idées reçues, le processus est long et les débats politiques animés. L’agriculture est sacrifiée au bénéfice de l’industrie (abrogation des corn laws en 1846), et sont votées l’abrogation des actes de navigation (1849) et des préférences impériales (1850). La Grande-Bretagne essaye ensuite de convertir d’autres pays au libre-échange ; c’est par exemple le traité Cobden-Chevallier, signé avec la France en 1860. La Dépression des années 1870 freine toutefois l’élan, et les années 1930-31 voient le retour du protectionnisme, suite à la crise, mais également à cause de la concurrence allemande et américaine.

Le XIXe siècle, jusqu’à la Première guerre mondiale, est bien le siècle de l’Empire britannique. Celui-ci assoit sa domination d’une manière originale, souvent indirecte, principalement par l’intermédiaire du commerce et d’une politique impériale qui ne cesse d’évoluer et de s’adapter au cours du siècle.


- P. Chassaigne, La Grande-Bretagne et le monde de 1815 à nos jours, A. Colin, 2009.

-J. Weber, Le siècle d'Albion : L'Empire britannique au XIXe siècle 1815-1914. Indes savantes, 2011.

- F. Bensimon, L'Empire britannique. « Que sais-je ? PUF 2014.