The Expansion of England, 1883
Sir John Robert Seeley

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century while Cecil Rhodes and other empire builders labored mightily to acquire British possessions throughout the world a generation of imperial apologists emerged at home. Outstanding among these was Sir John Robert Seeley (1834-1895) Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University from I869 until his death. Seeley was one of the roost eloquent defenders of the greatness of the British Empire. In his famous essay The Expansion of England, first published in 1883, he showed how and why Great Britain had gained her colonies, the character of the empire and the light in which it should be regarded. He protested against the concept of a "Little England;' which he believed to be synonymous with national degradation and ruin and urged that British ideas and ideals be extended all over the globe.

1.The English State then, in what direction and towards what goal has been advancing? The words which jump to our lips in answer are Liberty, Democracy! They are words which want a great deal of defining. Liberty has of course been a leading characteristic of England as compared with continental countries, but in the main liberty is not so much an end to which we have been tending as a possession which we have long enjoyed. The struggles of the seventeenth century secured it — even they did not first acquire it—for us. In later times there has been a movement towards something which is often called liberty, but not so correctly. We may, if we like, call it democracy; and I suppose the current opinion is that if any large tendency is discernible in the more recent part of English history, it is this tendency, by which first the middle class and then gradually the lower classes have been admitted to a share of influence in public affairs.

2.Discernible enough no doubt this tendency is, at least in the nineteenth century, for in the eighteenth century only the first beginnings of it can be traced. It strikes our attention most, because it has made for a long time past the staple of political talk and controversy. But history ought to look at things from a greater distance and more comprehensively. If we stand aloof a little and follow with our eyes the progress of the English State, the great governed society of English people, in recent centuries, we shall be much more struck by another change, which is not only far greater but even more conspicuous, though it has always been less discussed, partly because it proceeded more gradually, partly because it excited less opposition. I mean the simple obvious fact of the extension of the English name into other countries of the globe, the foundation of Greater Britain.

3.There is something very characteristic in the indifference which we show towards this mighty phenomenon of the diffusion of our race and the expansion of our state. We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind. While we were doing it, that is in the eighteenth century, we did not allow it to affect our imaginations or in any degree to change our ways of thinking; nor have we even now ceased to think of ourselves as simply a race inhabiting an island off the northern coast of the Continent of Europe. We constantly betray by our modes of speech that we do not reckon our colonies as really belonging to us; thus if we are asked what the English population, is, it does not occur to us to reckon-in the population of Canada and Australia. This fixed way of thinking has influenced our historians. It causes them, I think, to miss the true point of view in describing the eighteenth century. They make too much of the mere parliamentary wrangle and the agitations about liberty, in all which matters the eighteenth century of England was but a pale reflexion of the seventeenth. They do not perceive that in that century the history of England is not in England but in America and Asia. In like manner I believe that when we look at the present state of affairs, and still more at the future, we ought to beware of putting England alone in the foreground and suffering what we call the English possessions to escape our view in the back ground of the picture.

4.Let me describe with some exactness the change that has taken place. In the last years of Queen Elizabeth England had absolutely no possessions outside Europe, for all schemes of settlement, from that of Hore in Henry VIII's reign to those of Gilbert and Raleigh, had failed alike. Great Britain did not yet exist; Scotland was a separate kingdom, and in Ireland the English were but a colony in the midst of an alien population still in the tribal stage. With the accession of the Stuart family commenced at the same time two processes, one of which was brought to completion under the last Stuart, Queen Anne, while the other has continued without interruption ever since. Of these the first is the internal union of the three kingdoms, which, though technically it was not complete till much later, may be said to be substantially the world; of the seventeenth century and the Stuart dynasty. The second was the creation of a still larger Britain comprehending vast possessions beyond the sea. This process began with the first Charter given to Virginia in I606. It made a great advance in the seventeenth century; but not till the eighteenth did Greater Britain in its gigantic dimensions and with its vast politics first stand clearly before the world. Let us consider what this Greater Britain at the present day precisely is.

5.Excluding certain small possessions, which are chiefly of the nature of naval or military stations, it consists besides the United Kingdom of four great groups of territory, inhabited either chiefly or to a large extent by Englishmen and subject to the Crown, and a fifth great territory also subject to the Crown and ruled by English officials, but inhabited by a completely foreign race. The first four are the Dominion of Canada, the West Indian Islands, among which I include some territories on the continent of Central and Southern America, the mass of South African possessions of which Cape Colony is the most considerable, and fourthly the Australian group, to which, simply for convenience, I must here add New Zealand. The dependency is India.

6.Now what is the extent and value of these possessions? First let us look at their population, which, the territory being as yet newly settled, is in many cases thin. The Dominion of Canada with Newfoundland had in 1881 a population of rather more than four million and a half, that is about equal to the population of Sweden; the West Indian group rather more than a million and a half, about equal to the population at the same time of Greece; the South African group about a million and three quarters, but of these much less than a half are of European blood; the Australian group about three millions, rather more than the population of Switzerland. This makes a total of ten millions and three quarters, or about ten millions of English subjects of European and mainly English blood outside the British Islands.

7.The population of the great dependency India was nearly a hundred and ninety-eight millions, and the native states which look up to England as the paramount Power had about fifty-seven millions in addition. The total makes a population roughly equal to that of all Europe excluding Russia.

8.But of course it strikes us at once that this enormous Indian population does not make part of Greater Britain in the same sense as those ten millions of Englishmen who live outside of the British Islands. The latter are of our own blood, and are therefore united with us by the strongest tie. The former are of alien race and religion, and are bound to us only by the tie of conquest. It may be fairly questioned whether the possession of India does or ever can increase our power or our security, while there is no doubt that it vastly increases our dangers and responsibilities. Our colonial Empire stands on quite a different footing; it has some of the fundamental conditions of stability. There are in general three ties by which states are held together, community of race, community of religion, community of interest. By the first two our colonies are evidently bound to us, and this fact by itself makes the connexion strong. It will grow indissolubly firm if we come to recognise also that interest bids us maintain the connexion, and this conviction seems to gain ground. When we inquire then into the Greater Britain of the future we ought to think much more of our Colonial than of our Indian Empire.

9.This is an important consideration when we come to estimate the Empire not by population but by territorial area. Ten millions of Englishmen beyond the sea,—this is something; but it is absolutely nothing compared with what will ultimately, nay with what will speedily, be seen. For those millions are scattered over an enormous area, which fills up with a rapidity quite unlike the increase of population in England. That you may measure the importance of this consideration I give you one fact. The density of population in Great Britain is two hundred and ninety-one to the square mile, in Canada it is not much more than one to the square mile. Suppose for a moment the Dominion of Canada peopled as fully as Great Britain, its population would actually be more than a thousand millions. That state of things is no doubt very remote, but an immense increase is not remote. In not much more than half a century the Englishmen beyond the sea —supposing the Empire to hold together—will be equal in number to the Englishmen at home, and the total will be much more than a hundred millions.

10.These figures may perhaps strike you as rather overwhelming than interesting. You may make it a question whether we ought to be glad of this vast increase of our race, whether it would not be better that we should advance morally and intellectually than in mere population and possessions, whether the great things have not for the most part been done by the small nations, and so on. But I do not quote these figures in order to gratify our national pride. I leave it an open question whether our increase is matter for exultation or for regret. It is not yet time to consider that. What is clear in the mean time is the immense importance of this increase. Good or bad, it is evidently the great fact of modern English history. And it would be the greatest mistake to imagine that it is a merely material fact, or that it carries no moral and intellectual consequences. People cannot change their abodes, pass from an island to a continent, from the 50th degree of north latitude to the tropics or the Southern Hemisphere, from an ancient community to a new colony, from vast manufacturing cities to sugar plantations or lonely sheepwalks in countries where aboriginal savage tribes still wander, without changing their ideas and habits and ways of thinking, nay without somewhat modifying in the course of a few generations their physical type. We know already that the Canadian and the Victorian are not quite like the Englishman; do we suppose then that in the next century, if the colonial population has become as numerous as that of the mother country, assuming that the connexion has been maintained and has become closer, England itself will not be very much modified and transformed? Whether good or bad then, the growth of Greater Britain is an event of enormous magnitude.

11.The great central fact in this chapter of history is that we have had at different times two such Empires. So decided is the drift of our destiny towards the occupation of the New World that after we had created one Empire and lost it, a second grew up almost in our own despite. The figures I gave you refer exclusively to our second Empire, to that which we still possess. When I spoke of the ten millions of English subjects who live beyond the sea, I did not pause to mention that a hundred years ago we had another set of colonies which had already a population of three millions, that these colonies broke off from us and formed a federal state, of which the population has in a century multiplied more than sixteenfold, and is now equal to that of the mother country and its colonies taken together. It is an event of prodigious magnitude not only that this Empire should have been lost to us, but that a new state, English in race and character, should have sprung up, and that this state should have grown in a century to be greater in population than every European state except Russia. But the loss we suffered in the secession of the American colonies has left in the English mind a doubt, a misgiving, which affects our whole forecast of the future of England.

12.For if this English Exodus has been the greatest English event of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the greatest English question of the future must be what is to become of our second Empire, and whether or no it may be expected to go the way of the first. In the solution of this question lies that moral which I said ought to result from the study of English history.

13.It is an old saying, to which Turgot gave utterance a quarter of a century before the Declaration of Independence, "Colonies are like fruits which cling to the tree only till they ripen." He added, "As soon as America can take care of herself, she will do what Carthage did." What wonder that when this prediction was so signally fulfilled, the proposition from which it had been deduced rose, especially in the minds of the English, to the rank of a demonstrated principle! This no doubt is the reason why we have regarded the growth of a second Empire with very little interest or satisfaction. "What matters," we have said, "its vastness or its rapid growth? It does not grow for us." And to the notion that we cannot keep it we have added the notion that we need not wish to keep it, because, with that curious kind of optimistic fatalism to which historians are liable, the historians of our American war have generally felt bound to make out that the loss of our colonies was not only inevitable, but was even a fortunate thing for us.

14.Whether these views are sound, I do not inquire now. I merely point out that two alternatives are before us, and that the question which we can discuss, refers to the choice between them. The four groups of colonies may become four independent states, and in that case two of them, the Dominion of Canada and the West Indian group, will have to consider the question whether admission into the United States will not be better for them than independence. In any case the English name and English institutions will have a vast predominance in the New World, and the separation may be so managed that the mother-country may continue always to be regarded with friendly feelings. Such a separation would leave England on the same level as the states nearest to us on the Continent, populous, but less so than Germany and scarcely equal to France. But two states, Russia and the United States would be on an altogether higher scale of magnitude, Russia having at once, and the United States perhaps before very long, twice our population. Our trade too would be exposed to wholly new risks.

15.The other alternative is that England may prove able to do what the United States does so easily, that is, hold together in a federal union countries very remote from each other. In that case England will take rank with Russia and the United States in the first rank of state, measured by population and area, and in a higher rank than the states of the Continent. We ought by no means to take for granted that this is desirable. Bigness is not necessarily greatness; if by remaining in the second rank of magnitude we can hold the first rank morally and intellectually, let us sacrifice mere material magnitude. But though we must not prejudge the question whether we ought to retain our Empire, we may fairly assume that it is desirable after due consideration to judge it.

16.With a view to forming such a judgment, I propose in these lectures to examine historically the tendency to expansion which England has so long displayed. We shall learn to think of it more seriously if we discover it to be profound, persistent, necessary to the national life, and more hopefully if we can satisfy ourselves that the secession of our first colonies was not a mere normal result of expansion, like the bursting of a bubble, but the result of temporary conditions, removable and which have been removed.

17.In the whole of history of Greater Britain from its commencement at the end of Elizabeth's reign we may perhaps distinguish three great periods. There is first the seventeenth century, in which it rises gradually from a humble position to pre-eminence among colonial Empires. There is next that duel with France both in America and Asia, of which I have said so much. This occupies the eighteenth century. But this too passed, and we have entered upon a third phase, which according to the fashion of historical development, began to form itself long before the second phase was over. In this third phase the English world-empire has two gigantic neighbours in the West and in the East. In the West she has the United States and in the East Russia for a neighbour.

18.These are the two States which I have cited as examples of the modern tendency towards enormous political aggregations, such as would have been impossible but for the modern inventions which diminish the difficulties caused by time and space. Both are continuous land-powers. Between them, equally vast but not continuous, with the ocean flowing through it in every direction, lies, like a world-Venice, with the sea for streets, Greater Britain.