William Rathbone Greg

Shall We Retain Our Colonies? (1851)


The line of argument we have to meet is lucid, plausible, and attractive. It may be stated thus. In former times, and under the old mercantile system, we valued our colonies as outlets for our manufactures, and as sources of supply for needful products which we could not obtain, or could not obtain so cheaply or so well, elsewhere. We valued them as the principal and the surest channels for that commerce which we felt to be the life-blood of the nation. They were secure, increasing, and favoured markets for those articles of British produce which other nations excluded as far as they could by severe and prohibitory tariffs ; and they produced for us exclusively those valuable raw materials and articles of luxury which we wished to debar other nations from procuring. In conformity with these ideas, we bound them to the mother country in the bands of a strict and mutually favouring system of customs' duties: we compelled them to trade with us exclusively ; to take from us exclusively all the articles with which we could supply them; and to send to us exclusively all the produce of their soil. In return, we admitted their produce to our markets at lower rates than that of other countries, or excluded the produce of other countries altogether. This was a consistent, intelligible, and mutually fair system. Under it our colonies were customers who could not escape us, and vendors who could sell to us alone.

But a new system has risen up, not only differing from the old one, but based upon radically opposite notions of commercial policy. We have discovered that, under this system, our colonies have cost us, in addition to the annual estimate for their civil government and their defence, a sum amounting to many millions a year, in the extra price which we have paid for their produce beyond that at which other countries could have supplied it to us. In obedience to our new and wiser commercial policy, we have abolished all discriminating and protective duties ; we have announced to our colonies that we shall no longer favour their productions, and, as a necessary and just corollary, that we shall no longer compel them to favour ours, — that we shall supply ourselves with our sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo, wherever we can buy them cheapest, and that they are at liberty to follow the same principle in the purchase of their calicoes, silks, and woollens. They are therefore to us now, in a commercial point of view, friendly trading communities, and nothing more. The very object for which we founded, governed, defended, and cherished them, has been abandoned: why, then, should we any longer incur the cost of their maintenance?

 Being, then, on the footing of independent states, as far as their tariffs are concerned, they yield us nothing and benefit us in nothing as colonies, that they would not yield us and serve us in, were they altogether independent. Nay, they are even less serviceable to us; for the experience of the United States has shown us how immeasurably faster colonies advance in population, in enterprise, in agriculture, and in commerce — in everything which makes them valuable as customers — when separated from the mother country than when still attached to it by the bonds of allegiance and the clumsy fetters of remote and injudicious control.

In the next place, our colonies used to be regarded as inexhaustible storehouses of waste and fertile land, and as outlets for our dense and often suffering population ; and it is in this view, perhaps, that most persons are still disposed especially to value them. But what is the fact ? Have we not the plainest indications that even in this respect they would be more valuable if they were independent, and that even now the United States, because independent, are preferred by our emigrants ? According to Sir William Molesworth's statement in 1818, of 1, 073,600 persons who had emigrated during the preceding twenty years, 825,564 went direct to the United States, and how many more went indirectly through Canada, we can only guess. …

Again : we used to make some of our colonies serviceable as prisons for our convicts — distant and safe receptacles for the disposal of our metropolitan villany and filth — places for "burying our dead out of our sight." Now we can use them as such no longer. Our colonists have one and all remonstrated ; have refused to receive the sweepings of our gaols any longer; have threatened to rebel, if we persist in sending them; — and we have ourselves, on more than one occasion, admitted the system to be an indefensible one, and have announced our determination to abandon it.

We have been taught to believe that our colonial empire, "on which the sun never sets," is about the most important element in our national greatness, and that these vast dominions in every part of the world add incalculably, though in some mysterious way, to
our imperial dignity and strength. … [We are told] that this " prestige of empire " is a hollow show, … that outlying dependencies which require to be garrisoned in time of peace and protected in time of war, draft off from this country the forces which are needed for our defence at home; dissipate our army and navy … and waste the funds which should
be devoted to the protection of the mother country.

It is idle, they affirm, to pretend that a system which gives us such a vast additional territory to defend without giving us any additional means of defending it, can be other than a source of dangerous weakness ; that if we had no dependencies, we should be impregnable and invulnerable at home ; and that half our navy and a fourth of our army would suffice for the protection of our hearths and homes. If, indeed, the colonies paid tribute into our treasury, if they furnished contingents to our military force, and supplied a fixed quota of ships and stores toward the augmentation of our navy, — the case might be different. But they do nothing of all this : overtaxed and overburdened England pays for a great part of their civil government, and nearly the whole of their naval and military requirements: the impoverished and struggling peasant of Dorsetshire — the suffering artisan of Lancashire — the wretched needlewoman of London — all have to pay their contribution to the defence and the civil rule of the comfortable Australian farmer, the wealthy Canadian settler, and the luxurious Jamaica negro. If Sir AY. Molesworth's statistics may be taken as approaching to accuracy, our colonial empire costs us at least 4,000,000 a year — a sum nearly equal to the income-tax — to the malt-tax — to the sugar-tax; — any one of which might be repealed, to the infinite relief of our people, in case our colonies were abandoned.

Lastly, we govern them ill…. They are perpetual sources of difficulty and dispute ; they are always quarrelling with us, and complaining of us, and not un- frequently breaking out into open rebellion ; they yearn for independence, and would gladly purchase immunity from our vexatious interference and ignorant control by encountering all the risks and difficulties to which a severance of the imperial connection might expose them. — Since, then, the colonies are commercially as free as America or Spain ; since they are no longer favoured or enforced customers for our productions ; since they would be at least as available to our emigrants if independent as if still subject to our rule ; since they refuse to help us by relieving us of our convict population ; since they are sources of weakness and not of strength to us in times of peril or of war ; since they pay no part of the expenses of the mother country, and only a small portion of their own; since we mismanage their affairs and impede their progress; and since they themselves wish to be set free from a fettering and galling yoke; — what argument, which will bear the test of close investigation, can be adduced to warrant our retaining them in tutelage ?

Such is … the reasoning we have to meet. Such are the conclusions, deduced to all appearance from the premises
by the legitimate process of logic, against which we are to show cause. The position is undoubtedly a strong one ; nevertheless, we hold that there are sufficient grounds for maintaining inviolate the connection actually existing between the colonies and the mother country.

And, first, let us look a little more closely into the question of their actual cost. Sir W. Molesworth's estimate in his speech of July 1848, is as follows: 2,500,000/. per annum.

Now let us separate the sum, which Sir W. Molesworth lumps under one head, into its proper divisions. The total cost in 1843-4, charged upon the military purse of Great Britain, was (throwing out 48,941 of "general charges," which we cannot well appropriate) 2,509,020, thus: —

Military and maritime stations           £952,934
Penal settlements                                189,005
Plantations and colonies proper          1,367,087


The military expenditure for our colonies, then, instead of being, as Sir W. Molesworth stated, above two millions and a half, was little more than one million and a quarter.

The just proportion of our naval expenditure, which should be charged to colonial account, it is impossible to estimate with any precision; because, though we know the number of vessels attendant on our purely military and maritime stations, it is impossible to say what proportion of the force employed on foreign service is required for the protection of our commerce, and what for the defence and supervision of our colonies. With our ships spread over the whole world, even to the remotest corners, with our merchants settled in all parts constantly claiming the interference and protection of government, and prompt and vehement in their complaints whenever their representations do not meet with instant attention, a numerous and widely-scattered naval force would still be required, even if our colonies were independent, or abandoned to other alliances.

Since, then, there is no foundation for the idea that we need to abandon our colonies from sheer inability to retain them, we may proceed to point out a few of the reasons which may be urged for preserving the connection inviolate, and which we think will be deemed conclusive by the nation at large, if not by all political parties in it.

In the first place, not a single one of our colonies is inhabited by a homogeneous population. In none, is the British race the sole one ; in scarcely any, is it the most numerous. Some of the dependencies have been taken from savage tribes; others have been conquered from other European nations. In Trinidad we have seven distinct races; in the Cape colony at least five; in
Canada four; in Mauritius four; in Ceylon at least three; in Australia and New Zealand two….

Now, with what show of decency or justice could England abandon to their own guidance and protection
countries peopled by such various, heterogeneous, and often hostile races, — even if any considerable number of their inhabitants were unwise enough to wish it? What inevitable injustice such a step must entail upon one or other section of the colonists, what certain peril to the interests of them all, and of humanity at large! Let us follow out this inquiry in the case of two or three of them. We will assume that Canada would go on without any serious disturbances, now that the various populations which inhabit it have been so much more amalgamated than before by being pressed together into one legislature. We will suppose that the Australian colonies would be able to stand on their own feet, and to maintain their own interests, and would manifest that marvellous faculty for self-government and social organisation which has always been the proud distinction of the Anglo-Saxon race….

               But what would be the result in Jamaica, in Mauritius, at the Cape, and in Ceylon, where the blacks outnumber the whites in overwhelming proportion, and where the whites themselves belong to disunited and hostile nations? In Jamaica, and our other West Indian possessions, one of three results would follow, either the whites would remain as now, the dominant class, and would use their legislative power for the promotion of their own interests, and for the compression of the subject race; would induce large immigration, would prohibit squatting, would compel work; would tax the necessaries of life rather than their own property or their own commerce, perhaps might even strive to restore a modified slavery : or, the blacks, easily excited, but not easily restrained when once aroused by their demagogues and missionaries, would seize upon the supreme power, either by sudden insurrection, or by gradual and constitutional, but not open force; and in this event few who know the negroes well, who have watched them during the prevalence of cholera in Jamaica, or who have the example of Haiti before their eyes, will doubt that another Haiti would ere long, though not perhaps at once, be the issue of the experiment : or, lastly, the whites, fearing the second alternative, and finding themselves too feeble to enforce the first, would throw themselves into the arms of the United States, who would, as we are well aware, receive them with a warm welcome and a covetous embrace, and would speedily reconvert 800,000 freemen into slaves. This we think far the most probable alternative of the three. But is there one of the three which any philanthropist, any Briton, any friend to progress and civilisation, could contemplate without grief and dismay?...

               [W]e have simply no right to abandon the blacks to the possible oppression of the whites, nor the whites to the dubious mercies of the blacks. We cannot do so without a dereliction of duty, amounting to a crime. Towards both races we have incurred the solemn obligations of protection and control; both have acted or suffered under a tacit covenant, which it would be flagrant dishonesty to violate ; towards both we have assumed a position which we may not without dishonour abdicate, on the miserable plea that it would be convenient and economical to do so. 
               Colonies with mixed and aboriginal populations such as these, then, we simply could not abandon; colonies, with a population exclusively or overpoweringly British, come under a different category. But even with these, we think it is not difficult to see that the interests of civilisation will be far more effectually served by their retention than by their abandonment, by still maintaining them as integral portions of the British empire, than by casting them adrift to run the chances of a hazardous voyage unassisted and alone. They would "go ahead" far faster, we are told, if independent, than if still subject to the hampering rule of the mother country ; and the example of the United States is triumphantly appealed to in confirmation of the assertion. We reply, that we -can well believe that they would go ahead far faster if free than if fettered, but not than they will now, when colonial legislatures have been created and endowed with the powers of managing all strictly colonial concerns. There is scarcely an advantage conferable by freedom, possessed by the United States since their separation from Britain, that will not now be enjoyed in an equal degree by our North American and our Australian dependencies….
               If, indeed, it were true, as is often ignorantly alleged, that the colonies hated Great Britain, and were anxious to cast off their allegiance to her, much might be urged against the policy of retaining unwilling and therefore troublesome and dangerous dependencies. But, we believe the statement to be the reverse of true. They may hate the Colonial Office: they do not hate England. They are often indignant, and sometimes we think they have been so with justice, at the vexatious interference, the injudicious control, the irritating vacillations, the sad mistakes of the authorities at home; they often bluster and sometimes rebel; they nurture in their bosom, as does every community, a noisy knot of turbulent and disaffected men; they talk largely at times of their desire of independence, and occasionally even forget themselves so far as to hint at " annexation." But this is the mere effervescence of political excitement. 
               [I]f, in an evil hour, the counsels of the counterfeit economists were to prevail, and England were to resign her children to the vanity and feebleness of independence, we feel certain that the very first peril they encountered from without, the very first time they were menaced either with insult or with conquest by a foreign power, they would instinctively and undoubtingly appeal to England for assistance and protection; and England would respond to their confidence with the most prompt and generous aid. It is idle to imagine that Great Britain would stand tamely by to witness the oppression or danger of any of her children, or that politicians who should coldly advise such conduct, would not thereby condemn themselves to future powerlessness and obscurity. The spirit of the nation would ensure her being dragged in as principal into any serious quarrel in which any of her former dependencies might be involved. We should have to bear the expense of defending them from attack, without having any control over their conduct in incurring it. 
               Finally: there is one other consequence which would ensue from the abandonment of our colonial empire which demands to be most deliberately weighed…. If we emancipate our colonies, and cast them on their own unaided resources both for self-government and self-defence, they will of course immediately look about them for the means of securing these primary objects. However economically they may manage however small the salary they may assign their governors however homely and republican the style of life they may require their officials to adopt they can neither govern themselves, nor defend themselves, without a considerable revenue. An appeal to the example of the "United States has no validity as a reply. The United States are surrounded by no ambitious neighbours; they are liable to no attack from without; they have no wars or quarrels to fear but such as they pertinaciously insist upon bringing upon themselves. They are an aggressive, not a defensive people. 
               The first effect, then, of our proclaiming the independence of our colonies must inevitably be, the enactment by them of a high tariff on all imported commodities ; and as the commodities required by new countries are, by the nature of the case, articles of manufactured rather than of agricultural produce, and as England is the chief manufacturing country in the world, it would be chiefly on our productions that this high tariff would press, however unintentional such a result might be, and however, in diplomatic language, it might be " regretted and deplored." 
               The rate of the duties imposed by such a tariff it is in vain to guess; this must depend primarily on the necessities of the State imposing it. If, however, the example of the United States is of any service in helping us to a conjecture, it may be observed that her tariff imposes duties of from 30 to 50 per cent, on all our chief productions, and that a powerful section of her people are clamorous for an augmentation of these rates. We have no reason to suppose that a lower scale would meet the requirements of Canada, Australia, or the Cape…. 
               Now, if Mr. Cobden, after having spent the last ten years of his energetic and useful life in abolishing protective tariffs at home, should wish to spend the next ten years in establishing them in every other corner of the world, and in laying the foundation of a reactionary, policy which shall close the markets we ourselves have planted in the wilderness, one after another, to the produce of our spindles and our looms, we cannot hinder him ; but we should wish him to do it with his eyes open. 
               We hope we have succeeded in making it clear that our colonies are far too valuable portions of our empire to be lightly laid down or put away ; and that if they should not continue to be so, the fault will lie in some sad mismanagement of our own. Many of them, in simple justice to the native population, or to those British subjects who have settled there on the faith of the imperial connection, we could not possibly abandon. Others the interests of civilisation and humanity compel us to retain. All of them ought to be, and will be if we govern them aright, sources of strength and pride 
to us. The very interests of that free and enlightened commercial policy for which we have fought so long and sacrificed so much, forbid us to entertain the thought of severing the time-hallowed connection between Great Britain and the communities which have gone forth from her bosom. Nor is there any call or motive for such a step; the cost of our colonies, though less by one-half than it has been represented, we could easily sustain were it twice as great: the affection of the colonists it is easy to preserve, or to recover where, through misjudgment or misunderstanding, it has been shaken or impaired. By ruling them with forbearance, steadiness, and justice; by leading them forward in the 
path of freedom with an encouraging but cautious hand; by bestowing on them the fullest powers of self- 
government wherever the infusion of British blood is large enough to warrant such a course…. [T]o cast our colonial empire to the winds, with the sole aim of saving two millions a year, is a line of policy which, we sincerely think, is worthy only of a narrow and a niggard school; which will be counselled only by men who are merchants rather than statesmen, and whose mercantile wisdom even is confined, short-sighted, and unenlightened; one, which, we feel assured, can never be adopted by England till the national spirit which has made her what she is, shall have begun to wane and fade away. 


(From “Shall We Retain Our Colonies?”, Edinburgh Review (April, 1851), pp. 479-485, 488-494, 496-498.)