Why Was Imperialism so Popular in Britain 1880-1902? Essay Sample

Why Was Imperialism so Popular in Britain 1880-1902? Pages
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Following on from the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th Century, Britain continued in its aim to expand her empire, through the process of imperialism, into the period of 1880-1902. During this time, imperialism had become very popular in certain sectors of the British public. Causes of this range from, the impact of politicians to how the press and media portrayed the current events. However, it has to be noted there were significant fluctuations in popularity during this period, at events such as the Boer War etc.

One of the major reasons behind the popularity of imperialism in Britain through out this period was down to the role of major political leaders. Benjamin Disraeli was the leader of the conservative party during this period, and he was a major supporter for the expansion of empire. He made several powerful speeches, in which he made significant reference to the British imperial expansion. During his speech in 1872, at Crystal Palace, he labelled India as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ and that in England we had never had such an important ‘possession’. He realised that imperialism was a popular topic amongst the British public and began to target it to promote his party’s appearance. He even gifted Queen Victoria the name of ‘Empress of India’ in 1875. This was a very popular move and this helped to give the public more understanding of how important India and imperialism was to Britain during this period, creating an atmosphere of ‘jingoism’ in Britain.

A sense of patriotism was building in Britain from their reaction to the imperialist campaign. Even William Gladstone, the main critic of Disraeli, had to concede that imperial expansion was of major importance to Britain. During his reign as Prime Minister he felt it was also necessary to protect British investment in India, and the Suez Canal, in 1882. However, this lead to the unfortunate death of General Gordon at Khartoum (1885). This incident may not have been Gladstone’s fault, however, in the press; they attempted to put the blame squarely on Gladstone for his delayed relief. This is an example of a point where British popularity for empire dropped low, as bitterness towards Gladstone and the actions in India were vented.

Another British politician argued that imperialism was important for British interests due to the economic opportunities that would be created by expanding the empire. At this moment in time, the British economy was in a poor state, and the suggestion of more jobs was a major boost to a large majority of the working class, that may have fallen on hard time. Joseph Chamberlain felt by expanding the ‘Pax Britannia’ there would be more jobs and export markets for British goods and services. He argued that by creating more jobs for British workers, it would result in lower unemployment in Britain. Many businesses believed they would be able to export more goods abroad, generating more revenue in the process.

Not only this, but many companies also believed they would be able to import cheaper raw materials from these countries. This is one of the reasons behind the support of many middle class business men. Another was down to the potential gain from investment into new opportunities such as India. However, once again, popularity of the imperialism expansion dropped low as many farmer workers lost their jobs as cheaper goods were being brought into the country. With cheaper wheat coming in, farmers were beginning to struggle to generate any business due to the improved competition. Not only this, but many of the new jobs created by the expansion of empire were very poorly paid. This may have solved some issues of unemployment in the short term; however, many of the working class had lost their ‘patriotic’ approach to imperialism as they still struggled to get by.

The campaign of imperialism was constantly featured in both the press and through literature, throughout the period. Many newspapers such as Northcliffe’s Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror thrived on imperialist and war stories as they ‘sold newspapers’, due to the fact the British public at the time could not get enough of hearing about heroic events in their empire. G.A. Henty was a very popular author of the time period that sold around 25 million copies throughout Britain. Many of his books aimed to instil patriotism in the British public, with stories of ‘heroic’ British men succeeding in their battles which they face, in novels such as ‘By Sheer Pluck’ and ‘With Kitchener in Soudan’. The British public now had more information than ever about the empire and world events, and with more and more people reading them, they had more power than ever before. Some papers labelled the Boers, ‘The Bloody Boers’ honoured the success at Omdurman and celebrated the release of Mafeking. However, they were also able to bring up negative feelings towards the empire. Other specific events in the Boer War, such as the creation of concentration camps, were portrayed very negatively to the British public. Again, this is an example of how much power the press had over the British public opinion of imperialism at any given time.

Even youngsters were being brought up in a world of imperialist ‘propaganda’. Boy scouts and Girl guides were very popular movements of the time. In these groups, Boys were able to ‘re-enact war stories’ and act as the brave ‘Tommy soldier’ in the large, exciting British Empire. Not only this, but the Elementary Education Act of 1870, meant that more children would be able to read than ever before. Magazines and children’s literature such as ‘Boy’s Own Paper’ put major emphasis on war, sport and other heroic events. This was an effective way of selling literature and also promoting the empire at the same time. Even in the nursery, ‘ABC for Baby Patriots’ was aimed at very young children, teaching them about the British Empire from their early stages.

Another reason for the popularity of imperialism in this period could be seen as the ‘jingoism’ and ‘patriotism’ created by the music halls. During this period, the theatre became a very popular source of entertainment for a variety of classes. The theatre was another business that realised they could make a significant profit from promoting the empire with an ‘imperial flavour’. Gilbert Hastings Farrell was one the major performers in the music halls up and down the land. He introduced the famous song ‘We Don’t Want to Fight, but By Jingo! If we do’, which left the crowd feeling extremely patriotic and very ‘pro-expansionist’. Music halls were a ‘feel good’ and enjoyable night out that was affordable to all classes, therefore, they had a significant impact on the popularity of imperialism during 1880-1902.

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