Imperialism And Free Trade Essay

2094 words - 8 pages

Imperialism and Free Trade

Like many terms used with the study of empire, the term Imperialism is
considerably loaded, with many negative connotations. Modern
political understanding of the word often suggests an illegitimate
desire to extend one’s power or authority for reasons of
self-advantage, be it national or individual. The British Empire is
often considered to be imperialistic, largely due to its heavy
reliance on mercantilist economic practices to sustain its hold
throughout the world. The protectionist ways of the empire could
arguably be seen as the definition and very nature of the empire
itself with acts like the navigation acts maintaining rigid monopolies
in areas of British Imperial rule. However in 1840’s a shift away
from mercantile policy towards free trade policies and ‘laissez-faire’
can be seen. Gestures such as the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and
more significantly the repeal of the Navigation Act in 1849 can be
seen as marking a new phase in the history of the British Empire. It
would seem that the very act which symbolically cemented the British
Empire’s Imperial status was now responsible for marking a phase in
its history whereby Empire and Imperialism were unpleasant terms.

This supposed shift in economic policy was by no means sudden.
Britain affection for the principles of ‘laissez-faire’ and free trade
were being slowly cultivated as early as the 1820’s. Key thinkers
like Adam Smith embraced free trade as being the foundation for which
economic and social success should be based. Empire is “a project
which has cost, which continues to cost, and which, if pursued in the
same way as it has been hitherto, is likely to cost, immense expense”[1].
Though speaking with direct reference to the British experience of
empire in America, Smiths comment pinpoints the attitude many held
towards the pursuit of empire and its expense. With this, a seemingly
anti-imperial sentiment was evident amongst the newly enfranchised
middling classes, and parliament soon followed suit in this quest for
a freer more liberal market. Thus on the surface of things it would
seem that in order for free trade to fully emerge, imperialism and
empire had to decline and a supposed anti-imperialist policy adopted
by many mid-Victorians. Empire as it had historically been known was
no more. Free trade was the new order and policies whereby trade can
restricted frowned upon and the old Empire suspended until a later
return in the late 19th century, with new imperialism and the
development of international investment.

John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson amongst others have gone on to
thoroughly undermine this traditional understanding of the British
Empire in the mid 19th century. The conventional interpretation of the
nineteenth-century empire continues to rest upon...

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