Back in the Day: The effect helping build the British Empire had on Scotland – The National

Credit: Original article can be found here

READERS will recall that I am trying to fulfil a reader’s request for information about the 20 or so main things that Scots should know about their nation’s history. I have covered the main events and people more or less to the end of the 18th century, and I will have two more columns to get us to the end of the 20th century.

Last week I started a short series on Scotland in the British Empire, and eventually I hope to show how the move towards independence over the last 50 years is at least partly consequence of the demise of that empire.

As I explained last week, this series is about how Scotland fitted into the creation, maintenance and eventual collapse of the largest empire, in terms of area and population, that ever existed on this planet.

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This week I will deal with the golden age of the British Empire in the 19th century and show how Scots were enthusiastic imperialists. Some were motivated by their Christian beliefs, some genuinely believed in helping other peoples to make progress as they saw it, while still others were involved in empire-building for self-aggrandisement and to make money. Other Scots had no choice but to become involved as the ruling class used the underclasses for everything from cannon fodder to human drudgery.

I will argue that the process of cementing that empire also changed the face of Scotland itself.

First of all, however, I have to say that anyone who denies that Scots were part of the imperial project is deluding themselves. Yes, we can decry the empire and what it did to entire continents and their people, but we cannot deny the role of Scots. To put it in the vernacular, we were in it up to our necks and then some.

It is hugely important for all of us who believe in independence for Scotland to know what previous generations of Scots achieved – and those achievements were mighty. Yet some of those achievements were imperialist in nature and we should not deny that. It is not a question of my country is right or wrong.

Understanding the totality of our history is the key to realising that Scotland was an independent nation for the greater part of its existence, and we are fully capable of regaining that independence again, especially now the British Empire is defunct.

What made building the empire a global project?

In one word, defeat. I firmly believe that Boris Johnson could well be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, though he will do everything in his power, legal or illegal, moral and amoral, to preserve the Union. For he will not wish to be known as the man who lost the Union, even if he is currently doing his damnedest to earn that title.

He knows enough political history to be aware that King George III and his Prime Minister are known to for being the men who “lost the colonies” when the USA won its independence. Scots were on both sides in the American wars of independence, but I believe the loss of the colonies was of huge benefit to Scotland, for it forced Britain to look to other parts of the world for its Empire.

Scots were to the fore in the eventual colonisation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to a lesser extent South Africa, while the English East India Company was known as Scotland’s company for decades, such was the influence of Scots on the organisation.

In European terms, the defeat of the French at Trafalgar and Waterloo made Britain able to turn its attention elsewhere and the feats of the Scots in the Duke of Wellington’s army are legendary. It is estimated that a quarter of the sailors on board the ships which won Trafalgar for the ill-fated Lord Nelson were Scottish. With the American colonies gone and France subdued, Britain and especially the Scots could turn their attention to many other parts of the world. It was Scottish commercial know-how and Scottish soldiers, administrators, engineers, doctors and merchants who built the empire on several continents.

IN terms of examples, English general James Wolfe wrote five years after the slaughter of Scots supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746 that he could see the vanquished Highlanders becoming useful auxiliaries in his war with the Wabanaki Confederacy in Nova Scotia.

“I should imagine that two or three independent Highland companies might be of use; they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall,” he wrote.

On September 13, 1759, Wolfe died in the first minutes of the First Battle of Quebec, or the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and did not live to see the Fraser Highlanders under the command of Scottish general James Murray play a huge part in securing the victory that made Canada British.

By the time of Waterloo, most of Wellington’s generals were Scottish or with Scottish regiments. General Sir John Moore won the Battle of Corunna in 1809 but was killed, while field marshal Colin Campbell commanded the famous “thin red line” of Highlanders at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

Other 19th century Scottish generals included Sir Archibald Campbell and Sir Archibald Alison, and of course many tens of thousands of ordinary Scottish soldiers gave their lives for the Empire in India, the Crimea and South Africa.

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Scottish administrators and politicians in the empire included Peter Hunter, governor and commander in Canada; George Dundas, governor of Prince Edward Island in Canada and St Vincent in the Caribbean; Donald Friell Macleod, governor of British Punjab; James Alexander Stewart-Mackenzie, governor of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka; and many, many more.

Lachlan Macquarie was the general who became governor of New South Wales and officially named Australia; Sir Thomas Brisbane was also governor of New South Wales and the capital of Queensland is named after him. Sir John Alexander MacDonald from Glasgow was the first prime minister of Canada.

Engineers such as Sir William Arrol built the Forth and Tower bridges, while Sir William Fairbairn designed and built the engines that powered the ships that gave Britain command of the eastern oceans.

Sir Patrick Manson is revered as the father of tropical medicine; John Rae was the surgeon/explorer from Orkney who opened up northern Canada; though Indian-born, Ronald Ross was the first Scot to receive a Nobel Prize for his work on malaria.

Discounting the tobacco lords and slave traders of Glasgow that I mentioned last week, and other slavers such as Alexander Anderson, merchants who made a huge impact on the empire included Charles Grant, chairman of the British East India Company; Sir Thomas Reid, a governor of the company; William Jardine and James Matheson, whose opium trade via Hong Kong led to wars and vast riches for the two Scots; and Sir William MacKinnon and Robert Mackenzie, whose British India Steam Navigation Company had one of the largest trading fleets of all time, much of it built on the Clyde.

What role did Scots explorers play?

Throughout the 19th century, Scottish explorers and pioneers played a huge role in the opening up of the African continent, Australia and Canada. Ordinary Scots emigrants were massively significant in making countries like New Zealand and large parts of Southern Africa into British Empire territories.

In Canada, Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s explorations were vital for the spreading west of the territory at the end of the 18th century, and the Hudson’s Bay Company developed Canadian trade – it was mostly run by Scots, as was its rival the North West Company.

In Australia, John McDouall Stuart was the first explorer to complete the north-south traverse of the continent and many more Scots contributed to the opening up of the country – in the 1830s, as much as 20% of the population was Scottish.

Many of the greatest explorers were inspired by their desire to spread the Christian religion in Africa in particular. William Balfour Blaikie, a surgeon, opened up the River Niger in the 1850s, and also built roads, collated a native vocabulary, and translated part of the Bible and Prayer Book into Hausa. He was following in the footsteps of Mungo Park, who explored and mapped the lands around the Niger before drowning in the river in 1806. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was a botanist and explorer who made discoveries on four different continents. Robert Fortune introduced tea to Britain, as well as the kumquat.

The greatest of them all was Dr David Livingstone. Ostensibly a Christian missionary, Blantyre-born Livingstone carried out the most astonishing feats of endurance, travelling 30,000 miles to map the interior of the continent. He became “lost” but was famously found by the journalist Henry Stanley.

The point about all these explorers is that wherever they went, merchants and missionaries followed, and the British Empire thus expanded on the basis of religion and trade. Though as happened often in India, native armies and French imperialists did their best to stop the British Empire expanding.

Nothing could stop the juggernaut, however, and providing the power, both intellectual and physical, was Scotland. England may have had the imperial Parliament, but in Professor Sir Tom Devine’s description, Scotland had become the world’s workshop.

What were the effects of the empire on Scotland itself?

In 1820, the so-called Radical War had brought Scotland to the brink of outright rebellion against the London-based powers. A combination of brutal suppression and lack of organisation – there were no trades unions back then – meant the workers were not able to push for reform, and they had to go back to weaving and spinning for less money.

This led many Scots to emigrate to lands which welcomed them for their skills, their culture and their commitment to the Empire.

READ MORE: The British Empire – and the story of how Scots helped to start it

I would argue that the Clearances were another aspect of empire building – the landowners wanted to enjoy the same sort of riches that the nabobs of the Raj were soaking up. Enforced emigration put Scots into countries of the Empire where they prospered, and many people in the Highlands and Lowlands were tempted to leave home when they heard of the stories of success being enjoyed by their fellow Scots in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Above all, Scotland changed with the industrial revolution. As Tom Devine writes in The Scottish Nation: A Modern History: “What happened after 1830, and most specially in the second half of the 19th century, was a truly massive increase in the scale of development. Cotton-spinning may not have been quite as dynamic, but there was energetic diversification across a whole range of textile trades.

Even more fundamentally, coal iron, steel, shipbuilding and engineering took off and transformed Scotland into a manufacturer for the world. All these sectors and others were emphatically committed to the export market.”

Those exports went to Europe and the USA, but most especially to the other countries of the British Empire. It was no wonder that Glasgow was named the second city of the empire.