Britain Allows Colonies to Self-Rule (1857-1922)

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  • 0:02 The British Empire in 1857
  • 1:27 Avoiding the American Mistake
  • 3:41 The Irish Question
  • 4:56 Irish Independence
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

After the British lost the American colonies forever in the revolution, they worked to avoid the same mistake by giving their remaining colonies greater freedom. However, it didn't always work out that way - especially closer to home.

The British Empire in 1857

By 1857, the British possessed the ultimate comeback empire. Despite losing their holdings along the North American coast as a result of the American Revolution, the British flag now flew on every inhabitable continent. That had come to include de facto control of India, where European powers had competed since 1498 for dominance. The Royal Navy maintained connections between these far-flung British colonies, which ranged from Canada to Australia.

However, distance was not the only thing that separated these possessions. The British organized their gains into numerous categories, based on the makeup of each region's population. Crown colonies existed throughout Africa and India, where there were relatively small European populations. These colonies had relatively little control over their own affairs. At the top of the heap were the British possessions in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These colonies were largely peopled by descendants of the British, with convicts famously making up some of the first settlers to Australia, and were organized increasingly along British societal norms.

Avoiding the American Mistake

The British were loath to repeat their mistakes, and the loss of the American colonies was acutely felt. After all, the British had not only lost them in 1783, but had fouled up the attempt to regain them in the War of 1812. As a result, the British were more inclined to cede certain privileges to certain colonies. The British referred to these areas as dominions, and they were increasingly independent in many aspects, especially taxation. While they still owed taxes to the United Kingdom, there was greater freedom in how that money was raised. Additionally, more of that money was spent locally, as opposed to all going back to London.

These dominions had significant local powers. The first colony to ascend to dominion status was Canada in 1867, but by 1910, it was joined by Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Notable is which colonies were allowed to become dominions. They were the most European in society, meaning that a sizable chunk of the population was of British, or at least European, descent. Therefore, there was a racial element to deciding what regions would become dominions - only those in which society already followed European norms could be expected to gain the status. Meanwhile, colonies where people still lived according to indigenous practices would not become dominions.

People who were subjects of one dominion could move relatively freely through the others, with rights to settle, work, and engage in commerce. In fact, not only could they join each other's militaries, but one Canadian, named Andrew Bonar Law, served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom! Of course, this was considered fair - all dominions based the idea of citizenship on the idea of loyalty to the crown, and all the dominions recognized the British Monarch as their own monarch.

The Irish Question

The Irish, however, did not gain that dominion status. This is because in the British mindset, Ireland was as much a part of the United Kingdom as Scotland, Wales or York. The Irish had very different ideas on this. While the United Kingdom had ruled significant parts of Ireland since the Middle Ages, the Irish never quite accepted this rule.

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