Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
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.
There were significant differences between England and Ireland. Most prominently, however, was the religious question. Ireland was traditionally a Catholic society, while the British were Protestant. Additionally, British immigrants had brought Protestantism to the northern counties of Ireland, causing a great deal of unrest. While these counties wanted to remain British, the rest of Ireland was decidedly pro-independence. All of this puzzled the British. In their minds, any Irishman who wanted independence was a secessionist, no different than the Confederacy wanting to leave the Union during the Civil War. Religious tensions didn't help things.
By the 1880s, demands for self-rule of Ireland had begun to pick up speed. By this point, groups like Sinn Fein had begun to campaign for independence. Thirty years later, the British Parliament began to lay the groundwork for that self-rule, but then, World War I broke out. That obviously pushed the Irish question to the back burner, but it lost none of its importance to the Irish themselves.
During Easter week of 1916, the war in Europe didn't seem to matter. Protests broke out in what is known as the Easter Rising. British authorities dealt swiftly with the revolt, executing the leaders. However, the writing was on the wall. By 1919, the Irish Civil War consumed the countryside, as negotiations broke down between the Unionists, those who wanted to remain with United Kingdom, and the Republicans, who wanted their own government. By 1921, negotiations had resumed, and in 1922, the British granted Ireland self-rule, finally allowing them to be on par with the dominions mentioned earlier.
Ireland did remain under the cover of the Commonwealth until 1949, which led to significant animosity during the Second World War. Ireland refused to join the war on the side of the British, leading Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during much of the war, to say that the Commonwealth 'apart from one melancholy exception, round the corner' had stood up to protect their common interests.
Following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Great Britain began to grant greater amounts of independence to its colonies, especially those that were predominantly European, excepting the Irish. Learning from the mistakes of its administration of the 13 American colonies, Britain began to give the status of dominion to certain colonies, permitting significant amounts of self-government. The earliest dominions were Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Curiously, Ireland was not one of these, in no small part because the British considered Ireland to be as much a part of the United Kingdom as Scotland, York or Wales. This did not set well with the Irish, which led to revolts, such as the Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War, before Ireland got home rule in 1922.
You should have the ability to do the following after watching this video lesson:
- Summarize how the American Revolution and the War of 1812 influenced Great Britain's formation of dominions
- Identify the earliest dominions and describe the factors that led to those colonies becoming dominions
- Explain the relationship between Britain and Ireland, Irish revolts and what led to Ireland's home rule in 1922
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