There are strong arguments that the revolutionary benefits resulting from science and technology innovation provided the tools for expansion and were a critical facilitator in the worldwide spread of European, especially British, imperialism.
Scientific and technological advances quickened the pace of change in The Industrial Revolution and it was this process of industrialisation that built the firm foundation for imperial expansion and consolidation.
The development and implementation of the steam engine and improvements in steel production revolutionised shipbuilding and helped support the rapid spread and development of the rail network. The telegraph improved communication links with science and medical breakthroughs improving health and life expectancy. All these factors contributed to and supported imperial economic power and the steady growth of the Empire.
The Industrial Revolution fuelled the growth in the British domestic economy and imperialistic expansion was necessary to secure new markets and territories to feed this economic fire. Continuing to grow and expand the Empire was an inorganic way of achieving the required continuous growth in trade and commerce.
I would like to explore the impact of technology on the spread of imperialism in 4 key areas:
The development and expansion of the railways provided an enormous boost to the British economy allowing more efficient, cost effective and faster transportation of people and goods over longer distances.
The economic benefits derived from an expanded railway network would be even greater when implemented across the Empire where the distances involved were even longer. The imperial railway projects were driven by a combination of both strategic and commercial motives. In India and Africa the explosion and spread of the railway network opened up huge markets for British manufacturers and helped to support and drive even further colonisation efforts.
The railways transformed the Empire in facilitating increased trade and commerce but equally it allowed better management of control of the Empire. Colonial officials could more easily travel around the colonies they governed and an increased speed of response meant fewer troops were required to subdue any unrest and to ultimately exercise and maintain control. As such, the railways were also used as an instrument of control.
We can talk about the ‘sins’ of the Empire but equally you could argue that India’s railway infrastructure was one the greatest colonial legacies laying the foundation for modern-day India.
An often forgotten outcome, brought about by the spread of the railways, was the development of a railway timetable. The term ‘railway time’ was coined which eventually resulted in a standard Greenwich Mean Time being adopted across Britain.
One cannot underestimate the rapid growth of the Empire both in the area of territory and the size of the economic trade zone created as result of the explosion of the railway network across the Empire from the second half of the 19th century onwards.
After the invention of the telegraph its use, as an inland communication tool, spread quickly across Britain and Europe. However, the problem was how to extend the telegraph network across the rest of the Empire separated by the sea.
Previously messages were carried by ship with sometime weeks and even months passing before messages from distance parts of the Empire reached London. The expansion of a telegraph system across the Empire would increase communication speeds and response times.
Previous attempts to lay under-sea cables failed due to the effect of corrosion on the copper wire. The development and expansion of a sub-sea network of telegraph cables was facilitated by the use of gutta-percha. Gutta-percha (from rubber trees) was a good electrical insulator and was used to insulate the wires enabling the sub sea cables to remain submerged without corrosion.
Botanical gardens (such as Kew) were established to study the properties of the plants discovered overseas and determine potential commercial uses. The rubber tree, discovered in South America, was transported and cultivated in Malaysia and Singapore, with the region eventually becoming the largest rubber producer in the world.
Britain’s control of the world’s commercial rubber production (and with it the supply of gutta-percha) helped to cement the Empire’s grip over this critical worldwide communication system and enormously helped to consolidate the British dominance of world trade.
The technology of the telegraph enabled mass and speedy communication on both a national and international scale. The global telegraph network spread quickly and the Empire benefited both commercially and militarily from its use.
The telegraph enabled the Empire to be managed and controlled from its centre in London. The combination of both quicker communication and speed of response combined with the increased mobility and power of the steamboat (discussed below) enabled central government to intervene in any situation that was perceived as a threat to their imperial dominance.
Reuters opened his news agency, with a network of agents across Europe, initially using post as the communication tool. However, the telegraph was quickly adapted as a much quicker and more efficient mechanism and became the forerunner of the ‘electric news’ service.
Essentially one can argue that the Victorian telegraph and its system of submarine cables laid the foundation of the fibre optic network ‘the Internet’ in use today.
As steam engines became smaller and lighter they were eventually used on ships, replacing sail as the means of power, helping to vastly reduce journey times. With the development of the screw driven propeller, larger steam ships with increased speed; reliability and efficiency replaced the paddle steamer. With the power that the steam engine provided, iron ships were built which were longer lasting and requiring less maintenance than wooden vessels. Technology continued to progress and by the end of the 19th century steam turbines replaced piston driven steam engines.
The widespread implementation of steamship technology supported an increase in trade and commerce across the Empire with the ability to move people, food and products much more quickly and cheaply.
The development of steam-powered ships greatly assisted in the expansion of the Empire into Africa and Asia. Sail ships were limited in their ability to explore inland rivers and the Empire was limited to coastal possessions especially in Africa. Improvements in steam power, with smaller more powerful engines, enabled inland river travel upstream allowing for further Empire expansion.
As well as supporting increased trade and commerce across the Empire, the employment of small, heavily armoured gunboats was used as a tool to maintain control over and police the Empire. Armed with the latest technology with searchlights and breach loading machine guns they had firepower greater than the local enemy.
This was widely employed by Palmerston in what became known as his ‘gunboat diplomacy’. A classic example of this was the Opium Wars, where the British expeditionary force showed their technical superiority over a hopelessly backdated Chinese junk fleet, resulting in Britain becoming the major commercial and military power in the region.
The armoured gunboats, and the naval power they provided, were employed by the Royal Navy in large numbers and became the workhorse of the Empire. They were used not only to control imperial colonies but also to maintain maritime supremacy and protect the trade routes and supply bases used by the vast merchant fleet, which provided the economic power the Empire depended upon.
4) Science and Medicine
We have discussed how the widespread use of steamships supported imperial dominance but it was only after a medical discovery that imperial expansion into Africa could really accelerate.
Africa was a death zone for Europeans (called the white man’s grave) due to mosquito borne malaria, inflicting a high death toll and limiting exploration efforts in the region to the coastal areas.
Quinine (isolated from cinchona bark) was discovered as being a more effective medicine both for the prevention and treatment against malaria. In another example of imperial commercialisation, the cinchona tree was smuggled from South America, transplanted and cultivated across the Empire enabling cheap quinine to be produced and manufactured on a large scale.
With quinine in widespread use, this new medicine became an essential tool in imperial expansion; and it was only then that the Scramble for Africa began in earnest in the 1880’s.
Due to its bitter taste, quinine was added to tonic water to make it more palatable and this is essentially how ‘Gin and Tonic’ became the drink of the Empire and it still a very popular drink today (although no longer for its anti-malarial benefits).
The British Empire built a strong scientific and medical base upon which it was able to research and develop new vaccines and medicines to combat the diseases and germs experienced across the Empire.
In another example, scurvy which was ‘the plague of the sea’ and which had decimated sailor numbers for years, especially throughout the age of discovery.
Captain Cook during his Pacific voyages conducted food trials and experimented with a variety diets for his crewmen. Cook ‘s findings implied that the inclusion of specific citrus fruits (rich in Vitamin C) in sailor’s diets helped to prevent and treat the disease.
Eventually the Admiralty implemented a new medical policy with a daily ration of lemon juice being given to all sailors. It is credited that because of this policy, during the naval blockade of the French and Spanish fleets in the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy was able to stay at sea longer due to the superior health of the British sailors due to the effective treatment of scurvy.
As well as advances in medicines, Florence Nightingale demonstrated and pioneered the important role that hygiene and sanitation could play in treating the sick and wounded in the Crimean War.
In these few limited examples we cannot underestimate the important role that technological advances played in facilitating and being the essential catalyst in driving the imperial expansion that occurred in the 19th century.