Clio Edition 4 - page 25

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‘The Empire on which the sun
never sets’
By Molly Foster
‘T
he empire on which the sun never sets’
is the phrase that describes the romantic
attitude that the British had towards Imperialism. The poetic sentiment of this phrase
encapsulated the sense of the Empire being expansive – a fact that brought it growth and
prosperity.
The original phrase, ‘el imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol’ is thought to have come from
16th century Spain. At this time the British Empire spanned territories in the Americas, Asia,
Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. The phrase only became widely used in the 18th to early
20th centuries when the expansion of the British Empire was at its height. By 1922 the British
Empire controlled ¼ of global land. It was in this time period that it became common for
world maps to colour the territories of Britain, and the map below is a famous example of such
propaganda that glorified and celebrated colonialism.
The phrase was also a form of propaganda. The idea that the British Empire
experiences constant light is a hopeful, favourable representation of its size and expansion.
The very fact that it remains well known even today shows how memorable the phrase was
and is a reminder of how desirable the British found colonialism. Indeed, by very definition
imperialism is not only the ‘policy of extending a country’s power through colonisation’ but
more disturbingly ‘the promotion of the imperialist nation and empire’s interests over those
of dependent states and territories’. In Britain undoubtedly the people benefitted – as always
the upper classes more than any, with their captive market, trade triangle of slaves and
commodities and extensive ability to cheaply exploit resources and labour from the territories.
However, the empire still had a large impact on the lower socio-economic groups of Britain
too: the trade capacity meant factory owners had huge markets for goods, and so jobs were
plentiful in British industry. Moreover the influx of various goods from the empire meant
commodities like sugar became readily available to lower-class Britain.
Perhaps it unsurprising the people of Britain felt pride in their empire: for them
the personal benefits from British prosperity outweighed the distant brutality. This distance
may explain the devastating fact that the British public hailed the leader of the Amritsar
Massacre in India as a British hero – raising £26,000 in his honour. It may also explain how
Britain perpetuated the slave trade for over 100 years, with 3.4mn enslaved Africans being
transported to America alone and the fact that the British were responsible for the deaths of
10% of the Boer population in concentration camps in a single year.
The British felt a dangerous pride in the Empire, despite these atrocities. What is truly
terrifying is that this pride has not faded: a 2014 YouGov poll showed 59% of Britons felt proud
of the Empire, 22% did not know and only 19% said they felt ashamed. Attitudes to the empire,
summed up as pride and arrogance by this quote, seem to have remained relatively unchanged.
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