Britain has had two empires, not one, and the second empire was very different from the first.  Our first empire was created by ruthless individual initiative; it produced the United States.  Our second empire was built up by enlightened government power; it produced Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

During our first empire, we competed with Spain, Portugal, Holland and France to exploit the world outside Europe.  We and our competitors traded for slaves in Africa, established profitable slave plantations in America and the West Indies, conquered the forests of North America and rifled the wealth of India. And we proved more successful than any of our competitors.

The first empire had had a rebellious beginning and it had a rebellious ending.  The leaders of our own colonies in America, made confident by France’s expulsion from the New World, revolted and in alliance with France and Spain, asserted and gained their independence.

New Colonies for Refugees

In 1783, the American war was over; peace was signed with our rebel colonies and their allies.  Things soon went back to normal; but there were two groups of people for whom homes had to be found. The homes which were found for them by the government in London laid the foundations of a second British Empire.

The first group were the American loyalists.  The revolutionary war had been a civil war in America.  Many colonists had remained loyal to the Crown, and had suffered in consequence.  Refugees flooded into places still under British control, notably Quebec and Nova Scotia. The new colonies of New Brunswick and Upper Canada (later called Ontario) were formed to accommodate the loyalists.  Thus was established English-speaking Canada.

Transportation – to where?

The other problem was nearer home and concerned convicts.  Almost from the beginning, convicts had been transported to the American colonies.  Once there, for a specific period, they became ‘indentured servants’ – effectively temporary slaves – and were sold to settlers who made use of their labour. The system worked well, probably better than our present prison arrangements do, and many convicts were rescued from a life of crime.  Once they’d regained their freedom, some became prosperous colonists.

But the independent States soon let Britain know that they would no longer accept convicts. What could be done? There was a continuing flow of convicts from the courts. The problem rapidly became acute, particularly in London. The prisons were overcrowded.  Old warships were taken over to accommodate prisoners; conditions on the ships became horrific.  There was an urgent need to find somewhere for these unwanted people to go.

A new colony had to be established for them.  Recent exploration by Captain James Cook had found what looked like a suitable place, on the South East coast of New Holland. It was more than six months’ sailing time away and completely unexplored, but it was chosen. A fleet was equipped and initially 750 convicts were sent, suitably guarded by marines.  Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed to command.

It was an extraordinary venture to an unexplored country and could easily have led to disaster, but in the event conditions were favourable and Phillip proved a great leader. The colony almost starved, but it survived, and soon there was a steady flow of convicts to the new city of Sydney.  Many of the convicts prospered quickly; they proved to have a multitude of talents, which were made good use of.  Most of them had been sentenced to only seven years’ transportation, and some of these in due course returned home, but others were only too happy to stay in what later became known as Australia.  Voluntary immigrants soon followed.

The Great Dominions

These two great colonial ventures, Canada and Australia – New Zealand was added later – became the great success stories of the second British Empire. The two groups of colonies, later growing into independent dominions, never rebelled against Britain.  They were given self-government whilst remaining for more than a century under the protection of the Royal Navy and they proved outstandingly loyal.  When Britain twice declared war on Germany, they automatically followed our initiative and immediately sent troops to join us.  We failed them in both wars – wasting the lives of their men in the First World War and leaving Australia unprotected from Japan in the Second. But only with the restrictions on Commonwealth immigration and Britain’s entry into the EU were they finally alienated; even now, a more friendly policy on the part of Britain would probably soon re-establish the fellowship of common origin.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand, unlike the United States, are still, if allowance is made for geography and circumstances, essentially British. If British independence perishes on this island, which looks increasingly possible, British traditions will survive in these three great and growing countries.  If UKIP is a sign that British independence will not perish, then we need to revive our friendship with Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and perhaps learn again from them some of the principles of government that they once learned from us.

(A second article, on India and the colonies, will follow)

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