This short volume focuses upon the British empire and the development and growth of the country’s imperial system between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I, in the context of historically unprecedented global expansion by certain European powers. The British was incomparably the largest both in area and population of the European overseas empires of that period (and the land-based territorial expansions of the United States and the Russian empire). The historical meaning of what was taking place is of course only understandable in the context of the parallel activities of these other European powers – resulting from time to time in clashes and confrontations between rival empire-builders – and also, it must be stressed, in the historical novelty of the international imperial framework which emerged during those years. As is explained in the Introduction, the British empire, from its beginnings a commercial enterprise, had been central to the growth of Britain as an industrial power from the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century, but from the 1870s it began to take on a new form and character.
In pursuing this theme an immediate problem of definition has to be noted. Britain’s ‘imperial system’, amazingly complex though it was, is relatively straightforward to recognise, but ‘imperialism’, the word which was increasingly used to define the newly developing state of affairs, is a much vaguer and more nebulous concept – though no less of a reality. Clearly it has economic, political, cultural and military dimensions; it has implications in all of these for the imperial country no less than the subjected territories – and the latter may include formally independent states as well as those over which the imperial metropolis claims legal sovereignty.