The guise of spreading Liberty
The theory of the republic has it that internally the subjects should be free to flourish and externally the empire manifest its grandeur. In this way the notion of the republic and liberty were interconnected. In early modern England, renowned thinkers like Machiavelli and Sallust were faced with the problem of sustaining empire, while maintaining liberty.6 Although the two aims of empire and liberty were conflicting, Machiavelli argued that it would not be possible to ignore compulsions for territorial expansion and the loss of liberty that it would impose on the conquered. He goes on, citing the example of Rome:
Rome could never have achieved grandeur without instituting the practical measures that had led to internal dissension and hence to the destruction of its republican liberty; likewise, those states that did not follow the expansionist policies of the Romans rendered themselves vulnerable to conquest by others and would still lose their liberty as their competitors overran them in due course.7
Machiavelli points to Venice and Sparta as counterexamples. Thus, imperialism was rationalized to mean bringing liberty to the acquired lands. It was also acceptable to impoverish individuals to stock-up coffers and maintain military discipline.
The British intellectuals further argued that the main reason to prefer the course of Rome was not glory but security in a world of change and ambition. Imperio and liberta would, at last, be incompatible. So, in the dilemma of Imperio and Liberta, the former was regarded as the higher duty.8Therefore imperialism was seen by some of its practitioners as a set of values that were essentially benign. This idea of the benevolent mission remained a genuine belief for a majority of imperial administrators settlers.
The English imperialists believed that they were bringing just laws, efficient governance and a sound economic system that would provide freedom from oppression. They also held the notion of illuminating the ignorant masses with the light of religion and morality. On the hindsight, we now know how ironic such beliefs were, but history has it that the Englishmen truly regarded them as their “duty”.
The Sense of Racial and Cultural Superiority
Through most of its history, Britain portrayed the East as the “Other”, the very opposite of the qualities of the West. While the Western model stood for progress, enlightenment, modernization, the Orient represented “backwardness”. The West defined itself in reference to others as inferior. The common literature during the early modern period also exemplifies such attitudes. In its extreme form, Englishmen were considered masculine, strong, courageous and accomplished, while the natives were thought weak, timid and effeminate. Such colonial discourse, not only indoctrinated the minds of the colonizers, but also of the colonized. The latter developed a sense of inferiority.9
Protestantism and the Missionaries
There is a strong historical relation between British imperialism and Protestant Reformations. Protestantism helped the English develop a strong national consciousness. The failure of the Three Kingdoms to unite under one version of faith led to a broader British national identity. In other words, Protestantism was the foundation upon which Great Britain was invented. It is the link joining state-formation and empire building, although British imperial ideology does not have a direct theological basis.
The Christian missionaries to Asia and Africa present some interesting evidence. There is a popular anecdote that goes: When the Englishmen came they had the bible and Africans had the land. A little later, the Africans had the bible and the Englishmen held the land. The missionaries welcomed assistance from colonial rulers to resist anti-Christian elements and entities that prevented religious conversion. However, they would also oppose the atrocities committed by the imperialists on innocent subjects.