The historian E. Ayandele described missionaries as “the pathfinders of British influence” for they provided the British government with some important local knowledge. They also acted as mediums for English language learning, upon which the legal system was based. 10
However, we cannot read too much into the connections between Christian mission and imperialism as they stood for different values. Missionaries were “egalitarian: all men, regardless of race were equal in the eyes of God and in need of salvation”11, which contradicts the values of English empire builders.
Naval Mastery and Mare Liberum
Britain’s geographical insularity meant that it would be a Naval power, quite distinct from the rest of the European continent. As a result, its destiny seemed compelled by nature. British naval mastery came to seem as inevitable as the expansion of the British Empire. In due course, such conceptions also underlay the ideological definition of Britain as a maritime power, with a commercial destiny based on its natural insularity.
As Cicero put it, in a passage that is quoted very often:
There is no private property by nature. Property becomes private either by ancient usurpation, men finding them void and vacant, or by victory in war, or by legal condition or composition in peace. However everything produced by the earth is for the benefit of humanity as a whole, and humans are born to help one another.12 (De Officiis)
This means, all property – private or public – should be protected. Also, through mutual help free commerce would be facilitated that would consolidate relations across cultures. On such grounds, commerce should be free and the seas open to all. This natural jurisprudential claim would become the basis of all later British assertions of the freedom of the seas.
Britain would support the freedom of trade even as it built the empire with its naval exploits. Similarly while determined to rule the seas, it would also support its freedom. This ideology, conflicting as it may be, remains the bottom line of the sprawling empire that is yet to be.
Thus, the English Crown argued for mare liberum on the natural jurisprudential grounds that all are at liberty to navigate the vast ocean, since the use of the sea and the air are common to all. No nation or private person can have a right to the ocean, for neither the course of nature nor public usage permits any occupation of it.13
Like the more general arguments for British maritime supremacy, these particular assertions of the insufficiency of prescription to guarantee possession and the freedom of the seas for navigation would become staples of later British imperial ideology.
The Influence of Intellectuals
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth geographers and cartographers, including such intellectuals as John Dee and John Wolfe endorsed certain prejudicial set of attitudes and assumptions. This had significant influence on the public mind, as their thoughts and opinions were highly valued. One such doctrine is the view that the English are separate and superior to the rest of the world.
Many students and politicians studied John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials and believed in their inherent superiority and their ability to control the world they then understood.
In fact, the study of geography helped the English develop an imperial world-view based on three underlying assumptions: a belief that the world could be measured, named, and therefore controlled; a sense of the superiority of the English over peoples and nations and thus the right of the English nation to exploit other areas of the globe; and a self-definition that gave these English students a sense of themselves and their nation. This message of superiority and the possibility of imperial expansion was aided by the iconographic images present in many geographical works. Through the constant repetition of such messages, students of geography began to envisage a world open to the exploration and exploitation of the English.14