What Role Did the “Civilizing Mission” Play in the Expansion of Britain’s Empire in the 19th Century?

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What role did the “civilizing mission” play in the expansion of Britain’s empire in the 19th century? At the close of the 19th century Rudyard Kipling preserved the prevailing attitude of Britain’s intellectual elite in a poem - “The White Man’s Burden”. In his work Kipling confirms the hubris of a generation of Britons who were entirely convinced that they were culturally, rationally, and morally superior to the “new-caught…Half-devil and half-child” natives of the British colonies. This belief in the superiority of western values manifested in the flight of thousands of philanthropically minded Victorians across the British Empire. These emigrants consisted of a section of society driven to do their duty and fulfil the “national mission”. (Chamberlain 1897:VI) That was, to bring the “savages” out of their infant “barbaric” stage of development and into the light of civilization. This essay will argue that the “civilizing mission” was not merely an accompanying ideological motive for expansion but that it played an essential practical role in consolidating colonial rule in the 19th century. Through the imposition of western education, religion, and law the “civilizing mission” aided British expansion by creating greater stability in crown colonies. With these conditions in place it was possible for Britain to reap the political and economic benefits of occupation. In a study of the mourning regulations imposed upon Indian women in the mid-19th century Parita Mukta shows how the spreading of western tradition by colonial powers was used to prevent social uprising and therefore “enabled the consolidation of colonial rule” (Mukta 1999: 25). Colonial powers declared the “loud weeping” and “breast-beating” of women at funerals (which took place in public locations) to be a primitive and backward expression of grief. However, apart from allowing women an emotional outlet for their sorrow “Laments provided the space for the voicing of harsh social truths” (Mukta 1999: 29). The British colonial powers were very aware of the social power of such laments. A.K Forbes wrote “These utterances of grief are rude, but they are far from unaffecting, even to the stranger.” (Forbes, 1878 cited in Mukta, 1999: 35) The “loss of a powerful arena” for females to criticize those responsible for a loved one’s death was of great benefit to the colonial government. With the dramatic lament banned British rulers were spared the loud and emotive accusations of the victim’s female relations. This can be seen as evidence that by “civilizing” the female Indian lament, the British were able to prevent the potential beginnings of a challenge to colonial rule. There are those who would challenge the suggestion that the civilizing of the lament was a calculated attempt to increase colonial control in India. Instead, the loss of political power suffered by women could be explained as an unfortunate consequence of a “civilizing” process that did considerably improve the lives of Indian women. The movement for example also outlawed female infanticide and gave women greater marital rights (Mukta 1999: 45). However, the poignant timing of the social reforms which began just after the costly 1857 Indian Mutiny suggests that the government was aware of the subduing effects the new policy would have and it was for this reason that it was put into practice. (Mukta 1999: 29-30) India was not the only colonized country where government support for the role of the “civilizing mission” can be viewed as a means to gain control without the continued use of force. Government effort to spread western culture in the sugar colonies of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean greatly increased at the end of the 19th century when it was noted that there was there was a “direct relation between the social health of the sugar colonies and Britain's ability safely and cheaply to retain them”. (Patterson Smith, 1995: 257) Patterson uses evidence of British government spending to show...
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