Did Britain Treat All Its Colonies Equally?

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown

Painting by John Trumbull. Courtesy of the Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Scott Bade, studied history at Stanford University, international security analyst:

In short, the British treated their colonies in vastly different ways, both across different regions and within the same colonies over time.  

The British Empire was never a consistent empire. Across various colonies, there were different raisons d’être and methods of organization for each one. Even within America, different Colonies were founded for entirely different reasons. Virginia started out as a mercantile colony run by a company; Massachusetts was originally a Puritan theocracy; New York was a crown colony taken over from the Dutch; and Maryland and Pennsylvania were religiously tolerant colonies governed by (relatively) benign hereditary feudal rulers (called proprietors), the Barons Calvert and the Penn family. South Carolina, with its rice and indigo plantations, was more akin to a Caribbean colony than its continental neighbors.* At the same time that the American Colonies were emerging, the East India Company established outposts in India, and the Royal African Company did much the same in Africa. None of them were uniformly governed or similar in character; the British government occasionally took notice but generally was not involved in their governance.

First, focusing on the 13 Colonies in the runup to the American Revolution, it is true that the crown reined things in for the most part, making most (but not all) of the Colonies crown colonies, ruled by governors appointed from London. But British policy was inconsistent both toward America generally and toward individual Colonies. The system of salutary neglect ended with the end of the French and Indian War (or Seven Years’ War) as Britain took a greater interest in the direct rule of the Colonies, passing laws like the Proclamation of 1763, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the Quebec Act in 1774. These represented drastic policy shifts in imperial governance over time within the same territories.

The American Revolution was a unique event in British imperial history. Though this fact is often neglected in American history classes, there were many other British colonies in the Americas, including the various Canadian colonies (Quebec, Nova Scotia, St. John, Newfoundland), West and East Florida, and colonies in the Caribbean, all of which did not rebel in the face of the same greater imperial overreach and increased taxation. Before the upheaval in the 1760s and 1770s, the idea of a united “13 Colonies” was a fiction; they were merely part of a network of more than 20 British colonies in the hemisphere. The only prior time they had been remotely united was when seven of the North American colonies met for the Albany Conference in 1754 to coordinate defense during the French and Indian War. So, while most of the continental Colonies joined the fight for independence once outright rebellion occurred in 1775, it was a gradual process with some Colonies taking longer to join than others. And, even when the Colonies were at their most united point, some, like the Canadian and Caribbean colonies, rebuffed overtures from the American rebels and stayed loyal.

Although there were many causes for the American Revolution, it is important to note that the rebellion was a relatively perplexing one. While they certainly had grievances with Britain, the Colonists enjoyed one the highest standards of living in the world, relatively high religious tolerance, and one of the most representative forms of government. Colonists may not have been represented in Parliament, but their local assemblies were far more representative of the average man—although women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, and non–property owners were often excluded—than Parliament, with its rotten boroughs and other tricks was in Britain. The tax disputes that led to the American crisis also hit other colonies hard, the Caribbean colonies (more dependent on trade) particularly so. Yet those other colonies did not rebel because they benefited too much from the status quo and had too much to lose. If not for a few provocative events like the Boston Massacre and Tea Party, the cycle of provocations that then followed, and then the inflammatory Common Sense by Thomas Paine, that would have likely been the reaction in much of the 13 Colonies as well. In many ways, had cooler heads and sensible negotiations prevailed, the American Revolution would have been a blip on the historical radar, and America would have been British for a while longer.

Of course, it wasn’t, and the Revolution had profound effects on the organization of Second British Empire that replaced it. As Britain moved to Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, it established a dual system of imperial administration. For the vast majority of subjects, there was indirect rule, codified by Lord Frederick Lugard in the 1890s. In this system, the British pretty much let local rulers and elites run things on a day-to-day basis, only stepping in for broad policy directives or during a crisis. Obviously, the British left a huge mark almost everywhere they went, but often times their allies were actually leaving the mark.

For the territories under indirect rule, there were rebellions in India and in Africa. But why didn’t the other white colonies rebel like the Americans did? First of all, Ireland did, though because its bloody history is so unlike those of the other colonies, I’ll leave it there. There was also conflict in South Africa, but that was between two established European populations, the British and the Dutch-speaking Afrikaners. The English-speaking population did not rebel against British rule.

For the other territories, there are several answers for the lack of rebellion. First is that broadly speaking there was no real reason to do so. Canada after the American Revolution was half French and half Loyalists who had fled from the 13 Colonies. They, like their Caribbean cousins, had their chance to join the Americans and didn’t. Moreover, until the Oregon Treaty in 1846, Canadians feared their southern neighbors, who had invaded during the War of Independence and would invade again during the War of 1812. They relied on the British to defend them against the ever-expanding American nation. (In fact tensions remained until the Oregon Treaty.)

Australia and New Zealand, meanwhile, were relatively young—Captain Cook reached Australasia in 1770, just as the American Colonies were starting to rebel. More importantly, the British learned their lessons from the American Revolution and gave white colonists domestic powers that would probably have satisfied the demands of American Colonists at the beginning of their crisis. Canada started down the path to home rule as early as 1840. Australia had responsible government in certain provinces in the 1850s. In Canada, Dominion status followed in 1867. Dominion status allowed for enough self-government (with fealty to the empire and British supervision) to serve as a kind of pressure-release valve on any discontent. The British used the Canadian model for Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), Newfoundland (1907), South Africa (1910), and Ireland (1922), as well as India, Pakistan, and Ceylon. The Dominions also allowed for a sort of “soft” independence that made the formal break much easier and helped Britain remain a privileged ally rather than France, whose decolonization efforts were much more traumatic.

By the time most of Second Empire’s colonies became developed enough to be independent “countries,” they were so entrenched in the British imperial system that it made little sense to leave and, after all, they already had Dominion status. Not until the decolonization era after World War II was there real pressure for independence. Even then, given the shifting climate, there was never any serious risk of rebellion. South Africa did declare itself a republic in 1961, a rebellion of sorts, but given the tide of decolonization, Britain had no intention (or legitimate way) of opposing that.

Correction, July 25, 2014: This post originally stated that Colonial South Carolina had sugar plantations. Its plantations mainly produced rice and indigo.

More questions on Quora: