By Qasim Swati (United Kingdom)
Being the largest in world history at its height, with around 25% of the world’s population, the British Empire lasted for several centuries and covered about a quarter of the world’s land surface, while controlling many areas of Asia, Africa, Australia and North America. The British Empire has left profound, long-lasting and far-reaching effects, traces and legacy behind, not only in its former colonies, mandates, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and territories, but also in the rest of the world in some way. The colossal legacy, left behind by the British Empire, can be seen everywhere in different forms in various parts of the world.
It is the British Empire that has left its marks and traces on, almost, every nation and country of the globe in one way or another. The asset and positive legacy left by the British Empire behind can be seen throughout the world in the form of the daily use of English language, the British social and cultural heritage to be found in its former colonies, its religious and political legacy, the foundations of the education systems of many countries, the British legal/judicial systems within various former colonies, the imperial system/imperial units (the British choice of system of measurement), the British colonial architecture, the establishment of the first modern police force as a model for many countries of the world and helping many of its former colonies by setting up and building their infrastructure, like roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, power supplies and schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, museums and other buildings, etc.
Having brought so many changes to a large number of countries and people, the British Empire has contributed a lot to bringing innovations in the world. This is because of the huge role played by the British Empire in the history of the world that millions of people still believe that the world, we see today, is the way it is due to the impact of the British Empire.
As a result of the effect and influence the British Empire has had on the globe, Britain (as a successor of the British Empire) still has close ties with the majority of its former colonies, territories, dominions, dependencies, protectorates and mandates via the Commonwealth, British culture in Australia and North America and multi-cultural populations by many countries in the world.
The most distinguished gift given to the world by the British Empire is in the shape of using the English language globally. Having attained the position of world language number one, English is seen as a lingua franca by the international business community. Due to its global significance and usage worldwide, it has become a common world language, while playing its role as an internationally-recognised means of communication. English language is used not only as a lingua franca (a language used for communication between groups of people who speak different languages), but this has become the need of the day in various spheres and walks of life as well, such as, in the fields of marketing, education, travelling and tourism, science and technology, diplomacy, internet and global business and so on.
Another contribution, made by the British Empire in the World of Entertainment and Competition, is the export of sports, developed in Britain, but introduced to the rest of the world, of such sports, specifically as lawn tennis, hockey, lawn bowls, netball, rugby, cricket, football and golf.
Despite profiting from slavery in the 1700s, the British Empire decided to abolish the international slave trade in 1807, whilst outlawing it across its overseas territories in 1833. It was due to the battle of the British Empire against slavery that Britain and her allies were able to wipe out international slave trade by 1888 and its practice was declared illegal globally in 1948.
As a result of the historical link with the British Empire, a large number of countries have adopted the Westminster system in the form of a parliamentary system or form of government, with some variations and changes, depending on their individual situations, which is a visible symbol of the political role played by the British Empire throughout the world in the past. Some of the countries and territories that follow the Westminster system or the Westminster model for running their respective governments include Vanuatu, United Kingdom, Tuvalu, Trinidad and Tobago, Solomon Islands, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, New Zealand, Nepal, Mauritius, Malta, Malaysia, Kuwait, Jamaica, Japan, Israel, Ireland, India, Grenada, Fiji, Dominica, Canada, Belize, Barbados, Bangladesh, Bermuda (UK), The Bahamas, Australia, Antigua and Barbuda.
In the past, several other countries had adopted the Westminster system as well, like Guyana, Empire of Japan, Mali, The Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, Swaziland, Ghana, Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Nigeria, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the Union of South Africa (The Republic of South Africa), etc.
Suttee or sati was a Hindu custom, no longer legal, of a woman being burned alive in the same fire as that in which her dead husband’s body is/was burned. This was a former practice, carried out in India, whereby a widow threw herself on to her husband’s funeral pyre. A large number of widows used to lose their lives due to the practice of sati, but the British Empire banned the practice in India and the surrounding areas in 1829 officially and wiped it out by the 1870s.
Although it is published on the Norwegian Digital Learning Arena (ndla)’s website, in an article, titled ‘The Legacy of an Empire’, that, after the independence of India in 1947, the education system of the country is basically dependent on the system of education, introduced by Mahatma Gandhi for the nation, known as “nai taleem, meaning new education”, but the reality is that, apart from many other former British colonies, the system of education in India is still based on the principles and system, created by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800 – 1859), commonly known as Lord Macaulay (a British historian and Whig politician), who went to India in 1834 and discharged his duties there between 1834 and 1838 on the Supreme Council of India, where he not only changed the old and traditional system of education in India, but also dedicated a great amount of his time in India for creating a Penal Code (the criminal law), which resulted in the creation of the Indian Penal Code and also became a model for the criminal laws of several other British colonies. Many of such laws, introduced by Thomas Babington Macaulay, are still in place in such former British colonies for running their legal system, as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Singapore, Pakistan and even in India as well. The systems of education in New Zealand and Australia are also based on the principles and rules introduced by the authorities in the British Empire.
Due to his effective and significant role in shaping the education and legal systems of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries that had been British colonies in the past, the efforts and sacrifices made by Lord Macaulay cannot be ignored. He played an enormous part in introducing Western and English concepts to education in India, who supported the idea of replacing Persian by English as the official language, the training of English-speaking Indians as teachers and the use of English as the medium of instruction in all schools.
Besides setting up the education system of India and other several countries, as mentioned earlier, Lord Macaulay also played a gigantic role in creating the Indian Penal Code (the official criminal code of India, covering all substantive aspects of criminal law, drafted on the recommendations of first law commission of India, established in 1834 under his Chairmanship). The same law still remains as the foundation of the criminal codes of the aforesaid countries and other several countries, too. Thus, the British Empire provided its former colonies with such judicial/legal, educational and other systems, for example the Indian Penal Code, followed by the Criminal Procedure Code in 1872 and the Civil Procedure Code in 1908. Accordingly, the English common law has served as the pattern or template for the legal systems of a large number of the countries of the world that were once British colonies in the past.
While giving birth to many nations around the world, the British Empire created some of the most successful and wealthiest countries on earth, such as, the United States of America, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, that started to exist as British colonies before and evolved into their existing state later on. Today’s world’s fifth-largest economy (India) was once a former British colony as well, which has now emerged to be one of the 21st Century’s economic powerhouses. Cities, like Hong Kong and Singapore, were also created by the British Empire, that lie at the heart of global finance at present.
The British colonial architecture has also left a visible imprint and dominant mark on the styles in which buildings were made in the countries that remained British colonies in the past. The models and designs of the British architecture during its colonialism can be clearly seen in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, South Asia, the British West Indies and North America. For instance, Pakistan has been a British colony in the past. Several European architectural styles, like neoclassical, Gothic and Baroque, became very popular and predominant in the areas which are now referred to as Pakistan, during the British Raj, also known as the Crown Rule in India or Direct Rule in India. Some examples of such British colonial architecture in Pakistan are King Edward Medical University, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan (founded in 1860, and named after Edward VII); the University of the Punjab, Lahore, Punjab; The Lahore Museum, in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan, founded in 1865, and Islamia College Peshawar/Islamia College University, Peshawar, founded in 1913, etc.
Similarly, a large number of British-era buildings can be seen at Colombo Fort and different other regions of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Some of the European architectural styles, like the neoclassical, Renaissance Classicism and Palladian architecture’s buildings can be found in various parts of Sri Lanka.
The role, played by the British Empire in establishing and improving the infrastructure of its former colonies, dominions, territories, dependencies, mandates and protectorates, is also very significant which cannot be disregarded and overlooked. Besides providing education and introducing legal and political models and templates to the people of its former colonies, the British Empire has also left a valuable asset and positive legacy behind in these colonies, in the form of roads, railways, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, museums, tunnels, bridges, irrigation canals and such other facilities, which the people of these countries are still benefiting from a lot.
The British Empire was one of the major players and actors, involved in World War I (1914–1918), that led to the defeat and collapse of several empires, like the Russian, German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and, thus, resulted in the end of the war among nations.
In the same way, the role played by the British Empire during the Second World War (1939–1945) against the Imperial Japan and Nazi despotism cannot be ignored, too, as it saved the world from further destruction when the war, ultimately, came to an end in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the demise of the Imperial Japan.
The British Empire has also played a relatively positive role in promoting global peace, because several conflicts have started and are still going on in various former British colonies, mandates and protectorates. For example, some of the former British mandates, protectorates and colonies that gained independence from the United Kingdom include India, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Kuwait, Cameroon, Libya, Burma/Myanmar, Nigeria, South Africa, Somaliland, Sri Lanka/Ceylon, Sudan and South Yemen. However, after gaining their independence from the British Empire, we have been constantly seeing and observing such conflicts in these former British-controlled regions, as the Kashmir Conflict between India and Pakistan, the Iran-Iraq War and the ongoing Iraqi Civil War, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Cameroonian Civil War since 9 September, 2017 – present, the Libyan Civil Wars and current unstable situation in the country, the Civil War and human rights violations in Myanmar/Burma, the Civil War and other problems in Nigeria, the Civil Wars in Somalia, the Sri Lankan Civil War and the Civil War in Yemen, etc.
Qasim Swati is a freelance journalist, writer and human rights activist, based in the UK, and can be reached at https://qasimswati.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.