The Empire and the century/The Tropics of the Empire

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2528883The Empire and the century — The Tropics of the EmpireLady Lugard



The British Empire extends over some 16,000,000 of square miles, or about a quarter of the habitable territory of the world. About 4,000,000 square miles, or a quarter of the Empire, lies within the tropics, and this portion of British territory is so much more densely occupied than the remainder, that of the 413,000,000 who are estimated to comprise the population of the Empire, something more than 350,000,000 are counted as inhabiting it. These figures are only approximate, but they serve to indicate the importance of the relation which the tropical part of the Empire bears to the whole. A territory so vast, a soil so fertile, a population so numerous, are factors in the Imperial position which we cannot afford to ignore.

The first fact which we have to face in regard to the tropical Colonies—the fact, indeed, which has generally determined our acquisition of them—is that, if they were not British, they would almost of necessity belong to some other Western Power. There is no such thing as the possibility of leaving them neutral and independent. They must by their nature be either for us or against us. That being so, circumstances, directed by British energy, have settled the question that some 4,000,000 square miles of them shall be for us. There has been very little theorizing about it; but an East India Company in one direction, West India Companies in another direction, Royal African Companies of the South and West and East, North Borneo Companies, and many another form of individual activity have created the 'accomplished fact.' Conflict has often been provoked, successive administrations have been forced to defend the interests of British subjects. The public, looking on, has applauded, and the position has passed beyond discussion. Here we stand with the direct administrative responsibility for one quarter of a quarter of the globe upon our shoulders.

In India this responsibility has been faced, and the administration of India is a thing apart But in the remainder of the tropical Colonies the question still remains to be asked. What shall we do with them? They are as yet undeveloped properties; some of them are much more. They are nations of human beings with a history of which we are for the most part as profoundly ignorant as they themselves are of their future. It is scarcely realized that the extent of territory acquired for Great Britain in Africa within the last five-and-twenty years is nearly half as great again as the whole of British India. Who remembers that British New Guinea covers nearly 250,000 square miles; or that British Guiana, with over 100,000 square miles, is half as large as France? 'Are they of any use to us?' says the sceptical Little Englander; and whatever be the opposing convictions of the Jingo and Little Englander, they would probably agree in the one conclusion that the tropical Colonies are not of as much use to us as they might be. On this possible agreement it appears to some of us that the basis of a new development in colonial administration might be laid.

The self-governing Colonies have for a long time received a large share of public attention. A good deal of public money has been spent on them and in them. Public time has been freely lavished upon the consideration of their affairs, and in the course of the last half-century, since we entered on the new colonial chapter which was initiated by the abolition of the Com Laws and the repeal of the Navigation Acts, they have established themselves very firmly, and, in spite of assertions sometimes heard to the contrary, we may be permitted to believe very loyally, on the foundation of self-governing freedom. Whatever fault there may be to be found with our colonial Empire, it may be safely asserted that no such successful development of external expansion has been made by any nation in the world's history. The organism of Great Britain has grown into Greater Britain, and it lives and moves and breathes as freely as before. It has lost nothing of the individuality which characterized it. Practical science has kept pace with political development, means of communication have multiplied, and the whole is as near to us as the part once was.

Those of us who believe in the future of the United Empire see promise of the fulfilment of our most sanguine hopes. We believe that the framework of a great liberty has been constructed which will stand the test of a nation's growth. But with the settlement of South African questions it would seem that the most important affairs of the self-governing Colonies have been brought to the stage in which the self-governing Colonies must for the most part take charge of them for themselves. The interest and the attention of those responsible for the conduct of Imperial affairs is about to be liberated from the claims which have hitherto held it absorbed, and the possibilities of a new chapter of colonial history may engage consideration. Questions of self-government may give place to questions of Crown colonial government, and ability which has hitherto been directed to the self-governing Colonies may turn to the Crown Colonies. The Crown Colonies are, for the most part, the tropical Colonies, and tropical development may easily become one of the most acutely interesting questions of the future.

The conception of the development of our tropical resources has one great charm for the English imagination. This is that to realize it rests mainly with ourselves. Within the limits of benevolent autocracy, we may do as we please in the greater part of the Crown-governed Colonies. Tropical Australia, which has been transferred to the administration of the Australian Commonwealth, is outside the present range of experiment from home. Some of the West Indian Colonies approach nearly to conditions of self-government. India has its own time-honoured administration. But with abstraction made for these and for any others for which abstention may be deemed desirable, there still remain some 2,000,000 square miles in which a Colonial Office, which should be supported by public sympathy, could initiate any experiment that it chose to make. These 2,000,000 square miles of territory possess vast resources. They produce in small quantities now the cotton, the silk, the tobacco, the coffee, the tea, the cocoa, the sugar, the rice, the gums, the oils, the dyes, the drugs, the spices, the minerals, and other materials of commerce and manufacture which are needed for the maintenance and the expansion of our trade. There is little doubt that the production of raw material could be indefinitely multiplied till it should render British manufactures of these and similar articles substantially independent of foreign supplies. The extension of such markets of supply would automatically create markets of consumption within the Empire for many classes of manufactured goods; and were it possible to organize a system of tropical administration which should enable British industry to bring about this result, British trade would enter upon an era of prosperity which would leave little doubt of the value of the tropics. The Empire is large enough to become, if it were desirable, self-sufficing; and the tropical Colonies are, in truth, to it as the tropics have ever been to the world—a reserve of wealth of which the distribution insures the creation of more wealth.

They may be, perhaps, more than this. They were also in ancient times reserves of labour for the great civilizations which based their industries upon the institution of slavery. They may become again reserves of labour, but of free labour, which, under white direction, may be no less valuable than reserves of raw material in enabling us to maintain our industrial position against competition of a very different character from any to which we are now exposed. The ascendancy of Japan in that new theatre of the world's action which lies round the Pacific Ocean suggests other reflections besides those concerning military and naval efficiency. We are forced to recognise that we shall have some day to face in the markets of the world the industrial development of a people actively intelligent as the Japanese, with a body of the best manual labour in the world lying ready to their hand in China. Against the competition of white labour we may well be able to hold our own; but it seems likely that in the industrial future the most dangerous competition which we may be forced to face will not be white. Our Imperial position permits us, if we will realize it, to face even this contingency without fear.

The future of native races, and the place which they are to take in the making of the Empire, has rightly been regarded as one of the most interesting that the extension of Empire involves. Our fathers were passionate abolitionists; but is it enough that natives in the less-civilized portions of the tropics should have been relieved of the necessity of labouring for others? Is it not desirable that they should take the further step of learning to labour for themselves? We speak very proudly of the unity of the Empire. In the matter of its labour supply it has not yet been regarded as one. The self-governing Colonies generally dislike the idea of so regarding it. They have not been able to face the fact that we are not a white Empire, but a white and coloured Empire. They prefer in those parts of the Empire for which they are responsible to exclude the coloured and to preserve the white element alone. For purposes of self-government this is easily comprehensible. It may be wise or unwise; but in the Crown Colonies, where there can be no question of self-government in the white man's sense, this barrier does not arise. There the labour problem may be, and in some instances has been, greatly simplified by a recognition that the Empire is one, and that all British subjects are at home where they are protected by the British flag. To enable them to move from one field of labour to another involves at present the difficult questions of indentured and imported labour. But need these questions always remain difficult? Would it not be possible to approach them without passion, in a spirit of enlightened common-sense, and apply in a great sense to all our native subjects that freedom to carry their labour to the most advantageous market which was only conferred upon the English labouring poor when the Settlement Acts were repealed about the year 1884. Up to that time local English labour was not allowed to migrate freely beyond the call of its own village bells. It was considered a terrible innovation when the new Poor Laws were passed, and every man could become, if he chose, a pauper upon the neighbouring parish; but it is difficult to imagine how the Empire could have been made if the old Poor Laws had been maintained. So now it seems to many minds a terrible thing to contemplate that labour should be really free to circulate within the Empire. But can the greater Empire be made unless means are found to render this circulation of labour harmless through such parts as urgently require it?

The question with regard to the tropical Colonies is one of method. How to approach them, how to develop them? It is not a question to be recklessly answered, but neither does it seem in its nature to be unanswerable. It needs to be fairly considered. Englishmen in India and elsewhere have not shown themselves to be deficient in administrative ability. And if the whole body of men now engaged in administering the British tropics were to have their attention directed to the end of promoting industrial development under conditions consonant with good English traditions, it is hardly conceivable that such a direction of their thoughts would remain without result. The recommendation of individual administrators would no doubt vary widely; but there is no reason why the principle of local initiative, which has been so successful in the self-governing Colonies, should not be adapted by the white element in the Crown Colonies to produce through different channels similarly satisfactory results. What is needed is that public interest should awaken to the fact that vast territories, of which the industrial wealth has been as yet barely touched, lie waiting for development. If this could happen, the rest would surely follow. Did Lancashire believe that the cotton required to feed her looms could be produced wholly within the Empire, there would not be lacking either capital or energy to establish a cotton-planting industry in all suitable Colonies. The creation of the British Cotton-Growing Association already points to a movement in this direction. Not only questions of planting, but questions of transport, questions of labour, questions of administration, and questions of taxation—which extended administration must always carry in its train—would no longer be simply catalogued in a list of obstacles—they would be faced and dealt with. Men would not content themselves with pointing out that native cottons are usually of the wrong staple. They would introduce systems of cultivation which should produce cotton of the right staple. They would not rest with the observation that difficulties of transport raise the price of native goods above any profitable level. They would insist on the creation of systems of transport which would put an end to this artificial price. They would not feel that all was said on the thorny question of native labour when it is pointed out that food in the tropics is too cheap to induce the native to work voluntarily for his bread, and that any attempt to force him to work is slavery in disguise. The most practical minds would be set to find a solution of the labour problem, and in the organization of free labour existing generations would make a further step in the path of progress which was opened by the abolition of slavery.

One difficulty is that the industrial centres of England do not believe in the existence of this potential wealth. They have yet to be convinced that, without meddling with their neighbours' tariffs, without involving themselves in commercial wars, or other disturbances which they dread on the field of normal trade, there lie within the Empire markets almost untouched as yet which may be indefinitely enlarged

Were the resources of the tropical Crown Colonies developed, their populations would not be stationary. The first effect of British administration in tropical Africa is to put a stop to the practices of slave-raiding and intertribal war. Slave-raiding—by which large tracts of country are annually desolated and the able-bodied male population slaughtered, while women, children, and boys are carried away into captivity—is as destructive to the race of man as indiscriminate hunting is to any kind of game. Yet the populous regions of tropical Africa have been raided for centuries, and man is still relatively thick upon the soil. The race is so persistent that it has endured. Let it be preserved with even a moderate amount of care, as elephant and buffalo are in certain regions preserved, and it will increase at a rate which may be a peril or an advantage according to the manner in which it is treated by the white man. It is not difficult to foresee a period when the existing 12,000,000 or 20,000,000 of Northern Nigeria may be increased to a total approaching the present total of India; and the same may probably be said with truth of other tropical Colonies. It does not follow that in every instance the increase should be made entirely with their present inhabitants. Were the circulation of native labour within the Empire free, it would be the aim of enlightened administration to attract to the less populous but naturally fertile districts immigration of the most desirable kind.

It is, therefore, advisedly that we speak of markets that may be indefinitely enlarged. If the millions whose increase we have assured by the humanitarian character of our legislation are led to employ themselves in reasonable labour, they will almost necessarily rise in the scale of humanity. The wealth of the countries in which they live must also proportionately increase. If their labour is intelligently directed, the increase will be great. There will be surplus wealth to exchange for commodities which they desire, and, according to the degree in which their territories are opened to civilization, their wants will be satisfied from the markets of the civilized world. If their countries are not opened to civilization, but are still protected by civilized powers from the ordinary ravages of war. slave-raiding, and famine, their numbers must increase in many portions of the Empire as savages, in others as semi-civilized, ambitious races, ready and able to organize resistance to an order of things which they have not accepted. It is not, therefore, too much to say that great alternatives lie before us in the tropics.

But if, on the one hand, the public is but half convinced of possibilities of development on which it has not been in the habit of reflecting, and about which it is insufficiently supplied with accurate information, so, on the other, those who are charged with the administration of the Empire are themselves but half convinced that the conditions justify a policy which would in its nature involve further outlay of public money at a moment when the call for economy is urgent. Such a policy would probably involve the raising of loans for local railways; possibly the subsidization of shipping companies. It would carry with it an intelligent revision of laws and regulations affecting the employment of coloured labour. It might involve the establishment in the Colonies and Protectorates of local departments of trade and industry affiliated to the Board of Trade. It would almost necessarily involve extensive rearrangement of administrative machinery. These things are not to be achieved by thought and action alone. They represent expenditure, and the public is the ultimate paymaster.

We halt between two uncertainties, and it is a matter of doubt whether the public, as it gains further knowledge, will force on the administration, or whether in this matter it will be for the administration to lead the public. The situation is perhaps hardly ripe for action. But a great opportunity is preparing itself, and the statesman who first sees his way to formulate a constructive policy of tropical development which shall command the confidence of the country is likely to live in British memory as the leader of one of the most important movements to which our colonial history has given rise.