The Role of Nationalism

934 words | 4 page(s)

Nationalism was a tremendously powerful force that helped to contribute significantly to the rise of the British Empire. The British Empire largely developed as a result of a number of different factors, and its spread throughout the world took place in no small part because of the ways in which British people viewed themselves. This provided the original justification for nationalism, and this effect only grew as time passed. Eventually, though, the British Empire would be taken down by some combination of apathy and revolution, with new and emerging versions of nationalism playing important roles in influencing both of these critically important elements. Nationalism, it seems, made the British leadership feel as if they had to spread their special values throughout the world. At the same time, it motivated those who the British had colonized to fight for their own rights of determinism.

In order for the British Empire to develop and grow, there had to be specific decisions made by the British in charge. They wanted, it seems, to spread their message to as many nations as they possibly could. The British Empire did not appear by accident, but rather, it was the intentional creation of those who believed that the European way – which included traditional British values and many elements derived from Christianity – was the best possible way of doing things. Nationalism, both civic and ethnic, played a major role in encouraging the British leadership to seek out opportunities in the imperial realm.

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Strobel notes that in Africa, part of the reason why the British Empire took hold was because at least some portion of the oppressed and colonized population, along with a major chunk of the British population, bought completely into the concept that the British had either a divine right to rule or some reason for ruling that related to the superiority of the Europeans over the Africans (Strobel, p.377). This author notes that in the beginning of the British Empire, many of the colonized African countries were docile toward the British, accepting explicitly the assumption that the British had the right to rule because they were more capable of doing so. Why were they more capable of doing so? In part, it was because there was a sense of superiority among those who comprised the white race. Not only did this provide the first justification for the British establishment of colonies in Africa, but it sincerely motivated those who had to expend significant effort to make that taking a reality.

Nationalism helped to keep the British Empire going after it was well-established, too. At some point in time, the British national identity became something more and something innately tied to the success of the country at colonizing various nations around the world. The British people – and perhaps more notably, the British government – saw itself as being a global ambassador for liberalism. Metcalf writes in his work that in India, the British saw liberalism as an enlightened form of government that could be spread to various parts of the world (Metcalf, p.29). It was not by accident that the British Empire had discovered their favored form of government. Rather, they discovered it because they were the group best equipped to discover it, at least in the minds of the people. What this meant, then, was that the nationalistic concept of British superiority in governance helped to convince people that Great Britain actually had some grand duty to share what it had learned about government with the rest of the world.

Nationalism was not a wholly positive force for the British Empire. To the contrary, there were certain colonies where the British Empire was taken down because of the nationalism of the people. At the very least, it was challenged because people in these colonized nations came to find that their own opinions mattered and that they had the ability to make decisions on the direction of their own countries, too. Elkins explores the case of Kenya in her work. There, she discusses the ways in which the people resisted the British Empire on the basis of their national desire to rule their own country. She describes how more than one million Kikuyu took the Mau Mau oath, and they dedicated themselves to fighting for the cause of land and freedom (Elkins). It is unlikely, of course, that people would have been able to band together in this way if they had not been driven by some uniting force of nationalism.

There was a sense of pride in these people, and they recognized that they would rather die fighting for their own autonomy rather than living under the tyranny of the British. It was this kind of feeling among the oppressed that helped to produce the downfall of the British Empire around the world. No longer were peoples willing to stand by and take the abuse heaped upon them by the British Empire. They were, instead, much more interested in fighting alongside their brothers and sisters, much to the detriment of the British cause.

Ultimately the British Empire was shaped by a wide range of different forces. The empire initially came about because of forces of nationalism, which encouraged and directed the British in their desire to appear in some way “better” than the countries around them. Later, the British felt that because of their cultural superiority, they had the right and the duty to lead the less fortunate tribes out of their own misery and ignorance. Nationalism also contributed to the downfall of the empire, as people finally rose up in their own united movements and threw off the British.

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