Full Steam Ahead: British Empire and Industry

A non-stop plane flight can carry us half way around the world in half a day, trains hurtle through the mountains of Europe at astonishing speeds, and the automobile has made overland travel an easy feat. Our world has become a small one, but it was not always so. Once the world was a vast space, stretching far off to the horizon. A world of long and arduous journeys. A world connected by fleeting communications. Then came the steam engine, the power of the future and the weapon of the British Empire. Through trade links and coastal ports, new colonies, and exploration, the British had a finger in every continental pie. Steam power was one of the greatest products of the Industrial Revolution, and significantly affected Britain’s ability to explore, establish, govern and maintain her overseas colonies. The impacts of the industrial boom in Britain upon British imperialism are undeniable. Steam technology revolutionised imperialism and the notion of global networks. Steam technology and power can be examined in two distinct forms; on water and on land. On water, steam technology was put to use in the form of the steamship, and on land the steam-engine train and the railway showed off the results of industrialisation. The advent of the steamship and the steam-train allowed for the opening up of new frontiers, the exploration of unseen lands and the settlement of new country. The implementation of steam power by the British in their foreign territories also allowed for later industrial advancements to be seized with greater ease, such as the introduction of the telegraph line and the use of telecommunications.

As Britain’s imperial interests were mounting, so too was the means for a revolution that would change the course of world’s economic and social future; the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in Britain’s north, saw Britain prove itself on both a domestic and global scale. Out of the Industrial Revolution came the ability to move faster and further than ever before, the advent of steam power.

The steam train was one of the earliest demonstrations of steam power being put to use in order to transport goods, reduce distance and speed up communication time. Many British colonies covered vast distances, some stretching across continents. Canada, Australia and holdings in Africa covered expanses that often made travel, communication and uniform governance a difficulty. The railroad proved the perfect solution to a problem of vast space. Unlike the steam-ship which had the oceans and rivers of the world already at its disposal, the steam-train needed a series of tracks in order to be effective. The British used significant chucks of their capital during the mid-late nineteenth century on the building and production of railways as they were sure that their return on their investment would be exceptional (Lunn, 1992). Their gamble paid off and the railway was of great importance and a huge success for the British Empire. The railway succeeded in carrying the British Empire forward into a new phase of economic prosperity.

Following in the wake of the steam-train was the steamship, arguably the most important invention for exploration, imperial gain and colonial governance. As Headrick notes, the British had held control over the seas for centuries, yet their control on water was limited to the wide open expanses of oceans and seas, and European domination of the seas faded away at the shoreline (1979). The steamship was the answer to this problem as it was powerful enough and small enough to traverse rivers and streams. The steamship allowed trade to boom, and imports from Britain’s colonies graced British shores in larger numbers and in quicker turn-around times than ever before. Puffing upstream and downstream, the British steamer aided communication, strengthened political ties and governance of colonies. In India, the steam-powered gunboat proved its worth in the dominance of the region and the effectiveness with which it could supress an enemy or internal uprising. In Africa, while problems with disease continued to plague British exploration of the interior, the steamship allowed traders and merchants to cut out the middle man by bypassing the coastal ports and travelling directly to the source of the goods. The steamship, from its beginnings as timber steam-paddle ships to the iron steamers and the gunboats of the turn of the century, became the global symbol of British power and dominance.

The steam engine was evolved in order to best serve the interests of the imperial powers of Europe. While most European imperial powers jumped on board the steam power scheme, it was the British that staged, implemented and perfected the use of steam power in their colonies.  For the British, the progress of steam technology never slowed or faltered. It powered steadily on towards the future, full steam ahead.


Further Reading:

Primary Sources:

African Times and Orient Review, 12th May 1914. London, 1914.

Johnston, K. Keith Johnston’s British Empire, London, 1871.

Nelson, J. Proposed Hudson’s Bay and Pacific railway and new steamship route, London: The Economic Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd., 1893.

Secondary Sources:

Headrick, D. “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century.” The Journal of Modern History 15 (1979): pp.231-263.

Kubicek, R. V. “The Design of Shallow-Draft Steamers for the British Empire, 1868-1906.” Technology and Culture 31 (1990): pp.427-450.

Lunn, J. “The Political Economy of Primary Railway Construction in the Rhodesias, 1890-1911.” The Journal of African History 33 (1992): pp.239-254.

2 comments on “Full Steam Ahead: British Empire and Industry

  1. carolynewmq says:

    That was a really interesting read Jacqui. Knowing very little of the specifics of the Industrial Revolution, I really learned a lot from reading your post. While I know about the advent of steam power during the industrial revolution, I had never really considered just how crucial steam power itself was for British colonisation.
    Do you think that without steam power, the British efforts of colonisation during the later parts of the 19th century would have been hindered?

  2. jacquelinebrennan2013 says:

    Hi Carolyn, thanks for your feedback! There were certainly other factors which allowed Britain to successfully continue their imperial quests, such as advances in weaponry. New weaponry (also influenced by the Industrial Revolution) allowed for the domination of new territories and an effective way of governing (albeit governance through fear. However, I do feel that without steam power, the British Empire would most likely have stagnated and never become the huge power we read about today.

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