Britain’s Imperial Century: What Was the Pax Britannica? | History Hit

Britain’s Imperial Century: What Was the Pax Britannica?

Peta Stamper

10 Mar 2022
Cut out from an elaborate map of the British Empire in 1886
Image Credit: Walter Crane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Pax Britannica – Latin for ‘British Peace’ – describes the century between 1815 and the beginning of World War One in 1914, a period of relative stability and peace.

With the long-awaited, final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain was left without a serious international rival. The British Royal Navy had emerged victorious from the wars with Napoleon as the largest naval presence on the seas, allowing Britain to dominate sea trade routes and remain largely unchallenged for the rest of the century.

But what did the Pax Britannica look like, and did Britain really secure peace in the century before the great conflicts of the 20th century?

Colonial and naval dominance

The success of the American Revolution in 1789 forced Britain to turn its colonial gaze east towards Asia, Africa and the seas between them. The road to colonial expansion was then left open following the defeat of the French in 1814.

Indeed, in 1815, European ambassadors met in Vienna to plan for peace following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, both of which had shaken the monarchies of Europe. The Congress resized the powers of Europe so they could balance each other out, removing France’s recently gained territories and forcing them to pay restitution, effectively removing the French as a major imperial power.

For its role in defeating Napoleon, Britain gained valuable colonies including Malta, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and Ceylon. Thereafter, divided continental Europe provided no great opposition to Britain’s wide-reaching colonial and naval power.

Her Majesty’s Ship Albion Entering the Bosphorus after the Action of the 17 October 1854

Image Credit: Louis Le Breton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Britain’s influence in Asia grew with their annexation of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1815. Outside its formal empire, Britain also controlled trade with many countries such as China, Siam (now Thailand) and Argentina. British influence spread further when Arab leaders agreed to Britain’s protection of the Persian seas from piracy in the 1820 General Maritime Treaty.

The Royal Navy was superior to any other two navies in the world, combined. Between 1815 and the passage of the German naval laws of 1890 and 1898, of which Britain protested by trying to form a sphere of influence with France, only the French represented any true naval threat.

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Was there really peace?

While the Great Powers of France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Prussia did not come to blows during the 19th century, the Pax Britannica did not mean an absence of notable conflicts.

In the early 19th century, Britain had emerged as the global hegemonic power. Yet this did not go unchallenged. Russia and the Ottoman Empire in Central and East Asia were still great international powerhouses, and in trying to compete with Britain’s ever-growing dominance of international trade, they vied for control of the Bosphorus, the strait dividing Asia and Europe.

Detail of Franz Roubaud’s panoramic painting ‘Siege of Sevastopol’

Image Credit: Valentin Ramirez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This struggle erupted in the Crimean War during the 1850s, as Britain and her former enemy France came to blows with the Russian Empire in the Balkans. Ultimately, Britain and France were able to repulse the Russian Empire, resulting in a humiliating defeat for the Tsar.

Britain also took control of Egypt in 1883 after the Anglo-Egypt War, allowing the empire to secure passage for trade through the Mediterranean and the Middle East via the Suez Canal. British influence over Ottoman-ruled Egypt would continue for 70 years.

Even on the water, the Royal Navy was involved in the First and Second Opium Wars against Imperial Qing China in the mid-1800s over the British trade of opium.

Clashes between major powers continued throughout the 19th century, including the Franco-Austrian War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War and into the 20th century with the Russo-Japanese War.

Adam Smith and free trade

The Pax Britannica was also characterised by the principles outlined in the 18th-century economist Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith argued free trade would increase the interdependence of nations and each, according to the principle of comparative advantage, would specialise in efficiently producing commodities that would work towards a common good.

Britain adopted a free trade policy after 1840, repealing the trade tariff known as the Corn Laws. Trading goods with countries across the world facilitated industrialisation at home.

British imperial strength was only increased by the development of steamships and the telegraph in the mid-19th century. These two technologies allowed Britain to continue controlling and defending the empire.

Map of the British Empire (as of 1910)

Image Credit: Cornell University Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ideal versus reality

Britain’s Pax Britannica ideal was modelled on Rome’s Pax Romana, some 200 years of prosperity and expansion under the Roman Republic. Built upon the legacy of one of the world’s great civilising forces, the Romans, Britain justified its ever-reaching influence across land and sea. A great empire had been recreated, even greater, for the modern age.

Yet the reality of the 19th century’s romanticised Pax Britannica was that Britain painted its industrialisation through naval superiority and dependence on a wide-reaching empire as a generous peacekeeping mission, sweetened with the promise of sharing in Britain’s bounty through free trade.

As the 20th century drew nearer, other powers sought to industrialise their militaries and trade, including Japan, Germany and the United States. By 1914, the Pax Britannica had crumbled. War broke out between the Great Powers on an unimaginable scale, putting an end to the so-called British Peace.

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Peta Stamper