"The Imperialism of Free Trade" by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson

Categories: HistoryImperialism
About this essay

The perspectives of P.J.Cains and A.G.Hopkins in their book Gentlemanly Capitalism and British expansion overseas and those of R.Robinson and J.Gallagher in their book The Imperialism of Free Trade’ reflect the differences that exist amongst historians. Cain and Hopkins argue that the central engine fuelling British overseas expansion (in this case in egypt) was a ‘particular type of economic development centered upon finance and commercial services which was set in train at the close of the seventeenth century and survived to the end of the empire and indeed beyond'(p 648).

In simple terms this theory of imperialism describes a gentlemanly elite who promoted and served capitalist interests'(Ibid 9) both domestically and internationally.

The British Government’s purchase of the Khedive Ismail’s Suez Canal shares (which was funded by Lionel de Rothschild in the sum of four million pounds) is an illuminating representation of gentlemanly capitalism at work as there was no formal agreement with parliament.

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Therefore Cain and Hopkins claim that it was rather an organic connection’ between statesmen and capitalists that finally compelled action. Although there are other reasons to British involvement in Egypt, Cain and Hopkins believe that is was primarily financially driven by those who dominated the world of politics. Cain and Hopkins use numerical evidence such as Britain taking 80 percent of Egypts exports and supplied 44 percent of her imports’ in 1880 and give an idea of how much had been invested in Egyptian bonds by the ‘gentlemanly elite’. For example, they state that Prime Minister Gladstone had no less that 37 percent of his total portfolio’ invested in Egyptian stock in 1882.

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( P.J. Cain & A.G. Hopkins (1993), British Imperialism 1688-2000, Chapter 11, Page 314)

In contrast, Robinson and Gallagher argue that the goal of British imperialism from early nineteenth century, was to establish access to markets on free trade with terms favourable to British businesses, therefore it was strategic. They believe that free trade was not an alternative to imperialism but rather it was the aim. They took into account the political influence that trading power afforded. Robinson and Gallagher contended that British policymakers or what they referred to as the “official mind of British imperialism” always favoured the informal expansion of the Empire and looked to project their influence into Africa through free trade in order to impose free trading conditions on a weaker society against its will, although more formal imperial methods would be used if necessary(1882 occupation of Egypt).

They argued that the formal accrual of a territory in the second half of the 19th century was not a change in imperial policy, but simply one of a number of means used to secure the continuation of free trading conditions. Much of Robinson and Gallagher also focuses on the need to protect the Suez Canal, they contended that Gladstone and of course Britain could not sit down and allow France to restore control and at the same time gain full control of Canal. However, this does not explain why the Admirals of the British Navy did not focus on the Suez Canal during the British invasion 18182. They instead fixated on Alexandria rather than Port Said which is far nearer to the Suez Canal. (7 Hopkins. ‘The Victorians and Africa’ Pg 373). This therefore indicates that there were other motivations that had little to, or no connection to the canal that were of immediate concern. Handling the Alexandria rebellion were more pressing than the Suez Canal. Perhaps if the Suez Canal had been in immediate danger, there would have been more mention of it in the sources of the time.

It should be noted that these differing interpretations were written at different times with both historians experiencing different circumstances. Cain and Hopkins’ book was first published in 1993 at a time where the study of the economics of empire was being challenged by a real growth and expansion of culture histories of empire. Cain and Hopkins’ motive was to revitalise interest in the economics of imperialism as they wrote during a time period of immense decolonization and independence. In contrast, Robinson and Gallagher were writing in the 1950s during the cold war which was the age of revisionists and therefore implies that they came up with an interpretation partly to oppose the Marxist view on imperialism and partly to provide a different reason for British involvement in Egypt rather than just economic in order to spark a conversation. Perhaps their purpose was to prove Lenin’s analysis of contemporary capitalism essentially incorrect.

One could get the impression that Cain and Hopkins’ argument is more convincing because Hopkins specialised in the economic history of Africa, European Colonialism and Globalisation and has held the position of editor at The Journal of African History and The Economic History Review. Along with this, Professor Peter J. Cain specialised in both imperialism history and the economic history of British imperialism, and taught at Sheffield Hallam University. Therefore an outcome of this would be to perceive Cain and Hopkins’ argument as more convincing because they seem to have considerable knowledge on the matter of British imperialism and the history of Africa which would mean that their interpretation was thought through meticulously. Similarly Robinson and Gallagher’s argument can be seen to be convincing.

This is due to the fact that Gallagher was a historian of the British empire and between 1963 and 1970 held the Beit Professorship of Commonwealth History at the University of Oxford and from 1971 until his death was the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge. Additionally Ronald Robinson was a distinguished historian of the British Empire who also held the Beit Professorship of Commonwealth History at the University of Oxford between 1971 and 1987. During the Second World War, he joined the Royal Air Force, eventually spending most of his armed service in Africa. Therefore like Cain and Hopkins, Robinson and Gallagher were experts in the field of British imperialism and indeed the history of Africa which also makes their thesis very convincing as they would have researched it extensively.

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"The Imperialism of Free Trade" by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. (2017, Jan 27). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/the-imperialism-of-free-trade-by-john-gallagher-and-ronald-robinson-essay

"The Imperialism of Free Trade" by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson
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