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The Empire and the century/The Navy and the Colonies

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THE NAVY AND THE COLONIES

By THE RIGHT HON. SIR JOHN COLOMB, K.C.M.G., M.P.


If statistics of wars are to be trusted, the century which closes on October 21, 1905, has the worst record. While it is undeniable that aversion to war is more prominent as an international sentiment in 1905 than in 1805, yet it was the later part, and not the earlier portion of the century, which earned for those hundred years a dismal and bloody distinction. The last half has been most remarkable for the magnitude of the operations by which the more highly civilized nations have inflicted upon each other, chiefly by land, misery and loss. While every continent has been a theatre of carnage since the great Peace Exhibition of 1851, it is the American which furnishes the most conspicuous proof that common faith, language, and history provide no certain guarantee of peace, even between two sections of the same people, when excited by antagonistic claims of self-interest. It may be that the prominence of aversion to war as an international sentiment is due, not to any higher standard of national ethics, but to the proportions to which operations of war have grown, and their cost increased, by science applied to methods of destruction. In any case, however, the history of the last fifty years shows that organized and perfectly adapted physical force, and not pious beliefs, makes and unmakes Empires and States.

There is, however, a brighter light in the picture the history of the century presents, for when we turn to the sea aspects of the retrospect, we find a singular absence of great maritime wars, which so constantly recurred in preceding centuries. The general peace of the sea is a characteristic feature of me hundred years which followed Trafalgar, and the great product of that long maritime peace is the British Empire. Though its seeds were sown in that long series of maritime wars which closed with Trafalgar, it owes its spontaneous and luxuriant growth to that quietude at sea secured and maintained by the Royal Navy. It is to the prestige and acknowledged power and efficiency of the British fleet that the commerce of the world owes its peaceful progress, our Empire its magnitude, and our Colonies their wonderful development, which in a few score years has changed them from unexplored wildernesses to prosperous, wealthy, and self-governing States. Our Empire to-day is the result of that all-pervading and silent influence of predominant sea-power, which is greatest in effect while dormant, yet ever ready to pounce upon and destroy disturbers of the maritime peace of the people whom it serves.

Now, Trafalgar marked the culminating point of the prestige of the Royal Navy, and nothing has since happened in the world to justify questioning it. The acknowledged power of the fleet is due to sacrifices made by the people of the Mother-land. Beginning with extraordinary and special expenditure for increasing the fleet a few weeks after Trafalgar (though at the moment the power of maritime rivals had been shattered) the sacrifices made ever since to retain that superiority in ships and armaments at sea which the great battle off the coast of Spain incidentally gave us have been immense and continuous. No part of our vast outlying Empire has shared these sacrifices, so the Royal Navy is the navy of the United Kingdom; its prestige is the precious heritage of its people. It was their daring which created it, and their sacrifices alone and unaided which have maintained, and still maintain, its acknowledged strength and power.

The essential condition of the existence of the whole fabric of Empire, the pride and boast of all its citizens, is predominant sea-power, but the burden of maintaining it is left to those who live in the Mother-land to bear. To give a plain illustration of the effects of this existing arrangement—any man who lives at home and pays taxes bears his share of the cost of the fleet; but if he transfers his abode to Canada, for example, he continues, of course, to be a British citizen and as such entitled to the same naval protection for his oversea trade and business as at home, but he at once ceases to pay one farthing toward the provision of the fleet, and so gets all the advantages of predominant sea-power for nothing. The Colonies are cities of refuge for those who desire to belong to a great Empire free of the cost necessary to provide, not only for its security, but for the protection of their trade and commerce on any and every sea in which they choose to do business. At Charing Cross the Canadian Government have an office, and the passers-by can read in the windows that a great attraction offered to induce people to transfer themselves from the United Kingdom to the Dominion is "Light Taxation." That is a perfectly true statement, because a Canadian citizen of Empire pays nothing towards the upkeep of Empire, such as the diplomatic, consular, and naval or military services, while sharing equally with those at home, who bear the whole cost, all the security and advantages these services confer. There is no other empire or nation in the world where the resources of only a part bear the entire cost and responsibility of providing what is necessary to secure against attack the existence of the realm as a whole, or the retention of any one of its several component portions.

This is so extraordinary a feature of the internal arrangements of our Empire that it is most desirable to understand the main causes which have led up to such a singular state of things.

When Nelson died, British outlying possessions were few and far between. In the temperate regions there was a small penal settlement at the Antipodes, and in America a small community, mostly French, settled in the neighbourhood of the fortress of Quebec. There was nothing else in temperate zones. In the tropics and subtropical regions—notably in Hindustan and in the Caribbean Sea—British power had established itself mainly for commercial purposes; but these places, though extremely important to Britain, were then without self-sustaining capacity. In addition there were a very few isolated naval trading ports, which were of importance as places where war and merchant ships could obtain necessary stores to enable them to keep at sea. Of course Gibraltar was pre-eminent in importance in the Atlantic basin; beyond that area, except in a limited portion of the Indian Ocean, established ports of call were not needed, the operations of war and mercantile fleets not embracing the larger portion of the water world beyond the Atlantic. Such was the position in the year of Trafalgar.

Between that date and Waterloo the naval efforts and expenditure of the United Kingdom were greater and more continuous than in any period of its previous history. It was this policy, involving as it did huge sacrifices—in addition to the cost of great military expeditions and campaigns beyond sea—which placed the fleet of the United Kingdom in such a position of overwhelming superiority as to defy all thought of contesting its sea supremacy. Thus, from the overthrow of Napoleon an epoch of maritime peace was secured to the world, for Navarino and Algiers, etc., were but incidents of police supervision and action executed by naval force. Uninterrupted opportunity was thus afforded to science and civilization for the development of means and methods to increase the power of international interchange by the application of steam to navigation, land transport, factories, and mills. Naturally, an island rich in coal and iron, at no point far from the sea, and having a population largely in excess of agricultural requirements, took the lead. Thus, near the close of the period of forty years of peace, pre-eminence in trade and manufactures came to be regarded as certain to continue, and, relying on its permanency, a new policy was demanded and inaugurated by the people of the United Kingdom. It was a complete reversal of the long-established system under which the outlying possessions of the United Kingdom were strictly reserved for the commercial benefit of its people, and from which foreign competition was practically excluded. Relatively, except in the case of India and the West Indies, the trade of possessions abroad with the United Kingdom was insignificant. It is no matter of surprise that, in days when a purely commercial instinct dominated policy, the importance of these possessions was measured by the immediate cash value of their custom. No oversea possession was then a going concern wholly independent of aid from the Mother Country in its local requirements, so the ledger account between the two was, in the view of the more powerful politicians at home, all on the wrong side. Possessions beyond sea were therefore looked upon as a liability of the United Kingdom, not as a potential asset of an Empire. Indeed, in those days the Empire itself came to be almost regarded as an unclean thing, and ideas of British Imperialism as a noisome pestilence. Except two provinces in North America, the affairs and local government of oversea territories were directed from an office in London, which from 1801 to 1854 was a part of the War Office. India occupied a wholly different position under the limited control of a chartered company. There were no Colonies in the true sense of the term, but a varied assortment of mere dependencies and scattered settlements lying outside the charmed circle of those great commercial activities of which Great Britain, by fortuitous circumstances, was then the centre. Following precipitately upon the renouncement of the old and the inauguration of the new policy, the World's Fair in Hyde Park of 1851 gave dramatic expression to the dreams of British politicians and the hopes of the people of these islands of that day. In this artificial atmosphere of commercial imagination that the old men of the present generation were brought up and the middle-aged were born; and it was but a natural result that many people in the United Kingdom should have come to regard friendly disintegration as the easiest way of escape from inconvenient responsibilities which did not pay. In every British possession beyond sea this deliberate policy made itself painfully felt Surprise and astonishment at existing relations of the Colonies to the navy, upon which their peace and prosperity depend, must be tempered by remembering that their older men were brought up, and their middle-aged men were born, in the cold shade of their Mother Country's disregard. At home all idea of building up and consolidating, however slowly, a British Empire, embracing all its infinite and varied resources for common security in war and mutual advantage in peace, was openly spurned and deliberately repudiated. British communities abroad consequently became persuaded that the old Imperial spirit of Britain was dead, and they were driven from conception of Imperial duties and obligations towards an exclusive provincial patriotism, offering the immediate prospect of becoming a series of separate and glorified municipalities. The belief in assured peace spread to the Colonies, so possible interference with them by foreign Powers was ignored. At home the brotherhood of nations was affirmed to have begun, and the superiority of Manchester soft goods and Birmingham hardwares accepted as a perpetual guarantee for Britain's permanent monopoly of the manufactures of the world under conditions of general disarmament. The infant Britains beyond sea formed a different idea of their own fixture, being confident in the knowledge of their unlimited natural resources, which were freely conferred upon them by the Home Country, and of their ability to develop vast wealth and commercial greatness to rival in the ftiture the position of the United Kingdom itself. In the calm sunshine of universal peace, the huge foreign lions, with their teeth and natural appetites, were to lie down with these colonial lambs, and wag tails of approval at their rapid and successful development of power. This may appear to many readers an exaggerated view of the situation in those days; but at all events the feeling that the Mother Country had become 'chicken-hearted' tended to produce in the Colonies 'swelled heads,' When, therefore, ghastly proof was given that wars had not ceased, and international antagonisms, prompted by self-interest, were as rampant as ever, colonial attention turned towards precautions for defence of a purely local and sedentary form. These general considerations must be borne in mind, for they indicate the genesis of the present relations of the Colonies to the navy.

It now remains to examine more closely their special bearing on the problem of Imperial defence.

The concentration of an army at Boulogne for the declared purpose of invading England produced a variety of purely military efforts to improvise local means of resistance to the attempt, if really made. These temporary and purely military measures were contrary to the teachings of insular experience of wars, which in effect were that when fighting had to be done, success lay not in accumulation of means of sedentary defence at home, but in active and combined offensive operations abroad. The fact that our fathers immediately increased the fleet—at the very moment when a decisive victory had left maritime rivals impotent for harm—had its corollary in the cessation of efforts, and expenditure on passive and purely military defence at home. Trafalgar was the necessary prelude to that long series of purely military operations by which alone decisive results can be achieved and peace secured to any nation. Owing to this policy, the sea-power of Britain was, subsequently to Trafalgar, so effectively operative by moral influence alone, that down to the close of the Napoleonic War the navy had no opportunity of further illustrating its dramatic power of destruction. Popular interest, therefore, focussed itself upon the army, and during the long peace the memories of the great war were prominently military. Then came the Crimean War, where an alliance between the two greatest maritime nations of the world left nothing for the Russian Navy to do but to sink their ships, and little for the allied fleets to do but to scan Russian coasts. Bitter is the remembrance of those days when England was rudely awakened from the vision of perpetual peace to contemplate the starving, tattered remnant of an army of heroes, sacrificed by her folly and neglect Hardly had that war closed when the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny occurred. Here again sea-power found no visible expression, for the sea-line of communication was not in any shape or form even threatened. The sympathy of the civilized world was with us then, while France generously facilitated the transport of our troops. So the impression in the popular mind by the splendid achievements of our troops in India naturally and necessarily confirmed, in the mind of the public, a purely military conception of war. Next came the descent of Napoleon III. on Italy, followed by an invasion panic in England. In the excitement of hysterical commotion a new theory determining principles guiding preparations for war was suddenly developed. That the navy was 'the first line of defence' remained still a pious opinion, but that this first line of defence could be relied upon was officially and deliberately denied. A new national policy was thus led up to, and became inevitable, by popular misconception of the method and manner by which sea-power operates. Having now sketched minor causes producing this result, it remains to draw attention to a still more potent influence, less discernible on the surface of our modem history.

The spirit of compromise is the characteristic and the strength of popular civil government It is the great contributor to British political stability in everything but preparation for war, which is the inexorable and uncompromising teacher of realities. The fear of facing necessities honestly by attempting compromises with hard facts and rugged truths has, when put to the proof by war, to be paid for in human life and national disaster. Now the obvious failure of Britain's great peace programme compelled attention to things appertaining to war. Unhappily, as already mentioned, it was born of panic when political necessity demanded precipitate action. To return to the old policy of our fathers by strengthening the means for 'offensive defence' would have insulted the cherished hope of the people for that peace on earth, which the great revolution of the British commercial system was deemed so certain to secure. A new doctrine of 'Defence, not Defiance' expressed the nature of the inevitable compromise. It found embodiment in immense and immobile fortifications, costing millions, and a host of armed citizens constituting a cheap force which could hurt nobody's feelings, for its functions were limited to sitting down behind hedgerows waiting for the attack of a great hostile army crossing the sea, and landing for the deliberate purpose of destroying us! This great political compromise was the eclipse of national confidence in the fleet, and in the darkness and confusion so caused, the key to the perspective of British defence was lost. The result may be thus summarized:—

(1) A negation of Imperial patriotism by the Mother Country; and

(2) A recantation of principles of policy by which our Empire had been won, for it was the repudiation of the influence of sea-power on Britain's history as the determining factor in the security of her home and foreign dominions alike.

From that time until a few months ago, it was on such blurred lines British preparations for war were run by successive Governments.

It would occupy too much space to trace the perpetual increase of expenditure, the comic contradictions, and the confusion of waste and weakness, inflicted upon the nation by the attempted compromise between political expediency and the arbitrary requirements of real preparations for war. It should, however, be noted that a contingent consequence was the growth of undue influence upon the policy of the country by a purely military department—the War Office. Thus it happened that the policy regulating the Empire's safety in war came to be moulded in the narrow channels of departmental pedantry, and not in the free atmosphere of statesmanlike investigation and common-sense.

But in the 'eighties' circumstances, which it is not necessary here to mention, aroused the nation to an appreciation of impending naval peril Common-sense asserted itself at last, and the old spirit of the Mother Country revived. Naval knowledge has since become more general, emphasized as it was by the object-lessons of the wars between China and Japan, the United States and Spain, and, still more recently and powerfully, by the war between Japan and Russia. The first-fruits of this change in the public attitude were the reform of the War Office and the creation of a Committee of Imperial Defence, presided over by the Prime Minister. In this latter important step a guarantee is offered to the Empire that its security is to be no longer treated as a departmental matter, but scientifically examined and have principles formulated by a Committee composed of Cabinet Ministers and their official naval and military advisers, presided over by the first Minister of the Crown himself and calling to its councils any experts required; while, as Mr. Balfour, its creator, has said, its door is open to welcome to its deliberations colonial representatives. The Mother Country now begins to see her past errors in principles of defensive policy, and has set up the framework of consultative machinery to endeavour to avoid a repetition of her own extravagantly costly blunders in preparations for war. The difficulties in her way of extricating from a network of military confusions, prejudices, and vested interests, a rational and businesslike military system adequate to fulfil the obligations of war are immeasurably great. The burden of cost to provide an adequate army for the general service of the Empire, added to the ever increasing weight of expenditure necessary to maintain predominant sea-power in the world, suggests the question. How long can the resources of these islands discharge the general naval and military obligations of a world-spread State? The warnings of successive Chancellors of the home Exchequer are sufficiently ominous to make it impossible to believe the present rate of expenditure can much longer continue. If that be so, there are but two alternatives:—either the outlying parts of Empire must equitably share with the Mother-land the cost and responsibility of providing what is essential for general security; or the task of furnishing sufficient force and armaments to protect the Empire in war must be left unfulfilled, which, in plain English, means an attempt to continue its existence on sufferance. This last alternative can only present itself after all hope is extinguished of the adoption of the first, so the immediate question is. What, if any, are the prospects of acceptance by the Colonies and possessions abroad of any such proposition? India already bears so great a share of the military burden of an Imperial character that this great dependency does not come so directly within the purview of this momentous question.

The most discouraging feature in the prospect of transmarine possessions cooperating with the Mother Country for the maintenance of the navy is the effect of the policy and example pursued for over forty years by the Mother Country herself. The reflex action of what is above described as the 'negation of Imperial patriotism' has strongly impressed the colonial mind. It was the Mother Country, not the Colonies, which dethroned the ideal of an Empire bonded together for mutual advantages and for the discharge of common obligations. It was the Mother-land that taught the Colonies to discard reliance upon sea-power as the real security from military descents by sea, and it was by her example and by the explicit advice of her War Office that any measures taken by Colonies to prepare for war were conceived in the spirit of a selfish isolation. They were to prepare for war by locking themselves up in watertight compartments sealed by fortifications, expecting no military help from, and giving none to, the Mother-land or each other.

The circumstance of the South African War and the failure of the War Office theories of British defence touched the hearts of all men under the British flag, and aroused from its long sleep the sense of responsibility and duty to the Empire. It had no means of expression except by spontaneous individual action of patriotic men volunteering to serve the Empire beyond sea. In the absence of any organization prepared for the discharge of military obligations to the Empire oversea, the help given by colonial (as well as by home) volunteers was fragmentary, though valuable, while the significance of the spontaneous sentiments so represented can hardly be over-estimated. But the real great lesson taught by this gathering of military units, drawn by war from all parts of the Empire to South Africa, was naval, not military. It was not naval guns on shore, but ships at sea and in reserve in home dockyards, that secured the military situation in South Africa from the beginning to the end of the war. It was the all-pervading and almost mysterious influence of sea-power, expressing itself silently in moral effect, which made that concentration of military units in South Africa possible. Foreign Powers violently hostile to our proceedings in South Africa made no attempt to interfere because the predominance of Britain's naval power defied them, and so the external peace of the Empire and the quietude of the sea for the world was preserved.

The recognition by British communities of the paramount duty and obligation that rests upon each and all to maintain a free sea, is the primary condition of the consolidation of their Empire. The combination of their world-spread resources to provide the only means of guaranteeing that freedom would make for peace, not war. The greatest traders in the world have the greatest interest in the preservation of maritime peace.

The total aggregate annual value of the maritime trade of British States and territories, even now, amounts to some fifteen hundred millions sterling, only two-thirds of which represent that of the Mother-land. The aggregate annual public expenditure, under all heads, of the outlying Empire now exceeds that of the United Kingdom, the aggregate annual revenues of Greater Britain being greater than that of the Mother Country. Now 24.26 per cent. of the home public expenditure is devoted to the purpose of providing that naval security for the Empire essential to all its parts, while only .25 per cent. of the total aggregate public expenditure of the dominions beyond sea is appropriated to precautions for their Empire's maritime security.[1] The percentage proportion which expenditure on the Navy bears to the value of imports and exports by sea of the United Kingdom and the outlying Empire respectively is as follows:—United Kingdom 3·81 per cent. Dominions beyond sea ·07 per cent

The broad conclusion which forces itself to the front by the contemplation of facts and figures such as these is of a twofold character:

1. That our Empire has outgrown its organization.

2. That the view taken by Captain Mahan of the British situation is a true one, viz., that 'Imperial federation in action will manifest itself pre-eminently along ocean and naval lines. The meeting of the next Colonial Conference may finally determine the future of the Empire, for in truth and in fact we have, in matters concerning Imperial defence, arrived at the parting of the ways, and the decision which road is to be taken in order to find security cannot be much longer deferred.

This question of the Colonies and the navy as one demanding primary attention at the next Colonial Conference was pressed upon the attention of the Prime Minister by a most important deputation under the auspices of the Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee on December 10 last.[2] In his reply Mr. Balfour struck the true keynote of Imperial harmony in the overture to combined efforts in these words:

"I earnestly trust that the temper in which it will meet will not be. How much can each fragment of the Empire get out of the other fragments of the Empire? but, How much can each fragment of the Empire give to the common whole? It is not what we are to get each for himself; it is not what we are to give to this or to that self-governing element within our borders; it is what every self-governing fragment of this great whole can itself contribute for a common object; and the common object of defence certainly stands in the very first rank. Everybody must admit that a Conference such as I have adumbrated, and such as I hope to see, will have before it a task of almost unexampled difficulty in the history of the building up of empires. Those difficulties ought not to deter us, and, I am convinced, will not deter us. If they prove insuperable, let it at all events be through no fault of ours; let it be because the inherent difficulties in the problem are such that no human wisdom, no patriotism, however unselfish, is able to surmount them, But I, for my own part, am unwilling—indeed, unable—to contemplate so fatal, so serious an outcome. I believe if we can raise ourselves—I am not talking of this country alone; I am talking of every part of the Empire—if we can raise ourselves to that high level of unselfish patriotism of which I have spoken, in which men shall not consider merely their own particular community or their own particular industry, but shall consider the common needs of this great and varied Empire; if indeed we can raise ourselves to those heights—and I think we can—I feel confident that the experience and the wisdom which have been born of centuries of free government will not be at fault, and that in the building up of empires we shall prove ourselves in the future, as we have shown ourselves in the past, pioneers of enlightenment which the world may well be content to follow."


  1. See Parliamentary Returns, No. 308, Session 1904, but this Return include India.
  2. The full and authorized report of the proceedings at the deputation will be sent free on application to the Hon. Secretary, Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee, 11a, Prince's Street, Westminster, S.W.