Perhaps the most striking feature of Britain's global expansion was the limited influence exerted over its course by the imperial government in London. Most of the energy behind British expansion was private, not public. Of course, it was true that it usually needed a mixture of private and public resources: capital, manpower, but also protection against external and sometimes internal opponents. Governments could withhold that protection and refuse to annex when the political risks they entailed seemed out of proportion. They could also strike bargains with rival imperialists that frustrated the plans of British settlers, merchants or missionaries. But only up to a point. The promoters of British expansion could usually mobilise both public and private ‘investment’ at home (both material and emotional), and use it to leverage additional resources on the local or colonial ‘spot’. It was this combination that made them so versatile; and that versatility was what made the British presence so ubiquitous.

The result by the later nineteenth century was the creation of a British world-system. Its system-like character can be seen in two ways. First, private and public activity had combined (most visibly in the strategic and technological achievement of long-distance sea-lanes) to encourage the growth of a single vast network centred on Britain, to distribute credit, capital, goods, information, manpower and protection on a global basis, and not into a set of closed ‘mercantilist’ zones each with its own rules. The result was to lower the cost of defence and reduce the transaction costs of a global pattern of trade. Secondly, by a series of incremental adjustments, the main spheres of British enterprise came to play different but complementary roles in the larger process of British expansion. The shipping and property empire, much of it active in non-British territory, provided an income that sustained high levels of imports, the domestic balance of payments, and new exports of capital. The ‘sub-empire’ of India assumed after c.1870 a primarily (but not exclusively) military function, meeting the ordinary costs of almost two-thirds of the Empire's regular land forces: its British garrison and its own Indian army. By contrast, the settlement colonies were not expected to pay for their strategicdefence and were allowed (unlike India) to protect local industry. Their contribution instead was to borrow and trade on a scale (proportionately) far greater than India. And, increasingly, by the end of the century, they began to take up the part of Britain's most reliable allies, bound to her ‘system’ by deep ties of self-interest and self-identification.

The Britannic idea

This ‘Britannic’ solidarity was a crucial dimension of the British world-system, and one of the keys to its tenacious survival in the twentieth century. It would have greatly surprised the early Victorians. Indeed, it is easy to see why opinion in Britain in the earlier part of the century had shown little enthusiasm for the settlement colonies. They seemed liabilities scattered broadcast across the world. With the exception of the two ‘Canadas’ (modern Ontario and Quebec) and New South Wales, their populations were tiny and their prospects uncertain. Far from forming solid territorial blocs, British North America, British South Africa and the British South Pacific were fragmented and fissiparous. The Canadas had been forced into uneasy union in 1840, but the ‘Lower’ or Maritime provinces remained stubbornly separate: indeed, overland travel between them and the Canadas was dauntingly difficult.1 In the 1850s, six separate governments ruled over the one million or so settlers in Australia, while geographical separation (on a much smaller scale) encouraged a similar trend in New Zealand. Although London had recognised that local self-government (‘responsible government’) could not be resisted in most settlement colonies (but not in Cape Colony), their financial fragility and proneness to faction – rather than party-based politics – cast doubt on how far self-reliance could be carried.2 Worse still, in too many cases, the risk of foreign invasion or local ‘native’ wars had made them a drain on Britain's limited military manpower. In the 1840s, frontier conflicts in South Africa and New Zealand, as well as the tension provoked by the Oregon crisis with the United States, dispersed British forces from one end of the world to the other.

Nevertheless, by around 1850, a more positive estimate of the settlement colonies had begun to take root. The ‘Colonial Reformers’ attributed the colonists’ failings to interference from London, not the inherent defectiveness of colonial societies. Edward Gibbon Wakefield's idea that the British were especially adapted to colonise became more influential. The irresistible flow of Gladstonian rhetoric was deployed in support of British colonisation. ‘The object [of colonization]’, he began to tell audiences, ‘was to reproduce the likeness of England, as they were doing in Australia, New Zealand, North America and the Cape, thereby contributing to the general happiness of mankind.’3 Far from being seen as tiresome dependants, they were increasingly thought of, in some circles at least, as little Americas, from whom separation was certain at some foreseeable point. In the world of free trade, the balance of colonial costs and benefits could only be negative. But there was also gradual acceptance that the settler communities could be a valuable adjunct to British wealth and power, and a ‘healthy’ extension of British society.

Three separate developments may have strengthened this view. The first (and perhaps the most important) was the effect of railway construction. Railways connected large British interests to settler expansion. Railway-building offered much more definite proof that the colonies could achieve dense and continuous settlement, replicating the pattern of British society at home, and sustaining a similar level of institutions and culture. Above all, perhaps, investment in railways created loud vested interests with an obvious motive in selling the colonies’ future to British opinion.4 The second development was the growing belief from mid-century onwards that industrialisation in Britain had imposed high social costs some of which could be redeemed in the colonies. This was the idea that colonial life, free from the contagion of urban industrialism, offered a physically and morally healthier climate. Here British social virtues could be preserved and revived; the perils of decadence, degeneration and ‘Caesarism’ – a populist dictatorship – averted.5 This perception coincided with the steady advance of emigration (and return migration) to become key social features not just of the Celtic ‘periphery’ but of English society as well. Thirdly, with the rising sense of a world that was linked by fast and regular movement – by wire, steamship and rail – the settlement colonies came to look less like the random results of demographic opportunism and more like the links in an imperial ‘chain’, part of a system of global power. The message of John Robert Seeley's Expansion of England (1883), that the settlement colonies should be seen as an organic extension of Britain not part of the burdensome empire of rule, was the cogent expression of an emerging idea, not a sudden new insight.6 The late Victorians experienced an enlargement of their mental horizons, and also perhaps in their sense of identity.

In late-Victorian Britain, this shift of attitudes was part of a new imperial outlook. It was matched by a change in the colonies of white settlement, soon to be called the ‘white dominions’. There too the imperial idea was transformed and made popular. Yet, by the latter part of the century, in all the settlement colonies, there was a growing sense of self-conscious nationhood and (especially after 1900) a buoyant view of their economic future as ‘young nations’. This paradox was resolved by the special quality of settler nationalism. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and (as we shall see) among the British minority in South Africa, national identity was asserted by rejecting subservience to the British government, but by affirming equality with Britain as ‘British peoples’ or ‘nations’. It was this ‘Britannic nationalism’ which underpinned the commitment of all the white dominions to the imperial enterprise, and the British world-system, until its eventual disintegration in the 1940s and 1950s. It was not an unthinking observance of old imperial loyalty, nor an unconsummated passion for an impractical imperial federation. It was stronger, subtler and deeply rooted in the needs of the dominions themselves. Socially, it derived from the feeling that creating modern large-scale societies demanded institutions and habits – private and public – on the model already familiar in Britain, the great exemplar of a ‘modern’ community, but improved and adapted to local requirements. Politically it sprang up when two great imperatives converged in the later nineteenth century: the urge for expansion and need for cohesion. Expansion in an age of rival empires and ‘world-states’ could only be secure under the aegis of British power, and so long as the imperial centre acknowledged the claims of its Britannic outposts. So Britannic nationalism meant asserting settler influence at the heart of the empire. Secondly, as settler society grew more urban and industrial, more divided by wealth and class, more conscious of deficiencies of education and welfare, Britannic ethnicity offered the promise of social cohesion, and a charter for social renewal. A reformed and purified local Britishness went hand in hand with – was the domestic counterpart to – a grander role as ‘British nations’, partners, not subjects, of imperial Britain.


The oldest self-governing settler societies in the British Empire were in British North America. They were also the first to federate – as the Dominion of Canada in 1867. With the acquisition of Rupertsland – the vast northern domain of the Hudson's Bay Company – in 1869, adhesion of British Columbia (in 1871) and Prince Edward Island (in 1873), Canada became a transcontinental state rivalling in territorial scale the great republic to the south. But in wealth and population it was puny. There was the rub. A second transcontinental state in North America flew in the face of commercial and geographical logic. Along its whole length, the new dominion was bound to feel the immense gravitational pull of American enterprise. The builders of confederation embarked upon a staggeringly grandiose venture for a small colonial community, deeply divided by ethnicity, region and religion, and already strung out along a ribbon of cultivation between Lake Huron and Halifax. Measured by ambition, the ‘Fathers of Confederation’ (principally John A. Macdonald and George Brown) were among the greatest of Victorian empire-builders, planning a vast new colony anchored by ‘British connection’,7 loyal to the British Crown and drawing on British migrants and capital to fuel its expansion. They looked forward to the day, declared George Brown in the confederation debates in 1865, ‘when one united government under the British flag shall extend from shore to shore’.8

From the beginning, the politics of the new dominion were dominated by two interlocking priorities. The first was to make the new federal constitution workable. That meant reconciling the Maritime provinces to the burden of debt that the old Canadian provinces (now Ontario and Quebec) had accumulated building railways and canals, and to the tariff that had been imposed to pay for them. It meant the careful management of Quebec with its French Canadian majority and its vocal minority of English Canadians in Montreal and the ‘Eastern Townships’. Federation had separated the two Canadian provinces previously locked in legislative union, but did little to reduce the mutual antipathy of Protestant Ontario and Catholic Quebec. It meant heading off the opposition among Ontario farmers to the railway and banking interests from whose headquarters in St James Street, Montreal, the first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was widely believed to take his orders and his party funds. It meant an uphill struggle to broaden the power and authority of the new ‘general government’ in Ottawa against provincial pressure for devolution or even (in the case of Nova Scotia) for secession.

These teething problems were constantly entangled with the second great issue that absorbed both Macdonald and his Reform (or ‘Grit’, later Liberal) opponents: how to make good the dominion's claim to the vast western empire beyond the Great Lakes, the key to its future as a separate ‘British’ North American state. The imperial government in London had been eager to transfer ‘Rupertsland’ to Canada, believing that the Hudson's Bay Company could no longer rule a vast inland colony now thought ripe for agricultural development. But the conveyance was not as easy as it seemed. For one thing, the best organised community in the west, the mixed-race (French and Indian) Metis in the Red River Valley (near modern Winnipeg), objected to a transfer that they feared would bring a flood of British settlers from Ontario.9 Under the charismatic leadership of Louis Riel, they staged the first of two northwestern rebellions whose suppression required the despatch of imperial troops under Sir Garnet Wolseley, the ubiquitous generalissimo of the Empire's smaller wars. The Metis were routed and the new province of Manitoba set up.10 But, as Macdonald well knew, a much greater challenge awaited. Only with a railway across the continent could he hope to transform the northwestern interior from an economic desert into a great agrarian asset – and Canada from a stagnant eastern colony into a dynamic continental state.

In the first decade of confederation, there was little to show for the high hopes of 1867. Macdonald's first attempt to commission a railway across the continent was a failure, and the ensuing ‘Pacific scandal’ blew him out of office in 1873. His Reform party opponents, suspicious of the Montreal capitalists, and hobbled by economic depression, made no headway. Canada was in the doldrums. The immigrants it did attract were as likely to pass on to the United States as to stay; many more Canadians moved south of the border in search of better times: nearly one million between 1881 and 1891.11 Macdonald came back to office in 1878. In the thirteen years that followed, he fashioned a surprisingly durable political regime, presided over the completion of the east–west railway and pushed through Canada's transformation into a separate northern economy with a tariff wall to guard its railways, trade, finance and infant industry. Together, the ‘Macdonaldian state’, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the ‘national policy’ turned the prospectus of confederation into something like reality. The question was whether the ‘Canada’ that Macdonald had made could survive the disappearance of his master touch.

By the time of his death in 1891, Macdonald had been the dominant figure in Canadian politics for fifty years. In the black arts of patronage, ‘Old Tomorrow’ was a virtuoso, reconciling Canada's complex dualities – English and French, monarchy and populism, liberal and clerical, protestant and catholic, provincial and federal – by the systematic use of every office under federal control in a spoils system for party purposes.12 Perhaps instinctively, he grasped the irreducible conditions of Canadian unity. British institutions and a shared allegiance to the British Crown formed the only ideological glue between the regions and peoples that made up the federation. The mercantile and financial nexus at Montreal was the natural (indeed only) focus of a ‘northern economy’. The transcontinental hinterland, and a railway to serve it, offered the only escape from the economic failure and encirclement that threatened Eastern Canada. Macdonald's ‘national policy’ had fused these into a rough and ready programme and a loyal political following. Together, they were robust enough to overcome the challenge of ‘reciprocity’ in 1891 – the call for commercial union with the United States championed by the Liberal opposition. ‘The old flag, the old policy and the old leader’ (Macdonald's slogan in 1891) fended off the critics of the ‘northern economy’, despite deepening depression and the lack of any sign that the west would relieve it. But, by the mid-1890s, the political system that had been built round Macdonald's personal ascendancy was on the brink of collapse. The provinces were in revolt and determined to win back from the centre some of the rights and revenues conceded in 1867. More ominously still, the coalition that Macdonald had forged between Montreal business, the protestant and loyalist tradition in Ontario and the clerical conservatives (the Bleus) in Quebec – the electoral basis of Conservative predominance since the 1870s – began to break up. The growth of mass politics in Quebec weakened the elite on whom Macdonald had relied.13 The vitriolic disagreement between Ontario and Quebec politicians over the execution of Louis Riel (convicted of murder after the second northwest rebellion in 1885) and over separate schools for Manitoba Catholics14 widened the breach and exposed Macdonald's successors to criticism from all sides. When the Conservatives were swept away by a new system-builder, the Liberal Wilfrid Laurier, the result was not only a new party regime. To many Canadians, a new definition of the Canadian state and its bond with Britain now seemed necessary.

The challenge had already been posed by the radical historian Goldwin Smith, sometime professor in Oxford, now the resident sage in Toronto. In his widely read Canada and the Canadian Question (1891), Smith denounced the dominion as the artificial product of tariffs, (subsidised) railways and political corruption. The ‘primary forces’ in Canadian life, he insisted, were pulling it towards a continental future as part of the United States – a future Smith welcomed as the fulfilment of Anglo-Saxon race unity. Towards French Canada and its claims, he displayed, by contrast, a mixture of contempt and dislike. French Canadians were irredeemably backward. But English Canada alone was too weak to swamp, swallow and digest them. Continental union with the United States, among other benefits, would break the obstacle they posed to social progress.15

Smith's argument may have been extreme, but he evoked many of the prejudices of Protestant, Liberal Ontario against the Macdonald state and Quebec. His book drew a carefully argued riposte from O. A. Howland, a Toronto lawyer from one of the city's leading families.16 The ‘natives of this country’ said Howland, would not accept the extinction of their ‘separate nationality’. The St Lawrence river system gave Canada the means for a separate statehood, but within the Empire – ‘a term which should be transferred from the island of Great Britain to the whole of our modern union of constitutionally governed English nations’.17 ‘The free men of the Empire’, he went on, claimed ‘equal Imperial citizenship, whether our homes are in Great Britain, or Canada or Australia.’18 As part of the Empire, Howland insisted, Canada would enjoy greater freedom and security than the United States could offer. It would keep its own constitution and escape the crushing embrace of Chicago and New York. And, within fifty years, the Empire would ‘comprise not less than three mighty states…more than equal in population and resources to the United States [in 1860]…What Armageddon of history would threaten the integrity of that vast alliance?’19

In Howland's tract, we can see the emerging themes of Britannic nationalism in its Canadian version. As elsewhere in the settler colonies, this was a complex political emotion. Its appeal ranged far beyond the small minority who looked forward to an imperial federation or called themselves ‘imperialists’. In Canada, it was a cross-party sentiment that was strongest between 1890 and 1920, but continued to shape the English-Canadian outlook until c.1960. It was an echo of Macdonald's old war cry: ‘A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.’20 It affirmed that Canada was a ‘British’ country in allegiance, institutions and values. But it was not to be mistaken for the Macdonaldite Toryism which Britannic nationalism rejected as a shabby, inadequate compromise bringing internal disunity and external impotence. Indeed, just because it was based on the endless ‘squaring’ of rapacious interests, chief among them the clerical conservatives of Quebec, Macdonald's ‘system’ – so its critics maintained – would bar, not open, the way to a Britannic future.

In the early 1890s, a variety of political fears coalesced into the informal programme at whose heart lay the ‘Britannicising’ of Canada. The election of 1891 and the wide appeal of commercial integration with the United States showed that Smith's attack on the idea of Canada could not be taken lightly. If Canada was to survive as a ‘separate nationality’, patriotic sentiment would have to be founded on something more durable than Macdonald's fixes, fudges and fiddles. Politics must be cleaned up and modernised. Political leadership should be based on a covenant with the people and be seen to respond to their needs. This was the Gladstonian model whose influence in and beyond the English-speaking world has been insufficiently recognised.21 Its realisation was made all the more urgent by recognition that urbanisation, industrialisation and (after 1900) the flood of immigration had created new social problems and demanded new moral and social action, including factory laws, education and temperance. A populist gospel of social duty, moral uplift and physical improvement laid stress, as elsewhere across the ‘British’ world, upon ethnic solidarity: ‘Britishness’ was to be the building block of a more efficient, better-disciplined as well as more mobile society.

To the champions of reform, it seemed obvious that a new-style dominion must be built up as a protestant, secular state, guided by a progressive liberalism and governed (through its parliamentary institutions) by an enlightened public opinion. Equally, that, while Canada's ‘separate nationality’ could only be guaranteed as a ‘British’ nation, national dignity and self-esteem demanded an equality of status with Britain in what Howland had provocatively called a ‘federal Republic…united under a hereditary president’.22 But equality of status meant not indifference to the wider concerns of Empire, but much fuller participation in them. Only in that way could Canadians guard their national interests against the danger of Anglo-American agreement at their expense. ‘Britannic nationalism’ in short meant neither subservience to Britain nor a repudiation of Canadian nationhood. It was a programme to achieve a Canadian nation by drawing more deeply (if selectively) on recent British political practice, and by asserting Canada's claims (as Britannic nation not colonial dependency) on the imperial centre in London.

Much of the bitterness in Canadian politics after 1890 sprang from the fear that the pursuit of Britannic nationhood for Canada would be frustrated by French Canadian opposition. Until the 1890s, the willingness of English Canadians to ‘tolerate’ the ‘peculiar institutions’ of French Canada – especially the entrenched power of the Catholic church – rested on the assumption that Quebec was (largely) an inward-looking ‘reserve’ whose population (a minority in the dominion) would not obstruct the ‘progress’ of the British majority. That was the English-Canadian version of the ‘compact’ of 1867. The Riel affair, the fillip it gave to French Canadian feeling, and the emergence of the ‘parti national’ under Honore Mercier first belied this hope. The Jesuit Estates Act (1886) that Macdonald refused to veto seemed to show that in Quebec the clerical influence so hateful to Ontario Liberals and protestants was growing more assertive. It led to the virulently protestant Equal Rights Association in Ontario.23 Then, in the 1890s, as settlers moved into Manitoba from Ontario, a furious row broke out over the right of the province's Catholic, French-speaking minority to maintain separate schools against the will of the provincial government. In Ontario especially, the dithering of the Macdonald government was ample proof that it was willing to sacrifice the vital ingredients of nationhood – secular education and popular democracy – to the corrupt dictates of its coalition with the Quebec Bleus. Indeed, the ‘schools question’ seemed the crux of Canada's future. Settlement of Western Canada, long delayed by depression, was expected to break the deadlock between English and French Canada. Vast, new, and English-speaking, provinces in the West would form, politically, a ‘Greater Ontario’. But not if their politics were fractured and corrupted by the entrenchment of clerical and French-Canadian influence.

Indeed, Ontario was the heartland of Britannic nationalism which was rooted in the province's Liberal and protestant ethos. It was the creed of the Orange Order, the most powerful association in the province.24 In Ontario, the shift from agrarian society towards urbanisation and industrialisation had gone furthest and fastest, and the need for new kinds of political solidarity was felt most deeply. Ontario politicians and publicists like Clifford Sifton (soon to be Laurier's main Liberal henchman in English Canada), Newton Rowell and John Willison, editor of the great Liberal organ, the Toronto Globe,25 were adamant that British values must prevail in Ontario, and Ontario values in Canada. ‘Upon the English and Protestant people’, declared Sifton in 1895, ‘most largely rests the duty of developing that province [Manitoba] in a manner consonant with British institutions – to take all this heterogeneous mass and make [it] into one.’26 And nowhere did the Britannic programme strike a louder chord than in Toronto, the provincial capital. Toronto aspired to be the true capital of a modern, progressive (and therefore British) Canada.27 By the 1890s, industry and the mining boom in Northern Ontario were boosting its wealth and self-confidence. It was no coincidence that its social elite combined an intense civic consciousness with political views resembling those in Howland's manifesto. The new class of bankers (like G. A. Cox and Byron Walker), financiers like Pellatt28 and general merchants like Flavelle29 were eager to give Toronto the institutions of a dynamic, cohesive urban community. A university, to be a national university for Canada,30 a modern hospital, a museum and an art gallery were key elements in the grand design. So too were a new railway to the West to rival Montreal's Canadian Pacific;31 the westward expansion of Walker's Canadian Bank of Commerce – by 1915 nearly half the bank's branches were west of the Great Lakes;32 and the takeover of Manitoba by Ontario men. When Lord Milner was invited to Canada to preach the doctrine of closer imperial union, his old friend Glazebrook, now a Toronto banker, pressed the claims of the city in revealing terms:

The vital and most important part of Canada is the West…[I]t is there…that the new type of Canadian is being developed. Toronto is really…the eastern extremity of the North-West; the new enterprises of the West are being financed in Toronto, and the type of man in the West shades off as you go East into the Ontario type.33

The outbreak of the South African War in October 1899 was the occasion for an outburst of this Britannic sentiment. Laurier's Liberal government, resting on electoral support in both Ontario and Quebec, tried to steer a middle course. It expressed sympathy with the Uitlander grievances in Johannesburg. But Laurier was also determined to avoid direct involvement in the war and not to send a military contingent.34 This stance infuriated much Ontario opinion. Laurier's Liberal allies in the province begged him to take the lead. ‘We must not let this patriotic feeling be headed by the Tories’, one warned him. ‘You must head it and guide it yourself.’35 Under intense pressure from Ontario Liberals, Laurier caved in – to the outrage of his most ardent supporters in Quebec. Was Canada returning to ‘l’état primitif du colonie de la Couronne’, demanded his erstwhile protégé, Henri Bourassa.36 ‘The English Canadians have two countries’, complained the Montreal paper La Presse, ‘one here and one across the sea.’37 But the weight of opinion bore down inexorably on Laurier. ‘You will not, you cannot deny’, a fellow Quebecois told Bourassa,

that the will of an overwhelming majority of the Canadian people expressed through its press, the mouthpiece of a free people…not only justified but practically compelled the action of the Executive…Canada cannot be indifferent to anything which may affect the honour and prestige of the British flag.38

The choice for French Canada, Laurier himself told Bourassa, was whether to march at the head of the Confederation or to retreat into isolation.39 French Canadians had to choose between English and American imperialism. The contingent was sent.40

For Laurier's ‘system’ and for the leadership of both main parties, Liberal and Conservative, in French Canada, the rise of Britannic sentiment was a dangerous challenge. As prosperity and immigration increased from 1896, the simultaneous rise of the West and of ‘industrial Canada’ threatened to dominate Quebec and unravel the compromise of 1867.41 Laurier had always parried the claim that Canada was a ‘British’ country, preferring to argue that while Canada ‘must be British’ that meant ‘British in allegiance and Canadian in sentiment’.42 Laurier's popularity in Ontario rested partly on his reputation as an anti-clerical in Quebec, partly on his regard for ‘provincial rights’ and partly on the belief that he was best qualified to reconcile French Canadians to a progressive ‘Britannic’ future. He was a French Canadian ‘moderniser’ whose constant professions of imperial loyalty reassured Britannic sentiment in English Canada. That and the same laborious attention to federal patronage that had kept Macdonald in power for so long were enough to win a Liberal majority in the elections of 1900, 1904 and 1908. But behind these electoral successes an earthquake was under way in Ontario. There, much Liberal opinion had been incensed by Laurier's apparent willingness to entrench separate catholic schools in the two new prairie provinces set up in 1905.43 Then, in 1910, the navy question and reciprocity blew apart the alliance of Quebec and Ontario Liberalism, and signalled the partial and uneasy triumph of ‘Britannic’ politics in Canada.

Since 1902, Laurier had tenaciously opposed the call by the Australian and New Zealand governments for closer participation in the making of British defence and foreign policy – fearing that any deeper imperial commitment would revive the damaging controversy with Bourassa in 1899. But, in 1909, with the rising alarm over German naval rivalry, Laurier found that more was required than professions of imperial loyalty. As the ‘naval scare’ spread like a virus along the telegraph lines and through the news agencies, the newspapers of English Canada took up the call for a Canadian contribution to imperial defence.44 Canada should give two dreadnoughts to the Royal Navy, declared the Manitoba Free Press, the voice of prairie Liberalism.45 Laurier's Conservative opponents took up the cry, urging immediate help in Britain's naval ‘emergency’. Laurier's response was canny. His naval service bill in January 1910 proposed a small Canadian navy, under Canadian control. As Laurier conceded, Canada's constitutional status meant that, if Britain was at war, Canada would follow automatically. But the extent of Canada's contribution would be for ministers in Ottawa to decide.

Laurier's formula was shrewdly calculated to appease Britannic sentiment among Liberal supporters. He also knew that Conservative demands for direct subvention to the Royal Navy would divide their supporters, especially in Quebec. Instead, by conceding his ‘tin pot navy’, Laurier intended to consolidate his unwieldy coalition across Quebec, Ontario and the West. It was a drastic miscalculation. In Quebec, the navy bill became the hated emblem of English-Canadian hegemony in Canada and of the growing dominance of ‘English’ capitalism in the province where urbanisation and industrialism threatened to deracinate the Canadiens crowding into the anglicised cities.46 To Bourassa, whose nationalism was rooted in religious and social conservatism, and to the Quebec Conservatives with their clerical connections, the enemy became ‘imperialism’; the collaborator Laurier; the stake the survival (‘survivance’) of French Canada as a distinct, Catholic society.47

On its own, the navy question might have weakened Laurier but not unseated him. His second miscalculation was more dangerous. Historically, the Liberals were the party of free trade, who had opposed the protectionism of Macdonald's ‘national policy’. After the defeat of reciprocity in 1891, Laurier had given up the idea of regional free trade with the United States, adopting instead a tariff preference towards Britain in 1897 – a shrewd sop to freer trade and Britannic feeling. But there were powerful economic interests that still hankered after free entry into the American market for Canada's staple products. Above all, there was the West. By 1910, the three prairie provinces were growing at phenomenal speed as immigrants and capital flooded in to develop the wheat economy.48 Here was a ‘new’ Canada whose support would be decisive in the political struggle hitherto confined to the three sections of eastern Canada. The grievances of the prairie West against high land prices, high transport costs and grain prices lower than those just across the American border49 became focused in 1910 in a campaign against the tariff – as Laurier learnt at first hand during a prolonged tour of the region. When the American government offered mutual free entry in natural products, Laurier jumped at the chance to win over the West and the farming interests in Eastern Canada eager to sell to or export through the United States. It might offset the Western dislike of his naval programme.50 Being confined to natural products, reciprocity posed, apparently, no threat to the industrial interests in Eastern Canada sheltered by the national policy tariff. And, in an era of ‘good feelings’ between Britain and the United States, the danger of an imperialist backlash seemed slight. Opposition to reciprocity he dismissed contemptuously as ‘froth’.51

Instead, the result was indifference in Quebec where the naval question was all52 but an explosion of rage in Ontario. The signal was given by Clifford Sifton, Laurier's sometime lieutenant in English Canada, and the proprietor of the Manitoba Free Press. Sifton denounced reciprocity as a threat to Canadian nationality.53 He was quickly followed by the ‘Toronto Eighteen’, the cream of Toronto's Liberal elite, the bankers, financiers and merchants at whose head stood Byron E. Walker and Zebulon Lash.54 Their defection began a full-scale revolt in Ontario against official Liberalism. Laurier's opponents made play with the claim that the limited reciprocity on offer would soon be extended, under American pressure, to complete free trade. It was a short step to argue that ‘British connection’ was in danger and Canada's own freedom at risk. ‘On the day British connection fails us’, roared the Montreal Star, ‘Canadian independence is lost.’55 Rejecting reciprocity meant ‘self-reliance and allegiance to the Empire’.56 Critics at the time were quick to see the campaign against reciprocity as naked self-interest masquerading as imperial loyalty.57 Indeed, it was true that, as Canada's industrial zone, Ontario depended heavily on the ‘national policy’. The Toronto plutocracy was bound to fear that freeing the West to trade south rather than east would endanger the new rail links being built from Toronto to the West and (consequentially) the prospects of the Canadian Bank of Commerce of which Walker was president. But it was also no coincidence that the Liberal defectors included those most ardently committed to the union of Ontario and the West as the heartland of a British Canada: Sifton, Walker and John Willison. To weaken prematurely the ties binding the prairies to Eastern Canada would shatter this dream. Reciprocity had been rejected in 1891 at a time when the West was unoccupied, Willison told a Toronto audience. Now it was filling up with Americans and a multitude of foreigners (i.e. non-British immigrants). ‘Even the very optimistic will admit that the national problem is very different from that which we faced even ten years ago…[I]t is a mighty problem to fuse these [new people] into a common citizenship.’58 When reciprocity was defeated, Sifton told the Ottawa Citizen: ‘the national development of Canada along British lines will go on.’59

The result was a disaster for Laurier. Instead of fighting a Conservative party divided over the navy, he fought it with a Liberal party divided over trade. In riding the tiger of Britannic sentiment on the navy question, he lost Quebec. By unintentionally confronting it over reciprocity, he lost Ontario. His place as premier was taken by Robert Borden and his careful policy by an eager commitment to help with Britain's naval ‘emergency’ and claim a voice in London's defence and foreign policy. To Laurier, it was obvious that he had been defeated by the insurgent force of Britannic sentiment. He told the South African premier, Louis Botha, that the defection in Quebec had been large ‘though not abnormal’. But, in Ontario, ‘it was not a defeat, but a landslide. In the latter Province the jingo spirit was the cause.’ He went on: ‘You are quite right in supposing that there will be a revival of the Jingo element.’60 Botha had sympathised, as well he might: ‘I very much fear that the result will be a revival of the jingo spirit in all parts of the British Empire.’61

Between 1890 and 1914, the most forceful and articulate champions of Canadian nationhood were those who insisted that Canada's future lay as a British or ‘Britannic’ country. Only as a British country, they argued, could Canada forge a cohesive identity at home – around a common language, institutions and history. Only as a senior partner in the Britannic association (i.e. Empire) could Canada transcend its colonial status and begin to take responsibility for the defence of its national interests. This Britannic nationalism was less than the full-blown imperialism of those who favoured imperial federation;62 but much more than support for ‘British connection’. ‘British connection’ was politically anodyne. In French Canada, loyalty to the monarch and to British institutions as the guarantee of liberty was proverbial. Even Henri Bourassa, the scourge of British imperialism, proclaimed his loyalty to ‘British connection’. But, to the Britannic nationalists, if it meant no more than the sectional compromises invented by Macdonald and refined by Laurier, then it was a feeble substitute for a real nation-state. Their priority was uniting the three great English-speaking sections: ‘backward’ French Canada could stumble on behind, perhaps, in due course, to be annexed in spirit. It would, perhaps, be wrong to exaggerate the extent to which Canadian opinion was preoccupied with nation-building and the imperial tie, especially in an age of such rapid economic change. But the linked crisis over the navy question and reciprocity showed that Britannic nationalism was the strongest political sentiment in Canada. It was fanned by economic buoyancy and the sense of a tightening commercial, strategic and demographic bond with Britain. In 1911, with the Borden premiership, it seemed to hold the initiative. Its finest hour, and its greatest trial, were yet to come.

‘Britannic’ Australia

The Australian communities, wrote Edward Shann in 1930, festooned along a coastline of ten thousand miles are nowadays strangely uniform in social structure. In each port…you will find a group of importers’ warehouses, some big wool-stores, a railway terminus, a wharf-lumpers’ union and a number of public houses tied to breweries. If there is a capital-city in the near-background, it is inhabited largely by a civil service connected with Crown lands, public works and education. Its environs will boast some industries engaged on the simpler manufactures or on the repair and maintenance of the mechanism of land transport. Ships, if they can, seek cheaper repair elsewhere…Over the range is the scene of the peculiarly Australian work done by a scattered population of miners, farmers and station-hands, who turn out staple raw-products on a rough, grand scale with labour-saving machinery…

Brooding over the coastal capital and browbeating…the mercantile and professional classes…stand the federated trade unions. Their Trades Hall is the scene of a fluctuating contest between the capable leaders of three groups: (i) the shearers, miners and timber-workers of the bush, (ii) the town artisans, and (iii) the transport workers and public works employees. These contend for mastery…through the primaries or ‘selection-ballots’ that name the labour candidates for the local or national parliament…The farmers, with some aid from pastoralists and the middle class, are learning political organization from the workers, but are still clumsy and inarticulate. This social structure varies little with the minor staples that differences in local climate may add to the dominant wool and wheat. The Australian communities have set in these forms with a surprising uniformity. In the politics of each the drive comes mainly from a hard-eyed, hard-headed, hard-mouthed working democracy.63

Shann was describing (in prose reminiscent of Joseph Conrad) a society that had crystallised in the 1890s when Australia entered her imperial age. In the 1850s, the Australian colonies had been transformed economically by the gold rush, politically by self-government and socially by the end of convict transportation (the exception to all three was Western Australia). In the thirty years after 1860, they had expanded (at 5 per cent a year) in an atmosphere of boom.64 The population rose from one to three million, some 40 per cent of the increase by immigration. The number of sheep rocketed from 40 million in 1870 to 106 million twenty years later.65 Wheat farming sprang up in South Australia. Pastoralism and mining developed in the vast spaces of Queensland.66Huge deposits of silver, lead and zinc were found at Broken Hill in New South Wales.67 An infant manufacturing economy emerged behind Victoria's tariffs, and Melbourne (as the local metropolis of gold) became the financial capital of the Australian colonies.68 British investment rushed in. Railway mileage tripled in the decade after 1870 to 4,000 miles and reached 10,000 miles in 1892.69 With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the arrival of the submarine cable in 1872, Australia's long isolation seemed less forbidding. But Europe was still thirty days’ steaming away,70 and up to the 1890s most Australian trade was carried slowly but cheaply in sailing ships.71

In fact, between 1860 and 1890, distance and democracy had combined to fashion a highly distinctive pattern of Australian development. Rapid commercial expansion might have been expected to favour the local concentration of wealth and power. But Australia's remoteness from Europe and its huge internal distances worked in the opposite direction. Trade and capital were not funnelled through a single gateway as happened in Canada but entered by a string of ports each with its own agricultural, pastoral and mineral hinterland and its own system of roads and railways. The high cost of transit from Europe cut immigration to a relative trickle (compared with the North American flood)72 and the high risk of railway construction in Australia's empty interior deterred the private capital that came forward in the Americas. As a result, the political economy of development fell largely under state control. The colonial governments alone had the revenue (from land sales) to meet its demands and bear its risks. Half of Australian borrowing abroad (that is, on London) was by public authorities rather than private enterprise.73 That might have meant less had colonial ministries been the servants of a mercantile elite. But, since the 1850s, all the eastern colonies save Tasmania had had manhood suffrage. There was little enthusiasm in these colonial democracies for the subsidy of new migrants whose arrival would drive down wages. Separate colonial electorates created a vested interest in separate colonial development, so that Australia's economy like its railways remained fragmented. The political influence concentrated in each colonial capital helped to ensure that public spending flowed disproportionately to boost its rail connections and port facilities, tightening its grip on a ‘private’ hinterland behind and discouraging inter-regional connections.74 Colonial politics revolved, predictably, not around issues of class, status or religion, but around more homely quarrels over ‘log-rolling’ – using political influence to roll public money towards particular persons, interests or localities. Factions not parties dominated the colonial parliaments – a pattern only partly mitigated by disputes between the ‘squatter’ interest with its vast sheep runs and aristocratic pretensions and those who favoured close settlement and small farms.75

Australian experience between 1860 and 1890 seemed to show that colonial autonomy could be successfully practised despite political fragmentation, heavy dependence on a narrow range of staple exports and a small population recruited almost exclusively from British migrants. Australia remained a geographical expression, although a sense of common origins, cultural and occupational similarities and a high degree of labour mobility between colonies encouraged literary depiction of a distinctive Australian ‘type’ or identity common to all. Australian unity remained a vague aspiration. Inter-colonial cooperation was chiefly visible in the common antipathy to Chinese immigration – the occasion of joint inter-colonial declarations in 1881 and 1887 – and in a gradually rising alarm at the arrival of German colonialism in the South Pacific in the same decade.

The 1890s brought a dramatic change. The rapid growth of previous decades was violently checked. Having borrowed easily from London in the 1880s when City lenders were awash with money, Australian governments, banks and businesses found their credit running dry. Borrowing had outstripped (for the moment) the capacity to generate new income to service the debt. The Barings crisis in Argentina, where export growth had failed to match the rising cost of foreign loans, helped shatter confidence in Australia's prospects.76 British investors turned away. Australian banks watched their London deposits dwindle, enforcing a drastic monetary contraction in the colonies. Banks and businesses failed. Unemployment soared, throwing (the figures are imprecise) perhaps one-third of skilled workers into the street.77 With no system of welfare as a safeguard, the ‘workingman's paradise’ in Australia had become a gloomy dystopia of depression.

Partly for this reason, the 1890s were the critical phase in the making of Australian political consciousness. A tradition of labour militancy, laced with imported socialism and republicanism, had grown up in the booming eighties, most vigorously on Queensland's raw frontier of mining and pastoralism.78 Boom conditions sharpened the contrast between those with access to imported capital and the means to corner the supply of natural resources and those who depended on their labour.79 With the fierce contraction of trade, labour discontent turned to bitterness and desperation. Wage cuts and lay-offs provoked large-scale strikes among shearers, seamen and miners across much of Eastern Australia in the early 1890s.80 But direct action made little headway against hostile governments and employers who could draw on the great pool of unemployed. The real legacy of the depression was the emergence of labor parties to speak for organised labour in the colonial parliaments. In New South Wales, Labor won 35 seats out of 141 at the election of 1891.81 Elsewhere, the rise of labour as a political force produced a series of concessions to populist demands: reducing the parliamentary term to three years (in Queensland and Western Australia); abolishing the property qualification for members (Western Australia and Tasmania); manhood suffrage where it had not already been conceded; new factory legislation; new taxes on land and income; the extension of wage boards and arbitration courts to set pay and resolve disputes.82Under the blast of economic hardship, the instinct of Australian communities was to protect, as far as they could, the living standards of more prosperous times and the egalitarian ethos inherited from the 1850s.

This defensive mood was aggravated by deepening racial anxiety. The fear of cheap ‘Asiatic’ labour willing to work for low wages was common to white settler societies all round the Pacific and even beyond. Economic rivalry, cultural difference and settler democracy were a lethal combination. The resentment of white workers was inflamed by the suspicion that Chinese immigrants, indifferent to Christian ethics, would be a source of moral, social and political corruption; worse still, that they would be pliant tools of big employers. Social cohesion and the enforcement of respectability, fragile growths in migrant societies, seemed to demand the ruthless suppression of visible distinction and a rigid adherence to ‘common’ ideals – a tendency that Tocqueville had noticed in the United States in the 1830s. The racism of white labour was fiercest in Queensland where a tropical climate, a plantation system and the arrival of Polynesian as well as Chinese labour threatened to split the colony between a ‘white’ south and a ‘black’ north.83 Depression exacerbated this race antagonism. Australia's Chinese population was tiny: perhaps 2 per cent of the adult male population in 1891.84 Chinese labour was largely excluded from agriculture, pastoralism and mining. But, in a number of trades, it made up 20 per cent or more of the workforce.85 As unemployment rose, these Chinese made an easy scapegoat for economic failure. The rights of labour mutated swiftly into the racial privilege of white workers and the demand that, at whatever cost, Australia should be reserved for the white man.

In fact, Chinese entry had been closely restricted since the 1880s. But, in the 1890s, depression-induced nightmares of a vast reserve army of Asian labour poised to rush the Australian barricade fused with the geopolitical unease set off by the French and German colonial presence in the South Pacific. This intrusion was resented in part as frustrating the ambitions of Australian ‘sub-imperialists’.86 But its underlying threat was much more serious. If the South Pacific became the scene of colonial and naval rivalry (or the horse-trading of imperial powers), the Australian colonies, so precariously dependent on sea transport for their local communications and long-distance trade, would be dangerously exposed to disruption if not invasion. Their capital cities, into which one-third of the population was now crowded, had no defence against naval attack.87 In the mid-1890s, as great power competition in China accelerated, a new factor catalysed Australian anxiety. Japan's victory over China in 1895, its annexation of Taiwan, and the rise of Japanese migration in the Pacific region signalled the emergence of an Asian great power and brought home the true extent of Australian vulnerability in the new fluid era of world politics.

Depression and its populist aftermath, racial panic and strategic alarm, thus formed the context in which the great project for an Australian federation was carried through in the 1890s. Together, they exerted a crucial influence on the ‘founding fathers’ and their design. The originator of the federal project was Sir Henry Parkes, the grand old man of New South Wales politics. Parkes was a long-standing advocate of federation. He regarded the non-executive ‘federal council’ set up in 1881 to encourage inter-colonial co-operation as a dead-end. In 1889, he invited the premiers of Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia and New Zealand to a convention to plan a federal parliament of two houses and a federal executive.88 Parkes evoked an Australia of ‘one people, one destiny’. He was eager for federation to promote Australian defence, control the entry of ‘aliens’, harmonise the railways and create a local Australian court of appeal. But his vision of Australian nationhood was heavily tinged with ‘Britannic nationalism’. For Parkes, Australian unity derived ‘from the crimson thread of kinship [that] runs through us all’.89 Under federation, he urged, ‘we should have an outline of empire such as we could never hope for as isolated colonies; and our place would be admitted in the rank of nations, under the noble and glorious flag of the mother land.’90 For Parkes, Australia's nationhood would rest on an affirmation of British origins and undergird her destiny as the dominant local power in the South Pacific.

Parkes’ ideas chimed with the widespread sense that the Australian colonies were too small (in population) and weak for an age of agglomeration.91 Arguments of this sort had been behind the enthusiasm for imperial federation shown by politicians like Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton in the 1880s.92 By the 1890s, imperial federation no longer seemed feasible. Even Australian federation seemed a Sisyphean task. The first attempt to promote its acceptance among the colonial parliaments reached stalemate, partly because of the opposition of free traders (strong in New South Wales) who feared Victoria's protectionism would become universal, and the labour parties who feared the coercive power of a federal government in the pocket of wealth. But, with signs of wider public support (at the Corowa convention), political momentum revived. After a meeting of the colonial premiers in 1895, opposition fears were allayed by the promise of an elected convention to draw up the federal constitution. The constitution itself made large concessions to the provincialism of the colonies. The Canadian model for a strong central government was rejected.93The separate colonies (now to be ‘states’) retained wide powers over their economic development, immigration and taxation: the centre was largely confined to defence and external relations (both under imperial supervision), commerce (trade, tariffs and currency) and the control of aliens. In what may have been a concession to radical sentiment, the new federation was christened the ‘Commonwealth’ of Australia.

Looking back from an era when the old imperial links between Australia and Britain have withered away almost completely, some historians have been tempted to see in federation the imagining of a distinctively Australian nation that had shrugged off its colonial status. Only sentimental attachment to the mother-country, and a desire not to hurt her feelings, suggests one, prevented the move to whole-hog republican independence.94 But this is a misreading of the intentions of the ‘founding fathers’ and also of the special quality of Australian nationalism. The makers of federation had no desire to ‘cut the painter’ and few illusions about the danger of doing so. Deakin and Barton had been enthusiasts for closer imperial ties, not separation. Kingston had denounced the idea that any British-born person should not have full rights in the new federation.95 John Forrest of Western Australia was to die at sea in 1918 on his way to take his seat in the House of Lords. Sir Samuel Griffiths praised the federal scheme as ‘designed by Her Majesty's loyal subjects to serve as a further and lasting bond of union between the Australian colonies and the Mother country’.96 The federalists had also been keen to include New Zealand in the new ‘nation’. Their preoccupation with defence and Asian immigration reinforces the impression that they were less concerned to assert a new Australian identity in the world at large than to exert a stronger Australian influence on the imperial centre in London, where sovereign power on immigration, foreign policy and defence ultimately resided. Australian nationalism, as reflected in the federal idea, was not so much a demand for independence as a recognition that closer integration in the British ‘world-system’ was the price of growth, and perhaps of survival.

That is not to say that Australian leaders had settled for an indefinite future of dependence. Far from it. If federation was envisaged as a new phase in the imperial relationship with Britain, it was because empire on the British model was compatible with an enlarged sense of Australian nationhood; indeed, symbiotic with it. Acceptance of federation and allegiance to the Australian nation it created grew out of a convergence between two very different traditions in colonial Australia. ‘Imperialism’ was the viewpoint of those who (apart from attachment to the monarchy, ‘British’ institutions, and cultural and social models drawn from Britain) insisted that Australia could not be a self-sufficient faraway country in the South Pacific.97 Its only imaginable future lay in a programme of social, economic and cultural enlargement. Expansion (of any kind) required a continuous transfusion of capital and labour from Britain (and thus conditions that would attract them) as well as the guarantee of strategic protection against rival European imperialisms or the ‘Asiatic’ threat. Set against imperialism was the isolationist tradition. Isolationism was endemic in settler societies but peculiarly strong (among British colonies) in Australia. Convict alienation from the imperial gaoler; the tyranny of imagined distance; the digger democracy of the goldrush era; the influence of republican radicalism imported from ‘home’; the dislike for cosmopolitan capital and the class divisions it encouraged: all these combined to diffuse a pervasive suspicion of imperial motives and truculent faith in a self-sufficient ‘island-continent’ with its promise of escape from the Old World's conflicts.98 Amidst the urban despair of the 1890s, it found expression in the myth of the ‘Bush’: an Australian nation forged in an Australian environment.99 Its loudest voice was the Bulletin.100 ‘No Nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no Kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour’, it raged in a characteristic outburst, ‘is an Australian.’101

Convergence between imperialism and isolationism was possible in the 1890s because both sides accepted that the cohesion of Australian society in a period of great social stress depended upon the defence of a racially exclusive egalitarianism.102 The social and labour reforms of the 1890s which helped reconcile Labor to federation were matched by the recognition that isolation could no longer ensure racial exclusion and a ‘white Australia’. Even the Bulletin abandoned republicanism in 1896.103 Federation registered the fusion of imperialism and isolationism in a new ideological compound. This ‘imperial nationalism’ was not a reversion to colonial deference, but the optimal pathway up from an inadequate colonial autonomy. Empire membership left wide scope for achieving much of the old isolationist agenda. It permitted tariffs, state-control of economic development, and the elaborate apparatus of wage arbitration. It also promised greater influence over imperial decisions and the best hope of realising Australia's ‘manifest destiny’ in the South Pacific. Australia's ‘imperial nationalism’ asserted her claim on the resources and sympathy of the pan-British world, and her right to direct the local energies of the British world-system. It drew proudly on the civic and commercial self-confidence of British communities around the world and the belief that ‘Britishness’ conferred the cultural attributes of civilisational progress. Far from yielding to the primacy of Downing Street, it quietly insisted that Australian Britishness was more vigorous, manly and forward-looking than the home-grown variety104 and (in its own large sphere) the natural standard-bearer of the imperial purpose. Australian nationalism was not a repudiation of imperialism but its confident vanguard.

Of course, these distinctive features of Australian nationalism, catalysed by strategic and demographic anxiety,105 created inevitable differences between the outlook of the new Commonwealth and official opinion in Britain. The Australian colonies contributed over 16,000 volunteers to the imperial cause in the South African War. But there was a strong dissenting tradition which suspected the part played by British finance and was deeply uneasy at an imperial war against free white men in Southern Africa.106 After 1902, Milner's recourse to ‘Chinese slavery’ in the Transvaal was fiercely criticised by all shades of Australian opinion.107 There was bound to be friction between the ideal of a ‘White Australia’ and the needs of an empire in which white settlers formed only one element in a complex political and strategic equation. Thus Australian governments were keen to contribute to naval defence. But a sense of remoteness, and of London's European priorities, sharpened the case for a local army and a local (not imperial) navy to guard home waters in case of need.108 Australian governments hoped to shape imperial policy in the South Pacific but got scant encouragement from the Colonial Office, still their channel of communication with the imperial government.109 Australian prosperity revived after 1904, seeking capital and immigrants from Britain. But protection and ‘socialistic’ legislation went down poorly in the City.110 And Australian politicians were deeply suspicious of the imperial ‘embrace’: the sweet life of London ‘society’. To wear court dress at the coronation, said the Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher in 1910, was more than his job was worth.111 Yet the significance of all this should not be exaggerated. Before 1914, and long after, to Australian opinion of almost any hue, independence outside the imperial framework would have meant not the fulfilment of Australian nationality but its certain negation. Their nationalism was the fuel, just as federation was the vehicle, for finding Australia's true place in the system of empire.

‘New Britain’ in the South Pacific: New Zealand

Among the British settlement colonies, New Zealand was the extreme case, and remains the most fascinating. It was the most remote from Britain, perched far out on the Pacific frontier of Australasia. Much of its terrain was harsh or poor. The value of its grasslands – its principal wealth – depended overwhelmingly on the demand for food and wool on the other side of the world. But, despite this, it had grown with astonishing rapidity into a settled society: from a few thousand immigrants in the 1840s to over a million whites seventy years later.112 (Over the same period, the indigenous Maori population had fallen by two-thirds to less than forty thousand.) This demographic invasion had been accompanied by a drastic transformation of the pre-colonial environment into a land of European grasses, trees, flowers and animals.113 No less remarkable was the apparent strength of white New Zealand's attachment to imperial Britain. Remoteness was no bar. Of all the settlement colonies, New Zealand became the most committed to closer imperial relations, and regarded itself as the most ‘British’ of the white dominions. But it would be a great mistake to see this as an unthinking loyalism, or as the calculating ‘super-patriotism’ of a far-flung outpost. Nor was it a retrograde diversion from the high road to a Pacific ‘destiny apart’.114 Quite the reverse. As we will see, the emergence of a distinct New Zealand nationality at the end of the nineteenth century was at the heart of New Zealand's ‘imperialism’. Indeed, ‘imperialism’ and ‘nationalism’ were the two faces of a single identity.

Cook had been the first European to gain an accurate knowledge of New Zealand's coastline in 1769, circumnavigating these ‘high, slender, irregular islands’.115 But, from then until British annexation in 1840, ‘Old New Zealand’116 had been a disorderly maritime frontier where some hundreds of European and American whalers, sealers, traders and timbermen sojourned, settled, trafficked and intermarried among the Maori. Old New Zealand was part of a ‘Tasman world’ linking the New Zealand islands with the convicts, commerce and sheep farms of Eastern Australia. Where trade had ventured, missionaries soon followed (the first was Samuel Marsden in 1814), and in 1833 the British government sent James Busby (dragging with him a prefabricated cottage) to keep order among the escaped convicts, boisterous seamen and grog sellers who congregated at the Bay of Islands, the great natural harbour in the north of New Zealand. Busby's regime was ineffectual, and a stream of missionary complaints flowed back to London. Meanwhile, New Zealand had attracted a group of promoters who hoped to plant British emigrants on land bought (cheaply) from Maori and resold (less cheaply) to incoming settlers. The New Zealand Company (with its aristocratic directorate) countered missionary objections by insisting that ‘systematic colonization’ would bring order to the chaotic relations between Maori and European in the islands, aiding not hindering the civilising and converting of the tribes.117 Unwilling, or unable, to block the Company, the imperial government trailed reluctantly after it. In 1840, it annexed the islands and, by the Treaty of Waitangi, asserted its authority over the resident Europeans and (more ambiguously) the Maori chiefs.118

Annexation was the beginning of a thirty-year struggle to widen the original settler beachhead (at Wellington) and construct a viable colonial state. Distance and expense, the shortage of capital, the difficulty of acquiring more land, the antagonism between the early governors (anxious to restrain settler expansion) and the Company (eager to satisfy it) and friction with the Maori chiefs dimmed its early promise. But, by the 1850s, the location of grasslands free of the dense New Zealand ‘bush’ (patois for forest) in the Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay and parts of Taranaki119 and the planting of new settlements on the Canterbury plains and in Otago on the South Island gradually turned New Zealand into a second New South Wales built on wool. In the early 1860s, the discovery of gold at Gabriel's Gully in Otago brought a rush of immigrants, and the white population climbed to 267,000 by 1871. Meanwhile, London had conceded self-government in 1852, but withheld from the settler politicians control over relations with the Maori, whose land could only be bought through the agency of imperial officials – a rule laid down in the treaty.

Until the 1860s, it seemed as if New Zealand might develop not as a full-blown settler state but as ‘one country, two systems’. In the South Island where there were few Maori and around the fringes of the North Island, were a series of settler enclaves, largely confined to the grasslands and the flat coastal plains and linked together not by roads but by sea. Across much of the North Island stretched a Maori ‘protectorate’, where Maori hapu and the ‘pakeha-Maori’ who lived among them farmed and traded largely free from outside control.120 But it was an uneasy equilibrium. Maori chiefs sold land. More settlers moved in. The pressure to keep up a brisk market in land sales – the settlers’ fastest route to a speculative fortune – was intense. By the late 1850s, Maori unease was turning towards resistance. On the edge of the settler enclave in Taranaki, the ‘King’ movement sprang up to unite Maori behind a common leader and the refusal to part with more land.121 Far away in London, the Colonial Office was baffled and irritated by the growing racial friction and accepted its governor's advice that more settler responsibility for dealing with the Maori would curb their aggression.122 The result was confusion as settler leaders in the North Island pressed forward, demanding imperial protection against a Maori ‘conspiracy’. A forceful new governor, George Grey, with previous experience in the colony, tried to reassert his authority over the Maori chiefs and conciliate the settler politicians by conquering the Waikato region, south of Auckland. The New Zealand wars ground on through the 1860s as some 10,000 imperial troops and a large body of settler volunteers fought the ‘fire in the fern’ – with very mixed success and a heavy reliance on Maori allies (the so-called kupapa) hostile to the Kingites.123 By 1870, when the imperial contingent was eventually withdrawn, Maori still controlled much of the North Island's hilly interior. Their tenacity had bought a breathing space and perhaps a measure of grudging toleration.124 But they had failed to check the steady expansion of the settler world around them.

The main consequence of the wars was to marginalise the Maori and snuff out what was left of the fragile vision of ‘racial amalgamation’ as the basis of New Zealand society. Henceforth, New Zealand was to be unambiguously a settler state. But it was, as yet, a small and backward one. The 1870s, however, were a turning point. In a period of rising trade and easy money, colonial New Zealand became a prosperous and successful settler community, able to attract a steady flow of capital and migrants from the distant metropole. The agents of this transformation were local men, immigrants who had enough capital and connections to build up small fortunes in land or trade.125 They were the runholders whose sheep ranches spread out over the Canterbury plains; and the merchants who made Dunedin (for a time) the colony's main port and manufacturer, and the headquarters of the Union Steamship Line (founded in 1875) that supplied much of New Zealand's coastal and maritime connections.126 In the North Island, the leaders were provincial notables like Isaac Featherston, who opened up Wellington's hinterland in the Wairarapa; Donald McLean and J. D. Ormond, who dominated Hawke's Bay;127 or the Richmond-Atkinson clan in Taranaki.128 These men were pocket versions of Cecil Rhodes, building empires but on a smaller scale. They mobilised capital and commercial enterprise to push forward from the coastal plains into the bush:129 building railways, recruiting settlers, laying out townships.130 The exception was Auckland, which grew fitfully into a small Pacific entrepot, exploiting its magnificent harbour, the timber trade in kauri pine and the short-lived gold rush in the Coromandel. From the start, Auckland was a merchant not a settler enclave.131

But the main architect of the new settler state was Julius Vogel (1835–99), a colonial politician in the same mould as Sir John A. Macdonald. Whether as finance minister, premier or agent-general in London, Vogel was the most influential figure in New Zealand's affairs for much of the 1870s and 1880s.132 The son of a Jewish small businessman in London, Vogel had gone to the Australian gold fields as a youth, but found his métier as a newspaperman not a digger. In 1861, he came to Otago to try his luck in its golden prosperity. By 1870, he was a leading South Island politician who pressed on his colleagues a bold plan for rapid economic development. Vogel's scheme was simple but audacious. He proposed that the settler government should raise a large loan in London to finance a programme of railway-building and subsidised immigration. ‘Let the country but make the railroads and the railroads will make the country’, he declared.133 As the railways were built, and newcomers poured in, the government's land reserves would be sold off at a profit, output and exports would swell, the loans would be paid off, and the colony would rise to a new plateau of prosperity, with more of the amenities of an ‘old’ country. A virtuous circle of growth and improvement would be set in motion. Vogel's prospectus was seductive. But his real genius lay (like that of Cecil Rhodes) in convincing investors in Europe (including the Rothschilds) that New Zealand was a colonial eldorado. Vogel was a visionary who sailed close to the wind and a speculator on his own account who died in near-poverty. But his economic programme was transformative134 and, by driving through the abolition of the provincial system (where control of public lands still inconveniently lay), he created a unitary colonial state in 1876.

In fact, ‘Vogelism’ contained many of the ingredients used by later governments to fashion a distinctive role for New Zealand in the British system of empire. Vogel had insisted on the urgency of attracting British immigrants and capital to ward off stagnation and regression. As agent-general in London, he used his pen freely to advertise the colony's charms. He saw that New Zealand must compete with many other calls on British investment and grasped (though not the first to do so) that its special claim must be based on assertions about its likeness to Britain. ‘The ambition of the New Zealand settlers’, he announced in his journalistic days, ‘has been to make in the Southern Hemisphere an exact counterpart of Great Britain in the Northern.’135 With Vogelism, the myth of New Zealand as the replica of Britain – but without the ‘warts’ of industrialism – entered the political mainstream, and lodged there firmly for a century. Vogelism proclaimed that the main business of government was development: borrowing, buying, building, recruiting and settling. Everything was secondary to the prime task of expansion and colonisation. But Vogel was not content with a purely domestic vision of New Zealand's future. More vigorously than any contemporary, he pressed the colony's claim to be ‘Queen of the Pacific’. New Zealand's manifest destiny was to be the centre of a great Polynesian dominion136 – a maritime version of Canada – incorporating Fiji and Samoa as well as many smaller islands. Vogel wanted to promote this scheme through a government-backed company based in Auckland, a pale (and abortive) shadow of Macdonald's alliance with the Canadian Pacific Railway. London's hostility to his plans strengthened Vogel's belief in the need for imperial federation to amplify Wellington's voice at the imperial centre, and assert New Zealand's right to act as the local manager of the imperial enterprise in the Pacific. Indeed, it was Vogel's intense vision of New Zealand's special role, its unique tie with Britain, and its claim to a Polynesian sub-empire that turned him against entry into an Australian federation, mooted in the 1880s and favoured by some New Zealand politicians.

Here was an embryonic view of New Zealand as a distinct nationality, a new British nation in the South Pacific, with its own empire in miniature. But, at the end of the 1880s, New Zealand entered an economic and social crisis. The depression and financial panic felt in Australia crossed the Tasman Sea. Discontent among urban workers in the docks, railyards and workshops of the larger towns combined with farmers’ grievances. By 1890, it seemed, the frontier had closed. The unlimited supply of land for the farmer-settlers had run dry. The key resource that had allowed New Zealand to avoid the social tensions of the Old World was exhausted. Of course, the shortage was an optical illusion. Thousands of acres were ‘locked up’ in the possession of the pastoralist ‘gentry’ who had built up great sheep runs in the palmy days of mid-century. In 1891, a new generation of populist politicians came into power calling themselves Liberals and appealing to labour. They were led by John Ballance (premier, 1891–3) and his charismatic successor, ‘King’ Richard Seddon (premier, 1893–1906), a former pub-keeper from the South Island's west coast, a gaunt region of gold and coal mines. Seddon and his lieutenants, John McKenzie and William Pember Reeves, knew that, in a country where every (white) man had the vote, equal opportunity for all (white) men was the unwritten Magna Carta of New Zealand politics. Reeves swiftly introduced new laws to regulate wage-bargaining, factories and the conditions of labour.137 The spectre of the workhouse – that grim symbol of social failure in Victorian Britain – was lifted by the coming of old age pensions. The state took on wide new social responsibilities, later trumpeted by Reeves in his State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand (1902).138 Meanwhile, McKenzie pressed forward with ‘bursting up the great estates’: buying out the runholders (many of them eager to sell) and parcelling up the land for closer settlement – a programme soon reinforced by the vigorous purchase of Maori land in the North Island.139

The enlargement of the Liberal state, and its espousal of ‘state socialism’, has sometimes been seen as the founding of a new political tradition in New Zealand, coinciding with the moment when the local-born at last outnumbered the incomers from Britain.140But, if this is true, it is only half the story. The real purpose of Liberal reform was not to build a socialist state but to protect New Zealand against the social warfare and class-conflict of the Old World. The Arcadian promise, New Zealand's gift to Old Britain, had to be kept. The prospect of social mobility within a broadly equal society had to be preserved141 if need be by state action. None of this meant that Seddon and his followers wanted to turn New Zealand into an isolated Pacific utopia, proudly separate from a decadent motherland. When Reeves opposed the return to Vogelism – large-scale borrowing for rural development – he was packed off to literary exile as agent-general in London.142

A new nationality was being forged in New Zealand but its roots did not lie in socialism or a self-conscious Pacific identity.143 The social crisis of the 1890s had gone deeper than material hardship. It evoked a widespread dissatisfaction with the rough and ready society of colonial New Zealand. The drive to modernise settler society fused with the struggle to preserve its egalitarian ethos. Both seemed to require a clean-out of its darker corners, a campaign for social (and racial) ‘hygiene’, and a new spirit of social conformity. From this grew a demand for temperance (women's suffrage in 1893 was a by-product of the abortive crusade for prohibition), improved education, better policing, more protection for children, young women and mothers, as well as the expulsion of the alien and unwanted.144 In ‘God's own country’,145 there was no place for sloth or larrikinism. The ugly face of the new emphasis on social uplift and discipline was ‘white New Zealand’: the exclusion of non-white migrants like the small Chinese minority who had come to the mining towns of the South Island.146 A new social ideal was in the making: the small independent yeoman farmer or ‘cow-cockie’. It was given reality by the technological revolution in New Zealand agriculture. By the mid-1890s, the technique of refrigeration, the spread of large freezing works and the growing demand for frozen meat and dairy produce in Britain was transforming the New Zealand economy. Mutton and butter matched wool as the premier export.147 The area under white occupation increased by 50 per cent between 1896 and 1911, and the volume of production by 60 per cent.148 The colonisation of New Zealand entered a second phase, lasting into the 1930s when settlers were still struggling to carve out dairy farms ‘up on the roof’ in the old Maori ‘King Country’ of central North Island.149 Crucially, this new agrarian bonanza assured the economic success of the Liberals’ drive to make New Zealand a land of small farmers. It consolidated the ‘rural myth’150 that belied the scale of New Zealand's port-cities, the growth of a unionised workforce, the industrial basis of agricultural production and the extreme dependence on faraway urban consumers.

The result was to bring a new depth and meaning to the old tenets of ‘Vogelism’. The familiar idea of New Zealand as an Arcadia recreating an idyll of rural England was energised and transformed by a vision of social renewal. New Zealand was not to be an archaic Britain but a distinct, progressive experiment in Britishness. New Zealanders reinvented themselves not as a colonial fragment but as a modern, rural British (or ‘Britannic’) nation in the South Pacific, which had successfully erased the economic inequalities and social divisions of the class-ridden motherland, partly by transplanting what was best and brightest from ‘Home’.151 The future lay not in gradual separation from the mother-country but in more and more vigorous reciprocity with her: the exchange of goods, men and ideas to press ahead with the full colonisation of the New Zealand landscape, still half-conquered and half-alien.152 This was the ideology of ‘dominionhood’, the shift from colonial to ‘dominion’ status consummated in 1907, and marked by local adoption of ‘the Dominion’ as the country's colloquial name. It reflected a new confidence that New Zealand had something positive to add to the grand project of making a ‘British world’. It was hardly surprising, then, that Seddon should also have revived the imperial and sub-imperial planks of Vogel's platform and imbued them with a blunt no-nonsense populism.

Indeed, since Vogel's time, the pace of diplomatic competition in the Pacific had quickened and with it the New Zealanders’ sense of vulnerability. The idea that New Zealand could escape involvement in the quarrels of the Old World – once favoured by Seddon's old rival, the South Island lawyer Robert Stout153 – now seemed fanciful in the age of Weltpolitik. The Anglo-German agreement on Samoa in 1899 was the final straw: clinching evidence of London's blindness to destiny – and New Zealand's interests.154 Seddon revived Vogel's scheme for a Polynesian dominion. His well-publicised Pacific tour in 1900 was meant to jog London's elbow and assert New Zealand's claim as the real trustee of the British interest in the South Pacific. Seddon's imperialism was the counterpart of his nationalism. It identified ‘Empire’ not with the territorial possessions of the imperial government but with the territorial interests of the overseas British. Sympathy for the Uitlanders in the Transvaal was its natural expression. Seddon had no doubts about the justice of the British cause in South Africa and regarded the outbreak of the Boer War there as a welcome sign that London could be made to defend its beleaguered subjects.155 It was a tendency he was eager to encourage by New Zealand participation. ‘The flag that floats over us’, he told the New Zealand parliament, ‘was expected to protect our kindred and countrymen who are in the Transvaal.’ It was ‘our duty as Englishmen’ to support the Uitlanders’ struggle. ‘We are a portion of the dominant family of the world’, he went on,

we are of the English-speaking race. Our kindred are scattered in dispersed parts of the globe, and wherever they are, no matter how far distant apart, there is a feeling of affection – that crimson tie, that bond of unity existing which time does not affect – and in the end will become indispensable.156

But New Zealanders took part not at London's command but as ‘partners’ in the Empire, ‘sharing the profits and knowing the advantages’.157 Seddon's rhetoric was at once a manifesto of ‘Britannic nationalism’ and a claim to full membership in the management committee of the British world-system. His great ally, John McKenzie, was an advocate of imperial federation. His successor as premier, Melbourne-born Sir Joseph Ward (premier, 1906–12), was to urge an ‘imperial parliament of defence’ at the Imperial Conference in 1911 – but to no avail.158

New Zealand's commitment to empire was thus neither cynical nor deferential, still less an aberration from the path to nationhood. Its vehemence and certainty reflected the uniquely close fit between the geopolitics of this white colonial settlement in the South Pacific and the peculiar trajectory of its economic development. The influence of both reached their height at the moment when the localised outlook of mid-Victorian New Zealand began to be reshaped by the rise of its late-Victorian ‘Britannic’ ideology of modernity, discipline and expansion. Unlike Canada or Australia, there was much less of a tradition of isolationism to challenge the ideal of the ‘imperial nation’.159 There was no ethnic interest to appease: the Maori had no quarrel with the imperial connection declared the MP Honi Heke in October 1899.160 Instead, more completely than in any other dominion, a new sense of nationhood fused with a new conception of empire as the vehicle of local safety and national ambition. But it was an empire that was expected to embody not just the interests of the United Kingdom, but a broader ‘Britannic’ ideal.

Building the British world

By the end of the nineteenth century, it was no longer a pipe-dream that the main settlement colonies, with Canada in the van, might form the heart of an overseas ‘British world’, a vast zone held together not by rule or coercion but by common political values, and cultural attraction as well as (in this case) by racial solidarity. Nor that a sense of shared ‘Britannic’ nationality, a collective insistence on a shared ‘Britishness’, provincial but equal (or even superior), would induce spontaneous identification with the fortunes of Britain, and even a willingness, in a real emergency, to spend blood and treasure in the common British cause. In the first forty years of the twentieth century, this ‘Britannic’ identity was tested and proved in the hardest of trials. Indeed, many contemporaries learned to take it for granted as a fact of political life. Dismissed, disparaged or simply ignored by the ‘nationalist’ historians of the ex-‘white dominions’ in the 1960s and after, its pervasive, foundational importance has been rediscovered in more recent years.161 For historians of the British Empire, its key contribution to the strength and survival of the British world-system can hardly be doubted.

There was a further dimension of the ‘Britannic experiment’ which we should not overlook. The settlement colonies, John Robert Seeley declared, were really ‘a vast English nation’ merely dispersed by distance.162 Seeley wrote in an age when the distinction between ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ was usually elided, when Scotsmen (or ‘Scotchmen’) sometimes called themselves ‘English’, and when Scotland itself could be referred to as ‘North Britain’. But Seeley knew perfectly well that the making of empire and what he called ‘Greater Britain’ were the handiwork of all the four nations that comprised the British ‘Union’ – to the cohesion of which he was passionately committed.163 Seeley seems to have assumed – what much recent scholarship has confirmed – that the opportunity, power and prestige brought by empire reinforced the appeal of a composite ‘British’ nationality in the Home Islands themselves. Welsh, Irish and Scots took pride in an empire they had helped to create, cherished their links with their overseas countrymen, and identified their ‘regional’ interests – merchant, migrant and missionary – with the empire's success.164

In the settlement colonies, distinct Scots and Irish identities were emphatically visible. Scots made up a significant proportion of emigrants to Nova Scotia and Upper Canada (Ontario). A ring of Scots families supplied most of the mercantile leadership in Canada's premier port-city, Montreal.165 The Presbyterian church, the ‘Caledonian’ societies and a fondness for curling forged strong social bonds. In Australia, too, Scots Presbyterians played a prominent part in the professions and business. Scots made up nearly a quarter of New Zealand's population by the end of the century.166 And, although the main tide of Irish migration had turned to the United States by the 1850s, an earlier stream of Protestant Irish from both North and South had decisively shaped Upper Canada's political life, not least through the influence of the Orange Lodge in the province.167Catholics were more numerous in the Australian colonies where one-quarter of the population was of Irish descent in 1900,168 and in New Zealand where they made up three-quarters of the Irish total and some 13 per cent of the whole population.

Even more than at home, Scots and Irish ‘colonials’ adopted a ‘British’ allegiance even if they preserved a strong sentimental attachment to their ethnic identity. There were several reasons for this. The mobile conditions of colonial life discouraged the formation of closed or exclusive communities. The parochial disputes of faraway homelands had diminishing relevance. But perhaps the most important factor of all was the inclusive character of colonial political life. Responsible (or parliamentary) government was open to all (men) without regard to religion. And, although the distinction between Catholic and Protestant remained an important divide, it was not wide enough to subvert Catholic attachment to British institutions. In three Catholic Irishmen, Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825–68), an ardent champion of confederation in Canada, (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903), sometime premier of Victoria, and Charles Coghlan (1863–1927), first prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, strong nationalist feeling was combined with a ‘Burkean reverence’ for parliamentary government and (at least outwardly) deep loyalty to the Crown.169

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