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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

A growing empire

Fifty years after Waterloo, commenting on Britain’s non-intervention in another European conflict, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Benjamin Disraeli observed:

England has outgrown the continent of Europe.  The abstention of England from any unnecessary interference in the affairs of Europe is the consequence, not of her decline of power, but of her strength. England is no longer a mere European power; … she has a greater sphere of action than any European power, and she has duties devolving upon her of a much larger scale.

This ‘greater sphere of action’ was of course the British Empire, and, although in 1815 it had assumed neither the size nor the importance that it would hold by the time of Disraeli’s remarks, the shift in Britain’s role from victor of a European battlefield to centre of a largely non-European empire began to emerge soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Manuscript text showing estimates of the cost of the civil service establishment for Upper Canada in 1816Manuscript text showing estimates of the cost of the civil service establishment for Upper Canada in 1816The image shown here is from a volume detailing annual estimates of the cost of the civil service establishment in various British colonies from 1802 to 1819, with the 1816 estimates for Upper Canada shown, the British colony occupying much of what is today the province of Ontario.

The total projected expenditure was £10,865, with the salary of the lieutenant-governor accounting for nearly a fifth of this. The settler population of Upper Canada was then about 80,000; in the next two decades it would increase by immigration to four times this number.

During the Napoleonic Wars free emigration from Britain was largely prohibited, on the grounds that all available manpower was needed in the fight against France. The coming of peace led to a change of policy.

An economic slump, a rising population, increasing unemployment and poverty, notably among discharged soldiers and sailors, and consequent social and political unrest characterised the post-Waterloo years, and systematic emigration from Britain to the colonies was seen as a practical solution to the nation’s difficulties.

It was by no means a cheap solution; poor emigrants needed government assistance to finance their passage and few of the colonies were yet economically profitable. Land, however, was available in abundance, and colonial appointments, like some of the posts listed in the estimates, were also a way of rewarding wartime military or political service.

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