British Subjects, Not Citizens


“…the British crafted a more lenient and democratic policy when it came to regions with similar population and culture, like Canada, but decided to take a more aggressive and reforming stance when dealing with the Indian subcontinent.”

Barbara Halla, Featured Image

There is a certain truth to the expression that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” though it does not always refer to the size of its territorial expansion. The British Empire ruled people, not mere territories, and because of the racial and cultural differences between the rulers and the ruled, their governance was tainted with rebellions and unease. It was around 1830s that the British finally decided to change the form of their rule to meet the needs and differences of the different colonies. This research focuses on the idea that the British crafted a more lenient and democratic policy when it came to regions with similar population and culture, like Canada, but decided to take a more aggressive and reforming stance when dealing with the Indian subcontinent.

Despite the fact that the British had ruled both Canada and India for almost 150 years, it was only after a rebellion started in Upper Canada in 1837 that the British colonial officers began considering a policy change. After sending the Earl of Durham to review the situation in Canada, a report offered the restless dominion a chance for autonomy through ‘responsible government.’ At the local level, the Canadian provinces would have the chance to rule themselves and choose their representatives, though their foreign policy would still remain in the hands of the crown. Admittedly imperfect, this was still a step forward from traditional British imperial policy—one that was offered only to the colonies with a predominantly white population and British culture.

Despite being a colony, Canada was heavily populated by descendants of British settlers. The culture was a hybrid of that of mainland Britain, yet still undeniably white. As such, the Canadians were brothers to the British, not just subjects. That belief shaped the lenient Imperial Policy that defined the Durham Report and responsible government. In the Indian sub-continent, the British faced a tougher question: how to define their subjects and their role? In the light of the writing of Richard Burton and new racial theories that were but the misinterpretation of Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution,” the British crown had to not only decide on how to rule in these regions, but also to reconsider its mission. If they were not to merely rule the Indian population, did they also have to ‘civilize’ it? If Canada was their direct offspring, India and the Indians were their burdens. As Kipling would later describe it, the ‘white man’s burden.’

Following the presentation in the British Parliament by Thomas Macaulay of “Minute on Education,” the response became clear. If in Canada and Australia, which the British had repopulated, were offered the chance to have a responsible government, India just had to accept direct crown rule, topped with a radical and aggressive civilizing mission. All subjects had to learn English, and all affairs in the region had to be conducted in English. Anglicanism would be the official religion, and the London Missionary Society had the duty to spread and teach the main doctrines of Christianity to the locals. Unlike Canada, the rule of the British in India suffered from its policies, as the British refused to adapt to the Hindu and Muslim cultures that had ruled in India for centuries. This led to the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which presented on of the toughest challenges the British had to contend with in their long rule in the subcontinent.

The British celebrated their Imperial Apogee in the early 20th century, after a century of rebellions and challenges to both their authority and identity as an empire. Despite the many troubles brewing from Canada to India, the British Empire’s survival was mostly due to their new and improved policies. However, in the end, these policies were not enough to ensure the survival of the British Empire after World War II.

Barbara Hall is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at

Further Reading Kennedy, Dane. The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books, 2004.Dirks, Nicholas. The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.