No one “ran” the British Empire in the sense of a board of managers running a business. It was far too large and far too diverse for any monolithic bureaucratic machine, residing behind a single pair of gates, to control successfully. The Crown, Parliament, The Colonial office, the India Office, colonial governments, the legal system: all were axles on which the machine ran. But they were not linked together by any coherent or effective mechanism. Tiny cogs - officials in the colonies or even London itself - could whirr away for months on end without anyone paying much attention.
In the late 19th Century, the Empire was a vast and complex structure of 400 million people, made up of a multiplicity of races and countries differing in religion, customs, law and language. There were the self-governing colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa; the Indian sub-continent, Ceylon and Burma; tropical protectorates and dependencies; and a mass of smaller territories and bases. Naturally this hotch-potch of groups threw up an enormous variety of political , diplomatic, social and economic problems. Subject peoples who were backward had quite different needs from those of relatively advanced peoples. Governing Sierra Leone was not the same a governing Mauritius. Some territories acquired representative institutions faster than others.
An empire of such disparate elements could not possibly operate as a monolithic system. The imperial machine consisted of several different elements; parliament, British and local law, government office at home and on the spot - all these played their separate parts.
There was no uniform legal system, but different blends of imperial and local law. India had a penal code of its own devised by Thomas Babington Macaulay; Quebec kept a civil law derived from France. Mauritius and the Seychelles had the Napoleonic code; South Africa and Ceylon used mainly Roman-Dutch law; Malta maintained Sicilian law. Colonies of British settlement naturally leaned heavily on English experience for their statute law, following English text books, borrowing English interpretations, and benefiting from English interpretations, and benefiting from English draughtsmanship. Their legislatures often copied English statute law.
But there was a single supreme court of appeal for the whole empire. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council met in Downing street and issued binding decisions on appeals from all over the Empire, even when the legal systems were not essentially British in origin or form. This tribunal provided a sense of unity at the apex of the Empire’s complex legal structure, and dispensed justice with an urbane assuredness, finding nothing incongruous in giving verdicts on issues that affected wheat farmers of Canada on one occasion and gold prospectors in Australia the next.
In theory, all imperial power was exercised in the name of the Crown, whose symbolic significance was immense.
The Queen was the highest constitutional authority in every part of the Empire: she was the executive head of each government, her assent was required for legislation to become effective and her refusal to give assent negated a bill. It is difficult to decide how much influence the existence of the God-Queen had on the attitudes of subject peoples towards their imperial rulers, but that there was such influence could not be doubted. The almost mystical remote figure who sat on the imperial throne in London was the fount of imperial authority.
The Queen’s representatives in every colonial government enjoyed something of her god-like aura, particularly her representatives in India, the Viceroy. He enjoyed the most coveted, magnificent and resplendent of all posts in the overseas administration of the Empire. Naturally, such an office was regarded as best suited to aristocrats of the soundest pedigree, who presumably knew how to conduct themselves properly in the palatial way of life they were expected to lead in Calcutta. The Viceroy, acted and lived, indeed, as a monarch, except that his tenure of office was limited. His surroundings were elaborate and luxurious, and as the Queen might retire to the isle of Wight, or another of her country homes at certain times of the year, so, periodically, and especially when Calcutta became intolerable at the height of summer, the Viceroy retired to his palace at Simla, in the hills of the Punjab.
In each colony, the Queen’s representative was the Governor, who, like the Viceroy in India, but not on the same glamorous scale, normally enjoyed something of the aroma of royalty. The Governor’s commission was held under the royal sign manual and signet and his power derived from letters patent issued under the great seal. He wrote his minutes and signed his name in red ink. He usually lived in an imposing residence, “Government House” where the Union Jack flew every day from sunrise to sunset. He was addressed as “His Excellency” and his appearance on a public occasion was the signal for the national anthem to be played. The Governor exercised the Royal Prerogative of mercy and carried out “royal” instructions. His functions however, were carried out in practice under direction not of the Queen but of the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. He addressed his dispatches to the Secretary of State, who sent him the instructions on which he was expected to act. He was required to consult his executive council in the colony on all matters related to his powers.
Colonial governors in the middle of the 19th Century came mostly from the senior ranks of the army or navy, and were men with an upper middle class background. Governing a colony was then regarded as a natural extension of an officer’s job, but later on in the century an increasing number of governors were men who had made the colonial service their career. Practically all governors moved from one territory to another in a succession of different appointments, so building up their experience. Sir Henry Barkly, the son of a west Indian merchant, was successively Governor in British Guiana, Jamaica, Victoria (Australia), Mauritius and Cape Colony between 1848 and 1877.
In this photograph of students at the east India College at Haileybury, two of the young men had reason to look solemn. They were well towards the bottom of their class, and usually about one fifth of the students failed to graduate.
The college, founded in 1806, produced generations of administrators for India until it closed in 1857, reopening as a public school in 1862. The teaching staff, recruited from Oxbridge, was impressive: Thomas Malthus, author of the famous treatise on population, taught there for 30 years. Despite the rigorous scholastic demands, the young men were notorious for their wild behaviour, drunkenness and local wenching. Yet out of shared memories of riotous times Haileybury old boys forged an esprit de corps that carried them through the daunting task of administering India.
More than law-books and soldiers were needed to run the colonies. Somebody had to organise the supply of paper-clips, desks, railways - and even the inevitable red tape. The Crown Agents were appointed in 1833 to do just that. Ever since, though their wide-ranging, non-profit making activities are little publicised, they have played a vital part in providing, developing countries with everything they could possibly need.
The Crown Agents no longer act only for colonial administrations, and they have stopped using their coat-of-arms with the royal crest to emphasise their political impartiality to the many public authorities, international bodies (like the U.N.) and governments - many in former colonies - that they now serve.
Until 1833, a senior clerk at the Colonial office could look contentedly forward to a sinecure as agent for one of the colonies. He would arrange loans and supplies for a colonial government at a handsome profit. But by the early 1830‘s, complaints from the colonies about the inefficiency and dishonesty of the system were becoming too vociferous to be ignored. In 1833 two Colonial Office men styled “Joint Agents General for the Crown Colonies”, were made responsible by parliament for the needs of the 13 Crown Colonies that then existed. Slowly, the agents began to build up the reputation they enjoy today for integrity and efficiency. From the 1860‘s Crown Agents were generally recruited from outside the Colonial Office and detailed instructions for their guidance were issued by the Treasury. A parliamentary committee of 1908 defined their position as “officers of the colonial Governments serving in England under the ultimate control of the Secretary of State”.
The Crown Agents organise and supervise the printing under tight security of colonial stamps, banknotes and pre-paid mail from the moment the paper is made until the finished products are safely in the strong rooms of the ship carrying them to their destination. The Crown Agents vaults in London hold three priceless stamp albums containing a copy of every stamp issued for the British colonies since 1860 and also a comprehensive collection of banknote specimens. Rolls of paper for the stamps are made under the scrutiny of the Crown Agent inspector.
Any mistake in printing - a collectors delight - means a court of inquiry for the inspector. He watches especially closely to ensure that the watermark is incorporated. From the mills the paper goes to the printer to be impressed with the correct design. If the design incorporates the monarch’s head, then it has to be approved by Buckingham Palace. King George V, a famous philatelist in his own right, even chose the two colours for the Silver Jubilee issue in 1935. After printing, the stamps are stored in the Crown Agents own vaults. Finally, the Crown Agents arranged transport overseas.
When the Governor of a colony left Government House, he travelled to the Courts, attended a garden party or signed papers, his every action was surrounded by reminders of the Crown Agents.: the bed he left, the carpet he walked on, the carriage he travelled in, the desk he sat at and the ink he wrote with - each one of these items was furnished on request by the Crown Agents, who kept catalogues galore to assist him in his search for any colonial requirement large or small. Some items are shown at right.
To acquire an item, the Governor would send an indent to the Crown Agents who passed it to the Colonial Office for authorisation. Eventually the indent returned and the goods were bought. This cumbersome system as altered in the late 19th Century to allow the Crown Agents complete responsibility for purchases under £100. Finally in 1903, the Crown Agents were given complete autonomy in dealing with their principals.
PATTERNS FOR EXCELLENCE
Today the Crown Agents owe their phenomenal success to their reputation for quality, a reputation based on the stringent controls imposed on every item they handle.
The system used for purchasing goods, set up in the 19th Century, has remained unchanged. A government or public body sends specifications for the goods t requires to the Crown Agents. The Crown Agents put out tenders and select a firm to produce the goods. Often the chosen firm has to send a sample. When this has been rigidly tested for quality - tests that are frequently repeated - the object is “sealed”. A green ribbon is threaded through it and a lead seal is attached, impressed with the same sealer used when the office was first set up. The product, whether a garment, boot, licence plate or pair of handcuffs, revives a pattern number and is placed in a pattern room. This has two purposes: the company producing the goods must keep up to the standard established by the sealed pattern or it will lose the contract; and the pattern acts as a reference for repeat orders from that or other manufacturers.
The sealed pattern is kept in the pattern room for 5 years after the last repeat order, and is then stored for a further 8 years in storerooms before final discard.
Joseph Chamberlain the great Colonial Secretary of the 1890‘s regarded the colonies as “undeveloped estates”. The Crown Agents played a large part in developing them, with enormous engineering projects. During the 19th Century they were concerned mainly with the building of railways, notably those in Ceylon, Queensland and many parts of Africa. Where impenetrable jungle barred the way, steamers were built for rivers. The Crown Agents also took on the job of constructing harbours, and supplying everything from skilled manpower to dredgers.
As the British territories gained their independence one by one, the Crown Agents might have disappeared. But today they act for over 80 foreign governments and nearly 200 public bodies. The new-look - international rather than colonial - can be dated from 1932, when Iraq, mandated to Britain in 1920, was given her independence. The new government wanted to carry on using the Crown Agents services, the Foreign Office agreed, and for the first time the Crown Agents became agents for a foreign country.
The Crown Agents have an amazingly wide-ranging variety of activities, of which this page shows only a fraction. They have supplied locomotives worth millions of pounds to East African Railways, and ten queen bees to Samoa. In the middle 20th Century they were handling funds of one billion pounds and placing orders worth £100 million a year, but make only just enough in fees to run the office.
Their work is by no means confined t the supply of stores of various kinds. Equally important are the technical advisory services they provide. Though it has not yet happened they do not doubt that one day they will be asked to supply parts for spaceships. Nor do they doubt their ability to meet the order.
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