The British Empire of the later nineteenth century was an imposing sight. By 1900 it had grown to immense proportions, embracing nearly a quarter of the world’s land surface and almost one-third of its inhabitants. Not even Spain at the height of its glory had exercised control over so broad a swathe of the world’s peoples. It was, of course, an empire acquired and maintained largely by force. From Waterloo until the outbreak of the First World War there was scarcely a time when British troops or their British-officered colonial auxiliaries were not in action somewhere around the globe. On occasion, as in the Boer War, they found their resources stretched. Yet for the most part these were low-cost affairs involving what would now be called Third-World peoples, and as such very different from those long-drawn-out conflicts between Great Powers that bring about major changes in the international order. Compared to the centuries that preceded and followed it, the nineteenth century, so far as the British were concerned, was a period of relative equilibrium. For the most part they were more concerned with following Adam Smith’s advice and expanding commerce than acquiring vast territories, yet one thing led to another, and often it was easier simply to extend their rule than cope with troublesome neighbours or fend off rivals.
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