Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

The Trade of the Empire

The British Isles—the cradle of the British race—has during the Victorian era acquired an Empire overseas a hundred times her own size.

At her death, in 1901, the Queen was ruler over one-fifth of the earth's surface, and more than one-fifth of the world's inhabitants.

The story of how she possessed herself of so large a share of the world's richest lands has already been told. We have seen how the missionaries, the,adventurers, the explorers found, discovered, colonized the new lands, and the traders invariably followed.

Thus the British Empire was founded on trade, and exists on trade. Before ever the Queen came to the throne Britain, by reason of her steam power and ready production of coal and iron, had turned from an agricultural to a manufacturing country; and at the time of the Queen's accession she had already had a long start of the rest of the world. Added to this, she had also the command of the sea, and the finest merchant service in the world.

As new lands came under the Queen's sway, the people in these new lands naturally looked to Britain to supply their needs. They needed materials for development and protection, they needed the luxuries of modern civilized life. Britain then circulated throughout the Empire arms and ammunition for their defence, machinery and tools for their manufactures, railway, telegraph, and electrical appliances for their closer communication, steel-work for their bridges, water and gas pipes, ready-made clothing of cotton and wool, soap, candles, books, pictures, glass, china, drugs, pianos, and all the thousand necessaries which they could obtain from her.

In return, as the new countries grew and developed, they were able to produce more food-stuffs than their own small populations could consume. They therefore sent their supplies home to the Mother Country, which no longer could supply herself with food. There was a further reason—the Mother Country exacted no duties on goods brought into the country; she indulged in a system of Free Trade, while most other countries demanded that duties should be paid.

Thus—roughly—Great Britain sent one-third of her exports to the colonies, receiving one-quarter of her total imports from them; and as the British Isles were now for the most part manufacturing, and the colonies were mainly agricultural and pastoral, the exchange was highly beneficial to both.

To sum up, about the time of the Queen's death— Canada  was sending home one-half of her total exports—wheat, bacon, cheese, salt, fish, eggs, apples, furs, skins, leather, timber and wood-pulp—receiving in return one-quarter of her total imports from Great Britain.

Australia  also sent half her exports home. Amongst these were wool, tallow, fresh mutton, preserved meat, silver and gold ore, hides, furs, skins, wheat and flour, butter, rabbits, and wine. She received in return one-half of her imports.

New Zealand  sent three-quarters of her total exports home, including wool, gold, grain, hides, skins, butter, and cheese, receiving in return three-fifths of her imports.

South Africa  sent four-fifths of her total exports home, including gold, diamonds, and other precious stones, ostrich feathers, skins, hides, furs, receiving in return three-fifths of her imports.

India  sent a quarter of her exports home, including rice, cotton and silk, jute, oil, seeds, tea, coffee, and teak. She received from Great Britain half her total imports.

Thus Great Britain's colonial trade represented one-quarter of her entire trade with the rest of the world.

But not only was this interchange of wealth going on between the Mother Country and her colonies, but the colonies traded very freely with one another; thus Australia and New Zealand supplied South Africa with frozen meat and butter, Canada sent largely to Australia, the West Indies, &c.

But the Mother Country was still the great imperial banker of all her colonial possessions. She was still the heart of the empire. "She pumps the life-giving stream of capital through a thousand arteries to every limb of the imperial body." She was not only a trader, but the greatest banker in the world. And this enabled her to build up her vast Empire. To keep her trade she had to preserve her trade routes and coaling stations, she linked together every part of her scattered possessions by submarine cables, she added ships yearly to her huge mercantile marine, until, at the Queen's death, she owned half the carrying trade of the whole world.

At the Queen's accession, Great Britain employed 624 steamers and thirty times as many sailing ships to carry her commerce far and wide to foreign lands. At her death there were over 9,000 steamers, carrying seventy times the old tonnage, and 10,773 sailing ships, large and small. But even as the last years of the great age died away and the Queen passed to her well-earned rest, shadows were beginning to fall athwart the horizon of Britain's trade prospects.

The vital value of sea power was dawning on the growing nations of the world; the United States and Germany were putting forth strenuous efforts to compete with Britain's great merchant service, and were building great fleets for their protection.

The fact that Britain almost alone of all nations had Free Trade (her import duties being mainly on spirits, tobacco, tea, wine, cocoa, chicory, coffee, and dried fruits) was beginning to make itself felt in the great competition for trade that was springing up throughout the world, and men were beginning to consider the possibility of a change.

The Queen died when her empire of trade was yet at its height, leaving her vast heritage to those who may have to decide its destiny before very long.