Pax Britannica (Latin for "the British Peace", modelled after Pax Romana) was the period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman.1
Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain's "imperial century" by some historians,23 around 10,000,000 square miles (26,000,000 km2) of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire.4 Victory over Napoleon left Britain without any serious international rival, other than Russia in central Asia.5
Britain controlled most of the key maritime trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain's dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many countries, such as China, Argentina and Siam, which has been characterised by some historians as "informal empire".67
British imperial strength was underpinned by the steamship and the telegraph, new technologies invented in the second half of the 19th century, allowing it to control and defend the empire. By 1902, the British Empire was linked together by a network of telegraph cables, the so-called All Red Line.8
The British established their first empire (1583–1783) in North America by colonising lands that included parts of Canada and the Thirteen Colonies. In 1776, the Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies declared itself independent from the British Empire thus beginning the American Revolution. Britain turned towards Asia, the Pacific and later Africa with subsequent exploration leading to the rise of the second British Empire (1783–1815), which was followed by the industrial revolution.
From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until World War I in 1914, the United Kingdom played the role of hegemon, where the balance of power was the main aim. It is also in this time that the British Empire became the largest empire of all time.9 Imposition of a "British Peace" on key maritime trade routes began in 1815 with the annexation of British Ceylon.10 The global superiority of British military and commerce was guaranteed by a divided and relatively weak continental Europe, and the presence of the Royal Navy on all of the world's oceans and seas. Following the Congress of Vienna the British Empire's economic strength continued to develop through naval dominance11 and diplomatic efforts to maintain the balance of power within a Europe that lacked a pre-eminent nation state.12
In this era of peace, Britain provided services such as suppression of piracy and slavery. Sea power, however, did not project on land. Land wars fought between the major powers include the Crimean War, the Franco-Austrian War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War, as well as numerous conflicts between lesser powers. The Royal Navy prosecuted the Opium wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) against Imperial China. In 1905, the Royal Navy was superior to any other two navies in the world, combined. In 1906, it was considered that Britain's only likely potential naval enemy was Germany.13
The Pax Britannica was weakened by the breakdown of the continental order which had been established by the Congress of Vienna.11 Relations between the Great Powers of Europe were strained to breaking point by issues such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the Crimean War, and later the emergence of new nation states in the form of Italy and Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Both of these two wars involved Europe's largest states and armies. The industrialisation of Germany, the Empire of Japan, and the United States of America further contributed to the decline of British industrial supremacy following the late 19th century.
- Porter, p. 332.
- Hyam, p. 1.
- Smith, p. 71.
- Parsons, p. 3.
- Porter, p. 401.
- Porter, p. 8.
- Marshall, pp. 156–57.
- Dalziel, pp. 88–91.
- Wikipedia article British Empire, citing Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (p. 98, 242). OECD, Paris, 2001; and also Bruce R. Gordon, To Rule the Earth... (See Bibliography for sources used.)
- Crawfurd, John (21 August 2006) [First published 1830]. Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-general of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China. Volume 1 (2nd ed.). London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley. pp. 191–192. OCLC 03452414. Retrieved 2 February 2012. "'...for what purpose was it conquered and is it now retained?' We endeavoured to explain, that during the wars, in which we were lately engaged with our European enemies who occupied the coast of the island, they harassed our commerce from its ports, and therefore, in self-defence, there was a necessity for taking possession of it."
- Pugh, p. 83
- Thackeray, p. 57
- Herwig p.48-50