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The End of Mercantilism (1800-1850)

Mercantilism as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: Econ. The economic theory that a nation's wealth, esp. its ability to amass bullion, is increased by a favorable balance of trade, and that a government should encourage such a balance by promoting exports (esp. of manufactured goods) and restricting imports.


In order to have political superiority at this time it was necessary to have colonial markets.


Free Trade (1850-1932)

A period when there are no tariffs or taxes on goods traded within the empire.


Protectionism (1932-1960)

Instigated at the Ottawa conference of 1932. Protectionism as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: The doctrine that domestic industries should be protected from foreign competition by the imposition of duties, quotas, etc., on foreign goods; practical implementation of this doctrine, economic protection; advocacy of or support for this.


The imperial economy came to and end in the 1950’s, starting its collapse in 1948 with the GATT, The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. This stated that no new trade controls would be made by Britain, and that many of the previous controls would be repealed.


Technology and Resources


In order to increase trade in the empire, technological advances were necessary.


Ships and Shipping:

In 1843 Isambard Brunel launched the “Great Britain” the largest steel hulled ship of its kind. These ships were faster and could hold more cargo making shipping across great distances easier. This kick started the Shipping Revolution, which in 1850 saw the invention of the compound steam engine, which doubled the efficiency of shipping.

The Suez Canal opened in 1869 providing a much shorter route from Europe to Asia.

Finally the triple expansion steam engine in 1870 made shipping even faster and easier than ever before, bringing Britain to the height of its empire.



Thomas Brassey is the name associated with the development of railroads across the empire. They were extremely useful as they allowed for access into the depths of Africa as well as providing faster connections between regions and ports.

The Canada Grand Trunk railway was over 1100 miles long and opened the parries, which flooded the British market in the 1890s.

The British government funded most railroad projects, which provided a new sense of railroad imperialism. This means the Britain was now seen as having the power to create this connection and increase trade through railroads, meant that Britain gained a stronger power over the colonies, even the self-governing ones like Canada.

Railroads had a lasting impact on India, where it provided the first trends of an integrated economy. In addition railroads also made it easier for the spread of the Nationalist Movement and travel of leaders, while also making it possible for a small mobile army to control and subdue the Indian rebellions.


Rivers and Canals:

The British took responsibility for the up keep of most major rivers and canals in the empire so as to avoid political or economic problems in the future.

By 1858, however, the British were starting on plans to build their own canals, the most famous and important of which was the Suez Canal completed in 1869.


                                                        The Suez Canal Opening in 1869


Agriculture was a huge part of the British Empire, especially because by the nineteenth century Britain itself has to import food and resources to support its population, in addition to supporting their growing economy and trade.


In Canada, Australia and New Zealand the white settlers were mainly all farmers.


In South Africa the white settlers owned the land but rented it to the Africans who worked it. However, by the early twentieth century the main resources coming out of South Africa were gold and diamonds. Therefore, agriculture took a backseat in trade in this region.



Copper was found in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Coal and gold in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and diamonds and gold were found in South Africa. However, the first gold strikes in the empire occurred in 1851 in Australia. The most important mineral find in the empire was in fact the discovery of coal in India.

Fieldhouse, David. "For Richer, For Poorer." In The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire, edited by P. J. Marshall, 108-46. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.