Informal empire

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The term "Informal empire" describes the spheres of influence which an empire may develop that translate into a degree of influence over a region or country, which is not a formal colony, protectorate, tributary or vassal state of the empire, as a result of the extension of commercial, strategic or military interests of the empire.

In a 2010 article, Gregory Barton and Brett Bennett defined informal empire as:

A willing and successful attempt by commercial and political elites to control a foreign region, resource, or people. The means of control included the enforcement of extra-territorial privileges and the threat of economic and political sanctions, often coupled with the attempt to keep other would-be imperial powers at bay. For the term "informal empire" to be applicable, we argue, historians have to show that one nation’s elite or government exerted extraterritorial legal control, de facto economic domination, and was able to strongly influence policies in a foreign country critical to the more powerful country’s interests.

British Empire[edit]

The term is most commonly associated with the British Empire, where it is used to describe the extensive reach of British interests into regions and nations which were not formal parts of the Empire, in that they were not colonies and were not directly ruled by the British.[1]

Among the most notable elements of the British informal empire was China, which played an important, if unwilling, role in British imperial trade, and South America, which was a significant region for British commercial interests and investments.[2]

Informal empire, like many imperial relationships, is difficult to classify and reduce to a prescriptive definition. In the instance of the British informal empire, the character of the relationship varied widely. Chinese inclusion in the sphere of British informal empire was unwilling, and was maintained by the use of direct military coercion – the First and Second Opium Wars – and through the exertion of great diplomatic pressure.[3] South American governments were often willing partners in the extension of British commercial ventures, but force was sometimes used against those who tried to apply protectionist policies (see for example, the Anglo-French blockade of the River Plate).

Informal empire is an important concept required to adequately explain the reach and influence of empire, and in the case of the British Empire, is vital to any holistic account of the British Imperial experience and intrinsic to describing the interests and purposes of the Empire as a whole. Informal empire, far from being distinctive and separate from formal empire, is often bound up with formal imperial interests. For example, British informal empire in China was a product of British formal control of India, resulting from the need to finance the activities of the British East India Company through the sale of opium to the Chinese.[citation needed]

In the economic sphere, British informal empire was driven by the free trade economic system of the Empire. In the so-called "Imperialism of Free Trade" thesis, as articulated by historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, the British Empire expanded as much by the growth of informal empire as it did by acquiring formal dominion over colonies.[4] Furthermore, British investment in empire was to be found not only in the formal Empire, but also in the informal empire – and, by Robinson and Gallagher's account, was indeed predominantly located in the informal empire. It is estimated that between 1815 and 1880, £1,187,000,000 in credit had accumulated abroad, but no more than one-sixth was placed in the formal empire. Even by 1913, less than half of the £3,975,000,000 of foreign investment lay inside the formal Empire.[5]

Challenges to British dominance in China from other Europeans, as well as by the US, led to a shift from informal to formal imperialism at the turn of the century.[6]

British historian David Reynolds claims that during the process of decolonisation, it was hoped that as an alternative to the declining formal empire, informal influence, sealed by economic ties and defense treaties would be swayed over the former colonies. The Commonwealth is suggested to have been an attempt by Britain to maintain some indirect influence over the newly independent countries.[7]

Informal empire may assume a primarily economic guise. However, this is not the exclusive definition or requirement of the term. Strategic considerations or other concerns may bring about the creation of an imperial influence over a region not formally a component of the empire.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica. "British Empire". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Hong Kong island became British in 1841, and an 'informal empire' operated in China by way of British treaty ports and the great trading city of Shanghai.
  2. ^ Porter, Andrew, ed. (1999). The Oxford History of the British Empire: The nineteenth century. Oxford University Press. pp. 146–155. ISBN 9780198205654.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. ^ "The Opium Wars in China | Asia Pacific Curriculum". Retrieved May 24, 2018.
  4. ^ John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, "The Imperialism of Free Trade", The Economic History Review, Second series, Vol. VI, no. 1 (1953) An online version of this seminal article is available at: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 21, 2008. Retrieved December 25, 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ A.. H. Imlah, 'British Balance of Payments and Exports of Capital, 1816-1913', Econ. Hist. Rev. 2nd ser. V (1952), pp. 237, 239; Hancock, op. cit. p. 27.
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of Chinese-American Relations (McFarland, 2015) edited by Yuwu Song, p.288-289
  7. ^ "Was British Decolonization after 1945 a Voluntary Process?". E-International Relations. Retrieved September 18, 2016.