I'm having trouble understanding the following passage. What is the paradox/contradiction in Britain advocating for free trade, then emerging with greatest gains in the partitioning of Africa by European powers?

It was paradoxical that Britain, the staunch advocate of free trade, emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire thanks to its long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the "scramble for Africa", reflecting its advantageous position at its inception.

Via https://en.m.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Scramble_for_Africa

I may need to do further reading on that partitioning and Britain's position at the time; please include (preferably summarized) reading recommendations on the subject if it helps answer this question.

  • 1
    I don't see the paradox - if the other colonial nations are not free trade advocates, you want to control as many colonies as you can to dictate free trade to the rest.
    – user13123
    Aug 17 '16 at 23:44

Regardless of the time period, though I believe that the question refers to the 20th, not the 12th Century, what is paradoxical about Britain's advocacy of free trade is the very existence of the British Empire. While by the 20th Century economics had shifted away from mercantilism in favor of capitalism, those running the empire still treated their overseas colonies in the same manner as they had in the late 16th Century under the rule of Elizabeth I.

In an empire, colonies are permitted to be established largely for the purpose of economic exploitation by the parent nation. The parent nation determines for the colonies what they will focus on producing, be it cotton, indigo, sugar, etc. The colonies are largely restricted from doing business outside the empire without the express permission of the government.

Therefore when Britain would advocate for free trade, only those with imperial permission could take advantage of opportunities for trade with foreign groups. Unfortunately, this often meant those in the dominant social and/or ethnic group, such as Englishmen/Scots/Welsh/Protestant Northern Irelanders in the UK, or whites in South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, etc. With such restrictions on their colonies, free trade in the Empire on the whole did not exist. Thus, their advocacy for free trade was both ironic and paradoxical.

  • Re your comment: "The colonies are largely restricted from doing business outside the empire without the express permission of the government" what is your evidence and source of information that this was true of the British Empire in the twentieth (or mid to late nineteenth) century? It may well have been true in the eighteenth century (a possible reason for 13 of Britain's American colonies revolting in the late eighteenth century) but that was not the subject of the question.
    – Timothy
    Aug 17 '16 at 17:01
  • Whoops, auto correct confused the centuries. I did mean 20th
    – cr0
    Aug 18 '16 at 11:54

In partitioning Africa with France, Belgium, Germany, and others, Britain basically subdivided the Continent into "national" spheres of influence. These were colonies that were not always allowed to engage in "free trade" with other nations, and such rights as they had could be revoked at any time. This was "paradoxically" inconsistent with a free trade stance.

These Europeans wanted to subdivide China in similar spheres of influence, except that they were thwarted by America's Open Door Policy.

  • 1
    As far as I know British colonies were allowed free trade until 1931, when a 10% tariff on imports was introduced. Do you have any evidence to the contrary?
    – Timothy
    Aug 17 '16 at 17:06
  • @Timothy:I wrote,"These were colonies that were not always allowed to engage in "free trade" with other nations, and such rights as they had could be revoked at any time." Your comment is an example of that.
    – Tom Au
    Jun 3 '17 at 18:08

Wikipedia, which the question quotes, is of course not guaranteed flawless.

Africa was actually mostly partitioned in the late nineteenth century, not the twentieth. There was though some adjustment of colonial boundaries partly in Britain's favour, at the expense of Germany, after the First World War.

I do not think there was necessarily any contradiction between this and Britain's then policy of free trade.

Things did change in 1931 in response to the Depression and resort of other countries to protective tariffs. Britain then abandoned its long-standing policy of free trade to impose a 10% tariff (customs duty) on imports from outside the British Empire.

From then on this to some extent skewed colonial markets in favour of British manufacturers as people living in British colonies had to pay a 10% higher price if they preferred to buy say German or Japanese manufactured goods compared to British ones.

This was to some extent to the colonies' disadvantage. However, not entirely so; it also meant that the colonies gained the same price advantage selling their produce within Britain and the British Empire, as any competitors from outside the Empire had a 10% tariff slapped on their produce.

  • Were tarriff changes a response to the Depression? my understanding is that they were one of the causes, but African economic history is not my strong suit. Still upvoting a valuable answer. Thank you.
    – MCW
    Aug 17 '16 at 17:55
  • 2
    @Mark C Wallace - fair question but I believe the answer is "both". Tariffs were introduced in Britain in 1931 (later than in most countries) a couple of years after the 'Wall Street Crash' which helped bring on world depression. Tariffs were introduced by the National Government, a coalition formed in response to the economic crisis. So, yes, they were in part a response to the depression; with rising unemployment countries wanted to protect their own industries. But, yes, tariffs also helped cause the depression by reducing world trade and suppressing competition.
    – Timothy
    Aug 19 '16 at 17:32

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