I'll use the British empire as an example, although in principle the same question could apply to every other colonial power.

The British empire was ruled by the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom was made up of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England. Why didn't the UK simply expand to become the United Kingdom of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, Canada, Egypt, Sudan, India, etc?

Was it because the UK wasn't willing or because the colonies weren't willing? If the former, why would the UK be unwilling since the empire makes it more affluent? If the latter, why would the colonies be unwilling since the empire also makes it more affluent (especially in the wake of WW2, when many of the colonies were directly threatened or occupied and needed the support of the rest of the empire)?

From what I've seen, this was briefly tried by the Portuguese empire, but it oddly led to Brazil declaring independence within a few years. The trigger appears to be political events in Portugal that Brazil didn't have an influence in (since they didn't have much representation), but that doesn't explain why the Portuguese government can't just give them more representation. It's not like this hasn't been done before either: the US started from 13 states to 50 and by most accounts this has been mutually beneficial, so why can't colonial powers do the same?

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    Note that some colonies were accepted as part of the colonizing countries - the most successful one is perhaps Siberia. Other successful example is Karafuto and Formosa, though those were lost after WWII. Quite unsuccessful was the French attempt to integrate Algeria (but they did integrate some other small remaining bits and pieces of their empire). Oct 8, 2018 at 7:37
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    Geography for one, I should think, and many would contest (rightly or wrongly) the affluence side of the argument. Add to that vastly different cultures, economies, needs, interests and political outlooks. Oct 8, 2018 at 8:05
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    Do you realize that accepting colonies (let's say British India) as part of the country means that the habitants of those colonies would be citizens with the same rights, including the right to vote? Do you imagine a British PM in the 1920s being of Indian origin? Do you imagine a majority of MP (due to demographic inbalance) being Indian, black,...? And how it would affect the objective of having a colony (source of cheap raw goods and market for industrial goods) in the first place?
    – SJuan76
    Oct 8, 2018 at 8:21
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    @SJuan76 yes they'd become citizens with the same rights, but what's wrong with that? They just came out of WW2 together after all - the Empire needed the Indians to win the war; India needed the Empire to not get conquered by the Japanese. That relationship certainly seems like mutually beneficial to me.
    – Allure
    Oct 8, 2018 at 8:50
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    @davidlol Yes, I meant that if the colonies had been "accepted as part of their colonizing countries" that should have meant representation in accordance with their population, and that would have meant that the UK people would have had to give in a lot of their political power.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 8, 2018 at 13:56

3 Answers 3


The first law of institutions is that the survival of the institution dominates the mission of the institution. The second law of institutions is that change threatens the institution and must be suppressed.

  1. The question is probably too broad - each colonizing power had a different strategy for colonization, and will have a slightly different answer to the question. Grouping them together is like asking "Why do you like your spouse?" Although there may be broad patterns, the answer is going to be idiosyncratic for each couple.

  2. Take your example of the UK. Although the UK is an amalgam of the countries you name, the only Parliamentary representation is for Scotland, (IIRC) and that is not full representation. Furthermore the pocket borough system meant that very few Englishmen were actually represented. If you were to accept the colonials as citizens, then how could they have been represented in Parliament? If you were to grant just one representative shared among all colonies, suddenly each colonial would have been better represented than all Welshmen. (The situation is actually far worse than that, since only land owning adult males could vote, and land ownership in the UK was fixed, while new land was constantly being proved in the colonies. (Aside: I'm over 50, but under colonial rules I am not yet an adult since my father is still alive and I don't own property. Granted that my father would have been unlikely to survive to this point in the colonial era, but the point is that the franchise was restricted in ways that we do not currently imagine. There were men who survived till older than my father. Oddly, my son might argue for enfranchisement because he owns property - but in the UK it would have been night impossible for a son to have property unless the father had granted it to him, unless the son were a colonist, which is another argument that treating colonists as citizen would overturn the natural order of things.))

  3. Governance works best if the governed believe in a commonality of interest. That there is an "us", and the government works for our welfare. The interests of the colonies is going to be quite divergent from the interests of the colonizing country. Mercantalism was regulation to benefit the center at the expense of the colony - not just to shift benefit, but to oppress colonials. (which is why it is so amazing that British colonial strategy could exist in a mercantalist system). They would not have wanted colonials to be citizens because colonists would have had interests different from theirs- and the first rule of governance is that "different from us" is "lesser than us", and "dangerous to us" (see the first rule of institutions).

  4. Granting citizenship to colonials is a change. Change is bad. Different is bad. Only the status quo has the potential of maintaining the power of the elite. Modern people tend to assume that the state exists to benefit the people; this was not a valid assumption in colonial times - remember that most of the people were not even voters, (women, children - including 50 year old "children", slaves, members of non-state religions, servants, etc.). The government did not act on their behalf. Add in pocket boroughs and you'll see that "government" is exercised on behalf of a tiny minority whose primary goal is their own benefit and the survival of the institution. States existed to protect and preserve the elite. That is part of the reason for the American Revolution, and then for the subsequent Constitution. (The papers of the period are full of comments on the danger of allowing journeymen, apprentices and others to participate in government. )

  5. The goal of the pocket borough system was to effectively limit the franchise very tightly. They did gerrymandering well even before the term was invented. Expanding the franchise was the opposite of the goal.

  6. Finally and most importantly, Why would you grant colonials citizenship? Would you have granted citizenship to dogs and sheep as well? Would you have suggested that Jews or even Catholics be citizens!!! (I'm not mocking you, I'm trying to drive home the difference between the modern welfare state and the historical state. To the modern ear, citizen enfranchisement sounds logical. At the time, it would have been ludicrous.

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    Some sentences and paragraphs of your answer use the present tense when speaking about past conditions. They even use the present tense when speaking about past conditions that were over decades before decolonization happened, and thus were true during only part of the Colonial Era.
    – MAGolding
    Oct 8, 2018 at 19:56
  • Thanks for answer. As I understand your answer, the ultimate reason this didn't happen is because the colonizing power didn't accept the colonized country as "one of us". If they did there'd be no problem; since they didn't, there was no chance of integration happening.
    – Allure
    Oct 10, 2018 at 6:04
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    I find this answer surprising in many regards. To take one example " If you were to grant just one representative shared among all colonies, suddenly each colonial would have been better represented than all Welshmen." but in the early 18th century constituencies in Wales were represented by 24 members in the parliament of the kingdom of Great Britain. Apr 12, 2019 at 15:21

First, let's take your example of the UK. Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England are close to each other. Egypt, while not "that" far, is still quite far from the rest of the UK. Canada is even worse. Sudan wouldn't be so far if Egypt was part of the UK but then... France has quite a lot of trouble to gather the votes from La Réunion and the other Dom-Tom, it would be a political mess for the UK since many of the former colonized would be citizen.

Being citizen of the UK would have given, with some other things, the right to vote.

Colonist UK, didn't want this to happened. British people were at the height of their power, they thought they were superior in many ways to the natives, giving them the same rights would have caused an uprising in the heartland. In most case, it's kind of something you don't want to happened. In the early Twentieth century, the colonizing powers tried giving them more rights in order to appease tensions, it was quite recent as far as colonialism go, they had different ideologies than we had, and people like Rhodes were acclaimed as heroes.

For the Portuguese empire it's quite a weird case, they had quite a lot of instability at home after Napoleon's invasion, that's why they went to Brazil and started giving more rights and what's described in your link. It was a last resort, not something they wanted to do for a long time.

Thus, we covered a bit of the colonizing part of it.

Now for the colonized part. Most of the colonized people, had a different history than the colonists, Egypt for example fought a lot of war against people thralling them, against Greeks, against Romans, against Ottomans, against France ..., I'm not an expert on the British domination of Egypt but I'd be very surprised if they never intended to get their freedom again. Egypt was an incredible empire for a very very long time, they were a beacon of civilization for a long time and were almost always important before being subjugated by the Ottomans. They wanted back the gloriousness of past times, they did not want to switch masters.

Most colonized people didn't want to be part of the colonizing empire, Algeria didn't really reacted well to the French trying to make it part of France for good. One can say the deal proposed was not very fair but once again, the Colonizing powers were feeling that was fair, their ideologies were different, what they knew of them was limited, racism was kinda spread everywhere...

For the colonies like Canada, it's more of a special case than anything else. Colonists left their old countries for many reasons, be it promise of wealth, wanting to start over a new life, discovering etc... And these colonies always felt deprived compared to the heartland. Logistics were harsh to organize, phone and internet didn't exist so instant communication were kind of rare if you weren't on the same continent. Local administrators were usually left to their own devices, which made them more important to the people than their "true" overlord. The US didn't feel inferior the the UK, they wanted their freedom and got it. Why would Canada not want it ? Why would any other colony would want to stay shackled if one got free ?

I think the answer was not a lot.

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    It's not even distance. Ireland (the island) is just a short boat ride from Britain (again, the island), yet most of Ireland wasn't happy about being part of Great Britain, which is why we now have Ireland the independent country occupying most of the island. Similarly for Scotland & Wales: they're located on the same island, but both have significant independence movements.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 8, 2018 at 16:37
  • Of course, but distance is also a trouble for administration. The Irish question is quite an interesting one, but since the scope of the question seemed to be colonial times I tried not to go to deep...
    – LamaDelRay
    Oct 9, 2018 at 9:06
  • But Ireland was a colony, although more along the lines of India & Africa than the US/Canada/Australia. The English conquered the native population, and put in an English upper class to do the ruling. (Of course that's a considerable simplification of some eight centuries of history.)
    – jamesqf
    Oct 10, 2018 at 2:20
  • I really think it's a matter of debate. Irish people were not technologically overwhelmed by the english, even though the English upper class did the ruling, Irish people were not labelled as "inferior" as natives could be. I think this could be a good question on this site actually !
    – LamaDelRay
    Oct 10, 2018 at 8:26
  • Re "Irish people were not labelled as "inferior"", I suggest you read some Irish history. Nor were the various nations of India technologically overwhelmed by the British. They were quick to adopt western technology, particularly militarily. The British in India depended mostly on superior statecraft rather than technical or military superiority.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 11, 2018 at 15:59

Do not underestimate how different was life before fast long distance communication and travel.

About Brazil: ~1820, Brazil had 6M people, 3M free + 3M slave. Portugal had 3M.

When Brazil was raised as part of the kingdom, there were deputies representing Brazil, but very few. People noticed that it was not fair, but fairness would demand that half the seats be given to Brazilians. Do you think a Portuguese would easily accept that half of his lawmakers come from the colonies? Besides that, it would take months for a Brazilian lawmaker to communicate effectively with his electors.

I am not sure about pops in the Spanish, French or English empires versus the metropolitan pop, but I guess it would be very relevant.

About US: everybody heard "no taxation with no representation", and this has a lot to do with the original colonial pact (Edmund Burke wrote a lot about this):

  • US colonies would not pay tax
  • US colonies would import/export only with England (monopoly)
  • US colonies could not build some kinds of manufactories.

This happens because it would be very difficult for the King to tax a distant colony. Again, because any dispute would take months to be solved. It is easier to impose the monopoly and tax any commerce in the UK side.

Some people say that the taxes imposed by the UK before US independence were not so high, but the amount was not the point: any tax was too much if the monopoly and manufactory restrictions were still in place. And on the UK side, many people depended on the monopoly. It is not very surprising that after the wars commerce UK-US resumed in the XIX century, as the trade connections were already well established.

If suddenly there were fair representation (and taxation) for all the colonies, then how would all this change?

Some general comments:

Do you know the history of the cooperative of pig producers that started to help its members to produce chicken too? Suddenly there were conflicts over allocation of resources to pig problems against chicken problems, and the cooperative split. A parliament representing colonies and metropolis would have similar problems. Too many diverging interests. At least some kind of federation with local parliaments would be needed.

Some colonies are too small to be independent. During the independence of Brazil, there were people on the Grao-Para province (amazon river) and Angola which wanted to go with Brazil and others to remain in Portugal. But independence was not an option, as Angola depended on comerce, and Grao-Para, even in 1870 still could not have a profitable boat transportation system: they could not be independent with no subsidy from a metropolis. (Eventually Grao-Para went with Brazil, and the independence treaty stipulated that Brazil did not have a claim on Angola)

A similar reasoning is true for many small UK colonies. If a relative lack of representation is the price to pay for the economical and defense support from the metropolis, then let it be. And if a colonist is not a citizen in exactly the same way as a metropolitan, then strange convoluted citizenship, immigration and passport rules such as in the XX century british territories naturally emerge and even make some sense.

Another related XX century anecdote, to show that some people had reason in mistrusting some modern independence movements:

When Angola and Moçambique got independent, there were white or mixed race pops, some of them did not even remember when their antecessors come from Portugal to Africa. And everyone there could choose Portuguese citizenship and emigrate. Most of the black people fell for the communist promises of a new popular black government and stayed. But 800K people, mostly non-blacks, emigrated back to portugal, and many of them did not have any known relative in portugal anymore. This was almost 10% of portuguese population.

I have known 2 white (not really nordic-white, may be they are mixed race) families who at first decided to stay, as all their business and families were in Angola and Moçambique.

A shoe-maker in Moçambique had a two-store house, with his shop in the lower floor. After independence, the commie government come and stated that his house was now property of the "shoe makers communist association", that all his profits belonged to the government, and he could only take a fixed salary. As his fixed salary was ridiculous, he had to sell out of the books, and heavily bribe the commie who come every week to collect his profits, to turn his eye elsewhere. Then, he decided to leave to Portugal, still in time to collect his Portuguese citizenship, and start life from scratch. His son is today university professor at Coimbra.

A orange farmer: six months after independence all was nice. Then the commies come in tactical trucks, inspected the farm, and declared that the people committee would decide what to do. Life went on for some months. Then, the family went to a neighbor farm for a birthday party. Suddenly, their right-hand man, a black African, come pretty hurt and blooded: "the commies come, they killed every worker. I hide among the corpses, and when it was dark I ran. Lets all of us run! They know about this farm too!" So they went all to Namibia, where they were segregated from their black savior due to Apartheid laws. When moving, they could look back to see smoke raising from their farm: the commies just burned everything. They also had time to emigrate to Portugal and claim Portuguese citizenship. They regret very much that looking at Google Earth, their once lovely farm is now only savanna and ruins.

Do you really would want a peace that would grant parliament seats to those independence parties?

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