Why were the British colonies so successful relative to other colonies?

I’m thinking mainly of Australia, the United States and Canada. Why did the British colonial efforts (relative to other colonies) develop into such successful economic powerhouses vs other nations atttempts at colonization in the same historial time period.

My understanding is that the tohers were lagging in transportation and military technologies necessary to make a “go” of colonies in the early period; hence they were unable to compete for resources, and could not move large numbers of people into the new world.

The tohers also failed to adopt the technology of capitalization until well into the 18th century, making communication difficult. By the end of the nineteenth they century had ceased to play any kind of important role in world affairs, and were eventually assimilated by neighboring culturs with more robust alphabets.

What? Oh . . . well, never mind then.

Jeez, I thought it sounded good . . . convinced myself, I did . . .

I’ve thought about this too. I would assume Hong Kong. Singapore, Israel, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland count as first world ex colonies too. India and China are still third world but they are becoming pretty advanced by third world standards.

However if you look at this list of ex-british colonies


Most are still third world countries. Sudan, Myanmar or Uganda for example are not really bastions of anything good. Sudan and Myanmar are (i’m 95% sure) two of the seven worst countries on earth (of about 200 countries) for human, political and civil rights.

My guess is it all springs from Naval supremacy. The early colonies of all the powers struggled and growth primarily came from new colonists from outside rather than a growing birth rate from within. The colonies at first were also not very self sufficient requiring goods from abroad (Mainly the home country but also from any other colonies) to survive.

The Nation that could control the sea routes could move goods from all around the world to the colonies. They could send armies wherever they pleased to defend and control their territory. Evenetually the colonies would thrive and begin to grow and gain soem self sufficiency. England had that Navy.

Looking at the Colonial growth of North America it can be seen that sea routes determined colony locations. The Eastern Seaboard, the St Lawrence and Mississippi river were where the colonies of France and Britain flourished.

France and Spain were able to build large colonies but when disputes broke out between them and England. England’s edge ensured it’s enemies colonies would suffer in any prolonged conflict.

When we compare ourselves (Brazil) to the USA and other colonies… we tend to point out two things: Religion and Colonization.

Protestants in the US vs Catholics in South America. One praises wealth and prosperity… the other suffering and poverty (generalization… but correct). Brazil was pretty rich in resources in many different periods and wealth was based on commodities way too much.

The other factor, colonization, is that Brazil was occupied by people who were generally here only to plunder and get rich… then go back ASAP. They didn’t come to settle or to make a new life. Poverty or opportunity brought them. They never took the long term view Puritans and others had about making a society in the new world. Portuguese culture is also highly bureacratic and centralized… versus entrepeneurship of british colonies.

I think its mostly cultural in that sense… different mentalities and different results. Where there wasn’t much new immigrants and colonies… but just British rule things didn’t go too well. Africa is a good example.

I would point out that the obvious difference between these coloonies and others (non british or british) is that they have been massively settled (and the settlers replaced essentially all the native population).

I think we have several different types of “colonies”.

Places such as Canada, the United States, and Australia were primarily settled by Europeans, and inherited democratic institutions. There was also a strong emphasis on a middle class, relatively “egalitarian” social make up. While many of the immigrants were the “poor huddled masses”, a good number were well educated in their homelands, and essentially brought a lot of ‘human capital’ to these colonies.

In more recent years Asian immigrants have also made significant contributions to these lands.

Most French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch colonies were primarily populated by indigenous peoples or mixed race people, usually kept under the thumb of a small European elite. With the loss of Quebec, French never got to develop a “USA” or “Australia” of its own. Argentina and Uruguay were actually among the world’s wealthiest nations until political upheaval in the mid 1900s. Chile and Costa Rica are not exactly rich, but they probably compare well with many European countries in their standards of living.

Those countries are heavily defined by European immigration as well.

I know that sound an awful lot like saying “European people make better societies”, that isn’t what I intend to say at all, but the white majority countries did not experience the same sort of vast inequalities between a wealthy minority and a poor majority on a national scale, instead there are historically disadvantaged minorities. In most other colonies the majority filled that “minority” role. In some former colonies it is not a wealthy “white” minority, but a rich Chinese or East Indian minority that is in conflict with the indigenous majority.

Inequality not only reinforces poverty, but fuels political unrest and crime. I think countries such as South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela now have the infrastructure, resources, and technology to be developed nations - but their huge inequalities hamper their further development.

One book that deals with that topic (that I partly disagree with but still recommend) is Amy Chua’s “World on Fire” which primarily deals with wealthy minorities in southeast Asia and Latin America - and of course there Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” to explain how Europeans got ahead in these areas in the first place.

These books don’t deal only with this topic, but they help explain the complex reasons why some countries and areas are terribly poor and others are well off.

I doubt that there is any single factor–or even primary factor. Both kingpengvin and syncrolecyne have presented good points. Another aspect to consider is what happened to the “mother” countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. France, Spain, and Portugal were all subjected to upheaval and conquest, themselves. It is hard to manage an empire when one cannot protect one’s capital or economy. Germany and Belgium got into the colonizing game rather late. Germany was stripped of its colonies after WWI and Belgium made itself the poster child for “The Wrong Way To Manage a Colony using Rapine and Destruction.” Britain escaped nearly all those problems, never being conquered and facing no violent revolution.

About the different ways they were colonized…

Spanish colonies were more centralized, it was the government (monarchy) who was in charge, at least more than in the case of the United States (which had private companies colonizing, right?). It was in a way like Rashik mentioned relating Brazil.

In the case of Latin America, in many places they did exterminate the local population and colonized the countries, but instead of going towards industrialization, the colonies became agricultural or mining centers. They provided what the main country lacked, instead of developing different main industries, they focused on one.

Given that all the mentionned successful colonies and only these successful colonies have been “primarily settled by european”, I’m not sure why you don’t think it was a primary factor. Or the single factor, actually.

You’re trying to explain the difference on the basis of the situations of the colonial countries duting the colonial era, but if it were true, then there would be a noticeable difference between the “non primarily settled by europeans” british colonies and the “primarily settled by europeans” non-british colonies. And I can’t perceive such a difference. Are african former british colonies now in a better shape than non-british african colonies? Since they aren’t, why these explanations about the supposed better situation of Britain you mentionned didn’t have any consequences in Africa?
Once again, there’s one single blatant similarity between Canada, the USA, Australia and New-Zealand. They were all essentially entirely settled by europeans. It seems quite ludicrous to me to ignore this obvious similarity and try to find some convoluted explanation related to Britain, which, mysteriously, out of pure luck I assume, had no influence on british colonies not sharing this peculiarity, but had an enormous influence on british colonies sharing it.

This argument does make alot of sense. I’ve heard the same argument explaining why Israel has advanced so fast compared to its neighbors, because it was founded and populated by westerners who brought their tastes and habits with them. Ireland and Scotland are other countries which were British colonies that were populated by Europeans.

Well, first off, early colonization attempts by Britian was a complete and utter failure. The colony at Roanoke, for instance. Anways, prior to this, Henry the VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon allowed for England to lose all alliances with Spain. Henry’s defeat over the Spanish Armada allowed for them the aforementioned naval supremecy. That is just the begining.

Now, the Spanish were there for one thing: Gold. Conquistadors were there to become rich and leave, also as someone above stated. The English wanted to establish permanent colonies and THEN acquire riches. Since the Spanish had found and plundered Central and South America, that left the English to conquer the north. This allowed for the English to stumble upon one hellavu cash crop: tobacco. They made so much money off of this.

Fast forward many years and Britain loses her empire in America. This fall in colonial rule leaves them with a)limited trade and wealth over seas and b)the knowledge that without colonial rule and just a trading post they can make much more money with less effort.

Well, the defeat of Napolean in 1817 left France devestated. The Congress of Vienna and the Franco-Prussian war also helped to propel Britain as the only international power. The final step in creating a giant monster was the British Industrial Revolution. This event allowed for Britain to create finished goods cheaper than any local groups which made them a very favorable trading partner. Britain needed raw materials to create finished goods so this sent them on an imperialistic adventure.

Just getting there was not enough. People did fight back, of course. What made them able to conquer places like China, Sri Lanka, and Africa was due in part to a newly developed strategy of warfare and a new technology. By being well organized (yes, this was an improvement) and having the latest gun technology, Britain was able to overcome supperior numbers of armed citizens. The Zulu wars, for instance. Oh, and diseases spread by them helped to decimate the populations as well.
…As you can see, my post collapsed upon itself. If I am at all incoherent please ask me to elaborate further. There were many, many reasons why the British were able to conquer so easliy and better than others. I just gave a few.

Whoa there… hold up.

Ireland and Scotland were separate nations (in the sense of ethnic nation) that were subjugated by (Ireland) or combined with (Scotland) England. Neither one were “colonies” in the usual sense of the world. And I’d watch out around Scots if you say that Scotland’s an English colony! They won’t take kindly to that.

I’m open to correction, but I was not aware that Singapore and Hong Kong were actually “settled” by the Brits so much as haing the Brits establish a more typical colonial ruling class over an existing population.

I am not claiming that the settlement of some countries by Europeans had no affect on the issue. (I did support syncrolene’s post as providing valuable input to the discussion.) On the other hand, if “European settlement” is the single factor that makes or breaks a colony’s ability to be successful following independence, then it would seem that Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, to say nothing of Cuba, should be bigger economic powerhouses than Hong Kong and Singapore.

Columnist P.J. O’Rourke had a threory that colonies where people went to establish farms and self-sustaining, self-regulating communities (i.e. eastern Canada, New England, etc.) turned into nice places while colonies where wealthy European familes sent wastrel sons to exploit a New World resource for a couple of years, get rich, then skedaddle home (as might be argued happened in parts of the American South, and South/Central America) turned into shitholes.

Hi, everyone.

The British set up a number of their colonies along mercantilist lines. Native industries and agriculture were disrupted. Raw materials were sent to Britain, which produced manufactured goods and sold them in the colony.

In the following, a lac (lakh) I believe is 100K Rupees, and a Rupee is the Indian
unit of currency.

Here we have a system which not only disrupted native hand-craft industry, but prevented any move towards industrialization through the use of legal measures (mostly tarrifs and other taxes). The British took a reasonably healthy pre-industrial economy which was starting to industrialize and turned it into an economic basket-case.

There was some relaxation of these measures post WWI, but there was no movement in any appreciable measure to industrialize until after independence.

I believe there was a similar disruption of native agriculture, but I don’t have cites for that.

Contrast this with the US, where such restrictions on manufacturing were much more lax, and even those restrictions were a frequent source of contention between the colonies and England. It seems that England in general gave it’s colonies with British settlers (Canada, US, Australia, NZ, SA), much more freedom to establish their own industries and economies.

HK and Singapore are interesting cases in that they are both small colonies which were financial centers of their regions. But if one looks at Malaysia, just north of Singapore, we find that they too suffered from similar disruptions under British rule. Comparatively, Bombay, which was (and is) the financial center of India fared pretty well under the British system, while other areas suffered tremendously.

There were several important economic reforms introduced by the British, such as protection for peasant farmers from creditors, and grievance resolution procedures, but these were all aimed at protecting agricultural output for producing raw materials.

That’s my take anyway.

Slightly different situation, yes. Singapore and HongKong were cases where the British colonial rulers provided the efficient legal infrastructure and security apparatus so that an entire settlement colony of other enterprising descendants-of-immigrants – Mainland Chinese – could do their thing. (The power-brokers in Singapore upon independence were Chinese, not Malay; a majority of the HK population were post-British-rule arrivals.) Micro-states work on a different dynamic than land-rich states, anyway. They HAVE to turn to trade.

Actually, Cuba was on its way to be ahead of all Latin America in terms of developing an entrepeneurial culture – thanks to adopting an immigrant-friendly policy – when historic events took that interesting turn.

However in this context, “settlement” seems taken to mean having actual populations of people with Northwestern European, or Chinese, worldviews move to the colonial territory with the intention of remaining there permanently to build a community and prosperity through work. Not where they just showed up to sit at the club verandah drinking daiquiris or gin-and-tonics while leeching off the natural resources and the “darkies”. Plantation economies tend to be slower than family-farm economies to move in the direction of trading/industrial economies IMO.

As to the comparison of the Caribbean islands with HK/Singapore, yes there is a factor beyond “settlement”: none of the Lesser Antilles was a strategically located “crossroads” port with a cosmopolitan population and enterpreneurial merchant class. Until the mid-20th Century all of them existed as basically plantation economies, with the evident consequence.

I think it’s pretty simple. If a country was a place where convicts or religious exiles went to get a second chance then the country turned out o.k. If it was a place where minor noblility sent their second sons to either make their fortune and return home rich, or lose all their money and return home in disgrace, then that country is pretty much a sewer.

Well I don’t think NZ is a sewer and we got no convicts and mostly plain old prodestants.

Mike, after only a couple of years of white settlement in Australia, the convicts were greatly outnumbered by free immigrants. The convicts had very little impact on Australian history, at the founding moments or otherwise. Therefore, I think we can discard your thesis pretty quickly, at least as it meant to apply to Australia.