Influence and impact

We cover political influence in Access to English: Social Studies. The following text mentions a few other aspects of British influence on its former colonies.

Vintage map of the British Empire Vintage map of the British Empire  

Let us first look at the colonies to which numerous Britons emigrated: Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The immigrants took their British background and culture with them, in their baggage so to speak, and they also took an aggressive desire for land and a “new start” with them. These desires came into direct conflict with the native populations, with disastrous consequences. The hunting and gathering culture of the Aborigines in Australia was in conflict with the settlers’ desire for land and had to give way. The settlers’ cruelty provoked resistance which was crushed, and the settlers’ diseases killed off Aborigines in thousands. Much the same grim fate awaited the Maoris in New Zealand, although they received better treatment in the land settlements that were finally made. The native populations of Canada fared better, mostly because their societies did not stand in the way of the settlers’ desire for land.

For the settlers from Britain, however, things were brighter. They soon established systems of representative government to run their affairs. As independent countries they have, as mentioned, kept a large measure of British influence. This can be seen in the systems of government in Canada, Australia and New Zealand today.

The most important influence in these areas of settlement was the spread of the English language. It was already the language of the USA, an ex-colony. The consequence is still with us today: English is the main language in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Britain having served the language, the language can now serve Britain and give it a helping hand in various fields of cultural influence. In the twentieth century the position of the English language as the number one language of trade and transport was fortified and assured by America’s world-wide supremacy, a supremacy which coincided with another wave of technological innovation where English reigned supreme – computers and the internet.


Other influences in the areas of British settlement

  • Schools are often strongly influenced by old-style British educational traditions.
  • Sport to some extent follows a very British pattern: in Australia and New Zealand rugby and cricket have always been popular, and football is gaining ground.
  • Large congregations belong to Christianity in general and the Anglican Church in particular.
  • British universities, colleges and training hospitals receive hundreds of students from these countries.
  • Artists and musicians and writers often see Britain, and particularly London, as the place to go if they really want to reach the top of their professions.

We must remember that these ex-colonies also bear the stamp of other non-British outside influences. For example, the USA is today often the most favoured place for their students to study. More importantly, these countries have created their own strong identity. This identity receives impulses from their native populations, who at last are receiving a fair deal, and from other immigrant groups.



There has long been a debate on the impact of British imperialism in India. There has always been criticism of Britain’s influence. No one doubts that the British brought benefits. They built an extensive railway system, established a postal and telegraph network, organised the beginnings of industry, constructed canals for irrigation, started a lot of schools, introduced modern health care and through relief work saved millions of lives from famine. Everyone was equal before the law, regardless of caste. 

On the other hand, there was a downside. India’s economy was controlled so that it benefited Britain, with India becoming a supplier of raw materials to Britain and a great market for British goods. The people who benefited most in India were those who were already in positions of power. Many of them went to England for their education and returned home ready to work in India, only to find they were still treated as inferiors in their own country. This sometimes led to terrible acts of cruelty by the British rulers.. The worst example was the massacre of about 400 peaceful Indians, including mothers and children, by soldiers under British command at Amritsar in 1919. Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful supporters were also often harassed or beaten.

One lasting influence on India has been its democratic system of government, its free press, and the independence of its law courts. Not every country of such size, seeking rapid development, has been so lucky.

In most of the colonies where there was not large-scale settlement by people from Britain, English is not the main language, but remains an official language. In India, the world’s second most populous country, English has a special position in that it is a common language for a huge country where hundreds of different languages are spoken.



  1. In what way did Canada, Australia and New Zealand differ from the other colonies in their relationship to Britain in the 19th century?
  2. Describe the British impact on India.
  3. Some people see the British empire as primarily interested in service and see its colonies as beneficiaries. Others see the empire as primarily interested in exploitation, and see colonies as victims. 
    (i) Make two columns and find arguments for the two viewpoints.
    (ii) Check with a history text-book and see which viewpoint its writers seem to support. Do you think they give a balanced view?
  4. Are there any empires today? If so, who runs them, and what influence do they have on the world?
  5. Some people say that Britain ended its empire very tidily and relatively peacefully. What do you think of this view? (Disregard the fact that there are still a few islands in the empire.)
  6. Read the excerpt below from a Canadian tourist brochure. What kind of view on Canada’s colonial past is reflected here?

Victoria, capital of British Columbia since 1871, is steeped in the history of the “old country.”
Once a Victorian colony of the British Empire, the city has maintained both the flavour and charm of 19th-century London while enjoying ocean views and the most moderate climate in Canada.
Visitors relax in true British style with afternoon tea, offered in dozens of tea rooms. But most popular is the Tea Lobby at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. More than 100,000 visitors a year sit down for afternoon tea at the Empress, with cuppas served to such notables as Queen Elizabeth, Shirley Temple, Spencer Tracy, the king and queen of Siam, Bob Hope, John Travolta, Barbra Streisand, and Mel Gibson.