Corruption, despotism and the Colonial Office, c. 1820–50
in The many lives of corruption
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Existing work has shown that colonial sinecures and agencies were vital stays in the edifice of Old Corruption during the early nineteenth century; but historians have yet to explore in any detail contemporary arguments about the nature and consequences of corrupt rule in Britain’s overseas possessions. This chapter addresses this neglect by focusing on the criticism aimed at the Colonial Office during the period 1820 to 1850, when it administered Britain’s empire outside of India. This critique was not just a Radical project: Conservative and Liberal commentators were equally convinced of the dangers of allowing imperial corruption to continue unchecked. The chapter opens by exploring the various forms of corruption which contemporaries detected in operation under the Colonial Office. It then moves to discuss how these accusations of corrupt practice were linked to wider political arguments about the centralising ‘tyranny’ of the Colonial Office, and the social effects of irresponsible government over distance. The final part of the chapter asks how ‘the Office’ had come by the early 1850s to be seen as a model of administrative probity, worthy of emulation by other departments of government. In this way, the chapter restores the empire as a crucial site of the politics of Old Corruption. It speaks in equal measure to the increasingly rich historiography on the idea of ‘corruption’ and to the wider literature on politics and ideas in early Victorian Britain.

The many lives of corruption

The reform of public life in modern Britain, 1750–1950

Editors: Ian Cawood and Tom Crook

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