21 August 2021

Strengthening the British Empire via ...sport!

Sport was a key branch of British Cultural Imper­ialism, like trade, English and Protestantism. The most popular sports, including cricket, football and ten­n­is, were org­an­ised & codified in C19th Brit­ain, but the motiv­ations behind a sport programme across the vast British Empire were unclear.

With colonial ex­pan­sion, Cricket came to In­dia with the East India Trading Co. Their first cricket match was played between sail­ors and then the Calcutta Cricket Club est­ablished in an Imperial outpost in 1792. Some Indians were actively involved in making the foreign sport their own. The Par­s­is of Bombay, an ethnic minority peop­le in trade, copied their boss­es in both business and sport. Parsi sons used free time to play the cricket they’d learned by watch­ing Englishmen on Army parade grounds. The Parsi boys founded their first cricket club in 1848, Orient­al Cricket Club.

Older British sports such as cricket, horse racing and rowing were quickly established; in fact New Zealand was only slightly behind Britain in taking up newly organised sports such as rugby and tennis.  The earliest recorded game of cricket, which involved the children of English settlers and Māori players, was in the Bay of Islands in Dec 1832. The earliest organised horse racing was held in the Bay of Islands in 1835, with the first race meeting in Auckland in 1840 under the Lieut-Gov William Hobson. The Wellington Cricket Club for prominent colonists and an Albion Cricket Club for working men opened in 1842.

The Aboriginal XI  Cricket Team left Sydney in Feb 1868, the first time an organised sporting group had travelled to England as Australian representatives. English pride was only dented when the national cricket team lost to Aust­ralia in 1877, in the first international Test Match in Melbourne. And Eng­land’s first cricketing loss to Aust­ral­ia in London in 1882 was hurtful blow to the British imperial psyche; they burned the stumps!

Another Australia national cricket team toured England 
1884, Wiki.

British paternalism suggested games grew ch­ar­acter, so players could show leadership, loyalty, sacrifice and self-cont­rol. Thus the use of sport as a moral­is­ing ag­ent was imp­ortant for the British, as they cl­assed many nat­iv­es as “sav­age”. Snobby Vic­t­or­ian class ideals onto the colon­ies. Maint­aining the Bri­t­ish Emp­ire meant the Empire had a moral dimension, help­ing re­af­f­irm class and rac­ial divisions that were cen­t­ral to Vict­orian life. 

Especially in white settler col­on­ies like South Africa. James Logan (b1857) left Scotland for South Africa as a rail­way worker in 1877. His business flair helped estab­lish his cat­er­ing est­ablish­ments along South Africa’s railways; as he became weal­­th­ier he exten­d­ed his influen­ce by joining the Legis­lative As­sembly in 1894. And he built a 1st class cricket ground in South Africa.

As the Empire expanded, young men were needed to travel to isolated sites, to live in grim conditions. These young, middle-class men had been instilled with imperial values at public school. Headmaster Thom­as Ar­n­old at Rugby and headmasters at Winch­est­er, Har­row and Eton sub­scribed to Imperialist imperatives and devoted their schools to those who’d be soldiers or administrat­ors. The development of this muscul­ar el­ite via sp­ort dev­el­oped fitness, self cont­rol, health, team­work, solidarity and especially duty.

But not just sport; British imperial school­ing relied on heavy Chris­t­ian ev­an­gelic­alism. Miss­ion­aries who travelled out to the colonies had been ins­t­illed with the imperial ethic at public school, to spread the mes­s­­age of Christ­ianity. Like sport, Christianity encour­aged a level of obedience and conform­ism, curing the colonies of savagery.

Crick­et provided comfort to homesick Eng­lish­men, a means to rec­reate memories of home. And these leisure activities allowed dif­f­er­ent col­on­ial classes to assemble and to promote social mobility. The noble, manly game of cricket was brought to Canada, by Vancouver Island's first settler, Capt William Grant in 1849. Many fur-traders that pop­ulated Fort Victoria, before settle­ment began, were British but it was the later set­t­lers who brought “civilisation” to Britain's North Amer­ican out­post.

From 1870 political imperialism changed; educat­ed classes saw the British Empire having to meet the threat posed by grow­ing Europ­ean po­w­­ers eg Fr­ance, Ger­many and Italy. These nations exp­anded as they saw that their own Empires could help their ailing economies. Brit­­ain claim­ed her colonies mainly had a moral dim­ension, a Mis­sion to Civ­ilise, to just­ify the conquest of Asian & Af­rican countries. [Nonetheless the British colonies still had strategic and trading value!]

In the ear­lier C19th, Britain relied on nat­ive sold­iers in war­, especially in In­dia. And in administration. In India 1000 Bri­tish civil servants gov­er­ned 280 million people but the British civil servants respons­ible for the Raj could not have done so alone. Mill­ions of Ind­ians cooperated and fill­ed the ranks of the army, bureau­cracy and pol­ice. Britain had to make the Indian elite feel part of the Raj, and keep them fit. The 1857 Ind­ian Up­ris­ing showed what happened otherwise.

Indian Cricket Team in the UK
1911. BBC

Rugby wasn’t play­ed much in the public schools where future admin­is­t­rators of the Emp­ire were educated. Nor was it suited to the hot clim­­ates in the Emp­ire. However in many col­on­ies rugby devel­oped a sense of fair play, nationhood and man­hood; victories against Bri­t­ain became evidence of the maturing of colonies. Rugby, and box­­ing, promoted the British de­sire to be seen as strong and mascul­ine

Tennis was another game played over the Empire, provid­ing times for so­cial contact, and many imperial administrators built ten­nis courts in their houses or civil buildings. Golf and tennis bore the historic­al imprint of the middle-class. Horse racing was pop­ular, all­owing all classes to meet. In India polo and hunt­ing bec­ame pop­ular am­ongst the officer class, where the elite could socialise. Snook­er be­came popular among the elite, ent­ert­ainment on long winter evenings.
Colonial administrators and their families
Socialising at the tennis courts
So, did sports bind the Empire together? It was cricket that became the symbol of solid­arity that exemp­lif­ied imperial amb­ition and ach­ieve­ment. As the cul­tural exp­er­ience of cricket differed from one colony to the next, of the coloured crick­eting nat­ions of Empire, the West Indies did the best. The first Test series to be played in the West Indies against Eng­land in 1929–30, and the West Indies was first victorious in the 1934–5 series. This experience changed the view that crick­et was forced down on a compliant, colonised people.

Before India’s independence in 1947, fierce debates raged over British influen­ce. Yet in 1971 the Indian cricket team def­eated the former colonisers at their own game, on their own turf. And in 1983, Ind­ia won the cricket World Cup at Lord’s Cr­icket Ground.  Additionally, India turned cricket into a huge industry.

In the early Empire, Britain had of course more skilled and more civ­il­­ised. So if the introduction of sports was to help colonisers affirm their cultural superiority and justify their rule upon the Emp­ire, it was ironic that sports empow­er­ed the colonies, not supressed them. Was colonial success a justification for being granted self govern­ment?

Thanks to  Brian Stoddart  & Thomas Fletcher.


DUTA said...

I like the photos in your post: the map of the British empire, the Australian cricket team. the Indian cricket team,colonial administrators and their families.
Colonialism and Imperialism are not my 'cup of tea', so I'm not interested in the sports promoted by the British in their colonies.

Deb said...

If there had to be colonial spread, then better by sport and religion than by military control.

Andrew said...

A good question posed at the end.

Hels said...


I knew that two thirds of the world would not be remotely interested in the role that cricket, tennis and rugby played in British countries or anywhere else. But colonial expansion was happening all over the world, so we need to ask what did the colonising nations do to make it succeed? And what did the non-European nations do, as they were having their history-language-culture-religion taken over by Europeans?

Hels said...


I have to agree, sort of. Colonisation of distant nations (in the name of endless mining supplies and oil, great shipping opportunities and ports, exotic foods and drinks, spacious penal colonies etc etc) was VERY desirable. So noone could have stopped Europeans taking over
Africa, the Americas, parts of Asia and Australasia. The question you ask is could the inevitable colonisation process be moral and gentle, instead of brutal?

Sue Bursztynski said...

I rather like the idea that cricket empowered the people in British colonies. Who would have known then that Indian and West Indian teams would be so enthusiastic about the game?

You’d be surprised where cricket turns up. A late friend of mine, an American, was passionate about cricket, played it in local US clubs and went to see it in Brisbane when he visited Australia,

Hels said...


Although everything I wrote about sport in the British colonies is probably correct, that still doesn't make me feel wonderful about what happened in India, Pakistan, South Africa, West Indies etc. Being granted self govern­ment came peacefully for some countries in the British Empire, and via war in others.

Hels said...


it was a wonderful opportunity for people in British colonies to get fit, have a fun social life, travel to other cities, wear a smart uniform, learn English and become famous in their own community. I would have done it in a heart beat, or at least gone to all the games my brothers played.

I wonder if Indian and West Indian men were so good at sport in general that they would have taken to any team sport the Brits brought.

Fun60 said...

I've never thought about the part played by the British Empire on what sports were played within the Empire. We may have invented them but history has shown us we are not that good at some of them. I think of sport as a great leveller. Cricket, rugby, tennis, golf are no longer the sports of the rich but can be accessed by all. There are many men and women of colour who are excellent role models through their achievements in sport.

Hels said...


team sport is _still_ a great leveller, and schools still put a lot of effort into their sports programme, whether they are a government school or a fee-paying private school.

But I suspect that nowadays young people sit on their bums for 95% of their waking hours, and so sport is vital for health and fitness. My beloved (aged 70) is still very fit because he played rugby for years and then squash.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Your article is a good background for explaining the lyrics of Ivor Novello's 1924 song, March With Me: "We may have lost at Tennis and at Cricket, they say at sport our end is drawing near, but we won the open championship at Scrabble*, and I know we win the Boat Race every year." Here is Beatrice Lillie singing the song with her usual hi-jinks (I believe she originally introduced it), and as a bonus, a tiny bit of footage of Ed Wynn:

* originally Mah Jongg

Hels said...


Great choice!

I read the words of March With Me in
https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2086&context=mmb-vp and found them very clever. And the post-WW1 timing was perfect. In fact I think this humorous British anthem, as it was called, was probably more telling than academic journal articles about the British Empire and sport.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - certainly sport played a part in allowing men (originally) to relax ... and then, as now, the people organising the fields, pitches, courts etc got interested. I've been reading about amazing men from the Caribbean playing cricket, and developing into brilliant administrators/lawyers in Britain and the Caribbean, and influenced reactions in other countries ... there's such a lot of influence from the sport ... unintentionally delivered - as part of movement of people. All the best - Hilary

Hels said...


spot on! Amazing men from the Caribbean and other British colonies made a mark for themselves, firstly in sport, in a way that would never have been possible otherwise. Then they made a name for themselves in law, Parliament or community development eg Learie Nicholas Constantine, Murray Bisset, William Henry Milton, Jack Newman, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Wes Hall. Brilliant!!

Anonymous said...

Let us plunge a fiery, burning stake in the heart of the idea that school sport builds character. If you were out of shape or had poor hand-eye co-ordination, as I did, you would always be the last person chosen for the rugby or cricket teams. Many a school match I watched as a linesman, or picking up the orange peels. Only one teacher, in 13 years of school education, spent any time at all in showing me how to throw (a baseball), and no one helped in anything else. The lessons I drew from school sport were that good athletes and large kids got all the attention and applause, and no one, neither students nor teachers, cared an iota for the rest. Sport was where the bullies were permitted to hone their skills, and where ruthless competition, not team-work or collaboration, was predominant. No good, and quite a lot of bad, has come from school sport.

Hels said...


Thanks for your thoughts. While I agree on the _personal_ level that poor athletes tended to be ignored by the sporting world at school, I disagree at the club and state level. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, private boys' schools said they dedicated themselves to important colonial values - Christianity, physical fitness, masculinity, team work and duty.

I wonder if that dream was ever fulfilled, even back at the height of the Empire.