This article discusses the validity for historians of the concept of a pax britannica (a reminiscence, of course, of the pax romana), which Britain would have imposed during the 19th century, when she was the only superpower. Admittedly, from 1815 to 1914, there was no general war, even though ‘small’ wars broke out in Europe and overseas. The superior economic and naval power of Britain obliged France to avoid open conflict; Russia was also constrained, but not without the Crimean war. On the other hand, the influence of Britain in Europe had its limits, and eventually the British panicked before the rise of a strong German navy and this was a significant factor in the origins of World War I. Thanks to peace in Europe, Britain could devote her energies to overseas expansion. Besides her Empire stricto sensu, which grew relentlessly, she had a vast ‘informal Empire’ where the ‘imperialism of free trade’ prevailed. Altogether, the notion of pax britannica is most legitimate within the ‘formal’ empire. To her subject peoples Britain brought law and order, honest and efficient government, some economic development and a fast demographic growth. Pax britannica was both myth and reality, but it evaporated as Britain lost her economic and naval ascendancy.
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