British Empire

From New World Encyclopedia

The British Empire in 1897, marked in pink, the traditional color for Imperial British dominions on maps

The British Empire is the most extensive empire in world history and for a time was the foremost global power. It was a product of the European age of discovery, which began with the global maritime explorations of Portugal and Spain in the late fifteenth century.

By 1921, the British Empire ruled a population of between 470 and 570 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 14.3 million square miles (more than 37 million square kilometers), about a quarter of Earth's total land area. Though it has now mostly evolved into the Commonwealth of Nations, British influence remains strong throughout the world: in economic practice, legal and governmental systems, sports (such as cricket and football), and the English language itself.

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The British Empire was known as "the empire on which the sun never sets"

The British Empire was, at one time, referred to as "the empire on which the sun never sets" (a phrase previously used to describe the Spanish Empire and later to American influence in the world) because the empire's span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies. On the one hand, the British developed a sense of their own destiny and moral responsibility in the world, believing that many of her colonial subjects required guidance, that it was British rule that prevented anarchy and chaos. Positively, the education system sponsored by the British promulgated an awareness of such values as freedom, human dignity, equality—even though those taught often observed that their colonial masters did not practice what they preached. Negatively, peoples and resources were exploited at Britain's advantage and more often than not at the cost of her overseas possessions.

Many British thought their ascendancy providential, part of the divine plan. Anyone who believes that history is not merely a series of accidents might well see God's hand behind the creation of an empire that, despite all the ills of an imperial system imposed on unwilling subjects, also left a cultural, literary, legal, and political legacy that binds people of different religions and races together.


The term "British Empire" was frequently used after 1685; for example, in John Oldmixon's book The British Empire in America, Containing the History of the Discovery, Settlement, Progress and Present State of All the British Colonies, on the Continent and Islands of America (London, 1708).[1][2]

Background: The English Empire

Growth of the overseas empire

Statue of John Cabot in Newfoundland, site of England's first overseas colony

The origin of the British Empire as territorial expansion beyond the shores of Europe lies in the pioneering maritime policies of King Henry VII, who reigned 1485 to 1509. Building on commercial links in the wool trade promoted during the reign of King Richard III of England, Henry established the modern English merchant marine system, which greatly expanded English shipbuilding and seafaring. The merchant fleet also supplied the basis for the mercantile institutions that would play such a crucial role in later British imperial ventures, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company and the British East India Company chartered by Henry's grand-daughter, Elizabeth I. Henry's financial reforms made the English Exchequer solvent, which helped to underwrite the development of the Merchant Marine. Henry also ordered construction of the first English dry dock at Portsmouth, and made improvements to England's small Royal Navy. Additionally, he sponsored the voyages of the Italian mariner John Cabot in 1496 and 1497 that established England's first overseas colony—a fishing settlement—in Newfoundland, which Cabot claimed on behalf of Henry.

Henry VIII and the rise of the Royal Navy

King Henry VIII founded the modern English navy (though the plans to do so were put into motion during his father's reign), more than tripling the number of warships and constructing the first large vessels with heavy, long-range guns. He initiated the Navy's formal, centralized administrative apparatus, built new docks, and constructed the network of beacons and lighthouses that made coastal navigation much easier for English and foreign merchant sailors. Henry established the munitions-based Royal Navy that was able to hold off the Spanish Armada in 1588.


The first substantial achievements of the colonial empire stem from the Act for Kingly Title, passed by the Irish parliament in 1541. This statute converted Ireland from a lordship under the authority of the English crown to a kingdom in its own right. It was the starting point for the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland.

By 1550 a committed policy of colonization of the country had been adopted, which culminated in the Plantation of Ulster in 1610, following the Nine Years War (1595-1603). These plantations would serve as templates for the empire. Several people involved in these projects also had a hand in the early colonization of North America, including Humphrey Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. The Plantations were large tracts of land granted to English and Scottish settlers, many of whom enjoyed newly created titles.

The Elizabethan era

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1796)

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the years 1577 to 1580, fleeing from the Spanish, only the second to accomplish this feat after Ferdinand Magellan's expedition.

In 1579 Drake landed somewhere in northern California and claimed what he named Nova Albion for the English Crown (Albion is an ancient name for England or Britain), though the claim was not followed by settlement. Subsequent maps spell out Nova Albion to the north of all New Spain. England's interests outside Europe now grew steadily, promoted by John Dee (1527-1609), who coined the phrase "British Empire." An expert in navigation, he was visited by many of the early English explorers before and after their expeditions. He was a Welshman, and his use of the term "British" fitted with the Welsh origins of Elizabeth's Tudor family, although his conception of empire was derived from Dante Alighieri's book Monarchia.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1537-1583) followed on Cabot's original claim when he sailed to Newfoundland in 1583 and declared it an English colony on August 5 at St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first colony in Virginia in 1587 at Roanoke Island. Both Gilbert's Newfoundland settlement and the Roanoke colony were short-lived, however, and had to be abandoned due to food shortages, severe weather, shipwrecks, and hostile encounters with indigenous tribes on the American continent.

The Elizabethan era built on the past century's imperial foundations by expanding Henry VIII's navy, promoting Atlantic exploration by English sailors, and further encouraging maritime trade especially with the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League, a Baltic trading consortium. The nearly twenty year Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604), which started well for England with the sack of Cadiz and the repulse of the Spanish Armada, soon turned Spain's way with a number of serious defeats which sent the Royal Navy into decline and allowed Spain to retain effective control of the Atlantic sea lanes, thwarting English hopes of establishing colonies in North America. However it did give English sailors and shipbuilders vital experience. Rivalry between the British, the Dutch and the Spanish reflected both commercial and territorial competition but also the Protestant-Catholic divide.

The Stuart era

In 1604, King James I of England negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain, and the first permanent English settlement followed in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. During the next three centuries, England extended its influence overseas and consolidated its political development at home. In 1707, under the Acts of Union, the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland were united in Westminster, London, as the Parliament of Great Britain.

Scottish role

There were several pre-union attempts at creating a Scottish Overseas Empire, with various Scottish settlements in North and South America. The most famous of these was the disastrous Darien scheme which attempted to establish a settlement colony and trading post in Panama to foster trade between Scotland and the Far East.

After union many Scots, especially in Canada, Jamaica, India, Australia and New Zealand, took up posts as administrators, doctors, lawyers and teachers. Progressions in Scotland itself during the Scottish enlightenment led to advancements throughout the empire. Scots settled across the Empire as it developed and built up their own communities such as Dunedin in New Zealand. Mainly Calvinist, the Scots had a strong work ethic which was accompanied by belief in philanthropy as a religious duty, all of which impacted on the education system that was developed throughout the empire.


Jamestown, under the leadership of Captain John Smith (1580-1631), overcame the severe privations of the winter in 1607 to found England's first permanent overseas settlement. The empire thus took shape during the early seventeenth century, with the English settlement of the 13 colonies of North America, which would later become the original United States as well as Canada's Atlantic provinces, and the colonization of the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Barbados.

The sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean, where slavery became the basis of the economy, were at first England's most important and lucrative colonies. The American colonies provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the South and naval materiel (military hardware) and furs in the North were less financially successful, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West

England's American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonization, England gaining control of New Amsterdam (later New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The growing American colonies pressed ever westward in search of new agricultural lands.

During the Seven Years' War the British defeated the French at the Plains of Abraham and captured all of New France in 1760, giving Britain control over the greater part of North America.

Later, settlement of Australia (starting with penal colonies from 1788) and New Zealand (under the crown from 1840) created a major zone of British migration. The entire Australian continent was claimed for Britain when Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) proved New Holland and New South Wales to be a single land mass by completing a circumnavigation of it in 1803. The colonies later became self-governing colonies and became profitable exporters of wool and gold.

Free trade and "informal empire"

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (John Trumbull, 1797). The loss of the American colonies marked the end of the "first British Empire."

The old British colonial system began to decline in the eighteenth century. During the long period of unbroken Whig dominance of domestic political life (1714–1762), the empire became less important and less well-regarded, until an ill-fated attempt (largely involving taxes, monopolies, and zoning) to reverse the resulting "salutary neglect" (or "benign neglect") provoked the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), depriving the empire of its most populous colonies.

The period is sometimes referred to as the end of the "first British Empire," indicating the shift of British expansion from the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the "second British Empire" in Asia and later also Africa from the eighteenth century. The loss of the Thirteen Colonies showed that colonies were not necessarily particularly beneficial in economic terms, since Britain could still profit from trade with the ex-colonies without having to pay for their defense and administration.

Mercantilism, the economic doctrine of competition between nations for a finite amount of wealth which had characterized the first period of colonial expansion, now gave way in Britain and elsewhere to the laissez-faire economic classical liberalism of Adam Smith and successors like Richard Cobden (1804-1865) a manufacturer, politician, and anti-regulationist.

The lesson of Britain's North American loss—that trade might be profitable in the absence of colonial rule—contributed to the extension in the 1840s and 1850s of self-governing colony status to white settler colonies in Canada and Australasia whose British or European inhabitants were seen as outposts of the "mother country." Ireland was treated differently because of its geographic proximity, and incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801; due largely to the impact of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule.

During this period, Britain also outlawed the slave trade (1807) and soon began enforcing this principle on other nations. By the mid-nineteenth-century Britain had largely eradicated the world slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in the British colonies in 1834, though the phenomenon of indentured labor retained much of its oppressive character until 1920.

The end of the old colonial and slave systems was accompanied by the adoption of free trade, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws and Navigation Acts (regulatory measures) in the 1840s. Free trade opened the British market to unfettered competition, stimulating reciprocal action by other countries during the middle quarters of the nineteenth century.

The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Pax Britannica

Some argue that the rise of free trade merely reflected Britain's economic position and was unconnected with any true philosophical conviction. Despite the earlier loss of 13 of Britain's North American colonies, the final defeat in Europe of Napoleonic France in 1815 left Britain the most successful international power. While the Industrial Revolution at home gave Britain an unrivaled economic leadership, the Royal Navy dominated the seas. The distraction of rival powers by European matters enabled Britain to pursue a phase of expansion of its economic and political influence through "informal empire" underpinned by free trade and strategic pre-eminence.

Between the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Britain was the world's sole industrialized power, with over 30 percent of the global industrial output in 1870. As the "workshop of the world," Britain could produce finished manufactures so efficiently and cheaply that they could undersell comparable locally produced goods in foreign markets. Given stable political conditions in particular overseas markets, Britain could prosper through free trade alone without having to resort to formal rule. The Americas in particular (especially in Argentina and the United States) were seen as being well under the informal British trade empire due to Britain's enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, keeping other European nations from establishing formal rule in the area. However, free trade appears to have become imperial policy, since Britain found it convenient in many parts of the world to engage in trade and to negotiate trading rights without formally acquiring sovereignty, as in China, Iran, and the Gulf States. This went hand-in-hand with the belief that Britain now had a duty to police the world—that is, to protect trade. The term Pax Britannica was later used to describe this period, drawing an obvious parallel with the Pax Romana. Behind this term lies the idea that this type of imperial system benefits the ruled as well as the rulers.

British East India Company

The British East India Company was probably the most successful chapter in the British Empire's history as it was responsible for the annexation of the Indian subcontinent, which would become the empire's largest source of revenue, along with the conquest of Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Malaya (which was also one of the largest sources of revenue) and other surrounding Asian countries, and was thus responsible for establishing Britain's Asian empire, the most important component of the British Empire.

The British East India Company originally began as a joint-stock company of traders and investors based in Leadenhall Street, London, which was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1600, with the intent to favor trade privileges in India. The Royal Charter effectively gave the newly created “Honourable East India Company” a monopoly on all trade with the East Indies. The company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one which virtually ruled India as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, along with a very large private army consisting of local Indian sepoys (soldiers), who were loyal to their British commanders and were probably the most important factor in Britain's Asian conquest. The British East India Company is regarded by some as the world's first multinational corporation. Its territorial holdings were subsumed by the British crown in 1858, in the aftermath of the events variously referred to as the Sepoy Rebellion or the Indian Mutiny.

At that time there was no political entity called India. The Indian subcontinent was a patchwork of many kingdoms, and unlike in Europe there was no concept of the state as a political institution anywhere in this expanse of land. It was indeed with the absorption of British and western ideas that the concept of India as a single nation arose, much later in time. Thus, until the establishment of a single administrative and gubernatorial entity by the British, the word India must be taken to represent nothing more than a catchall term for the peninsula south of the Himalayas.

The company also had interests along the routes to India from Great Britain. As early as 1620, the company attempted to lay claim to the Table Mountain region in South Africa, later it occupied and ruled the island of Saint Helena. The company also established Hong Kong and Singapore; and cultivated the production of tea in India. Other notable events in the company's history were that it held Napoleon captive on Saint Helena, and made the fortune of Elihu Yale (1649-1721) the benefactor of Yale College, Boston. Its products were the basis of the Boston Tea Party in Colonial America.

In 1615 Sir Thomas Roe was instructed by James I to visit the Mughal emperor Jahangir (who ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent at the time, along with parts of Afghanistan). The purpose of this mission was to arrange for a commercial treaty which would give the company exclusive rights to reside and build factories in Surat and other areas. In return, the company offered to provide to the emperor goods and rarities from the European market. This mission was highly successful and Jahangir sent a letter to the king through Roe. As a result, The British East India Company found itself completely dominant over the French, Dutch and Portuguese trading companies in the Indian subcontinent.

In 1634 the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan extended his hospitality to the English traders to the region of Bengal, which had the world's largest textile industry at the time. In 1717 the Mughal Emperor at the time completely waived customs duties for the trade, giving the company a decided commercial advantage in the Indian trade. With the company's large revenues, it raised its own armed forces from the 1680s, mainly drawn from the indigenous local population, who were Indian sepoys under the command of British officers.


Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the company as a military as well as commercial power

The decline of the Mughal Empire, which had separated into many smaller states controlled by local rulers who were often in conflict with one another, allowed the company to expand its territories, which began in 1757 when the company came into conflict with the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj Ud Daulah. Under the leadership of Robert Clive, the company troops and their local allies defeated the Nawab on June 23, 1757, at the Battle of Plassey. The victory was mostly due to the treachery of the Nawab's former army chief, Mir Jafar. This victory, which resulted in the conquest of Bengal, established the British East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power, and marked the beginning of British rule in India. The wealth gained from the Bengal treasury allowed the company to significantly strengthen its military might and as a result, extend its territories, conquering most parts of India with the massive Indian army it had acquired.

The company fought many wars with local Indian rulers during its conquest of India, the most difficult being the four Anglo-Mysore Wars (between 1766 and 1799) against the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore, ruled by Hyder Ali, and later his son Tipu Sultan (The Tiger of Mysore). There were a number of other states which the company couldn't conquer through military might, mostly in the North, where the company's presence was ever increasing amidst the internal conflict and dubious offers of protection against one another. Coercive action, threats and diplomacy aided the company in preventing the local rulers from putting up a united struggle against it. By the 1850s the company ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent, and as a result, began to function more as a nation and less as a trading concern.

The company was also responsible for the illegal opium trade with China against the Qing Emperor's will, which later led to the two Opium Wars (between 1834 and 1860). As a result of the company's victory in the First Opium War, it established Hong Kong. The company also had a number of wars with other surrounding Asian countries, the most difficult probably being the three Anglo-Afghan Wars (between 1839 and 1919) against Afghanistan, which were mostly unsuccessful.


The company's rule effectively came to an end exactly a century after its victory at Plassey, when the anti-British rebellion broke out in 1857 which saw many of the Company's Indian sepoys begin an armed uprising against their British commanders after a period of political unrest triggered by a number of political events. One of the major factors was the company's introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. The paper cartridges containing the gunpowder were lubricated with animal fat, and had to be bitten open before the powder was poured into the muzzle. Eating cow fat was forbidden for the Hindu soldiers, while pig fat was forbidden for the Muslim soldiers. Although it insisted that neither cow fat nor pig fat was being used, the rumor persisted and many sepoys refused to follow their orders and use the weapons. Another factor was the execution of the Indian sepoy Mangal Pandey, who was hanged for attacking and injuring his British superiors, possibly out of insult for the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle or a number of other reasons. Combined with the policy of annexing Princely states this resulted in the rebellion, which eventually brought about the end of the British East India Company's regime in India, and instead led to 90 years of direct rule of the Indian subcontinent by Britain. The period of direct British rule in India is known as the British Raj, when the regions now known as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar would collectively be known as British India.

Breakdown of Pax Britannica

As the first country to industrialize, Britain had been able to draw on most of the accessible world for raw materials and markets. But this situation gradually deteriorated during the nineteenth century as other powers began to industrialize and sought to use the state to guarantee their markets and sources of supply. By the 1870s, British manufactures in the staple industries of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to experience real competition abroad.

Britannia became a symbol of Britain's imperial might

Industrialization progressed rapidly in Germany and the United States, allowing them to overtake the "old" British and French economies as world leader in some areas. By 1870 the German textile and metal industries had surpassed those of Britain in organization and technical efficiency and usurped British manufactures in the domestic market. By the turn of the century, the German metals and engineering industries would even be producing for the free trade market of the former "workshop of the world.”

While invisible exports (banking, insurance and shipping services) kept Britain "out of the red," her share of world trade fell from a quarter in 1880 to a sixth in 1913. Britain was losing out not only in the markets of newly industrializing countries, but also against third-party competition in less-developed countries. Britain was even losing her former overwhelming dominance in trade with India, China, Latin America, or the coasts of Africa.

Britain's commercial difficulties deepened with the onset of the "Long Depression" of 1873-1896, a prolonged period of price deflation punctuated by severe business downturns which added to pressure on governments to promote home industry, leading to the widespread abandonment of free trade among Europe's powers (Germany from 1879 and France from 1881).

The resulting limitation of both domestic markets and export opportunities led government and business leaders in Europe and later the U.S. to see the solution in sheltered overseas markets united to the home country behind imperial tariff barriers. New overseas subjects would provide export markets free of foreign competition, while supplying cheap raw materials. Although it continued to adhere to free trade until 1932, Britain joined the renewed scramble for formal empire rather than allow areas under its influence to be seized by rivals.

Britain and the New Imperialism

Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli.

The policy and ideology of European colonial expansion between the 1870s and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 are often characterized as the "New Imperialism." The period is distinguished by an unprecedented pursuit of what has been termed "empire for empire's sake," aggressive competition for overseas territorial acquisitions and the emergence in colonizing countries on the basis of doctrines of racial superiority that denied the fitness of subjugated peoples for self-government.

During this period, Europe's powers added nearly nine million square miles (23,000,000 square kilometers) to their overseas colonial possessions. As it was mostly unoccupied by the Western powers as late as the 1880s, Africa became the primary target of the "new" imperialist expansion, although conquest took place also in other areas—notably Southeast Asia and the East Asian seaboard, where Japan joined the European powers' scramble for territory.

Britain's entry into the new imperial age is often dated to 1875, when the Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler Ismail's shareholding in the Suez Canal to secure control of this strategic waterway, a channel for shipping between Britain and India since its opening six years earlier under Emperor Napoleon III of France. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.

Fear of Russia's centuries-old southward expansion was a further factor in British policy. In 1878 Britain took control of Cyprus as a base for action against a Russian attack on the Ottoman Empire, after having taken part in the Crimean War (1854–1856) and invading Afghanistan to forestall an increase in Russian influence there. Britain waged three bloody and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan as ferocious popular rebellions, invocations of jihad, and inscrutable terrain frustrated British objectives. The First Anglo-Afghan War led to one of the most disastrous defeats of the Victorian military, when an entire British army was wiped out by Russian-supplied Afghan Pashtun tribesmen during the 1842 retreat from Kabul. The Second Anglo-Afghan War led to the British debacle at Maiwand in 1880, the siege of Kabul, and British withdrawal into India. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 stoked a tribal uprising against the exhausted British military on the heels of World War I and expelled the British permanently from the new Afghan state. The "Great Game"—espionage and counter-espionage especially with reference to Russia's interests in the region—in Inner Asia ended with a bloody British expedition against Tibet in 1903–1904. Rudyard Kipling's novel, Kim (1901) is set in the context of the "Great Game," a term first coined by Arthur Conolly (1807-1842), a British army and intelligence officer.

At the same time, some powerful industrial lobbies and government leaders in Britain, later exemplified by Joseph Chamberlain, came to view formal empire as necessary to arrest Britain's relative decline in world markets. During the 1890s, Britain adopted the new policy wholeheartedly, quickly emerging as the front-runner in the scramble for tropical African territories.

Britain's adoption of the New Imperialism may be seen as a quest for captive markets or fields for investment of surplus capital, or as a primarily strategic or pre-emptive attempt to protect existing trade links and to prevent the absorption of overseas markets into the increasingly closed imperial trading blocs of rival powers. The failure in the 1900s of Chamberlain's Tariff Reform campaign for Imperial protection illustrates the strength of free trade feeling even in the face of loss of international market share. Historians have argued that Britain's adoption of the "New imperialism" was an effect of her relative decline in the world, rather than of strength.

British colonial policy

British colonial policy was always driven to a large extent by Britain's trading interests. While settler economies developed the infrastructure to support balanced development, some tropical African territories found themselves developed only as raw-material suppliers. British policies based on comparative advantage left many developing economies dangerously reliant on a single cash crop, with others exported to Britain or to overseas British settlements. A reliance upon the manipulation of conflict between ethnic, religious and racial identities in order to keep subject populations from uniting against the occupying power—the classic "divide and rule" strategy—left a legacy of partition and/or inter-communal difficulties in areas as diverse as Ireland, India, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Uganda, though in all cases these societies were plagued with internal division well before British rule. Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), winner of the 1907 Noble Prize for Literature, in his 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden," expressed what many—especially during the reign of Queen Victoria—represented the raison d'etre of empire: that it was a moral responsibility to rule over people who were 'half-devil and half child' who therefore needed the discipline, oversight and governance that only a superior race could provide. Some saw the task of Christianizing and civilizing imperial subjects as part and parcel of the same task. Victoria, though, was less keen on extensive missions, but in many parts of the empire evangelical colonial officers gave their full support to the missionaries in their areas.

Britain and the scramble for Africa

Cecil Rhodes spanning "Cape to Cairo"

In 1875 the two most important European holdings in Africa were French-controlled Algeria and Britain's Cape Colony. By 1914 only Ethiopia and the republic of Liberia remained outside formal European control. The transition from an "informal empire" of control through economic dominance to direct control took the form of a "scramble" for territory by the nations of Europe. Britain tried not to play a part in this early scramble, being more of a trading empire rather than a colonial empire; however, it soon became clear it had to gain its own African empire to maintain the balance of power.

As French, Belgian, and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region threatened to undermine orderly penetration of tropical Africa, the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 sought to regulate the competition between the powers by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims, a formulation which necessitated routine recourse to armed force against indigenous states and peoples.

Britain's 1882 military occupation of Egypt (itself triggered by concern over the Suez Canal) contributed to a preoccupation over securing control of the Nile valley, leading to the conquest of the neighboring Sudan in 1896–1898 and confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashoda (September 1898).

In 1899 Britain completed its takeover of what is today South Africa. This had begun with the annexation of the Cape in 1795 and continued with the conquest of the Boer Republics in the late nineteenth century, following the Second Boer War. Cecil Rhodes was the pioneer of British expansion north into Africa with his privately owned British South Africa Company. Rhodes expanded into the land north of South Africa and established Rhodesia. Rhodes' dream of a railway connecting Cape Town to Alexandria passing through a British Africa covering the continent is what led to his company's pressure on the government for further expansion into Africa.

British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Rhodes and Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner, Britain's High Commissioner in South Africa, to urge a "Cape-to-Cairo" empire linking by rail the strategically important Suez Canal to the mineral-rich South, though German occupation of Tanganyika prevented its realization until the end of World War I. In 1903 the All Red Line telegraph system communicated with the major parts of the Empire.

Paradoxically, Britain—the staunch advocate of free trade—emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire thanks to her long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the "Scramble for Africa," reflecting her advantageous position at its inception. Between 1885 and 1914 Britain took nearly 30 percent of Africa's population under her control, compared to 15 percent for France, 9 percent for Germany, 7 percent for Belgium and 1 percent for Italy. Nigeria alone contributed 15 million subjects, more than in the whole of French West Africa or the entire German colonial empire.

Home rule in white-settler colonies

Britain's empire had already begun its transformation into the modern Commonwealth with the extension of dominion status to the already self-governing colonies of Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), Newfoundland (1907), and the newly-created Union of South Africa (1910). Leaders of the new states joined with British statesmen in periodic Colonial (from 1907, Imperial) Conferences, the first of which was held in London in 1887.

The foreign relations of the dominions were still conducted through the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom: Canada created a Department of External Affairs in 1909, but diplomatic relations with other governments continued to be channeled through the Governors-General, Dominion High Commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880 and by Australia in 1910) and British legations abroad. Britain's declaration of war in World War I applied to all the dominions.

The dominions enjoyed substantial freedom in their adoption of foreign policy where this did not explicitly conflict with British interests: Canada's Liberal government negotiated a bilateral free-trade Reciprocity Agreement with the United States in 1911, but went down to defeat by the Conservative opposition.

In defense, the dominions' original treatment as part of a single imperial military and naval structure proved unsustainable as Britain faced new commitments in Europe and the challenge of an emerging German High Seas Fleet after 1900. In 1909 it was decided that the dominions should have their own navies, reversing an 1887 agreement that the then Australasian colonies should contribute to the Royal Navy in return for the permanent stationing of a squadron in the region.

The impact of the First World War

British Empire memorial for the First World War in the Brussels cathedral

The aftermath of World War I saw the last major extension of British rule, with Britain gaining control through League of Nations Mandates in Palestine and Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, as well as in the former German colonies of Tanganyika, South-West Africa (now Namibia) and New Guinea (the last two actually under South African and Australian rule respectively). Britain's Palestine Mandate, inspired by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, committed Britain to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was only half-heartedly implemented due to the opposition of Palestinian Arabs and attacks by Jewish terrorist gangs. There is little doubt, though, that many involved in acquiring the Mandate of Palestine, including General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) thought that Britain had a special role to play in the Middle East, possibly as God's agent in the restoration of Israel. Thus, Britain’s war-time involvement in the Middle East had, for many, a Biblical dimension.[3]

The British zones of occupation in the German Rhineland after World War I and West Germany after World War II were not considered part of the empire.

Although Britain emerged among the war's victors and the empire’s rule expanded into new areas, the heavy costs of the war undermined her capacity to maintain the vast empire. The British had suffered millions of casualties and liquidated assets at an alarming rate, which led to debt accumulation, upending of capital markets and manpower deficiencies in the staffing of far-flung imperial posts in Asia and the African colonies. Nationalist sentiment grew in both old and new Imperial territories, fueled by pride at imperial troops' participation in the war and the grievance felt by many non-white ex-servicemen at the racial discrimination they had encountered during their service to the empire.

The 1920s saw a rapid transformation of dominion status. Although the dominions had no formal voice in declaring war in 1914, each was included separately among the signatories of the 1919 peace Treaty of Versailles, which had been negotiated by a British-led united empire delegation. In 1922 dominion reluctance to support British military action against Turkey influenced Britain's decision to seek a compromise settlement.

The Balfour Declaration of 1926 provided the Dominions the right to be considered equal to Britain, rather than subordinate; an agreement that had the result of a shared Crown that operates independently in each realm rather than a unitary British Crown under which all the Dominions were secondary. The monarchy thus ceased to be an exclusively British institution, although it has often been called British since this time (in both legal and common language) for reasons historical, political, and of convenience. The Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927 was the first indication of this shift in law, further elaborated in the Statute of Westminster, 1931. Each dominion was henceforth to be equal in status to Britain herself, free of British legislative interference and autonomous in international relations. The dominions section created within the Colonial Office in 1907 was upgraded in 1925 to a separate Dominions Office and given its own secretary of state in 1930.

Map showing British Empire in the 1920s, colored red

Canada led the way, becoming the first dominion to conclude an international treaty entirely independently (1923) and obtaining the appointment (1928) of a British High Commissioner in Ottawa, thereby separating the administrative and diplomatic functions of the governor-general and ending the latter's anomalous role as the representative of the head of state and of the British Government. Canada's first permanent diplomatic mission to a foreign country opened in Washington, D.C. in 1927. Australia followed in 1940.

Egypt, formally independent from 1922 but bound to Britain by treaty until 1936 (and under partial occupation until 1956), similarly severed all constitutional links with Britain. Iraq, which became a British Protectorate in 1922, also gained complete independence ten years later in 1932.

The end of British rule in Ireland

An Anglo-Irish War memorial in Dublin

Despite Irish home rule (but not Irish constitutional independence) being guaranteed under the Third Irish Home Rule Act in 1914, the onset of World War I delayed its implementation. On Easter Monday 1916, an initially unsuccessful armed uprising was staged in Dublin by a mixed group of nationalists, including Michael Collins. After his release from prison in 1919, Collins led Irish guerrillas, known as the Irish Republican Army in a military campaign against British rule. The ensuing Anglo-Irish War ended in 1921 with a stalemate and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty divided Ireland into two states, most of the island (26 counties) became the Irish Free State, an independent dominion nation within the Commonwealth of Nations, while the six counties in the north with a largely loyalist, Protestant community remained a part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.

In 1948 Ireland became a republic, fully independent from the United Kingdom, and withdrew from the Commonwealth. Ireland's Constitution claimed the six counties of Northern Ireland as a part of the Republic of Ireland until 1998. The issue over whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland has divided Northern Ireland's people and led to a long and bloody conflict between republicans (Catholic) and loyalists (or Unionists)(Protestant) known as “the Troubles.” However, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought about a ceasefire between most of the major organizations on both sides, creating hope for a peaceful resolution.

Decolonization and decline

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement

The rise of anti-colonial nationalist movements in the subject territories and the changing economic situation of the world in the first half of the twentieth century challenged an imperial power now increasingly preoccupied with issues nearer home.

The empire's end began with the onset of the Second World War. When the Japanese captured Singapore in 1942 it showed the colonies that the British Empire was not invincible and that it would be impossible for the status quo to be restored after the end of the war. A deal was reached between the British government and the Indian independence movement, whereby the Indians would cooperate and remain loyal during the war, after which they would be granted independence. Following India's lead, nearly all of Britain's other colonies would become independent over the next two decades.

The end of empire gathered pace after Britain's efforts during World War II left the country all but exhausted and found its former allies disinclined to support the colonial status quo. Economic crisis in 1947 made many realize that the Labour government of Clement Attlee should abandon Britain's attempt to retain all of its overseas territories. The empire was increasingly regarded as an unnecessary drain on public finances by politicians and civil servants, if not the general public.

Britain's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 did not automatically commit the dominions. All the dominions except Australia and Ireland issued their own declarations of war. The Irish Free State had negotiated the removal of the Royal Navy from the Treaty Ports the year before, and chose to remain legally neutral throughout the war. Australia went to war under the British declaration.

World War II fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and financial leadership and heightened the importance of the dominions and the United States as a source of military assistance. Australian prime minister John Curtin's unprecedented action (1942) in successfully demanding the recall for home service of Australian troops earmarked for the defense of British-held Burma demonstrated that dominion governments could no longer be expected to subordinate their own national interests to British strategic perspectives. Curtin had written in a national newspaper the year before that Australia should look to the United States for protection rather than Britain.

After the war, Australia and New Zealand joined with the United States in the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) regional security treaty in 1951 (although the U.S. repudiated its commitments to New Zealand following a 1985 dispute over port access for nuclear vessels). Britain's pursuit (from 1961) and attainment (1973) of European Community membership weakened the old commercial ties to the dominions, ending their privileged access to the UK market.

In the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, post-war decolonization was accomplished with almost unseemly haste in the face of increasingly powerful (and sometimes mutually conflicting) nationalist movements, with Britain rarely fighting to retain any territory. Britain's limitations were exposed to a humiliating degree by the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which the United States opposed British, French and Israeli intervention in Egypt, seeing it as a doomed adventure likely to jeopardize American interests in the Middle East.

The independence of India in 1947 ended a forty-year struggle by the Indian National Congress, firstly for self-government and later for full sovereignty, though the land's partition into India and Pakistan entailed violence costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The acceptance by Britain, and the other dominions, of India's adoption of republican status (1950) is now taken as the start of the modern Commonwealth.

Singapore became independent in two stages. The British did not believe that Singapore would be large enough to defend itself against others alone. Therefore, Singapore was joined with Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form Malaysia upon independence from the Empire. This short-lived union was dissolved in 1965 when Singapore left Malaysia and achieved complete independence.

Burma achieved independence (1948) outside the Commonwealth; Burma being the first colony to sever all ties with the British; Ceylon (1948) and Malaya (1957) within it. Britain's Palestine Mandate ended (1948) in withdrawal and open warfare between the territory's Jewish and Arab populations. In the Mediterranean, a guerrilla war waged by Greek Cypriot advocates of union with Greece ended (1960) in an independent Cyprus, although Britain did retain two military bases—Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

The end of Britain's empire in Africa came with exceptional rapidity, often leaving the newly-independent states ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of sovereignty: Ghana's independence (1957) after a ten-year nationalist political campaign was followed by that of Nigeria and Somaliland (1960), Sierra Leone and Tanganyika (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya and Zanzibar (1963), The Gambia (1965), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) and Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) (1966) and Swaziland (1968).

British withdrawal from the southern and eastern parts of Africa was complicated by the region's white settler populations: Kenya had already provided an example in the Mau Mau Uprising of violent conflict exacerbated by white landownership and reluctance to concede majority rule. White minority rule in South Africa remained a source of bitterness within the Commonwealth until the Union of South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961.

Although the white-dominated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland ended in the independence of Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) and Zambia (the former Northern Rhodesia) in 1964, Southern Rhodesia's white minority (a self-governing colony since 1923) declared independence with their Unilateral Declaration of Independence rather than submit to equality with black Africans. The support of South Africa's apartheid government kept the Rhodesian regime in place until 1979, when agreement was reached on majority rule in an independent Zimbabwe.

Most of Britain's Caribbean territories opted for eventual separate independence after the failure of the West Indies Federation (1958–1962): Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago (1962) were followed into statehood by Barbados (1966) and the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean (1970s and 1980s). Britain's Pacific dependencies such as the Gilbert Islands (which had seen the last attempt at human colonization within the Empire—the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme) underwent a similar process of decolonization in the latter decades.

As decolonization and the Cold War were gathering momentum during the 1950s, an uninhabited rock in the Atlantic Ocean, Rockall, became the last territorial acquisition of the United Kingdom. Concerns that the Soviet Union might use the island to spy on a British missile test prompted the Royal Navy to land a party and officially claim the rock in the name of the Queen in 1955. In 1972 the Isle of Rockall Act formally incorporated the island into the United Kingdom.

In 1982, Britain's resolve to defend her remaining overseas territories was put to the test when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, acting on a long-standing claim that dated back to the Spanish Empire. Britain's ultimately successful military response to liberate the islands during the ensuing Falklands War prompted headlines in the U.S. press that "the Empire strikes back," and was viewed by many to have contributed to reversing the downward trend in the UK's status as a world power.[4]

In 1997 Britain's last major overseas territory, Hong Kong, became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreed some thirteen years prior. The remaining British overseas territories, the Commonwealth of Nations and the enduring personal unions with the Commonwealth Realms constitute the legacy of the British Empire.

While it is definitely true to say that a reason for the dissolution of the British Empire was that Britain was in no state, financially or militarily, to defend or keep together her empire, it must also be noted that Cold War politics also played their role, especially with regard to Britain's African possessions. The United States and the Soviet Union were competing for international favor, and due to the general global liberalism in the world in the wake of the Second World War, imperialism became unfashionable. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, anxious to win allies and commercial opportunities, quickly gave support to nationalists in the colonies to appear to be backing 'freedom' as opposed to the 'repression' of imperial rule. It is also said that as part of America's agreement to join in the Second World War was a demand that the European Powers (mostly Britain, but it is important to remember that France still owned a large empire) give up their imperial possessions. Kevin Phillips argues that Britain also failed to modernize her industrial base, which was built on coal. While Britain had led the Industrial Revolution, it had continued to rely on its existing technology, rather than continue to innovate. British inventions, too, had mainly been by “skilled craftsmen and engineers, not men of science”[3] and these were mainly employed by small, family-run firms. Thus, Britain failed to develop the “research laboratories [backed by large-scale] iron and steel enterprises,” unlike Germany and the U.S. Britain also realized too late that oil was replacing coal as the main source of energy.


The legacy of the British Empire includes many stable democracies, often modeled on the Westminster Parliament. English Common law remains the basis of legal systems throughout the former colonies. Schools, colleges, and universities founded by the British have developed into institutions of excellence. Protestantism, with its accompanying secular values such as the dignity and rights of the individual, has been planted widely. The many railways that were constructed improved communications and enabled people to develop a sense of national identity as well as a feeling of belonging to the wider civilized world. English remains a lingua franca, often popular even where it is not an official language (as in India). The greatest legacy is probably the Commonwealth of Nations a voluntary association of former colonies and others who want to maintain close ties with Britain and with each other. Fifteen of these, including the United Kingdom, retain a common monarch, currently King Charles III.


  1. James Truslow Adams, On the Term 'British Empire American Historical Review 22 (1927):485-489.
  2. David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0521789788).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (New York: Viking, 2006, ISBN 067003486X).
  4. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997, ISBN 031216985X), 629.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Andrews, Kenneth R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire 1480–1630. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0521276985
  • Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521789788
  • Bailyn, Bernard, and Philip D. Morgan (eds.). Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1991. ISBN 0807843113
  • Baumgart, Winfried. Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion, 1880-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 0198730411
  • Bayly, C. A. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1831. New York: Longman, 2004. ISBN 0582494389
  • Bryant, Arthur. The History of Britain and the British Peoples. 3 vols. London: Collins, 1984–1990. ISBN 978-0002174121
  • Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Powers. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0465023282
  • Hyam, Ronald. Britain's Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002. ISBN 033399311X
  • Ingram, Edward. The British Empire as a World Power. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2001. ISBN 0714651516
  • James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. ISBN 031216985X
  • Johnson, Robert. British Imperialism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ISBN 0333947266
  • Judd, Denis. Empire: The British Imperial Experience, From 1765 to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 1996. ISBN 0465019528
  • Lloyd, Trevor Owen. The British Empire, 1558-1995. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0198731337
  • Louis, William. Roger (ed.). The Oxford History of the British Empire. 5 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998-1999. ISBN 0198205627 (v. 1); ISBN 0198205635 (v. 2); ISBN 0198205651 (v. 3); ISBN 0198205643 (v. 4); ISBN 019820566X (v. 5).
  • Marshall, Peter James (ed.). The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0521432111
  • Olson, James S., and Robert S. Shadle. Historical Dictionary of the British Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996. ISBN 0313279179
  • Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 067003486X
  • Porter, Andrew. Religion Versus Empire?: British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. ISBN 0719028221
  • Smith, Simon C. British Imperialism 1750-1970. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 052159930X
  • Trollope, Joanna. Britannia's Daughters: Women of the British Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1983. ISBN 0091539706
  • Wilson, Kathleen (ed.). A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521810272

External links

All links retrieved November 21, 2023.


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