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The British Empire.

The British Empire in 1897, marked in pink, the traditional colour for Imperial British dominions on maps.
The British Empire in 1897, marked in pink, the traditional colour for Imperial British dominions on maps.
An anachronous map of British and, prior to the Union of the Crowns, English imperial possessions
An anachronous map of British and, prior to the Union of the Crowns, English imperial possessions

The British Empire was the largest empire in history and for a substantial time was the foremost global power. It was a product of the European age of discovery, which began with the maritime explorations of the 15th century, that sparked the era of the European colonial empires.

By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 36.6 million km (14.2 million square miles), about a quarter of Earth's total land area. As a result, its legacy is widespread, in legal and governmental systems, economic practice, militarily, educational systems, sports (such as cricket, rugby and football), and in the global spread of the English language. At the peak of its power, it was often said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations.

During the five decades following World War II, most of the territories of the Empire became independent. Many went on to join the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states.


Growth of the British Empire

John Dee

John Dee, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I on astrological and scientific matters, was the first to use the term "British Empire", at a time when "Britain" did not yet exist as a political entity (England and Scotland being separate sovereign kingdoms with a long history of enmity). At this time, England had few colonies of its own and was mainly involved in preying on the shipping of Spain and Portugal, the established colonial powers. From the 1550s through to the 1570s, he served as an adviser to English voyages of discovery, providing technical assistance in navigation and ideological backing in the creation of such a "British Empire", of which he saw only the earliest beginnings in his lifetime.


The Normans first arrived in Ireland and established a presence by force in 1171 in order to support a Norman invasion. During the 14th century Norman rule became restricted largely to The Pale (a coastal region around Dublin). The medieval English presence in Ireland was deeply shaken by Black Death. Conflict over the English presence was exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation in England, which introduced a religious element to the 16th century Tudor re-conquest of Ireland, as almost all of the native Irish remained Catholic. It culminated in the Plantation of Ulster in 1608, following the Nine Years war (1594-1603). The Plantations of Ireland formed the templates for the empire, and several people involved in these projects also had a hand in the early colonisation of North America e.g. Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and Ralph Lane. King Henry VIII claimed to have an Imperial Crown of England.

After the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, Irish Catholics were dispossessed of their land, and replaced with a Protestant landowning class from England and Scotland. The new Protestant ruling class was known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Catholics and, to a lesser extent, Presbyterians were discriminated against under the Penal Laws, which were re-applied with great harshness after the Williamite War. Despite assistance from France the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which involved Protestants and Catholics, was put down by British forces. The 19th century saw the Great Famine of the 1840s, during which one million Irish people died and over a million emigrated. The 19th and early 20th century also saw the rise of Irish nationalism, especially among the Catholic population.

Stuart era

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne. The following year he negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain, and the first permanent English settlement in North America followed in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. King James claimed to have an Imperial Crown of Great Britain, even though Scotland and England were still separate countries with their own parliaments. During the next three centuries, England and then the United Kingdom extended its influence overseas.

The emerging single nation officially consolidated its political development at home with the 1707 Acts of Union, where the Parliament of England and the Scots Parliament were united in Westminster, London, as the Parliament of Great Britain, giving birth to the United Kingdom (of Great Britain, but not at that time, of Ireland) as a political entity.

Scottish colonies

There were several pre-union attempts to create a Scottish overseas empire, with Scottish settlements in both North and South America. Nova Scotia was to become Scotland's first unsuccessful attempt at establishing a foothold in the Americas, but it would be her last, in the form of the Darien scheme on the Isthmus of Panama, which would bring the greatest of financial disasters to the nation.


In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the island of Newfoundland for Elizabeth I. This reinforced John Cabot's prior claim to the island in 1497, for Henry VII of England, as England's first overseas colony. Gilbert's shipwreck prevented ensuing settlement in Newfoundland, other than the seasonal cod fishermen who had frequented the island since 1497. However, the Jamestown colonists, led by Captain John Smith, 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 17th century, with the English settlement of the eastern colonies of North America, which would later become the original United States as well as Canada's Atlantic provinces, and the colonisation of the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as Saint Kitts, Barbados and Jamaica.

The sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean, where slavery became central to the economy, were at first England's most important and lucrative colonies. The American colonies, which provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval materiel 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. The defeat of the French by Wolfe's forces foreshadowed British ascendancy in North America.
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. The defeat of the French by Wolfe's forces foreshadowed British ascendancy in North America.

Britain's American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonisation, with England gaining control of New Amsterdam (later New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The growing American colonies pressed ever westward as colonists sought new agricultural lands, a search that dispersed settlers across vast landmasses in North America.

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 a great part of North America - principally what is now Canada and land east of the Mississippi. The British and Colonial victory over France in Seven Years War led to a stronger sense of security on the part of the North American colonies, as many colonists no longer felt the need for British protection following the ousting of the French from 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. Matthew Flinders proved New Holland and New South Wales to be a single land mass by completing a circumnavigation of it in 1803. His recommendation that the continent be known as Australia was accepted. In 1826 New Holland was formally claimed for the United Kingdom with the establishment of a military base, soon followed by a colony in 1829. The colonies later became self-governing colonies and became profitable exporters of wool and gold. The Australian self-governing colonies with their territories subsequently federated at the beginning of the twentieth century and became the sovereign states of the emergent Commonwealth of Australia, then a Dominion of the British Empire.

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".
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 18th century. During the long period of unbroken Whig dominance of domestic political life (1714 - 62), 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 - 83), depriving Britain of her most populous colonies, although British investment continued to play a major role in the United States economy until the First World War.

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 17th and 18th centuries to the "second British Empire" in Asia and later also Africa from the 18th 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 defence and administration. Mercantilism, the economic doctrine of competition between nations for a finite amount of wealth which had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, now gave way in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to the laissez-faire economic liberalism of Adam Smith and successors like Richard Cobden.

The lesson of the United Kingdom'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, which was a result of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule.

During this period, the United Kingdom also outlawed the slave trade (1807) and soon began enforcing this principle on other nations. By the mid-19th century the United Kingdom had largely eradicated the world slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in the British colonies in 1834.

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 in the 1840s. Free trade opened the British market to unfettered competition, stimulating reciprocal action by other countries during the middle quarters of the 19th century.

The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Pax Britannica.
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 the United Kingdom's economic position and was unconnected with any true philosophical conviction. Despite the earlier loss of thirteen of the United Kingdom's North American colonies, the final defeat in Europe of Napoleonic France in 1815 left the United Kingdom the most important international power. While the Industrial Revolution at home gave her an unrivalled economic leadership, the Royal Navy dominated the seas. The distraction of rival powers by European matters enabled the United Kingdom to pursue a phase of expansion of her economic and political influence through "informal empire" underpinned by free trade and a strategic preeminence based on naval dominance.

Between the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the United Kingdom was the world's sole industrialised power, with over 30% of the global industrial output in 1870. As the "workshop of the world", the United Kingdom 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, the United Kingdom could prosper through free trade alone without having to resort to formal rule. In the Americas the informal British trade empire was backed by the shared interests of the United Kingdom in the tenets of the United States' Monroe Doctrine, which declared that the New World was no longer open to colonisation or political interference by Europeans. As the United States did not yet have the military strength to enforce this doctrine, the British were largely left with a free hand to enter the new markets in Latin America created after independence from Spain and Portugal, and British commercial supremacy lasted until the outbreak of World War I.

British East India Company

The British East India Company was responsible for the annexation of most of the Indian subcontinent along with the conquest of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and other surrounding Asian countries. These countries became large sources of revenue for the empire and by the nineteenth century the United Kingdom had become economically dependent on India.

The British East India Company originally began as a joint-stock company of traders and investors based in Leadenhall Street, in the City of London, which was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1600, with the intent to favour 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, who were loyal to their British commanders and were an important factor in controlling the Company's Asian conquests. The British East India Company became one of the first multinational corporations, but 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.

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 Afghanistan and parts of eastern Persia). 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 Sir Thomas. The British East India Company found itself completely dominant over the French, Dutch and Portuguese trading companies in the Indian subcontinent as a result. 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. By the 1680s the Company's revenues were large enough that it was able to raise its own army, comprised mainly of indigenous Indian people who were placed under the command of British officers who were primarily English or Scottish. Such Indian soldiers were called sepoys.


Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the Company as a military as well as a commercial power.
Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the Company as a military as well as a 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 British defeated the Nawab on 23 June 1757 at the Battle of Plassey as a result of superior British artillery, military discipline and to a lesser extant the treachery of the Nawab's former army chief Mir Jafar This victory, which resulted in the virtual conquest of Bengal, established the British East India Company as both a military and commercial power. However, the Company did not claim absolute authority over the territory for a long time. They preferred to rule through a puppet Nawab who could be blamed for the administrative failures caused by excessively avaricious economic exploitation of the territory by the Company. This event is widely regarded as the beginning of British rule in India. The wealth gained from the Bengal treasury allowed the Company to strengthen its military might significantly. This army (comprised mostly of Indian soldiers, called sepoys, and led by British officers) conquered most of India's geographic and political regions by the mid 19th century and thus the Company's territories were substantially augmented.

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) who developed the use of rockets in warfare. Mysore was only defeated in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War by the combined forces of Britain and of Mysore's neighbours. After the Battles of Palashi (1757) and Buxar (1764) which established British dominion over East India, the Anglo-Mysore wars (1766-1799) and the Anglo-Maratha Wars (1775-1818) consolidated the British claim over South Asia, resulting in the British Empire in India, though pockets of resistance among the Sikhs, Afghans and in Burma would last well into the 1880s.

There were a number of other states which the Company could not 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 British rule. By the 1850s the Company ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent and as a result, the Company began to function more as a state and less as a trading concern.

"Robert Clive and his family with an Indian maid", painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1765.
"Robert Clive and his family with an Indian maid", painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1765.

The Company was also responsible for the 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 as a British territory. 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 from a British perspective.


The Company's rule effectively came to an end exactly a century after its victory at Plassey. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British faced their toughest military challenge during their rule in India. It occurred when the Company's Indian sepoys rebelled against their British commanders. The rebellion began at Meerut, a town east of Delhi, when a few sepoys mutinied against their English officers and killed them. Then, the rebellion spread like wild fire over most of northern India, especially the modern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. It immediately gained the support of almost every section of Indian society (except the westernised Indians like Raja Rammohan Roy who believed that British rule was necessary to mitigate the social evils prevalent in Indian society at that time), most notably the zamindars, peasants and Indian princes. The rebellion was a result of many factors, social, political and economical. By 1857, the inhabitants of India grew greatly dissatisfied with British rule, the character of which was perceived to be oppressive and exploitative by them. There was simmering discontent with British rule and only a spark was necessary to set it afire. One such event that surely seemed trivial to the Company at the time, but that turned out to have dire consequences, was the Company's introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. Its gunpowder containing paper cartridges were claimed to be lubricated with animal fat and had to be bitten open before the powder was poured into the muzzle. Eating cow or pig fat was forbidden for religious reasons for the vast majority of the soldiers. Beef products were forbidden for the Hindu majority, likewise pork for the large Muslim minority.

Although Company and Enfield representatives insisted that neither cow nor pig fat were being used, the rumour persisted and many sepoys refused to follow orders involving the use of the weapons using those particular cartridges. Sepoy Mangal Pandey, a Hindu saraswat brahmin of 5th Company, 34th Bengal Native Infantry, who would later become a symbol of Indian resistance to British rule, was hanged on the 8th of April as a punishment for having attacked and injured British superiors at the introduction of the rifle increasing tension at a time when Indians had come to resent decades of British rule under which they felt like second class citizens; exploited and seen as incapable of Home Rule.

In the past, Indians had feuded as much with other Indians as they did with the British, this has greatly aided the British in their conquest. There had yet to occur any sort of unified uprising against British authority. But in 1857, a number of events such as the issue concerning the Enfield cartridges led to the Mutiny of 1857, which eventually brought about the end of the British East India Company's regime in India. The British quickly suppressed the rebellion, with the majority of the Madras and Bombay armies remaining loyal and the rebellion being largely restricted to Bengal. The British also had superior organisation, weapons and communications. The rebellion came to a decisive end when the British finally took control of Delhi, which was the centre of the rebellion. The fall of Delhi was followed by a large scale massacre of the inhabitants of Delhi by British forces. This was not the only massacre associated with the rebellion; the massacre of British women and children at Cawnpore being the most infamous.

The Company's failure to demonstrate effective control over its conquered Indian territories caused British financial and political entities to become uneasy about the security of their interests in India and what that meant for the future of the Empire. By 1857, India was a tremendously large part of the Empire's economy. The disaster of the Mutiny in particular had a tremendous influence on the Crown's policy regarding the most effective way to govern India. As a result, the Crown and British government assumed direct rule over the Indian sub-continent for ninety years following the dissolution of the Company.

The period of direct rule in India is referred to as the The Raj during which the nations now known as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar were collectively known as British India.

Breakdown of Pax Britannica

Britain's overseas commercial dominance had been able to draw on most of the accessible world for raw materials and markets. This dominance was won through successive victories over the Spanish, Dutch, and French between the 16th and 19th centuries. Utilising its naval supremacy, Britain mastered control of the world's raw materials and markets. Under its mercantilistic and protectionist policies, this ensured a near permanent stranglehold and global industrialisation. However, under similar programmes practised by its progeny in the now independent United States, that dominance was slowly being challenged. Additionally Britain abandoned its protectionist policies in favour of free trade simultaneously as other Continental powers implemented their own protectionist and government promoted industrialisation programmes. Under the influence of commercial and financial vested interests this policy of free trade continued to be practised under successive ministries despite Britain's declining global relative industrial and trade economic value. This situation gradually deteriorated during the late 19th century as other powers began to advance their protectionist programmes 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
Britannia became a symbol of Britain's imperial might

Industrialisation progressed rapidly in Germany and the United States, allowing them to catch up with the British economy as world leaders. By 1870, the German textile and metal industries had surpassed those of the United Kingdom in organisation 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 the United Kingdom "out of the red," her share of world trade fell from a quarter in 1880 to a sixth in 1913. The United Kingdom was losing out not only in the markets of newly industrialising countries, but also against third-party competition in less-developed countries. The United Kingdom was even losing her former overwhelming dominance in trade with India, China, Latin America, and the coasts of Africa. However, this loss of supremacy was not so much a matter of the United Kingdom falling behind as it was a matter of other regions catching up in industrialisation.

As a result, the United Kingdom's commercial difficulties deepened with the onset of the "Long Depression" of 187396. This was a prolonged period of price deflation punctuated by severe business downturns. After nearly twenty years of self-evident failure of its free-trade policies, the combined results finally pressured the commercial and financial interests out of government dominance and returned a more protectionist oriented policy crowd. This retrenchment of the United Kingdom's trade system caused the other European Continental Powers to quickly move on their objective of abandoning the vestigial remnants of the early 19th century British Free-Trade system particularly by Germany in 1879 and in France in 1881 when they ended their former trade agreements with the British Empire.

The resulting limitation of the British Empire's domestic markets to European governments led the French government to attempt engineering a recreation of its earlier Empire in Africa. Soon Germany and finally the United Kingdom pushed forward in demarching respective colonial spheres in Africa, all with the goal of establishing newer sheltered overseas markets united to the home country behind imperial tariff barriers under which new overseas subjects would provide export markets free of foreign competition, while supplying cheap raw materials. Although she continued at times to attempt to adhere to free trade until 1932, the United Kingdom mitigated its risk by joining the renewed scramble for formal empire rather than allow areas under her influence to be seized by rivals.

The United Kingdom and the New Imperialism

Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli.
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 characterised 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 colonising countries of doctrines of racial superiority which denied the fitness of subjugated peoples for self-government.

During this period, Europe's powers added nearly 8,880,000 square miles (23,000,000 km) 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 south-east Asia and the East Asian seaboard, where Japan joined the European powers' scramble for territory.

The United Kingdom'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 44% shareholding in the Suez Canal for 4 million to secure control of this strategic waterway, a channel for shipping between the United Kingdom and India since its opening six years earlier under Emperor Napoleon III. 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 the United Kingdom 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 185456 and invading Afghanistan to forestall an increase in Russian influence there. The United Kingdom 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 dbcle at the Battle of 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" in Inner Asia ended with a bloody British expedition against Tibet in 190304.

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

The United Kingdom'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 the United Kingdom'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 the United Kingdom's trading interests, perhaps most noticeably that of the East India Company.. 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, which others exported to the United Kingdom 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, Malaya (Malaysia), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Cyprus, The Sudan, and Uganda.

The debate about the start of the Industrial Revolution also concerns the massive lead that Great Britain had over other countries. Some have stressed the importance of natural or financial resources that Britain received from its many overseas colonies or that profits from the British slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean helped fuel industrial investment. It has been pointed out, however, that slave trade and the West Indian plantations provided less than 5% of the British national income during the years of the Industrial Revolution.

The United Kingdom and the scramble for Africa

Cecil Rhodes- "the Colossus of Rhodes" spanning "Cape to Cairo".
Cecil Rhodes- "the Colossus of Rhodes" spanning "Cape to Cairo".

In 1875 the two most important European holdings in Africa were French controlled Algeria and the United Kingdom'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. The United Kingdom 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 188485 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.

The United Kingdom'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 neighbouring Sudan in 189698 and confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashoda (September 1898).

In 1899 the United Kingdom 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 19th 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, the United Kingdom's High Commissioner in South Africa, to urge a "Cape-to-Cairo" empire linking by rail the strategically important Canal to the mineral-rich South, though German occupation of Tanganyika prevented its realisation until the end of World War I. In 1903, the All Red Line telegraph system communicated with the major parts of the Empire.

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

Home rule in white-settler colonies

The United Kingdom'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 channelled through the Governors-General, Dominion High Commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880 and by Australia in 1910) and British legations abroad. The United Kingdom's declaration of war in World War I applied to all the Dominions.

But the Dominions did enjoy a 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 defence, the Dominions' original treatment as part of a single imperial military and naval structure proved unsustainable as the United Kingdom 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 World War I in the Brussels cathedral.
British Empire memorial for World War I in the Brussels cathedral.

The aftermath of World War I saw the last major extension of British rule, with the United Kingdom 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). 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.

But although the United Kingdom emerged among the war's victors, and its rule expanded into new areas, the heavy costs of the war undermined its 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, fuelled by pride at Empire troops' participation in the war.

The 1920s saw a rapid transformation of Dominion status. Although the Dominions had 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 the United Kingdom's decision to seek a compromise settlement. The League of Nations deputed former German colonies to come under the control of the United Kingdom's colonies. For example, New Zealand took over the mandate of Western Samoa, Australia that of Rabual and South Africa that of German South-West Africa.

Full Dominion independence was formalised in the 1926 Balfour Declaration and the 1931 Statute of Westminster: each Dominion was henceforth to be equal in status to the United Kingdom 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 1921 coloured pink.
Map showing British Empire in 1921 coloured pink.

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, DC in 1927: Australia followed in 1940.

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

Cessation of the Irish Free State

A memorial to the Irish War of Independence
A memorial to the Irish War of Independence

Irish home rule was to be provided under the Home Rule Act 1914, but the onset of World War I delayed its implementation indefinitely. At Easter 1916 an unsuccessful armed uprising was staged in Dublin by a mixed group of nationalists and socialists. From 1919 the Irish Republican Army fought a guerrilla war to secede from the United Kingdom. This Anglo-Irish War ended in 1921 with a stalemate and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty confirmed the division of Ireland into two states, most of the island (26 counties) became the Irish Free State, a dominion within the British Commonwealth, while the six counties in the north with a majority Protestant community remained a part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. The Free State evolved into the Republic of Ireland, which withdrew from the Commonwealth when enacted in 1949.

Ireland's Constitution claimed Northern Ireland as a part of the Republic until 1998. The issue of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland has divided Northern Ireland's people and was a factor in a long and bloody conflict known as the Troubles. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 brought about a ceasefire between most of the major organisations on both sides.

Decolonisation and decline

Mohammad Ali Jinnah & Mahatma Gandhi, two of the leaders of the Indian independence movement.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah & Mahatma Gandhi, two of the leaders of the Indian independence movement.

The rise of anti-colonial nationalist movements in British colonies and the changing economic situation of the world in the first half of the 20th 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 a deal was reached between the British government and the leaders of the Indian independence movement, whereby the Indians would co-operate and remain loyal during the war, after which they would be granted independence. India was granted independence in August of 1947. Over the next two decades most of the former colonies would become independent.

The Dominions

The United Kingdom's efforts during World War II left the country all but exhausted and found its former allies disinclined to support the colonial status quo. Though the United Kingdom and its Empire emerged victorious from World War II, the economic costs of the war were far greater than those of World War I. The United Kingdom was heavily bombed and the tonnage war cost the Empire almost its entire merchant fleet. The United Kingdom's already weakened commercial and financial leadership were further undermined, heightening the importance of the Dominions and the United States as a source of military assistance.

The United Kingdom's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 did not automatically commit the Dominions. All except Ireland declared a state of hostility with Germany. 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, though Australian prime minister John Curtin's unprecedented action in 1942 of successfully demanding the recall for home service of Australian troops that had been earmarked for the defence of British-held Burma demonstrated that Dominion governments could no longer be expected to subordinate their own national interests to British strategic perspectives.

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

In January of 1947, Canada became the first Dominion to create its nationals as citizens in addition to their status as British subjects (which was retained until 1977). Canada became fully independent in 1982 with the patriation of a national constitution.

India, Ceylon, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean Post-war economic crisis in 1947 made many realise that the Labour government of Clement Attlee should abandon the United Kingdom'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.

The independence of India in August 1947 (and, Ceylon in February 1948) came at the end of a forty year campaign by the Indian National Congress, first 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 the United Kingdom, and the other Dominions, of India's adoption of republican status (1950) is now taken as the start of the modern Commonwealth. Owing to this declaration, thirty-one Commonwealth Republics are now members of the Commonwealth.

In the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, post-war decolonisation was accomplished in the face of increasingly powerful (and sometimes mutually conflicting) nationalist movements, with the United Kingdom rarely fighting to retain any territory. The United Kingdom'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 jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.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 was expelled by Malaysia and achieved complete independence, although the United Kingdom continued to offer protection through the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

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. The United Kingdom'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 the United Kingdom did retain two military bases - Akrotiri and Dhekelia. The Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo were given independence from the United Kingdom in 1964.

The end of the United Kingdom's Empire in Africa came with exceptional rapidity, often leaving the newly-independent states ill-equipped to deal with 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), Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) (1966), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) (1967), 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 UDI rather than submit to the immediate majority rule of black Africans. The support of South Africa's apartheid government, and the Portuguese rule of Angola and Mozambique helped support the Rhodesian regime until 1979, when agreement was reached on majority rule, ending the Rhodesian Bush War and creating the new nation of Zimbabwe.

Most of the United Kingdom's Caribbean territories opted for eventual separate independence after the failure of the West Indies Federation (195862): Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago (1962) were followed into statehood by Barbados (1966) and the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean (1970s and 1980s). The United Kingdom's last colony on the American mainland, British Honduras, became a self-governing colony in 1964 and was renamed Belize on 1 June 1973, achieving full independence in 1981.

Newsweek magazine, April 19, 1982.
Newsweek magazine, April 19, 1982.

The British Western Pacific Territories such as the Gilbert Islands (which had seen the last attempt at human colonisation within the Empire - the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme) underwent a similar process of decolonisation.

As decolonisation 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 to date. Concerns that the Soviet Union might use the island to spy on a British missile test PDF (396 KiB) prompted the Royal Navy to land a party and officially claim the rock in the name of the Queen in 1955. In 1972 the Island of Rockall Act formally incorporated the island into the United Kingdom.

In 1982, the United Kingdom'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. The United Kingdom's ultimately successful military response to retake the islands during the ensuing Falklands War prompted headlines in the US 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.

In 1984, the United Kingdom ended the protectorate status of Brunei, although the British Army maintains a presence in the Sultanate at the request of the Government of Brunei.

In 1997, the United Kingdom'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 previously.


The United Kingdom retains sovereignty over fourteen territories outside of the British Isles, collectively named the British overseas territories, which remain under British rule due to lack of support for independence among the local population, because of a small population size dependent on British economic subsidies making the possibility of success as a sovereign nation more difficult, or because the territory is uninhabited except for transient military or scientific personnel. British sovereignty of two of the overseas territories, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, is disputed by their nearest geographical neighbours, Spain and Argentina respectively.

Most former British colonies (and one former Portuguese colony) are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a non-political, voluntary association of equal members, in which the United Kingdom has no privileged status. The head of the Commonwealth is currently Queen Elizabeth II. Fifteen members of the Commonwealth continue to share their head of state with the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth realms.

Many former British colonies share or shared certain characteristics:

  • The English language as either the main or secondary language.
  • A democratic parliamentary system of government modelled on the Westminster system.
  • A legal system based upon English law. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, one of the United Kingdom's highest courts of appeal, still serves as the highest court of appeal for several former colonies.
  • A military, police and civil service based upon British models.
  • The imperial system of measurement (Myanmar and the United States are the only former British colonies not to have officially adopted the metric system).
  • Educational Institutions such as boarding schools and universities modelled on the Ancient Universities.
  • Driving on the left hand side of the road, with some exceptions mainly in North America and North Africa.
  • Popularity of football, rugby union and/or cricket, as well as related sports.


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  • Louis, William. Roger (general editor), The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols. (Oxford, 199899).
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  • Olson, James S. and Robert S. Shadle; Historical Dictionary of the British Empire 1996
  • Rose, J. Holland, A. P. Newton and E. A. Benians (gen. eds.), The Cambridge History of the British Empire, 9 vols. (Cambridge, 192961).
  • Smith, Simon C. British Imperialism 1750-1970 Cambridge University Press, 1998. brief
  • Chandra, Bipan India's Struggle For Independence (Penguin Books, India, 1989).
  • Dalrymple, William The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 (Knopf, 2007).
  • Butler, Lawrence J. Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a Post-Imperial World (I.B. Tauris, 2002)

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