The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain, the dominant colonial power in North America. It then became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century. Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815-1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman. In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain; so that by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the country was described as the "workshop of the world". The British Empire expanded to include most of India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. Alongside the formal control that Britain exerted over its own colonies, its dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America.
During the 19th century, Britain's population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, which caused significant social and economic stresses. To seek new markets and sources of raw materials, the British government under Benjamin Disraeli initiated a period of imperial expansion in Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became self-governing dominions.
By the start of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had begun to challenge Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain. Although the British Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in East and Southeast Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire. The Suez Crisis confirmed Britain's decline as a global power. The transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire. Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. The United Kingdom is now one of 16 Commonwealth nations, a grouping known informally as the Commonwealth realms, that share a monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II.
In the 19th century the British, Dutch, French, Indians and Americans saw Imperial China as the world's largest untapped market. In 1840 the British Empire launched their first and one of the most aggressive expeditionary forces to claim the territory that would later be known as Hong Kong. In a few decades, Hong Kong was transformed from rocky undeveloped mountainous terrain to a major entrepot for global trade. By means of the First and Second Opium Wars and the resultant series of treaties, the British were able to legitimately claim the territory until 1997. Early social and economic problems existed in the colony, as there were drastic differences between Eastern and Western philosophy and culture. Nonetheless, Hong Kong seized the opportunity to become one of the first parts of East Asia to industrialise and modernise.
One observer summed up the decades as "politics, propaganda, panic, rumour, riot, revolution and refugees". The role of Hong Kong as a political safe haven for Chinese political refugees further cemented its status, and few serious attempts to revert its ownership were launched in the early 20th century. Both Chinese Communist and Nationalist agitators found refuge in the territory, when they did not actively participate in the turmoil in China. However, the dockworkers strikes in the 1920s and 1930s were widely attributed to the Communists by the authorities, and caused a backlash against them. A strike in 1920 was ended with a wage increase of HKD 32 cents.
When modern China began after the fall of the last dynasty, one of the first political statements made in Hong Kong was the immediate change from long queue hairstyles to short haircuts. In 1938, Guangzhou fell to the hands of the Japanese, Hong Kong was considered a strategic military outpost for all trades in the far east. Though Winston Churchill assured that Hong Kong was an "impregnable fortress", it was taken as a reality check response since the British Army actually stretched too thin to battle on two fronts.
A 1900 print depicting a battle between allied British and Japanese troops against Chinese combatants at Beijing Castle during the Boxer Rebellion.
Did you know...
Edward VIII (23 June 1894 - 28 May 1972) was King of Great Britain, Ireland, the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and Emperor of India from the death of his father, George V (1910-36), on 20 January 1936, until his abdication on 11 December 1936. He was the second monarch of the House of Windsor, his father having changed the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1917.
Only months into his reign, Edward forced a constitutional crisis by proposing marriage to the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Although legally Edward could have married Mrs. Simpson and remained king, his various prime ministers opposed the marriage, arguing that the people would never accept her as queen. Edward knew that the ministry of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin would resign if the marriage went ahead; this could have dragged the King into a general election thus ruining irreparably his status as a politically neutral constitutional monarch. Rather than give up Mrs. Simpson, Edward chose to abdicate. He is one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history, and was never crowned. (more...)
Evolution of the British Empire
This Map of the world animates the Empire's rise and fall.
British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations
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