Portal:British Empire
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Portal:British Empire

British Empire

British Empire, 1897

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.

Selected article

Streets of Hong Kong, 1865.

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.


Selected image

Beijing Castle Boxer Rebellion 1900 FINAL.jpg
Credit: Torajir? Kasai

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...


Selected biography

Edward Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada in 1919.jpg

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

British Empire evolution3.gif

This Map of the world animates the Empire's rise and fall.



British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations


Current territory  ·   Former territory

* now a Commonwealth realm  ·   now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations

18th century
1708-1757  Menorca
since 1713  Gibraltar
1782-1802  Menorca

19th century
1800-1964  Malta
1807-1890  Heligoland
1809-1864  Ionian Islands
1878-1960  Cyprus

20th century
since 1960  Akrotiri and Dhekelia

16th century
1583-1907  Newfoundland

17th century
1607-1776  Thirteen Colonies
since 1619  Bermuda
1670-1870  Rupert's Land

18th century
Canada (British Imperial)
1763-1791  Quebec
1791-1841  Lower Canada
1791-1841  Upper Canada

19th century
Canada (British Imperial)
1841-1867  Province of Canada
1849-1866  Vancouver Island
1858-1871  British Columbia
1859-1870  North-Western Territory
1862-1863  Stikine Territory
*Canada (post-Confederation)
1867-1931  Dominion of Canada1

20th century
*Canada (post-Confederation)
1907-1934  Dominion of Newfoundland2

1 In 1931, Canada and other British dominions obtained self-government through the Statute of Westminster. "Dominion" remains Canada's legal title; see Canada's name.
2 Remained a de jure dominion until 1949 (when it became a Canadian province); from 1934 to 1949, Newfoundland was governed by the Commission of Government.

17th century
1605-1979  *Saint Lucia
1623-1883  Saint Kitts (*Saint Kitts & Nevis)
1624-1966  *Barbados
1625-1650  Saint Croix
1627-1979  *St. Vincent and the Grenadines
1628-1883  Nevis (*Saint Kitts & Nevis)
1629-1641  St. Andrew and Providence Islands3
since 1632  Montserrat
1632-1860  Antigua (*Antigua & Barbuda)
1643-1860  Bay Islands
since 1650  Anguilla
1651-1667  Willoughbyland (Suriname)
1655-1850  Mosquito Coast (protectorate)
1655-1962  *Jamaica
since 1666  British Virgin Islands
since 1670  Cayman Islands
1670-1973  *Bahamas
1670-1688  St. Andrew and Providence Islands3
1671-1816  Leeward Islands

18th century
1762-1974  *Grenada
1763-1978  Dominica
since 1799  Turks and Caicos Islands

19th century
1831-1966  British Guiana (Guyana)
1833-1960  Windward Islands
1833-1960  Leeward Islands
1860-1981  *Antigua and Barbuda
1871-1964  British Honduras (*Belize)
1882-1983  *St. Kitts and Nevis
1889-1962  Trinidad and Tobago

20th century
1958-1962  West Indies Federation

3 Now the San Andrés y Providencia Department of Colombia

18th century
1792-1961  Sierra Leone
1795-1803  Cape Colony

19th century
1806-1910  Cape Colony
1816-1965  Gambia
1856-1910  Natal
1868-1966  Basutoland (Lesotho)
1874-1957  Gold Coast (Ghana)
1882-1922  Egypt
1884-1966  Bechuanaland (Botswana)
1884-1960  British Somaliland
1887-1897  Zululand
1888-1894  Matabeleland
1890-1980  Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
1890-1962  Uganda
1890-1963  Zanzibar (Tanzania)
1891-1964  Nyasaland (Malawi)
1891-1907  British Central Africa
1893-1968  Swaziland
1895-1920  British East Africa
1899-1956  Anglo-Egyptian Sudan

20th century
1900-1914  Northern Nigeria
1900-1914  Southern Nigeria
1900-1910  Orange River Colony
1906-1954  Nigeria Colony
1910-1931  South Africa
1911-1964  Northern Rhodesia (Zambia)
1914-1954  Nigeria Protectorate
1915-1931  South West Africa (Namibia)
1919-1960  Cameroons (Cameroon) 4
1920-1963  Kenya
1922-1961  Tanganyika (Tanzania) 4
1954-1960  Nigeria
since 1965  British Indian Ocean Territory

4League of Nations mandate

18th century
1757-1947  Bengal (West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh)
1762-1764  Philippines
1786-1826  Penang
1795-1948  Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
1796-1965  Maldives

19th century
1819-1826  Singapore
1826-1946  Straits Settlements
1839-1967  Colony of Aden
1841-1997  Hong Kong
1841-1941  Kingdom of Sarawak
1848-1946  Labuan
1858-1947  British India (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Burma)
1882-1946  British North Borneo
1885-1946  Unfederated Malay States
1891-1971  Muscat and Oman protectorate
1892-1971  Trucial States protectorate
1895-1946  Federated Malay States
1898-1930  Weihai Garrison

20th century
1918-1961  Kuwait protectorate
1920-1932  Iraq4
1921-1946  Transjordan4
1923-1948  Palestine4
1946-1948  Malayan Union
1946-1963  Sarawak (Malaysia)
1946-1963  North Borneo (Malaysia)
1948-1957  Federation of Malaya (Malaysia)

4League of Nations mandate

18th century
1788-1901  New South Wales
1794-1843  Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)

19th century
1803-1901  Van Diemen's Land / Tasmania
1807-1863  Auckland Islands6
1824-1980  New Hebrides (Vanuatu)
1824-1901  Queensland
1829-1901  Swan River Colony / Western Australia
1836-1901  South Australia
since 1838  Pitcairn Islands
1840-1907  *Colony of New Zealand
1850-1901  Victoria (Australia)
1874-1970  Fiji5
1877-1976  British Western Pacific Territories
1884-1949  Territory of Papua
1888-1965  Cook Islands6
1888-1984  Sultanate of Brunei
1889-1948  Union Islands (Tokelau)6
1892-1979  Gilbert and Ellice Islands7
1893-1978  British Solomon Islands8

20th century
1900-1970  Tonga (protected state)
1900-1974  Niue6
1901-1942  *Commonwealth of Australia
1907-1953  *Dominion of New Zealand
1919-1949  Territory of New Guinea
1949-1975  Territory of Papua and New Guinea9

5 Suspended member
6 Now part of the *Realm of New Zealand
7 Now Kiribati and *Tuvalu
8 Now the *Solomon Islands
9 Now *Papua New Guinea

17th century
since 1659  St. Helena

19th century
since 1815  Ascension Island9
since 1816  Tristan da Cunha9
since 1833  Falkland Islands11

20th century
since 1908  British Antarctic Territory10
since 1908  South Georgia and
the South Sandwich Islands
10, 11

9 Dependencies of St. Helena since 1922 (Ascension Island) and 1938 (Tristan da Cunha)
10 Both claimed in 1908; territories formed in 1962 (British Antarctic Territory) and 1985 (South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands)
11 Occupied by Argentina during the Falklands War of April-June 1982

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  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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