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, 7001230000000000000♠23% of the world population at the
time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2
(13,700,000 sq mi), 7001240000000000000♠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
Age of Discovery
Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal
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
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
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
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".
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.
In Britain, political attitudes favoured free trade and laissez-faire
policies and a gradual widening of the voting franchise. 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 Conservative Party under
Benjamin Disraeli launched a
period of imperialist expansion in Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere.
Canada, Australia, and
New Zealand became self-governing
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
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 Southeast
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 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, Queen
1 Origins (1497–1583)
1.1 Plantations of Ireland
2 "First" British
2.1 Americas, Africa and the slave trade
2.2 Rivalry with the
Netherlands in Asia
2.3 Global conflicts with France
2.4 Loss of the Thirteen American Colonies
3 Rise of the "Second" British
3.1 Exploration of the Pacific
3.2 War with Napoleonic France
3.3 Abolition of slavery
4 Britain's imperial century (1815–1914)
East India Company
East India Company in Asia
4.2 Rivalry with Russia
4.3 Cape to Cairo
4.4 Changing status of the white colonies
5 World wars (1914–1945)
5.1 First World War
5.2 Inter-war period
5.3 Second World War
Decolonisation and decline (1945–1997)
6.1 Initial disengagement
6.2 Suez and its aftermath
6.3 Wind of change
6.4 End of empire
8 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
A replica of the Matthew, John Cabot's ship used for his second voyage
to the New World
The foundations of the British
Empire were laid when
Scotland were separate kingdoms. In 1496, King Henry VII of England,
following the successes of
Portugal in overseas exploration,
John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia
via the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed in 1497, five years after the
European discovery of America, but he made landfall on the coast of
Newfoundland, and, mistakenly believing (like Christopher Columbus)
that he had reached Asia, there was no attempt to found a colony.
Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but
nothing was ever heard of his ships again.
No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were
made until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during the last
decades of the 16th century. In the meantime, the 1533 Statute in
Restraint of Appeals had declared "that this realm of
England is an
Empire". The subsequent Protestant
Spain into implacable enemies. In 1562, the English Crown
encouraged the privateers John Hawkins and
Francis Drake to engage in
slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the
coast of West Africa with the aim of breaking into the Atlantic
slave trade. This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish
Wars intensified, Elizabeth I gave her blessing to further
privateering raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping
that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the
New World. At the same time, influential writers such as Richard
John Dee (who was the first to use the term "British
Empire") were beginning to press for the establishment of
England's own empire. By this time,
Spain had become the dominant
power in the Americas and was exploring the Pacific Ocean, Portugal
had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and
Brazil to China, and
France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence
River area, later to become New France.
Plantations of Ireland
England trailed behind other European powers in establishing
overseas colonies, it had been engaged during the 16th century in the
Ireland with Protestants from
England and Scotland,
drawing on precedents dating back to the
Norman invasion of Ireland
Norman invasion of Ireland in
1169. Several people who helped establish the Plantations of
Ireland also played a part in the early colonisation of North America,
particularly a group known as the West Country men.
Main article: English overseas possessions
In 1578, Elizabeth I granted a patent to
Humphrey Gilbert for
discovery and overseas exploration. That year, Gilbert sailed for
Caribbean with the intention of engaging in piracy and
establishing a colony in North America, but the expedition was aborted
before it had crossed the Atlantic. In 1583, he embarked on a
second attempt, on this occasion to the island of Newfoundland whose
harbour he formally claimed for England, although no settlers were
left behind. Gilbert did not survive the return journey to England,
and was succeeded by his half-brother, Walter Raleigh, who was granted
his own patent by Elizabeth in 1584. Later that year, Raleigh founded
Roanoke Colony on the coast of present-day North Carolina, but
lack of supplies caused the colony to fail.
In 1603, James VI, King of Scots, ascended (as James I) to the English
throne and in 1604 negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities
with Spain. Now at peace with its main rival, English attention
shifted from preying on other nations' colonial infrastructures to the
business of establishing its own overseas colonies. The British
Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the
English settlement of
North America and the smaller islands of the
Caribbean, and the establishment of joint-stock companies, most
notably the East
India Company, to administer colonies and overseas
trade. This period, until the loss of the
Thirteen Colonies after the
American War of Independence towards the end of the 18th century, has
subsequently been referred to by some historians as the "First British
Americas, Africa and the slave trade
Main articles: British colonisation of the Americas, British America,
Thirteen Colonies, and Atlantic slave trade
Caribbean initially provided England's most important and
lucrative colonies, but not before several attempts at
colonisation failed. An attempt to establish a colony in Guiana in
1604 lasted only two years, and failed in its main objective to find
gold deposits. Colonies in St Lucia (1605) and
Grenada (1609) also rapidly folded, but settlements were
successfully established in St. Kitts (1624),
Barbados (1627) and Nevis (1628). The colonies soon
adopted the system of sugar plantations successfully used by the
Portuguese in Brazil, which depended on slave labour, and—at
first—Dutch ships, to sell the slaves and buy the sugar. To
ensure that the increasingly healthy profits of this trade remained in
English hands, Parliament decreed in 1651 that only English ships
would be able to ply their trade in English colonies. This led to
hostilities with the United Dutch Provinces—a series of Anglo-Dutch
Wars—which would eventually strengthen England's position in the
Americas at the expense of the Dutch. In 1655,
England annexed the
Jamaica from the Spanish, and in 1666 succeeded in
colonising the Bahamas.
Map of British colonies in continental North America, 1763–1776
England's first permanent settlement in the Americas was founded in
1607 in Jamestown, led by Captain John Smith and managed by the
Bermuda was settled and claimed by
England as a
result of the 1609 shipwreck of the Virginia Company's flagship, and
in 1615 was turned over to the newly formed Somers Isles Company.
The Virginia Company's charter was revoked in 1624 and direct control
of Virginia was assumed by the crown, thereby founding the Colony of
London and Bristol Company
London and Bristol Company was created in 1610 with
the aim of creating a permanent settlement on Newfoundland, but was
largely unsuccessful. In 1620, Plymouth was founded as a haven for
Puritan religious separatists, later known as the Pilgrims.
Fleeing from religious persecution would become the motive of many
English would-be colonists to risk the arduous trans-Atlantic voyage:
Maryland was founded as a haven for Roman Catholics (1634), Rhode
Island (1636) as a colony tolerant of all religions and
Connecticut (1639) for Congregationalists. The Province of
Carolina was founded in 1663. With the surrender of
Fort Amsterdam in
England gained control of the Dutch colony of New Netherland,
renaming it New York. This was formalised in negotiations following
the Second Anglo-Dutch War, in exchange for Suriname. In 1681, the
colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn. The American
colonies were less financially successful than those of the Caribbean,
but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger
numbers of English emigrants who preferred their temperate
African slaves working in 17th-century Virginia, by an unknown artist,
In 1670, Charles II incorporated by royal charter the Hudson's Bay
Company (HBC), granting it a monopoly on the fur trade in the area
known as Rupert's Land, which would later form a large proportion of
Dominion of Canada. Forts and trading posts established by the HBC
were frequently the subject of attacks by the French, who had
established their own fur trading colony in adjacent New France.
Two years later, the
Royal African Company
Royal African Company was inaugurated, receiving
from King Charles a monopoly of the trade to supply slaves to the
British colonies of the Caribbean. From the outset, slavery was
the basis of the British
Empire in the West Indies. Until the
abolition of its slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the
transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third
of all slaves transported across the Atlantic. To facilitate this
trade, forts were established on the coast of West Africa, such as
James Island, Accra and Bunce Island. In the British Caribbean, the
percentage of the population of African descent rose from 25% in 1650
to around 80% in 1780, and in the
Thirteen Colonies from 10% to 40%
over the same period (the majority in the southern colonies). For
the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a
major economic mainstay for such western British cities as
Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the triangular trade with
Africa and the Americas. For the transported, harsh and unhygienic
conditions on the slaving ships and poor diets meant that the average
mortality rate during the
Middle Passage was one in seven.
In 1695, the
Parliament of Scotland
Parliament of Scotland granted a charter to the Company
of Scotland, which established a settlement in 1698 on the Isthmus of
Panama. Besieged by neighbouring Spanish colonists of New Granada, and
afflicted by malaria, the colony was abandoned two years later. The
Darien scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland — a quarter of
Scottish capital was lost in the enterprise — and ended Scottish
hopes of establishing its own overseas empire. The episode also had
major political consequences, persuading the governments of both
England and Scotland of the merits of a union of countries, rather
than just crowns. This occurred in 1707 with the Treaty of Union,
establishing the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Rivalry with the
Netherlands in Asia
Fort St. George was founded at Madras in 1639.
At the end of the 16th century,
England and the
Netherlands began to
challenge Portugal's monopoly of trade with Asia, forming private
joint-stock companies to finance the voyages—the English, later
East India Company
East India Company and the Dutch East
chartered in 1600 and 1602 respectively. The primary aim of these
companies was to tap into the lucrative spice trade, an effort focused
mainly on two regions; the East
Indies archipelago, and an important
hub in the trade network, India. There, they competed for trade
Portugal and with each other. Although England
ultimately eclipsed the
Netherlands as a colonial power, in the short
term the Netherlands' more advanced financial system and the three
Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century left it with a stronger position
in Asia. Hostilities ceased after the
Glorious Revolution of 1688 when
the Dutch William of Orange ascended the English throne, bringing
peace between the
Netherlands and England. A deal between the two
nations left the spice trade of the East
Indies archipelago to the
Netherlands and the textiles industry of
India to England, but
textiles soon overtook spices in terms of profitability, and by 1720,
in terms of sales, the British company had overtaken the Dutch.
Global conflicts with France
Defeat of French fireships at
Quebec in 1759
England and the
Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two
countries entered the
Nine Years' War
Nine Years' War as allies, but the
conflict—waged in Europe and overseas between France,
Spain and the
Anglo-Dutch alliance—left the English a stronger colonial power than
the Dutch, who were forced to devote a larger proportion of their
military budget on the costly land war in Europe. The 18th century
England (after 1707, Britain) rise to be the world's dominant
colonial power, and
France becoming its main rival on the imperial
The death of
Charles II of Spain
Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain
and its colonial empire to Philippe of Anjou, a grandson of the King
of France, raised the prospect of the unification of France,
their respective colonies, an unacceptable state of affairs for
England and the other powers of Europe. In 1701, England, Portugal
Netherlands sided with the
Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire against
France in the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted until 1714.
At the concluding Treaty of Utrecht, Philip renounced his and his
descendants' right to the French throne and
Spain lost its empire in
Europe. The British
Empire was territorially enlarged: from
France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain,
Gibraltar and Menorca.
Gibraltar became a critical naval base and
allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the
Spain also ceded the rights to the lucrative asiento
(permission to sell slaves in Spanish America) to Britain.
Robert Clive's victory at the
Battle of Plassey
Battle of Plassey established the East
India Company as a military as well as a commercial power.
During the middle decades of the 18th century, there were several
outbreaks of military conflict on the Indian subcontinent, the
Carnatic Wars, as the English
East India Company
East India Company (often known simply
as "the Company") and its French counterpart, the French East India
Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales), struggled
alongside local rulers to fill the vacuum that had been left by the
decline of the Mughal Empire. The
Battle of Plassey
Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which
the British, led by Robert Clive, defeated the
Nawab of Bengal
Nawab of Bengal and his
French allies, left the British
East India Company
East India Company in control of
Bengal and as the major military and political power in India.
France was left control of its enclaves but with military restrictions
and an obligation to support British client states, ending French
hopes of controlling India. In the following decades the British
East India Company
East India Company gradually increased the size of the territories
under its control, either ruling directly or via local rulers under
the threat of force from the British Indian Army, the vast majority of
which was composed of Indian sepoys.
The British and French struggles in
India became but one theatre of
Seven Years' War
Seven Years' War (1756–1763) involving France, Britain
and the other major European powers. The signing of the Treaty of
Paris (1763) had important consequences for the future of the British
Empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power
effectively ended with the recognition of British claims to Rupert's
Land, and the ceding of
New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable
French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to
Spain ceded Florida to Britain. Along with its victory over
France in India, the
Seven Years' War
Seven Years' War therefore left Britain as the
world's most powerful maritime power.
Loss of the Thirteen American Colonies
Main article: American Revolution
During the 1760s and early 1770s, relations between the Thirteen
Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because
of resentment of the British Parliament's attempts to govern and tax
American colonists without their consent. This was summarised at
the time by the slogan "No taxation without representation", a
perceived violation of the guaranteed Rights of Englishmen. The
American Revolution began with rejection of Parliamentary authority
and moves towards self-government. In response, Britain sent troops to
reimpose direct rule, leading to the outbreak of war in 1775. The
following year, in 1776, the
United States declared independence. The
France into the war in 1778 tipped the military balance in
the Americans' favour and after a decisive defeat at Yorktown in 1781,
Britain began negotiating peace terms. American independence was
acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783.
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. The loss of the American colonies
marked the end of the "first British Empire".
The loss of such a large portion of British America, at the time
Britain's most populous overseas possession, is seen by some
historians as the event defining the transition between the "first"
and "second" empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away
from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith's
Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were
redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist
policies that had characterised the first period of colonial
expansion, dating back to the protectionism of
Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent
United States and Britain after 1783 seemed to confirm Smith's view
that political control was not necessary for economic success.
The war to the south influenced British policy in Canada, where
between 40,000 and 100,000 defeated Loyalists had migrated from
United States following independence. The 14,000 Loyalists
who went to the Saint John and Saint Croix river valleys, then part of
Nova Scotia, felt too far removed from the provincial government in
London split off
New Brunswick as a separate colony in
Constitutional Act of 1791
Constitutional Act of 1791 created the provinces of
Canada (mainly English-speaking) and Lower
French-speaking) to defuse tensions between the French and British
communities, and implemented governmental systems similar to those
employed in Britain, with the intention of asserting imperial
authority and not allowing the sort of popular control of government
that was perceived to have led to the American Revolution.
Tensions between Britain and the
United States escalated again during
the Napoleonic Wars, as Britain tried to cut off American trade with
France and boarded American ships to impress men into the Royal Navy.
The US declared war, the War of 1812, and invaded Canadian territory.
In response Britain invaded the US, but the pre-war boundaries were
reaffirmed by the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, ensuring Canada's future would
be separate from that of the United States.
Rise of the "Second" British
Exploration of the Pacific
James Cook's mission was to find the alleged southern continent Terra
Since 1718, transportation to the American colonies had been a penalty
for various offences in Britain, with approximately one thousand
convicts transported per year across the Atlantic. Forced to find
an alternative location after the loss of the
Thirteen Colonies in
1783, the British government turned to the newly discovered lands of
Australia. The western coast of Australia had been discovered for
Europeans by the Dutch explorer
Willem Janszoon in 1606 and was later
named New Holland by the Dutch East
India Company, but there was
no attempt to colonise it. In 1770
James Cook discovered the eastern
coast of Australia while on a scientific voyage to the South Pacific
Ocean, claimed the continent for Britain, and named it New South
Wales. In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook's botanist on the voyage,
presented evidence to the government on the suitability of
for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first
shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788. Britain continued
to transport convicts to
New South Wales
New South Wales until 1840. The
Australian colonies became profitable exporters of wool and gold,
mainly because of gold rushes in the colony of Victoria, making its
Melbourne for a time the richest city in the world and the
second largest city (after London) in the British Empire.
During his voyage, Cook also visited New Zealand, first discovered by
Abel Tasman in 1642, and claimed the North and South
islands for the British crown in 1769 and 1770 respectively.
Initially, interaction between the indigenous Māori population and
Europeans was limited to the trading of goods. European settlement
increased through the early decades of the 19th century, with numerous
trading stations established, especially in the North. In 1839, the
New Zealand Company
New Zealand Company announced plans to buy large tracts of land and
establish colonies in New Zealand. On 6 February 1840, Captain William
Hobson and around 40 Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi.
This treaty is considered by many to be New Zealand's founding
document, but differing interpretations of the Maori and English
versions of the text have meant that it continues to be a source
War with Napoleonic France
Main article: Napoleonic Wars
Britain was challenged again by
France under Napoleon, in a struggle
that, unlike previous wars, represented a contest of ideologies
between the two nations. It was not only Britain's position on the
world stage that was at risk:
Napoleon threatened to invade Britain
itself, just as his armies had overrun many countries of continental
Battle of Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo ended in the defeat of Napoleon.
Napoleonic Wars were therefore ones in which Britain invested
large amounts of capital and resources to win. French ports were
blockaded by the Royal Navy, which won a decisive victory over a
Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. Overseas colonies were
attacked and occupied, including those of the Netherlands, which was
Napoleon in 1810.
France was finally defeated by a
coalition of European armies in 1815. Britain was again the
beneficiary of peace treaties:
France ceded the Ionian Islands, Malta
(which it had occupied in 1797 and 1798 respectively), Mauritius,
Saint Lucia, and Tobago;
Spain ceded Trinidad; the
and the Cape Colony. Britain returned Guadeloupe, Martinique, French
Réunion to France, and
Suriname to the
Netherlands, while gaining control of Ceylon (1795–1815).
Abolition of slavery
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, goods produced by
slavery became less important to the British economy. Added to
this was the cost of suppressing regular slave rebellions. With
support from the British abolitionist movement, Parliament enacted the
Slave Trade Act in 1807, which abolished the slave trade in the
empire. In 1808, Sierra Leone Colony and
Protectorate was designated
an official British colony for freed slaves. Parliamentary reform
in 1832 saw the influence of the
West India Committee decline. The
Slavery Abolition Act, passed the following year, abolished slavery in
Empire on 1 August 1834, finally bringing the
line with the law in the UK (with the exception of St. Helena, Ceylon
and the territories administered by the East
India Company, though
these exclusions were later repealed). Under the Act, slaves were
granted full emancipation after a period of four to six years of
"apprenticeship". The British government compensated slave-owners.
Britain's imperial century (1815–1914)
See also: Timeline of British diplomatic history § 1815–1860,
Industrial Revolution, and Victorian era
An elaborate map of the British
Empire in 1886, marked in the
traditional colour for imperial British dominions on maps
Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain's "imperial
century" by some historians, around 10,000,000 square miles
(26,000,000 km2) of territory and roughly 400 million people were
added to the British Empire. Victory over
Napoleon left Britain
without any serious international rival, other than Russia in Central
Asia. Unchallenged at sea, Britain adopted the role of global
policeman, a state of affairs later known as the Pax Britannica,
and a foreign policy of "splendid isolation". Alongside the
formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain's dominant
position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the
economies of many countries, such as China,
Argentina and Siam, which
has been described by some historians as an "Informal
British imperial strength was underpinned by the steamship and the
telegraph, new technologies invented in the second half of the 19th
century, allowing it to control and defend the empire. By 1902, the
Empire was linked together by a network of telegraph cables,
called the All Red Line.
East India Company
East India Company in Asia
See also: British Raj
An 1876 political cartoon of
Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) making
Queen Victoria Empress of India. The caption reads "New crowns for old
East India Company
East India Company drove the expansion of the British
Asia. The Company's army had first joined forces with the Royal Navy
during the Seven Years' War, and the two continued to co-operate in
arenas outside India: the eviction of the French from Egypt
(1799), the capture of
Java from the
Netherlands (1811), the
Penang Island (1786),
Singapore (1819) and Malacca
(1824), and the defeat of Burma (1826).
From its base in India, the Company had also been engaged in an
increasingly profitable opium export trade to China since the 1730s.
This trade, illegal since it was outlawed by the
Qing dynasty in 1729,
helped reverse the trade imbalances resulting from the British imports
of tea, which saw large outflows of silver from Britain to China.
In 1839, the confiscation by the Chinese authorities at Canton of
20,000 chests of opium led Britain to attack China in the First Opium
War, and resulted in the seizure by Britain of Hong Kong Island, at
that time a minor settlement.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries the British Crown began
to assume an increasingly large role in the affairs of the Company. A
series of Acts of Parliament were passed, including the Regulating Act
Pitt's India Act
Pitt's India Act of 1784 and the
Charter Act of 1813
Charter Act of 1813 which
regulated the Company's affairs and established the sovereignty of the
Crown over the territories that it had acquired. The Company's
eventual end was precipitated by the Indian Rebellion, a conflict that
had begun with the mutiny of sepoys, Indian troops under British
officers and discipline. The rebellion took six months to
suppress, with heavy loss of life on both sides. The following year
the British government dissolved the Company and assumed direct
India through the Government of
India Act 1858,
establishing the British Raj, where an appointed governor-general
Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of
India became the empire's most valuable possession, "the
Jewel in the Crown", and was the most important source of Britain's
A series of serious crop failures in the late 19th century led to
widespread famines on the subcontinent in which it is estimated that
over 15 million people died. The
East India Company
East India Company had failed to
implement any coordinated policy to deal with the famines during its
period of rule. Later, under direct British rule, commissions were set
up after each famine to investigate the causes and implement new
policies, which took until the early 1900s to have an effect.
Rivalry with Russia
Main article: The Great Game
British cavalry charging against Russian forces at Balaclava in 1854
During the 19th century, Britain and the
Russian Empire vied to fill
the power vacuums that had been left by the declining Ottoman Empire,
Qajar dynasty and Qing Dynasty. This rivalry in Central
Asia came to
be known as the "Great Game". As far as Britain was concerned,
defeats inflicted by Russia on Persia and Turkey demonstrated its
imperial ambitions and capabilities and stoked fears in Britain of an
overland invasion of India. In 1839, Britain moved to pre-empt
this by invading Afghanistan, but the
First Anglo-Afghan War
First Anglo-Afghan War was a
disaster for Britain.
When Russia invaded the Turkish
Balkans in 1853, fears of Russian
dominance in the Mediterranean and Middle East led Britain and France
to invade the
Crimean Peninsula to destroy Russian naval
capabilities. The ensuing
Crimean War (1854–56), which involved
new techniques of modern warfare, was the only global war fought
between Britain and another imperial power during the Pax Britannica
and was a resounding defeat for Russia. The situation remained
unresolved in Central
Asia for two more decades, with Britain annexing
Baluchistan in 1876 and Russia annexing Kirghizia, Kazakhstan, and
Turkmenistan. For a while it appeared that another war would be
inevitable, but the two countries reached an agreement on their
respective spheres of influence in the region in 1878 and on all
outstanding matters in 1907 with the signing of the Anglo-Russian
Entente. The destruction of the
Russian Navy by the Japanese at
Battle of Port Arthur
Battle of Port Arthur during the
Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05
also limited its threat to the British.
Cape to Cairo
The Rhodes Colossus—
Cecil Rhodes spanning "Cape to Cairo"
East India Company
East India Company had founded the
Cape Colony on the
southern tip of Africa in 1652 as a way station for its ships
travelling to and from its colonies in the East Indies. Britain
formally acquired the colony, and its large
Afrikaner (or Boer)
population in 1806, having occupied it in 1795 to prevent its falling
into French hands during the Flanders Campaign. British
immigration began to rise after 1820, and pushed thousands of Boers,
resentful of British rule, northwards to found their own—mostly
short-lived—independent republics, during the
Great Trek of the late
1830s and early 1840s. In the process the
repeatedly with the British, who had their own agenda with regard to
colonial expansion in South Africa and to the various native African
polities, including those of the Sotho and the Zulu nations.
Eventually the Boers established two republics which had a longer
South African Republic
South African Republic or Transvaal Republic (1852–77;
1881–1902) and the
Orange Free State
Orange Free State (1854–1902). In 1902
Britain occupied both republics, concluding a treaty with the two Boer
Republics following the Second
Boer War (1899–1902).
In 1869 the
Suez Canal opened under
Napoleon III, linking the
Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean. Initially the Canal was opposed
by the British; but once opened, its strategic value was quickly
recognised and became the "jugular vein of the Empire". In 1875,
the Conservative government of
Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted
Egyptian ruler Isma'il Pasha's 44% shareholding in the
Suez Canal for
£4 million (equivalent to £350 million in 2016). Although this
did not grant outright control of the strategic waterway, it did give
Britain leverage. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt
ended in outright British occupation in 1882. The French were
still majority shareholders and attempted to weaken the British
position, but a compromise was reached with the 1888 Convention
of Constantinople, which made the Canal officially neutral
With competitive French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower
Congo River region undermining orderly colonisation of tropical
Berlin Conference of 1884–85 was held to regulate the
competition between the European powers in what was called the
"Scramble for Africa" by defining "effective occupation" as the
criterion for international recognition of territorial claims.
The scramble continued into the 1890s, and caused Britain to
reconsider its decision in 1885 to withdraw from Sudan. A joint force
of British and Egyptian troops defeated the Mahdist Army in 1896, and
rebuffed an attempted French invasion at Fashoda in 1898.
nominally made an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, but a British colony in
British gains in Southern and
East Africa prompted Cecil Rhodes,
pioneer of British expansion in Southern Africa, to urge a "Cape to
Cairo" railway linking the strategically important
Suez Canal to the
mineral-rich south of the continent. During the 1880s and 1890s,
Rhodes, with his privately owned British South Africa Company,
occupied and annexed territories subsequently named after him,
Changing status of the white colonies
Canada's major industry in terms of employment and value of the
product was the timber trade (Ontario, 1900 circa).
The path to independence for the white colonies of the British Empire
began with the 1839 Durham Report, which proposed unification and
self-government for Upper and Lower Canada, as a solution to political
unrest which had erupted in armed rebellions in 1837. This began
with the passing of the Act of Union in 1840, which created the
Province of Canada.
Responsible government was first granted to Nova
Scotia in 1848, and was soon extended to the other British North
American colonies. With the passage of the British
North America Act,
1867 by the British Parliament, Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick
Nova Scotia were formed into the
Dominion of Canada, a
confederation enjoying full self-government with the exception of
international relations. Australia and
New Zealand achieved
similar levels of self-government after 1900, with the Australian
colonies federating in 1901. The term "dominion status" was
officially introduced at the Colonial Conference of 1907.
The last decades of the 19th century saw concerted political campaigns
for Irish home rule.
Ireland had been united with Britain into the
United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Ireland with the Act of Union 1800
after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and had suffered a severe famine
between 1845 and 1852.
Home rule was supported by the British Prime
minister, William Gladstone, who hoped that
Ireland might follow in
Canada's footsteps as a
Dominion within the empire, but his 1886 Home
Rule bill was defeated in Parliament. Although the bill, if passed,
would have granted
Ireland less autonomy within the UK than the
Canadian provinces had within their own federation, many MPs
feared that a partially independent
Ireland might pose a security
threat to Great Britain or mark the beginning of the break-up of the
empire. A second Home Rule bill was also defeated for similar
reasons. A third bill was passed by Parliament in 1914, but not
implemented because of the outbreak of the
First World War
First World War leading to
the 1916 Easter Rising.
World wars (1914–1945)
By the turn of the 20th century, fears had begun to grow in Britain
that it would no longer be able to defend the metropole and the
entirety of the empire while at the same time maintaining the policy
of "splendid isolation". Germany was rapidly rising as a military
and industrial power and was now seen as the most likely opponent in
any future war. Recognising that it was overstretched in the
Pacific and threatened at home by the Imperial German Navy,
Britain formed an alliance with Japan in 1902 and with its old enemies
France and Russia in 1904 and 1907, respectively.
First World War
Main article: History of the
United Kingdom during the First World War
Soldiers of the Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the
Battle of Fromelles, 19 July 1916
Britain's fears of war with Germany were realised in 1914 with the
outbreak of the First World War. Britain quickly invaded and occupied
most of Germany's overseas colonies in Africa. In the Pacific,
New Zealand occupied
German New Guinea
German New Guinea and Samoa
respectively. Plans for a post-war division of the Ottoman Empire,
which had joined the war on Germany's side, were secretly drawn up by
France under the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement. This
agreement was not divulged to the Sharif of Mecca, who the British had
been encouraging to launch an Arab revolt against their Ottoman
rulers, giving the impression that Britain was supporting the creation
of an independent Arab state.
A poster urging men from countries of the British
Empire to enlist in
the British army
The British declaration of war on Germany and its allies also
committed the colonies and Dominions, which provided invaluable
military, financial and material support. Over 2.5 million men served
in the armies of the Dominions, as well as many thousands of
volunteers from the Crown colonies. The contributions of
New Zealand troops during the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign
Ottoman Empire had a great impact on the national
consciousness at home, and marked a watershed in the transition of
New Zealand from colonies to nations in their own right.
The countries continue to commemorate this occasion on Anzac Day.
Canadians viewed the
Battle of Vimy Ridge
Battle of Vimy Ridge in a similar light. The
important contribution of the Dominions to the war effort was
recognised in 1917 by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George
when he invited each of the
Dominion Prime Ministers to join an
Imperial War Cabinet
Imperial War Cabinet to co-ordinate imperial policy.
Under the terms of the concluding
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919,
the empire reached its greatest extent with the addition of 1,800,000
square miles (4,700,000 km2) and 13 million new subjects.
The colonies of Germany and the
Ottoman Empire were distributed to the
Allied powers as
League of Nations
League of Nations mandates. Britain gained control of
Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, parts of Cameroon and Togoland, and
Tanganyika. The Dominions themselves also acquired mandates of their
Union of South Africa
Union of South Africa gained
South West Africa
South West Africa (modern-day
Namibia), Australia gained New Guinea, and
New Zealand Western Samoa.
Nauru was made a combined mandate of Britain and the two Pacific
Empire at its territorial peak in 1921
The changing world order that the war had brought about, in particular
the growth of the
United States and Japan as naval powers, and the
rise of independence movements in
India and Ireland, caused a major
reassessment of British imperial policy. Forced to choose between
alignment with the
United States or Japan, Britain opted not to renew
its Japanese alliance and instead signed the 1922 Washington Naval
Treaty, where Britain accepted naval parity with the United
States. This decision was the source of much debate in Britain
during the 1930s as militaristic governments took hold in Japan
and Germany helped in part by the Great Depression, for it was feared
that the empire could not survive a simultaneous attack by both
nations. The issue of the empire's security was a serious concern
in Britain, as it was vital to the British economy.
In 1919, the frustrations caused by delays to Irish home rule led the
MPs of Sinn Féin, a pro-independence party that had won a majority of
the Irish seats in the 1918 British general election, to establish an
independent parliament in Dublin, at which Irish independence was
Irish Republican Army
Irish Republican Army simultaneously began a guerrilla
war against the British administration. The Anglo-Irish War ended
in 1921 with a stalemate and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty,
creating the Irish Free State, a
Dominion within the British Empire,
with effective internal independence but still constitutionally linked
with the British Crown. Northern Ireland, consisting of six of
the 32 Irish counties which had been established as a devolved region
under the 1920 Government of
Ireland Act, immediately exercised its
option under the treaty to retain its existing status within the
George V with the British and
Dominion prime ministers at the 1926
A similar struggle began in
India when the Government of
1919 failed to satisfy demand for independence. Concerns over
communist and foreign plots following the
Ghadar Conspiracy ensured
that war-time strictures were renewed by the Rowlatt Acts. This led to
tension, particularly in the Punjab region, where repressive
measures culminated in the Amritsar Massacre. In Britain public
opinion was divided over the morality of the massacre, between those
who saw it as having saved
India from anarchy, and those who viewed it
with revulsion. The subsequent Non-Co-Operation movement was
called off in March 1922 following the Chauri Chaura incident, and
discontent continued to simmer for the next 25 years.
In 1922, Egypt, which had been declared a British protectorate at the
outbreak of the First World War, was granted formal independence,
though it continued to be a British client state until 1954. British
troops remained stationed in
Egypt until the signing of the
Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936, under which it was agreed that the
troops would withdraw but continue to occupy and defend the Suez Canal
zone. In return,
Egypt was assisted in joining the League of
Nations. Iraq, a British mandate since 1920, also gained
membership of the League in its own right after achieving independence
from Britain in 1932. In Palestine, Britain was presented with
the problem of mediating between the Arabs and increasing numbers of
Jews. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had been incorporated into
the terms of the mandate, stated that a national home for the Jewish
people would be established in Palestine, and Jewish immigration
allowed up to a limit that would be determined by the mandatory
power. This led to increasing conflict with the Arab population,
who openly revolted in 1936. As the threat of war with Germany
increased during the 1930s, Britain judged the support of Arabs as
more important than the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and
shifted to a pro-Arab stance, limiting Jewish immigration and in turn
triggering a Jewish insurgency.
The right of the Dominions to set their own foreign policy,
independent of Britain, was recognised at the 1923 Imperial
Conference. Britain's request for military assistance from the
Dominions at the outbreak of the
Chanak Crisis the previous year had
been turned down by
Canada and South Africa, and
Canada had refused to
be bound by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. After pressure from
Irish Free State
Irish Free State and South Africa, the 1926 Imperial Conference
issued the Balfour Declaration of 1926, declaring the Dominions to be
"autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in
no way subordinate one to another" within a "British Commonwealth of
Nations". This declaration was given legal substance under the
1931 Statute of Westminster. The parliaments of Canada,
Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free
State and Newfoundland were now independent of British legislative
control, they could nullify British laws and Britain could no longer
pass laws for them without their consent. Newfoundland reverted
to colonial status in 1933, suffering from financial difficulties
during the Great Depression. The
Irish Free State
Irish Free State distanced
itself further from the British state with the introduction of a new
constitution in 1937, making it a republic in all but name.
Second World War
Main article: British
Empire in World War II
During the Second World War, the Eighth Army was made up of units from
many different countries in the British
Empire and Commonwealth; it
fought in North African and Italian campaigns.
Britain's declaration of war against
Nazi Germany in September 1939
included the Crown colonies and
India but did not automatically commit
the Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and
South Africa. All soon declared war on Germany, but
Ireland chose to
remain legally neutral throughout the war.
After the Fall of
France in June 1940, Britain and the empire stood
alone against Germany, until the
German invasion of Greece
German invasion of Greece on 7 April
1941. British Prime Minister
Winston Churchill successfully lobbied
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt for military aid from the United
States, but Roosevelt was not yet ready to ask Congress to commit the
country to war. In August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt met and
signed the Atlantic Charter, which included the statement that "the
rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which
they live" should be respected. This wording was ambiguous as to
whether it referred to European countries invaded by Germany and
Italy, or the peoples colonised by European nations, and would later
be interpreted differently by the British, Americans, and nationalist
In December 1941, Japan launched, in quick succession, attacks on
British Malaya, the
United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, and Hong
Kong. Churchill's reaction to the entry of the
United States into the
war was that Britain was now assured of victory and the future of the
empire was safe, but the manner in which British forces were
rapidly defeated in the Far East irreversibly harmed Britain's
standing and prestige as an imperial power. Most damaging of
all was the Fall of Singapore, which had previously been hailed as an
impregnable fortress and the eastern equivalent of Gibraltar. The
realisation that Britain could not defend its entire empire pushed
Australia and New Zealand, which now appeared threatened by Japanese
forces, into closer ties with the United States. This resulted in the
ANZUS Pact between Australia,
New Zealand and the United States
Decolonisation and decline (1945–1997)
Though Britain and the empire emerged victorious from the Second World
War, the effects of the conflict were profound, both at home and
abroad. Much of Europe, a continent that had dominated the world for
several centuries, was in ruins, and host to the armies of the United
States and the Soviet Union, who now held the balance of global
power. Britain was left essentially bankrupt, with insolvency
only averted in 1946 after the negotiation of a $US 4.33 billion
loan from the United States, the last instalment of which was
repaid in 2006. At the same time, anti-colonial movements were on
the rise in the colonies of European nations. The situation was
complicated further by the increasing
Cold War rivalry of the United
States and the Soviet Union. In principle, both nations were opposed
to European colonialism. In practice, however, American anti-communism
prevailed over anti-imperialism, and therefore the United States
supported the continued existence of the British
Empire to keep
Communist expansion in check. The "wind of change" ultimately
meant that the British Empire's days were numbered, and on the whole,
Britain adopted a policy of peaceful disengagement from its colonies
once stable, non-Communist governments were available to transfer
power to. This was in contrast to other European powers such as France
and Portugal, which waged costly and ultimately unsuccessful wars
to keep their empires intact. Between 1945 and 1965, the number of
people under British rule outside the UK itself fell from 700 million
to five million, three million of whom were in Hong Kong.
About 14.5 million people lost their homes as a result of the
India in 1947.
The pro-decolonisation Labour government, elected at the 1945 general
election and led by Clement Attlee, moved quickly to tackle the most
pressing issue facing the empire: Indian independence. India's
two major political parties—the
Indian National Congress
Indian National Congress (led by
Mahatma Gandhi) and the Muslim League (led by Muhammad Ali
Jinnah)—had been campaigning for independence for decades, but
disagreed as to how it should be implemented. Congress favoured a
unified secular Indian state, whereas the League, fearing domination
by the Hindu majority, desired a separate
Islamic state for
Muslim-majority regions. Increasing civil unrest and the mutiny of the
Royal Indian Navy during 1946 led Attlee to promise independence no
later than 30 June 1948. When the urgency of the situation and risk of
civil war became apparent, the newly appointed (and last) Viceroy,
Lord Mountbatten, hastily brought forward the date to 15 August
1947. The borders drawn by the British to broadly partition India
into Hindu and Muslim areas left tens of millions as minorities in the
newly independent states of
India and Pakistan. Millions of
Muslims subsequently crossed from
Pakistan and Hindus vice
versa, and violence between the two communities cost hundreds of
thousands of lives. Burma, which had been administered as part of the
British Raj, and
Sri Lanka gained their independence the following
year in 1948. India,
Sri Lanka became members of the
Commonwealth, while Burma chose not to join.
The British mandate in Palestine, where an Arab majority lived
alongside a Jewish minority, presented the British with a similar
problem to that of India. The matter was complicated by large
Jewish refugees seeking to be admitted to Palestine
following the Holocaust, while Arabs were opposed to the creation of a
Jewish state. Frustrated by the intractability of the problem, attacks
by Jewish paramilitary organisations and the increasing cost of
maintaining its military presence, Britain announced in 1947 that it
would withdraw in 1948 and leave the matter to the United Nations to
solve. The UN General Assembly subsequently voted for a plan to
partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
Following the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, anti-Japanese
resistance movements in Malaya turned their attention towards the
British, who had moved to quickly retake control of the colony,
valuing it as a source of rubber and tin. The fact that the
guerrillas were primarily Malayan-Chinese Communists meant that the
British attempt to quell the uprising was supported by the Muslim
Malay majority, on the understanding that once the insurgency had been
quelled, independence would be granted. The Malayan Emergency, as
it was called, began in 1948 and lasted until 1960, but by 1957,
Britain felt confident enough to grant independence to the Federation
of Malaya within the Commonwealth. In 1963, the 11 states of the
federation together with Singapore, Sarawak and
North Borneo joined to
form Malaysia, but in 1965 Chinese-majority
Singapore was expelled
from the union following tensions between the Malay and Chinese
populations. Brunei, which had been a British protectorate since
1888, declined to join the union and maintained its status until
independence in 1984.
Suez and its aftermath
Main article: Suez Crisis
British Prime Minister Anthony Eden's decision to invade
Suez Crisis ended his political career and revealed Britain's
weakness as an imperial power.
In 1951, the Conservative Party returned to power in Britain, under
the leadership of Winston Churchill. Churchill and the Conservatives
believed that Britain's position as a world power relied on the
continued existence of the empire, with the base at the Suez Canal
allowing Britain to maintain its pre-eminent position in the Middle
East in spite of the loss of India. However, Churchill could not
ignore Gamal Abdul Nasser's new revolutionary government of
had taken power in 1952, and the following year it was agreed that
British troops would withdraw from the
Suez Canal zone and that Sudan
would be granted self-determination by 1955, with independence to
Sudan was granted independence on 1 January 1956.
In July 1956, Nasser unilaterally nationalised the Suez Canal. The
response of Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as Prime
Minister, was to collude with
France to engineer an Israeli attack on
Egypt that would give Britain and
France an excuse to intervene
militarily and retake the canal. Eden infuriated US President
Dwight D. Eisenhower, by his lack of consultation, and Eisenhower
refused to back the invasion. Another of Eisenhower's concerns
was the possibility of a wider war with the
Soviet Union after it
threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side. Eisenhower applied
financial leverage by threatening to sell US reserves of the British
pound and thereby precipitate a collapse of the British currency.
Though the invasion force was militarily successful in its
objectives, UN intervention and US pressure forced Britain into a
humiliating withdrawal of its forces, and Eden resigned.
Suez Crisis very publicly exposed Britain's limitations to the
world and confirmed Britain's decline on the world stage,
demonstrating that henceforth it could no longer act without at least
the acquiescence, if not the full support, of the United
States. The events at Suez wounded British national
pride, leading one MP to describe it as "Britain's Waterloo" and
another to suggest that the country had become an "American
Margaret Thatcher later described the mindset she
believed had befallen Britain's political leaders as "Suez syndrome"
where they “went from believing that Britain could do anything to an
almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing”, from
which Britain did not recover until the successful recapture of the
Falkland Islands from
Argentina in 1982.
Suez Crisis caused British power in the Middle East to
weaken, it did not collapse. Britain again deployed its armed
forces to the region, intervening in Oman (1957),
Jordan (1958) and
Kuwait (1961), though on these occasions with American approval,
as the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's foreign policy was to
remain firmly aligned with the United States. Britain maintained
a military presence in the Middle East for another decade. On 16
January 1968, a few weeks after the devaluation of the pound, Prime
Harold Wilson and his Defence Secretary Denis Healey
announced that British troops would be withdrawn from major military
bases East of Suez, which included the ones in the Middle East, and
Singapore by the end of 1971, instead of
1975 as earlier planned. By that time over 50,000 British
military personnel were still stationed in the Far East, including
30,000 in Singapore. The British withdrew from Aden in 1967,
Bahrain in 1971, and the
Maldives in 1976.
Wind of change
Decolonisation of Africa
Empire by 1959
Macmillan gave a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in February 1960
where he spoke of "the wind of change blowing through this
continent". Macmillan wished to avoid the same kind of colonial
France was fighting in Algeria, and under his premiership
decolonisation proceeded rapidly. To the three colonies that had
been granted independence in the 1950s—Sudan, the Gold Coast and
Malaya—were added nearly ten times that number during the
Britain's remaining colonies in Africa, except for self-governing
Southern Rhodesia, were all granted independence by 1968. British
withdrawal from the southern and eastern parts of Africa was not a
peaceful process. Kenyan independence was preceded by the eight-year
Mau Mau Uprising. In Rhodesia, the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of
Independence by the white minority resulted in a civil war that lasted
Lancaster House Agreement
Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, which set the terms for
recognised independence in 1980, as the new nation of Zimbabwe.
British decolonisation in Africa. By the end of the 1960s, all but
Rhodesia (the future Zimbabwe) and the South African mandate of South
West Africa (Namibia) had achieved recognised independence.
In the Mediterranean, a guerrilla war waged by Greek Cypriots ended in
1960 leading to an independent Cyprus, with the UK retaining the
military bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia. The Mediterranean islands of
Gozo were amicably granted independence from the UK in 1964
and became the country of Malta, though the idea had been raised in
1955 of integration with Britain.
Most of the UK's
Caribbean territories achieved independence after the
departure in 1961 and 1962 of
Trinidad from the West
Indies Federation, established in 1958 in an attempt to unite the
Caribbean colonies under one government, but which collapsed
following the loss of its two largest members.
independence in 1966 and the remainder of the eastern Caribbean
islands in the 1970s and 1980s, but
Anguilla and the Turks and
Caicos Islands opted to revert to British rule after they had already
started on the path to independence. The British Virgin
Cayman Islands and
Montserrat opted to retain ties with
Guyana achieved independence in 1966. Britain's
last colony on the American mainland, British Honduras, became a
self-governing colony in 1964 and was renamed
Belize in 1973,
achieving full independence in 1981. A dispute with Guatemala over
Belize was left unresolved.
British territories in the Pacific acquired independence in the 1970s
Fiji in 1970 and ending with
Vanuatu in 1980. Vanuatu's
independence was delayed because of political conflict between English
and French-speaking communities, as the islands had been jointly
administered as a condominium with France. Fiji, Tuvalu, the
Solomon Islands and
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea chose to become Commonwealth
End of empire
Falklands War and Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong
In 1980, Southern Rhodesia, Britain's last African colony, became the
independent nation of Zimbabwe. The
New Hebrides achieved independence
(as Vanuatu) in 1980, with
Belize following suit in 1981. The passage
of the British Nationality Act 1981, which reclassified the remaining
Crown colonies as "British Dependent Territories" (renamed British
Overseas Territories in 2002) meant that, aside from a scattering
of islands and outposts, the process of decolonisation that had begun
Second World War
Second World War was largely complete. In 1982, Britain's
resolve in defending its remaining overseas territories was tested
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 retake the islands during the ensuing
Falklands War was viewed by many to have contributed to reversing the
downward trend in Britain's status as a world power. The same
year, the Canadian government severed its last legal link with Britain
by patriating the Canadian constitution from Britain. The 1982 Canada
Act passed by the British parliament ended the need for British
involvement in changes to the Canadian constitution. Similarly,
Australia Act 1986
Australia Act 1986 (effective 3 March 1986) severed the
constitutional link between Britain and the Australian states, while
Constitution Act 1986
Constitution Act 1986 (effective 1 January 1987)
reformed the constitution of
New Zealand to sever its constitutional
link with Britain. In 1984, Brunei, Britain's last remaining
Asian protectorate, gained its independence.
In September 1982 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, travelled to
Beijing to negotiate with the Chinese government, on the future of
Britain's last major and most populous overseas territory, Hong
Kong. Under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, Hong Kong
Island itself had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity, but the vast
majority of the colony was constituted by the New Territories, which
had been acquired under a 99-year lease in 1898, due to expire in
1997. Thatcher, seeing parallels with the Falkland Islands,
initially wished to hold Hong Kong and proposed British administration
with Chinese sovereignty, though this was rejected by China. A
deal was reached in 1984—under the terms of the Sino-British Joint
Declaration, Hong Kong would become a special administrative region of
the People's Republic of China, maintaining its way of life for at
least 50 years. The handover ceremony in 1997 marked for
many, including Charles, Prince of Wales, who was in
attendance, "the end of Empire".
The fourteen British Overseas Territories
Britain retains sovereignty over 14 territories outside the British
Isles, which were renamed the
British Overseas Territories
British Overseas Territories in
2002. Three are uninhabited except for transient military or
scientific personnel; the remaining eleven are self-governing to
varying degrees and are reliant on the UK for foreign relations and
defence. The British government has stated its willingness to assist
any Overseas Territory that wishes to proceed to independence, where
that is an option, and three territories have specifically voted
to remain under British sovereignty (
Bermuda in 1995,
2002 and the
Falkland Islands in 2013).
British sovereignty of several of the overseas territories is disputed
by their geographical neighbours:
Gibraltar is claimed by Spain, the
Falkland Islands and
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are
claimed by Argentina, and the
British Indian Ocean Territory
British Indian Ocean Territory is
Mauritius and Seychelles. The British Antarctic
Territory is subject to overlapping claims by
Argentina and Chile,
while many countries do not recognise any territorial claims in
Most former British colonies and protectorates are among the 52 member
states of the Commonwealth of Nations, a non-political, voluntary
association of equal members, comprising a population of around 2.2
billion people. Sixteen Commonwealth realms voluntarily continue
to share the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as their head of
state. These sixteen nations are distinct and equal legal
entities – the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand,
Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica,
Papua New Guinea,
Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent
and the Grenadines,
Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Britain's Westminster System
of governance has left a legacy of parliamentary democracies in many
Decades, and in some cases centuries, of British rule and emigration
have left their mark on the independent nations that arose from the
British Empire. The empire established the use of English in regions
around the world. Today it is the primary language of up to 460
million people and is spoken by about one and a half billion as a
first, second or foreign language.
The spread of English from the latter half of the 20th century has
been helped in part by the cultural and economic influence of the
United States, itself originally formed from British colonies. Except
in Africa where nearly all the former colonies have adopted the
presidential system, the English parliamentary system has served as
the template for the governments for many former colonies, and English
common law for legal systems.
Cricket being played in India. British sports continue to be supported
in various parts of the former empire.
Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
Judicial Committee of the Privy Council still serves as
the highest court of appeal for several former colonies in the
Caribbean and Pacific. British missionaries who travelled around the
globe often in advance of soldiers and civil servants spread
Protestantism (including Anglicanism) to all continents. The British
Empire provided refuge for religiously persecuted continental
Europeans for hundreds of years. British colonial architecture,
such as in churches, railway stations and government buildings, can be
seen in many cities that were once part of the British Empire.
Individual and team sports developed in Britain — particularly golf,
football, cricket, rugby, netball, lawn bowls, hockey and lawn tennis
— were also exported. The British choice of system of
measurement, the imperial system, continues to be used in some
countries in various ways. The convention of driving on the left hand
side of the road has been retained in much of the former empire.
Political boundaries drawn by the British did not always reflect
homogeneous ethnicities or religions, contributing to conflicts in
formerly colonised areas. The British
Empire was also responsible for
large migrations of peoples. Millions left the British Isles, with the
founding settler populations of the United States, Canada, Australia
New Zealand coming mainly from Britain and Ireland. Tensions
remain between the white settler populations of these countries and
their indigenous minorities, and between white settler minorities and
indigenous majorities in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Settlers in
Ireland from Great Britain have left their mark in the form of divided
nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. Millions of
people moved to and from British colonies, with large numbers of
Indians emigrating to other parts of the empire, such as
Fiji, and Chinese people to Malaysia,
Singapore and the
Caribbean. The demographics of Britain itself was changed after
Second World War
Second World War owing to immigration to Britain from its former
Book: British colonization in north America (from the reign of King
Empire in fiction
Demographics of the British Empire
Economy of the British Empire
Historical flags of the British Empire
Foreign relations of the United Kingdom
Government Houses of the British
Empire and Commonwealth
Historiography of the British Empire
History of capitalism
History of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom
List of British Empire-related topics
Order of the British Empire
Territorial evolution of the British Empire
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17th century and before
19th and 20th century
1579 New Albion
1605–1979 *Saint Lucia
Since 1619 Bermuda
1623–1883 Saint Kitts
1625–1650 Saint Croix
1627–1979 *Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
1629–1691 Massachusetts Bay
since 1632 Montserrat
1636–1776 Rhode Island
1637–1662 New Haven
1643–1860 Bay Islands
Since 1650 Anguilla
1655–1850 Mosquito Coast
1664–1776 New York
1665–1674 and 1702–1776 New Jersey
Since 1666 Virgin Islands
Since 1670 Cayman Islands
1670–1870 Rupert's Land
1671–1816 Leeward Islands
1674–1702 East Jersey
1674–1702 West Jersey
1680–1776 New Hampshire
1686–1689 New England
1691–1776 Massachusetts Bay
1712–1776 North Carolina
1712–1776 South Carolina
1713–1867 Nova Scotia
1754–1820 Cape Breton Island
1763–1873 Prince Edward Island
1763–1783 East Florida
1763–1783 West Florida
1784–1867 New Brunswick
1791–1841 Lower Canada
1791–1841 Upper Canada
Since 1799 Turks and Caicos Islands
1818–1846 Columbia District/Oregon Country1
1833–1960 Windward Islands
1833–1960 Leeward Islands
1849–1866 Vancouver Island
1853–1863 Queen Charlotte Islands
1858–1866 British Columbia
1859–1870 North-Western Territory
Antigua and Barbuda
1866–1871 British Columbia
Dominion of Canada2
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Trinidad and Tobago
1. Occupied jointly with the United States.
2. In 1931,
Canada and other British dominions obtained
self-government through the Statute of Westminster. See Name of
3. Gave up self-rule in 1934, but remained a de jure Dominion
until it joined
Canada in 1949.
1631–1641 Providence Island
1670–1688 Saint Andrew and Providence Islands4
Since 1833 Falkland Islands5
Since 1908 South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands5
4. Now a department of Colombia.
5. Occupied by
Argentina during the
Falklands War of April–June
17th and 18th centuries
Since 1658 Saint Helena14
1792–1961 Sierra Leone
1795–1803 Cape Colony
Since 1815 Ascension Island14
Since 1816 Tristan da Cunha14
1806–1910 Cape of Good Hope
1816–1965 The Gambia
1874–1957 Gold Coast
1884–1900 Niger Coast
1891–1907 Central Africa
1895–1920 East Africa
1900–1914 Northern Nigeria
1900–1914 Southern Nigeria
1900–1910 Orange River
1910–1931 South Africa
1915–1931 South-West Africa
1923–1965 and 1979–1980 Southern Rhodesia7
1924–1964 Northern Rhodesia
League of Nations
League of Nations mandate.
Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared
independence in 1965 (as Rhodesia) and continued as an unrecognised
state until the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement. After recognised
independence in 1980,
Zimbabwe was a member of the Commonwealth until
it withdrew in 2003.
17th and 18th century
1702–1705 Pulo Condore
1762–1764 Manila and Cavite
1781–1784 and 1795–1819 Padang
1812–1824 Banka and Billiton
1826–1946 Straits Settlements
1841–1997 Hong Kong
1882–1963 North Borneo
1885–1946 Unfederated Malay States
1891–1971 Muscat and Oman
1892–1971 Trucial States
1895–1946 Federated Malay States
1907–1949 Bhutan (protectorate)
1945–1946 South Vietnam
1946–1963 North Borneo
1946–1948 Malayan Union
1948–1957 Federation of Malaya
Akrotiri and Dhekelia
Akrotiri and Dhekelia (before as part of Cyprus)
British Indian Ocean Territory
British Indian Ocean Territory (before as part of Mauritius
and the Seychelles)
League of Nations
League of Nations mandate. Iraq's mandate was not enacted and
replaced by the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty
18th and 19th centuries
1788–1901 New South Wales
1803–1901 Van Diemen's Land/Tasmania
1807–1863 Auckland Islands9
1824–1980 New Hebrides
1829–1901 Swan River/Western Australia
1836–1901 South Australia
since 1838 Pitcairn Islands
1841–1907 New Zealand
1877–1976 Western Pacific Territories
1888–1901 Rarotonga/Cook Islands9
1889–1948 Union Islands9
1892–1979 Gilbert and Ellice Islands11
1893–1978 Solomon Islands12
1907–1947 *New Zealand
1919–1942 and 1945–1968 Nauru
1919–1949 New Guinea
1949–1975 Papua and New Guinea13
9. Now part of the *Realm of New Zealand.
10. Suspended member.
Kiribati and *Tuvalu.
12. Now the *Solomon Islands.
13. Now *Papua New Guinea.
Antarctica and South Atlantic
Since 1658 Saint Helena14
Since 1815 Ascension Island14
Since 1816 Tristan da Cunha14
Since 1908 British Antarctic Territory15
Australian Antarctic Territory
Australian Antarctic Territory (transferred to the
Commonwealth of Australia)
Ross Dependency (transferred to the Realm of New Zealand)
14. Since 2009 part of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da
Ascension Island (1922–) and
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha (1938–) were
previously dependencies of Saint Helena.
15. Both claimed in 1908; territories formed in 1962 (British
Antarctic Territory) and 1985 (South Georgia and the South Sandwich
Eastern Ganga dynasty
ancient great powers
medieval great powers
modern great powers
Black British topics
First Africans in London
Atlantic slave trade
Bristol Bus Boycott
Race Relations Act 1965
Decline and legacy of the British Empire
British hip hop
Drum and Bass
Civic and economic
Black and Asian Studies Association
Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor
National Black Police Association
Ethnic and national
Antiguan and Barbudan
Trinidadian and Tobagonian
Other black groups
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