The British Empire was the biggest empire in world history – and there’s a reason why its nickname was the ‘empire on which the sun never sets’.
It covered nearly a quarter of the world, dominating some twenty-three percent of the world’s population and twenty-four percent of the surface of the planet. That seems like quite a lot for a tiny little island on the corner of Europe.
But, it’s time to get to grips with what the British Empire actually was, with how it originated, how it weakened and fell, and how it changed the world that we live in now. If you are studying for the AQA A level in The British Empire, this is the place to come – but if you are just interested in what this controversial global system was, then you are more than welcome too.
When was the British Empire, and what countries were included within it?
Often the British Empire is actually split up into two by historians: the First British Empire and the Second.
The First takes us from the first colonies in the ‘New World’ at the turn of the sixteenth century to the loss of the United States as a colonial territory in 1783. The Second sees Britain responding by focusing more on the Pacific, gaining land in India, Australia, and New Zealand. Throughout the period, Britain had major territories in Africa too.
However, it all ended in the twentieth century. Some historians point to the end of the Second World War, which triggered a wave of independence movements across the Empire, whilst others say that the Empire formally ended in 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China.
The Origins of the British Empire
British imperial activity began in the late sixteenth century, after the Spanish and Portuguese had embarked on explorations in the New World and were basking in the prestige and wealth that these brought. Other important powers in Europe – including France, the Netherlands, and England – wanted in on the action.
In England’s case, Elizabeth I began a policy of exploration in the Americas and pursued naval conflicts with the Spanish. People like Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake were engaged in piracy, looting the spoils of Spanish discoveries and trying to establish colonies of their own.
In the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1601, England conquered Ireland after many previous attempts. This began the slow process of importing Protestant Englishmen and Scots into the Catholic island.
At the beginning of James I’s reign, England signed a treaty with Spain, meaning that the country became less focused on attacking its Iberian rivals and attempted more to establish colonial settlements in north America and the Caribbean.
Once colonies there were established, the English barred anything other than British ships. This policy of isolation was attempted to secure all profits from the territories, but it displeased Britain’s rivals. The subsequent naval wars with the Dutch, whilst ostensibly lost by the Brits, ultimately laid the conditions for British dominance. The Brits, for example, gained Dutch territory – including New York in the 1665-7 Anglo-Dutch war – but, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the two countries signed a truce.
It wasn’t until 1757 that the British East India Company gained control of India, the most valuable territory that they owned.
The Peak of British Control
The height of the British Empire was between 1815 and 1914 – and it has been called ‘The British Century’. This was the period after American independence, but when Britain nonetheless had more territory than ever – as Independence inspired further British expansion into the Pacific and east Asia.
As we see with the Mongol and Roman Empires, there became something of a Pax Britannica – a peace throughout the areas owned by Britain – due to the unassailable dominance of the British. Throughout the areas owned by the Empire, trade flourished.
Unlike other major empires – the Russian Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Qing Dynasty – British imperialism was facilitated by means of the ocean. The British Navy was the biggest to ever have existed, and its power led to the conquests that developed into the empire – hence that famous song, ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’.
Whilst many of the colonies were, in their own right, immensely valuable to the British – for their resources, their industries, their manpower – many were also founded to facilitate more easily global trade routes. Further, often trade companies were the main drivers of imperialism.
For example, it was the East India Company that established the colony in India – with the help of the navy – whilst the Cape Company fought with the Dutch in South Africa precisely because the ‘Cape’ provided a stopping place on the way to the Pacific from the Atlantic. The intersection of private trade and government power is well shown by the example of Cecil Rhodes, the businessman, miner, and diamond trader, who became prime minister of South Africa and after whom Rhodesia was named.
Throughout the nineteenth century, developments in industry made Britain ‘the workshop of the world’: its trade and manufactured goods dominated the world, as they were produced cheaply and quickly, and were distributed easily, due to the combination of the British Navy and the industrial revolution at home.
The wealth and resources that permitted this development often came from the colonies, such as the Indian textile industry.
Conflict and Controversy
The administration and processes of the British Empire were not often particularly well received, by either the colonists who had set up residence in the provinces nor the native populations over which the Empire dominated. The issue of slavery is perhaps the most controversial of all.
American War of Independence
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) shows how the resentment of the colonies caused problems for the Empire. This war allowed the Thirteen Colonies, which became the United States, to gain independence from Britain. In the war, they allied with France, who were eager to maintain their properties in that part of the world and to stymie British dominance.
The spark of the revolution was taxation. The colonies were required to pay taxes to Britain, but they were not represented politically in Parliament. The issue of democracy was central here.
Slavery and Racism
In contexts, such as India, where the native population was not destroyed by the colonists, the imperial regime often used native upper classes to rule under the control of the British.
However, the often outright racism of the Empire is most evident in the Royal African Company. This was established in 1672 to take slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. The company carried approximately 3.5 million slaves across the Atlantic until 1807, to work primarily on plantations.
World Wars and British Imperial Decline
The World Wars
As happens with all empires eventually, the British Empire began to decline – during the twentieth century. Whilst they won both world wars, Britain was severely weakened and financially drained. With the rise of Germany, and the Ottoman Empire fighting the Russian Empire, the First World War had been an explicitly imperialist war.
World War II was a truly world war, with the imperial countries demanding the contribution of troops from the colonies. In the far east during the Second World War, Japan had invaded British territories and had showed that their dominance was not absolute. The Japanese had also spread anti-British sentiment among the territories they controlled.
Independence Movements and Decolonisation
After the two wars, the combination of the weaknesses of the British government and the growth of nationalism globally meant that disillusion with imperialism was felt at home and abroad throughout the twentieth century.
Following a massive rebellion and peaceful revolt led by the nationalist Mahatma Gandhi, Indian independence was granted in 1947 – signed by the government of Clement Attlee. This loss of the biggest of British territories sparked twenty years of quick independence movements.
The British withdrew in 1948 from Palestine, after Jewish terrorism demanding independence – and the state of Israel was declared shortly after. Shortly afterwards, the Suez crisis of 1956 showed that Britain was no longer the power that it had been – as a military strategy ended in embarrassment without the help of the United States.
In Africa, Britain hoped to avoid the situation suffered by the French in Algeria: a long and brutal war of independence. Britain pursued decolonisation peacefully, with nearly thirty African territories being granted independence in the sixties. Only Rhodesia remained technically a part of the empire, if a territory with self-government – until the eighties.
The end of the British Empire is often considered to be 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China.
The British Empire Today
A Problematic Legacy
These days, Britain’s imperial past is controversial – with some considering it with pride and others identifying the problems of racism and the domination of different ethnic and political identities.
Colonialism was essentially a violent phenomenon, which used racist ideas to justify the plunder and control of resources. Critics point out that Britain built its wealth of the impoverishment of other countries.
These days, we can see the importance of the British Empire across the world by the fact that many people speak English. The Commonwealth of Nations is another legacy of empire – the cooperation and association of 53 states that were previously British colonies.
Find out more about the great empires of the world in our series on the subject!