British Empire

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History; General history

The British Empire in 1897, marked in pink, the traditional colour for Imperial British dominions on maps.
The British Empire in 1897, marked in pink, the traditional colour for Imperial British dominions on maps.
An anachronous map of British and, prior to the Acts of Union 1707, English imperial possessions
An anachronous map of British and, prior to the Acts of Union 1707, English imperial possessions

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

By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 36.6 million km² (14.2 million square miles), about a quarter of Earth's total land area. As a result, its legacy is widespread, in law">legal and governmental systems, economic practice, militarily, educational systems, sports, and in the global spread of the English language. At the peak of its power, it was often said that " the sun never sets on the British Empire" because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations.

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

Origins of the British Empire (1497–1583)

The foundations of the British Empire were laid at a time before Britain existed as a single political entity, when England and Scotland were separate kingdoms. In 1496, King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Portugal and Spain in overseas exploration, commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed in 1497, and though he successfully made landfall on the coast of Canada (mistakenly believing, like Christopher Columbus five years earlier, that he had reached Asia), no attempt at establishing a colony was made, and the voyage was unprofitable. Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but nothing was heard from his ships again. In 1551, the Company of Merchant Adventurers, later renamed the Muscovy Company, was founded by Richard Chancellor and others, to open trade with Russia and probe the Northeast Passage to China.

Enmity and rivalry between Catholic Spain and Protestant England during the Anglo-Spanish Wars led to the Crown sanctioning English privateers such as John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake to engage in piratical attacks on 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 Hakluyt and John Dee (who was the first to use the term "British Empire") were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own empire, to rival those of Spain and Portugal. By this time, Spain was firmly entrenched in the Americas, Portugal had established a string of trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River, later to become New France.

Plantations of Ireland

Though a relative latecomer to overseas colonisation in comparison to Spain and Portugal, England had been engaged in a form of domestic colonisation in Ireland that had begun during Norman times and accelerated with the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland and Cromwellian conquest. The Plantations of Ireland, run by English colonists, were a precursor to the overseas Empire, and several people involved in these projects also had a hand in the early colonisation of North America, particularly a group known as the "West Country men", which included Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Ralph Lane. After the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, Irish Catholics were dispossessed of their land, and replaced with a Protestant landowning class from England and Scotland. The new Protestant ruling class was known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Catholics and, to a lesser extent, Presbyterians were discriminated against under the Penal Laws.

"First British Empire" (1583–1783)

Plaque in St. John's, Newfoundland, commemorating Gilbert's founding of the British overseas Empire
Plaque in St. John's, Newfoundland, commemorating Gilbert's founding of the British overseas Empire

In 1578 Sir Humphrey Gilbert was granted a patent by Queen Elizabeth for discovery and overseas exploration, and set sail for the West Indies with the intention of first engaging in piracy and on the return voyage, establishing a colony in North America. The expedition failed at the outset due to bad weather. In 1583 Gilbert embarked on a second attempt, on this occasion to the island of Newfoundland where he formally claimed for England the harbour of St. John's, though 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, in the same year founding the colony of Roanoke on the coast of present-day North Carolina. The colony did not survive due to lack of supplies.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded 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 infrastructure to the business of establishing its own overseas colonies. Although its beginnings were hit-and-miss, 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 a private company, the English East India Company, to trade with Asia. This period, until the loss of the Thirteen Colonies after the United States Declaration of Independence towards the end of the 18th century, has subsequently been referred to as the "First British Empire".

The Americas

British colonies in North America, c. 1750.  1: Newfoundland; 2: Nova Scotia; 3: The Thirteen Colonies; 4: Bermuda; 5: Bahamas; 6: Belize; 7: Jamaica; 8: Lesser Antilles
British colonies in North America, c. 1750. 1: Newfoundland; 2: Nova Scotia; 3: The Thirteen Colonies; 4: Bermuda; 5: Bahamas; 6: Belize; 7: Jamaica; 8: Lesser Antilles

The 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 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 island of Jamaica from the Spanish, and in 1666 succeeded in colonising the Bahamas.

England's first permanent overseas settlement was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, led by Captain John Smith and managed by the Virginia Company, an offshoot of which established a colony on Bermuda, which had been discovered in 1609. The Company's charter was revoked in 1624 and direct control was assumed by the crown, thereby founding the Colony of Virginia. The Newfoundland 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. In 1664, England gained control of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (renamed New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War. In 1681, the colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn.

In 1695 the Scottish parliament granted a charter to the Company of Scotland, which proceeded in 1698 to establish a settlement on the isthmus of Panama, with a view to building a canal there. Besieged by neighbouring Spanish colonists of New Granada, as well as by malaria, the colony was abandoned two years later. The Darien scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland as a quarter of Scottish capital was lost in the enterprise. This episode is viewed as a major factor in persuading the Scottish Parliament to accept the terms of the Treaty of Union 1707 as the new Kingdom of Great Britain would take responsibility for some of Scotland's debts.

The American colonies, which provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval materiel and furs in the north, 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 were also more favorable of temperate climates.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. The defeat of the French by Wolfe's forces foreshadowed British ascendancy in North America.
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. The defeat of the French by Wolfe's forces foreshadowed British ascendancy in North America.

From the outset, slavery was a vital economic component of the British Empire in the Americas. Until the abolition of the 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 comprising blacks 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 south). For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol and Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the so-called triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. However, for the transportees, 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. The profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution.


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 British) and Dutch East India Companies, chartered in 1600 and 1602 respectively. The primary aim of these companies was to tap into the lucrative spice trade, and focussed their efforts on the source, the Indonesian archipelago, and an important hub in the trade network, India. The proximity of London and Amsterdam and rivalry between England and the Netherlands inevitably led to conflict between the two companies, with the Dutch gaining the upper hand in the Moluccas (previously a Portuguese stronghold) after the withdrawal of the English in 1622, and the English enjoying more success in India, at Surat, after the establishment of a factory in 1613. Though England would ultimately eclipse the Netherlands as a colonial power, in the short term the Netherlands's 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 Indonesian 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 English company had overtaken the Dutch. The English East India Company shifted its focus from Surat—a hub of the spice trade network—to Fort St George (later to become Madras), Bombay (ceded by the Portuguese to Charles II of England in 1661 as dowry for Catherine de Braganza) and Sutanuti (which would merge with two other villages to form Calcutta).

Global struggles with France

Peace between England and the Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two countries entered the 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 would see England (after 1707, Britain) rise to be the world's dominant colonial power, and France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage.

The death of 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, Spain and their respective colonies, an unacceptable state of affairs for Britain and the other powers of Europe. In 1701, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands sided with the Holy Roman Empire against Spain and France in the War of the Spanish Succession. The conflict, which France and Spain were to lose, lasted until 1714. At the concluding peace Treaty of Utrecht, Philip renounced his and his descendents' right to the French throne. Spain lost its empire in Europe, and though it kept its empire in the Americas and the Philippines, it was irreversibly weakened as a power. The British Empire was territorially enlarged: from France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain, Gibraltar and Minorca. Gibraltar, which is still a British overseas territory to this day, became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. Minorca was returned to Spain at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, after changing hands twice. Spain also ceded the rights to the lucrative asiento (permission to sell slaves in Spanish America) to Britain.

The Seven Years' War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for Britain and its empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years' War therefore left Britain as the world's dominant colonial power.

Rise of the "Second British Empire" (1783–1815)

Loss of the Thirteen Colonies

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (John Trumbull, 1797). The loss of the American colonies marked the end of the "first British Empire".
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown ( John Trumbull, 1797). The loss of the American colonies marked the end of the "first British Empire".

During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament's ability to tax American colonists without their consent. Disagreement turned to violence and in 1775 the American Revolutionary War began. The following year, the colonists declared the independence of the United States and, with economical and naval assistance from France, would go on to win the war in 1783.

The loss of the United States, at the time Britain's most populous colony, is seen by 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 Spain and Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 confirmed Smith's view that political control was not necessary for economic success.

Events in America influenced British policy in Canada, which had seen a large influx of loyalists during the Revolutionary War. The Constitutional Act of 1791 created the provinces of Upper Canada (mainly English-speaking) and Lower Canada (mainly French-speaking) to defuse tensions between the two 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. The future of British North America was briefly threatened during the War of 1812, in which the United States unsuccessfully attempted to extend its border northwards. This was the last time that Britain and America went to war. The last major territorial dispute between the two countries, the Oregon boundary dispute, was settled peacefully in 1846.

Company rule in India

Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the Company as a military as well as a commercial power.
Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the Company as a military as well as a commercial power.

During its first century of operation, the focus of the East India Company had been trade, not the building of an empire in India. Indeed, the Company was no match for the powerful Mughal Empire, which had granted the Company trading rights in 1617. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the British East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the French and their Indian allies, left the Company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force of the Indian Army, 80% of which was composed of native Indian sepoys.

Convicts and Empire

Since 1718, transportation to the American colonies had been a penalty for various criminal 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 land of New Holland, later renamed Australia.

In 1770, James Cook had discovered the eastern coast of Australia whilst on a scientific voyage to the South Pacific. In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook's botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788. Matthew Flinders proved New Holland and New South Wales to be a single land mass by completing a circumnavigation of it in 1803. In 1826, Australia was formally claimed for the United Kingdom with the establishment of a military base, soon followed by a colony in 1829. The colonies later became self-governing colonies and became profitable exporters of wool and gold.

Abolition of slavery

Under increasing pressure from the abolitionist movement, the United Kingdom outlawed the slave trade (1807) and soon began enforcing this principle on other nations. By the mid-19th century the United Kingdom had largely eradicated the world slave trade. An act making not just the slave trade but slavery itself illegal was passed in 1833 and became law on August 1, 1834.

The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Pax Britannica.
The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Pax Britannica.

War with Napoleonic France

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 threatened: Napoleon threatened invasion of Britain itself, and with it, a fate similar to the countries of continental Europe that his armies had overrun. The Napoleonic Wars were therefore ones that Britain invested large amounts of capital and resources to win. French ports were blockaded by the Royal Navy, which won a decisive victory over the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. Overseas colonies were attacked and occupied, including those of the Netherlands, which was annexed by Napoleon in 1810. France was finally defeated by a coalition of European armies in 1815. Britain and its empire were again the beneficiaries of peace treaties: France ceded the Ionian Islands (including Corfu) and Malta (which it had occupied in 1797 and 1798 respectively), St Lucia and Mauritius; Spain ceded Trinidad and Tobago; the Netherlands Guyana and the Cape Colony. Britain returned Guadeloupe and Réunion to France, and Java and Surinam to the Netherlands.

Britain's "imperial century" (1815–1914)

Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain's "imperial century" by some historians, around 10 million square miles 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 and, unchallenged at sea, Britain adopted the role of global policeman, a state of affairs later known as the Pax Britannica. 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 nominally independent countries, such as in Latin America, China and Siam, which has been characterised by some historians as an "informal empire".

An 1876 political cartoon of Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) making Queen Victoria Empress of India. The caption was "New crowns for old ones!".
An 1876 political cartoon of Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) making Queen Victoria Empress of India. The caption was "New crowns for old ones!".


Until its dissolution in 1858, the East India Company was key in the expansion of the British Empire in Asia. The Company's Army had first joined forces with the Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War, and the two continued to cooperate in arenas outside of India: the eviction of Napoleon from Egypt (1799), the capture of Java from the Netherlands (1811), the acquisition of 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, technically 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 seizure by the Chinese authorities at Canton of 20,000 chests of opium sparked the First Opium War, and the seizure by Britain of the island of Hong Kong (then a minor outpost) as a base.

The end of the Company was precipitated by a mutiny of sepoys against their British commanders over the rumoured introduction of rifle cartridges lubricated with animal fat. Use of the cartridges, which required biting open before use, would have been in violation of the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims (had the fat been that of cows or pigs, respectively). However, the 1857">Indian Rebellion of 1857 had causes that went beyond the introduction of bullets: at stake was Indian culture and religion, in the face of the steady encroachment of that of the British. The rebellion was suppressed by the British, but not before heavy loss of life on both sides. As a result of the war, the British government assumed direct control over India, ushering in the period known as the British Raj. The East India Company was dissolved the following year, in 1858.

The Cape Colony

The Dutch 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 after the Netherlands was invaded by France. British immigration began to rise after 1820, and pushed thousands of Boers, resentful of British rule, northwards to found the Transvaal and the Orange Free State during the Great Trek of the late 1830s and early 1840s.

The Suez Canal

In 1875, the Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler Ismail's 44% shareholding in the Suez Canal for £4 million to secure control of this strategic waterway, a channel for shipping between the United Kingdom and India since its opening six years earlier under Emperor Napoleon III. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.

Scramble for Africa

The Rhodes Colossus- Cecil Rhodes spanning "Cape to Cairo".
The Rhodes Colossus- Cecil Rhodes spanning "Cape to Cairo".

In 1875 the two most important European holdings in Africa were French-controlled Algeria and the United Kingdom's Cape Colony. By 1914 only Ethiopia and the republic of Liberia remained outside formal European control. The transition from an "informal empire" of control through economic dominance to direct control took the form of a "scramble" for territory by the nations of Europe. The United Kingdom tried not to play a part in this early scramble, being more of a trading empire rather than a colonial empire; however, it soon became clear it had to gain its own African empire to maintain the balance of power.

As French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region threatened to undermine orderly penetration of tropical Africa, the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 sought to regulate the competition between the powers by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims, a formulation which necessitated routine recourse to armed force against indigenous states and peoples.

The United Kingdom's 1882 military occupation of Egypt (itself triggered by concern over the Suez Canal) contributed to a preoccupation over securing control of the Nile valley, leading to the conquest of the neighbouring Sudan in 1896–98 and confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashoda (September 1898).

In 1902 the United Kingdom completed its military occupation of the Transvaal and Free State by concluding a treaty with the two Boer Republics following the Second Boer War 1899-1902. The four colonies of Natal, Transvaal, Free State and Cape Province later merged in 1910 to form the Union of South Africa.

Cecil Rhodes was the pioneer of British expansion north into Africa with his privately owned British South Africa Company. Rhodes expanded into the land north of South Africa and established Rhodesia. Rhodes' dream of a railway connecting Cape Town to Alexandria passing through a British Africa covering the continent is what led to his company's pressure on the government for further expansion into Africa.

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

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

Home rule in white-settler colonies

The United Kingdom's empire had already begun its transformation into the modern Commonwealth with the extension of Dominion status to the already self-governing colonies of Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), Newfoundland (1907), and the newly created Union of South Africa (1910). Leaders of the new states joined with British statesmen in periodic Colonial (from 1907, Imperial) Conferences, the first of which was held in London in 1887.

The foreign relations of the Dominions were still conducted through the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom: Canada created a Department of External Affairs in 1909, but diplomatic relations with other governments continued to be channelled through the Governors-General, Dominion High Commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880 and by Australia in 1910) and British legations abroad.

But the Dominions did enjoy a substantial freedom in their adoption of foreign policy where this did not explicitly conflict with British interests: Canada's Liberal government negotiated a bilateral free-trade Reciprocity Agreement with the United States in 1911, but went down to defeat by the Conservative opposition.

In defence, the Dominions' original treatment as part of a single imperial military and naval structure proved unsustainable as the United Kingdom faced new commitments in Europe and the challenge of an emerging German High Seas Fleet after 1900. In 1909 it was decided that the Dominions should have their own navies, reversing an 1887 agreement that the then Australasian colonies should contribute to the Royal Navy in return for the permanent stationing of a squadron in the region.

World War I (1914–1918)

Britain's declaration of war in 1914 on Germany and its allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, also committed the colonies and Dominions, which provided invaluable military, financial and material support during the war. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities, Germany's overseas colonies in Africa were invaded and occupied, though German forces in German East Africa remained undefeated during the war. In the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand occupied German New Guinea and Samoa respectively. The contributions of Australian and New Zealand troops during the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire had a great impact on the national conscious at home, and marked a watershed in the transition of Australia and 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 in a similar light. In 1917, the Imperial War Cabinet was set up, with representation from each of the Dominion Prime Ministers, to coordinate imperial policy. The first world war placed enormous financial strain on Britain and its empire with resources, cash and foreign assets being diverted for the war. In 1914 Britain had £750,000,000 invested in the United States, by 1918 much of this had been sold in order to pay for the war effort.

Interwar period (1918–1939)

Map showing British Empire in 1921 coloured pink.
Map showing British Empire in 1921 coloured pink.

The aftermath of World War I saw the last major extension of British rule, with the United Kingdom gaining control through League of Nations Mandates in Palestine and Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, as well as in the former German colonies of Tanganyika, South-West Africa (now Namibia) and New Guinea (the last two actually under South African and Australian rule respectively).

The 1920s saw a rapid transformation of Dominion status. Although the Dominions had had no formal voice in declaring war in 1914, each was included separately among the signatories of the 1919 peace Treaty of Versailles, which had been negotiated by a British-led united Empire delegation. In 1922 Dominion reluctance to support British military action against Turkey influenced the United Kingdom's decision to seek a compromise settlement. The League of Nations deputed former German colonies to come under the control of the United Kingdom's colonies. For example, New Zealand took over the mandate of Western Samoa, Australia that of Rabual and South Africa that of German South-West Africa.

Full Dominion independence was formalised in the 1931 Statute of Westminster: each Dominion was henceforth to be equal in status to the United Kingdom itself, free of British legislative interference and autonomous in international relations. The Dominions section created within the Colonial Office in 1907 was upgraded in 1925 to a separate Dominions Office and given its own Secretary of State in 1930.

Canada led the way, becoming the first Dominion to conclude an international treaty entirely independently (1923) and obtaining the appointment (1928) of a British High Commissioner in Ottawa, thereby separating the administrative and diplomatic functions of the Governor-General and ending the latter's anomalous role as the representative of the head of state and of the British Government. Canada's first permanent diplomatic mission to a foreign country opened in Washington, DC, in 1927: Australia followed in 1940.

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

The Irish Free State

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

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

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

Second World War

see also: Allies of World War II

The United Kingdom's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 did not automatically commit the Dominions. All except Ireland declared a state of hostility with Germany. The Irish Free State had negotiated the removal of the Royal Navy from the Treaty Ports the year before, and chose to remain legally neutral throughout the war. Australia entered the war as a British ally. Australian prime minister Robert Menzies was concerned about Churchill's mis-handling of Australian forces in the Middle East.

Sudan was a British Co-dominion with Egypt, Newfoundland controlled by the Colonial office.

The war would involve the whole of the Empire. Materiel and manpower would be drawn from all parts of the Empire. The dominions contributed large numbers of aircrew for the war in the air over Europe; many trained in Canada. The British Eighth Army fighting in North Africa was mulit-national.

Decolonisation and decline (1945–1997)

Though the United Kingdom and its empire emerged victorious from World War II, the economic costs of the war were far greater than those of World War I. The United Kingdom was heavily bombed. The United Kingdom's already weakened commercial and financial leadership were further undermined, heightening the importance of the Dominions and the United States as a source of military assistance. The rise of anti-colonial nationalist movements in British colonies and the changing economic situation of the world in the first half of the 20th century challenged an imperial power now increasingly preoccupied with issues nearer home. Over the next two decades most of the former colonies would become independent.

The Dominions

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

In January 1947, Canada became the first Dominion to create its nationals as citizens in addition to their status as British subjects (which was retained until 1977). Canada became legally independent after the passing by the British Parliament of the Canada Act 1982, effecting the patriation of the national constitution.

End of British Raj

Delhi with a countdown calendar to the Transfer of Power in the background.">Last Viceroy of India Louis Mountbatten in New Delhi with a countdown calendar to the Transfer of Power in the background.
Last Viceroy of India Louis Mountbatten in New Delhi with a countdown calendar to the Transfer of Power in the background.

The British Empire lost its most valuable colony when the British Raj came to an end in August 1947 after a forty-year-long campaign by the Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi, first for self-government and later for full sovereignty. Another organization, called the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, led a successful movement for the creation of a separate Muslim-state called Pakistan (later East Pakistan gained independence and came to be known as Bangladesh). The Partition of India resulted in massive population exchanges and widespread violence and riots costing hundreds of thousands of lives and creating the Dominion of Pakistan (later Islamic Republic of Pakistan) and the Union of India (later Republic of India).


The United Kingdom's Palestine Mandate ended in 1948 in withdrawal and open warfare between the territory's Jewish and Arab populations.

Southeast Asia and Ceylon

Burma achieved independence (1948) outside the Commonwealth, being the first colony since the United States to sever all ties with the British. Ceylon (1948) and Malaya (1957) achieved their independence within the Commonwealth.

Singapore became independent in two stages. The British did not believe that Singapore would be large enough to defend itself against others alone. Therefore, Singapore was joined with Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo, Sabah to form the Federation of Malaysia upon independence from the Empire. This short-lived union was dissolved in 1965 when Singapore left Malaysia and achieved complete independence, although the United Kingdom continued to offer protection through the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

In 1984, the United Kingdom ended the protectorate status of Brunei, although the British Army continues to maintain a presence in the sultanate at the request of the government of Brunei.

The Suez Crisis

Britain's limitations were exposed by the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which the United States and the Soviet Union opposed the British, French and Israeli intervention in Egypt. The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, had infuriated his US counterpart, 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 Nikita Khrushchev threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side. Eisenhower also 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 had succeeded in its objective of recapturing the Canal, Britain was forced into a humiliating withdrawal of its forces due to UN intervention and US political pressure. The Suez Crisis marked a turning point in the history of Britain and its empire: Britain could no longer act unilaterally and was dependent on its alliance with the United States.

The Mediterranean

A guerrilla war waged by Greek Cypriot advocates of union with Greece ended (1960) in an independent Cyprus, although the United Kingdom did retain two military bases - Akrotiri and Dhekelia. The Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo were given independence from the United Kingdom in 1964.


The end of Britain's Empire in Africa came rapidly: Ghana's independence (1957) after a ten-year nationalist political campaign was followed by that of Nigeria and Somaliland (1960), Sierra Leone (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya and Zanzibar (1963), Tanganyika (1964), The Gambia (1965), Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) (1966), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) (1967), and Swaziland (1968).

British withdrawal from the southern and eastern parts of Africa was complicated by the region's white settler populations: Kenya had already provided an example in the Mau Mau Uprising of violent conflict exacerbated by white landownership and reluctance to concede majority rule. White minority rule in South Africa remained a source of bitterness within the Commonwealth until the Union of South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961.

Although the white-dominated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland ended in the independence of Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) and Zambia (the former Northern Rhodesia) in 1964, Southern Rhodesia's white minority (a self-governing colony since 1923) declared independence with their UDI rather than submit to the immediate majority rule of black Africans. The support of South Africa's apartheid government, and the Portuguese rule of Angola and Mozambique helped support the Rhodesian regime until 1979, when agreement was reached on majority rule, ending the Rhodesian Bush War and creating the new nation of Zimbabwe.

The Caribbean

Most of the United Kingdom's Caribbean territories opted for eventual separate independence after the failure of the West Indies Federation (1958–62): Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago (1962) were followed into statehood by Barbados (1966) and the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean (1970s and 1980s), Antigua and Barbuda being the last in November 1981.

Guyana achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966 and became a republic on 23 February 1970.

The United Kingdom's last colony on the American mainland, British Honduras, became a self-governing colony in 1964 and was renamed Belize on 1 June 1973, achieving full independence in 1981.


As decolonisation and the Cold War were gathering momentum during the 1950s, an uninhabited rock in the Atlantic Ocean, Rockall, became the last territorial acquisition of the United Kingdom. Concerns that the Soviet Union might use the island to spy on a British missile test PDF (396  KiB) prompted the Royal Navy to land a party and officially claim the rock in the name of the Queen in 1955. In 1972 the Island of Rockall Act formally incorporated the island into the United Kingdom.

The Falklands War

In 1982, the United Kingdom's resolve to defend her remaining overseas territories was put to the test when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, acting on a long-standing claim that dated back to the Spanish Empire. The United Kingdom's ultimately successful military response to retake the islands during the ensuing Falklands War prompted headlines in the US press that "the Empire strikes back", and was viewed by many to have contributed to reversing the downward trend in the UK's status as a world power.

Handover of Hong Kong

In 1997, the United Kingdom's last major overseas territory, Hong Kong, became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreed some thirteen years previously.


The remaining overseas territories
The remaining overseas territories

The United Kingdom retains sovereignty over fourteen territories outside of the British Isles, collectively named the British overseas territories, which remain under British rule due to lack of support for independence among the local population or because the territory is uninhabited except for transient military or scientific personnel. British sovereignty of two of the overseas territories, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, is disputed by their nearest geographical neighbours, Spain and Argentina respectively. The British Antarctic Territory is subject to overlapping claims by Argentina and Chile, whilst many nations do not recognise any territorial claims to Antarctica.

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

Many former British colonies share or shared certain characteristics:

  • The English language as either the main or secondary language.
  • A democratic parliamentary system of government modelled on the Westminster system.
  • A legal system based upon English law. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, one of the United Kingdom's highest courts of appeal, still serves as the highest court of appeal for several former colonies.
  • A military, police and civil service based upon British models.
  • The English and later the imperial systems of measurement (The United States, which uses the older English system, Cyprus and Burma are the only former British colonies not to have officially adopted the metric system). However, the imperial system is still very much used in many "officially metric" countries, such as Canada, Belize, Sierra Leon, and Ireland.
  • Educational institutions such as boarding schools and universities modelled on Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Driving on the left hand side of the road, with some exceptions mainly in North America and North Africa.
  • Popularity of rugby union and/or cricket, as well as related sports.

Several ongoing conflicts and disputes around the world can trace their origins to borders inherited by countries from the British Empire: the Guatemalan claim to Belize, the Kashmir conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and within Africa, where political boundaries did not reflect homogeneous ethnicities or religions. 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 and New Zealand coming mainly from Britain and Ireland. Tensions remain between the mainly British-descended populations of Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the indigenous minorities in those countries, and between settler minorities and indigenous majorities in South Africa and Zimbabwe. British settlement of Ireland continues to leave its mark in the form of a divided Catholic and Protestant community. Millions of people also moved between British colonies, for example from India to the Caribbean and Africa, creating the conditions for the expulsion of Indians in Uganda in 1972. The makeup of Britain itself was irreversibly changed after the Second World War with immigration to the United Kingdom from the colonies to which it was granting independence.

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