Portal:British Empire

The British Empire Portal

British Empire, 1897
The British Empire was composed of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It began with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

At its height it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913 the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24 percent of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its constitutional, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, it was described as "the empire on which the sun never sets", as the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (Britain, following the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland) the dominant colonial power in North America. Britain became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

The American War of Independence resulted in Britain losing some of its oldest and most populous colonies in North America by 1783. British attention then turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century and expanded its imperial holdings. The period of relative peace (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon was later described as "Pax Britannica" ("British Peace"). Alongside the formal control that Britain exerted over its colonies, its dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.

By the start of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had begun to challenge Britain's economic lead. Military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily on its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on its military, financial, and manpower resources. Although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in East Asia and Southeast Asia were occupied by the Empire of Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped accelerate the decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement, in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire. The Suez Crisis confirmed Britain's decline as a global power, and 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. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, retain a common monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. (Full article...)

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Member states of the Commonwealth of Nations.svg

The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known simply as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 54 member states, almost all of which are former territories of the British Empire. The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations amongst member states.

The Commonwealth dates back to the first half of the 20th century with the decolonisation of the British Empire through increased self-governance of its territories. It was originally created as the British Commonwealth of Nations through the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, and formalised by the United Kingdom through the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The current Commonwealth of Nations was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, which modernised the community and established the member states as "free and equal". (Full article...)

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Punch Rhodes Colossus.png
Credit: Edward Linley Sambourne

The Rhodes Colossus, an iconic editorial cartoon of the Scramble for Africa period, depicting British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes as a giant standing over the continent.

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Rhodes, c. 1900

Cecil John Rhodes PC (5 July 1853 – 26 March 1902) was a British mining magnate and politician in southern Africa who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. An ardent believer in British imperialism, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), which the company named after him in 1895. South Africa's Rhodes University is also named after him. He also put much effort towards his vision of a Cape to Cairo Railway through British territory. Rhodes set up the provisions of the Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate.

The son of a vicar, Rhodes was born at Netteswell House, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. A sickly child, he was sent to South Africa by his family when he was 17 years old in the hope that the climate might improve his health. He entered the diamond trade at Kimberley in 1871, when he was 18, and, thanks to funding from Rothschild & Co, began to systematically buy out and consolidate diamond mines. Over the next two decades he gained near-complete domination of the world diamond market, forming a massive monopoly. His diamond company De Beers, formed in 1888, retained its prominence into the 21st century. (Full article...)

Evolution of the British Empire

British Empire evolution3.gif
This Map of the world animates the Empire's rise and fall.

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British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations

Legend

Current territory  ·   Former territory

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

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

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

20th century
since 1960  Akrotiri and Dhekelia

16th century
1583–1907  Newfoundland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20th century
1958–1962  West Indies Federation

3 Now the San Andrés y Providencia Department of Colombia

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

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

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

4 League of Nations mandate

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

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

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

4 League of Nations mandate

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

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

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

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

17th century
since 1659  St. Helena

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

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

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

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