British Empire

British Empire
All areas of the world that were ever part of the British Empire. Current British Overseas Territories have their names underlined in red.
All areas of the world that were ever part of the British Empire. Current British Overseas Territories have their names underlined in red.

The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. [1] By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, [2] and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), [3] 24% of the Earth's total land area. [4] As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase " the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, [5] England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. [6] A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain, the dominant colonial power in North America. It then became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century. [7] 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. [8] [9] [10] [11] In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain; by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 the country was described as the "workshop of the world". [12] The British Empire expanded to include most of India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. Alongside the formal control that Britain exerted over its own colonies, its dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America. [13] [14]

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. [15] 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 dominions. [16]

By the start of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had begun to challenge Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain. Although the British Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in Southeast Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire. The transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire. [17] [18] [19] [20] 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 Elizabeth II.

Origins (1497–1583)

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 England and Scotland were separate kingdoms. In 1496, King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic. [6] 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, [21] 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. [22]

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. [23] In the meantime the 1533 Statute in Restraint of Appeals had declared "that this realm of England is an Empire". [24] The subsequent Protestant Reformation turned England and Catholic Spain into implacable enemies. [6] 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 [25] 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. [26] At the same time, influential writers such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee (who was the first to use the term "British Empire") [27] 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. [28]

Plantations of Ireland

Although England trailed behind other European powers in establishing overseas colonies, it had been engaged during the 16th century in the settlement of Ireland with Protestants from England and Scotland, drawing on precedents dating back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169. [29] [30] 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. [31]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Britse Ryk
Ænglisc: Bryttisce Rīce
azərbaycanca: Britaniya İmperiyası
Bân-lâm-gú: Tāi-eng Tè-kok
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Брытанская імпэрыя
Esperanto: Brita imperio
Fiji Hindi: British Samrajya
客家語/Hak-kâ-ngî: Thai-yîn Ti-koet
한국어: 대영 제국
Bahasa Indonesia: Imperium Britania
interlingua: Imperio Britannic
къарачай-малкъар: Британ империя
latviešu: Britu impērija
lietuvių: Britų imperija
Bahasa Melayu: Empayar British
မြန်မာဘာသာ: ဗြိတိသျှအင်ပါယာ
Nederlands: Britse Rijk
norsk nynorsk: Det britiske imperiet
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Britaniya imperiyasi
Simple English: British Empire
slovenčina: Britské impérium
slovenščina: Britanski imperij
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Britanska Imperija
татарча/tatarça: Британия империясе
Türkmençe: Britan imperiýasy
vepsän kel’: Britanine imperii
Tiếng Việt: Đế quốc Anh
吴语: 大英帝國
粵語: 大英帝國
žemaitėška: Brėtu imperėjė
中文: 大英帝国