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The British Empire, which in the early decades of the 20th century covered
nearly 30 million square kilometres with a population of 400-500 million
people (roughly a quarter of the world's population), was the most extensive
area under a single country's rule in history.
The Empire had come about over 300 years through a succession of phases of
expansion by trade, settlement or conquest, interspersed with intervals of
pacific commercial and diplomatic activity or imperial contraction. Its
territories were scattered across every continent and ocean, and it was
described with some truth as "the empire on which the sun never sets".
The Empire facilitated the spread of British technology, commerce, language,
and government around much of the globe. Imperial hegemony contributed to
Britain's extraordinary economic growth and greatly strengthened her voice
in world affairs. Even as Britain extended its imperial reach overseas, it
continued to develop and broaden democratic institutions at home.
In much of the developing world, empire failed however in its professed
mission of building security and stable institutions. While settler
economies received the investment and infrastructure to support sustained
development, tropical African territories found themselves developed only as
raw-material suppliers. British rule left a legacy of partition or
inter-communal hostility in areas as diverse as Ireland, the former
Palestine, India, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Guyana or Fiji.
After her conquest by Normandy in 1066, England initially supported William
the Conqueror's holdings in France. England's policy of active involvement
in continental European affairs endured for several hundred years. By the
end of the 14th century, foreign trade, originally based on wool exports to
Europe, had emerged as a cornerstone of national policy.
These centuries saw the beginnings of England's political expansion with the
conquest of Wales (to 1282) and Ireland (from 1169). A short-lived English
triumph in Scotland in 1296 was crushingly reversed at Bannockburn in 1314,
leaving the two crowns to be united by dynastic succession in 1603. Despite
the loss of Normandy in 1204, fortuitous marriage and dynastic inheritance
on the part of England's post-Norman rulers brought them large territories
in western France, lost finally in 1453.
The foundations of sea power were gradually laid to protect English trade
and open up new routes. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 firmly
established England as a major naval power. Thereafter, her interests
outside Europe grew steadily. Sir Walter Raleigh organised the first
short-lived colony in Virginia in 1587, permanent English settlement
following in 1607 at Jamestown. During the next three centuries, England,
and, after 1707, Great Britain extended her influence overseas and
consolidated her political development at home.
Colonisation of the Americas
The British Empire first took shape from the early 17th century, with the
English settlement of the eastern colonies of North America, which would
later become the original United States as well as Canada's Maritime
provinces, and the colonisation of the smaller islands of the Caribbean such
as Jamaica and Barbados.
These sugar plantation islands, where slavery became the basis of the
economy, were at first England's most important and successful colonies. The
American colonies providing tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval
materiel and furs in the north were less financially successful, but had
large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of
England's American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonisation,
England gaining control of New Amsterdam (later New York) in the Anglo-Dutch
Wars. The growing American colonies pressed ever westward in search of new
agricultural lands. During the Seven Years War the British defeated the
French at the Plains of Abraham and captured all of New France in 1760,
giving Britain control over almost all of North America.
Later, settlement of Australia (starting with penal colonies from 1788) and
New Zealand (under the crown from 1840) created a major zone of British
migration, although indigenous populations suffered terribly through war and
particularly disease, reducing numbers by some 60-70% over a century. The
colonies were later granted substantial self-government and became
profitable exporters of wool and gold.
Free trade and "informal empire"
For details, see the main article Pax Britannica.
The old British colonial system began to decline in the 18th century. During
the long period of unbroken Whig dominance of domestic political life
(1714-62), the empire became less important and less well regarded, until an
ill-fated attempt to reverse the resulting "salutary neglect" provoked the
American War of Independence (1775-83), depriving Britain of her most
The period is sometimes referred to as the end of the "first British
Empire", indicating the shift of British expansion from the Americas in the
17th and 18th centuries to the "second British Empire" in Asia and later
also Africa from the 18th century. The loss of the United States showed that
colonies were not necessarily particularly beneficial in economic terms,
since Britain could still dominate trade with the ex-colonies without having
to pay for their defence and administration.
Mercantilism, the economic doctrine of competition between nations for a
finite amount of wealth which had characterised the first period of colonial
expansion, now gave way in Britain and elsewhere to the laissez-faire
economic liberalism of Adam Smith and successors like Richard Cobden.
The lesson of Britain's North American loss - that trade might continue to
bring prosperity even in the absence of colonial rule - contributed to the
extension in the 1840s and 1850s of internal self-government to white
settler colonies in Canada and Australasia whose British or European
inhabitants were seen as outposts of the "mother country".
During this period, Britain also outlawed the slave trade (1807) and soon
began enforcing this principle on other nations. By the mid-19th century
Britain had largely eradicated the world slave trade. Slavery itself was
abolished in the British colonies in 1834, though the phenomenon of
indentured labour retained much of its oppressive character until 1920.
The end of the old colonial and slave systems were accompanied by the
adoption of free trade, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws and
Navigation Acts in the 1840s. Free trade opened the British market to
unfettered competition, stimulating reciprocal action by other countries
during the middle quarters of the 19th century.
Some argue that the rise of free trade merely reflected Britain's economic
position and was unconnected with any true philosophical conviction. Despite
the earlier loss of Britain's North American colonies, the final defeat in
Europe of Napoleonic France in 1815 left Britain the most successful
international power. While the Industrial Revolution at home gave her an
unrivalled economic leadership, the Royal Navy dominated the seas. The
distraction of rival powers by European matters enabled Britain to pursue a
phase of expansion of her economic and political influence through "informal
empire" underpinned by free trade and strategic pre-eminence.
Between the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870,
Britain was the world's sole industrialised power. As the "workshop of the
world", Britain could produce finished manufactures so efficiently and
cheaply that they could undersell comparable locally produced goods in
foreign markets. Given stable political conditions in particular overseas
markets, Britain could prosper through free trade alone without having to
resort to formal rule.
The British Empire in Asia
For details, see the main article Imperialism in Asia.
The victory of forces of the British East India Company at Plassey in 1757
opened the great Indian province of Bengal to British rule, though later
famine (1770) exacerbated by massive expropriation of provincial government
revenues aroused controversy at home. The 19th century saw Company rule
extended across nearly the whole of India. Following the Indian Mutiny of
1857 the Company's territories were placed (1858) under the administration
of the Crown. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was proclaimed Empress of India in
Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma were added to Britain's Asian territories,
which extended further east to Malaya and, from 1841, to Hong Kong following
a successful war in defence of the Company's opium exports to China.
British interest in China began in the late 18th century as Britain became a
large importer of tea. This trade created a bilateral trade deficit which
the British sought to resolve by exporting opium from India to China,
despite opposition among Chinese officials to the trade. Conflict over the
trade resulted in the Opium Wars in which Britain twice decisively defeated China.
After the Opium Wars, Britain maintained a complex relationship with China.
Although Britain annexed Hong Kong, most of its trade with China was
regulated by treaties which allowed trade through a number of coastal ports.
As a result, Britain was interested in maintaining an independent Chinese
state since the collapse of China would open opportunities for territorial
gains by other Western Powers.
At the same time, Britain was opposed to a Chinese state that was too
strong, because this would allow China to cancel or renegotiate its
treaties. These interests explain the apparent contradictions of British
policy in China: Britain provided the Qing dynasty with aid during the
Taiping rebellion, but at the same time engaged in the Second Opium War
against the Qing court.
Breakdown of Pax Britannica
As the first country to industrialise, Britain had been able to draw on most
of the accessible world for raw materials and markets. But this situation
gradually deteriorated during the 19th century as other powers began to
industrialise and sought to use the state to guarantee their markets and
sources of supply. By the 1870s, British manufactures in the staple
industries of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to experience real
Industrialisation progressed rapidly in Germany and the United States,
allowing them to clearly outstrip over the "old" British and French
capitalisms. The German textile and metal industries, for example, had by
1870, surpassed those of Britain in organisation and technical efficiency
and usurped British manufactures in the domestic market. By the turn of the
century, the German metals and engineering industries would even be
producing for the free trade market of the former "workshop of the world".
While invisible exports (banking, insurance and shipping services) kept
Britain "out of the red," her share of world trade fell from a quarter in
1880 to a sixth in 1913. Britain was losing out not only in the markets of
newly industrialising countries, but also against third-party competition in
less-developed countries. Britain was even losing her former overwhelming
dominance in trade with India, China, Latin America or the coasts of Africa.
Britain's commercial difficulties deepened with the onset of the "Long
Depression" of 1873-96, a prolonged period of price deflation punctuated by
severe business downturns which added to pressure on governments to promote
home industry, leading to the widespread abandonment of free trade among
Europe's powers (in Germany from 1879 and in France from 1881).
The resulting limitation of both domestic markets and export opportunities
led government and business leaders in Europe and later the U.S. to see the
solution in sheltered overseas markets united to the home country behind
imperial tariff barriers: new overseas subjects would provide export markets
free of foreign competition, while supplying cheap raw materials. Although
she continued to adhere to free trade until 1932, Britain joined the renewed
scramble for formal empire rather than allow areas under her influence to be
seized by rivals.
The New Imperialism
For details, see the main article New Imperialism.
The policy and ideology of European colonial expansion between the 1870s and
the outbreak of World War I in 1914 are often characterised as the "New
Imperialism". The period is distinguished by an unprecedented pursuit of
what has been termed "empire for empire's sake", aggressive competition for
overseas territorial acquisitions and the emergence in colonising countries
of doctrines of racial superiority which denied the fitness of subjugated
peoples for self-government.
During this period, Europe's powers added nearly 23,000,000 km2 to their
overseas colonial possessions. As it was mostly unoccupied by the Western
powers as late as the 1880s, Africa became the primary target of the "new"
imperialist expansion, although conquest took place also in other areas
— notably south-east Asia and the East Asian seaboard, where the
United States and Japan joined the European powers' scramble for territory.
Britain's entry into the new imperial age is often dated to 1875, when the
Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian
ruler Ismail's shareholding in the Suez Canal to secure control of this
strategic waterway, since its opening six years earlier a channel for
shipping between Britain and India. Joint Anglo-French financial control
over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.
Fear of Russia's centuries-old southward expansion was a further factor in
British policy: in 1878 Britain took control of Cyprus as a base for action
against a Russian attack on the Ottoman Empire, and invaded Afghanistan to
forestall an increase in Russian influence there. The "Great Game" in Inner
Asia ended with a bloody and wholly unnecessary British expedition against
Tibet in 1903-04.
At the same time, some powerful industrial lobbies and government leaders in
Britain, later exemplified by Joseph Chamberlain, came to view formal empire
as necessary to arrest Britain's relative decline in world markets. During
the 1890s Britain adopted the new policy wholeheartedly, quickly emerging as
the front-runner in the scramble for tropical African territories.
Britain's adoption of the New Imperialism may be seen as a quest for captive
markets or fields for investment of surplus capital, or as a primarily
strategic or pre-emptive attempt to protect existing trade links and to
prevent the absorption of overseas markets into the increasingly closed
imperial trading blocs of rival powers. The failure in the 1900s of
Chamberlain's Tariff Reform campaign for Imperial protection illustrates the
strength of free trade feeling even in the face of loss of international
market share. Historians have argued that Britain's adoption of the "New
imperialism" was an effect of her relative decline in the world, rather of strength.
The evolution of colonialism in India should dissuade people sweeping
generalisations and over-simplifications regarding the roles of
inter-capitalist competition and accumulated surplus in precipitating the
era of the New imperialism. Formal empire in India, beginning with the
Government of India Act of 1858, was a means of consolidation, reacting to
the abortive Indian Mutiny, which was in itself a conservative reaction
among Indian traditionalists to British policy in the subcontinent.
The Scramble for Africa
For details, see the main article, Scramble for Africa.
In 1875 the two most important European holdings in Africa were Algeria and
the 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 in areas previously regarded as open to British
trade and influence.
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.
Britain'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
In 1899 Britain set out to complete her takeover of South Africa, begun with
the annexation (1795) of the Cape, by invading the Afrikaner republics of
the gold-rich Transvaal and the neighbouring Orange Free State. The
chartered British South Africa Company had already seized the land to the
north, renamed Rhodesia after its head, the Cape tycoon Cecil Rhodes.
British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Rhodes and Alfred Milner,
Britain'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.
Paradoxically Britain, the staunch advocate of free trade, emerged in 1914
with not only the largest overseas empire thanks to her long-standing
presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the "scramble for Africa",
reflecting her advantageous position at its inception. Between 1885 and 1914
Britain took nearly 30% of Africa's population under her control, to 15% for
France, 9% for Germany, 7% for Belgium and only 1% for Italy: Nigeria alone
contributed 15 million subjects, more than in the whole of French West
Africa or the entire German colonial empire.
Home Rule in white-settler colonies
Britain's empire had already begun its transformation into the modern
Commonwealth with the extension of self-governing Dominion status to the
white colonies of Newfoundland (1855), Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New
Zealand (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. Britain's declaration of war in World
War I applied to all the Dominions.
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 Empire
military and naval structure proved unsustainable as Britain 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 British navy in return for the permanent
stationing of a squadron in the region.
The impact of the First World War
The aftermath of World War I saw the last major extension of British rule,
with Britain 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).
But although Britain emerged among the war's victors, and although her rule
expanded into new areas, the heavy costs of the war undermined her capacity
to maintain the vast empire. Nationalist sentiment grew in both old and new
Imperial territories, fuelled by pride at Empire troops' participation in
the war and the grievance felt by many non-white ex-servicemen at the racial
discrimination they had encountered during their service to the Empire.
The 1920s saw a rapid transformation of the status of the self-governing
territories. 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 Britain's decision to seek a
Full Dominion independence was formalised in the 1926 Balfour Declaration
and the 1931 Statute of Westminster: each Dominion was henceforth to be
equal in status to Britain herself, 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 in 1927: Australia followed in 1940.
The Irish Free State, accorded Dominion status in 1921 after a bitter war
against British rule, ended its formal constitutional link with the crown in
1937 (renaming itself âire), and became the Republic of Ireland outside the
Commonwealth in 1949. Egypt, formally independent from 1922 but bound to
Britain by treaty until 1936 (and under partial occupation until 1956)
similarly severed all constitutional links with Britain.
The rise of anti-colonial nationalist movements in the subject territories
in the first half of the 20th century challenged an imperial power now
increasingly preoccupied with issues nearer home. First India, then other
territories in Asia and Africa demanded independent statehood. After
sometimes disastrous attempts to stem the tide, Britain's eventual
acceptance of the new situation led to the Empire's transformation into
The end of Empire gathered pace after Britain's efforts during World War II
left the country all but exhausted and found its former allies disinclined
to support the colonial status quo. Economic crisis in 1947 forced the
Labour government of Clement Attlee to abandon Britain's attempt to remain a
first-rank power, and to accept United States strategic pre-eminence.
Britain entered a tortuous realignment with western Europe that remains
unresolved to this day.
Britain's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 did
not commit the Dominions, other than Australia, which had not yet legally
adopted the Statute of Westminster. The other Dominions issued their own
declarations of war, except for Eire, which had negotiated the removal of
British forces from its territory the year before, and which now chose to
remain neutral throughout the war.
World War II fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and
financial leadership and heightened the importance to the Dominions of the
United States as a source of military assistance. Australian prime minister
John Curtin's unprecedented action (1942) in successfully demanding the
recall for home service of Australian troops earmarked for the defence of
British-held Burma demonstrated that Dominion governments could no longer be
expected to subordinate their own national interests to British strategic
After the war, Australia and New Zealand joined with the United States in
the ANZUS regional security treaty in 1951 (although the U.S. repudiated its
commitments to New Zealand following a 1985 dispute over port access for
nuclear vessels). Britain's pursuit (from 1961) and attainment (1973) of
European Community membership weakened the old commercial ties to the
Dominions, ending their privileged access to the U.K. market.
In the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, post-war decolonisation was
accomplished with almost unseemly haste in the face of increasingly powerful
(and sometimes mutually conflicting) nationalist movements, with Britain
rarely fighting to retain any territory. Britain's limitations were exposed
to a humiliating degree by the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which the United
States opposed Anglo-French intervention in Egypt, seeing it as a doomed
adventure likely to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.
The independence of India in 1947 ended a 40-year struggle by the Indian
National Congress for first self-government and later full sovereignty,
though the land's partition into India and Pakistan entailed violence
costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The acceptance by Britain, and the
other Dominions, of India's adoption of republican status (1949) is now
taken as the start of the modern Commonwealth.
Burma achieved independence (1948) outside the Commonwealth, Ceylon (1948)
and Malaya (1957) within it. Britain's Palestine Mandate ended (1948) in
withdrawal and open warfare between the territory's Jewish and Arab
populations. In the Mediterranean, a guerrilla war waged by Greek Cypriot
advocates of union with Greece ended (1960) in an independent Cyprus.
The end of Britain's Empire in Africa came with exceptional rapidity, often
leaving the newly-independent states ill-equipped to deal with the
challenges of sovereignty: Ghana's independence (1957) after a ten-year
nationalist political campaign was followed by that of Nigeria (1960),
Sierra Leone and Tanganyika (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya and Zanzibar
(1963), The Gambia (1965), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) and Lesotho
(formerly Basutoland) (1966), 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 ending of apartheid in 1994.
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 (effectively
self-governing since 1923) declared independence rather than submit to
African government. The support of South Africa's apartheid government kept
the Rhodesian regime in place until 1979, when agreement was reached on
majority rule in an independent Zimbabwe.
Most of Britain's Caribbean territories opted for eventual separate
independence after the failure of the West Indies Federation (1958-62):
Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago (1962) were followed into statehood by
Barbados (1966) and the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean (1970s and
1980s). Britain's Pacific dependencies underwent a similar process of
decolonisation in the latter decades. At the end of Britain's 99-year lease
of the mainland New Territories, all of Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.