- When was the British Empire, and what countries were included within it?
- The Origins of the British Empire
- The "First" British Empire (1707-1783)
- How Did Britain Lose the Thirteen American Colonies?
- The Peak of British Control
- The Second British Empire
- Conflict and Controversy
- Colonialism and the Slave Trade
- World Wars and British Imperial Decline
- The British Empire Today
The British Empire was the biggest empire in world history – and there’s a reason why it was nicknamed the ‘empire on which the sun never sets’.
At its height, the British Empire covered nearly a quarter of the globe, dominating some twenty-three percent of the world’s population. That seems like quite a lot of territory and renown for a tiny little island on the corner of Europe.
It’s time to get to grips with the British Empire: with how it originated, weakened and fell, and how it changed the world that we live in now.
If you are studying for the AQA A level in The British Empire, this is the place to come – but even if you are just interested in what this controversial global system was all about, then you are more than welcome too.
When was the British Empire, and what countries were included within it?
Often the British Empire is actually split into two by historians: the First British Empire and the Second.
The First takes us from the first colonies in the ‘New World’ at the turn of the sixteenth century to the loss of the United States as a colonial territory in 1783. The Second sees Britain responding by focusing more on the Pacific, gaining land in India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Throughout the period, Britain had major territories in Africa, too.
Further in this article, we delve deeper into the First and Second Empires. Later, we'll talk about why and how Great Britain's imperial might waned in the twentieth century.
Some historians point to the end of the Second World War, which triggered a wave of independence movements across the Empire, whilst others say that the Empire formally ended in 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China.
The Origins of the British Empire
Late in the sixteenth century, the Spanish and Portuguese returned from explorations in the New World, basking in wealth of spoils they amassed and the prestige it brought. Before long, other important European powers – France, the Netherlands, and England – wanted in on the action.
That is when British imperial activity began.
Elizabeth I instituted a policy of exploration in the Americas and ordered engagement in naval conflicts with the Spanish. People like Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake rivalled pirates in their looting of spoils of Spanish discoveries. They also tried to establish colonies of their own.
In the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1601, after many previous attempts, England conquered Ireland. This began the slow process of importing Protestant Englishmen and Scots to the Catholic island.
At the beginning of James I’s reign, England signed a treaty with Spain. The burgeoning empire turned west; the English became less focused on attacking their Iberian rivals, instead, they moved to establish colonial settlements in north America and the Caribbean.
Once those colonies there were established, the English barred any ship other than British to make port. This policy of isolation was meant to secure all possible profits from the territories but it displeased Britain’s rivals.
The subsequent naval wars with the Dutch, whilst ostensibly lost by the Brits, ultimately laid the conditions for British dominance. The Brits, for example, gained Dutch territory – including New York in the 1665-7 Anglo-Dutch war – but, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the two countries signed a truce.
The "First" British Empire (1707-1783)
When the sun first rose on the British Empire, Britain was embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession, fighting alongside the Dutch, Portuguese and Romans - who, at that time, were still imperial.
That war ended in 1714 when Spanish king Philip V relinquished his successors' claim on the French throne.
Once the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, France bequeathed Newfoundland and Acadia to England and Spain ceded them Gibraltar and Minorca. Gibraltar was an especially significant gain because it afforded Britain control over access to the Mediterranean.
One more bequest from the Spanish to the British kingdom: control over its African slave trade, a particularly lucrative revenue stream that helped finance British exploits in the Americas.
The joint conquest of the Spanish war machine in Europe and the subsequent payment of reparations does not mean that, henceforth, all would be well between the waning empire (Spain) and the waxing one (England).
The King of Spain failed to retake Gibraltar during the two-year Anglo-Spanish War (1727-1729) so, when the Spaniards had a chance to strike back - not in battle but by seizing all British ships docked in New Spain ports, they did not hesitate to do so.
You might know that New Spain comprised of territories in the Americas, the Caribbean and even as far away as Asia and Oceania.
Thereafter ensued a string of petty attacks by the Spanish. Nothing that could be called combat; more like costly annoyances. Costly for the British, of course.
It wasn't until 1746 that British and Spanish engaged in peace talks. The Spanish king agreed to stop attacking British ships but, in return, Britain lost the slave-trading rights they had been given as reparations 35 years before.
Meanwhile, in the East Indies...
The competition was fierce: the Dutch and British companies constantly tried to outdo each other in trade and acquisition. The two main markets were for spices and textiles and, with the latter gaining in trade volume, the British eventually outpaced their competitors.
That doesn't mean that, strategically, they were peerless.
Besides several military conflicts, among them the Carnatic Wars, British traders and crown representatives remained locked in fierce competition with the French to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Mughal Empire.
It wasn’t until 1757 that the British East India Company gained control of India, the most valuable territory that they owned.
Led by Robert Clive - Clive of India, as he is also known, the British triumphed over the French in the Battle of Plassey, giving the British full military and political control over India. However, the French and British - and other European powers continued to struggle, most notably in the Seven Years' War (1756-63).
The Treaty of Paris signing in 1763 ended any claims the French might make on any of their colonial territories, which comprised of large swaths of land in North America. Adding them to the victories in India made Britain the world's largest maritime power.
How Did Britain Lose the Thirteen American Colonies?
While not exactly on top of the world, the British Empire commanded a substantial portion of it and none was quite as promising as the colonies established in North America.
By 1763, the British Empire had laid claim to about one-third of what is now known as the United States, plus two-thirds of what would become Canada and territories in South America, too. However, the settlers in the initial 13 established colonies chafed under Britain's violation of their Rights of Englishmen.
Colonists were forced to pay taxes to their homeland while having no voice in the British Parliament. Their grievance of taxation without representation started the American Revolution, in which colonists first cast off parliamentary rule, and then established a government of their own.
The British Empire pushed back by sending troops and politicians over to re-establish dominion; a move that led to outright war. Unfortunately for the newly-arrived British, they were confronted not just with renegade colonists but with their old nemeses, France and Spain.
Almost as soon as the Continental Army was established in 1776, the French sent over supplies and money to buy what weapons they could.
While the French provided logistic and financial support, the Spaniards joined in the fighting, attacking British troops in what is now known as Florida and fighting battles up the coast.
Not to be outdone, the Dutch joined in the fray, but not to help out the colonists even though they too had been helping to outfit and supply the Continental Army. The British were dissatisfied with the Dutch trading with their enemies - the French, Spanish and colonists.
Those squabbles turned into a full-fledged war, fought between the Dutch and the British, all while The Crown's troops were trying to regain control of their territories and people. It was a lonely battle - the British had no allies to fight alongside them, and fighting two wars at the same time soon depleted what reserves they had, of troops and supplies.
The Battle of Yorktown (1781) delivered a decisive win to the Americans. Britain negotiated a peace treaty, declaring America an independent nation in the Peace of Paris agreements.
The loss of such a large and populous territory marked the end of the First British Empire.
The Peak of British Control
The height of the British Empire was between 1815 and 1914 – and it has been called ‘The British Century’. This was the period after American independence, but when Britain nonetheless had more territory than ever – as Independence inspired further British expansion into the Pacific and east Asia.
As we see with the Mongol and Roman Empires, there became something of a Pax Britannica – a peace throughout the areas owned by Britain – due to the unassailable dominance of the British. Throughout the areas owned by the Empire, trade flourished.
Unlike other major empires – the Russian Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Qing Dynasty – British imperialism was facilitated by means of the ocean. The British Navy was the biggest to ever have existed, and its power led to the conquests that developed into the empire – hence that famous song, ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’.
Whilst many of the colonies were, in their own right, immensely valuable to the British – for their resources, their industries, their manpower – many were also founded to facilitate more easily global trade routes. Further, often trade companies were the main drivers of imperialism.
For example, it was the East India Company that established the colony in India – with the help of the navy – whilst the Cape Company fought with the Dutch in South Africa precisely because the ‘Cape’ provided a stopping place on the way to the Pacific from the Atlantic. The intersection of private trade and government power is well shown by the example of Cecil Rhodes, the businessman, miner, and diamond trader, who became prime minister of South Africa and after whom Rhodesia was named.
Throughout the nineteenth century, developments in industry made Britain ‘the workshop of the world’: its trade and manufactured goods dominated the world, as they were produced cheaply and quickly, and were distributed easily, due to the combination of the British Navy and the industrial revolution at home.
The wealth and resources that permitted this development often came from the colonies, such as the Indian textile industry.
The Second British Empire
After losing the American colonies, the British pivoted to Asia and the Pacific in general; later they gained territory in Africa. These new explorations and acquisitions were in part funded by the trade policies established with America, which proved to be a far greater economic boon than first expected.
One downside to losing the American colonies is that the British had nowhere to ship convicts to. Since 1718, criminals of all stripes had been shipped off to the colonies to serve their sentence; a relatively short journey across the Atlantic.
Australia became Britain's new penal colony.
It had already been discovered and claimed by the Dutch in 1660 but they made no move to colonise it so, when Captain James Cook landed on its eastern shores in 1770, he promptly named it New South Wales and declared it suitable for prisoners.
Botany Bay became the first penal colony; others soon followed - and they turned a hefty profit for the Empire. First with shipments of wool and later, when gold was discovered in Victoria. Thanks to this gold rush, Melbourne became the second-richest city in the world after London.
Captain Cook also explored the north and south islands of New Zealand, quickly claiming them in The Crown's name and working out trade agreements with the Maori tribes. Soon, Europeans established colonies and businesses, the most lucrative of which was the New Zealand Trading Company, founded in 1839.
This company bought up substantial parcels of land; a year later, William Hobson signed the Treaty of Waitangi with over 40 Maori chiefs. Captain Hobson would become the first governor of New Zealand and the treaty he drafted and signed became the nation's founding document.
Despite Britain's Australian and New Zealand's land grabs that went virtually unchallenged, it was not smooth sailing for The Empire.
Napoleon Bonaparte had come into power in France and he was ready to challenge the British Empire - not just her military might but her very ideology. This was a fight that Britain could not afford to lose; The Empire had no desire to be overrun by the diminutive dictator, a fate so many other countries in Europe had suffered.
The full contents of Britain's war chest were disbursed in the effort to stave off invasion and the most cunning military strategies were put into action.
The Royal Navy blockaded French ports; they then went on to defeat the entire Franco-Spanish naval fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). However, Napoleon's armies moved fast and, while winning this battle, others raged on.
Napoleon seized other territories and colonies; it took the combined might of European military forces to finally defeat him in 1815.
Again, the British Empire enjoyed the spoils of war, reaping Malta, the Ionian Islands, Seychelles, Mauritius, Santa Lucia and Tobago from the French. The Spaniards ceded Trinidad and the Netherlands handed over the Cape Colony and Guyana, Ceylon and Heligoland.
These gains were somewhat offset by The Empire returning French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Reunion to France, and Suriname and Java to the Dutch.
Conflict and Controversy
The administration and processes of the British Empire were not often particularly well received, by either the colonists who had set up residence in the provinces nor the native populations over which the Empire dominated. The issue of slavery is perhaps the most controversial of all.
American War of Independence
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) shows how the resentment of the colonies caused problems for the Empire. This war allowed the Thirteen Colonies, which became the United States, to gain independence from Britain. In the war, they allied with France, who were eager to maintain their properties in that part of the world and to stymie British dominance.
The spark of the revolution was taxation. The colonies were required to pay taxes to Britain, but they were not represented politically in Parliament. The issue of democracy was central here.
Slavery and Racism
In contexts, such as India, where the native population was not destroyed by the colonists, the imperial regime often used native upper classes to rule under the control of the British.
However, the often outright racism of the Empire is most evident in the Royal African Company. This was established in 1672 to take slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. The company carried approximately 3.5 million slaves across the Atlantic until 1807, to work primarily on plantations.
Colonialism and the Slave Trade
With colonies spread across the world and work needing to be done, the British made hefty use of slaves.
They had discovered how lucrative the slave trade could be in the early days of the First Empire; soon they discovered how cost-effective using slave labour on remote plantations and in other industries was. That's the rosy picture.
The reality was that slave rebellions were getting more costly to suppress and, besides, with the Industrial Revolution fully underway, there was less of a need for slaves but the issue of slaves did not truly come under fire until the Abolitionist Movement gained traction in Parliament.
Religious groups had been condemning slavery for well over a century, entreating that enslaving people was a fundamental violation of the 'rights of man'.
While England itself had banned slavery in 1102, there was no prohibition about shipping slaves to the colonies. This practice went on for centuries, until the Slave Trade Act, which banned all slave trade throughout the empire, was signed into law by Parliament in 1807.
The following year, the Sierra Leone Colony was founded as a freed slave enclave but it was poorly populated until the Slave Abolition Act was ratified in 1834.
The original act meant that, while humans would no longer be traded, it was still legal to keep the slaves one already owned. It wasn't until the second act was passed into law that the practice of slavery ended throughout the British Empire.
While it may have been wonderful for the enslaved to be free, the question for former slave owners was what to do with all of the people formerly considered possessions.
Early after the abolition act was signed, slave owners instituted a form of apprenticeship that lasted anywhere between four and six years, ostensibly to teach emancipated slaves a trade.
This caused such outrage among the abolitionists - they saw it as a way to extend the practice of slavery under a different name, that the apprenticeship programme was abolished in 1838, soon after it started.
World Wars and British Imperial Decline
The World Wars
As happens with all empires eventually, the British Empire began to decline – during the twentieth century. Whilst they won both world wars, Britain was severely weakened and financially drained. With the rise of Germany, and the Ottoman Empire fighting the Russian Empire, the First World War had been an explicitly imperialist war.
World War II was a truly world war, with the imperial countries demanding the contribution of troops from the colonies. In the far east during the Second World War, Japan had invaded British territories and had showed that their dominance was not absolute. The Japanese had also spread anti-British sentiment among the territories they controlled.
Independence Movements and Decolonisation
After the two wars, the combination of the weaknesses of the British government and the growth of nationalism globally meant that disillusion with imperialism was felt at home and abroad throughout the twentieth century.
Following a massive rebellion and peaceful revolt led by the nationalist Mahatma Gandhi, Indian independence was granted in 1947 – signed by the government of Clement Attlee. This loss of the biggest of British territories sparked twenty years of quick independence movements.
The British withdrew in 1948 from Palestine, after Jewish terrorism demanding independence – and the state of Israel was declared shortly after. Shortly afterwards, the Suez crisis of 1956 showed that Britain was no longer the power that it had been – as a military strategy ended in embarrassment without the help of the United States.
In Africa, Britain hoped to avoid the situation suffered by the French in Algeria: a long and brutal war of independence. Britain pursued decolonisation peacefully, with nearly thirty African territories being granted independence in the sixties. Only Rhodesia remained technically a part of the empire, if a territory with self-government – until the eighties.
The end of the British Empire is often considered to be 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China.
The British Empire Today
A Problematic Legacy
These days, Britain’s imperial past is controversial – with some considering it with pride and others identifying the problems of racism and the domination of different ethnic and political identities.
Colonialism was essentially a violent phenomenon, which used racist ideas to justify the plunder and control of resources. Critics point out that Britain built its wealth of the impoverishment of other countries.
These days, we can see the importance of the British Empire across the world by the fact that many people speak English. The Commonwealth of Nations is another legacy of empire – the cooperation and association of 53 states that were previously British colonies.
Find out more about the great empires of the world in our series on the subject!