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British Empire


The British Empire in 1897, marked in pink, the traditional color for Imperial British dominions on maps

The British Empire is the most extensive empire in world history and for a time was the foremost global power. It was a product of the European age of discovery, which began with the global maritime explorations of Portugal and Spain in the late fifteenth century.

By 1921, the British Empire ruled a population of between 470 and 570 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 14.3 million square miles (more than 37 million square kilometers), about a quarter of Earth's total land area. Though it has now mostly evolved into the Commonwealth of Nations, British influence remains strong throughout the world: in economic practice, legal and governmental systems, sports (such as cricket and football), and the English language itself.

Did you know?The British Empire was known as "the empire on which the sun never sets"

The British Empire was, at one time, referred to as "the empire on which the sun never sets" (a phrase previously used to describe the Spanish Empire and later to American influence in the world) because the empire's span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies. On the one hand, the British developed a sense of their own destiny and moral responsibility in the world, believing that many of her colonial subjects required guidance, that it was British rule that prevented anarchy and chaos. Positively, the education system sponsored by the British promulgated an awareness of such values as freedom, human dignity, equality-even though those taught often observed that their colonial masters did not practice what they preached. Negatively, peoples and resources were exploited at Britain's advantage and more often than not at the cost of her overseas possessions.

Many British thought their ascendancy providential, part of the divine plan. Anyone who believes that history is not merely a series of accidents might well see God's hand behind the creation of an empire that, despite all the ills of an imperial system imposed on unwilling subjects, also left a cultural, literary, legal and political legacy that binds people of different religions and races together.


The term "British Empire" was frequently used after 1685; for example, in John Oldmixon's book The British Empire in America, Containing the History of the Discovery, Settlement, Progress and Present State of All the British Colonies, on the Continent and Islands of America (London, 1708).1

Background: The English Empire

Growth of the overseas empire

Statue of John Cabot in Newfoundland, site of England's first overseas colony

The origin of the British Empire as territorial expansion beyond the shores of Europe lies in the pioneering maritime policies of King Henry VII, who reigned 1485 to 1509. Building on commercial links in the wool trade promoted during the reign of King Richard III of England, Henry established the modern English merchant marine system, which greatly expanded English shipbuilding and seafaring. The merchant fleet also supplied the basis for the mercantile institutions that would play such a crucial role in later British imperial ventures, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company and the British East India Company chartered by Henry's grand-daughter, Elizabeth I. Henry's financial reforms made the English Exchequer solvent, which helped to underwrite the development of the Merchant Marine. Henry also ordered construction of the first English dry dock at Portsmouth, and made improvements to England's small Royal Navy. Additionally, he sponsored the voyages of the Italian mariner John Cabot in 1496 and 1497 that established England's first overseas colony-a fishing settlement-in Newfoundland, which Cabot claimed on behalf of Henry.

Henry VIII and the rise of the Royal Navy

King Henry VIII founded the modern English navy (though the plans to do so were put into motion during his father's reign), more than tripling the number of warships and constructing the first large vessels with heavy, long-range guns. He initiated the Navy's formal, centralized administrative apparatus, built new docks, and constructed the network of beacons and lighthouses that made coastal navigation much easier for English and foreign merchant sailors. Henry established the munitions-based Royal Navy that was able to hold off the Spanish Armada in 1588.


The first substantial achievements of the colonial empire stem from the Act for Kingly Title, passed by the Irish parliament in 1541. This statute converted Ireland from a lordship under the authority of the English crown to a kingdom in its own right. It was the starting point for the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland.

By 1550 a committed policy of colonization of the country had been adopted, which culminated in the Plantation of Ulster in 1610, following the Nine Years War (1595-1603). These plantations would serve as templates for the empire. Several people involved in these projects also had a hand in the early colonization of North America, including Humphrey Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. The Plantations were large tracts of land granted to English and Scottish settlers, many of whom enjoyed newly created titles.

The Elizabethan era

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1796)

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the years 1577 to 1580, fleeing from the Spanish, only the second to accomplish this feat after Ferdinand Magellan's expedition.

In 1579 Drake landed somewhere in northern California and claimed what he named Nova Albion for the English Crown (Albion is an ancient name for England or Britain), though the claim was not followed by settlement. Subsequent maps spell out Nova Albion to the north of all New Spain. England's interests outside Europe now grew steadily, promoted by John Dee (1527-1609), who coined the phrase "British Empire." An expert in navigation, he was visited by many of the early English explorers before and after their expeditions. He was a Welshman, and his use of the term "British" fitted with the Welsh origins of Elizabeth's Tudor family, although his conception of empire was derived from Dante Alighieri's book Monarchia.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1537-1583) followed on Cabot's original claim when he sailed to Newfoundland in 1583 and declared it an English colony on August 5 at St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first colony in Virginia in 1587 at Roanoke Island. Both Gilbert's Newfoundland settlement and the Roanoke colony were short-lived, however, and had to be abandoned due to food shortages, severe weather, shipwrecks, and hostile encounters with indigenous tribes on the American continent.

The Elizabethan era built on the past century's imperial foundations by expanding Henry VIII's navy, promoting Atlantic exploration by English sailors, and further encouraging maritime trade especially with the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League, a Baltic trading consortium. The nearly twenty year Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604), which started well for England with the sack of Cadiz and the repulse of the Spanish Armada, soon turned Spain's way with a number of serious defeats which sent the Royal Navy into decline and allowed Spain to retain effective control of the Atlantic sea lanes, thwarting English hopes of establishing colonies in North America. However it did give English sailors and shipbuilders vital experience. Rivalry between the British, the Dutch and the Spanish reflected both commercial and territorial competition but also the Protestant-Catholic divide.

The Stuart era

In 1604, King James I of England negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain, and the first permanent English settlement followed in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. During the next three centuries, England extended its influence overseas and consolidated its political development at home. In 1707, under the Acts of Union, the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland were united in Westminster, London, as the Parliament of Great Britain.

Scottish role

There were several pre-union attempts at creating a Scottish Overseas Empire, with various Scottish settlements in North and South America. The most famous of these was the disastrous Darien scheme which attempted to establish a settlement colony and trading post in Panama to foster trade between Scotland and the Far East.

After union many Scots, especially in Canada, Jamaica, India, Australia and New Zealand, took up posts as administrators, doctors, lawyers and teachers. Progressions in Scotland itself during the Scottish enlightenment led to advancements throughout the empire. Scots settled across the Empire as it developed and built up their own communities such as Dunedin in New Zealand. Mainly Calvinist, the Scots had a strong work ethic which was accompanied by belief in philanthropy as a religious duty, all of which impacted on the education system that was developed throughout the empire.


Jamestown, under the leadership of Captain John Smith (1580-1631), overcame the severe privations of the winter in 1607 to found England's first permanent overseas settlement. The empire thus took shape during the early seventeenth century, with the English settlement of the 13 colonies of North America, which would later become the original United States as well as Canada's Atlantic provinces, and the colonization of the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Barbados.

The sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean, where slavery became the basis of the economy, were at first England's most important and lucrative colonies. The American colonies provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the South and naval materiel (military hardware) and furs in the North were less financially successful, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West

England's American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonization, England gaining control of New Amsterdam (later New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War. 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 the greater part 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. The entire Australian continent was claimed for Britain when Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) proved New Holland and New South Wales to be a single land mass by completing a circumnavigation of it in 1803. The colonies later became self-governing colonies and became profitable exporters of wool and gold.

Free trade and "informal empire"

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

The old British colonial system began to decline in the eighteenth century. During the long period of unbroken Whig dominance of domestic political life (1714-1762), the empire became less important and less well-regarded, until an ill-fated attempt (largely involving taxes, monopolies, and zoning) to reverse the resulting "salutary neglect" (or "benign neglect") provoked the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), depriving the empire of its most populous colonies.

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 seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the "second British Empire" in Asia and later also Africa from the eighteenth century. The loss of the Thirteen Colonies showed that colonies were not necessarily particularly beneficial in economic terms, since Britain could still profit from trade with the ex-colonies without having to pay for their defense and administration.

Mercantilism, the economic doctrine of competition between nations for a finite amount of wealth which had characterized the first period of colonial expansion, now gave way in Britain and elsewhere to the laissez-faire economic classical liberalism of Adam Smith and successors like Richard Cobden (1804-1865) a manufacturer, politician and anti-regulationist.

The lesson of Britain's North American loss-that trade might be profitable in the absence of colonial rule-contributed to the extension in the 1840s and 1850s of self-governing colony status to white settler colonies in Canada and Australasia whose British or European inhabitants were seen as outposts of the "mother country." Ireland was treated differently because of its geographic proximity, and incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801; due largely to the impact of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule.

During this period, Britain also outlawed the slave trade (1807) and soon began enforcing this principle on other nations. By the mid-nineteenth-century Britain had largely eradicated the world slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in the British colonies in 1834, though the phenomenon of indentured labor retained much of its oppressive character until 1920.

The end of the old colonial and slave systems was accompanied by the adoption of free trade, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws and Navigation Acts (regulatory measures) in the 1840s. Free trade opened the British market to unfettered competition, stimulating reciprocal action by other countries during the middle quarters of the nineteenth century.

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

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 13 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 Britain an unrivaled 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 its 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 industrialized power, with over 30 percent of the global industrial output in 1870. 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 Americas in particular (especially in Argentina and the United States) were seen as being well under the informal British trade empire due to Britain's enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, keeping other European nations from establishing formal rule in the area. However, free trade appears to have become imperial policy, since Britain found it convenient in many parts of the world to engage in trade and to negotiate trading rights without formally acquiring sovereignty, as in China, Iran, and the Gulf States. This went hand-in-hand with the belief that Britain now had a duty to police the world-that is, to protect trade. The term Pax Britannica was later used to describe this period, drawing an obvious parallel with the Pax Romana. Behind this term lies the idea that this type of imperial system benefits the ruled as well as the rulers.

British East India Company

Main article: British East India Company

The British East India Company was probably the most successful chapter in the British Empire's history as it was responsible for the annexation of the Indian subcontinent, which would become the empire's largest source of revenue, along with the conquest of Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Malaya (which was also one of the largest sources of revenue) and other surrounding Asian countries, and was thus responsible for establishing Britain's Asian empire, the most important component of the British Empire.

The British East India Company originally began as a joint-stock company of traders and investors based in Leadenhall Street, London, which was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1600, with the intent to favor trade privileges in India. The Royal Charter effectively gave the newly created “Honourable East India Company” a monopoly on all trade with the East Indies. The company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one which virtually ruled India as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, along with a very large private army consisting of local Indian sepoys (soldiers), who were loyal to their British commanders and were probably the most important factor in Britain's Asian conquest. The British East India Company is regarded by some as the world's first multinational corporation. Its territorial holdings were subsumed by the British crown in 1858, in the aftermath of the events variously referred to as the Sepoy Rebellion or the Indian Mutiny.

At that time there was no political entity called India. The Indian subcontinent was a patchwork of many kingdoms, and unlike in Europe there was no concept of the state as a political institution anywhere in this expanse of land. It was indeed with the absorption of British and western ideas that the concept of India as a single nation arose, much later in time. Thus, until the establishment of a single administrative and gubernatorial entity by the British, the word India must be taken to represent nothing more than a catchall term for the peninsula south of the Himalayas.

The company also had interests along the routes to India from Great Britain. As early as 1620, the company attempted to lay claim to the Table Mountain region in South Africa, later it occupied and ruled the island of Saint Helena. The company also established Hong Kong and Singapore; and cultivated the production of tea in India. Other notable events in the company's history were that it held Napoleon captive on Saint Helena, and made the fortune of Elihu Yale (1649-1721) the benefactor of Yale College, Boston. Its products were the basis of the Boston Tea Party in Colonial America.

In 1615 Sir Thomas Roe was instructed by James I to visit the Mughal emperor Jahangir (who ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent at the time, along with parts of Afghanistan). The purpose of this mission was to arrange for a commercial treaty which would give the company exclusive rights to reside and build factories in Surat and other areas. In return, the company offered to provide to the emperor goods and rarities from the European market. This mission was highly successful and Jahangir sent a letter to the king through Roe. As a result, The British East India Company found itself completely dominant over the French, Dutch and Portuguese trading companies in the Indian subcontinent.

In 1634 the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan extended his hospitality to the English traders to the region of Bengal, which had the world's largest textile industry at the time. In 1717 the Mughal Emperor at the time completely waived customs duties for the trade, giving the company a decided commercial advantage in the Indian trade. With the company's large revenues, it raised its own armed forces from the 1680s, mainly drawn from the indigenous local population, who were Indian sepoys under the command of British officers.


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

The decline of the Mughal Empire, which had separated into many smaller states controlled by local rulers who were often in conflict with one another, allowed the company to expand its territories, which began in 1757 when the company came into conflict with the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj Ud Daulah. Under the leadership of Robert Clive, the company troops and their local allies defeated the Nawab on June 23, 1757, at the Battle of Plassey. The victory was mostly due to the treachery of the Nawab's former army chief, Mir Jafar. This victory, which resulted in the conquest of Bengal, established the British East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power, and marked the beginning of British rule in India. The wealth gained from the Bengal treasury allowed the company to significantly strengthen its military might and as a result, extend its territories, conquering most parts of India with the massive Indian army it had acquired.

The company fought many wars with local Indian rulers during its conquest of India, the most difficult being the four Anglo-Mysore Wars (between 1766 and 1799) against the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore, ruled by Hyder Ali, and later his son Tipu Sultan (The Tiger of Mysore). There were a number of other states which the company couldn't conquer through military might, mostly in the North, where the company's presence was ever increasing amidst the internal conflict and dubious offers of protection against one another. Coercive action, threats and diplomacy aided the company in preventing the local rulers from putting up a united struggle against it. By the 1850s the company ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent, and as a result, began to function more as a nation and less as a trading concern.

The company was also responsible for the illegal opium trade with China against the Qing Emperor's will, which later led to the two Opium Wars (between 1834 and 1860). As a result of the company's victory in the First Opium War, it established Hong Kong. The company also had a number of wars with other surrounding Asian countries, the most difficult probably being the three Anglo-Afghan Wars (between 1839 and 1919) against Afghanistan, which were mostly unsuccessful.


The company's rule effectively came to an end exactly a century after its victory at Plassey, when the anti-British rebellion broke out in 1857 which saw many of the Company's Indian sepoys begin an armed uprising against their British commanders after a period of political unrest triggered by a number of political events. One of the major factors was the company's introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. The paper cartridges containing the gunpowder were lubricated with animal fat, and had to be bitten open before the powder was poured into the muzzle. Eating cow fat was forbidden for the Hindu soldiers, while pig fat was forbidden for the Muslim soldiers. Although it insisted that neither cow fat nor pig fat was being used, the rumor persisted and many sepoys refused to follow their orders and use the weapons. Another factor was the execution of the Indian sepoy Mangal Pandey, who was hanged for attacking and injuring his British superiors, possibly out of insult for the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle or a number of other reasons. Combined with the policy of annexing Princely states this resulted in the rebellion, which eventually brought about the end of the British East India Company's regime in India, and instead led to 90 years of direct rule of the Indian subcontinent by Britain. The period of direct British rule in India is known as the British Raj, when the regions now known as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar would collectively be known as British India.

Breakdown of Pax Britannica

As the first country to industrialize, Britain had been able to draw on most of the accessible world for raw materials and markets. But this situation gradually deteriorated during the nineteenth century as other powers began to industrialize 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 competition abroad.

Britannia became a symbol of Britain's imperial might

Industrialization progressed rapidly in Germany and the United States, allowing them to overtake the "old" British and French economies as world leader in some areas. By 1870 the German textile and metal industries had surpassed those of Britain in organization 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 industrializing 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 1873-1896, 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 (Germany from 1879 and 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 it continued to adhere to free trade until 1932, Britain joined the renewed scramble for formal empire rather than allow areas under its influence to be seized by rivals.

Britain and the New Imperialism

Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli.

The policy and ideology of European colonial expansion between the 1870s and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 are often characterized 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 colonizing countries on the basis of doctrines of racial superiority that denied the fitness of subjugated peoples for self-government.

During this period, Europe's powers added nearly nine million square miles (23,000,000 square kilometers) 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 Southeast Asia and the East Asian seaboard, where 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, a channel for shipping between Britain and India since its opening six years earlier under Emperor Napoleon III of France. 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, after having taken part in the Crimean War (1854-1856) and invading Afghanistan to forestall an increase in Russian influence there. Britain waged three bloody and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan as ferocious popular rebellions, invocations of jihad, and inscrutable terrain frustrated British objectives. The First Anglo-Afghan War led to one of the most disastrous defeats of the Victorian military, when an entire British army was wiped out by Russian-supplied Afghan Pashtun tribesmen during the 1842 retreat from Kabul. The Second Anglo-Afghan War led to the British debacle at Maiwand in 1880, the siege of Kabul, and British withdrawal into India. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 stoked a tribal uprising against the exhausted British military on the heels of World War I and expelled the British permanently from the new Afghan state. The "Great Game"-espionage and counter-espionage especially with reference to Russia's interests in the region-in Inner Asia ended with a bloody British expedition against Tibet in 1903-1904. Rudyard Kipling's novel, Kim (1901) is set in the context of the "Great Game," a term first coined by Arthur Conolly (1807-1842), a British army and intelligence officer.

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 than of strength.

British colonial policy

British colonial policy was always driven to a large extent by Britain's trading interests. While settler economies developed the infrastructure to support balanced development, some tropical African territories found themselves developed only as raw-material suppliers. British policies based on comparative advantage left many developing economies dangerously reliant on a single cash crop, with others exported to Britain or to overseas British settlements. A reliance upon the manipulation of conflict between ethnic, religious and racial identities in order to keep subject populations from uniting against the occupying power-the classic "divide and rule" strategy-left a legacy of partition and/or inter-communal difficulties in areas as diverse as Ireland,