British Empire

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

The British Empire was the world's first global power and the largest empire in human history, a product of the European Age of Exploration that began with the global maritime empires of Portugal and Spain in the late 15th century. By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 470–570 million people — roughly a quarter of the world's population — and covered about 15 million square miles (nearly 37 million square kilometres), almost a third of the world's total land area.


Background: The English and Scottish Empires

The Anglo-Norman Kingdom

In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England and made himself its king, giving England its first overseas territory (Normandy). The new rulers had dual roles. First, as kings of England they were sovereign lords. Second, as dukes of Normandy, they were vassals of the kings of France. This led to centuries of conflicts which ended with their loss of French holdings in 1558. In the meantime, Wales was conquered in 1282 and the annexation of Ireland began in 1172.

Growth of the overseas empire

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

The overseas British Empire — in the sense of British oceanic exploration and settlement outside of Europe and the British Isles — was rooted in the pioneering maritime policies of King Henry VII, who reigned 14851509. Building on commercial links in the wool trade promoted during the reign of his predecessor King Richard III, Henry established the modern English merchant marine system, which greatly expanded English shipbuilding and seafaring. The merchant marine 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. 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 navy. Additionally, Henry 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

The foundations of sea power, having been laid during Henry VII's reign, were gradually expanded to protect English trade and open up new routes. 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, centralised administrative apparatus, built new docks, and constructed the network of beacons and lighthouses that greatly facilitated coastal navigation for English and foreign merchant sailors. Henry thus established the munitions-based Royal Navy that was able to repulse the Spanish Armada in 1588, and his innovations provided the seed for the Imperial Navy of later centuries.

The Elizabethan era

Defeat of the Spanish Armada,  by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, painted 1796.
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, painted 1796.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the years 1577 to 1580, only the second to accomplish this feat after Ferdinand Magellan's expedition. In 1579, Drake landed somewhere in northern California and claimed for the Crown what he named Nova Albion ("New Britain"), though the claim was not followed by settlement. Subsequent maps spell out Nova Albion to the north of all New Spain. Thereafter, England's interests outside Europe grew steadily. Humphrey Gilbert 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. Sir Walter Raleigh organised the first colony in Virginia in 1587 at Roanoke. 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. However, the Elizabethan navy suffered severe defeats against the Spanish fleets in the Anglo-Spanish War following the Spanish Armada campaign, which weakened the Royal Navy and allowed Spain to retain effective control of Atlantic sea lanes until the 1630s, when decisive victories by the Dutch made the Netherlands the dominant seafaring nation in the Atlantic.

The Stuart era

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) helped to strengthen England's advance toward becoming a major naval power, but this naval advantage was lost in the attack upon Spain by the disastrous Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589, and subsequent naval and land defeats at the hands of Spain in the 1590s thwarted attempts to settle North America, and helped damage the English Exchequer. However it did give English sailors and shipbuilders vital experience. Finally in 1604, King James I of England negotiated the Treaty of London which ceased 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, the parliaments of England and Scotland were united in London as the parliament of Great Britain.

Scottish Empire

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 Darien scheme which attempted to establish a settlement colony and trading post to foster trade between Scotland and the world.


In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the island of Newfoundland as England's for Elizabeth I, reinforcing John Cabot's prior claim to the island in 1497, for Henry VII, as England's first overseas colony. Gilbert's shipwreck prevented ensuing settlement in Newfoundland, other than the seasonal cod fishermen who had frequented the island since 1497. However, the Jamestown colonists, led by Captain John Smith, 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 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 Atlantic provinces, and the colonisation 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 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 English emigrants.

England's American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonisation, 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 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.

See also British colonisation of the Americas, Colonial history of America.

Free trade and "informal empire"

Main article: Pax Britannica.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (John Trumbull, 1797). The loss of the American colonies marked the end of the "first British 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 18th century. During the long period of unbroken Whig dominance of domestic political life (171462), 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 War of Independence (177583), depriving Britain of her 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 17th and 18th centuries to the "second British Empire" in Asia and later also Africa from the 18th century. The loss of the Thirteen Colonies 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 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 English rule.

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 was 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.

The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Pax Britannica.
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 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, with over 30% 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.

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 competition abroad.

Industrialisation progressed rapidly in Germany and the United States, allowing them to take over the "old" British and French capitalisms as world leader in some areas. 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 187396, 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 US 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.

Britain and the New Imperialism

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 8,880,000 sq mi (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, a channel for shipping between Britain and India since its opening six years earlier under Emperor Napoleon III. 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 185456 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" in Inner Asia ended with a bloody and wholly unnecessary British expedition against Tibet in 190304.

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.

The evolution of colonialism in India should dissuade people from 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.

Britain and the Scramble for Africa

Main article: Scramble for Africa.

Cape to Cairo
Cape to Cairo

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 by the nations of Europe. Britain tried not to play a part in this early scramble, being more of a trading empire rather then a colonial empire; however, it soon became clear it had to gain its own African empire to maintain the balance of power.

As French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region threatened to undermine orderly penetration of tropical Africa, the Berlin Conference of 188485 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 189698 and confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashoda (September 1898).

In 1899 Britain completed her takeover of what is today South Africa. This had begun with the annexation of the Cape in 1795 and continued with the conquest of the Boer Republics in the late 19th century, following the Boer Wars. Cecil Rhodes was the pioneer of British expansion north into Africa with his privately owned British South Africa Company. Rhodes expanded into the land north of South Africa and established Rhodesia. Rhodes' dream of a railway connecting Cape Town to Alexandria passing through a British Africa covering the continent is what led to his company's pressure on the government for further expansion into Africa.

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. In 1903, the All Red Line telegraph system communicated with the major parts of the Empire.

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, compared to 15 per cent for France, 9 per cent for Germany, 7 per cent for Belgium and 1 per cent 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 Dominion status to the already self-governing colonies of Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), Newfoundland (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 Royal Navy in return for the permanent stationing of a squadron in the region.

The impact of the First World War

British Empire memorial for the First World War in the Brussels cathedral.
British Empire memorial for the First World War in the Brussels cathedral.

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 (British League of Nations Trust Territory of 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). The British zones of occupation in the German Rhineland after World War I and West Germany after World War II were not considered part of the Empire.

But although Britain emerged among the war's victors, and her rule expanded into new areas, the heavy costs of the war undermined her capacity to maintain the vast empire. The British had suffered millions of casualties and liquidated assets at an alarming rate, which led to debt accumulation, upending of capital markets and manpower deficiencies in the staffing of far-flung imperial posts in Asia and the African colonies. 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 Dominion status. 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 compromise settlement.

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, DC in 1927: Australia followed in 1940.

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. Iraq, which became a British Protectorate in 1922, also gained complete independence ten years later in 1932.

The last colonial expansion of the British Empire was the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, begun in 1938 and abandoned in 1963. The last territorial expansion of the British Empire was the annexation of Rockall to the west of the Outer Hebrides in 1955. The Royal Navy landed a party of seamen on the isle and officially claimed the rock in the name of the Queen. The action was prompted by the imminent intention of the Ministry of Defence to test launch a nuclear missile from the Outer Hebrides. It was feared that the heretofore unclaimed island might be used by the Soviet Union as a site for surveillance equipment. In 1972 the Isle of Rockall Act formally incorporated the island into the United Kingdom, although this was not accepted by Ireland.

The end of British rule in Ireland

An Anglo-Irish War memorial in Dublin.
An Anglo-Irish War memorial in Dublin.

In 1919 Irish guerrillas, known as the Irish Republican Army under the leadership of General Michael Collins began a military campaign against British rule called the Anglo-Irish War. The war ended in 1921 with a stalemate that resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty divided Ireland into two states, most of the island (26 counties) became the Irish Free State an independent dominion nation within the British Commonwealth; while the six counties in the north with a loyalist Protestant community remained apart of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.

In 1948 Ireland became a republic, fully independent from the United Kingdom. Ireland's Constitution claimed the six counties of Northern Ireland as a part of the Republic of Ireland until 1998. The issue over whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland has divided Northern Ireland's people and led to a long and bloody conflict known as the troubles.

However the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought about a ceasefire between most of the major organisations on both sides, creating hope for a peaceful resolution.

Decolonisation and Decline

Mahatma Gandhi was a leader of the Indian independence movement

The rise of anti-colonial nationalist movements in the subject territories and the changing economic situation of the world in the first half of the 20th century challenged an imperial power now increasingly preoccupied with issues nearer home. The Empire's end began with the onset of the Second World War, when a deal was reached between the British government and the Indian independence movement, whereby the Indians would co-operate and remain loyal during the war, after which they would be granted independence. Following India's lead, nearly all of Britain's other colonies would become independent over the next two decades.

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 made many realise that the Labour government of Clement Attlee should abandon Britain's attempt to remain a first-rank power.

Britain's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 did not commit the Dominions. All the Dominions except Australia and Ireland issued their own declarations of war. The Irish Free State had negotiated the removal of the Royal Navy from the Treaty Ports the year before, and chose to remain legally neutral throughout the war. Australia went to war under the British declaration.

World War II fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and financial leadership and heightened the importance of the Dominions and 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 perspectives. Curtin had written in a national newspaper the year before that Australia should look to the United States for protection, rather than Britain.

After the war, Australia and New Zealand joined with the United States in the ANZUS regional security treaty in 1951 (although the US 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 UK 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, firstly for self-government and later for 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.

Singapore became independent in two stages. The British did not believe that Singapore would be large enough to defend itself against others alone. Therefore, Singapore was joined with Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form Malaysia upon independence from the Empire. This short-lived union was dissolved in 1965 when Singapore left Malaysia and achieved complete independence.

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, although Britain did retain two military bases - Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the current Queen, has seen the gradual dismantling of the Empire
The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the current Queen, has seen the gradual dismantling of the Empire

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 policy 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 (a self-governing colony since 1923) declared independence with their UDI rather than submit to equality with black Africans. 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 (195862): Jamaica and Trinidad and 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.


The British Empire in 1921, shown in pink.
The British Empire in 1921, shown in pink.

At its traditional height in 1921, the British Empire consisted of the following territories:


The Americas and Atlantic





Extent after World War II

An anachronous map of the British Empire and England showing all the territories ruled from 1762 to 1948 (British Empire) and from 1066-1707 (England). Territories lost by 1900 in red (British) and lavender (English only), greatest extent in pink, wartime occupied territories in light pink and postwar occupied territories of defeated Axis in salmon. 1921 Borders shown.
An anachronous map of the British Empire and England showing all the territories ruled from 1762 to 1948 (British Empire) and from 1066-1707 (England). Territories lost by 1900 in red (British) and lavender (English only), greatest extent in pink, wartime occupied territories in light pink and postwar occupied territories of defeated Axis in salmon. 1921 Borders shown.

During and after World War II Britain aquired control of further territories though these cannot be considered part of the British Empire as control was subject to international agreements. Territories obtained during and after the war were controlled in a variety of ways, with some ruled as UN Trust Territories and others being totally occupied and administered, while still others were only militarily occupied and the local administrations allowed to continue. These territories were:


  • Comoros (as part of Madagascar, see below)
  • Eritrea (as a UN Trust Territory)

The Americas and Atlantic


  • Dutch East Indies- mainly just Java and Sumatra (occupied and administered by South East Asia Command (SEAC) to accept Japanese surrender and restore law and order until the Dutch arrived)
  • French Indochina- south of the 16th parallel, but mainly Saigon (occupied and administered by SEAC to accept Japanese surrender and restore law and order until the French arrived)
  • Iran (occupied and administered by Indian Command)
  • Iraq (under same administration as Iran)
  • Japan (Shikoku and part of Honshu occupied as British Commonwealth Occupation Zone)
  • Lebanon (occupied and administered)
  • Syria (same administration as Lebanon)


Territories Lost by British Empire before 1921

Remaining Overseas Territories

Main article: British overseas territory.

Now only a few small territories remain under British administration, mostly for reasons of perceived insufficiency as sovereign states. The last remaining Overseas Territories are:

Overseas Territories possessing substantial self-government

Other Overseas Territories

Crown Dependencies in British Isles (Outside UK & EU)

Personal Unions

Kingdom of England (927 - 1707)

Kingdom of Great Britain (1707 - 1801)

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801 - 1927)

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1927 - present)



See also

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

American Empire | British Empire | Danish Empire | Dutch Empire | German Empire |

French Empire | Italian Empire | Portuguese Empire | Spanish Empire | Swedish empire |

Further Reading

  • James, Lawrence,(1998) The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 2nd. ed, Abacus ISBN 031216985X
  • Judd, Denis, (1999) Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present, Fontana ISBN 0465019544
  • Fergusson, Niall (2003) . Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World, Pengiun Books ISBN 0-141-00754-0

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