British Empire

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At its height the British Empire covered almost a quarter of the world's land surface (the greatest in history) and included large areas of North America, Australia, Africa and Asia. Britain now has only 14 small overseas territories, including Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and the Cayman islands. Most of the former members of the British Empire are now members of the Commonwealth of Nations.

In addition to the text below, this article comprises

  • Countries of the Empire - a brief account of the founding of each of the principal British colonies;
  • Timelines - links in chronological order to reports of events in the acquisition and dissolution of the British Empire;
  • Maps - maps of the colonies; and
  • Constitutional terminology - the terminology of the categories of colonies and mandated territories.


By the beginning of the 20th century, Britain had created an empire that was larger than any previous empire. But it was an empire that lacked the consistency of purpose, location and character of its Roman and Ottoman predecessors. The purposes of its founders had included escape from persecution, the exploitation of natural resources, the establishment of trading links, the pursuit of military advantage, and the mercantilist objective of preserving a positive balance of payments. Its colonies were scattered, seemingly at random, throughout the five continents. Their forms of governance had included both direct rule and indirect rule; both assimilation (meaning the adoption of British laws and customs), and the preservation of traditional society, customs and laws. Some subject peoples experienced benign paternalism, and some suffered systematic brutality.

Historians have long sought explanations for Britain's paradoxical ability to dominate an imperial population some twenty times its own size, and for the willingness of many of its former colonies to associate themselves with it as free and equal members of the Commonwealth.


Trade policy was among the reasons for the growth of empire. The decay of the feudal system [1] had, by the 16th century, enabled labour to move into manufacturing activities such as cloth production, and cloth producers and others were seeking new markets for their products[2]. In line with the mercantilist orthodoxy of the time, governments granted monopoly rights (royal charters) to colonising companies, and imposed restrictions (Navigation Acts [3]) designed to make them accept British exports. Personal economic and/or religious advantage motivated the colonists themselves, but their activity also served the purpose of official trade policy. Different purposes were served by the possession of the Caribbean colonies. The revenues received over a period of 150 years by their absentee English owners from the sugar plantations, and by the English slave traders from the trade in goods and slaves, were so vast that there have been (admittedly controversial) claims that they made a significant contribution to the financing of the industrial revolution. Commercial advantage was allowed to outweigh - what were eventually recognised as overwhelming - humanitarian considerations until the Atlantic slave trade was prohibited in 1807. Trade was the sole purpose of the initial British presence in India, and military action leading to annexation occurred only when that presence was threatened[4].

A determining factor of the rapid expansion that occurred during the 19th century was the achievement of naval supremacy by the virtual destruction of the French and Spanish navies in the battle of Trafalgar[5]. The development of trade was still a policy objective, but it was often overlaid by the practice of forcibly excluding European competitors, and it sometimes - particularly in Africa - became a straightforward scramble for power.


The principal acquisitions are listed in chronological order on the timelines subpage and by geographical location on the addendum subpage

The settlements in North America began in the early years of the 17th century, not long after the ending - with the loss of Calais - of England's military adventures on the European mainland, but they were enterprises of different sort. They were undertaken by associations of private individuals, not by the state; and the colonists were farmers, not soldiers. The Thirteen Colonies had British-appointed Governors, but their relations with Britain were essentially those of trading partners, until the British government attempted to use the colonies as a source of revenue, prompting the American Revolution and Britain's recognition in 1783 of The United States of America as an independent country. In the course of what some historians call the First Empire, Britain established itself as the leading imperial power by its victories over France and Spain in the Seven Years War. It was rewarded in the settlement at the end of that conflict in 1763 with the expulsion of France from nearly all of North America and India. By the end of the 18th century Britain was in secure possession of Canada and some thirty Caribbean islands (see list of colonies in the West Indies) and had established a secure foothold in India. By the early 20th century, it had consolidated its control of India, acquired a miscellany of countries in Asia {see list), and the Antipodes, had established its control of South Africa, and had successfully engaged in the European "scramble for Africa" (see list of African colonies).


The standard structure of government for a British colony was headed by a Governor (or High Commissioner) acting as an agent of the Crown, who was supported by an advisory or legislative council, and who employed a staff of civil servants. Variants of that structure were adapted to particular circumstances. In colonies with predominantly British populations there were usually legislative councils elected by the populace, and civil servants who were recruited from the local populace. The powers of the governors of that sort of colony were seldom - or sparingly - exercised, and they became essentially ceremonial when those colonies became Dominions. In colonies with predominately native populations (including most of the African colonies), the civil service often amounted to little more than a scattering of District Officers, each of whom performed all the functions of government in his area of responsibility (India after 1858 was a major exception with a large civil service, recruited extensively from the Indian populace). The attitudes of the colonial administrators to non-white populations ranged from benevolent paternalism to racist indifference. There nevertheless emerged an empire-wide policy of respect for indigenous religions and customs, although it was not consistently applied. African colonies with substantial European populations operated separate legal system for Europeans and Africans, and those with predominately African populations, used only their traditional systems of law. But many colonial administrators believed themselves to be engaged in a civilising mission, the ultimate objective of which would be the local adoption of something like the Westminster system of governance, together with the local acceptance of European conduct norms. The colonial administration of India operated a general acceptance of local norms and customs, but it acted successfully to put an end to suttee (widow-burning), and unsuccessfully to put an end to the caste system[6]. The British colonists' strategy for the preservation of their control was to avoid confrontation when possible, but to respond decisively when challenged. A more than proportional response was often adopted with the objective of deterring further challenges. Examples of such "overkill" responses included the brutal punishments of recalcitrant slaves[7], the allegedly genocidal treatment of Tasmanian aborigines, the punitive response to the Indian Mutiny, and the military response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya[8].


The principal events in the transition from Empire to Commonwealth are listed in chronological order on the timelines subpage

The transition from Empire to Commonwealth had its formal origin in the Colonial Conference of 1887. The idea that the Empire should be seen as a family of nations, not just the random offspring of the British Crown, had been floated some years before, and had found expression in the formation of the Imperial Federation League. The British government of the time saw the 1887 conference as a means of getting some colonies to make a contribution toward the rising cost of maintaining the navy, but some of the fifty-odd self-governing and Crown colonies that were represented had other ideas [9] and the succession of Imperial conferences that followed over the next forty years made increasing inroads into Britain's hegemony. By 1910, four colonies[10] had become self governing and had been granted "Dominion status", and the 6th Imperial Conference in 1926 established the Dominions as communities within the British Empire on equal terms with Britain. In debates concerning policy toward the Crown Colonies the option of self-government was rejected in favour of the concept of "trusteeship" meaning the promotion of interests of the native populations as well as the interests of the white settlers[11], and several Colonial Development Acts were passed to enable financial support to be provided to the colonies. In 1940, the objective of colonial policy was officially stated to be "to protect and advance the interests of the inhabitants of the colonies". In 1945, Britain's first post-war government was elected with an election commitment to "seek to promote mutual understanding and cordial co-operation between the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, the advancement of India to responsible self-government, and the planned progress of our Colonial Dependencies" [12], and in 1948 it stated the objective of its colonial policy to be to guide the Crown colonies to "responsible government with a fair standard of living and freedom from oppression"[13].

India became independent in 1947 after a negotiated partition[14] involving the creation of Pakistan. The name "British Commonwealth" had by then been officially applied only to the self-governing Dominions that owed constitutional allegiance to the British Crown, but in 1949 the London Declaration extended the concept to include countries that became republics after they became independent (enabling India to remain in the Commonwealth after it became a republic in 1950), and changed its title from British Commonwealth to Commonwealth of Nations. Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949 and its remaining membership in 1950 consisted of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon. In the course of the following 20 years, at least 20 more British colonies gained their independence, and nearly all of them decided to join the Commonwealth.


The net effect of the British Empire is necessarily indeterminate because of the lack of information about what would have happened had it not existed. It is possible, however, to identify some outcomes that probably would not have happened in its absence. It is unlikely, for example, that English would otherwise be spoken as many as one in four of the world's population[15]. And the fact that most Commonwealth of Nations countries have democratically-elected governments, [16] may plausibly be attributed, in part, at least, to their former membership of the British Empire.