Around 100 years ago almost a quarter of the world’s people lived under British rule. They were subjects of the British Empire, which spanned every continent—people used to call it “the Empire on which the Sun never sets”. The Empire was not the result of any clear political plan. Instead it was built up bit by bit, over more than 300 years. It disappeared much more quickly. Almost all Britain’s colonies won independence (freedom from British rule) within 30 years of the ending of World War II in 1945. Today, most of them are linked as equal partners in the Commonwealth of Nations. This was set up in the 1930s to maintain ties between peoples who had once been part of the British Empire.
THE START OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
The British Empire grew out of the wave of exploration that sent British seamen around the world in sailing ships in the 16th century. The adventurers went in search of goods to trade as well as new lands. In time they set up permanent trading posts in distant countries, and those settlements needed to be defended. Armed with guns, the defenders often proved more than a match for local people with less advanced weapons.
In its early days the Empire was centred mostly on America and the islands of the Caribbean Sea. The first permanent British settlement on the American coast was set up in 1607, and Britain’s first West Indian colony was St Kitts, in 1624. The new colonies grew tobacco and sugar cane for sale in Britain. Soon demand for the crops was so great that there were not enough local people to harvest them. At first extra workers were brought from Britain, but by the 1660s thousand of slaves were being shipped from Africa to work on the plantations.
British traders were also establishing bases in India. In 1600 the East India Company was set up to trade in spices with the islands now called Indonesia and the Philippines. The company built ports for its ships on the coast of mainland India. Over the years these bases grew into the great cities of Madras and Bombay.
Other European powers, especially the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch, were also building trading empires at the time. In the 18th century they fought several wars. The Seven Years’ War, waged between 1756 and 1763, was particularly important for Britain. Britain won Canada from the French and also gained control of Bengal, the most heavily populated part of India.
The Empire seemed stronger than ever when the war came to an end, but a major setback was on the way. In 1776 the American colonies, angered by demands for tax from Britain, declared their independence. King George III sent troops to put down the rebels, but his armies were defeated. The victorious colonists set up the United States of America as a free nation with no remaining governmental ties to Britain.
THE PEAK OF THE EMPIRE
The loss of the American colonies was a blow, but elsewhere the Empire continued to grow. Canada, to the north of the United States, remained loyal, and settlers there pushed westward. They eventually carried British rule as far as the Pacific Ocean. Australia was settled from 1788, at first as a prison colony. New Zealand was added in 1840.
British settlement in Africa started on the continent’s southern tip at the Cape of Good Hope, where Cape Colony was founded in 1806. Most of Britain’s African colonies were added from 1850 on, during a period called the “Scramble for Africa”. Rival European powers rushed to claim parts of the continent not already ruled by other colonial powers. By the early 20th century the Empire reached its peak. More than 400 million people and a fifth of the world’s land were under British control.
CHALLENGES FACED BY THE EMPIRE
Challenges to the Empire came from two main directions. One was from rival powers with empires of their own. For instance, the British were afraid that the Russians would interfere in India. So from the 1840s onwards Britain and Russia were involved in costly wars in Afghanistan. In the 1880s Britain and France almost went to war because they both had claims in Egypt and Sudan.
A much greater challenge came from rising discontent in the countries that Britain governed. Countries such Canada and Australia were quickly given control over their own affairs to stop unrest spreading. The British government refused to let go of others. It insisted that Britain had a duty to “civilize” those lands it considered backward—countries that were not able to govern themselves.
The Empire faced one of its greatest crises in India in 1857, in the great uprising known as the Indian Mutiny. The revolt was put down, but national feeling remained high. In the 20th century Mohandas Gandhi led a non-violent campaign—called satyagraha—for independence. As a result India became one of the first colonies to gain its freedom, in 1947 after World War II.
THE END OF AN EMPIRE
Although Britain was one of the victors of World War II, it had been badly weakened by the fighting of two world wars within 30 years of each other. There were now new world powers, such as the United States. By 1945 Britain no longer had the money or the manpower to hold a huge Empire together. There were growing demands from the colonies for self-government.
The handover of power was mostly peaceful. Britain’s colonies in southern Asia became independent in the 1940s, and the African and Caribbean colonies mostly broke free in the 1950s and 1960s. One exception was Zimbabwe. Here, the minority of white settlers tried to seize power, which delayed independence until 1980. Britain’s last major colony, Hong Kong, was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Britain now has only a handful of small possessions overseas, including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands (which are called Islas Malvinas by the people of Argentina).