The British Empire was the greatest empire of all time. At its peak, shortly after the First World War, the Empire comprised a population of 458 million people, a quarter of the then world population. With its nearly 31 million kmĀ², it extended to around a quarter of the land area. The king of the United Kingdom was at the head of the British Empire.

The British Empire was merged during 300 years of expansion through trade, colonization and annexation. The Empire included areas on every continent and in every ocean. Between 1890 and 1910 it reached its peak in power, and around 1921 in area.

The Empire facilitated the spread of British technology, trade, forms of government and the English language in the world. Imperialist domination helped British economic growth, making the country the most influential nation in the world. In the meantime, the parliamentary democratic structure has been further developed in the mother country.

The dominated colonies were given English as a language and a British administration. During the decolonization, the United Kingdom tried to turn these countries into democracies, with varying degrees of success. Almost all former British colonies have since joined the British Commonwealth, the organization that manages the cultural legacy of the Empire.

British colonial policy was determined by British trade interests. While some countries developed their own economies, other areas were only used to generate resources. The Empire was held together by a handy policy according to the ancient principles of division and rule, combined with keeping the colonial economies dependent on investments and materials from the mother country. However, these strategies created intercultural conflicts (in Ireland, India, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Uganda, Iraq, Guyana, Fiji,...) and economic problems that are still being felt.

Origin of the United Kingdom

The Middle Ages marked the beginning of English political expansion on the British Isles, starting with the victory of Wales (1282) and Ireland (1169). An English triumph in Scotland in 1296 was undone during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In 1603 there was a personal union between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The Kingdom of Great Britain came into existence in 1707.

Start of British overseas trade

Under King Henry VII of England, who reigned from 1485 to 1509, the overseas trade system of England was built, which would later grow into the overseas colonial British Empire. Hendrik also built the first dry dock, in Portsmouth, and improved the small English navy. John Cabot received permission from the king to look for new lands. He discovered Newfoundland in 1497.

The Royal Navy, founded under Henry VII, was expanded under Henry VIII of England. He tripled the number of warships, and built the first large ships with heavy long-range cannons. He built a network of lighthouses and beacons that facilitated short sea shipping, and built several new docks.

Second British Empire

The independence of the American colonies is often called the end of the first British Empire. Mercantilism, the protection of the economy by the state, which characterized the first period of colonial expansion (for example the English Shipping Laws) was gradually being replaced by economic liberalism developed by Adam Smith and successors such as Richard Cobden.

After this first period of colonialism, the focus shifted to Asia and Oceania, later Africa. The loss of the United States showed that colonies were not always such a blessing in economic terms. Britain still had a monopoly on trade with its former colonies, but did not have to pay anymore for the defense and administration of these areas.

The colonization of Australia followed from 1788. The country attracted huge numbers of settlers, and the original population was displaced. In some places, 60-70% of the original inhabitants died in wars and illnesses that had not occurred before the settlers' arrival.

In 1795 the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands ceased to exist and became part of the First French Republic, the Batavian Republic. England took advantage of this new situation to take over the Cape Colony. Also Ceylon was British possession. Ireland was integrated into the United Kingdom in 1801.

The United Kingdom and its rush on Africa

In 1875 the two most important European possessions in Africa were Algeria and the Cape Colony. By 1914, only Ethiopia (without Eritrea) and Liberia were not colonies. The transition from an informal empire from economic dominance to direct control took the form of a rush to territory.

The French, Belgian and Portuguese activities in the Congo Basin threatened orderly penetration into tropical Africa. The Congress of Berlin (1878) attempted to find an arrangement between the great powers to see effective occupation of an area as criteria for the international recognition of a territorial claim.


After the Second World War, the British Empire was mainly focused on things that took place closer to home. That is why the Empire was not prepared for the emergence of anti-colonial nationalist movements in its colonies. First India and later colonies in the rest of Asia and Africa began to demand their independence. After a few disastrous attempts to preserve the colonies, it was finally decided that the British Empire would be transformed into the contemporary British Commonwealth.

The economic crisis of 1947 caused the left government of Clement Attlee to revise its position on British world domination. The country accepted the strategic dominance of the United States and started a rather strange relationship with Western Europe, which has still not been resolved.

The white-dominated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was terminated by the independence of Malawi and Zambia in 1964. Southern Rhodesia declared itself unilaterally independent as Rhodesia in 1965 with a white minority regime, in order to prevent a black majority rule. Support from the South African government upheld the Rhodesian regime until 1979, when it became modern-day Zimbabwe.

Most of the British Caribbean became dependent upon the disintegration of the West Indian Federation (1958 - 1962): Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago (1962) were followed by Barbados (1966) and the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean (1970 - 1990). British dependent areas underwent a similar decolonization process. At the end of the British 99-year loan from Hong Kong's New Territories, they were returned to China in 1997 along with Hong Kong.

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