Empire, British

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Empire, British

The term British Empire refers to political and geographical territories formerly under the control of the British Crown—either as colonies, dependencies, protectorates, mandates, or dominions. The coining of the term British Empire is mostly attributed to the Welsh astronomer, mathematician, and alchemist John Dee (1527–1608), who in a 1570 publication invoked "this Incomparable Brytish Empire." Although Great Britain came into official existence only with the Act of Union in 1707 unifying England and Scotland, the term is generally applied to the English colonial realm before that date as well. In this entry, British Empire will be used in this sense, referring to all English, Scottish, and British colonial territories acquired since the early seventeenth century. Until 1707, the respective protagonists are referred to as England or Scotland, from then on only as Britain or Great Britain.

It is sometimes argued that the British Empire began with King Henry II (1133–1189) declaring himself lord of Ireland in 1171, but usually the origins of empire are associated with England's expansion to overseas territories in North America in the early seventeenth century. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain's empire advanced to global hegemony and reached its greatest expansion shortly after World War I (1914–1918), encompassing about a quarter of the world's land area.

Decolonization after World War II (1939–1945) brought independence for most of Britain's overseas territories during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 has often been described as the end of the British Empire—but even today there are a number of overseas territories remaining under British control, such as Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, or the Falkland Islands. British colonial engagement is often described in two phases differing in their regional focus and the underlying concept of colonialism—the First British Empire from around 1600 to American independence, and the Second British Empire from then to decolonization.


England—and even more so Scotland—was a latecomer in European overseas activities. During the fifteenth century it completely lacked both the economic and strategic potential to participate in early colonialist endeavors. When England finally started to develop a taste for overseas trade and settlement in the mid-sixteenth century, Portugal and Spain had both firmly established themselves as transatlantic empires and extracted substantial profits from their American holdings. Hence, early English overseas activities, such as John Hawkins's (1532–1595) three slaving expeditions to western Africa (1562–1586) or English buccaneering in the Caribbean, intruded into hitherto exclusively Portuguese and Spanish domains.

The resistance of the established colonial powers further delayed English overseas expansion. However, Sir Francis Drake's (ca. 1543–1596) circumnavigation of the globe (1577–1580) and the victory over the Spanish Armada at Gravelines (1588) established England as a major naval power and facilitated private overseas engagement on any significant scale. At the same time, economic incentives for overseas trade emerged. North America offered rich fishing grounds and other resources (e.g., fur). Potential overseas markets became increasingly attractive to English producers and merchants when they lost access to Antwerp as the major cloth market during the Revolt of the Netherlands (1568–1609).

Humphrey Gilbert (ca. 1539–1583) established a settlement in Newfoundland in 1583, and Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1554–1618) founded a colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia, in 1585. Although both ventures had to be abandoned shortly after their founding, a first step toward English overseas expansion had been made. After peace with Spain in the Treaty of London (1604), English colonialism gained momentum. Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607 and became England's first permanent settlement in North America. The colony was saved from severe economic distress by the introduction in 1612 of the tobacco plant, whose cultivation immediately proved to be a highly profitable venture.

Such bright economic prospects attracted other settlers from the motherland, and numerous new settlements were founded. When the Puritan Pilgrims established Plymouth Colony in 1620, they became the first religious separatists to seek refuge in North America and thus gave an example that was later followed by many other religious groups. Salem was founded further to the north in 1626. From the Salem settlement sprang in 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Company. The company secured itself a royal charter and was granted the administration of the colony. This practice proved successful and attracted large numbers of immigrants. By 1640, the colony boasted a total population of 11,500.

The English government saw North American colonization as a means to relieve rising population pressure in the home country, and the British encouraged emigration. Connecticut was founded in 1633, Maryland in 1634, and New Haven in 1638. The administration of the colonies rested with royally chartered joint-stock companies. In 1664 England seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York. The influential Quaker William Penn (1644–1718) secured a royal charter in 1681 and established Pennsylvania as a refuge for his coreligionists. The settlement prospered and attracted a steady influx of European immigrants.

Further north, the Hudson Bay Company successfully tried to participate in the hitherto French-dominated fur trade from 1670 onwards. Territorial tensions between France and England increased and—in the course of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714)—culminated in the British takeover of Acadia (a region in eastern Canada) and Newfoundland in the Treaty of Utrecht in


Welsh astronomer, mathematician, and alchemist John Dee coins the term British Empire
English explorer and nobleman Humphrey Gilbert establishes a settlement in Newfoundland
English explorer and statesman Sir Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert's step-brother, founds a colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia
Jamestown, England's first permanent North American settlement, is founded in Virginia
The Puritan Pilgrims establish Plymouth Colony in present day Massachusetts
English colonization of the Caribbean commences with the settlement of Saint Kitts and Barbados
Salem, Massachusetts, is established
The Massachusetts Bay Company—a British enterprise that establishes the Massachusetts Bay Colony at present day Boston—is formed
Britain takes Jamaica from Spain
England seizes New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renames it New York
William Penn secures a royal charter and establishes Pennsylvania
The Treaty of Utrecht results in British takeover of Acadia (a region in eastern Canada) and Newfoundland
The Stamp Act prompts colonial demonstrations and an import embargo of British goods
The Tea Act culminates in the so-called Boston Tea Party
Thirteen American colonies declare their independence
The Treaty of Paris results in Britain's acknowledgement of American independence and the end of the so-called First British Empire
British colonization of Australia begins with the establishment of Sydney in New South Wales
The separate provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada are established
Britain takes Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from the Dutch
British forces overtake the Dutch Cape Colony in South Africa
New Zealand comes under British authority with the Treaty of Waitangi
The two Canadas are reunited in the Act of Union
Hong Kong falls to Britain with the Treaty of Nanjing
The British Crown assumes direct control over India
The British North America Act creates the Canadian Confederation
The era of "new imperialism" begins, leading to formal British control over wide parts of Africa, as well as imperial expansion in Asia and the Pacific
Queen Victoria is proclaimed empress of India
Britain occupies Burma
Following World War I the British Empire reaches its greatest extent, but struggles to maintain control over its vast territories
The Statute of Westminster and the Commonwealth of Nations give Britain's white settler dominions full sovereignty or authority over their own affairs
Post-World War II decolonization begins and continues through the 1960s, bringing gradual independence for most of Britain's overseas territories
India achieves independence, eventually leading to the partition of British India into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India
Ceylon and Burma achieve independence
African decolonization commences late in the decade
British colonies in the West Indies achieve independence
Some consider the return of Hong Kong to China as the end of the British Empire
A number of overseas territories remain under British control, including Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and the Falkland Islands

1713. The Transportation Act of 1718 made provisions for the transportation of convicted criminals from Britain to North America. Thus emigration to the colonies further increased.

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, tensions between New France and New England and their European motherlands mounted again and finally led to the global Seven Years' War (1754–1763 in the North American colonies, where it was called the French and Indian War; 1756–1763 in Europe). After winning the war, Britain took over the remaining French possessions in America. Only Louisiana went to Spain as compensation for the British occupation of Florida. By 1760, the British colonies in North America housed 1.6 million inhabitants—rising to 2.7 million only twenty years later. This population explosion was mainly due to the large-scale immigration of Europeans and African slaves, as well as to high natural population growth resulting from the comparatively favorable living conditions in the American colonies.

The Caribbean had been a stage for English activity since the middle of the sixteenth century. Tolerated—at times even encouraged—by the British Crown, privateers like Sir Francis Drake harassed the Spanish in the region. English colonization commenced only in the 1620s with the settlement of Saint Kitts and Barbados. Jamaica was taken from Spain in 1655. These new holdings immediately attracted European planters as the land proved well suited for the cultivation of tobacco and sugarcane.

The early tobacco plantations were mostly run as smallholdings and employed mainly convicts or "indentured" labor from Europe. Falling world-market prices for tobacco and competition from Virginia soon rendered small-scale tobacco farming unprofitable. Sugar, on the other hand, enjoyed favorable market conditions and promised quick and large profits. Although intensive in capital and labor, sugar cultivation attracted many planters and investors. The abundance of suitable land and the availability of imported slave labor led to the "sugar revolution" of 1630 to 1670, when large parts of the Caribbean were completely transformed into tropical export economies based on huge, slave-run, European-owned production units. The early years swelled the planters' coffers with immense profits and—although the profit margin had narrowed to about 5 percent by then—Caribbean sugar cultivation remained a profitable venture well into the 1820s.

Trade with Africa attracted English merchants from the early sixteenth century onwards. However, English engagement on the West African coast remained marginal at first. Mostly short-lived factories were established during the first half of the seventeenth century. These concentrated mainly on trade in redwood and gold. Only when the "sugar revolution" in the Caribbean led to rising labor demands that could not be satisfied with European convict or indentured labor anymore did the slave trade arise as a profitable business.

The English entered the slave trade—originally dominated by Portuguese and later Dutch merchants—from the 1640s onwards and established slaving stations on the West African coast. Founded in 1672, the Royal African Company was granted the English monopoly on the slave trade and provided the North American and Caribbean plantations with African slave labor. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 eventually granted to the British the exclusive right to supply slaves to Spanish America—the so-called asiento. Hence, the British emerged as the dominant protagonists in what became known as triangular trade. British ships loaded slaves in Africa and sold these slaves in the Caribbean, loading sugar in exchange. They brought the sugar back to Europe, exchanging it for rum and other processed goods, which they finally sold in Africa, thus completing the triangle. Following reasonable estimates, the (triangular) slave trade brought between 9.5 and 11.5 million African slaves to American plantations from the sixteenth century until the abolition of the slave trade (1802–1833).

Since the beginning of colonization, the economic relations between the motherland and the American colonies were based on mercantilist trade doctrines. Mercantilism rested on the belief that the wealth of a country depended exclusively on the amount of gold and silver that it possessed (bullionism). Mercantilism, therefore, required a favorable balance of trade, with the home country's exports to the colonies being larger than its imports. To achieve such a favorable balance of trade, mercantilist countries restricted and protected overseas trade. The English Parliament did so by passing the first Navigation Act in 1651, reserving imports from the colonies for English merchants. Five more Navigation Acts between 1660 and 1773 extended the reach of the acts. Mercantilist trade protectionism and the seemingly arbitrary imposition of various duties and taxes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continually annoyed the colonies and led to their gradual alienation from Britain.

Although Britain took over French possessions in America after the Seven Years' War, the war had been a costly enterprise. Convinced that the French and Indian War had been mostly a colonial affair benefiting the American holdings, London tried to recover its war expenses by increasing the financial burden of the colonies. In 1764 Britain halved import taxes on West Indian products and simultaneously cracked down on smuggling. A year later, the infamous Stamp Act imposed a levy on the issuing of all legal documents in the American colonies.

The colonists regarded the stamp duty as extremely unjust and staged an import embargo of British goods and demonstrations throughout the colonies. The duty soon proved to be uncollectible and the Stamp Act had to be repealed in 1766. To compensate for this defeat, the British Parliament issued a Declaratory Act that emphasized its full legal authority in North America. However, this act remained mostly a dead letter. Duties on tea and manufactured imports introduced in 1767 had to be abolished after only two years due to the noncooperation of the colonists. Britain responded with the threat of force and stationed a garrison at Boston in 1770. Several local outbreaks of violence in the following years further alienated Britain and America.

The implementation of the detested Tea Act in 1773, cementing the English East India Company's quasimonopoly of the American tea trade, intensified the conflict and culminated in the so-called Boston Tea Party of 1773. American activists—symbolically masked as Indians—seized a shipload of tea and threw it into the sea. The conflict escalated and led to violent clashes between the "Patriots" on the American side and the "Loyalists."

However fierce, American resistance against British authority had never aimed at full independence from Great Britain until then. Only when Britain refused to enter into negotiations did thirteen American colonies declare their independence in 1776. With the help of French forces, the colonies finally managed to defeat a substantial British force sent to suppress the rebellion. The Treaty of Paris ended hostilities in 1783, and Britain had to acknowledge American independence.

Attempts of the United States to conquer the remaining British colonies in former French Canada were fended off. Although lacking representation in London and at times badly neglected, the Canadian colonies remained loyal to Britain. As stout Catholics, the Canadians feared religious discrimination at the hands of the new Americans.

By 1783, the first white decolonization of modern times had been successful, and a new state—or rather a federation of states—had arisen. As such, American independence not only inspired the French Revolution and Latin American independence movements, but it also marked the end of the so-called First British Empire. In this first phase, British colonialism focused mainly on the white settlement colonies in North America whose economic relations with the motherland were built around strict mercantilist beliefs. Although the loss of its most populous and economically important American colonies did not ultimately ruin Great Britain—as had often been predicted by contemporaries—the focus of the British Empire had to be drastically readjusted. And readjusted it was by shifting it to the East and by heeding the louder and louder pleas for free trade.


When the Spanish Crown decided to fund Christopher Columbus's (1451–1506) ill-planned and little promising voyage—eventually leading to the "discovery" of the New World in 1492—it did so out of the desire to find a westward passage to Asia. Portugal's Bartholomeu Dias (ca. 1450–1500) had just recently circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean. Spain saw itself at a serious disadvantage, and funding Columbus's voyage was an act of desperation.

The colonial potential of the New World was tremendously underestimated. Hence, when Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469–1524) finally reached India in 1498, Portugal's access to the rich Indian Ocean trade seemed far more valuable than Spain's newly acquired hegemony over the New World. Although this notion proved to be wrong, and Europe's colonial focus rested on the Americas for the next 250 years, the Indian Ocean trade emerged as an extremely profitable affair for the European sea powers as well.

The Dutch entered the Indian Ocean trade, originally dominated by the Portuguese, in the late sixteenth century. When its holdings in the region began to run at a loss in the seventeenth century, Portugal refocused its attention on Brazil and left the East to the Dutch newcomers. The latter established the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company) in 1602, granting to it a monopoly on Dutch-Asian trade. During the seventeenth century, the VOC clearly dominated European trade in the Indian Ocean.

The VOC's English counterpart, the East India Company (EIC)—although founded two years earlier in 1600—could not compete with the VOC initially. It commanded less capital and lacked the long-term perspectives and planning of the VOC. In its first years, the EIC managed to establish a small network of bases and factories on the Indian coast, including Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Japan, but it was soon expelled from the spice regions and the East Asian trade by the Dutch. The EIC had to content itself with a small number of factories on the Indian Subcontinent.

With the consent of the Mughal emperor, who controlled about 70 percent of the Indian Subcontinent, the EIC founded a factory at the port of Surat in 1613. Fort Saint George in Madras (Chennai) was built in 1641. Ten years later, the EIC established a foothold in Bengal. In 1668 it acquired Bombay (Mumbai).

With the turn of the century, market conditions started to favor the EIC. Demand for cotton increased in Europe and America, where the slave laborers needed cheap clothing. While the VOC concentrated almost exclusively on the spice trade, the EIC had access to the Indian cotton and textile market. Countering the VOC's imports of Javanese coffee, the EIC became the prime importer of Chinese tea to Europe. Thus, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the Dutch company had lost its trade supremacy in Asia. The English East Indian Company had become the single most important merchant company trading with Asia.

Although the VOC had never aimed at the creation of a Dutch overseas empire, it was the first European power in the Indian Ocean to bring larger territories under its direct domination. This practice soon proved to be economically beneficial to the VOC by giving the company direct and cheap access to local markets and a certain security of investment—albeit combined with skyrocketing administration costs.

The EIC soon followed the VOC's example. When the local ruler (nawab) of Bengal occupied Fort William at Calcutta in 1756 to end the EIC's trade monopoly in Bengal, the company sent an army from Madras and eventually defeated the nawab's forces in the Battle of Plassey (1757). The EIC succeeded the nawab as direct ruler of Bengal. The Mughal emperor granted the company full rights of jurisdiction and taxation and made the EIC the legal sovereign of a vast territory on the Indian subcontinent. The company's new role was financially extremely profitable. Much of the ongoing struggle with the French Compagnie des Indes (Company of the Indies) over trade supremacy in India was funded with the new gains. The EIC conquered the French stronghold Pondicherry in 1761 and thereby marginalized the French position in India (although Pondicherry was eventually returned to France in the Treaty of Paris in 1763).

Being, after all, a private and profit-oriented enterprise, the EIC ruthlessly exploited its Indian territories. Hence, it initially extracted large profits from its holdings. Nevertheless, the company steered into financial trouble in the 1770s. Administration costs and shareholder dividends were steadily rising. In the end, the EIC had to ask the British government for help. A loan was granted on the condition of immediate administrative reforms in India. The Regulating Act was passed in 1773 and aimed at stabilizing and regulating company rule in India. The India Act of 1784 tried to intensify government control over the EIC and established the Board of Control. The act also prohibited any further expansion of the company's territory in India.

Despite such regulations, the EIC soon waged war against the French-backed sultan of Mysore and eventually conquered Mysore in 1799. War against the Maratha Empire followed and ended with an EIC victory in 1818. Like Mysore, the Maratha territory came under direct company rule. Other princely states on the subcontinent were able to retain formal independence, but were closely bound to the company. Thus, by 1818, practically the whole Indian Subcontinent had come under formal or informal EIC control. In 1824 parts of Burma (Myanmar) were annexed. After a series of clashes with the Sikh state of the Punjab, the company defeated the Sikhs and annexed the Punjab in 1849.

Although the British military forces proved to be very effective, EIC administration in India was less so. The company's pronounced focus on economic exploitation and its total lack of intercultural competence finally led to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Triggered by rumors that the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle were greased with pork and beef fat—an alleged practice offensive to Muslim and Hindu soldiers alike—parts of the Indian sepoy troops revolted against British domination. The rebellion took the EIC by complete surprise and proved to be a formidable challenge to British rule. Lacking unifying leadership and an overall purpose, the uprising was eventually suppressed by British forces in 1858. However, the rebellion had made obvious that the EIC could not handle the administration of India in a just and effective manner. Thus, the British Crown took over the company's possessions in 1858 and assumed direct control over India. It reorganized the administrative structure and established a conservative administration resting largely on collaboration with traditional local elites. In 1876 Queen Victoria (1819–1901) was proclaimed empress of India.

During his famous explorations in the 1770s, Captain James Cook (1728–1779) discovered a promising replacement for the thirteen American colonies—Australia. The continent proved to be of prime strategic importance. Australia emerged as an important settlement colony—and the new destination for convict transports. Sydney in New South Wales was founded in 1788 and soon prospered. By 1810, New South Wales boasted five major settlements. The land was perfectly suited for sheep husbandry, and Australia alone satisfied 50 percent of Britain's exploding demand for raw wool by 1850. In that year, New South Wales already had 265,000 inhabitants, Tasmania had 70,000, and South Australia had 64,000. Only Western Australia lagged behind with a population of merely 4,600. Immigration to Australia was further stimulated by the discovery of rich gold deposits in 1851.

In 1855 the crown colonies New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania were granted self-government within the British Empire. More sparsely populated Queensland and Western Australia followed this example in 1859 and 1890 respectively. New Zealand had come under British authority in 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and the Maori chiefs. It achieved self-government in 1852.

The remaining North American colonies were reorganized in 1791. About 50,000 loyalist refugees had swelled Quebec's population after 1783 and introduced a substantial English-speaking element in the former French colony. Acknowledging this, the separate provinces of Upper Canada (today Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) were established in 1791. Only in 1840 were the Canadas reunited in the Act of Union. The British North America Act of 1867 widened the union and created the Canadian Confederation.

The British Empire further expanded in Africa and Asia during the Napoleonic Wars. Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was taken from the Dutch in 1796. At the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Britain repelled the French invasion of Egypt, and firmly established its influence in the Mediterranean. After a short-lived occupation in 1795, British forces took over the Dutch Cape Colony in South Africa in 1806. Java was occupied as well, but was eventually handed back to the Netherlands after the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Both the South African colonies and Ceylon became strategically and economically important to the British Empire. British colonists started to arrive at Cape Colony in significant numbers from 1820 onwards. The original Boer settlers left British territory and founded the Boer colonies of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. From 1815 onwards, Ceylon's interior was systematically opened up and transformed into a plantation economy producing coffee and later tea. Elsewhere in Asia, Britain expanded its holdings as well. The Straits Settlement on the Malay Peninsula was established as a crown colony in 1826. Hong Kong fell to Britain with the Treaty of Nanjing that ended the First Opium War in 1842.

The old mercantilist practices of trade protectionism were gradually abandoned after the American Revolution and replaced by ideas of free trade. The Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790) published his influential An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 and contributed to the popularization of the laissez-faire approach. Both the character of Britain as well as that of its empire started to change in the mideighteenth century. On the one hand, industrialization had gripped Britain and made its economy highly flexible and dynamic. On the other hand, the nature of the British Empire had changed as a whole. Having lost the most populous of its settlement colonies, the empire rested more and more on the mainly Asian colonies of domination. These territories often boasted dense indigenous populations and were closely integrated in centuries-old trade systems. Mercantilism soon proved to be too inflexible and restrictive to fully exploit the economic potential of the new empire. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, ideas of free trade became more and more accepted and quickened the pace of empire building.

After 1858, India manifested its position as the nucleus of Britain's second empire—the "Jewel in the Crown." Ideas of "white superiority," "benevolent despotism," and the "white man's burden" began to shape relations between the "colonizers" and the "colonized." Unlike European engagement in the Americas, South Africa, or Australia, British colonialism in India, Burma, Malaya, and Ceylon lacked the significant participation of European settlers. Instead, these regions experienced an influx of European business agents and planters.

Following the Caribbean example, large-scale cash crop cultivation was introduced to wide parts of the region in the early nineteenth century. Yielding to the influence of the planting community and the European absentee investors, the colonial administration more often than not focused its attention on the welfare of the export economy and neglected the indigenous sector. British industrialization cheapened textile production and European-manufactured clothing flooded the Indian market, thereby swiftly ruining the important Indian cotton sector. This process of "deindustrialization," along with increasing population pressure, led to the emergence of widespread landlessness and the creation of an agricultural wage-labor force in (South) India. Following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, South India's excess labor was exported to the plantation regions of the empire under the indenture system.

Between the late eighteenth century and the era of "new imperialism" starting in the 1870s, Britain did not experience serious competition from other European powers in its empire-building efforts. However, France started to recover from its internal problems in the middle of the nineteenth century. And the German unification of 1871 created another global player longing for colonial expansion. Italy developed similar ambitions. Internal rivalries between these powers made them over-ambitious colonizers and heralded the period of "new imperialism."

But the more accessible and economically attractive parts of the world had already been colonized (or even decolonized)—only most of Africa and large parts of the Pacific had been spared as yet. Thus began what has been aptly described as the "Scramble for Africa." The major European powers started to occupy territories in Africa. Britain secured control over the Suez Canal by occupying Egypt in 1882. Most of southern Africa, modern Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Nigeria, and the Gold Coast in western Africa followed.

During the partition of Africa, European rivalry manifested itself in numerous crises. French and British interests, for instance, clashed in the Fashoda Incident of 1898 when both countries strove to establish themselves in Sudan and complete their north-to-south (British) or west-to-east (French) territorial connections. Outside Africa, Britain's adoption of new imperialism led to the complete occupation of Burma in 1885 and its annexation to British India in 1886.

While the era of new imperialism saw the establishment of formal British control over wide parts of Africa and imperial expansion in Asia and the Pacific, a first devolution of power took place in the white settler colonies of North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Self-government had already been granted to most of these colonies when the British North America Act raised Canada to dominion status in 1867. The federations of Australia and South Africa (including the self-governing territories of the Orange Free State and Transvaal) acquired dominion status in 1901 and 1910, respectively. New Zealand had chosen not to join the Australian federation and was made a dominion in 1907. However, the motherland retained legislative authority over the dominions (consolidated by the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865) until the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1931. The dominions' foreign relations were also centrally administered through the Foreign Office in London, and the British monarch remained the head of state in the dominions.

Britain had not seriously resisted the settlement colonies' pursuit of home rule. On the contrary, in an empire of free trade it feared little economic loss and anticipated financial relief due to lower administration costs. However, in its colonies of domination the empire fiercely clung to direct control and was little willing to devolve power.

Aggressive colonial policy, combined with mounting intra-European tensions, eventually led to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After four years of global warfare, the victors (particularly France and Britain) took over most of the colonies of the defeated. Britain inherited most of the German colonies in Africa and acquired League of Nations mandates over Palestine and Iraq, both former territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The British Empire had reached its greatest extent, but found it increasingly hard to maintain control over its vast territories. Britain's economy lay in ruins and local nationalist movements demanded concessions recognizing the colonies' exhaustive financial and military support of the British war effort.

On that background, Egypt was granted quasi-independence in 1922 with British soldiers remaining solely at the Suez Canal. The Indian nationalist movement gained momentum after World War I and could not be satisfied with the half-hearted reforms of 1919 and 1935. However, as in other colonies, the Indian nationalist movement was mainly carried by local elites and thus did not initially aim at total independence but at increased political and economic autonomy within the empire. Accordingly, excluding the case of Ireland, Egypt remained the only decolonized colony of domination until the end of World War II, while the white settler dominions had achieved full sovereignty over their affairs with the Statute of Westminster and the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1931.

But after World War II, the pace of decolonization quickened immediately. Facing a serious economic crisis, the government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883–1967) saw no gains in keeping up colonial control over South Asia. India achieved independence in 1947; Ceylon and Burma followed a year later. Britain's sudden loss of interest in South Asia, combined with the diverse notions of local nationalist movements, rendered decolonization a thoroughly unorganized and hurried affair. Indian decolonization eventually led to the partition of British India into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, a development that was accompanied by a mass exodus on both sides and the death of over one million people in the resulting atrocities.

African decolonization commenced only in the late 1950s. Britain's territories in Africa had been important for the motherland's economic recovery after the war. But now Britain yielded to rising national consciousness in the colonies and released Sudan (1956), Nigeria (1960), Sierra Leone (1961), Tanganyika (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963), Zambia (1964), Malawi (1964), Gambia (1965), Botswana (1966), and Swaziland (1968). In most of these cases, the devolution of power worked comparatively smoothly. In Rhodesia, however, the presence of a substantial and influential white settler community complicated matters and eventually led to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Rhodesia became modern Zimbabwe only in 1980.

In the West Indies, the creation of the West Indies Federation in 1958 was meant to satisfy local desire for increased autonomy. However, the largest members—Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago—left the federation in 1961 and 1962 to become fully independent. The federation was dissolved and the remaining members became British colonies again. They achieved full independence in 1966 (Barbados), 1974 (Grenada), 1978 (Dominica), 1979 (Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), 1981 (Antigua and Barbuda), and 1983 (Saint Kitts and Nevis). British Guyana and British Honduras on the American mainland became independent in 1966 and 1981, respectively.

With the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain handed back its last remaining crown colony. However, Great Britain today still controls strategically or financially important territories outside the British Isles, including Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Saint Helena, the Turks and Caicos islands, Gibraltar, and Pitcairn.

While British decolonization has been practically completed with the return of Hong Kong, the legacy of the British Empire still reverberates in the political, economic, social, and cultural makeup of the world today. The emergence of the English language as the international lingua franca and the spread of the English legal system are parts of this heritage. The dissemination of European religious and cultural ideas throughout the world needed the vehicle of European expansion in general. The British Empire, in particular, made possible the worldwide spread of the Church of England and Puritanism.

British culture and lifestyle also influenced the emergence of national identities after decolonization. British sports, most prominently cricket, remain a favorite pastime in many former colonies. On the other hand, the hurried decolonization in large parts of Asia and Africa often left behind a geopolitical landscape full of unresolved ethnical, political, or economic issues leading to violent clashes, civil war, or international conflicts. Apartheid policy in South Africa, violence in Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Sinhala-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, and the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan all have their roots in British imperial policy and decolonization.

Much of the ethnic composition of the United States, the Caribbean, parts of the Pacific, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia today has its origins in forced (slavery) or semiforced (the indenture system) labor migration within the British Empire. Similarly, the obvious or at times only latent racism displayed by the British colonizers towards the colonized contributed to the development of modern racist prejudice. On the other hand, the multiethnic composition of large parts of Britain today has its roots in the open British immigration policy towards former colonial subjects and commonwealth citizens.

The final question of whether the British Empire has been a boon or a bane to the colonial territories has been asked often, but cannot be answered satisfactorily. Advocates of empire—in accordance with the colonizers themselves—advance the argument that colonialism actually brought economic and political development to hitherto underdeveloped countries and regions. More critical scholars argue that colonialism in general and British imperialism in particular brought about a transfer of wealth from the periphery to the core and thus, in fact, delayed or prevented sustainable development in the colonies.

see also Crown Colony; Empire in the Americas, French; Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Empire, Dutch; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, United States; Indian Revolt of 1857; Scramble for Africa; Sepoy.


Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bayly, C. A. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830. London: Longman, 1989.

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