The British Empire, which in the early decades of the 20th century covered nearly 30 million square kilometress with a population of 400-500 million people (roughly a quarter of the world's population), was the second most extensive area under a single country's rule in history, after the Mongol Empire of the 13th century.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 History
3 Extent
4 Remaining Dependent Territories
5 See also:
6 External links


The British Empire came together over 300 years through a succession of phases of expansion by trade, settlement or conquest, interspersed with intervals of pacific commercial and diplomatic activity or imperial contraction. Its territories were scattered across every continent and ocean, and it was described with some truth as "the empire on which the sun never sets". It reached its height in the 1930s and 40s.

The Empire facilitated the spread of British technology, commerce, language, and government around much of the globe. Imperial hegemony contributed to Britain's extraordinary economic growth and greatly strengthened her voice in world affairs. Even as Britain extended its imperial reach overseas, it continued to develop and broaden democratic institutions at home.

From the perspective of the colonies, the record of the British Empire is mixed. They gained from Britain the English language, an administrative and legal framework on the British model, as well as technological and economic development. With varying degrees of success, in decolonisation Britain sought to pass on to her colonies governments based on parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. At the very least, those countries which were colonised by Britain were spared the incompetence and brutality of some other European empires, such as the Belgian and Portuguese empires; and almost all have since chosen to join the Commonwealth of Nations, the association which replaced the Empire.

Nonetheless, British colonial policy was always driven to a large extent by Britain's trading interests. While settler economies developed the infrastructure to support balanced development, tropical African territories found themselves developed only as raw-material suppliers. British policies based on comparative advantage left many developing economies dangerously reliant on a single cash crop. A disregard for the complexities of national and racial identities left a legacy of partition or inter-communal difficulties in areas as diverse as Ireland, India, Zimbabwe, Guyana and Fiji.


For details, see the main article History of the British Empire.

The first British Empire

From the early 17th century England and later Great Britain established colonies in continental North America and the islands of the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Barbados. 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 almost all of North America. However, the most populous American colonies were lost in the American War of Independence (1775-83).

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.

See also Colonial history of America.

Later, the creation of British colonies in Australia (from 1788) and New Zealand (1840) created a major zone of British migration.

The second British Empire

For details, see the main article Pax Britannica.''

The end of the old colonial and slave systems (Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807) were accompanied by the adoption of free trade, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws and Navigation Acts in the 1840s. As the only industrialised country in the world, Britain could prosper through free trade alone without having to resort to formal rule.

From 1857 the British East India Company, whose main purpose was the lucrative East Indies trade, extended its rule across nearly the whole of India. Ceylon, Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong were gradually added. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 the Company's territories were placed (1858) under the administration of the Crown.

See also Imperialism in Asia.''

Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria

New Imperialism

For details, see the main article New Imperialism.

The "Long Depression" of 1873-96 saw Britain's economic dominance threatened by competition from Germany and led to the widespread abandonment of free trade among Europe's powers. Although she continued to adhere to free trade until 1932, Britain joined the new scramble for protectionist formal empires rather than allow areas under her influence to be seized by rivals.

During this period, Europe's powers added nearly 23,000,000 kmē 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. In 1899 Britain completed her takeover of South Africa, begun with the annexation (1795) of the Cape, by invading the Afrikaner republics of the gold-rich Transvaal and the neighbouring Orange Free State.

The period also saw the building of the Suez Canal.

See also Scramble for Africa.

After the First World War

The aftermath of World War I saw the last major extension of British rule, with British Mandates over the former Ottoman territories of Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait. but the heavy costs of the war undermined her capacity to maintain the vast empire. Nationalist sentiment grew in both old and new Imperial territories.

The 1920s saw a rapid transformation of the status of the self-governing territories, leading to the 1926 Balfour Declaration and the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which provided formal equality of the Dominions with Britain, which is seen as the beginning of the British Commonwealth.

See also Dominion.

M.K. Gandhi was a leader of the Indian independence movement


The Second World War (1939 - 45) left Britain all but exhausted, with its former allies disinclined to support the colonial status quo. The bloody partition and independence of India in 1947 deprived the Empire of its heart and marked the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Burma and Ceylon followed soon after.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 saw Britain's limitations exposed to a humiliating degree. From then Britain's withdrawal from its colonies in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific was carried out with great rapidity through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The last populous colony was decolonised in 1997, with the handover of Hong Kong to China.


At its height, the British Empire consisted of the following territory -


The Americas and Atlantic





Remaining Dependent Territories

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

Territories possessing substantial self-government

Other territories

See also:

External links