British Empire

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British Empire
All parts of the world which were ever in the British Empire. The names of the current British Overseas Territories are underlined in red.
All parts of the world which were ever in the British Empire. The names of the current British Overseas Territories are underlined in red.

The British Empire was made up of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories which were controlled by the United Kingdom. It began with the overseas colonies and trading posts set up by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and it was the world's most powerful superpower for more than a century.[1] By 1922, more than 458 million people lived in the British Empire, which was more than one fifth of the world's population at that time.[2] The empire was larger than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area.[3][4] Since it was so large, the British Empire has left a large legal, linguistic and cultural legacy. Like the Spanish Empire before it, the British Empire was often said to be "the empire on which the sun never sets" because it was so large that the sun was always shining somewhere in the empire.

During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain were the first countries to begin exploring. This allowed them to create large and rich colonial empires. Jealous of how rich Spain and Portugal became because of their empires, England, France, and the Netherlands began to make colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia.[5] England fought and won some wars in the 17th and 18th centuries against the Netherlands and France. After these wars, England (and then, after the union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain) became the main colonial power in North America and India.

After the Thirteen Colonies became independent after the American War of Independence, the British Empire lost some of its oldest and most important colonies. Britain then began focusing on Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After Napoleonic France was defeated in 1815, Britain became the world's only superpower for more than a century and made its empire even larger.

By the start of the twentieth century, the economies of Germany and the United States had begun catching up to Britain's. Tension between Britain and Germany was an important reason for the beginning of the First World War. Britain relied very heavily on its empire during the war and it was very expensive to fight. The British Empire was at its largest after World War I, but Britain was not the only superpower in the world afterwards. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in South-East Asia were taken over by Japan. Although Britain eventually defeated Japan, it hurt Britain's prestige and caused the empire to decline more quickly. British India, Britain's most important colony, became independent as a part of decolonisation. Britain also gave independence to most of the territories of the British Empire. After the UK gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997, many believed that the British Empire was over.[6][7][8][9] However, Britain still controls some overseas territories. After they were given independence, many countries which used to be British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations. Sixteen Commonwealth countries have the same head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, and are Commonwealth realms.

References[change | change source]

  1. Ferguson, Niall (2004). Empire, The rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02328-2.
  2. Maddison 2001, pp. 98, 242.
  3. Ferguson 2004, p. 15.
  4. Elkins2005, p. 5.
  5. Ferguson 2004, p. 2.
  6. Brendon, p. 660.
  7. "Charles' diary lays thoughts bare". BBC News. 22 February 2006. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  8. Brown, p. 594.
  9. "BBC – History – Britain, the Commonwealth and the End of Empire". BBC News. Retrieved 13 December 2008.