British Empire

IN THE 15th and 16th centuries, English trading ships were already sailing to JAPAN via Africa, INDIA, and CHINA, but there was no English sovereignty in these places. The term empire then designated the association between England, Scotland, IRELAND, and Wales.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, a network of territories stretching from America to Southeast Asia came under British control. The British Empire had been founded. In spite of the loss of the American colonies in 1783, the 19th century saw the rise of empire as British rule was extended to other regions. Over the next century, weakened by two world wars and changing global economics, Britain forfeited most of its possessions and granted independence to lands that had formed the cornerstone of British prosperity and identity for more than three hundred years.

British Empire


The first attempts at venturing abroad with a view to settlement were made in the 17th century by individuals interested in setting up trading initiatives. The first plantation of this type was established at Jamestown, VIRGINIA, in 1607, led by the Virginia Company of London, created in 1606. The company was dismantled in 1624 and Virginia subsequently became England's first royal colony. Government in the Chesapeake region developed along broadly English lines, with the creation of the office of governor, shires or counties, and parishes with local assemblies and magistrates.

New England was settled in 1620 by a small group of dissenting Protestants, the Puritans. The Mayflower reached America in 1620 and her passengers chose Plymouth as the site for the plantation of the settlement. The Massachusetts Bay area was colonized in 1630 by way of the Massachusetts Bay Company, established in 1629. By 1650, new American colonies had been created including, CONNECTICUT, NEW HAMPSHIRE, and RHODE ISLAND.

The mid-Atlantic coast and its HINTERLAND between the Chesapeake region and New England were massively settled from 1660 onward. Conquest of New Amsterdam, renamed New York after the conqueror and proprietor the Duke of York, occurred in 1664 and covered a huge expanse of middle territory. Quakers settled in NEW JERSEY in 1675 and proprietor William Penn founded PENNSYLVANIA in 1682. SOUTH CAROLINA was settled in 1670 and NORTH CAROLINA in 1712. In these colonies, the mode of governance gradually became one of self-rule as the century progressed.

English possessions in the Americas were simultaneously being added to by acquisitions and conquests in the Caribbean. By the 1620s, private investors and rich aristocrats had acquired royal patents. Saint Christopher (SAINT KITTS) was settled in 1624, BARBADOS in 1627, Nevis in 1628, Montserrat and Antigua in 1632. JAMAICA was annexed in 1655 following Oliver Cromwell's Western Design on Spanish Possessions. Demand for cheap labor for work on the plantations rose and indentured English servants flooded to the islands. The alternative source of manpower was slavery. Tobacco, cotton, and sugar were the main exports. Other islands were taken toward the end of the 17th century including SAINT VINCENT, SAINT LUCIA, Tobago, and GRENADA.

British government policy in this period was based on an intention to control trade. In the 1650s, Navigation Acts (initially introduced by Cromwell) ensured that only English ships could import to Britain or Ireland or other English colonies, that all exports from the colonies transit through England, and that preferential import duties be reserved for English sugar.

By the end of the century, the English Caribbean colonies had nevertheless managed to secure self-government. A wealthy planter ruling class had emerged and began to dominate the various assemblies and legislatures.


Thus the “Atlantic system” came into being. The Caribbean colonies constituted the hub of the empire, and the American colonies and the Mother Country, the spokes.

On the other side of the ocean, there was little English interest in the western African coast. Various companies were set up there, flourished for a while, and were replaced by others or independent traders. Land was “leased” to the English by indigenous leaders, so to speak of colonization of western Africa in the 17th century would be premature. These outposts were to later become the British colonies of GAMBIA, SIERRA LEONE, and the Gold Coast.

Further afield in Asia, chartered companies were trading for spices, textiles, and exotic merchandise like Chinese ceramics. The English East India Company was one of these and obtained a royal charter in 1599. English trading posts were established in India (in Gujarat and on the eastern Coromandel Coast and later Bengal) with the local rulers' assent. There Englishmen, like traders of other nationalities, “settled” in small communities, notably in Surat and Madras. The English Crown acquired Bombay from the Portuguese in 1661 and as the years passed, white settlement increased around Bombay, Madras, and later Calcutta in Bengal (1690 onward).

These settlements took the shape of forts protected by small contingents of soldiers. In INDIA and Africa, these settlements were administered by the Companies themselves with a view to protecting trade interests.


At the end of the 17th century, English possessions in North America included New England, the Middle Colonies, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Britain acquired Acadia (Nova Scotia), Newfoundland, and Hudson Bay in 1713 thanks to the Treaty of Utrecht. In the south, GEORGIA was settled in 1733 by charter and became a royal colony in 1751. The PENNSYLVANIA frontiers expanded westward and southwestward. Britain had acquired new markets and exports rose significantly in the 1740s. After the Seven Years' War against France (1756–63), Britain made huge gains, including the Floridas and in the north, Quebec. In 1791, Quebec was split into two and Upper Canada became English speaking and Lower Canada became home to the conquered French.

Britain, though, was soon to lose the oldest and most significant part of its recently extended empire. After 1763, the British government made inroads into colony governance in order to reduce expenditure, shore up domestic finances (in a sorry state after the war), and consolidate imperial authority through taxation and strict regulation of trade. These measures worried local American elites used to autonomy.

Confrontations between the “Americans” and the British army began in 1775. The colonies declared their independence in 1776 after a year of fighting. The war lasted until 1783, when a peace treaty was signed. The UNITED STATES acquired territory stretching from the MISSISSIPPI RIVER to the southern shores of the Great Lakes. In terms of empire, Britain was left with British North America, namely the Canadas, Nova Scotia, the Hudson's Bay Company territory, and the Newfoundland fisheries.

The Caribbean, on the other hand, prospered in the 18th century in spite of periodic recession. After the Seven Years' War, the islands under British control were Jamaica, Antigua, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, the BAHAMAS, the Virgin Islands, DOMINICA, Saint Vincent, Grenada, and Tobago. After the Napoleonic wars (1793–1815), Britain acquired Trinidad, Saint Lucia, and Demerara.

Britain had also gained prominence elsewhere in the 18th century. In 1744, hostilities at sea between the East India Company and the French were transferred to land in southeastern India as each country allied with contending Indian groups. The British (represented by the company) and the nawabs claimed victory in 1746. Ten years later, the company and the nawabs were themselves at war. Calcutta was taken but recovered in 1757. Thus, Bengal became a client state and later in 1765 a province under British government rule. Meanwhile, Surat was captured by the British in 1759.

The British government, though, did not actively participate in expanding the Empire in India other than by providing the company with troops. But India did become essential to national prosperity as exports increased. This in turn encouraged greater governmental commitment to conquest. A governor-general was appointed and exercised authority over all the company's territories and a supreme court was set up in Bengal in the early 1770s.

British territorial acquisition was also being consolidated in the south. James Cook's voyages to the Pacific (1768-79) increased British possessions with the discovery of HAWAII, FRENCH POLYNESIA, New Caledonia, NEW ZEALAND and the eastern Australian coast. A penal colony was established in New South Wales in 1788. Meanwhile, at home in Europe, Britain had acquired GIBRALTAR, the gate to the Mediterranean, in 1713 thanks to the Treaty of Utrecht.

The 18th century thus saw the fall of the first empire and the rise of the second. Modes of governance varied. In the West Indies, the system of local self-rule with the governor/elected assembly duo persisted. Nevertheless, in territories that had not been settled by the English (India) and in newly conquered colonies (Trinidad, MAURITIUS, SOUTH AFRICA), Crown Colony government came into effect. This meant that the governor-general was all-powerful and advised by a nominated council.


The 19th century witnessed the development of British North America. By 1815, the British North American colonies were Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Upper and Lower Canada. The sparsely settled northwest areas were Hudson's Bay Company territory. British Columbia was created in 1858 once gold was discovered.

After rebellions in these colonies in 1837 and 1838, military governorship was replaced by civil administration. In 1867, Ontario, the Canadas, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia confederated, thus becoming the first ever Dominion. A central government was formed, based in Ottawa. By 1873, Canada had expanded across the continent, though it remained low on the list of imperial priorities.

The British Empire in the 19th century was just as firmly rooted in the Caribbean as ever before. The West Indian islands under British control were either self-governing or Crown colonies but all still slave societies, with the number of blacks largely outnumbering the whites. In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was established to improve the lot of the slave population. Slave rebellions had become frequent in the colonies in the opening decades of the 19th century. Slaves in the British West Indies were finally freed in July 1834 and the apprenticeship system was introduced. But it failed and labor became scarce.

In the 1840s, LONDON, realizing how important it was to keep the plantations profitable, thus effected a reversal in the policy that had previously favored the ex-slaves. Duties on necessities and restriction on franchise qualifications were some of these measures. Indentured labor from other British colonies (India) was recruited to parry the attacks on British prosperity at home and in the Caribbean.

The black populations were increasingly disadvantaged; disease, death, riots, and rebellions became common. The Morant Bay rebellion in 1865 in Jamaica was one of the bloodiest uprisings of the century. As a result, Crown Colony government gradually became the preferred mode of governance in the British West Indies by the 1870s (Barbados, the Bahamas and British Guiana retained self-government) and remained more or less so until after World War I. But this did not put an end to the riots, and with recession, protest swelled as the 20th century dawned.


The 19th century was also a time of great expansion on the African continent. Britain had occupied the previously Dutch Cape of Good Hope in 1795. The Great Trek (1834–40) was an attempt on the part of the Afrikaaners to leave the British behind and establish their own independent republics further inland. Britain annexed Dutch Natal in 1843. Self-government (involving whites only) was introduced in 1856. Transvaal was annexed in 1877. The Boers rebelled in 1880 and managed to regain almost total control of Transvaal in 1881. Zululand was annexed in 1887.

Representative government was introduced in 1893 as a result of the growing prosperity and industrialization (thanks to diamonds and gold discovered in the Transvaal) of the colonies. Britain became interested in acquiring northern territories perhaps equally rich in gold or minerals. Thus, Nyasaland (later MALAWI) became a protectorate in 1891 and North and South Rhodesia (later ZAMBIA and ZIMBABWE) became British South African Company territory (a company founded by Cecil Rhodes). Three territories (swaziland, Basutoland (later LESOTHO) and Bechuanland (later BOTSWANA) were know as the High Commission Territories.

Continuing conflicts with the Boer states convinced Britain that its presence in Africa had to be consolidatedin the interests of global imperial influence. In 1899, Britain went to war with the Boer states (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) with this in mind. In 1900 both Transvaal and the Orange Free State were annexed. A peace treaty was signed in 1902. The South African colonies united in 1909.

As far as West Africa was concerned, by the end of the 19th century Britain had occupied the Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and NIGERIA. Trade increased, as did the infrastructure necessary to its development (railways, roads, and mining technology). White settlement, though, remained sparse, and policy was based on development by native populations and governance by local African rulers.


Asia also became one of the prime sites of the growing power, force, and influence of Britain. Dutch colonies, namely SUMATRA, Malacca, Ambon, and Banda, were occupied by the Anglo-Indians with the assent of the exiled King William V at the end of the 18th century (1795). Britain acquired SINGAPORE in 1819 after intervention in internal politics. HONG KONG was acquired by cession in 1842 and returned to China in 1997. British India declared war on Burma in 1824 which culminated in the acquisition of Assam. By 1885, after three wars, the whole of Burma was British.

Toward the end of the 18th century, metropolitan intervention in India had taken many forms including the creation of the office of governor-general, the law courts, and the Indian Civil Service. The conquest ethos of the company was nevertheless alive and well and underpinned by the Royal Navy and the company's land armies. Sind was conquered in 1843 and the Punjab in 1849.

Governance in these acquired territories became rooted in the military even after the company lost its monopoly in India and China in 1813 and 1833. Native populations were paying the price, and discontent came to a head in 1857 with the Great Mutiny and Civil Rebellion. In 1858, the company was abolished and India became a Crown Colony under the direct rule of a secretary of state and the Council of India.

Over the next half century, British administrators ruled India hand in hand with the British army and Indian forces. Members of the Indian middle class were given the opportunity to become civil servants and so to participate in the administration of British India (their lower salaries also allowed for savings for the British government). The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 and was a means of expressing claims for greater representation, demands that were partially satisfied in 1892.

In 1906, the All India Muslim League was formed to parallel the Hindu-dominated Congress. By 1909, Indians were present in the various executives. The move toward a federal system of government for India (with self-governing provinces and a central imperial government) was supported by Lord Crewe (secretary of state) and endorsed by the king. Further south, Ceylon (SRI LANKA) became a British Crown Colony in 1802. In the early 20th century, Ceylon began its campaign for independence which it obtained in 1948.


The empire was equally active and territorially expanding in the Pacific. The 19th century witnessed the transformation of a struggling penal settlement established in 1788 into a group of six self-governing and prosperous colonies (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania). AUSTRALIA was dependent on the Mother Country for defense purposes and returned the compliment whenever the empire required help in wars against for example, the Maori in New Zealand (1860s) or in South Africa (1899). This did not, however, prevent leanings toward independence at the end of the century. Federation came in 1901 but did not mean the complete severing of ties with Britain. British control of New Zealand was overseen by Sydney, but the territory was formally annexed by Britain in 1840. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1842, laid out how colonization would proceed.

New Zealand became a Crown Colony but quickly progressed to a more democratic form of government in 1846, when assemblies were introduced. Maori challenge to British sovereignty came in 1863 with the Waikato war. The Maori were forced to retreat after a year's fighting. New Zealand acquired greater self-government in 1864. At the end of the 19th century, New Zealand had acquired Dominion status.

British possession of the Pacific islands was based on a policy of supporting existing native power bases and also meant the development of trade (whaling, sandalwood). The Pacific islands under British control at the end of the 19th century were FIJI (1875), the SOLOMON ISLANDS (1893), the Cook Islands (1888), TONGA, PITCAIRN, and New Guinea (1884). The New Hebrides were under French and British control from 1906 onward. These islands, though, did not benefit from any concerted imperial effort in development or investment. French Polynesia, a British possession was annexed by the French in 1842 and New Caledonia in 1852.

At home in the Mediterranean, MALTA became a British possession after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. CYPRUS was taken in 1878 and Britain occupied EGYPT in 1882 with the ruling khedive's assent. This state of affairs was a result of Britain's desire to control the Suez Canal (opened in 1869) and to protect trade interests. Britain declared Egypt a protectorate in 1914.


At the dawn of the 20th century, the British Empire was extensive and prosperous, but changes were in the offing.

In India, reforms in 1919 and 1935 meant that Indians had acquired more decision-making power, though this did not mean that the two groups were on an equal footing, as the British diligently maintained their separateness. The Indian National Congress had become a more organized political party, acquiring more and more weight thanks to electoral successes.

The issue of imperial domination and Indian nationalism was articulated in various ways until Gandhi's policy of passive resistance (noncooperation and civil disobedience) united the Indians. World War II pushed Britain to propose in 1942 full Dominion status or secession in exchange for India's support. India refused and Gandhi's civil disobedience movement continued. The offer was renewed after the war as Britain was eager now to divest itself of the responsibility of maintaining British rule in India. Interest in the area (employment opportunities for the British, source of indentured labor for other colonies, strategic interest, source of trade, investment, and remittances) had started to wane by the 1930s. This was brought on by shifts in global economics as well as Britain's own reforms and finances.

Tensions between the Muslims and the Hindus concerning the shape of the new nation to come flared into violent encounters. Some British officials argued for a quick exit and partition. A separate Muslim state (PAKISTAN) was created, thus leaving the Indian National Congress with a secular state in 1947. India became a member of the new Commonwealth of Nations (1949), made up of the Dominions and the newly independent ex-colonies. This was the end of British rule in India and the beginning of a general move toward decolonization all over the empire that occurred over the next few decades.

In the Caribbean, the racist treatment of West Indian soldiers in wartime led (once they returned home) to a growing feeling of discontent with imperial domination. Strikes and protests by workers added to the rising dissatisfaction. By the 1960s, the British West Indies had acquired self-government. Most islands became independent in the 1960s and 1970s. The TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS, the CAYMAN ISLANDS, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands chose to remain colonies.

Similarly, in Southeast Asia, nationalism started to stir in the interwar period, but as in India, resistance to the empire was not the sole reason for British concessions. Britain's incapacity to continue to defend its extensive empire became apparent as World War II was being fought. Burma gained independence in 1948 and did not join the Commonwealth. MALAYA became independent in 1957 and did. Malaysia (Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo) was created in 1961–63. Singapore, though, seceded from Malaysia in 1963. As a result of international movements, nationalist demands, and a lack of British funds and commitment, the empire in Southeast Asia was at an end.

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the opening up of the interior in British West Africa (Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria). Gold and tin became major exports from British West Africa. The British were in ultimate control even though a system of indirect rule was in effect. In the 1920s, the National Congress of West Africa was formed and formulated demands for better representation. As during World War I, British West Africa contributed to the second war effort, and when it ended, access for Africans to the higher echelons of colonial government became easier. Reforms for representative government were introduced. The Gold Coast (GHANA) became independent in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, Sierra Leone in 1961 and Gambia followed in 1965, all becoming members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

SOUTH AFRICA became a Dominion in 1909 and its sovereign status (like that of Canada, New Zealand and Australia) was acknowledged in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which put the Dominions on a par with Britain. South Africa gradually became one of the richest countries in Africa, building its wealth on mining, cheap black labor, and discriminatory racist policy. The African National Congress was formed in South Africa in 1912 in response to the situation. In 1961, in the face of British condemnation of such policies, South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth.

Britain's domination of East Africa had been formalized in 1890 with the creation of a protectorate over what was then Buganda (UGANDA), KENYA, and TANGANYIKA. Zanzibar was annexed in 1896. The politics of identity became relevant in the 1920s in the East African colonies. Independence came to Tanganyika (TANZANIA) in 1961, to Uganda in 1962, and to Kenya in 1963.

The High Commission Territories of Swaziland (1968), Basutoland (1965), and Bechuanland (1966) gained independence in 1960s. In North and South Rhodesia, the white population voted for self-government in 1923 when the company charter came to an end. North and South Rhodesia and Nyasaland federated in 1953 and became the Central African Federation.

The federation did little to better the situation of blacks in spite of economic growth. This obviously led to protest and the rise of nationalism. In 1964, Nyasaland (Malawi) and North Rhodesia (Zambia) became independent. White colonists in South Rhodesia illegally claimed independence in 1969, and the blacks gained control of their country, Zimbabwe, in 1980, which meant the close of the British Empire in Central Africa.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Canada became economically closer to the United States. Newfoundland, which had not been a part of the confederation, had acquired Dominion status in 1931 but relinquished government to Britain in 1933 as a result of economic difficulties. After a referendum in 1949, Newfoundland became a Canadian province. Canadian citizenship was introduced in 1947 and British imperial referents slowly disappeared.

At the turn of the century, Australia and New Zealand were also both Dominions. Australia adopted the Westminster Statute in 1942 and New Zealand in 1947 (Canada in 1931). Both countries passed Constitution Acts in 1986, which severed the final links with Great Britain (though the queen is still head of state in all three countries). The Pacific Islands won independence between 1960 and 1980. Western Samoa was granted independence by New Zealand in 1962, the Cook Islands chose self-government in association with New Zealand in 1965, NAURU became a republic in 1968. Fiji acquired independence in 1970, PAPUA NEW GUINEA in 1975, Tonga in 1970, the Solomons in 1978, and VANUATU (New Hebrides) in 1980.

In the Middle East in 1936, Egypt and Britain signed a treaty that stipulated the withdrawal of the British from the cities but provided for the concentration of troops in the Suez zone. In 1954, the British agreed to withdraw from the canal. Aden was relinquished in 1967 and Great Britain withdrew from the Gulf in 1971 after the creation of the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES.

By the 1980s, Britain had relatively peacefully parted with almost all of its possessions. Today, the Commonwealth of Nations groups large and small excolonies in a network of free association. This active international organization is a legacy that attests to the bygone economic power and global spread of what used to be known as the British Empire.