River Wissey Lovell Fuller


September 2009

Ron procides a potted history of the British Empire

Older readers will well remember the days of the Empire. "Empire Days" were noteworthy days at school when the kids all dressed up in the national costumes of some of the countries of the empire, and everyone sang "Why do they call it Empire Day" and the nation was proud. Nowadays it seems people want to forget the Empire and they are more likely to view it with shame than pride. Whatever one thinks there is no denying that its very existence was amazing. At one time the Empire covered one quarter of the Earth's total land area and Britain ruled over one quarter of the world population. It is incredible that the British of the time were able to manage and control such a vast empire.

Although it looks very wrong in this day and age for one nation to try and rule over other nations, resorting to force when necessary, it has to be viewed from the point of view of the times. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were the times when Western Europe was exploring the rest of the world, lands were being discovered whose very existence was not known to the people of Europe and as these lands and people were discovered efforts were made to build favourable trade links. Spain and Portugal led the field in this exploration and, with the aid of advanced technology and disciplined armies, established control over large areas. England (later Britain after the act of Union), France and Holland looked with envy at the riches Spain and Portugal were obtaining from these activities and started to establish their own colonies and trading posts. During the 17th and 18th centuries there were a number of wars between the Dutch, the French and the English which left Britain with control over India and large areas of North America. Practically all of the eastern side of North America right down to and including Florida was part of the Empire, but the war of independence in 1783 resulted in the loss of this area, a big blow to the British but by no means the end of the Empire. After the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the Napoleonic wars early in the 19th century, Britain was the world super-power and had a fairly free run so that it was able to further increase its holdings and influence. At the same time greater autonomy was granted to the areas in the Empire with white settlers.

Although the British Empire was the largest, it was not the only Empire, Germany, France, Belgium and Holland had quite large holdings, especially in Africa, but also in the middle-east and far-east, whilst Spain and Portugal retained areas in South America and elsewhere. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Ottoman Empire also extended over a large area, but it was beginning to crumble by the end of the 19th century and the alliance between Germany and Turkey resulted in its final collapse during the first world war.

The first world war arose largely because Germany was challenging British dominance. It was, of course, a foolish, bloody and expensive war that left Britain militarily and economically much weaker, whilst the USA emerged economically stronger. Even so the size of the Empire grew further and reached its peak by 1920, thereafter it remained more or less constant until the areas in south-east Asia were captured by the Japanese in the 1940s.

Although France had been allied with Britain against Germany, there had always been some friction between France and Britain following the defeat of the French in Canada and Newfoundland and the defeat of Napoleon. This was to have certain consequences during the second world war.

After the second world war Britain was financially ruined, the peoples in the countries of the Empire agitated for independence and, in some instances, openly rebelled. The British government was generally willing to acquiesce and the process of de-colonisation began with India in 1947. Within 10 years of the end of the war the land area of the Empire had shrunk to one quarter of its size, in the next twenty years it shrunk further to more or less its present size.

The Empire was made up of territories in differing categories, these were: Crown Dependencies, Colonies, Protected States, Protectorates, Emirates. Dominions (Colonies with a high degree of independence) and Mandated Territories. Whatever the category in most instances the people were subject to rule by the British Monarch whilst the British government controlled their dealings with foreign powers and had the right to intervene in their internal affairs.

Countries of the British Empire

Although we all knew the Empire was large I think many will be rather surprised at just how many countries were included. The following is a list, in no particular order, of those countries that were part of the Empire roughly at the time of its peak but are now independent of Britain:

Afghanistan, Ireland, Nepal, Weihaiwei, Iraq, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Namibia, Canada, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Bangladesh, Burma, The Sudan, Ghana, Malaya, Singapore, Nigeria, British Somaliland, Cyprus, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Sierra Leone, Kuwait, British Cameroon, Uganda, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobego, Kenya, Northern Rhodesia, British North Borneo, Sarawak, Malawi, Malta, Gambia, Maldives, Barbados, Guyana, Botswana, Lesotho, Yemen, Mauritius, Swaziland, Fiji, Tonga, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Arab Emirates, Bahamas, Grenada, Seychelles, Dominica, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Rhodesia, Vanuatu, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Brunei, Hong Kong and Egypt. (Egypt was not strictly part of the Empire but it was effectively under British control from about the middle of the nineteenth century, It was made a protectorate at the time of the first world war.)

The mind boggles at the size of the civil service that was required to administer all these countries.

The following are countries, mostly islands, of the former British Empire that are still 'colonies' (now called British Overseas Territories):

Anguila, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territories, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, St Helena, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

These territories are essentially self-governing with Britain responsible for their defence and their relationships with foreign powers.

Ron Watts

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.