The British Empire
The British Empire was the greatest empire the world has ever seen, and for more than a century Britain was the foremost global power. It began in the 15th and 16th centuries when global exploration sanctioned by the English and Scotish people began to establish overseas colonies. There are many reasons why these colonies were established, but one of the principal reasons was trade and financial benefit. Initially many colonies were established in North America and the Caribbean, but spread to Africa and Asia. The growth of the empire was not without opposition, notably from France and the Netherlands, and a big loss was sustained in 1783 when thirteen American colonies broke away from British rule. Australia and New Zealand were later added to the growing list.
The years 1815 to 1914 are referred to as Britain's imperial century, and at this time, the Empire included over 14 million square miles of territory and 450 million people. It included more than a quarter of the world's population and it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, a phrase attributed to a Scottish writer, John Wilson. With supremacy at sea, Britain took on the role of global policeman, sometimes called the Pax Britannica. As well as having formal control over its own colonies, with a dominant position in world trade Britain could effectively control the economies of many countries including China, Argentina and Siam.
The empire was vital for trade and during the reign of Queen Victoria, at the height of the British Empire, British ports were full with ships arriving from far and wide carrying the goods that were processed and sold making Britain a wealthy nation. The Great Exhibition of 1851, the very first World's Fair, was a celebration of the diversity and richness of the Empire.
The decline of the Empire took place largely in the early part of the twentieth century. There have been many reasons suggested as to the decline, but perhaps the chief reason was that Britain no longer had military and naval supremacy, and following the second world war, with its legacy of debts, Britain was no longer able to financially support or afford an Empire. The United States had grown in population and wealth, and together with Russia was regarded as a superpower.
It might be asked if the British Empire was good for the world. The answer to that perhaps depends upon where you are standing. There is no doubt that Britain gave a huge legacy to developing nations, teaching them the ways of democracy, and providing a structure that could lead to self government. On the other hand, it could be argued that by taking goods and resources from the colonies, Britain exploited and profiteered unfairly.
The subject of the British Empire is so vast that alone it could fill a website (and there are several websites devoted to it), and the purpose of this page is just that of providing a very brief synopsis.
Countries of the British Empire during Victorian Times
The following lists most of the countries that were part of the British Empire. They may be colonies, protectorate or occupied. It should be borne in mind that in many cases the control changed hands several times, often with the French or the Dutch, and sometimes there was a sharing of responsibility. The "from" date is not always precise either, as sometimes it happened gradually and over a prolonged period. Then to add complication, boundaries and even names changed throughout. The population is given as at 1924, which is the closest date for which I can get statistics.
Countries of the British Empire during Victorian Times and later
* As Central Africa Protectorate in 1893
Map of the British Empire
Map of the British Empire
Sometimes called the Union Jack, but properly called the Union Flag dates from 1801.
Union flag, sometimes called the Union Jack