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

Name
Current Name
From-to
Approx area square miles
Approx population
United Kingdom
94,000
44,000,000
Aden
Yemen
1857-1967
10,000
67,000
Anguilla
1663-BOT
35
Australia
1770-1901
2,974,600
5,500,000
Bahamas
1973-1973
4400
53,000
Bahrain
1820-1971
250
110,000
Barbados
1627-1966
166
156,000
Basutoland
Lesotho
1884-1966
11,700
499,000
Bechuanaland
Botswana
1868-1966
275,000
152,000
Bermuda
1684-BOT
20
20,000
British East Africa
Kenya
1888-1920
246,000
British Cameroons
Cameroons
1914-1961
191,000
2,500,000
British Guiana
Guyana
1796-1966
89,500
307,000
British Honduras
Belize
1862-1981
8,500
45,000
British Somaliland
Somaliland
1884-1960
68,000
300,000
Brunei
Brunei
1888-1983
4,000
25,000
Canada
1763-1982
3,600,000
8,700,000
Cayman Islands
1670-BOT
100
Ceylon
Sri Lanka
1796-1948
25,000
4,500,000
Cook Islands
NZ assoc.
1888-1965
91
Cyprus
1878-1960
3,600
310,000
Falkland Islands
1833-BOT
4,700
3,200
Fiji
1874-1970
7,000
157,000
Gambia
1888-1965
4,100
209,000
Gibraltar
1704-BOT
3
17,000
Gold Coast
Ghana
1821-1957
80,000
2,080,000
Grenada (Windward Islands)
1763-1974
132
165,000
Hong Kong
China
1842-1997
426
India
1848-1947
1,802,000
319,000,000
Jamaica
1655-1962
4,400
2,800,000
Kenya
1885-1963
246,800
2,800,000
Kuwait
1899-1961
6,800
Malaya
West Malaysia
1771-1957
Maldive Islands
1887-1965
115
Malta
1814-1964
121
Mauritius
1810-1968
809
385,000
Montserrat
1632-BOT
39
Newfoundland
Canada
1713-1949
163,000
263,000
New Zealand
1769-1974
104,000
1,251,000
Nigeria
1885-1960
337,000
18,500,000
North Borneo
Sabah
1881-1965
31,000
208,000
Nyasaland
* As Central Africa Protectorate in 1893
Malawi
1893*-1964
45,000
1,200,000
Papua New Guinea
1884-1975
179000
Approx population
Pitcairn Islands
1838-BOT
18
Samoa
1899-1962
1,250
38,000
Rhodesia
Zimbabwe
1889-1965
421,000
1,738,000
Sarawak
Malaysia
1888-1965
48000
600,000
St Helena, Ascension Isl. Tristan da Cunha
1657-BOT
162
3,600
St Lucia
1763-1979
672
St Vincent
1783-1979
133
Seychelles
1794-1976
174
25,000
Sierra Leone
1808-1961
28000
1,541,000
Singapore
1824-1965
274
South Africa
1806-1931
471,000
6,929,000
Sudan
1898-1956
967,000
5,850,000
Tanganyika
Tanzania
1890-1963
365,000
4,124,000
Tonga
1920-1970
289
205,000
Trinidad
Trinidad & Tobago
1889-1962
1840
Trucial Oman
United Arab Emirates
1853-1968
32,000
Turks and Caicos Islands
1799-BOT
193
Uganda
1894-1962
91,000
3,066,000
Zanzibar
Tanzania
1800s-1963
380
200,000

Map of the British Empire

British Empire map

Map of the British Empire

British Flag

Sometimes called the Union Jack, but properly called the Union Flag dates from 1801.

Union Flag

Union flag, sometimes called the Union Jack