British Empire

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Left: 1707–1801; Right: 1801–present
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All areas of the world that were ever part of the British Empire. Current British Overseas Territories have their names underlined in red.
Demonym(s)Briton, British

The British Empire was made up of the 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 the world's most powerful superpower for more than a century.[1]

Slavery was used by European powers in the Americas, Britain included. Millions of black people were captured from Africa and forced to work in colonies of European empires.[2] However, England was the first of the European powers to ban slavery, and used the Royal Navy to reinforce its ban.

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.[3] The empire was larger than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area.[1]p15 Since it was so large, the British Empire has left a large legal, linguistic and cultural heritage. 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. The Empire controlled land on every inhabited continent.

England, France, and the Netherlands began to make colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia.[1]p2 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.

When Britain gave Hong Kong back to China on 1 July 1997, it marked the effective end of the British Empire. Britain still has some overseas territories.

New empire[edit]

When the Thirteen Colonies became independent in the American War of Independence, the British Empire lost some of its oldest and most important colonies. But it kept colonies in what are now Canada and Florida, as well as the Caribbean. It still had colonies and businesses in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific too. After defeating Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain became the world's only superpower for more than a century. The empire became even larger.

The empire continued to expand during the 19th century. The empire would force the Chinese to give them the island of Hong Kong following the Opium Wars during the middle of the 19th century. During the Scramble for Africa, Britain gained much of Africa, especially in the south.

By the start of the 20th century, the economies of Germany and the United States had begun catching up to Britain, especially in their industrialisation. Britain allowed Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to be "self-governing dominions" by the time of the First World War. They could create their own laws in most matters, and became independent countries in 1931.

The First World War weakened Europe. Though the British Empire had been the most powerful economy before the war, it was quickly surpassed by the United States as the greatest industrial power after the war. In the Second World War, Japan took the colonies of Britain and other European countries in South-East Asia. The allies eventually defeated Japan and took back their colonies, but Britain's prestige in Asia was damaged. This caused the empire to decline more quickly.[4]

The British Raj included the whole of the Indian subcontinent.[5] The independence of the two states of India and Pakistan in 1947 was the first and most important step in decolonisation. In the following decade, Britain also gave independence to most of the territories of the British Empire. While doing this, the colonial government hid and destroyed many documents about the empire that they thought might get them in trouble.[6] After the UK transferred Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the British Empire was essentially over.[7][8][9][10] 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. Fifteen Commonwealth countries have the same head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, and are Commonwealth realms.

Abolition of slavery[edit]

The Slavery Abolition Act abolished slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834. In the territories administered by the East India Company and Ceylon, slavery was ended in 1844.

Parliamentary reform in 1832 saw the influence of the East India Company decline. Under the 1833 Act, slaves were granted full emancipation after a period of four to six years of "apprenticeship".[11] Facing further opposition from abolitionists, the apprenticeship system was abolished in 1838.[12]

The British government compensated slave-owners.[13][14]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ferguson, Niall 2004. (2003). Empire, The rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02328-2.
  2. Walvin, James (2011-12-01). "Why Did the British Abolish the Slave Trade? Econocide Revisited". Slavery & Abolition. 32 (4): 583–588. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2011.625777. ISSN 0144-039X. S2CID 145248305.
  3. Maddison, Angus 2001. The world economy: a millennial perspective. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, p98, 242. ISBN 92-64-18608-5
  4. Brown, Judith M. & Louis, Wm. Roger (eds) 2001. Oxford history of the British Empire: the twentieth century. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-924679-3
  5. The Raj was never a colony, because it was never intended or used as a place of settlement.
  6. Milmo, Cahal (2013-11-29). "Revealed: How British Empire's dirty secrets went up in smoke in the colonies". The Independent. Retrieved 2020-11-18. The so-called "migrated archive" details the extraordinary lengths to which the Colonial Office went to withhold information from its former subjects in at least 23 countries and territories in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the documents is a memo from London that required all secret documents held abroad to be vetted by a Special Branch or MI5 liaison officer to ensure that any papers which might "embarrass" Britain or show "racial prejudice or religious bias" were destroyed or sent home.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. Brendon, Piers 2007. The decline and fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997. New York: Random House, p660. ISBN 0-224-06222-0
  8. "Charles' diary lays thoughts bare". BBC News. 22 February 2006. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  9. Brown, Judith M. 1994. Modern India: the origins of an Asian democracy. Oxford University Press, p594. ISBN 978-0-19-873113-9
  10. "BBC – History – Britain, the Commonwealth and the end of Empire". BBC News. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  11. Hinks, p. 129.
  12. "Slavery After 1807 | Historic England". Retrieved 24 November 2019. As a result of public pressure apprenticeships were abolished early, in 1838.
  13. "Slavery Abolition Act 1833; Section XXIV". 28 August 1833. Retrieved 3 June 2008.
  14. Sanchez Manning (24 February 2013). "Britain's colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after". The Independent. Retrieved 11 February 2018.

External links[edit]

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