1. World domination
The power and influence of the British Empire once held its grip on the four corners of the globe. Over hundreds of years Britain gradually expanded its reach in a seemingly never-ending rise to total control. In the 20th Century, however, everything changed. In a matter of decades, this gigantic structure utterly collapsed and left a controversial legacy in its wake.
At its height this was the first genuinely global empire. At various points the British Empire controlled Canada and her dominions in the north, huge swathes of Africa in the south, Australia and New Zealand to the east and the American colonies to the west.
How and why could an empire so vast come crashing to the ground so quickly?
2. The Empire at its zenith
3. The fall of the Raj
Britain and the Allies emerged victorious in September 1945 as the chaos of World War Two came to a close. The prestige and authority of the Empire, however, was inexorably damaged. The defeats of the German and Japanese forces could not have been won without the emerging superpowers of the United States and Soviet Russia to aid Britain. Furthermore, as it now owed huge war debts to both the US and Canada, the Empire had now lost the financial independence that was so key to its standing in the world. The balance of power had shifted.
This disintegration of the Empire was laid bare with the loss of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Having trampled the attempts of Mahatma Ghandhi and the Indian National Congress for them to 'Quit India' before the war, the Empire now hadn't the manpower, the funds or the will to hold on to their jewel in the crown. The last viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, quickly signed the Indian Independence Act in an attempt to partition the area into a majority Musliim state of Pakistan and a majority Hindu India. Thousands died in the panic of the mass migration that followed and as the British withdrew from their outposts it seemed as though the sun was finally setting on the Empire.
4. The Suez crisis: The Empire humiliated
By the mid 1950s many in the British establishment were still not ready to let go of Britain's position as the superior global power. Anthony Eden's misjudged Suez Canal invasion however left no doubt of the nation's standing in the postwar world.
Dan Snow explores the events of the Suez Crisis and its disastrous results for the Empire.
Britain's doomed campaign in Egypt would later be seen as the last desperate throw of the imperial dice. When Eden died in 1977 his obituary in the Times proclaimed: "He was the last prime minister to believe Britain was a great power and the first to confront a crisis which proved she was not."
5. The wind of change
On 3 February 1960, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan made a speech to the parliament of South Africa in Cape Town that would send ripples across the Empire.
Speaking of the current of nationalism growing throughout Africa, he said: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact."
The speech was greeted with stony silence by many present as it made clear Britain's view on the apartheid system. It also crucially signalled the first time that the British government conceded the Empire was over. MacMillan's words opened a decade that would see the dismantling of the British Empire reach its peak. Former colonies throughout Africa, Asia and the Carribbean would now begin to write their own histories as new indepedent nations.
6. What's left of the Empire?
Click/tap on the flags to find out... Which British territory was discovered by Columbus? Which has a key Anglo-American war base? Which is the subject of a sovereignty dispute? Whose inhabitants are descended from the HMS Bounty mutineers?
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It may not be the colossal world power it once was but technically the Empire is still in existence. As of 2015, 14 territories, outside the British Isles, still remain under British rule. Many of the former territories of the Empire are now gathered under the loose association of the Commonwealth of Nations with the Queen as its current Head.
7. How do you feel about the British Empire?
Lord Curzon, viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th Century, once said that "the British Empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has ever seen." More recently, Jeremy Paxman described the Empire as “an amazing thing” with many citing the education, railways and innovation in medical care that it exported around the world. Still many others say that the exploitation of land and people, including slavery, leaves a shameful stain on our nation’s past. So what do you think?