The first British Empire: 1763-1783

The American War of Independence 1775-1783

Because the lands in the Americas were new lands which were settled by British people, the colonies were soon granted some control over their own affairs. Gradually, the British settlers built up a sense of independence and of being American rather than British. They started to resent having to pay tax to the king all the way back in England, across the Atlantic Ocean. They did not feel that they should have to pay taxes which were being spent thousands of miles away.

In 1776, thirteen American colonies joined together to form the United States of America and declare themselves independent from Britain. They stopped paying taxes to Britain and no longer recognised Britain as being in charge of them. As a result, Britain sent troops to fight them in a war. France, Spain and the Netherlands took sides with America and eventually Britain gave up at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. America was no longer ruled by the British King, George III, and instead George Washington was chosen as its first president.

The war of independence was significant in the history of the British Empire because it showed that, when a country is given some control over itself, it will eventually want more and more, leading to appeals for complete independence. Britain was to see this happen in many other colonies over the next two centuries.

The shape of the British Empire by 1783

By 1783, Britain had established an empire which comprised of:

  • colonies in Canada, America and the West Indies including New Zealand after Captain James Cook claimed it for the British crown in 1769
  • trading posts in India
  • naval bases in the Mediterranean - Gibraltar and Minorca


  • Britain's defeat in the American War of Independence meant the loss of the American colonies and the end of the 'first British Empire'.