The second British Empire: 1783-1924

In the century 1815–1914, 10 million square miles of territory and 400 million people were added to the British Empire. By the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 Britain was the 'Mother Country' of a worldwide empire which covered a fifth of the land in the world, and at the time, the British were proud of how Britannia 'ruled the waves'. This view was not shared by many of the people who experienced political and economic inequality and the decline of their culture and religion.

Timeline leading up to the British Empire Exhibition of 1924

1787First shipment of transported prisoners to Australia.
1839The Opium War forced China to allow British traders to sell the drug opium into China.
1857There was a rebellion in India (the Indian Mutiny). The government took over rule of India from the East India Company.
1867Canada was given 'dominion' (self-governing) status, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 1907.
1876Queen Victoria was declared 'Empress of India'.
1881‒1919The 'Scramble for Africa' – Britain acquired colonies in Africa stretching from Cairo to Cape Town.
1899‒1902The Second Boer War – the British conquered South Africa.
1919The Treaty of Versailles gave Germany's colonies as 'mandates' for Britain and France to administer.
1924The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. The Empire looked happy and strong.

A snapshot of the British Empire in 1922

World map showing countries forming British Empire: Canada, Ireland, Egypt, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand.

Attitudes of Empire

  • Britain regarded itself as 'ruler of the waves'. The songs 'Rule Britannia' and 'Land of Hope and Glory' show this.
  • Many British people at the time thought that they were doing the right thing by taking the British government and Christianity to the rest of the world, ending slavery and barbaric traditions and bringing 'civilisation' and an international 'Pax Britannica', or 'British peace'. The British generally felt that the way they lived their lives was the right way. They believed that colonising various countries was a means of helping others to become like Britain and therefore improve.
Britannia was depicted with a lion, a trident, an owl, a shield and helmet
Britannia, the personification of Britain

The British Empire had clearly changed in this period. Whilst owning territories around the world still gave Britain space, power and global influence, the Empire was now more than just about discovering new lands and building them up. Most of the world was now known and belonged to someone. Therefore, the British had to colonise established countries with populations and leadership systems of their own. In Africa, it is true that some of these countries were disunited and in some form of chaos, split between various tribes and tribal chiefs rather than united by one common leader.

However, the British were now repressing various groups and even entire countries. In Africa, following the ‘Scramble’, British soldiers controlled many villages that they saw as disruptive and removed many local leaders. The British helped these countries by opening up trade markets with them and developing them more than they had ever been developed before. Nevertheless, these changes were usually for the benefit of Britain, and one of the legacies of the Empire today is the extreme poverty and conflict in many countries previously ruled by Britain.