What do you think?


Why did the British want an empire in the first place?

Originally, holding an empire was about power. Throughout history, kings and queens have invaded territories in order to gain strength and power. With colonies, a country gains space, a larger army, more trade markets and the chance to make money out of whatever resources are on offer in them.


What was the difference between the first British Empire and the second?

The first British Empire was based around discovery and conquest. New territories, particularly in the Americas, were discovered and taken over before anyone else could. All of the major countries in Europe were involved in trying to control new lands around the world. In the second Empire, more wars were fought over established countries which it was felt could be colonised. Places in Africa which had not developed organised governments, were prime targets for the British, French and later Germans. Some historians claim that the British only wanted to civilise the ‘primitive’ people who lived in these countries. Others feel that the British were only interested in their own success and stood to gain new resources and markets from new colonies.


How significant were the wars of independence?

The American War of Independence showed Britain that, as countries developed, they would gain a sense of national identity and would want to gain independence from their Empire. It made it clear that the Empire was not going to always be sustainable and that the British had to strike a balance between control and self-determination in order to retain control. In the 20th century, countries such as India and the Gold Coast came to feel that their contributions in the Second World War gave them the right to rule themselves and once again national identity arose to force Britain into granting them independence or suffer more costly wars. Britain now has only a few remnants of its former empire, such as the territories of Gibraltar, Spain and the Falkland Islands, Argentina.


What caused decolonisation?

Decolonisation was caused by a range of factors. Historians debate which was the most significant cause. Some say that it was because of Britain no longer being interested in empire and it no longer making the money it had done in the past. These historians think that Britain gave the colonies independence of their own accord once they thought they were ready. However, the alternative viewpoint is that the colonies themselves and the rise of national identity and unity within them, forced the British into acting. It is certainly true that battles were fought to quell the resistance of nationalist groups in Africa long after the war had ended. What does this tell you about why decolonisation happened?

Where next?

You might wish to compare the British Empire to the Roman Empire, or to the medieval Islamic world.

Move on to Test