The British Empire: An overview

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Key points

  • The British Empire began in the late 1500s under Queen Elizabeth I.
  • By 1913 the empire had grown to rule over 400 million people, making it the largest empire in history.
  • British government and society benefitted economically from the empire.
  • The people colonised by the British had British laws and customs imposed upon them, lost their ability to govern themselves and were, in many cases, violently oppressed.

Video about life in the British Empire

The origins of the British Empire

The British Empire had its origins in the late 1500s.

In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I gave Walter Raleigh permission to set up a on Roanoke Island, now part of the modern-day USA. The settlers had lost most of their supplies on the journey and struggled to find food when theirs ran out. They were at first reliant on local for food, but there was a lack of trust between the two groups and the relationship descended into violence.

All of the settlers’ attempts to set up a colony on Roanoke Island failed and they eventually abandoned the land in 1590. The first successful colony was set up in 1607 in Jamestown, which is now part of the state of Virginia in the USA.

As a result of its failure, Roanoke became known as the ‘lost colony’

Why did Britain build an empire?

Britain decided to build an empire for several reasons. These included:

  • To gain more money
  • To gain more power
  • To spread Christianity and British ways of life

Spain built its empire in the 1500s. It controlled 80 per cent of the world’s silver because it conquered several colonies in Latin America, such as Peru and Mexico. England wanted the money and power that the Spanish had, but this would require a lot of violence and force.

The indigenous people in the new colonies were presented to the British public as ‘uncivilised’, because their way of living was different from that of people in Europe. This meant people began to believe that the British should continue to grow their empire to bring ‘civilisation’ to these places, even by force. There were also who believed it was their duty to travel to new countries and convert people to Christianity.

This engraving from 1602 shows Spanish colonisers using the threat of violence to enslave indigenous men, women and children in Peru

The development of the British Empire

The empire existed for nearly 400 years in total. It spread from the Americas to include colonies in Africa, Asia and Australasia. During this time Britain lost and gained colonies.

During the early years of the British Empire, 13 colonies in North America were established by the British. These colonies went to war against Britain in 1775 to achieve their freedom, declaring themselves independent on 4 July 1776. Britain formally recognised the United States of America as an independent country in 1783.

After losing the 13 colonies Britain did not want its empire to shrink again, and decided to make it even bigger.

The signing of the American Declaration of Independence

The expansion of the British Empire in India

From 1757 onwards, the British East India Company began to establish control over much of India. The money the British made by local rulers and workers funded the continuing progress of the Industrial Revolution. In 1858, India became an official colony of the British Empire. It was considered the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire.

Why was India referred to as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire?

Ruling India was economically very beneficial for Britain, because the British authorities exploited India’s resources and population.

India had a population of around 300 million people, which meant the British could export and trade goods to this huge market. India also produced goods Britain could sell at home and worldwide for a huge profit.

India also had a strong army, which Britain was able to use. The Indian Army fought alongside British troops in several conflicts. Indian soldiers fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa from 1899 - 1902, and in both world wars.

The expansion of the British Empire in Africa

In the 1880s the ‘Scramble for Africa’ took place and Britain came to control 30 per cent of the African population, with several destroyed in the process. For example, when the British colonised the Kingdom of Benin, they the kingdom’s leaders, Benin treasures, burned much of Benin city to the ground and killed many people.

What are the Benin Bronzes?

The Benin Bronzes are elaborate sculptures made from metals like bronze and brass, as well as ivory. Following the invasion of Benin, many of the Benin Bronzes were stolen by British soldiers and sailors.

Today, the Benin Bronzes can be viewed in museums all over the world. However, many people have campaigned for the return of these cultural treasures to their country of origin, which is modern-day Nigeria. As of 2022, museums and institutions in Britain, the USA and Germany have agreed to return some of the bronzes to Nigeria.

As the empire grew, Britain became more powerful. It was then more difficult for a country to fight against colonisation.

Life in the British Empire

For people living in the colonies, British rule often meant that their traditional languages, religions and ways of living were replaced with the English language, Christianity and British systems of government and education. English remains the official language of many ex-colonies to this day. The number of speakers of some indigenous languages, like that of the in New Zealand, has declined dramatically.

The colonies were generally run by British government officials who lived in the colony and not by the indigenous people. British laws were brought to colonies that often did not take into account cultural differences between the people of the colonies and the British. Taxes on colonised people were often high and the British exploited natural resources for their own financial gain.

In the 1700s and 1800s, India experienced several devastating famines. These famines were partly caused by the weather, and the region had suffered from famine before British rule, but British policies often made the situation worse. Under British rule, Indians were pushed to produce crops, such as tea, that Britain could sell for high prices. Therefore when poor weather affected the harvests, there were food shortages resulting in famines across India. During many of these famines Britain did not organise a large enough relief effort, and millions died across India.

Punishments for uprisings and protest were harsh. They could include executing people and even firing openly onto crowds of civilians, for example during the Amritsar Massacre.

What was the Amritsar Massacre?

Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar, Punjab, India

On 13 April 1919, over 10,000 men, women and children gathered in an enclosed park, the Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar. It had only one accessible exit. Orders had been given that banned large meetings of people, but not everyone had been made aware of this. Some of the people who had gathered were protesting against British rule. Many others had gathered to celebrate a Sikh festival. Without warning, the British general Dyer had his troops block the only exit and fire openly on the unarmed crowd.

It was initially estimated that over 350 people were killed and over a thousand more injured. However some historians now suggest that the death toll may be higher. Reports of the massacre spread across the world. This helped to gain a lot of support for the Indian independence movement.

Life in Britain during the Empire

For some people living in Britain, the British Empire meant that they were able to migrate to different colonies and take positions of authority or obtain land. For those who could not afford to leave and stayed in Britain, there were many more jobs available in factories because merchants were bringing back valuable items, such as cotton, to make into products that would be sold across the empire.

Technological developments during the empire

From the 1750s onwards, there were huge developments in technology in Britain. New machinery and railway technology meant that goods could be produced and transported much faster. This reduced the amount of physical labour needed to produce goods and made more money for those in charge.

This technology was introduced in British India, which reduced the time it would take to transport large amounts of goods from India to the ports, and then to transport goods such as cotton and tea to Britain.

After introducing this in India, Britain introduced this same technology in other colonies. This technology was left in the colonies after they became independent.

Opposition to the British Empire

While there was a lot of support in Britain for the empire at the time, there was always some opposition to it. Some people argued that colonies had their own cultures and traditions before the arrival of the British, and that it was wrong to force a different way of life or religion on people.

There was opposition to the transatlantic slave trade in Britain during the 1700s and 1800s. This came from members of parliament, like William Wilberforce, as well as religious organisations, such as the . Olaudah Equiano, a formerly-enslaved man who settled in London, campaigned against slavery and published an autobiography detailing his experiences of enslavement.

The opposition to empire became stronger when Britain went to war to protect its new power, as this often led to the deaths of indigenous people and British soldiers. For example, there was public opposition to the Second Boer War, as well as political opposition from the .

What were the key events in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade?

A timeline of the journey to abolition: Somerset Case, Zong Case, Cugoano, Equiano, Wilberforce, sugar boycotts, Haiti, Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Bussa, Baptist War, the Slavery Abolition Act

The end of empire

Many historians believe that the end of the British empire started when the countries with large white populations of European descent were given . The first was Canada in 1867, then Australia became a dominion in 1901 and South Africa became a dominion in 1910.

In terms of size, the British Empire was at its largest in the years following World War One, when it gained some of Germany’s former colonies. This was because Germany had lost World War One, and its former colonies were given to other European countries through the Treaty of Versailles.

A map to show which countries were part of the British Empire after World War One
The British Empire in the years following World War One

In 1926 the was set up between Britain and all of its dominion states. This was an agreement that all of the in the Commonwealth were considered equal.

In the mid-1900s, Britain’s situation changed completely. By the end of World War Two in 1945 it became clear that:

  • Britain could no longer afford to maintain its empire
  • British attitudes were changing, as more people began to believe that having an empire was wrong and that Britain had no right to rule over other states by force
  • Independence movements were growing in many different colonies. This included the Quit India campaign, led by Mohandas Gandhi
  • Countries like the USA and the Soviet Union, who had been Britain’s allies during World War Two, supported decolonisation

Then, in 1947, following years of campaigning, British India was partitioned into two independent nations, India and Pakistan. This followed many years of protesting and fighting.

This inspired several other countries across Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere to push for their own freedom.

One of the first African countries to become independent from Britain following World War Two was Ghana, in 1957. One of the last countries to gain full independence from Britain was Belize, in Central America, in 1981.

An Indian postage stamp Commemorating The Quit India Movement Of 1942. Led by Mohandas Gandhi, the movement encouraged Indians to use civil disobedience in an attempt to gain independence from the British Empire.
A flag of Ghana labelled to show what each colour and the star in the middle represents.
The Ghanaian flag was designed by Theodosia Okoh, a teacher and artist from Ghana, in 1957. Each colour represents a different aspect of Ghana.

Some of these independent countries still have a relationship with Britain to this day through the Commonwealth. Today, there are only 14 territories that have strong enough constitutional links to the UK to be considered .

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