The British Empire had developed as a result of very different cycles of growth. During the eighteenth century, the colonisation of India and North America had been based on commercial exploitation and military conquest, usually in wars against France. Then, for much of the nineteenth century there was a reluctance at Whitehall to increase the number of dependencies, largely on the grounds of expense. From about 1870 onwards, however, the Empire expanded rapidly in the hitherto largely untapped areas of Africa and the Pacific.
By 1914 the Empire covered nearly one quarter of the earth's land surface, including self-governing Dominions such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; in Asia, the British Raj, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong; in the East Indies and Pacific, New Guinea, North Borneo, and Fiji; in central America, Guiana and Honduras and a series of West Indian islands including Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados; in Africa, Basutoland, Swaziland, Bechuanaland, the Rhodesias, Nyasaland, Kenya, Uganda, the Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Gambia; and, in the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus. The twentieth century, however, saw the gradual reduction of this array of colonies until, by 1995, the only formal dependencies left were Hong Kong (due to revert to China in 1997), Gibraltar and a handful of remote island colonies, the largest of which were the Falklands.
This chapter considers the two main stages in the process of the weakening of the Empire: between the two world wars and the period since 1945. There are really two sides to the same coin: the decline of formal imperial rule and the emergence of the British Commonwealth. As one faded and expired, the other grew and matured. The first cannot, in retrospect, be considered surprising. As J.R. Ferris argues