British Empire, overseas territories linked to Great Britain in a variety of constitutional relationships, established over a period of three centuries. The establishment of the empire resulted primarily from commercial and political motives and emigration movements (see imperialism); its long endurance resulted from British command of the seas and preeminence in international commerce, and from the flexibility of British rule. At its height in the late 19th and early 20th cent., the empire included territories on all continents, comprising about one quarter of the world's population and area. Probably the outstanding impact of the British Empire has been the dissemination of European ideas, particularly of British political institutions and of English as a lingua franca, throughout a large part of the world.
The First Empire
The origins of the empire date from the late 16th cent. with the private commercial ventures, chartered and encouraged by the crown, of chartered companies. These companies sometimes had certain powers of political control as well as commercial monopolies over designated geographical areas. Usually they began by setting up fortified trading posts, but where no strong indigenous government existed the English gradually extended their powers over the surrounding area. In this way scattered posts were established in India and the East Indies (for spices, coffee, and tea), defying Portuguese and later Dutch hegemony, and in Newfoundland (for fish) and Hudson Bay (for furs), where the main adversaries were the French.
In the 17th cent. European demand for sugar and tobacco led to the growth of plantations on the islands of the Caribbean and in SE North America. These colonies, together with those established by Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters in NE North America, attracted a considerable and diversified influx of European settlers. Organized by chartered companies, the colonies soon developed representative institutions, evolving from the company governing body and modeled on English lines.
The need for cheap labor to work the plantations fostered the growth of the African slave trade. New chartered companies secured posts on the African coasts as markets for captured slaves from the interior. An integrated imperial trade arose, involving the exchange of African slaves for West Indian molasses and sugar, English cloth and manufactured goods, and American fish and timber. To achieve the imperial self-sufficiency required by prevailing theories of mercantilism, and, more immediately, to increase British wealth and naval strength, the Navigation Acts were passed, restricting colonial trade exclusively to British ships and making England the sole market for important colonial products.
Developments in the late 17th and early 18th cent. were characterized by a weakening of the Spanish and Dutch empires, exposing their territories to British encroachment, and by growing Anglo-French rivalry in India, Canada, and Africa. At this time the British government attempted to assert greater direct control over the expanding empire. In the 1680s the revision of certain colonial charters to bring the North American and West Indian colonies under the supervision of royal governors resulted in chronic friction between the governors and elected colonial assemblies.
The early 18th cent. saw a reorganization and revitalization of many of the old chartered companies. In India, from the 1740s to 1763, the British East India Company and its French counterpart were engaged in a military and commercial rivalry in which the British were ultimately victorious. The political fragmentation of the Mughal empire permitted the absorption of one area after another by the British. The Treaty of Paris (1763; see under Paris, Treaty of) firmly established the British in India and Canada, but the financial burdens of war involved the government in difficulties with the American colonies. The success of the American Revolution marked the end of the first British Empire.
The Second Empire
The voyages of Capt. James Cook to Australia and New Zealand in the 1770s and new conquests in India after 1763 opened a second phase of territorial expansion. The victories of the Napoleonic Wars added further possessions to the empire, among them Cape Colony, Mauritius, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, British Guiana (Guyana), and Malta. During the second empire mercantilist ideals and regulations were gradually abandoned in response to economic and political developments in Great Britain early in the 19th cent. Britain's new industrial supremacy lent greater force to doctrines of free trade, which, as part of their critique of mercantilism, questioned the economic value of political ties between the colonies and the mother country.
The plight of large nonwhite populations within the empire became a matter of concern to humanitarians. Abolition of the slave trade (1807) and of slavery (1833) was accompanied in the colonies by efforts to improve the lot of indigenous groups. Better communications and the establishment of a regular civil service facilitated the development of a more efficient colonial administration. But the growth, notably in the English-speaking colonies, of national identity and of relative national self-sufficiency, as well as a trend of opinion in Britain favoring colonial self-government, made the British, now engaged in liberalizing their own governing institutions, willing to concede certain powers of self-government to the white colonies. In 1839, Lord Durham, in response to unrest in Canada, issued his "Report on the Affairs of British North America." Durham stated that to retain its colonies Britain should grant them a large measure of internal self-government.
The British North America Act of 1867 inaugurated a pattern of devolution followed in most of the European-settled colonies by which Parliament gradually surrendered its direct governing powers; thus Australia and New Zealand followed Canada in becoming self-governing dominions. On the other hand, the British assumed greater responsibility in Africa and in India, where the Indian Mutiny had resulted (1858) in the final transfer of power from the East India Company to the British government. To govern territories with large indigenous populations, the crown colony system was developed. Such colonies, of which one of the most enduring was Hong Kong, were ruled by a British governor and consultative councils composed primarily of the governor's nominees; these, in turn, often delegated considerable powers of local government to local rulers.
In the later decades of the 19th cent. there occurred a revival of European competition for empire in which the British acquired or consolidated vast holdings in Africa—such as Nigeria, the Gold Coast (later Ghana), Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Egypt—and in Asia—such as Burma (Myanmar) and Malaya. The size and wealth of the empire and the anxieties produced by European colonial competition stimulated a desire for imperial solidarity. The Imperial Conference, begun in 1887, represented an attempt to strengthen Britain's ties with those colonies that had become self-governing territories.
From Empire to Commonwealth
World War I brought the British Empire to the peak of its expansion, but in the years that followed came its decline. Victory added, under the system of mandates, new territories, including Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, and several former German territories in Africa and Asia. Imperial contributions had considerably strengthened the British war effort (more than 200,000 men from the overseas empire died in the war; the dominions and India signed the Versailles Treaty and joined the League of Nations), but at the same time expectations were raised among colonial populations that an increased measure of self-government would be granted.
Nationalist agitation against economic disparities, often stimulated by acts of racial discrimination by British settlers, was particularly strong in India (see Indian National Congress) and in parts of Africa. Although loath to lessen its hold over countries it had done much to develop, and thereby to incur great economic and political loss, Britain gradually capitulated to the pressures of nationalist sentiment. Iraq gained full sovereignty in 1932; British privileges in Egypt were modified by treaty in 1936; and concessions were made toward self-government in India and later in the African colonies.
In 1931 the Statute of Westminster officially recognized the independent and equal status under the crown of the former dominions within a British Commonwealth of Nations, thus marking the advent of free cooperation among equal partners. After World War II self-government advanced rapidly in all parts of the empire. In 1947, India was partitioned and independence granted to the new states of India and Pakistan. In 1948 the mandate over Palestine was relinquished, and Burma (Myanmar) gained independence as a republic. Other parts of the empire, notably in Africa, gained independence and subsequently joined the Commonwealth. In 1997 Hong Kong passed to China and, in the opinion of many historians, the British Empire definitively ended.
While the empire may have faded into history, Great Britain still continues to administer many dependencies throughout the world. They include Gibraltar in the Mediterranean; the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, and St. Helena (including Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) in the South Atlantic; Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies; and Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. These dependencies have varying degrees of self-government. In 1982 Britain clashed with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, retaking them by force after Argentina, which also claims them, had invaded and seized the islands.
See The Cambridge History of the British Empire (8 vol., 1929–1963); R. A. Huttenback, The British Imperial Experience (1966); J. A. Williamson, A Short History of British Expansion (2 vol., 6th ed. 1967); C. E. Carrington, The British Overseas (2d ed. 1968); C. Cross, The Fall of the British Empire (1968); G. S. Graham, A Concise History of the British Empire (1970); C. Barnett, The Collapse of British Power (1972); T. O. Lloyd, The British Empire, 1558–1982 (1984); A. Clayton, The British Empire as a Superpower, 1919–1939 (1986); A. J. Christopher, The British Empire at Its Zenith (1988); P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688–2000 (rev. ed. 2003); N. Ferguson, Empire (2003); S. Schama, A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776–2000 (2003); P. Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (2008); P. Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997 (2008); J. Darwin, The Empire Project (2009) and Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (2013).