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Portal:British Empire

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The British Empire Portal

British Empire, 1897
The British Empire was composed of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It began with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

At its height it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913 the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24 percent of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its constitutional, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, it was described as " the empire on which the sun never sets", as the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England ( Britain, following the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland) the dominant colonial power in North America. Britain became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

The American War of Independence resulted in Britain losing some of its oldest and most populous colonies in North America by 1783. British attention then turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century and expanded its imperial holdings. The period of relative peace (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon was later described as " Pax Britannica" ("British Peace"). Alongside the formal control that Britain exerted over its colonies, its dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.

By the start of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had begun to challenge Britain's economic lead. Military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily on its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on its military, financial, and manpower resources. Although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in East Asia and Southeast Asia were occupied by the Empire of Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped accelerate the decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement, in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire. The Suez Crisis confirmed Britain's decline as a global power, and the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire. Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, retain a common monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. ( Full article...)

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A mezzotint engraving of Fort William, Calcutta, the capital of the Bengal Presidency in British India 1735.

The provinces of India, earlier presidencies of British India and still earlier, presidency towns, were the administrative divisions of British governance in India. Collectively, they have been called British India. In one form or another, they existed between 1612 and 1947, conventionally divided into three historical periods:

  • Between 1612 and 1757 the East India Company set up "factories" (trading posts) in several locations, mostly in coastal India, with the consent of the Mughal emperors, Maratha empire or local rulers. Its rivals were the merchant trading companies of Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. By the mid-18th century three Presidency towns: Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, had grown in size.
  • During the period of Company rule in India, 1757–1858, the Company gradually acquired sovereignty over large parts of India, now called "Presidencies". However, it also increasingly came under British government oversight, in effect sharing sovereignty with the Crown. At the same time, it gradually lost its mercantile privileges.
  • Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 the company's remaining powers were transferred to the Crown. Under the British Raj (1858–1947), administrative boundaries were extended to include a few other British-administered regions, such as Upper Burma. Increasingly, however, the unwieldy presidencies were broken up into "Provinces". ( Full article...)
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Beijing Castle Boxer Rebellion 1900 FINAL.jpg
Credit: Torajirō Kasai

A 1900 print depicting a battle between allied British and Japanese troops against Chinese combatants at Beijing Castle during the Boxer Rebellion.

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Major General Roger Elliott ( c. 1665 – 16 May 1714 )

was one of the earliest British Governors of Gibraltar. A member of the Eliot family, his son Granville Elliott became the first Count Elliott and his nephew George Augustus Eliott also became a noted Governor and defender of Gibraltar. ( Full article...)

Evolution of the British Empire

British Empire evolution3.gif
This Map of the world animates the Empire's rise and fall.


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British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations


Current territory  ·   Former territory

* now a Commonwealth realm  ·   now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations

18th century
1708–1757   Menorca
since 1713   Gibraltar
1782–1802   Menorca

19th century
1800–1964   Malta
1807–1890   Heligoland
1809–1864   Ionian Islands
1878–1960   Cyprus

20th century
since 1960   Akrotiri and Dhekelia

16th century
1583–1907   Newfoundland

17th century
1607–1776   Thirteen Colonies
since 1619   Bermuda
1670–1870   Rupert's Land

18th century
Canada (British Imperial)
   1763–1791   Quebec
   1791–1841   Lower Canada
   1791–1841   Upper Canada

19th century
Canada (British Imperial)
   1841–1867   Province of Canada
   1849–1866   Vancouver Island
   1858–1866   Colony of British Columbia (1858–1866)
   1866–1871   Colony of British Columbia (1866–1871)
   1859–1870   North-Western Territory
   1862–1863   Stickeen Territories
* Canada (post-Confederation)
   1867–1931   Dominion of Canada1

20th century
* Canada (post-Confederation)
   1907–1934   Dominion of Newfoundland2

1 In 1931, Canada and other British dominions obtained self-government through the Statute of Westminster. "Dominion" remains Canada's legal title; see Canada's name.
2 Remained a de jure dominion until 1949 (when it became a Canadian province); from 1934 to 1949, Newfoundland was governed by the Commission of Government.

17th century
1605–1979  * Saint Lucia
1623–1883   Saint Kitts (*Saint Kitts & Nevis)
1624–1966  * Barbados
1625–1650   Saint Croix
1627–1979  * St. Vincent and the Grenadines
1628–1883   Nevis (*Saint Kitts & Nevis)
1629–1641   St. Andrew and Providence Islands3
since 1632   Montserrat
1632–1860   Antigua (*Antigua & Barbuda)
1643–1860   Bay Islands
since 1650   Anguilla
1651–1667   Willoughbyland (Suriname)
1655–1850   Mosquito Coast (protectorate)
1655–1962  * Jamaica
since 1666   British Virgin Islands
since 1670   Cayman Islands
1670–1973  * Bahamas
1670–1688   St. Andrew and Providence Islands3
1671–1816   Leeward Islands

18th century
1762–1974  * Grenada
1763–1978   Dominica
since 1799   Turks and Caicos Islands

19th century
1831–1966   British Guiana (Guyana)
1833–1960   Windward Islands
1833–1960   Leeward Islands
1860–1981  * Antigua and Barbuda
1871–1964   British Honduras (*Belize)
1882–1983  * St. Kitts and Nevis
1889–1962   Trinidad and Tobago

20th century
1958–1962   West Indies Federation

3 Now the San Andrés y Providencia Department of Colombia

18th century
1792–1961   Sierra Leone
1795–1803   Cape Colony

19th century
1806–1910   Cape Colony
1816–1965   Gambia
1856–1910   Natal
1868–1966   Basutoland (Lesotho)
1874–1957   Gold Coast (Ghana)
1882–1922   Egypt
1884–1966   Bechuanaland (Botswana)
1884–1960   British Somaliland
1887–1897   Zululand
1888–1894   Matabeleland
1890–1980   Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
1890–1962   Uganda
1890–1963   Zanzibar (Tanzania)
1891–1964   Nyasaland (Malawi)
1891–1907   British Central Africa
1893–1968   Swaziland
1895–1920   British East Africa
1899–1956   Anglo-Egyptian Sudan

20th century
1900–1914   Northern Nigeria
1900–1914   Southern Nigeria
1900–1910   Orange River Colony
1906–1954   Nigeria Colony
1910–1931   South Africa
1911–1964   Northern Rhodesia (Zambia)
1914–1954   Nigeria Protectorate
1915–1931   South West Africa (Namibia)
1919–1960   Cameroons (Cameroon) 4
1920–1963   Kenya
1922–1961   Tanganyika (Tanzania) 4
1954–1960   Nigeria
since 1965   British Indian Ocean Territory

4 League of Nations mandate

18th century
1757–1947   Bengal (West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh)
1762–1764   Philippines
1786-1826   Penang
1795–1948   Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
1796–1965   Maldives

19th century
1819–1826   Singapore
1826–1946   Straits Settlements
1839–1967   Aden Colony
1841–1997   Hong Kong
1841–1941   Kingdom of Sarawak
1848–1946   Labuan
1858–1947   British India (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Burma)
1882–1946   British North Borneo
1885–1946   Unfederated Malay States
1891–1971   Muscat and Oman protectorate
1892–1971   Trucial States protectorate
1895–1946   Federated Malay States
1898–1930   Weihai Garrison

20th century
1918–1961   Kuwait protectorate
1920–1932   Iraq4
1921–1946   Transjordan4
1923–1948   Palestine4
1946–1948   Malayan Union
1946–1963   Sarawak (Malaysia)
1946–1963   North Borneo (Malaysia)
1948–1957   Federation of Malaya (Malaysia)

4 League of Nations mandate

18th century
1788–1901   New South Wales
1794–1843   Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)

19th century
1803–1901   Van Diemen's Land / Tasmania
1807–1863   Auckland Islands6
1824–1980   New Hebrides (Vanuatu)
1824–1901   Queensland
1829–1901   Swan River Colony / Western Australia
1836–1901   South Australia
since 1838   Pitcairn Islands
1840–1907  * Colony of New Zealand
1850–1901   Victoria (Australia)
1874–1970   Fiji5
1877–1976   British Western Pacific Territories
1884–1949   Territory of Papua
1888–1965   Cook Islands6
1888–1984   Sultanate of Brunei
1889–1948   Union Islands (Tokelau)6
1892–1979   Gilbert and Ellice Islands7
1893–1978   British Solomon Islands8

20th century
1900–1970   Tonga (protected state)
1900–1974   Niue6
1901–1942  * Commonwealth of Australia
1907–1953  * Dominion of New Zealand
1919–1949   Territory of New Guinea
1949–1975   Territory of Papua and New Guinea9

5 Suspended member
6 Now part of the * Realm of New Zealand
7 Now Kiribati and * Tuvalu
8 Now the * Solomon Islands
9 Now * Papua New Guinea

17th century
since 1659   St. Helena

19th century
since 1815   Ascension Island9
since 1816   Tristan da Cunha9
since 1833   Falkland Islands11

20th century
since 1908   British Antarctic Territory10
since 1908   South Georgia and
                    the South Sandwich Islands
10, 11

9 Dependencies of St. Helena since 1922 (Ascension Island) and 1938 (Tristan da Cunha)
10 Both claimed in 1908; territories formed in 1962 (British Antarctic Territory) and 1985 (South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands)
11 Occupied by Argentina during the Falklands War of April–June 1982

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