- Britain became an empire in the sixteenth century when John Cabot went across the Atlantic.
- The British Empire grew in size and power during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- During the twentieth century, the British Empire became the Commonwealth.
- Today, people are engaged in a battle for decolonization, which is the process of gaining control back from the conquerors, even in free countries.
The Beginnings: The Sixteenth Century
John Cabot went across the Atlantic in 1497. Other explorers looked for new lands in the following century. This often made Britain’s neighbors angry, who wanted more territory and trade.
Spain was mighty and had an empire in the Americas. But Spain lost to Britain’s navy during Queen Elizabeth I’s rule. This gave Britain the chance to develop its influence in different continents.
The New World was a key element in the early years of Britain’s empire. In 1607, English colonists established Virginia as the first of thirteen long-term settlements along North America’s eastern seaboard.
Britain took over some islands in the Caribbean, like Bermuda and the Bahamas. But Spain was strong there, and so was France. This meant that there were always conflicts between these countries during this time.
Fighting between Britain and France also broke out in North America. This continued until the end of the Seven Years’ War. Britain and her allies were on opposite sides of France in that war. When they won, France had to give most of her land in North America to Britain.
Meanwhile, the British had been building up their influence in Asia. In 1600 they created a company (the East India Company) to trade with Southeast Asia and India.
After fighting with the Dutch, who killed British merchants in the Spice Islands, the company focused on India. They made important trading stations around the coast of India by the end of that century.
The Royal Navy would become a powerful military institution, but it was not always confident that Britannia would rule the waves.
In England, shipbuilding and sailing are essential skills in an island country. But Portugal and Spain were doing a lot better regarding the maritime domination of the seas.
Portugal and Spain knew how to design ships, navigate, and handle long distances. The English were always behind them until the Eighteenth Century.
The British could build their navy because the Dutch brought banking techniques that the British could borrow money from.
Napoleon would focus on his land wars, but he would be bothered by the Royal Navy. Nelson destroyed Napoleon’s ships that were anchored off the coast of Egypt in 1798, which killed off his Pyramid Campaign.
In the 1800s, no country could come close to challenging British domination of maritime communication and trade routes.
Britannia ruled the waves. That made it easier to lead other countries. Trade was also good and helped Great Britain become an industrial place because they needed things from other countries.
The British wanted trade opportunities and went into other countries without colonizing them.
Some examples of British ‘soft’ power were the Americas, China, and the Mediterranean area. These are places where they could do business without paying for administration or defending territory.
Kinds of Colonies
Colonies were overseas territories controlled in small or large measure by the British. They were five kinds of colonies:
This happened when private companies wanted to have a colony to bring in money from Britain. This was the case of India and the East India Company.
Companies often find that they need help when in trouble. They asked for it from the government, but the government did not always agree to help them.
Colonies were parts of the country that the British government ruled. They weren’t separate countries like France or Spain, but they could have laws about taxes and voting.
The governor of each colony was responsible to the Colonial Office in London. He had some control over what he did but usually followed what they said. This is a form of control by the British government.
A protectorate is a place where people rule themselves, but not their defense or foreign affairs. Britain did that for them. The British allowed the rulers to have full power in their country, but they could and did influence a lot of what happened.
Dominion was a colony whose people were allowed to rule themselves. The American colonies were given the freedom to settle.
Dominions were countries after 1931. They still had a king or queen as their head of state, but they were now called “dominion” instead of “colony”.
After World War I, German and Turkish colonies were given to Britain and France. The League of Nations wanted them to be ready for self-government.
After World War II, the United Nations continued the concept of mandates. They were now called “Trust Territories.”
Apart from these five kinds, some other colonies were formed by individuals, worldwide missionaries, or even escaped mutineers.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Even when the American colonies fought for their independence in 1776, they could not stop Britain’s power from growing around the world.
Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands
Sailors like James Cook explored the Pacific region. That exploration led to Australia, New Zealand, and many other smaller territories that were now new British colonies.
Australia and New Zealand meant a new kind of colonization. While the North American settlements were founded on land bought from Native Americans, Cook claimed a big part of the land along the east coast of Australia for Britain. He said that it was nobody’s land because no people lived there.
This claim ignored the indigenous people and their relationship to the land. This was not a relationship that Cook and his contemporaries knew or cared about.
The British government used its new territory to send people who had done wrong. The “First Fleet” of people and their guards sailed into Botany Bay, beginning an 80-year period during which criminals, rebels, and some free settlers came from England and Ireland. Most never came back.
British colonies still existed in North America at the end of the eighteenth century. Britain had lost thirteen colonies, but they still had many other ones.
The British Empire retained some colonies: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec.
In 1867, Canada became its own country as a Dominion. It had the right to make its laws.
Britain also had colonies in the Caribbean, including Barbados and Jamaica.
Britain had a settlement in Sierra Leone and trading posts in West Africa.
The British already had traded in West Africa. The Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope was the only permanent settlement there.
Then the Cape was taken from the Dutch by the British. But it wasn’t long before people like David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Cecil Rhodes helped open up the center of Africa.
The East India Company showed how to use economic power to have more political power.
Rhodes founded the British South Africa Company. He already owned mines in South Africa, but his big dream was to have British colonies all through the continent.
India was one of the most important parts of Britain’s empire at the beginning of the 19th century.
Britain continued to take over India through wars and alliances. By 1850, almost two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent had been taken over.
Britain also took over Bengal in the northeast. The East India Company was in charge of India. Then the British government took over in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Twentieth Century: Commonwealth
By the 20th century, Britain owned over a quarter of the world. It was called ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’.
At the Imperial Conferences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, other colonies with a mainly white population were also allowed to take their first steps towards ruling themselves.
Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa became independent after another.
In 1931, a new organization was created. It was called the Commonwealth of Nations. The mother country and her dominions all had equal status in this organization, and they all accepted the British monarch as head.
The Second World War made it so that the British Empire broke up faster.
Britain promised to give independence to India in exchange for help during the war. But when it was over, they no longer had the money or desire to keep a big empire around the world.
India became independent in 1947, and then all the other colonies followed.
These new states joined the Commonwealth because they understood the advantages of still working together.
There is no Constitution in the Commonwealth, but the heads of government meet every two years to talk about important international subjects.
South Africa left the Commonwealth for nearly thirty years because other members criticized its racist system.
In the Commonwealth countries, people wanted a democracy like Britain. They used British systems as a model even though they didn’t have freedom and equal rights under the British Empire.
Today, English is still an official language in many countries in the Commonwealth.
What made Britain want to create an empire? Great Britain wanted power and prestige and needed more trade because the population had grown too much, and there was industrialization happening.
British companies supported the development of British colonies by giving them raw materials and using their markets to sell goods.
British rule was not always a reason to celebrate.
Land and raw materials were used to Britain’s advantage. This meant that native people from other countries often had a bad experience.
One of the most terrible things about the early part of the empire was that people would trade slaves. People who were taken by force to other countries and were traded.
Slavery was a problem in many countries. But it was more common in British ships. And the slaves were sold in markets. But slavery was stopped across the Empire in 1807 after a long time of fighting for freedom.
Even where there was no slavery, British people usually did not respect the traditions of indigenous people. In most colonies, natives were seen as servants and even hunted and killed like animals.
In those days, many white people had racist views, which caused many problems. The British tried to force their way of life on other parts of the world, and many lives and cultures were destroyed.
Today, people fight for decolonization, which is active resistance against colonial powers and shifting power towards political, economic, educational, and cultural independence. Decolonization is about finding ways to take power back from the colonizers.
Decolonization is a process that happens both politically and emotionally. It can take place on all levels. Decolonization is about how Indigenous people’s lands, sovereignty, and ways of thinking are important.
P.S. If you enjoyed what you read and are a teacher or tutor needing resources for your students from kindergarten up to high school senior (or even adults!), check out our partner sites KidsKonnect, SchoolHistory, and HelpTeaching for hundreds of facts, worksheets, activities, quizzes, courses, and more!