British Empire, comprising of protectorates, colonies, dominions, mandates and many other territories which ruled almost fourth part of the whole world for almost three centuries, was the largest empire ever in the human history under the crown, sovereignty, and the administration of the British government (United Kingdom, UK). British Empire originated in the late 16th century and the early 18th century by the trading stations administrated by England and the overseas possessions in different territories. British Empire was renowned as the Global Power for over a century. At its greatest extent, the British Empire ruled over almost 24% of the Earth’s total area (35,500,000 sqkm or 13,700,000 sqmi) and almost 23% of the World’s total population (412 million people).
And during those days of its greatest extent, the British Empire had been often quoted as “the empire on which the Sun never sets” and the reason was its size and expansion over the globe that in at least one of its territories the sun was shining with full bright. At the peak of the British Empire, Australia, Canada, Scotland, England, Indian Subcontinent, North America, West Indies, and many other colonial empires were part of this great empire. The British Empire wasn’t in a static condition ever as it constantly changed, evolved and mutated
Origin and the First British Empire (1583-1783 CE)
The origins of the British Empire fall in the late fifteenth century when King of England Henry VII ordered John Cabot to discover a route to Asia via Atlantic just after the victories of Portugal and Spain in overseas exploration. But all of his attempts were failed. After that the further attempts for this purpose were made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century. Before this, it had been declared that England is now an empire by 1533 CE. After which there produced implacable enemies of this empire. During all these events, John Dee was the first who used the term “British Empire” and he along Richard Hakluyt began to press for its establishment.
Humphrey Gilbert made an attempt to establish a colony in North America with the patent of Queen Elizabeth I and with the attention of piracy in 1578 CE. He made his second attempt in 1583 CE when he moved to Newfoundland Island but couldn’t survive the return journey to England. Later his brother, Walter Raleigh established Roanoke Colony near North Carolina which was failed because of the lack of supplies. James VI (as James I) succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 CE and signed a Treaty of London to finish hostilities with Spain in 1604 CE. The main purpose of this treaty was to pay attention to colonial infrastructure and expansion while getting rid of its main rival. British Empire was officially recognized as an empire in the whole world by the early 17th century with the establishment of joint-stock companies (East India Company), settlement of North America and the smaller islands of Caribbean. All this duration until the American War of Independence (end of 18th century) when the British Empire lost its 13 colonies, has been declared as the “First British Empire”.
America’s War of Independence
During the decades of the 1760s and 1770s, the Thirteen American Colonies started the violation of the British Empire parliamentarian rules as they were imposing tax on American colonists without their consent. So the slogan “No taxation without representation” gone viral. And this slogan then moved towards the demand for self-government. To overcome this rebellion, British Empire sent its troops in 1775 CE but in vain as the United States declared independence in 1776 CE. In 1778 CE, British Empire had to face a decisive defeat, because of the France’s favor on American’s side, at Yorktown by 1781 CE. Later in the Peace of Paris, the American Independence was acknowledged in 1783 CE. After such huge loss, the First British Empire almost demolished as Britain started paying attention to Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.
Rise and the Second British Empire (1815-1914)
Now the British Empire was searching for an alternative location to overcome the loss of thirteen British American Colonies. So, they moved towards the newly discovered Australia. In spite of prior discovery of its coastline, James Cook named the Eastern coast of Australia as the New South Wales in 1778 CE. British Empire continued transportation to New South Wales till 1840 CE, to Western Australia till 1868 CE, and to Tasmania till 1853 CE thus making Australia’s capital Melbourne the richest city in the world after London.
The period between 1815 CE and 1914 CE is referred to as the imperial century of the British Empire as sources state that around 26,000,000 sqkm (10,000,000 sqmi) of area and 400 million people were included in the British Empire. After the victory over Napoleon, no other rival was left behind except Russia in Central Asia. During this period, their imperial strength can be idealized as the new technologies like Telegraph were invented and they were having a complete network of cables called the All Red Line to control and defend the British Empire by 1902 CE. During this imperial century, the British Empire also included a lot of colonies of Africa and Canada.
East India Company or British Rule in the Indian Subcontinent
East India Company expanded the British Empire in Asia. In the mid of the 18th century, following the decline of the Mughal Empire, the local rulers of the East India Company and the French East India Company struggled to fill the vacuum. Robert Clive of the British Empire defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his allies in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE thus announcing the British Empire as the major military and political power in Indian Subcontinent.
East India Company was also involved in the export of Opium to China which was later overcome by the Qing Dynasty. During the successive centuries, the British Empire managed and reformed sovereignty over the territories which company had acquired. In 1857 CE, the Indian Rebellion started and the British Empire had to bear a huge loss of lives, well on both sides, which also became the eventual end of the East India Company. In the next year, the British Empire imposed direct control over India by the Government of India Act 1858 CE and established the British Raj in Indian Subcontinent. A governor-general was appointed and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India after which India became the most important and the most valuable possession, “the Jewel in the Crown”.
Later, in the late 19th century, the Indian subcontinent had to face severe famine because of the crop failures as a result of the loose policies of East India Company. Under the direct British Rule, some new policies were implemented after investigations which took time to have an effect until the early 1900s. These famines took the lives of almost 15 million people in the Indian Subcontinent.
World Wars, Decolonization, and Decline of the British Empire (1914-1997)
After the expected decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Qing Dynasty, and the Qajar Dynasty, there started what is called the Great Game, to occupy the vacuum left behind. In the early 20th century, Germany emerged out as a powerful and strong future opponent because of its rapidly increasing military and industrial growth. So, the British Empire while creating an alliance with Japan, France, and Russia became ready to overcome the threat of the Imperial German Navy which was overstretched in the Pacific. So, the First World War out broke in 1914 CE. The British Empire occupied a lot of the German overseas colonies in Africa.
British Empire also encouraged the Sharif of Mecca to revolt against the Ottoman Empire while showing that they were supporting the Independent Arab State. But on the other side, the British Empire secretly signed Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 CE with France without involving the Sharif of Arab. At the end of First World War in 1919 CE, the British Empire reached its greatest extent. German and Ottoman colonies were distributed to the Allied Powers. Now it was the time of Second World War. The British Empire declared war against Nazi Germany with the alliance of Crown colonies and India but not the previous dominions in September 1939 CE.
In 1940 CE, the British Empire was the only one standing against Germany after the Fall of France. But in spite of the fact, the British Empire emerged victorious in the Second World War. But it was in no gain as the United States and Soviet Union invaded Europe as they were also balancing the global power of that time. The British Empire was bankrupted and tried to negotiate with a loan of $US 4.33 billion which they paid back till 2006 CE. On the other side, there started anti-colonial movements within the empire.
The British Empire was initially declined in 1945 CE when both the parties of the Indian Subcontinent, the Indian National Congress (led by Mahatma Gandhi) and Muslim League (led by Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah) achieved maximum seats in the General Elections 1945 CE. And by 1947 CE, two new states emerged out on the map of the World as Pakistan an Islamic State and India as Hindu majority’s state. In the same way, the British Empire kept on losing states and territories until it’s declined in 1997 CE. Actually the word “British Empire” was never used after 1946 CE as it was converted to “Commonwealth of Nations” which was also declined in 1997 CE when Hong Kong, the last British Significant colony, was returned to China.