What we mean by this expression was (formerly) an apparently haphazard collection of lands throughout the world linked by common allegiance to the British throne. In 1800, though Britain had lost her Thirteen Colonies in North America, she still retained Newfoundland, scarcely populated parts of Canada and many West Indian islands, plus other islands useful for trading purposes. Britain held Gibraltar from Spain following the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1788 she had created convict settlements in New South Wales, Australia, which greatly helped the condition of overcrowding in prisons at home.
During the Napoleonic Wars Britain ‘acquired’ more islands, among them Malta, Mauritius, the Maldives, as well as Ceylon and the Cape Colony (even if the Singalese changed the name of the country later, to Sri Lanka). Cape Colony was particularly useful for fresh food supplies and water for ships en route to the East. Most of these ships belonged to the East India Company, steadily (sometimes bloodily) developing and exploiting its trade monopoly in India and beyond.
All such acquisitions were seen as part of the development of British commerce, as was to be the seizure of Hong Kong in 1841. From the 1820s, a real colonial development began, with hundreds of British families undertaking long, frequently dangerous passages abroad to manage and develop British settlements. The ‘Colonial Era’ had begun.
In 1857 the sepoys (or native troops) of the Army in India rebelled against their British officers and the British government was obliged to take over administration of the vast sub-continent from the East India Company. This was not necessarily a popular move, especially with Liberal politicians.
In January 1877 Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, which meant that the British could no longer claim not to have an Empire. New tropical colonies were ‘competed for’ in the ‘Scramble for Africa’, and again there was bloodshed as the Portuguese, Belgians, Germans and French wanted colonies too. All this was costing a lot of money and in 1884 an Imperial Federation League was formed, seeking some form of political federation between Britain and her colonies. But the ambitious scheme failed when the colonial ministers gathered (but could not agree on anything) in London at the two Colonial Conferences of 1887 and 1897.
The key strategic area was seen to be southern Africa, and it was the dream of Cecil Rhodes and others to establish a single Cape-to-Cairo British dominion, linked by the railway, and acting as the pivot of the whole Empire, a dream which vanished with the Second Boer War. Another result of the wars against the Africaaners (Boers) was the creation of the permanent Committee of Imperial Defence (1902) whose function was to coodinate the defence of the British Empire. This Committee lasted until 1938.
It can be safely said that the zenith of ‘The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets’ was after the end of the First World War, when German and Turkish mandates were acquired, meaning that over 600 million people across the world were ruled directly from London. But in the late 19th century movements for home-rule had begun in all the so-called White Colonies. This started in Canada, rapidly spreading to Australasia and South Africa, and resulted in 1931 in Dominion Status for these huge lands.
Although the Indian National Congress had been founded in 1885, attempts by the indigenous peoples of the Empire to secure self-government proved more difficult. The real value of the empire to Britain was proved during the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of colonial troops came to fight for her, or fight (and die) defending their own countries. It seemed at the time that Adolf Hitler had never assimilated the idea that it was not just little Britain obstructing his dream of world domination, but an entire Empire.
It was only after the War that the process of de-colonization began – largely complete by 1964. All British socialist governments were most anxious to get rid of colonies, while some conservative governments tried to hold on, though they failed. Labourites were astonished to find that while colonies wished for self-government, they also wished not to break with the Monarchy, and thus the Commonwealth of Nations was formed after independence. Fifteen Commonwealth members recognised the British monarch as their head of state, while others recognised the Monarch as the Head of the Commonwealth.
Queen Elizabeth II wisely consented to the ending of constitutional links (Governors and Viceroys) between Britain and Canada in 1982, and between Britain and Australia in 1986. Wholly republican movements in Australia and New Zealand gained a certain amount of support in the 1980s and 1990s. Britain still has thirteen remaining dependent territories including Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Bermuda, after referendums rejected independence in 1995. Hong Kong was handed back peacefully to China in 1997.
The British Empire was established over a period of three centuries, and resulted primarily from commercial and political motives. At its height, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it comprised about one quarter of the world’s area and population. It acquired pre-eminence over its Dutch, Portuguese, French and Belgian rivals through the Royal Navy’s command of the seas, and sustained its dominance through the flexibility of its rule, which encouraged the establishment of a regular civil service and relatively efficient colonial administrations.
A system of devolution for its ‘White Colonies’ was inaugurated by the British North America Act of 1867, while the Crown Colonies, with their large indigenous populations, were ruled by a British governor and consultative councils, which dedicated powers to local rulers. Socialist and nationalist agitation against economic disparities forced Britain to concede independence to most of its remaining colonies after World War II. Since then, though many remained within the Commonwealth, the majority of these former colonies have fallen into corruption, civil war and decrepitude, though some have survived. The case for most former colonies not being sufficiently able to govern themselves has unfortunately been proved, especially in Africa, where the disappearance of colonial administration has led to tribal warfare, despotism, starvation and political corruption on a scale which, had Victorian administrators been alive to see it, would have astonished them. But the sad fact is that two world wars successfully destroyed Britain’s capacity to govern such a huge empire – and it had to go.