By 1913 the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth's total land area.
At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire as the Sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England and then, following the union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain, the dominant colonial power in North America.
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 across the globe.
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.
During the 19th century, Britain's population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, which caused significant social and economic stresses.
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 the military, financial, and manpower resources of Britain.
Although the British Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power.
Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the decline of the 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.
Cabot sailed in 1497, five years after the European discovery of America, but he made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland, and, mistakenly believing (like Christopher Columbus) that he had reached Asia, there was no attempt to found a colony.
Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but nothing was ever heard of his ships again.
No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during the last decades of the 16th century.
In the meantime, the 1533 Statute in Restraint of Appeals had declared "that this realm of England is an Empire".
In 1562, the English Crown encouraged the privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa with the aim of breaking into the Atlantic slave trade.
This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth I gave her blessing to further privateering raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the New World.
By this time, Spain had become the dominant power in the Americas and was exploring the Pacific Ocean, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River area, later to become New France.
Although England tended to trail behind Portugal, Spain, and France in establishing overseas colonies, it established its first overseas colony in 16th century Ireland by settling it with Protestants from England drawing on precedents dating back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169.
Several people who helped establish colonies in Ireland also later played a part in the early colonisation of North America, particularly a group known as the West Country men.
English overseas possessions (1583–1707)
Main article: English overseas possessions
In 1578, Elizabeth I granted a patent to Humphrey Gilbert for discovery and overseas exploration.
In 1583, he embarked on a second attempt.
On this occasion he formally claimed the harbour of the island of Newfoundland, although no settlers were left behind.
Gilbert did not survive the return journey to England, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Walter Raleigh, who was granted his own patent by Elizabeth in 1584.
Now at peace with its main rival, English attention shifted from preying on other nations' colonial infrastructures to the business of establishing its own overseas colonies.
The British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean, and the establishment of joint-stock companies, most notably the East India Company, to administer colonies and overseas trade.
Americas, Africa and the slave trade
The Caribbean initially provided England's most important and lucrative colonies, but not before several attempts at colonisation failed.
An attempt to establish a colony in Guiana in 1604 lasted only two years, and failed in its main objective to find gold deposits.
The colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations successfully used by the Portuguese in Brazil, which depended on slave labour, and—at first—Dutch ships, to sell the slaves and buy the sugar.
To ensure that the increasingly healthy profits of this trade remained in English hands, Parliament decreed in 1651 that only English ships would be able to ply their trade in English colonies.
The London and Bristol Company was created in 1610 with the aim of creating a permanent settlement on Newfoundland, but was largely unsuccessful.
Fleeing from religious persecution would become the motive of many English would-be colonists to risk the arduous trans-Atlantic voyage: Maryland was founded as a haven for Roman Catholics (1634), Rhode Island (1636) as a colony tolerant of all religions and Connecticut (1639) for Congregationalists.
The Province of Carolina was founded in 1663.
This was formalised in negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War, in exchange for Suriname.
The American colonies were less financially successful than those of the Caribbean, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants who preferred their temperate climates.
In 1670, Charles II incorporated by royal charter the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), granting it a monopoly on the fur trade in the area known as Rupert's Land, which would later form a large proportion of the Dominion of Canada.
Forts and trading posts established by the HBC were frequently the subject of attacks by the French, who had established their own fur trading colony in adjacent New France.
Two years later, the Royal African Company was inaugurated, receiving from King Charles a monopoly of the trade to supply slaves to the British colonies of the Caribbean.
From the outset, slavery was the basis of the Empire in the West Indies.
Until the abolition of its slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic.
In the British Caribbean, the percentage of the population of African descent rose from 25% in 1650 to around 80% in 1780, and in the Thirteen Colonies from 10% to 40% over the same period (the majority in the southern colonies).
For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay for such western British cities as Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the triangular trade with Africa and the Americas.
Rivalry with other European empires
At the end of the 16th century, England and the Netherlands began to challenge Portugal's monopoly of trade with Asia, forming private joint-stock companies to finance the voyages—the English, later British, East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, chartered in 1600 and 1602 respectively.
There, they competed for trade supremacy with Portugal and with each other.
Although England eclipsed the Netherlands as a colonial power, in the short term the Netherlands' more advanced financial system and the three Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century left it with a stronger position in Asia.
A deal between the two nations left the spice trade of the East Indies archipelago to the Netherlands and the textiles industry of India to England, but textiles soon overtook spices in terms of profitability.
Peace between England and the Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two countries entered the Nine Years' War as allies, but the conflict—waged in Europe and overseas between France, Spain and the Anglo-Dutch alliance—left the English a stronger colonial power than the Dutch, who were forced to devote a larger proportion of their military budget on the costly land war in Europe.
The death of Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain and its colonial empire to Philippe of Anjou, a grandson of the King of France, raised the prospect of the unification of France, Spain and their respective colonies, an unacceptable state of affairs for England and the other powers of Europe.
Scottish attempt to expand overseas
Main article: Scottish colonization of the Americas
The Darien scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland—a quarter of Scottish capital was lost in the enterprise—and ended Scottish hopes of establishing its own overseas empire.
The episode also had major political consequences, helping to persuade the government of Scotland of the merits of a union of the two countries, rather than just crowns.
"First" British Empire (1707–1783)
The 18th century saw the newly united Great Britain rise to be the world's dominant colonial power, with France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage.
Great Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire continued the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted until 1714 and was concluded by the Treaty of Utrecht.
Philip V of Spain renounced his and his descendants' claim to the French throne, and Spain lost its empire in Europe.
Gibraltar became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean.
In August 1737, two more British ships were boarded by Spanish coastguards near Havana; the crews were imprisoned and kept as slaves.
In 1746, the Spanish and British began peace talks, with the King of Spain agreeing to stop all attacks on British shipping; however, in the Treaty of Madrid Britain lost its slave trading rights in South and Central America.
In the East Indies, British and Dutch merchants continued to compete in spices and textiles.
With textiles becoming the larger trade, by 1720, in terms of sales, the British company had overtaken the Dutch.
During the middle decades of the 18th century, there were several outbreaks of military conflict on the Indian subcontinent, as the English East India Company and its French counterpart, struggled alongside local rulers to fill the vacuum that had been left by the decline of the Mughal Empire.
The Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, left the British East India Company in control of Bengal and as the major military and political power in India.
In the following decades the British East India Company gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or via local rulers under the threat of force from the Presidency Armies, the vast majority of which was composed of Indian sepoys, led by British officers.
The British and French struggles in India became but one theatre of the global Seven Years' War (1756–1763) involving France, Britain, and the other major European powers.
The signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 had important consequences for the future of the British Empire.
In North America, France's future as a colonial power effectively ended with the recognition of British claims to Rupert's Land, and the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain.
Spain ceded Florida to Britain.
Along with its victory over France in India, the Seven Years' War therefore left Britain as the world's most powerful maritime power.
Loss of the Thirteen American Colonies
Main article: American Revolutionary War
During the 1760s and early 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament's attempts to govern and tax American colonists without their consent.
The American Revolution began with rejection of Parliamentary authority and moves towards self-government.
In response, Britain sent troops to reimpose direct rule, leading to the outbreak of war in 1775.
The following year, in 1776, the United States declared independence.
American independence was acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783.
The loss of such a large portion of British America, at the time Britain's most populous overseas possession, is seen by some historians as the event defining the transition between the "first" and "second" empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa.
Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist policies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal.
The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 seemed to confirm Smith's view that political control was not necessary for economic success.
The war to the south influenced British policy in Canada, where between 40,000 and 100,000 defeated Loyalists had migrated from the new United States following independence.
The 14,000 Loyalists who went to the Saint John and Saint Croix river valleys, then part of Nova Scotia, felt too far removed from the provincial government in Halifax, so London split off New Brunswick as a separate colony in 1784.
The Constitutional Act of 1791 created the provinces of Upper Canada (mainly English speaking) and Lower Canada (mainly French-speaking) to defuse tensions between the French and British communities, and implemented governmental systems similar to those employed in Britain, with the intention of asserting imperial authority and not allowing the sort of popular control of government that was perceived to have led to the American Revolution.
Tensions between Britain and the United States escalated again during the Napoleonic Wars, as Britain tried to cut off American trade with France and boarded American ships to impress men into the Royal Navy.
The US declared war, the War of 1812, and invaded Canadian territory.
In response Britain invaded the US, but the pre-war boundaries were reaffirmed by the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, ensuring Canada's future would be separate from that of the United States.
Rise of the "Second" British Empire (1783–1815)
Exploration of the Pacific
Since 1718, transportation to the American colonies had been a penalty for various offences in Britain, with approximately one thousand convicts transported per year.
Forced to find an alternative location after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies in 1783, the British government turned to Australia.
In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook's botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788.
Britain continued to transport convicts to New South Wales until 1840, to Tasmania until 1853 and to Western Australia until 1868.
The Australian colonies became profitable exporters of wool and gold, mainly because of gold rushes in Victoria, making its capital Melbourne for a time the richest city in the world and the second largest city (after London) in the British Empire.
During his voyage, Cook also visited New Zealand, known to Europeans due to the 1642 voyage of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, and claimed both the North and the South islands for the British crown in 1769 and 1770 respectively.
Initially, interaction between the indigenous Māori population and Europeans was limited to the trading of goods.
European settlement increased through the early decades of the 19th century, with numerous trading stations established, especially in the North.
In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced plans to buy large tracts of land and establish colonies in New Zealand.
This treaty is considered to be New Zealand's founding document, but differing interpretations of the Maori and English versions of the text have meant that it continues to be a source of dispute.
War with Napoleonic France
Main article: Napoleonic Wars
Britain was challenged again by France under Napoleon, in a struggle that, unlike previous wars, represented a contest of ideologies between the two nations.
It was not only Britain's position on the world stage that was at risk: Napoleon threatened to invade Britain itself, just as his armies had overrun many countries of continental Europe.
The Napoleonic Wars were therefore ones in which Britain invested large amounts of capital and resources to win.
Overseas colonies were attacked and occupied, including those of the Netherlands, which was annexed by Napoleon in 1810.
France was finally defeated by a coalition of European armies in 1815.
Britain was again the beneficiary of peace treaties: France ceded the Ionian Islands, Malta (which it had occupied in 1797 and 1798 respectively), Mauritius, Saint Lucia, Seychelles, and Tobago; Spain ceded Trinidad; the Netherlands Guyana, and the Cape Colony.
Abolition of slavery
Main article: Abolitionism in the United Kingdom
Added to this was the cost of suppressing regular slave rebellions.
In 1808, Sierra Leone Colony was designated an official British colony for freed slaves.
Parliamentary reform in 1832 saw the influence of the West India Committee decline.
The Slavery Abolition Act, passed the following year, abolished slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, finally bringing the Empire into line with the law in the UK (with the exception of the territories administered by the East India Company and Ceylon, where slavery was ended in 1844).
Under the Act, slaves were granted full emancipation after a period of four to six years of "apprenticeship".
Facing further opposition from abolitionists, the apprenticeship system was abolished in 1838.
The British government compensated slave-owners.
Britain's imperial century (1815–1914)
Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain's "imperial century" by some historians, around 10 million sq mi (26 million km) of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire.
Victory over Napoleon left Britain without any serious international rival, other than Russia in Central Asia.
Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain's dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many countries, such as China, Argentina and Siam, which has been described by some historians as an "Informal Empire".
By 1902, the British Empire was linked together by a network of telegraph cables, called the All Red Line.
East India Company rule and the British Raj in India
The East India Company drove the expansion of the British Empire in Asia.
The Company's army had first joined forces with the Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War, and the two continued to co-operate in arenas outside India: the eviction of the French from Egypt (1799), the capture of Java from the Netherlands (1811), the acquisition of Penang Island (1786), Singapore (1819) and Malacca (1824), and the defeat of Burma (1826).
From its base in India, the Company had also been engaged in an increasingly profitable opium export trade to China since the 1730s.
This trade, illegal since it was outlawed by the Qing dynasty in 1729, helped reverse the trade imbalances resulting from the British imports of tea, which saw large outflows of silver from Britain to China.
In 1839, the confiscation by the Chinese authorities at Canton of 20,000 chests of opium led Britain to attack China in the First Opium War, and resulted in the seizure by Britain of Hong Kong Island, at that time a minor settlement, and other Treaty Ports including Shanghai.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries the British Crown began to assume an increasingly large role in the affairs of the Company.
A series of Acts of Parliament were passed, including the Regulating Act of 1773, Pitt's India Act of 1784 and the Charter Act of 1813 which regulated the Company's affairs and established the sovereignty of the Crown over the territories that it had acquired.
The rebellion took six months to suppress, with heavy loss of life on both sides.
The following year the British government dissolved the Company and assumed direct control over India through the Government of India Act 1858, establishing the British Raj, where an appointed governor-general administered India and Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India.
India became the empire's most valuable possession, "the Jewel in the Crown", and was the most important source of Britain's strength.
A series of serious crop failures in the late 19th century led to widespread famines on the subcontinent in which it is estimated that over 15 million people died.
The East India Company had failed to implement any coordinated policy to deal with the famines during its period of rule.
Later, under direct British rule, commissions were set up after each famine to investigate the causes and implement new policies, which took until the early 1900s to have an effect.
Rivalry with Russia
Main article: The Great Game
This rivalry in Central Asia came to be known as the "Great Game".
When Russia invaded the Turkish Balkans in 1853, fears of Russian dominance in the Mediterranean and Middle East led Britain and France to invade the Crimean Peninsula to destroy Russian naval capabilities.
The ensuing Crimean War (1854–1856), which involved new techniques of modern warfare, was the only global war fought between Britain and another imperial power during the Pax Britannica and was a resounding defeat for Russia.
For a while it appeared that another war would be inevitable, but the two countries reached an agreement on their respective spheres of influence in the region in 1878 and on all outstanding matters in 1907 with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente.
Cape to Cairo
The Dutch East India Company had founded the Cape Colony on the southern tip of Africa in 1652 as a way station for its ships travelling to and from its colonies in the East Indies.
British immigration began to rise after 1820, and pushed thousands of Boers, resentful of British rule, northwards to found their own—mostly short-lived—independent republics, during the Great Trek of the late 1830s and early 1840s.
In the process the Voortrekkers clashed repeatedly with the British, who had their own agenda with regard to colonial expansion in South Africa and to the various native African polities, including those of the Sotho and the Zulu nations.
Initially the Canal was opposed by the British; but once opened, its strategic value was quickly recognised and became the "jugular vein of the Empire".
Although this did not grant outright control of the strategic waterway, it did give Britain leverage.
Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.
Although Britain controlled Egypt into the 20th century, it was officially part of the Ottoman Empire and not part of the British Empire.
The French were still majority shareholders and attempted to weaken the British position, but a compromise was reached with the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, which made the Canal officially neutral territory.
With competitive French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region undermining orderly colonisation of tropical Africa, the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 was held to regulate the competition between the European powers in what was called the "Scramble for Africa" by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims.
The scramble continued into the 1890s, and caused Britain to reconsider its decision in 1885 to withdraw from Sudan.
Sudan was nominally made an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, but a British colony in reality.
British gains in Southern and East Africa prompted Cecil Rhodes, pioneer of British expansion in Southern Africa, to urge a "Cape to Cairo" railway linking the strategically important Suez Canal to the mineral-rich south of the continent.
Changing status of the white colonies
The path to independence for the white colonies of the British Empire began with the 1839 Durham Report, which proposed unification and self-government for Upper and Lower Canada, as a solution to political unrest which had erupted in armed rebellions in 1837.
With the passage of the British North America Act, 1867 by the British Parliament, the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were formed into Canada, a confederation enjoying full self-government with the exception of international relations.
Australia and New Zealand achieved similar levels of self-government after 1900, with the Australian colonies federating in 1901.
The term "dominion status" was officially introduced at the Colonial Conference of 1907.
Ireland had been united with Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the Act of Union 1800 after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and had suffered a severe famine between 1845 and 1852.
Home rule was supported by the British Prime minister, William Gladstone, who hoped that Ireland might follow in Canada's footsteps as a Dominion within the empire, but his 1886 Home Rule bill was defeated in Parliament.
Although the bill, if passed, would have granted Ireland less autonomy within the UK than the Canadian provinces had within their own federation, many MPs feared that a partially independent Ireland might pose a security threat to Great Britain or mark the beginning of the break-up of the empire.
A second Home Rule bill was also defeated for similar reasons.
World wars (1914–1945)
By the turn of the 20th century, fears had begun to grow in Britain that it would no longer be able to defend the metropole and the entirety of the empire while at the same time maintaining the policy of "splendid isolation".
Germany was rapidly rising as a military and industrial power and was now seen as the most likely opponent in any future war.
Recognising that it was overstretched in the Pacific and threatened at home by the Imperial German Navy, Britain formed an alliance with Japan in 1902 and with its old enemies France and Russia in 1904 and 1907, respectively.
First World War
Main article: History of the United Kingdom during the First World War
Britain's fears of war with Germany were realised in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War.
Britain quickly invaded and occupied most of Germany's overseas colonies in Africa.
This agreement was not divulged to the Sharif of Mecca, who the British had been encouraging to launch an Arab revolt against their Ottoman rulers, giving the impression that Britain was supporting the creation of an independent Arab state.
The British declaration of war on Germany and its allies also committed the colonies and Dominions, which provided invaluable military, financial and material support.
The contributions of Australian and New Zealand troops during the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign against the Ottoman Empire had a great impact on the national consciousness at home, and marked a watershed in the transition of Australia and New Zealand from colonies to nations in their own right.
The countries continue to commemorate this occasion on Anzac Day.
Canadians viewed the Battle of Vimy Ridge in a similar light.
The important contribution of the Dominions to the war effort was recognised in 1917 by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George when he invited each of the Dominion Prime Ministers to join an Imperial War Cabinet to co-ordinate imperial policy.
Under the terms of the concluding Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919, the empire reached its greatest extent with the addition of 1,800,000 square miles (4,700,000 km) and 13 million new subjects.
The colonies of Germany and the Ottoman Empire were distributed to the Allied powers as League of Nations mandates.
Nauru was made a combined mandate of Britain and the two Pacific Dominions.
The changing world order that the war had brought about, in particular the growth of the United States and Japan as naval powers, and the rise of independence movements in India and Ireland, caused a major reassessment of British imperial policy.
Forced to choose between alignment with the United States or Japan, Britain opted not to renew its Japanese alliance and instead signed the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, where Britain accepted naval parity with the United States.
This decision was the source of much debate in Britain during the 1930s as militaristic governments took hold in Germany and Japan helped in part by the Great Depression, for it was feared that the empire could not survive a simultaneous attack by both nations.
The issue of the empire's security was a serious concern in Britain, as it was vital to the British economy.
In 1919, the frustrations caused by delays to Irish home rule led the MPs of Sinn Féin, a pro-independence party that had won a majority of the Irish seats in the 1918 British general election, to establish an independent parliament in Dublin, at which Irish independence was declared.
The Anglo-Irish War ended in 1921 with a stalemate and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, creating the Irish Free State, a Dominion within the British Empire, with effective internal independence but still constitutionally linked with the British Crown.
Northern Ireland, consisting of six of the 32 Irish counties which had been established as a devolved region under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, immediately exercised its option under the treaty to retain its existing status within the United Kingdom.
A similar struggle began in India when the Government of India Act 1919 failed to satisfy demand for independence.
In Britain public opinion was divided over the morality of the massacre, between those who saw it as having saved India from anarchy, and those who viewed it with revulsion.
British troops remained stationed in Egypt until the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936, under which it was agreed that the troops would withdraw but continue to occupy and defend the Suez Canal zone.
In return, Egypt was assisted in joining the League of Nations.
Iraq, a British mandate since 1920, also gained membership of the League in its own right after achieving independence from Britain in 1932.
In Palestine, Britain was presented with the problem of mediating between the Arabs and increasing numbers of Jews.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had been incorporated into the terms of the mandate, stated that a national home for the Jewish people would be established in Palestine, and Jewish immigration allowed up to a limit that would be determined by the mandatory power.
This led to increasing conflict with the Arab population, who openly revolted in 1936.
As the threat of war with Germany increased during the 1930s, Britain judged the support of Arabs as more important than the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and shifted to a pro-Arab stance, limiting Jewish immigration and in turn triggering a Jewish insurgency.
The right of the Dominions to set their own foreign policy, independent of Britain, was recognised at the 1923 Imperial Conference.
Britain's request for military assistance from the Dominions at the outbreak of the Chanak Crisis the previous year had been turned down by Canada and South Africa, and Canada had refused to be bound by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
After pressure from the Irish Free State and South Africa, the 1926 Imperial Conference issued the Balfour Declaration of 1926, declaring the Dominions to be "autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another" within a "British Commonwealth of Nations".
This declaration was given legal substance under the 1931 Statute of Westminster.
The parliaments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State and Newfoundland were now independent of British legislative control, they could nullify British laws and Britain could no longer pass laws for them without their consent.
Newfoundland reverted to colonial status in 1933, suffering from financial difficulties during the Great Depression.
In 1937 the Irish Free State introduced a republican constitution renaming itself Ireland.
Second World War
Main article: British Empire in World War II
Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany in September 1939 included the Crown colonies and India but did not automatically commit the Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa.
All soon declared war on Germany.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt for military aid from the United States, but Roosevelt was not yet ready to ask Congress to commit the country to war.
In August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt met and signed the Atlantic Charter, which included the statement that "the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live" should be respected.
This wording was ambiguous as to whether it referred to European countries invaded by Germany and Italy, or the peoples colonised by European nations, and would later be interpreted differently by the British, Americans, and nationalist movements.
For Churchill the entry of the United States into the war was the "greatest joy".
He felt that Britain was now assured of victory, but failed to recognise that the "many disasters, immeasurable costs and tribulations [which he knew] lay ahead" in December 1941 would have permanent consequences for the future of the empire.
The manner in which British forces were rapidly defeated in the Far East irreversibly harmed Britain's standing and prestige as an imperial power, including, particularly, the Fall of Singapore, which had previously been hailed as an impregnable fortress and the eastern equivalent of Gibraltar.
The realisation that Britain could not defend its entire empire pushed Australia and New Zealand, which now appeared threatened by Japanese forces, into closer ties with the United States and, ultimately, the 1951 ANZUS Pact.
The war weakened the empire in other ways: undermining Britain's control of politics in India, inflicting long term economic damage, and irrevocably changing geopolitics by pushing the Soviet Union and the United States to the centre of the global stage.
Decolonisation and decline (1945–1997)
Though Britain and the empire emerged victorious from the Second World War, the effects of the conflict were profound, both at home and abroad.
Much of Europe, a continent that had dominated the world for several centuries, was in ruins, and host to the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union, who now held the balance of global power.
Britain was left essentially bankrupt, with insolvency only averted in 1946 after the negotiation of a $US 4.33 billion loan from the United States, the last instalment of which was repaid in 2006.
At the same time, anti-colonial movements were on the rise in the colonies of European nations.
The situation was complicated further by the increasing Cold War rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union.
In principle, both nations were opposed to European colonialism.
At first British politicians believed it would be possible to maintain Britain's role as a world power at the head of a re-imagined Commonwealth, but by 1960 they were forced to recognise that there was an irresistible "wind of change" blowing.
Their priorities changed to maintaining an extensive zone of British influence and ensuring that stable, non-Communist governments were established in former colonies.
In this context, while other European powers such as France and Portugal, waged costly and unsuccessful wars to keep their empires intact, Britain generally adopted a policy of peaceful disengagement from its colonies.
In reality this was rarely peaceable or altruistic.
Between 1945 and 1965, the number of people under British rule outside the UK itself fell from 700 million to 5 million, 3 million of whom were in Hong Kong.
India's two major political parties—the Indian National Congress (led by Mahatma Gandhi) and the Muslim League (led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah)—had been campaigning for independence for decades, but disagreed as to how it should be implemented.
Congress favoured a unified secular Indian state, whereas the League, fearing domination by the Hindu majority, desired a separate Islamic state for Muslim-majority regions.
When the urgency of the situation and risk of civil war became apparent, the newly appointed (and last) Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, hastily brought forward the date to 15 August 1947.
Millions of Muslims crossed from India to Pakistan and Hindus vice versa, and violence between the two communities cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Burma, which had been administered as part of the British Raj, and Sri Lanka gained their independence the following year in 1948.
India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka became members of the Commonwealth, while Burma chose not to join.
The British mandate in Palestine, where an Arab majority lived alongside a Jewish minority, presented the British with a similar problem to that of India.
Frustrated by the intractability of the problem, attacks by Jewish paramilitary organisations and the increasing cost of maintaining its military presence, Britain announced in 1947 that it would withdraw in 1948 and leave the matter to the United Nations to solve.
It was immediately followed by the outbreak of a civil war between the Arabs and Jews of Palestine, and British forces withdrew amid the fighting.
The British Mandate for Palestine officially terminated at midnight on 15 May 1948 as the State of Israel declared independence and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War broke out, during which the territory of the former Mandate was partitioned between Israel and the surrounding Arab states.
Amid the fighting, British forces continued to withdraw from Israel, with the last British troops departing from Haifa on 30 June 1948.
Following the surrender of Japan in the Second World War, anti-Japanese resistance movements in Malaya turned their attention towards the British, who had moved to quickly retake control of the colony, valuing it as a source of rubber and tin.
The fact that the guerrillas were primarily Malayan-Chinese Communists meant that the British attempt to quell the uprising was supported by the Muslim Malay majority, on the understanding that once the insurgency had been quelled, independence would be granted.
In 1963, the 11 states of the federation together with Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo joined to form Malaysia, but in 1965 Chinese-majority Singapore was expelled from the union following tensions between the Malay and Chinese populations and became an independent city-state.
Brunei, which had been a British protectorate since 1888, declined to join the union.
Suez and its aftermath
Main article: Suez Crisis
In 1951, the Conservative Party returned to power in Britain, under the leadership of Winston Churchill.
Churchill and the Conservatives believed that Britain's position as a world power relied on the continued existence of the empire, with the base at the Suez Canal allowing Britain to maintain its pre-eminent position in the Middle East in spite of the loss of India.
Churchill could not ignore Gamal Abdul Nasser's new revolutionary government of Egypt that had taken power in 1952, and the following year it was agreed that British troops would withdraw from the Suez Canal zone and that Sudan would be granted self-determination by 1955, with independence to follow.
Sudan was granted independence on 1 January 1956.
In July 1956, Nasser unilaterally nationalised the Suez Canal.
The response of Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, was to collude with France to engineer an Israeli attack on Egypt that would give Britain and France an excuse to intervene militarily and retake the canal.
Eden infuriated US President Dwight D. Eisenhower by his lack of consultation, and Eisenhower refused to back the invasion.
Another of Eisenhower's concerns was the possibility of a wider war with the Soviet Union after it threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side.
Though the invasion force was militarily successful in its objectives, UN intervention and US pressure forced Britain into a humiliating withdrawal of its forces, and Eden resigned.
The Suez Crisis very publicly exposed Britain's limitations to the world and confirmed Britain's decline on the world stage and its end as a first-rate power, demonstrating that henceforth it could no longer act without at least the acquiescence, if not the full support, of the United States.
Margaret Thatcher later described the mindset she believed had befallen Britain's political leaders after Suez where they "went from believing that Britain could do anything to an almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing", from which Britain did not recover until the successful recapture of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.
While the Suez Crisis caused British power in the Middle East to weaken, it did not collapse.
Britain again deployed its armed forces to the region, intervening in Oman (1957), Jordan (1958) and Kuwait (1961), though on these occasions with American approval, as the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's foreign policy was to remain firmly aligned with the United States.
Although Britain granted Kuwait independence in 1961, it continued to maintain a military presence in the Middle East for another decade.
On 16 January 1968, a few weeks after the devaluation of the pound, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that British troops would be withdrawn from major military bases East of Suez, which included the ones in the Middle East, and primarily from Malaysia and Singapore by the end of 1971, instead of 1975 as earlier planned.
By that time over 50,000 British military personnel were still stationed in the Far East, including 30,000 in Singapore.
The British granted independence to the Maldives in 1965 but continued to station a garrison there until 1976, withdrew from Aden in 1967, and granted independence to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
Wind of change
Main article: Decolonisation of Africa
Macmillan gave a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in February 1960 where he spoke of "the wind of change blowing through this continent".
To the three colonies that had been granted independence in the 1950s—Sudan, the Gold Coast and Malaya—were added nearly ten times that number during the 1960s.
British withdrawal from the southern and eastern parts of Africa was not a peaceful process.
Kenyan independence was preceded by the eight-year Mau Mau uprising, in which tens of thousands of suspected rebels were interned by the colonial government in detention camps.
In Rhodesia, the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the white minority resulted in a civil war that lasted until the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, which set the terms for recognised independence in 1980, as the new nation of Zimbabwe.
In Cyprus, a guerrilla war waged by the Greek Cypriot organisation EOKA against British rule, was ended in 1959 by the London and Zürich Agreements, which resulted in Cyprus being granted independence in 1960.
The UK retained the military bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia as sovereign base areas.
Most of the UK's Caribbean territories achieved independence after the departure in 1961 and 1962 of Jamaica and Trinidad from the West Indies Federation, established in 1958 in an attempt to unite the British Caribbean colonies under one government, but which collapsed following the loss of its two largest members.
Jamaica attained independence in 1962, as did Trinidad and Tobago.
Barbados achieved independence in 1966 and the remainder of the eastern Caribbean islands, including the Bahamas, in the 1970s and 1980s, but Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands opted to revert to British rule after they had already started on the path to independence.
A dispute with Guatemala over claims to Belize was left unresolved.
Vanuatu's independence was delayed because of political conflict between English and French-speaking communities, as the islands had been jointly administered as a condominium with France.
End of empire
Belize achieved independence in 1981.
The passage of the British Nationality Act 1981, which reclassified the remaining Crown colonies as "British Dependent Territories" (renamed British Overseas Territories in 2002) meant that, aside from a scattering of islands and outposts, the process of decolonisation that had begun after the Second World War was largely complete.
In 1982, Britain's resolve in defending its remaining overseas territories was tested when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, acting on a long-standing claim that dated back to the Spanish Empire.
Britain's successful military response to retake the islands during the ensuing Falklands War contributed to reversing the downward trend in Britain's status as a world power.
Although granted legislative independence by the Statute of Westminster 1931, vestigial constitutional links had remained in place.
The British Parliament retained the power to amend key Canadian constitutional statutes, meaning that effectively an act of the British Parliament was required to make certain changes to the Canadian Constitution.
The British Parliament also had the power to pass laws extending to Canada at Canadian request.
Although no longer able to pass any laws that would apply as Australian Commonwealth law, the British Parliament retained the power to legislate for the individual Australian States.
With regard to New Zealand, the British Parliament retained the power to pass legislation applying to New Zealand with the New Zealand Parliament's consent.
The act ended the need for British involvement in changes to the Canadian constitution.
Similarly, the Australia Act 1986 (effective 3 March 1986) severed the constitutional link between Britain and the Australian states, while New Zealand's Constitution Act 1986 (effective 1 January 1987) reformed the constitution of New Zealand to sever its constitutional link with Britain.
On 1 January 1984, Brunei, Britain's last remaining Asian protectorate, was granted independence.
Independence had been delayed due to the opposition of the Sultan, who had preferred British protection.
In September 1982 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, travelled to Beijing to negotiate with the Chinese government, on the future of Britain's last major and most populous overseas territory, Hong Kong.
Under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and 1860 Convention of Peking, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula had been respectively ceded to Britain in perpetuity, but the vast majority of the colony was constituted by the New Territories, which had been acquired under a 99-year lease in 1898, due to expire in 1997.
Thatcher, seeing parallels with the Falkland Islands, initially wished to hold Hong Kong and proposed British administration with Chinese sovereignty, though this was rejected by China.
A deal was reached in 1984—under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong would become a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, maintaining its way of life for at least 50 years.
Britain retains sovereignty over 14 territories outside the British Isles.
Sixteen Commonwealth realms voluntarily continue to share the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as their head of state.
These sixteen nations are distinct and equal legal entities – the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
Decades, and in some cases centuries, of British rule and emigration have left their mark on the independent nations that arose from the British Empire.
The empire established the use of the English language in regions around the world.
Today it is the primary language of up to 460 million people and is spoken by about 1.5 billion as a first, second or foreign language.
The British Empire provided refuge for religiously persecuted continental Europeans for hundreds of years.
Political boundaries drawn by the British did not always reflect homogeneous ethnicities or religions, contributing to conflicts in formerly colonised areas.
The British Empire was also responsible for large migrations of peoples.
Millions left the British Isles, with the founding settler populations of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand coming mainly from Britain and Ireland.
Tensions remain between the white settler populations of these countries and their indigenous minorities, and between white settler minorities and indigenous majorities in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Millions of people moved to and from British colonies, with large numbers of Indians emigrating to other parts of the empire, such as Malaysia and Fiji, and Chinese people to Malaysia, Singapore and the Caribbean.
The demographics of Britain itself were changed after the Second World War owing to immigration to Britain from its former colonies.
In the 19th century, innovation in Britain led to revolutionary changes in manufacturing, the development of factory systems, growth of transportation by railway and steam ship, and communication by telegraph that spread around the world.
British colonial architecture, such as in churches, railway stations and government buildings, can be seen in many cities that were once part of the British Empire.
The British choice of system of measurement, the imperial system, continues to be used in some countries in various ways.
The convention of driving on the left hand side of the road has been retained in much of the former empire.
International commercial contracts are often based on English common law.
The British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council still serves as the highest court of appeal for several former colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific.
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British Empire.