The British Empire - Rise and Fall

Author: Robert W. Penry @ 2023

Throughout history, mighty empires have risen and then faded into obscurity.  The Roman Empire existed for nearly 500 years and at its peak, ruled most of Europe, the near Middle East and Northern Africa.  By the 5th Century A.D. (C.E.) it was gone.  
The British Empire lasted 200 years, and ruled over one quarter of the Earth’s population, and yet collapsed in a 20-year period. This article will examine the reasons for both the rise and fall of the mighty British Empire.
The British Empire consisted of the British Isles, ruled by England, the mother country, and also British Colonies and countries that were ruled or controlled from Britain or by agreements made or by military presence.  The historical viewpoint is that empire started in the 16th century with the establishment of overseas colonies.  By 1783, the empire was largely completed. 
How did a small island in the North Atlantic managed to rule one fourth of the world’s population?
What does a country need in order to build an empire?  I believe that these are the needed components.
1.  A strong central government.
2.  Ability to travel great distances.  You need large and fast ships and access to the sea.
3.  Diplomatic Masters who are able to control by manipulating local leaders.
4.  Ability to intimidate.
5. Be masters of ceremony and pageantry.
1.  A strong central government. Two dynasties were in power during the height of the empire, the Hanover and the Saxe-Coburg.  During the Hanover period, the real power lay with Parliament.  However, during the Saxe-Coburg (which became Windsor during WWI, Queen Victoria was a powerful ruler, loved throughout the British Empire. Eventually the Monarchy became less involved, and more ceremonial. Parliament was particular powerful, with a secession of strong, influential Prime Ministers.  
2. Ability to travel great distances.  England built one of the strongest naval fleets, both trading and military in the world. It eventually conquered the Spanish fleet, and emerged as the world’s most powerful Navy.  All of the major powers had access to the sea.  No landlocked empire ever gained the influence of sea-accessible nations.
3. Diplomatic Masters.  England was especially astute in this area, particularly in India making deals with local Maharajas.  The people would perceive government coming from the Maharaja, but in reality, it was England pulling the strings in the background.  This illusion made it possible to control large populations with a very small contingent of diplomats and military.  Later on, we will see how this illusionary power eventually led to the decline of the British Empire.
4. Ability to intimidate.  England had this down to a science.  If you look and act tough, the natives will think you are dangerous and obey.  This was especially true in India.  If you act weak, people will ignore you or perhaps even fight.  The colonial governors were usually strict, and laws and rules were always enforced. The danger lies if those being controlled are able to see through the illusion.
5.  Masters of ceremony and pageantry.  I travel the world and I always try to go native; I don’t try to stand out.  The British did the opposite. Instead of adopting local customs, dress, ceremony, and lifestyles, the British brought Britain along with them.  By this, I mean they dressed in English finery, brought in afternoon tea, cricket, and other English customs and expected the native population to adopt.  Fortunately for Britain, this worked very well in India.  The Indians were impressed and tried to become British. Even today, long after the departure of Britain, many of these customs, especially, polo, cricket, and soccer dominate Indian sports.  Another was architecture. One of India’s most famous and loved mausoleums is the Taj Mahal.  England copied it, by building the Victoria Memorial, a large marble building copying Indian architecture to house the British government offices and to honor Queen Victoria.  The Maharajas loved ceremony which the English encouraged.  Parades and pageantry were commonplace during the colonial era. The military parade uniforms always displayed medals and plenty of gold braid. All of this was designed to portray the magnificence of the British way of life. 
At the time when exploration, trade and settlement were taking place, countries as we see today did not exist.  The world was fragmented into tribal areas.  These varied in size but were ruled over by leaders of Tribes, Kingdoms, Principalities, Dynasties, or Clans.
Wales had Celtic Tribes, the Ordovices, the Deceangli, the Gangani, the Demetae, and the Silures.  These eventually became principalities ruled over by a prince, the leader of a family whose power was usually gained by conquest over other families.
Scotland had Clans.  These were family dynasties ruled over by a Clan Chief.  They were warlike, expanding their clan areas by conquering other clans. These resulted in many feuds, such as the Campbells and the MacDonalds.  Even today there in animosity between these two families.  
In 843 one clan became powerful enough to rule the nation, the Was Kenneth I MacAlpin, son of Alpin, King of  Dál Riata, a Gaelic kingdom of what is now western Scotland and north-eastern Ireland.  
Ireland was divided into many semi-independent territories, reported to be about 150. Each territory was ruled over by a dynastic family whose leader was called King.  Eventually, two main branches emerged as High Kings of the Northern and Southern branches of the Uí Néill; two dynasties who claimed to be descendants of a single historic king.  Only one king came close to being a ruler over all of Ireland, High King Brian Boru. Dynastic disputes continued and Brian Buru was killed in battle in 1014.  Warfare and disputes continued until the Norman invasion in 1169.    
England started as a series of Celtic tribes which were then conquered by Anglo-Saxon invaders, who in turn were conquered by the Normans in 1066.  Viking settlements along the North, and Irish sea continued until eventually being absorbed into England and Wales.  The ruler of England were dynastic.
Over time, England became to conquer and possess its neighbors in the British Isles.  Perhaps the first English colony was Ireland which was ruled by tribes until Anglo-Norman invasions in the 12th Century.  Wales was annexed by England in 1287 by the Statute of Wales. Britain as a power being ruled by the English Monarch finally occurred with the Act of Union in 1707 which combined England and Scotland.
By this date, however, Britain had colonies and influence throughout the World. It is impossible to establish a definite date for the start of the British Empire.  Some historians say 12th Century with the invasion of Ireland.  Others say the 16th century when British ships began sailing the seas and establishing colonies in the Americas and the islands of the Pacific. 
Empires are not built overnight.  They are built by
  • exploration, 
  • Settlement
  • trade, 
  • conquest, and 
  • treaties.
After the discovery of the Americas in the 15th Century by Christopher Columbus, European powers, especially England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal begin settling in the Americas and establishing trade centers throughout the world.
In the Caribbean, the major powers started claiming and settling the many islands.  Their control and influence still exist. Control of the sea was crucial and these powers began fighting for control, 
Earlier, British strategy and influence in India was covered.  This was not so in the West Indies, the Caribbean.  If we could define the British that colonized there, we might use these terms: pirates, gangsters, cruel, arrogant, and slavemasters.
The English discovered that the Caribbean Islands were perfect for growing sugarcane for molasses and rum, and tobacco, and cocoa, a highly lucrative business. Of importance were allspice and vanilla. Other agriculture crops such as beans, sorghum, peppers, pumpkin, eggplant, onion, melon, pepper, cucumber, tomato and yam, tamarind, cashew, mango, avocado, guava, papaya, and coconut could also be grown.  
The English quickly started a plantation society and enslaved the native population, the Carib Indians.  Unfortunately, the English also brought European diseases which just as quickly decimated the native population.  The English soon replaced native workers with African Slaves.  The English became masters of the Slave Trade which lasted until 1833.  And of course, the benevolent English made sure that the slaves were treated fairly!  Later on, we will examine how this treatment eventually helped in the decline of the British Empire.


Exploration and discovery and are not the same thing.  We tend to see discovery from a Euro-centric point of view.  Columbus didn’t really discover America.  The Vikings were in Canada long before 1492.  To discover a land would mean that it was a place uninhabited.  The islands of the Caribbean were occupied by natives.  So, the term discovery from the European point of view is to acquire possession.  Very little land was truly discovered in the sense of being uninhabited.  
Exploration means to examine something. Explore in the Euro-centric point of view is to visit a land and discover ways to exploit it.  
There were many British explorers.  British discoverers were few, easily named on the fingers of one hand.  
The most prominent discoverers:
  • James Cook 1728-1779.  British explorer, navigator, and cartographer.  He is credited with discovering Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.  He tried to kidnap a Hawaiian King and was killed.  
  • Francis Drake 1540-1596. British explorer and naval officer. Claimed what is now California for England which he called New Albion.
  •  Henry Hudson 1565-1611.  Discovered Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. Explored Canda, and what is now northeastern United States
  • Famous Explorers:
  • Walter Raleigh 1552-1618. British explorer, writer and politician.  Trips to both North and South America.  Introduced England to tobacco.  Responsible for the legend of El Dorado in South America.
  • David Livingstone. British physician and explorer.  Remembered for missionary work in Africa
  • John Smith 1580-1631. British explorer.  Founded first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown in the early 1600’s.


When Columbus landed in the Americas (perhaps on Hispaniola Island) in 1492,  he  claimed his discovery for Spain.  However, he didn’t realize that to his north and southwest were two huge continents.  As settlers arrived from various European countries, claims were made for the various mother countries.  However, no one country claimed entire continents.  More colonies were formed by settlement than any other method.  After Ireland, the English settled Bermuda, parts of the West Indies, Canada and the American colonies along the eastern seaboard.


The East India Company began establishing trading posts in India in 1600, and the first permanent British settlement in Africa was made at James Island in the Gambia River in 1661.   
Trading posts called “factories” were established Bantam in the East Indies and Surat in the Indian subcontinent.  Then in 1639 a series of fortresses were established along the Indian Coast.  At this time, India was not a country under single rule.  There were many areas ruled my Maharajas


When the British came to a new territory, the native inhabitants were not at the same technological level as the British.  It was easy to simply conquer them.  Muskets and swords and cannons are more formidable and powerful then spears or bows and arrows.


There is a dictionary definition of a treaty.  My own definition more closely matches the British idea of a treaty.  For the British, the idea of a treaty was to end a hostility and was kept until the British decided it was time to break it!  Seems harsh, but very true.  All nations follow this pattern.  Consider the United States treaties with Native Americans and Germany with the Treaty of Versailles. Besides formal treaties, deals are often made secretly.  Treaties and secret deals always favor the most powerful side.  These treaties and deals were instrumental in both the rise and fall of the British Empire and will be discussed further.
I lived in the British Isles for three years and observed attitudes and beliefs of the people.  I made many friends.  But I also had to occasionally deal with the arrogance of some. Even though we were allies in WWII, many soldiers remember the British “Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here.”  In Scotland, someone painted on the wall surrounding my RAF base, “Yankee go Home” but underneath that phrase, someone had written “And Take Me With You!”  My point is, at the personal level, friendships occur, but at the political level, nations can be allies, but that does not necessarily mean that they are friends. Treaties prove this point!
Britain, France, Russia, Austria and Prussia fought in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) for global supremacy. Two treaties resulted in 1763, the Treaty of Hubertusburg, and the Treaty of Paris. 
Treaty of Paris – 1763. For Britain, the part of the war in North America, the Franch and Indian War, resulted in the French losing its North American possessions, except for New Orleans and some concessions made for Quebec.  Britain gained Canada and most of what is now the United States east of the Mississippi River.  But Britain gained what would be an even greater prize – India!  However, the Seven Year’s War had bankrupted Britain which desperately needed funds. Parliament knew that the American colonies had funds, and since they were just a bunch of backwards yokels who had no vote in parliament, some really heavy taxes were levied on the colonies. Hey, we like our tea, leave it alone! This worked out really well for the British until the 13 colonies rebelled and kicked them out! Which leads us to our next treaty.
Treaty of Paris – 1783. (Yes, there were two Treaties of Paris.)  This one was to end the American Revolution.  This time, England lost its possessions south of Canada, and this loss, once again meant that Britain needed funds.  So, England sent Captain James Cook to explore the Pacific.  He then saw that both Australia and New Zealand could be great sources of income and also went on to discover Hawaii, another possibility, until he decided to kidnap the Hawaiian King BAD MOVE!  The native Hawaiians killed him.  
India, the Great Prize.  The 1763 Treat of Paris saw France giving up its influence in India, allowing the British entrance.  This large nation could bring, mineral and food resources, manpower, and prestige.  Britain had to find ways to utilize and control a country of millions of people.  Britian could not begin to muster enough military to control.  How did they do it?  They funded Indian military units to fight for Britain and furnished arms and British Officers to lead.  It worked.  Indian troops fought for Britain across the globe,and gave their allegiance to Britain. 
The British also made treaties with local leaders, the Maharajas.  The people would obey these local leaders, not knowing that Britain was in the background pulling the strings. In Calcutta alone, 2600 British were able to control two million Indians! Eventually, the British helped the Maharajas build magnificent palaces, and then stripped them of power, but allowed them to continue living ceremonially, keeping their palaces.  
The British also held parades and huge ceremonies meant to dazzle the Indians and provide the illusion of great power. Britain was a paper tiger in India.  This would eventually lead to Britain’s downfall.  Besides the palaces, Britain also built the Victoria Monument to commemorate Queen Victoria and promoted her image throughout India, almost as a demi-god.  The Victoria Monument was the seat of British Government and was often called the second Taj Mahal.  
Earlier, I discussed how Britain brought their culture to India, sports, leisure activities, afternoon teas, and English clothing styles.  Even today in India, sometimes it’s almost like being in England.  The people adopted the English customs readily.  This contributed to the ability to control and dictate. By 1770, the British has discovered Australia.  After the loss of the American Colonies to the United States, England needed to replace lost lands and in 1788 colonized Australia to be used as a penal colony.  However, England also encouraged emigration to Australia and New Zealand and soon enormous stations (ranches) were established to raise sheep and cattle.
Britain also exported its culture to other colonies such as Ceylon, Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritania, Bermuda, the Falklands, and the Islands of the Caribbean. Even today, the British influence the world.  The United States embraces British movies, and music, and even likes hiring people with British accents.  Hiring a DJ with a British accent is a coup for a radio station.  

Countries that have been colonial parts of the British Empire - Those in broad-face font are still part of the Commonwealth of Nations (former British Empire)


Bermuda – British Overseas Territory
Bahamas 1718-1963 Independent (Still British Overseas Territory)
Turks and Caicos – 1783 – British Overseas Territory
Belize Ambergris Caye  – 1848 (now part of Belize)
Corn Islands 1655 – 1971 (now part of Nicaragua)
Provencia 1803-1912) – (Now Columbia)
San Andres – 1627 – 1792 – Now Columbia
Jamica – 1655 – 1962 – Independent
Cayman Islands – 1661 – present British Overseas Territory
Antigua and Barbuda – Antigua 1632, Barbuda 1678.  Independent in 1981.  Still part of British Commonwealth
Barbados – 1627 – 1966 – independent British Commonwealth
Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis  – Nevis 1628  St Kitts 1713
Montserrat 1632- Present – British Overseas Territory
Anguilla – 1650 Present – British Overseas Territory
Tortola 1672 – Present largest of the British Virgin Islands 1648 – 1672 -Dutch
Anegada 1672 – “
Jost Van Dyke – “
Trinidad and Tobago, Republic (Independent 1962, Republic in 1976)
Dominica 1715 – 1978 Independent (French 1673 – 1715)
Saint Lucia – 1814 – 1979 Independent (French 1643 – 1814)
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Grenada – 1763 by Treaty of Paris – recaptured by France but restored to Britain in 1783- Independent 1974 part of British Commonwealth


Eswatini (formerly Swaziland?)
The Gambia
New Zealand
Papua New Guinea
Sierra Leone
Solomon Islands
South Africa
Sri Lanka



The Decline of the British Empire

Empires rise and fall or decline in power.  The Roman Empire fell – it no longer existed as an empire.  The British Empire still exists but has declined.  Once Britain ruled nearly 25% of the world’s population.  Today, it is only a shadow of its past.  It is still powerful.  Today it exists as the British Commonwealth, and contains In the British Isles – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Around the world it also has members – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tavalu.  
Membership in the British Commonwealth does not always mean that the nation is owned or ruled by Britiain.  Many are independent nations, but retain a commonwealth status because of tradition, commerce, population mix, or ease of travel.
Britain’s  possessions in Asia and Africa are gone.  Why?
What events caused this decline and loss of colonies?  Major reasons were war or revolution and populations demanding self-government.  Other factors such as advances in communication, modes and speeds of travel, religion, education, social discontent, and economics played a part.  Sometimes we can identify a single event, but every event is based on a number of factors.
Perhaps it is best to examine each country to determine why it left the British Empire.

United States of America.

The American colonies resented that even though they were heavily taxed and provided essential goods such as cotton clothing, tobacco, sugar and other highly important items, they were not given a voice in the British Parliament.  A number of protests were organized and several colonial politicians and political writers began to call for revolt, which eventually resulted the American Revolutionary War and creation of an independent  United States of America, separated from the British Empire.  The U.S. not only disallowed, but made allegiance to the British Crown illegal.  Some people still wanted to be British.  There were about 70,000.  Most lost their businesses and homes and were forced to leave.  Most moved to Canada.  Some went back to England or to British colonies in the Caribbean. 

Republic of Ireland

Republic of Ireland.  In ancient times, the population of Ireland was not high and land was readily available.  Deeds for land were not needed.  If a family found a suitable plot of land not occupied, they simply settled there.  As they had descendants, ownership was implied, even if not formalized.  
During the reign of William of Orange, King of England between 150 and 1702, many wealthy or noble English families moved to Ireland by charter assuming control of large amount of land called plantations.  The Irish were reduced to serfdom and had to pay rent to stay in homes that their families had occupied for generations. 
This resulted in great hatred of the English overlords and resulted in armed protests and criminal behavior.  
The first major revolt was in 1641. Under English rule by Oliver Cromwell, nearly 40% of the Irish Catholic population was eliminated by ethnic cleansing.  
After the American Revolution, followed the French Revolution, the Irish revolted in 1798. This resulted in a Irish defeat and even more persecution, especially against Catholics. This severe English persecution continued throughout the 19th century, especially during the potato famine of 1845-1851.  All of the British Isles were affected.  However, the English took possession of Irish crops, shipping them to England in armed convoys, leaving the Irish to starve.  It is estimated that 1 million died and up to 2 million emigrated, many to America. Of course, many had to steal food in the night, raiding English estates.  If caught, individuals were deported to the Australian penal colonies.
 During World War 1, the Irish again revolted, forming a provisional government.  The English could not fight a two front war and the Republic of Ireland was formed in 1919.  After three years of war, England recognized the Republic as a free state, but retained the six northern counties (Ulster) as part of the British Empire. Ulster has a predominately Protestant unionist population and with the Republic being Catholic, Ulster did not want to be part of the Republic of Ireland. 
Unfortunately, there is still animosity between Ulster and the Republic.  Private military units still make raids and religious intolerance is a way of life.  

India and Pakistan

Sometimes a reason for change isn’t complex.  The reason was Nationalism.  India wanted to do its own thing, without British interference.  Britain did not have sufficient military power to keep India from leaving. The Indian National Congress demanded home rule. As part of the British Empire, India was obligated to support Britain militarily.  In WWI, India could see no reason to be involved in a European war. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were major leaders, wanting independence and were imprisoned by the English for protesting.  However, Gandhi, the pacifist, became the most powerful figure in India. England wanted America to step in help suppress India, but President Roosevelt made it clear that American soldiers would not be used to save the British Empire. This was the Atlantic Charter which meant that Britain alone was not powerful enough to dominate India. In 1947, India and Pakistan were granted full independence.


In the early 1800’s, India was probably Britain’s most important colony, a great source of food and minerals.  The countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan lies northwest of India.  To the north Afghanistan was the mighty Russian Empire. Britain was fearful of how Russia was trying to influence Afghanistan and saw this a major threat to Britain’s foreign policy and influence.  
In 1839, the British India declared war on Afghanistan in an attempt to replace the ruler with one that was pro-British. The 1st Anglo-Afghan War last for three years. There was succession of rulers and peace was not achieved.  In 1878 Britain started a second Anglo-Afghan was which ended in the treaty of Gandamak of 1879, which gave the British government protectorate power to control Afghanistan’s foreign policies.  in 1919 a third Anglo-Afghan War broke out which concluded with full Afghan independence.  A major problem during the 100 years of Britain’s over-site was that Britain was never able to control the internal power struggles between rival groups.


The British first entered Burma in 1824 and conquered the Burmese by a series of Anglo-Burmese Wars.  Burma was important in British commerce since its position in the ocean placed it squarely between India and China.  India began in influence the culture of Burma and still does. Its location also made it an early country to adopt Buddhism.  
Burma began to expand in regions close to India, which resulted in armed conflict. Burma was not a single country.  Burmese ethnic groups often combined forces to fight the British. Different regions had different rulers. This made British control difficult.  Burma also has a very inhospitable climate and geography.  There are the Himalayan mountain ranges, jungles and rivers.  
World War II is probably the greatest factor in Britain’s eventual loss of Burma.  The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 and expelled British, Indian, and Chinese forces.  In 1944, the allied forces (Britain, the USA and others) invaded Burma, driving out the Japanese.  After WWII, Burma declared independence in 1948.


British control of Egypt only lasted from 1882 until 1956.  In 1882, Britain conquered Egypt in the Anglo-Egyptian War and had occupational troops there constantly.  What is interesting that they had no legal basis.  Egypt was part of the ottoman Empire and technically was not part of the British Empire. This de-facto protectorate was legitimized in 1814 when the Ottoman Empire joined with the Central Powers in WWI.  
Egypt was ruled by Sultans and in 1922 British declared Egypt independent, but continued in the protectorate status.  In 1936 a treaty was signed which allowed British Troops to be in Egypt to protect the Suez canal.  Egypt was attacked by Libya (an ally of Italy) in WWII, even though Egypt was neutral.  
A coup in 1952 caused Britain to agree to withdraw its troops, but Britain went to war with Egypt  in 1956 over control of the Suez canal, but had to back down because no country would lend support to Britain’s attempt to control the canal.  This ended British power in Egypt. 
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