The British Empire: Its Colonies, Dominions and Mandates

At its peak, the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known. As such, its power and influence stretched all over the globe; shaping it in all manner of ways. This site is dedicated to analysing the history of the British Empire: The triumphs, the humiliations, the good that it brought and the bad that it inflicted. For better or worse the British Empire had a massive impact on the history of the world. It is for this reason that this site tries to bring to life the peoples, cultures, adventures and forces that made the Empire such a powerful institution. It is neither an apology for, nor a nostalgic reminiscence of the institution that so dominated the world for over two centuries. Rather, it analyses and describes the vast institution that so influenced the shape of the world that we see today. Whether the British Empire is regarded as a positive force or a negative force in world history is in many ways rather irrelevant, the fact is that it was a transformative force and we should seek to try and understand it in its many and varied forms across the centuries of its existence and throughout its wide expanse.

The British Empire was never a static institution, it constantly mutated, evolved and changed in reaction to events, opportunities and threats. The British Empire of the 1950s looked very different from that of the 1850s and certainly that of the 1750s and 1650s! It could often operate differently in a colony on one side of the world from a colony on the other side. Furthermore, the British Empire was comprised of an incredibly diverse set of actors through its many years of existence. Some of these were undoubtedly motivated by greed and selfishness. However, others were motivated by more benign concerns, although often constrained by the social expectations of the era they operated within. For many more people, their experience with the British Empire was purely transactional. It provided a framework and institutions that offered many people new opportunities, rights and abilities whilst others felt constrained within it or perhaps had traditional rights removed or eroded. This website hopes to make sense of this diverse institution that reached into so many corners of the world, provided a platform for such a diverse set of characters and which existed for such an extended period of time.

The Purpose of the Site
Eastward Ho!
Eastward Ho!
First of all, I would like to make it clear that this site is not a rigorous academic site. I am sure there are plenty of mistakes and oversights on my part; for which I apologise in advance. My interest in the subject is purely that of a personal journey of discovery; to give myself a reason to research what I regard as a fascinating subject. As long as I can remember, I have always been interested in imperial stories, films or histories. If I analyse it, I think that I am interested in the concept of why men and women were prepared to leave the world that they did know for one which was totally alien to them. Of course, not everyone had the luxury of choice; a decision was often forced upon many. But even so, I am interested in how people coped with starting new lives in exotic or alien lands with different cultures, geography, languages, etc..., etc... Often they tried to bring their own culture with them, although this did not always work as intended. Did they shape the destination or did the destination shape them? And what of the different experiences? What about those who went temporarily as part of a job or a contract compared to those who were trying to start a completely new life with no intention of ever returning home? There were huge population flows around and between the various colonies. This was an era before passports and immigration laws. If you had the means to pay your passage (or have it provided for you), it was more than possible for you to move around this vast institution. Many colonies would encourage migration in order to create a workforce or a sustainable population to inhabit and defend it. Indeed, what were the motivations behind the creation of the Empire itself? And who were the people who made it possible? These are just some of the questions and themes that you will find addressed around this site.
About the Author
My name is Stephen Luscombe and I was a teacher for many years. I am currently based in Plymouth, UK. (a port with major imperial connections as explained in an article on the site). I have also taught in France, the Middle East and Japan. I started the site in 1997 to try and combine my then two teaching subjects of ICT and history. I felt that creating a web-based history site would provide me with an excuse to hone both sets of skills. The rationale to start this site in 1997 was also at least partly inspired by the handover of Hong Kong to China in that year which I felt to be a particularly important turning point in imperial and indeed World history. At the time, the internet was a largely American-centric phenomenon and there was little on offer for the rest of the World. I do not think that I realised just how large and popular this site would become over the years. It receives an average of over 5,000 different visitors every single day of the year. It is currently over 20,000 pages in length and it grows insatiably.

Incidentally, I have written a page explaining how British schools have dealt with the teaching of history and how this has changed and evolved over the years. You can read that article here. Although the chapter on how Brexit may influence the teaching of imperial history has yet to be written. We shall have to wait and see.

I have been privileged to have been aided by a whole series of contributors over the years. I would like to thank each and every person and organisation who have been kind enough to donate articles, images or permission to use material. In particular I would like to thank the Regiment Magazine for allowing us to use images from their substantial library of magazines in our armed forces section.

One group worth singling out is the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association (OSPA) which is made up of members of the Colonial Service. I have worked closely with this organisation and integrating their stories and accounts of their time living and working in the British Empire. Much of their material can be found in the Articles section.

Can you Help?
If you have any material that you would like to add to the site then do not hesitate to contact me. Whether you have some old family photos, an article that you have written, a book or film review or whatever, if it is connected to the British Empire in some way, I would be delighted to host it on the site. Of course, there is a Facebook page where you can post short commentaries, requests or ask questions. The only rules are that posts are connected to imperial history in some form or another and that a high level of civility and politeness is maintained at all times. Otherwise, anything goes.

You can also help by donating money to keep this site operational. All of the material on the site is provided for free and that will always be the policy of the site. However, it does cost money to maintain it on its server, for the time spent curating the material and to continuously enhance the site. Any donation, however small, would be gratefully received and would help maintain this as a free resource for all who want or need it. You can donate through paypal here:

Better yet, you can become a regular supporter and pay a monthly amount to help allow me to dedicate yet more time, effort and energy on improving and expanding the site:

Regular Supporter Options:

Those with technical and coding skills may be able to help also. I would gladly take advice on the best ways of updating the coding and facilities within the website and maximising the reach of the material on this site.

Another way to help if you are a webmaster or blog writer is to link to this site - either to the home page or to specific pages within the site. These links help to promote the site on various search engines and so help others to find information on colonial topics. I am always willing to reciprocate if your site has an imperial connection or theme in any way.

What Period of History is Covered?
The Heart of the Empire
The Heart of the Empire
Defining the start and finish for the dates of the British Empire has not been an easy task. It is generally divided into two distinct Empires. The First Empire revolved primarily, but not exclusively, around the settler colonies of the Americas. These would be termed the Thirteen Colonies and would gain their independence from Britain in 1783. The Second Empire then developed from the remnants of the First - particularly India - and were added to during the Napoleonic Wars and then throughout the Nineteenth Century and even into the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It is this Second, predominantly Victorian, Empire that most people associate with the British Empire. This site actually covers both - but it is useful to be able to separate the two entities. I tend to use the convenient bookends of 1497 to 1997 which makes for a pleasing five hundred year synchronicity. The first date marks the very first overseas 'English' colony of Newfoundland claimed as they sought a route to the riches of the Orient through a hoped for North-West Passage. The 1997 date represents the British withdrawing from their last sizeable (at least in population terms) and economically significant colony of Hong Kong. This date is a little more arbitrary in that there are just over a dozen territories still directly governed by Britain scattered across the globe. I suppose the Falkland Islands represent the biggest of these remaining colonies and the 1982 Falklands War was certainly the last colonial war. It is actually said that the British territories are still scattered enough around the world that the sun still does not technically set on the British Empire. I believe that Pitcairn Island just about allows the sun to track over the Pacific Ocean and still be shining directly on administered British territory. Of course the sun never sets on the Empire on this website.

Stuart Legg's article: The British Empire - The Presence that Changed the World gives an overview of Britain's impact on the wider world. Tom Russell's article: Today's UK Overseas Territories In Context explains how the remaining bits of pink are administered these days.

What Period is not Covered?
Imperial Horizons
Imperial Horizons
Confusingly, the two distinct British Empires outlined above are sometimes referred to as the Second and Third Empires respectively. It has been known for historians to refer to the Norman expansion of their Angle-lands (England) as being a distinctive Empire building era of its own. This empire building would include the addition of Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the first establishment of outposts in Ireland. It does get confusing because the Normans themselves came from the North of France and so was it a Norman/French Empire or a distinctive English Empire? In fact the Normans were descended from the Viking settlers who themselves had settled in the North of France - so was it a Viking Empire even? This Anglo-French Empire, if I can call it that, would later be referred to as the Angevin Empire. It really began to disintegrate into the two distinctive countries of England and France during the Hundred Years War. Although even after that, England maintained a toe-hold in the north of France at Calais until Mary Tudor finally lost control of it in 1558, although the Channel Islands do still technically remain part of the UK. This website does not go into this medieval period at all. It does not really expand on the creation of Britain or the formation of the United Kingdom; the one exception being Ireland which had a profoundly complicated relationship with Britain and the imperial experience in general. I have regarded Wales and Scotland as integral parts of Great Britain, allowing for the fact that Scotland did not join the Union until 1707, partly as a result of its financially ruinous experience with its own Scottish Empire at Darien/New Caledonia. Ironically, the Scottish in particular would thrive within the opportunities provided by the British Empire. Technically, Britain should only be used from this 1707 date onwards, so the period of 1497 to 1707 should really be termed an English Empire - although Wales was part of that political entity.

Empire Day 1914
Empire Day 1914
Additionally, I have tended to avoid 'European' politics, wars and diplomacy unless they had a direct bearing on the Empire itself. For example, I have not covered any of the European campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, but have mentioned many of the colonial clashes and the hoovering up of French and Dutch colonies by the Royal Navy. The two World Wars are treated similarly. The reason for this is partly practical: There is not enough time to do justice to these huge conflicts in addition to all the imperial conflicts. But there is also a political dimension to this decision which revolves around foreign policy aims. The British took very few colonies in Europe itself and those that it did were mainly for use as naval bases. Its foreign policy for Europe was generally to ensure that no single European power came to dominate the continent. It frequently joined alliances against the French in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Russians in the mid-Nineteenth Century and the Germans in the Twentieth Century. Its armed forces were frequently called upon to serve on the continent, but it did not become involved in settlement or colonisation after the conflicts had been resolved. Europe was densely populated, it had a reasonably high technology level and the peoples there were becoming increasingly conscious of their nationalist and linguistic groupings. Besides, the fact that Britain was an island and that it had a large and powerful navy meant that it could afford to pick and choose its level of involvement and commitment on the continent and so it could turn its attention to maritime and non-European trade and opportunities instead. I have therefore concluded that it is best for this site to avoid continental wars, battles and politics.
What is a Colony?
Imperial Institute
Imperial Institute
This is not as easy a question as you might expect. They were basically units of overseas territory controlled by the British Government or organisations (or even individuals) coming from Britain. There is a full list of these colonies on the Entering and Exiting the Empire page. It also explains the basic classifications of territories - although there were many exceptions.

Company Rule - these were when private companies - capitalised from Britain - tried to set up their own colonies as private commercial concerns. They frequently found the administration far more expensive than they expected and so often turned to the British government for help - particularly when wars or rebellions occurred.

Colonies were those areas directly ruled by a governor on behalf of the British government and representing the Crown. The governor was responsible to the Colonial Office in London, although he usually had wide powers of discretion. These were the most common form of imperial control.

Protectorates were territories where the local rulers could continue ruling domestically but they had ceded the foreign and defence aspects of their government to the British. Theoretically, the British allowed the rulers full autonomy in domestic affairs although British advisers could and did exercise considerable influence over a range of policies.

Dominions were those colonies that were granted significant freedom to rule themselves. The settler colonies were afforded this freedom. Dominions were fully independent countries after the 1931 Statute of Westminster, although their Head of State continued to be the British sovereign.

Mandates were set up after World War One as German and Turkish colonies were passed to Britain and France to prepare for self government on behalf of the League of Nations. After World War Two, the United Nations continued the concept but called these mandates 'Trust Territories'.

In addition to these five kinds of 'colony' there were colonies set up by individuals, missionaries and even - in the case of Pitcairn Island by escaped mutineers! Of course these are the areas that had some measure of formal control. In many ways, British naval, industrial and commercial supremacy was so great that it effectively held sway over an equally impressive 'informal empire'. The best example of this was South America where the Royal Navy was happy to uphold the US so-called 'Monroe Doctrine' as it suited British commercial and strategic concerns at very little cost to the taxpayer. In many ways, formal control was often extended when informal relationships collapsed or were challenged by other European rivals.

How Big was the British Empire?
British Army Recruting Poster
See the World!
Of course, the British Empire expanded and contracted wildly over the years. It became fairly large with the ever expanding American colonies in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, particularly after the defeat of the French in the Seven Years War. The American Revolution lost much (but not all) of this territory, but the expansion of British interests in India filled this vacuum. It really was the victory in the Napoleonic Wars that allowed the British to hoover up naval bases and create toe-holds across the world. These would generally provide the jumping off points for the massive expansion in the Victorian period. Advances in medicine, transport and communication systems helped make even more of the world accessible with Africa providing the last spur to European Imperialism in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century.

World War One appeared to add yet more colonies to the British Empire in the form of mandates. I have created a list of the populations and sizes of the colonies in 1924 a territorial highpoint of Empire - although economically the Empire would begin to enter its period of decline in this Inter-war years period. But it was still estimated at this time to cover between a quarter and a third of the globe and that it represented an area of over one hundred and fifty times the size of Great Britain itself.

The Second World War would see much imperial territory threatened or temporarily lost. Despite being on the winning side, the Empire would not recover from the geo-political shifts caused by this Second World War and would enter into a period of terminal decline. India was the first and largest area to be shed and then the Middle East and then Africa. Various Caribbean and Pacific possessions held on a little longer but most of these also went their separate way. The last of the major colonies to be lost was that of Hong Kong in 1997.

Theories of Empire
Historians have long debated how and why the British were able to amass such a formidable and expansive empire in the years since 1497. And why were the British able to supplant the Portugese, Dutch and Spanish Empires in the Seventeenth and eighteenth Centuries and effectively see off French, Russian and German challenges over the nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries? These debates still rage and there is no definitive answer. For students, I have put a wider range of factors on the Student Zone brainstorm boards but some of the more commonly stated reasons are explained below.

Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation

This was a popular combination of factors given for the rise of the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries. The Protestant aspect of Christianity was seen by many within the British Empire as part of the larger battle with the more 'Catholic' nations of Continental Europe. Ever since the Reformation, religion represented not merely a spiritual difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches but was part of a far larger cultural and political competition between deadly rivals. Portugal, Spain and France were the Catholic nations who developed successful commercial empires before the English (and Dutch) were able to do so. Religion gave an excuse for this commercial rivalry to turn into military and political competition. The very success of the Protestant nations in challenging the Catholic hegemony in the New World and the East Indies seemed to confirm that God might be on the Protestants' side after all - although this did ignore the fact that the English and Dutch co-religionists were just as frequently found at the throats of one another.

Dividend Day at the Bank of England
Dividend Day
It was certainly helpful that the Protestant work ethic meant that Christian and commercial ideals could be reconciled fairly easily and in fact was thought to manifest itself in the improvement and development of British civilisation in general. In pre-industrial Britain, the combination of the these three factors would lead to the creation of the settler colonies in North America. Devout Christians would look for economic freedom from feudal relationships in this New World. However, mercantalism and then the industrial revolution meant that this commercial aspect could take on a more sinister role as monopoly power, slavery or exploitative working conditions became a temptation hard for investors or capitalists to resist. It was reassuring to many such capitalists that they could hide behind the idea that by investing in enterprises and schemes around the world that they were serving a modernising and civilising goal and so their consciences could be clear in such a noble enterprise.

British Empire
British Empire
The civilisation aspiration could be damaging in its own right. It assumed that British civilisation was innately superior to those it was subjugating. Indeed, the very subjugation process confirmed the superiority of British civilisation! It then assumed that the new rulers were obliged to improve the subjugated peoples that it had taken under its wing with large doses of Christianity and commerce. Of course, this appealed to the positive aspirations that many Imperialists held for the future of a benign Empire. It offered a justification for Imperialism. However, it could also justify some of the more extreme Social Darwinist ideas of racial superiority and it allowed for treating the subject peoples as innately inferior.

In summary, Christianity, commerce and civilisation was a neat way to justify the uniqueness of the British Empire and yet give it a justification for continuing it into the future. It could also be deeply patronising and justified cultural imperialism and racial stereotyping and yet there was a surprisingly large dose of truth behind these motivations and strain of British imperialism.


East India Company Ships
East Indiamen, 1685
Mercantilism and chartered monopoly companies were becoming quite the fashion in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and would live on to the nineteenth in some cases. It was a cheap and relatively easy way for a feudal monarch to gain an income on the back of his nation's prestige and maritime exploits. He (or she) could give permission to explorers to claim lands on his (or her) behalf and then authorise certain companies (with the aid of Charters) to exploit the natural resources in that part of the world in return for a fixed income to the monarch. In many ways it was something for nothing for the ruler. He could provide exclusive (monopoly) rights to certain cronies in return for money, political support or promotion at home. It invariably, but not always, resulted in ignoring the rights of any indigenous or local peoples that were 'in the way'. If the political entity was too large and powerful then alliances might be entered into or the monarch might lend the company the support of his nation's military wings. The Spanish and Portugese long used this system of government, and the French and Dutch followed suit. It was to be no surprise that England (then Britain) would also follow this model - at least for a while. The Stuart monarchs were particularly keen on this economic model - especially as it seemed to provide the permanently cash-strapped Stuarts with much needed money. Over time though, problems did arise. Companies were often more interested in making a profit than in taking care of the people it ruled over. When rebellions or riots broke out, it was invariably the government who had to come to the rescue as the company's resources would be quickly depleted by long, drawn out and expensive campaigns. The famous 'East India Company' had to go cap in hand to the British Government to save it from bankruptcy but not before many individual investors and directors had made fortunes. They would sell their shares when it looked like trouble was looming - it was the small or institutional shareholders who invariably got caught out - or the British taxpayer!

Slavery would show just how exploitative and morally bankrupt this system could descend to. Plantations needed labour and labour was available, relatively cheaply, in West Africa. It was when slaves started revolting and rising up in rebellions that questions were asked back in Britain - why precisely was the government spending money and resources supporting slave owners against slaves? They had not shared the profits in the 'good' years, why should British taxpayers support them now that they were suffering? Surely it was their own problem? Non-conformist Christians in particular found it easier to challenge the status quo of slavery when their moral arguments were joined by these no less tricky economic ones.

Technological and Industrial Superiority

Scientific Wonder
The British had no monopoly on technological innovation. Gunpowder, the printing press, navigational equipment were all developed and improved on the continent or further afield yet. Europe from the fifteenth century onwards was becoming a dynamic place where new ideas were swirling around with unnatural haste. Britain was benefitting from this much wider European Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment and yet it was also in a position to take these ideas, and many others, much further as it would become the first nation to harness the power of steam which in turn would unleash an Industrial Revolution and an avalanche of high quality, mass-produced goods that would flood markets all around the world. They, in turn, would provide a technology gap that non-European nations would find difficult to compete with. Precision-made muskets, rifles, machine guns, train locomotives, steam ships would provide the relatively small and over-stretched British armed forces with unparalleled advantages. They could take on vastly larger (and possibly braver) enemies and yet beat them off, subdue and suppress them. British weaponry was very effective and its communication systems allowed it to shepherd its meagre resources to devastating effect and even its medical resources would improve enough to allow its soldiers and sailors to penetrate deeper and more inaccessible areas. Britain was not the only nation to enjoy a technological advantage over non-European nations, but its combination of industrial might, commercial prowess and maritime power meant that it had a peculiar advantage and one that would not be challenged until the development of guerilla warfare and tactics in the Twentieth Century.

Strategic Imperatives

Sir John Seeley once stated that the British Empire was acquired in a 'fit of absent-mindedness'. What he meant by this was that the Empire was acquired for a variety of reasons that did not add up to a coherent whole.

British Empire Stamp
British Empire Stamp
He also had in mind the fact that new colonies were being added in order to defend existing colonies and borders. The best example of this might be the colony of India. It was certainly regarded as the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire but it also meant that a surprising number of supporting colonies would be added to guard the so-called 'Jewel' itself or the routes to and from the Jewel. For example, the British were keen to take control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars to secure the main sea route to India. Likewise, islands like St. Helena, Mauritius and the coastline of Aden were all added for similar reasons. Of course, when the Suez Canal was opened in the 1869, it was not long before the British took a controlling interest in the Suez Canal Company and soon became involved in controlling the Egyptian administration itself as this new route to Asia displaced the Cape of Good Hope route. Then, once Egypt was a colony, Sudan and Cyprus became part of the Empire. Even within India itself, British control was expanded from coastal factories to dominate the interior and then becoming involved in acquiring the Himalaya region to defend the approaches to India. There was a relentless logic to guarding the next valley, river or island that soon got the British involved in places that had little strategic importance except to the colonies that it already controlled.

Maritime Advantages

HMS Alecto
HMS Rattler and HMS Alecto
The Royal Navy would undoubtedly become a formidable military institution, but it was not always inevitable that Britannia would rule the waves. Naturally, being an island nation, ship-building and sailing would be important skills and industries to a country like England. But, Portugal and then Spain had got off to a far more promising start with regards to maritime domination of the seas from the fifteenth century onwards. They had come to understand the ship design, navigational and long distance skills required to explore and commercially exploit the routes that they discovered. The English were always playing catch up or were merely picking up the scraps left by the Portugese and Spanish. If anything, it was the Dutch and French who first challenged Portugese and Spanish control of the seas. This situation would not really be transformed until the Eighteenth Century. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 where the Dutch King William of Orange took control of the English Crown would reduce, but not remove, Anglo-Dutch rivalry. However, it would not be until the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763 that the Royal Navy would take on the far richer and supposedly more powerful Kingdom of France. This was also something of a legacy of the Glorious Revolution in that the Dutch brought sophisticated banking techniques (including the formation of the Bank of England) that would allow the British to borrow money to build a huge Navy. The idea of this investment was to pay back the loans once Britain had been victorious in the war. The French Navy had no such infusion of investment and so they were hard pressed to see off the challenge from the Royal Navy especially on the global scale of what was really the first 'World War' in that it stretched over all corners of the globe. In some ways, the French were able to get an element of revenge by helping the American Revolutionaries in the 1770s and 1780s in their humiliation of the British. But this in itself would be a false dawn for the French Monarchy. They had invested huge quantities of money to challenge the Royal Navy (and help the Americans to win the Revolutionary War) but without the benefit of receiving tangible assets to recoup this investment.
HMS Alecto
Reviewing the Fleet
It is not an understatement to say that one of the prime reasons for France's own Revolution was because their cupboard was bare after helping the American Revolutionaries. This of course would lead indirectly to the Napoleonic struggles between France and Britain. Napoleon would concentrate on his land campaigns, but he would be constantly frustrated or harassed by the Royal Navy. For example, Nelson destroyed Napoleon's fleet at anchor off Egypt in 1798 which killed off his Pyramid Campaign. Napoleon would try to combine the French and Spanish fleets to lure the Royal Navy across the Atlantic to allow him to launch an invasion force against England. The resulting battle of Trafalgar in 1805 became the defining naval battle for the next century. The British did not fall for the lure and ended up blockading the French and Spanish fleets instead. Once these fleets set sail, Nelson directed an aggressive assault that would destroy them and leave the Royal Navy ruling the waves until World War One and beyond. For the rest of the Nineteenth Century, there was no maritime power who could come close to challenging British domination of the maritime communication and trade routes. This meant that the British could hoover up all the outlying French, Spanish and Dutch colonies in the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars and could then guarantee the safety of all of these isolated and far flung outposts from at least maritime threats. Britannia really would rule the waves and this undoubtedly made imperialism easier to implement and international trade to thrive which also aided the industrialising Britain.

Population Pressures

Britain's population had been stable during most of the Medieval period (although there had been periods of decline especially after the Black Death). This period was characterised by a high birth rate and a high death rate - especially for infants. From the Tudor period onwards there started to be an upward trend in total population as birth rates continued to be high but life expectancy began to increase, especially for the better off. For a while, towns and cities could absorb much of the increase in population and indeed these people provided new markets and labour for the growing economy. However, as the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the Eighteenth Century the steady increase in population soon turned into a significant ballooning in numbers. This was primarily due to the fact that birth rates remained as high as ever but death rates began to fall precipitously. This was due to a number of factors including better education, more awareness of public health issues, improved medical care and better diets. Britain was the first nation in the World to experience this remarkable population explosion but it was also the country that had the financial, maritime and existing colonial links to enable a dispersal of this population beyond the shores of its own small island off the coast of Northern Europe. Some of this population dispersal was a direct result of nervous government policy to rid urban Britain of what they regarded as the criminal element. Hence, indentured servants were sent to the 13 Colonies and later to Australia. There were also formal schemes established to allow the rural poor to skip the step towards the already bulging British cities and go directly to new farming opportunities in places like New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Later, the settler colonies would seek to develop their own industries themselves and so sought skilled labour from Britain with offers of passage, employment and a better standard of living than might be expected in the expensive and crowded British urban centres. It should be noted that the Empire did not provide the only destination for such people, many migrated to the United States and South America for instance. However, British colonies provided a bureaucratic framework and a similarity of culture that appealed to many such migrants. The 19th and early 20th centuries therefore saw a sustained export of Britons across the World and helped establish an Anglo-based culture in the settler colonies in particular but not exclusively. Other European nations would undergo a similar population explosion, but by dint of being the first, the Anglo-migration proved to be particularly significant and played a role in ensuring that the Empire was well stocked with a sympathetic and largely loyal population.

Marxist/Leninist Stages of Development

Our Allies, The Colonies
One interesting theory to explain Imperialism was borne out of the works of Karl Marx. In fact, it is more due to Lenin's adaptations to Marx's writings that colonialism was brought into the fold, but it relied on the historical determinism put forward by Marx. Basically, he believed that human societies were travelling through economic stages of development before reaching the Communist Utopia where all are treated equally and all goods are distributed equitably. Feudalism was a pre-condition for Capitalism which in turn was a pre-condition for Communism. It was argued that Capitalism had the seeds of destruction within itself - capitalists would compete with one another as they strived to make more and more profit - but they would be reduced in number but becoming more efficient simultaneously. Eventually, it would be so efficient that it would produce all the worldly goods that consumers would desire, but there would be so few capitalists left that the wage slave workers (who were becoming more and more exploited) would rise up and seize the factories and the means of production. It was Lenin who had to adapt this theory to why a revolution might take place in relatively non-capitalist Tsarist Russia which was barely moving out of the Feudal phase. He basically added another layer of inevitability to explain that capitalist Europe was competing for the raw materials and markets that colonies could provide. It was this, he explained, that would result in the outbreak of World War One, as European nations desperately competed with one another for colonies and once these ran out, would fight one another for domination - bringing the day forward for the 'real' Communist Revolution. He therefore advocated staying neutral in the Capitalist war but was not averse to taking the opportunity to seize power in October, 1917 as Russia was worn out by the long drawn out attritional, total war.

Communism was an easy ideology to sell to poor, exploited and oppressed peoples around the world, Communist organisations and groups therefore became major resisters and opponents to Imperial regimes the world over - especially when they became tied to Cold War politics. Unfortunately, when agricultural or primary resource colonies gained their freedoms with the promises of a Communist Utopia to fulfil it did not take long for disappointment, cronyism and corruption to undermine and discredit Communism as a viable form of government. It may have given some people inspiration to remove their imperial overlords, it just could not deliver on its promises.

Informal Empire

Evacuation from Kabul
Evacuation from Kabul
Another interesting theory was one proposed by two economic historians, Gallagher and Robinson, who basically stated that the British Empire actually tried not to take colonies if at all possible. In fact, colonies were almost a sign of failure. They argued that the British were interested in trade opportunities and if they could gain access to markets and raw materials without the need for colonising then so much the better. They gave examples of British 'soft' power existing in the Americas, China and the Mediterranean area. These were areas where the British could do business but without the overheads and costs of administering and defending territory. The argument explained the late Nineteenth Century surge in acquisitions in being a consequence of having to respond to the aggressive competition with other European powers who were keen to take the lands, markets and resources for themselves and deny them to rivals as the world seemed to turn to protectionism. Even Britain itself was tempted by the Imperial preferences proposed by Chamberlain at the beginning of the 20th century. This theory would radically redraw the imperial map giving precedence to those areas where no formal British control was required at all.

Metropolitan Domination

One theory for Britain's domination of the large slices of the world was described as Britain being able to have taken in the resources of the various colonies in form of goods, capital, science and populations and then reallocated them more efficiently using the institutions and condensed political power available in the mother country (the Metropole) and especially those in London. This theory is based on the idea of the strong central government, educational, commercial and financial institutions which mutually reinforced one another and used the resources of the empire to further enrich themselves and build up an ever stronger competitive advantage - economically, strategically and politically. It believed that the institutions used their wealth and power to guard their positions of power and to further their own interests using the Empire as a conduit or arena in which to exercise their talents and power. In this model, the periphery colonies were at the tender mercies of the dominant metropole and had little local control over their destinies but had merely to respond to orders and directions from the centre.

Complex Patchwork of Interacting and Dynamic Agencies

Coming somewhat full circle in the debate is the idea that the Empire was a far more complex, ad hoc collection of competing, dynamic collection of agencies, individuals and companies which had no set agenda but found the Empire a convenient arena in which to forward their own interests. Unlike the Metropole example above, this theory believed that the actors could literally come from all over the globe, including native peoples or their rulers and had no fixed example of what the Empire should be like. This theory sees the variety of colonial governments, forms and institutions as evidence of a far more haphazard but flexible approach to the concept of what constituted empire. Some actors were happy to remain on the fringes of a free trade empire, others lobbied for inclusion in a far more centralised form of administration. Some wished to benefit from the protection that the Empire could provide, others used the colonial experience only so long as it was useful to their ends and then jettisoned it when it had outlived its purpose. This theory believes that the empire was a complex intermingling of motives, attitudes and purposes. It also believes that the localisation of these concerns means that a much more nuanced appraisal of Empire is possible as successes and failures can be itemised and broken up regionally and by era. Empire was useful to some groups or colonies at some points in time but exploitative or damaging at others. Using this theory, it is less a zero-sum game of saying that Empire was a 'good' or 'bad' thing as in some other theories.

Combination of Factors

Of course, there is rarely a single answer to the complicated realities of politics, economics and military rivalry. There is probably no single reason to explain how Britain created such a vast institution. Various isolated reasons, advantages and localised situations would combine to create a series of justifications for seizing isolated colonies that combined to form the huge and expansive British Empire.

Historians have debated the motivations and justifications for these processes for pretty much as long as their has been an empire itself! If you would like to follow the historiography and debates on the the British Empire over the years please take a look at the Library section.

Administration of Empire
The British Empire was certainly not a harmonized nor a homogenous institution. The various ways that it acquired responsibilities for large tracts of the World's landmass and populations meant that it dealt with administration and governance in an equally haphazard, changing and evolving way. In the earliest stages, boards and trustees of companies were as likely to be responsbile for the effective governance of their far flung trading stations and concerns. The most famous example of this was the East India Company which found that the business of government could be just as profitable as that of trade with the steady flow of taxes pleasing the accountants back in London - at least in the short term. Over time, rebellions, natural disasters and wars stretched the financial abilities of these early Chartered Companies to breaking point and beyond.

Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I established the precedent that she would extend the protection of the Crown to any of her subjects wherever in the world they should live. This was as a result of claims to land made in the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh - however unsuccessful these early attempts were. This principle was continued by James I and all subsequent monarchs. However, this theoretical protection was often undermined by the distances and time required to lodge petitions and by their likely unfamiliarity in the way that the Royal Court worked. In general, a sympathetic and well connected person would have to bring the plight of any particular group of native peoples to the attention of the monarch and this would often be weighed against the influence of those connected with interested commercial concerns. Additionally, over time, Parliament exerted more and more influence over affairs in the colonies as the power of British monarchs steadily declined over the coming centuries. Both Monarchs and the British Parliament found out for themselves that the rights of settlers and the rights of indigenous populations frequently were at odds with one another. Occasionally a monarch found himself supporting one group whilst Parliament another. These divergent views on rights and responsibilities were later exacerbated with when settler colonies were granted their own Parliaments in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The British Monarch, British Parliament and settler Parliaments could all see issues through a different lense and could find themselves disagreeing on important issues especially like land allocation and the treatment of indigenous populations.

Back in the Seventeenth Century, even when the government was interested in imperial affairs it still tended to revolve around revenue and profit as the establishment of 'The Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations' in 1621 by King James I attested. He was more concerned at why income and trade was declining and administration costs were rising rather than any of the rights and responsibilities of either settlers or indigenous populations. This was effectively a temporary committee of the King's Privy Council - but it got caught up in the mid-Seventeenth Century upheavals that saw the country descend into Civil War and found itself increasingly sidelined and ineffectual.

1660 saw Charles II relaunch something similar with the creation of 'The Council of Foreign Plantations'. This Council had specific responsibility for the Americas and the Caribbean which were the most important concerns at the time. This was demonstrated in 1675 when they began the process of trying to harmonise the various colonies into Royal ones. They successfully brought New Hampshire under Crown governance, they modified William Penn's Charter and refused to reissue Plymouth Colony's more egalitarian Charter. This culminated in the creation of the Dominion of New England in 1685 which saw a single Crown colony for much of the North-Eastern seaboard.

1696 saw the Council modified into a more professional organisation with the appointment of paid commissioners for the first time by King William III. These were given the title 'The Lords Commissioners of Trade and Foreign Plantations' although they were more commonly known as the 'Lords of Trade'.

Two convulsions in the second half of the Eighteenth Century fundamentally altered Britain's relationship to its colonies. The first was the American War for Independence. Problems in the Americas saw the creation of 'A Secretary of State for the Colonies' for the very first time. This post only lasted until 1782 when it was obvious that attempts to retain the 13 colonies had failed. However, it established a precedent for assigning responsibility for colonial affairs which would be revisited in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the British government divided the duties of its two principal Secretaries of State into 'Home' and 'Foreign'. Colonial affairs were given as a responsibility to the Home Secretary in a branch of the department called 'The Office for Plantations'. with its own Under-Secretary. The American Revolution did have another consequence as the British government sought to avert something similar happening in India. From 1773 onwards, the British government sought to increase its oversight of the East India Company - especially as news and examples of incompetence and greed by EIC office holders came to light. The British government gradually gave more responsibilities to the Company in return for financial, political and military support. This culminated in 1784 with a Board of Control to oversee the activities of the EIC.

The second convulsion to alter Britain's relationship to its colonies was that of Revolution in France followed by the Napoleonic wars. As the threat of Revolution spiralled beyond France's and then the Continent's borders, so the colonies became the responsibility of the Secretary of State for War. This was formalised in 1801 with the title of 'The Secretary of State for War and the Colonies'. As the Empire grew in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars so there was seen the need to create a Permanent Under-Secretary for the Colonies from 1825 onwards. 1837 saw the first attempts at regulating the conduct of imperial officials with the publication of "Colonial Regulations" relating to "His Majesty's Colonial Service". However, each colony was responsible for hiring its own personnel and remunerating them accordingly.

The Departments of War and the Colonies were not to be formally separated until 1854 at the time of the Crimean War. By this time, the British Empire had spilled into South East Asia and the Far East and it was clear that the ever increasing institution required a ministry of its own once more. 'The Secretary of State for the Colonies' was created and remained as a cabinet post until 1966. The 'Colonial Office' peaked in importance with the appointment of Joseph Chamberlain in 1895 and was still an enormous government department until just after World War Two when it began its inevitable decline. You can read a more detailed account of the role of the Colonial Office here. There had been two main orgnisational exceptions to the remit of the Colonial Office. The first was to be 'Protectorates' which were initially under the authority of the Foreign Office until the first decade of the Twentieth Century. The second exception was to be that of the Dominions. In 1907 a Dominion Division was created within the Colonial Office but in 1925 a new Secretaryship of State for Dominion Affairs was appointed, albeit still within a single Dominions and Colonial Office. This joint establishment was formally separated in 1947 on Indian Independence when a separate Commonwealth Relations Office was created alongside the Colonial Office.

Chapel of St Michael
and St George
One bureaucratic innovation that was to have a profound influence on the administration of Empire was born out of the Indian Mutiny in 1857/8. This was the establishment of a separate Secretary of State for India and the creation of the Indian Civil Service from 1858 onwards. The 1858 Government of India Act meant that India was actually governed separately and outside the control of the Colonial Secretary. It was thought to be big enough and rich enough to require its own representation within the British government and to be able to sustain its own administration also. Entrance to the Indian Civil Service was to be by competitive examination which encouraged a high calibre of applicants and a high esprit de corps amongst those successful enough to pass the vigorous testing regime. The ICS were often referred to as the 'heaven born' or 'civilians' and wielded substantial powers across the sub-continent. They were famed for their apparent incorruptability which had been pressed upon them as a reaction to EIC administration whose corrupt rule had been held at least partly responsible for the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny itself. However, the reputation of the ICS was such that colonial governments in other parts of the world sought to emulate and aspire to the levels of governance and honesty exhibited by the ICS - perhaps the closest to come to this realisation was the Sudan Political Service which garnered its own formidable reputation. This was not to say that the ICS did not have its problems. It was criticised for having too few Indian members and, given their responsibility for law and order, often it was at loggerheads with the Indian Nationalist movements. However, its reputation for financial probity, professionalism and honesty impressed many who came across its work.

The Colonial Service, per se, was not a united service until after 1927. Up until this time, each colony was responsible for its own administrative officers and applicants had to apply directly to the colonial government in question. Initially, most applicants were bureaucrats required to help run colonial administration, but over time, more and more specialised, technical experts were required as foresters, geologists, educators, etc... were given ever greater prominence.

This increasing regard for the quality of administrators saw the creation of training programs for newly recruited officials. The first of these was inaugurated in 1908 in response to the sudden massive increase in African territories to administer. The Imperial Institute in South Kensington started a three month training program in law, accountancy, tropical hygiene and tropical resources. However, it was not until the interwar years that training programs were put in place for all personnel going out to the colonies when a unified Colonial Service finally came into being. Further information on The Colonial Service Training Courses can be found here.

It was The Colonial Office conference of 1927 which finally recommended the unification of all the territorial services and functional branches into a single HM Colonial Service for the first time. This new Colonial Service was divided into sixteen separate services. with each of its officers being a member of the civil service of the territory in which he served and also of the appropriate sub-service of the Colonial Service. The Colonial Administrative Service (CAS) provided something of the generalist bureaucrats whilst the remaining fifteen subservices provided niche specialist services:

  • Colonial Agricultural Service
  • Colonial Audit Service
  • Colonial Chemical Service
  • Colonial Customs Service
  • Colonial Education Service
  • Colonial Forest Service
  • Colonial Geological Survey Service
  • Colonial Legal Service
  • Colonial Medical Service
  • Colonial Mines Service
  • Colonial Nursing Service
  • Colonial Police Service
  • Colonial Postal Service
  • Colonial Survey Service
  • Colonial Veterinary Service

    1944 saw the establishment of the Devonshire Committee to consider a new look training regime for the Colonial Service in a Post-War World that saw development as more important than ever. These training programs became known as the 'Devonshire Courses'. The committee was seeking to professionalise the service yet further with yet more pertinent courses, further encouraging language skills, technical knowledge and providing opportunities to enhance officers' training at a later date. However, the timing was less than fortuitous as calls for independence and decolonisation meant that the Colonial Office would find it harder and harder to attract recruits who might wonder how long their careers may in reality last.

    The Colonial Service as a name was thought to be slightly patronising in an era of increased self-government and independence. It was therefore officially terminated in 1954 and replaced by a wider encompassing "Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service" (HMOCS). This lasted until Hong Kong being returned to China in 1997.

    The Commonwealth
    The Commonwealth

    Decolonisation took its toll on the rationale for the Colonial Office and by the 1960s the writing was on the wall for it as a major Office of State. 1966 to 1968 saw the creation of the Commonwealth Office by the merger of the Colonial Office with the Commonwealth Relations Office. This short lived Office was then subsumed back into the Foreign Office as part of the newly renamed Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968. This office is still technically responsible for any remaining Overseas Dependencies.

    It should also be noted that various professions, industries and agencies provided their own services and training for personnel living and working in and around the Empire. These could be as diverse as the Colonial Nursing Association, the Colonial Audit Department, the Overseas Service Resettlement Bureau, the Imperial Agricultural Bureaux, Cable and Wireless and Crown Agents to name but a few. Many of these services, but not all, were later taken under the wing of the Colonial Service or worked alongside it. Furthermore, the Dominions hired and trained their own civil servants and personnel. Sometimes, these were hired locally, but they could also be hired from Britain. Even those hired locally were often sent to British Universities or professional bodies for their training. It should also be said that anyone from the Dominions could apply to work in the Colonial Service and many New Zealanders, Canadians, and Australians did precisely that.

    The British Empire was a diverse collection of territories which evolved and changed over time as the personnel required to police, develop and administer them testifies. A complete list of all the Secretaries of State who had responsibility for colonial affairs can be seen here.

  • How is the Site Organised?
    A site this large is going to have to be broken up into manageable chunks and sections. I have tried very hard to anticipate the sections and areas of interest that might be needed to try and explain the many Imperial experiences. I have generally come up with a series of major sections which are laid out alphabetically on the right hand side of this page. Additionally, you can get to the sections from from the menus on the bottom of each page. If you cannot find your way through this navigation system, then try using the Search function.
    Copyright and How to Credit Information from the Site?
    This website has been created with the help of many contributors from all over the world. All contributors and named authors retain copyright of any written work or submitted images and photographs. Permission to use any such material can be attained either directly from the author concerned or through myself via and I will attempt to liaise where possible.

    If no author is cited on a page then I, Stephen Luscombe, am the author of the material. As someone who has been involved in education for most of my professional life I am very happy for any of my material to be used for educational, non-profit purposes. I would of course appreciate crediting the fact that you found the information on preferably with a link to the page that it came from.

    If you wish to use the Harvard Referencing system then this is probably the best way of doing it. If you wish to cite a particular page then if there is an author other than myself then the name is usually prominently displayed just below the title (occasionally it is at the bottom of the page). If there is no author mentioned then it has been written by me; Stephen Luscombe. The other problem is the date. The site has been in a constant state of update since 1996 so it is tricky to put a publication date. . I think the best way around this is to put the date that you accessed the page and put the publication date as this year. I pretty much refresh the entire website on virtually a daily basis.

    Your reference list should look like:

    Author, date, title of page [online], Website Title, [Date of Access]

    So for another author on the website you might use this as an example:

    Griffin, C. 2012. 24th Regiment of Foot [online], <> [Accessed 20/11/2012]

    If there is no author mentioned then it would like this:

    Luscombe, S. 2012. 19th Century Timeline [online], <> [Accessed 20/11/2012]

    Then within your text you'd refer to (Griffin, 2012) for the former or (Luscombe, 2012) for the latter.

    If you have any specific requests or need further clarification then do not hesitate to contact me by email.

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    by Stephen