Geographical Spread of the British Empire
British Empire
Early Elizabethan Voyages
You can read a full chronological account of the creation, administration and decline of the British Empire in the Timeline section of the website. The pages here are intended to analyse the empire on a regional basis. It attempts to explain the motivations of why the Empire was successful in some parts of the world and not in others. It attempts to explain the myriad forms of colony and to differentiate between the formal and informal empire. Many parts of the world were not coloured pink, but British influence was considerable and vital in those places nonetheless. Often, the British felt no need to take colonies as it was seen as an expensive open-ended commitment. Colonies were taken at different stages of time for different purposes. Sometimes, they were taken for commerical reasons, sometimes for strategic purposes and often to forestall other rival Empires from taking them. Britain's geographical focus changed over time also. The first baby steps into colonialism were to take place by the then English Crown in North America.

British Empire
Sailing Times
The first exploratory forays by the English were to attempt to discover a North West Passage linking the Atlantic with the spices and exotic goods of the Orient. This resulted in John Cabot's discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 but little else besides. These were followed up by other explorers who all came back empty handed. Nearly a century later, Sir Francis Drake attempted to look for the North West Passage from the Pacific side. He failed to discover it but did claim 'New Albion' as a colony on the West Coast of America. There were attempts by Raleigh to establish a similar colony on the East Coast of the Americas but this with English settlers to start it up. Neither of these colonies thrived largely due to the antagnonism and hostility of Spain which was attempting to guard its own claims to the New World. A further attempt to establish a colony in Virginia seemed as if it would seriously collapse only for it to discover a light weight substance that could be sold at profit back in Europe; Tobacco. This crop slowly but surely transformed the economic rationale for settlers on the other side of the Atlantic. For the first time, they could afford to buy the supplies and equipment from Europe to allow them to set up and run the economy.

Over time, the English were to challenge the primacy of the Spanish in the Caribbean and were to take colonies in order to grow the increasingly lucrative sugar cane. Labour was required to help grow the sugar and so the first forays into Africa led to trading forts on the West Coast to help facilitate the acquisition of slaves who were then transported across the Atlantic.

British Empire
British Empire 1880
Attempts to move into the rich spice islands of the Far East were to meet limited success initially. The better capitalised Dutch were able to take the lion's share of the Portuguese trade and colonies and ruthlessly prevented English and French attempts to muscle in and break their monopoly on the spice trade.

The Eighteenth Century saw a shift in the focus of the British Empire from the Western Hemisphere to the Orient. The British had managed to displace the French from Canada during the Seven Years War, but their reward of removing the French threat from the hemisphere was to be Revolution just two decades later in the 13 colonies. However, as Britain was losing its influence in North America - although still retaining it in the Caribbean - it was gaining ground in India by the East India Company which was slowly but surely displacing rival European powers and becoming a force on the Indian sub-continent. Over time, the size of the economy and population of India allowed it to displace the Spice Islands and become the powerhouse of the empire.

The Eighteenth Century also saw the Royal Navy explore the furthest reaches of the planet as it sought to discover if there was a North-West Passage linking the Pacific to the Atlantic and also to see if the predicted Southern Continent really existed. It did not exist, but the British were content to discover Australia, New Zealand and a score of Pacific Islands in the process. They established a penal colony in Australia which would prove to be a catalyst for European expansion in the Pacific region in the following century.

British Empire Map
British Empire Map, 1897
The Royal Navy was to demonstrate its strategic prowess during the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars. In particular, the victory at Trafalgar illustrated that Britain really did rule the waves and helped usher in a century of British dominance. Various islands and ports were taken to facilitate the Royal Navy in controlling the freedom of the seas and to allow commerce and the industrial revolution to flourish. The following century would become something of a golden age of imperial expansion.

The Nineteenth Century saw Britain's interest and activity expand throughout Asia as Britain attempted to increase its commercial activities with China. Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaya were all taken to facilitate trade and economic opportunities in the region - especially between India and China. The Nineteenth Century also saw Britain's interest in Africa bloom as they attempted to control the maritime routes via the Cape and later the Suez Canal. As rival European powers expanded their own imperial interest in the continent, there occurred something of a 'scramble' which saw the majority of Africa come under direct European control in a remarkably short period of time. Britain's interest in the Gulf and Middle East also intensified for the same reason - as Britain sought to control access routes to and from their 'Jewel in the Crown'

The Twentieth Century saw Britain's Empire grow yet further in the aftermath of the First World War. It took control of many former German and Ottoman colonies as League of Nations' mandates. The first cracks in the Empire began during the inter-war period as Ireland sought to distance itself from Britain and her Empire. Rising nationalist tensions in India and the Middle East signalled growing difficulties in maintaining the world's largest empire.

British Empire
British Empire Map, 1907
The Second World War saw the empire very much in peril - particularly in North Africa and the Far East. The Fall of Singapore in 1942 represented a turning point in the fortunes of Britain's Empire as Britain was unable to provide enough resources to defend itself from German aggression whilst also defending South-East Asia and the Pacific from the Japanese. Ultimately, it was the arrival of American support and help in the Pacific region that allowed Britain to concentrate on defending itself, North Africa and India. It should also be noted that Soviet and American pressure combined to encourage Britain to relinquish control of its colonies and begin the decolonisation process. Britain had also made a number of commitments to various nationalists and freedom fighters in return for a commitment to aid them in fighting the Germans and Japanese.

The post-war World saw Britain quickly divest itself of its 'Jewel in the Crown' as the decolonisation process got under way. However, the emerging Cold War complicated matters as Western powers were reluctant to see newly independent nations become easy prey for Communist insurgencies and take-overs. The de-colonisation process was slowed down in a number of colonies until a stable government could be established or until insurgents were defeated.

British Empire
The Empire at its Height
The British withdrawal from Asia and Africa escalated in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in 1956. As the burden for keeping colonies escalated and the value of the economic opportunities declined, there was less of a will to hold on to reluctant colonies. The 'Winds of Change' speech by Macmillan in 1961 confirmed Britain's intention to divest itself of all those colonies who wished for independence as rapidly as possible.

The Empire steadily declined as bases became redundant and international trade no longer required the Royal Navy to guard the sealanes. Britain's military forces also refocussed their efforts on European security as NATO commitments took priority against a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The last significant colony to leave the Empire was Hong Kong in 1997 when part of its lease to China terminated. There are still some 14 isolated dependencies scattered around the world as a legacy of Empire - but these are generally islands which are too small or too isolated to be viable states in their own right. Otherwise, by the end of the Twentieth Century, the Empire had all but disappeared.

Sections to Visit
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Middle East
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North America
South America and the British Empire

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by Stephen Luscombe