When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, the British Empire was a loose assortment of colonies mostly accrued for reasons of trade. By the time of her death nearly 64 years later, the Empire had expanded to become a coherent and dominant show of economic and political strength. As head of state, Queen Victoria had presided over nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Union flag was raised right across the map: from the farthest reaches of North America, across the Caribbean, over large swathes of Africa, throughout the Indian subcontinent and as far distant as Australia and New Zealand. The cliché was that Britain’s influence, power and control was so far-reaching, so all-encompassing, that the Sun never set on its empire. And it was true.
“The loss of America in the 18th century, following the American War of Independence, had been an immense blow to Britain’s confidence,” says Sarah Richardson, professor of history at the University of Warwick, “and at Victoria’s accession, the British Empire was in a state of flux. But by the end of the 19th century, Britain’s existing empire had expanded beyond recognition, and colonisation had become a moral mission to share and spread British values across the globe.”
Powered by the Industrial Revolution, which had put itself at the forefront of global manufacturing, Britain was eager both to develop new markets for its goods and to secure easy access to raw materials from elsewhere in the world. The expansion of Britain’s industries, and the hugely positive effect on its economy, was dependent on the expansion of its empire. The result was a complex tangle of trade, politics and governance, with the traffic – both of goods and people – going in either direction. Britain needed raw materials and cheap labour; in return, it offered its colonies technical advances (such as the railway) and societal improvements, such as medicine and education. The latter, though, often came with the imposition of a certain way of life – and occasionally a certain level of brutality.
Expanding in the manner in which it did during the 19th century, the British Empire was significantly aided by the comparative weakness of other imperial European powers. Having defeated France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), Britain found itself unrivalled when it came to both military and economic power. For the next 100 years, it encountered very little military conflict between the great powers; the century between 1815 and 1914 became known as the Pax Britannica – Latin for ‘British Peace’.
The British Empire
16th century to 1900
The expansion of Britain’s empire is often divided into two parts: the first empire and the second empire. The establishment of Britain’s overseas territories began in the 16th century, and by 1783, its empire included colonies in the Americas and the West Indies. The first British settlement in Africa was made at James Island in the Gambia River in 1661. This first stage of the empire is said to have ended after the loss of American colonies in 1783.
But it was in the 19th century that a second worldwide British Empire was built, and it is during this period that Britain experienced unprecedented expansion of its overseas landholdings. By the end of the century, the British Empire comprised nearly one-quarter of the world’s land surface and more than 25 per cent of its total population. The last 20 years of the 19th century alone saw the Empire absorb 30 per cent of Africa’s entire population.
…and the fall
1945 to present day
The Empire began its steady decline in the wake of the two world wars, which had left Britain significantly weakened economically. Indian independence in 1947 had sown the seeds for change and in the 1950s, wishing to avoid the colonial wars that France was fighting with Algeria, the British government granted independence to Sudan, the Gold Coast and Malaysia.
Many of Britain’s colonies had already become dominions of Britain by the time the Empire began to decline. Canada became Britain’s first dominion, in 1867, followed by Australia in 1901 and New Zealand in 1907. These former colonies were, in principle, still attached to the British Crown, but were able to exercise certain agreed rights.
Most of Britain’s Caribbean territories achieved their independence over the next 20 years or so, with Barbados leaving in 1966 and the remainder of the eastern Caribbean islands in the 1970s and 1980s. For many, the final end to the Empire came in 1997, when Hong Kong became a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.
In 1949, the voluntary Commonwealth of Nations was formed, initially comprising eight independent member states, of which most were former territories of the Empire. Today, the Commonwealth is home to 2.4 billion people from 52 countries.
Listen: Priyamvada Gopal speaks about her book Insurgent Empire, which explores opposition to British colonial rule both within the empire and in Britain itself, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
A Tudor dream realised?
The notion of a British Empire was not a 19th-century one. It had its origins in the early days of the House of Tudor when, at the end of the 15th century, Henry VII commissioned explorers to seek out the most efficient way of reaching India by sea. One such explorer, the Italian John Cabot, inadvertently landed in North America in 1497, possibly coming ashore at Newfoundland, Labrador or Cape Breton Island.
By the time Henry VII’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I, reached the throne, English foreign policy was largely based on defence rather than expansion. Nonetheless, in 1584 Walter Ralegh was granted a royal charter to establish a settlement in North America, sending a group of settlers to Roanoke in Virginia the following year to set up a colony. It was the first attempt at the English colonisation of what would later become the United States.
In 1600, Elizabeth granted a royal charter to the East India Company, with the express purpose of trading extensively in the Indian Ocean region and beyond, an area where both the Portuguese and the Dutch already had well-established trade networks. The East India Company became extraordinarily successful, expanding rapidly to the point where it was controlling half of the world’s trade.
The East India Company was no mere commercial body, though; it blurred the distinction between trade and politics. By the turn of the 19th century – and aided by its own private army, whose number was twice that of the British Army – it effectively ruled, through the installation of puppet leaders, a very large proportion of India. The company also played a huge part in opening China up to trade, thanks to its cultivation of opium in Bengal, and its subsequent export to the port of Canton, which led to the two Opium Wars between Britain and China. The upshot of the First Opium War was the ceding of Hong Kong in 1842, a territory that would become a keystone of the British Empire for many subsequent decades.
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1833, the MP Thomas Babington Macaulay observed that the East India Company’s apparent raison d’être – trade – had become “auxiliary to its sovereignty”. However, it was living on borrowed time. After the Indian Rebellion, which began in 1857, the company was abolished, with the subcontinent coming under the direct control of the crown – known as the British Raj.
“When Victoria came to the throne, Britain’s most important colony was India. Victoria herself became Empress of India in 1877 and she viewed the country as the jewel in her crown”, says Richardson. “And it is really in India that you can see the foundations being laid for what’s often known as a ‘moral imperative’ for an empire – the idea that Britain had a moral obligation to bring its values of democracy and industry and free trade and all of those sorts of things to other countries. The idea of ‘civilising’ the people they ruled was very important to the Victorians.”
Britain’s stronghold in south Asia, both commercially and politically, was further strengthened with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the body of water that offered a dramatically speedier passage to India. In 1882, Britain took control of the canal from the French, a move that precipitated an expansion of the empire’s boundaries. Starting in the early 1880s, the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ saw the imperial tentacles stretch deep into that continent.
Having already colonised large parts of West Africa – including modern-day Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and the Gambia – earlier in the century, Britain effectively took control of Egypt, the country that the canal ran through. From there, expansion spread in a southerly direction, through Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and down into southern Africa. By 1902 and the end of the Second Boer War, the map of Britain’s African colonies and protectorates traced a huge swathe across the continent, from Port Said in the north to the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip.
Africa was rich in raw materials and natural resources, such as gold and diamonds. In return, it offered a substantial market for British produced goods – as did the rest of the empire, of course.
The empire’s expansion wasn’t taken as a given; colonies were often far from acquiescent when it came to coming under the rule of the British crown. Uprisings were a recurring motif of the Victorian imperial age, whether it was the Indian Rebellion that ultimately did for the East India Company, or the First Taranaki War in New Zealand (1860-61), or Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865.
Edging towards an end
Certain colonies that had been staples of empire for many decades, and which were comparatively peaceful places, were rewarded with ‘dominion’ status, making them semi-independent. Canada was the first of these, in 1867, with Australia following suit in 1901. However, and certainly in the early case of Canada, this new status was decidedly limited. London retained the right to overrule decisions made across the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
After its peak during the Victorian era, the empire began to recede during the 20th century, with the British economy significantly crippled by the cost of two world wars. Many of the colonies, protectorates and dominions embarked on a programme of national self-determination. In 1957, ten years after independence had been gained by India, Ghana, too, removed itself from colonial control, followed by the rest of Britain’s African colonies. Across the Atlantic, throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the various islands that made up the British West Indies also extricated themselves from direct rule by London.
From its height during Queen Victoria’s long reign, when a quarter of the world’s landmass was under the Crown, the British Empire had entered its twilight.
Key events in the 19th-century expansion of the British Empire
Across a span of just 100 years, British influence spread rapidly across Africa, Asia and the Pacific
1802 Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) is declared a crown colony
1808 The crown colony of Sierra Leone is established
1813 The islands of Malta and Gozo are formally annexed
1831 The colony of British Guyana is formed
1841 The colony of New Zealand is formed
1843 Hong Kong becomes a crown colony
1849 The Punjab in India is annexed, Vancouver Island becomes a crown colony
1858 The British crown assumes the East India Company’s governmental authority in India
1867 Three former colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Canada) unite to form the new nation of Canada
1874 Fiji becomes a British colony
1877 The British High Commission for the Western Pacific Islands is created
1878 Cyprus is occupied by the British
1881–1919 The Scramble for Africa: Britain controls territories in Africa stretching from Cairo to Cape Town (see map below)
1887 The Maldives, an archipelago of 2,000 coral islands, are taken under British protection
1889 Brunei becomes a British protectorate, Trinidad and Tobago became a joint colony
1892 The Falkland Islands become a British colony
1896 The Federated Malay States are formed
1899 The emirate of Kuwait becomes a British Protectorate
1901 The six separate British self-governing colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia form the Commonwealth of Australia