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Overview of the British Empire


British Empire Study Guide—Printable Version

British Influence on World History

The influence of the British Empire on the modern world can hardly be overstated. It was the birthplace of modern parliamentary democracy. The industrial revolution and scientific revolution occurred predominantly within its bounds. The ideas of free-trade, globalism, and modern capitalism were all conceived of and brought forth from the British dominions.

Battle of Rorke's Drift
From the 18th century on Britain dominated the fields of exploration and geography, particularly in North America, the South Seas, and Africa. Britain produced many of the greatest mathematicians, scientists, and inventors that the world has ever known. British jurisprudence is the basis for most western legal systems and British accounting, corporation and banking systems are the basis for the entire international monetary system. Even the United States, unquestionably the most influential country in the world today, is essentially a "spin-off" from the British Empire.

While America grew and thrived in relative isolation, Britain sought to spread its influence the world over and to "civilize" and "modernize" the native populations in many of its domains. These efforts were not always successful, but much could be learned both from Britain's failures and its achievements in its dealings with indigenous peoples.

In short, whether one approves or disapproves of various aspects of modernism; whether one exalts or laments the effects of British imperialism; the overall influence of British culture on the modern world is gigantic. The British Empire was a virtual juggernaut of modernization, for good or ill, and it is nearly impossible to understand the genesis of almost any modern idea, from capitalism to socialism, from free-trade, globalism, and industry, to scientific inquiry and religious pluralism, without understanding the contributions of Great Britain.


Rise of the British Empire

In the closing years of the Stuart dynasty, the English parliament passed two bills that changed the nature of British government. The Act of Settlement established that the descendants of Sophia of Hanover, would succeed to the throne after the death of Queen Anne, and the Act of Union united Scotland and England into a single nation under the flag of Great Britain. These developments greatly enhanced the power of parliament and during most of the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the real power in Britain was in the hands of the parliament and Prime Minister. The government of Britain, during its rise to a great world power, was therefore in the hands of an aristocracy rather than a monarch.


British Empire (in pink), 1907

By the time the Hanoverians came to the throne, there were already a number of thriving English colonies in the new world and Britain controlled several important trading posts in the Far East. Britain, however, by no means dominated world trade: France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic were all important colonial powers, and contended with Britain for control of unsettled regions. Almost all of the European wars of the 18th century involved conflicts between colonial powers and control of various colonies frequently hinged on European battles.

Britain defended her colonial holdings during the early 18th century, but it was not until the ministry of the brilliant statesman William Pitt the Elder, beginning in 1757, that she began to consolidate power, and dominate her rivals. He master-minded the final victory of the British over the French in North America, the conquest of Bengal and the Carnatic region in India, and the build-up of British naval power. A generation after these great victories, Britain's colonies in the Americas declared their independence. But even in this conflict, Pitt, who had given up his office by that time, defended the rights of the colonists and opposed the tyrannical measures of George III. Had Britain continued under his leadership, the American revolt may have been averted.

The turn of the 19th century brought a protracted struggle with France known as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Throughout the twenty year conflict, Britain continued to expand its colonial holdings at the expense of France, since Napoleonís forces were tied up in continental conflicts. By the time Britain and her allies finally prevailed against the French Empire, Britainís position as a world power was sealed. All of Europe suffered great losses during the wars, but Britain recovered quickly and for the next one hundred years was the worlds' greatest sea power, dominated international trade, and steadily increased her dominions. During the Napoleonic Wars Britain had gained control of many French and Dutch colonies and increased her territories in North America and Asia. The 19th century saw enormous economic and industrial growth in Britain, her population surged, and British citizens settled in colonies all over the globe. By the turn of the 20th century she was still uncontested as a global power, but Germany was quickly becoming the dominant military and industrial power on the continent.


Fall of the British Empire

The 19th century had been one of great optimism and promise in Britain, but by the turn of the century signs of internal decay and dissent were beginning to show. When the Great War broke out in 1914, it proved to be utterly calamitous, not only in tangible material loss and human life, but in terms of human aspiration as well. The great promise of modernism, including the illusion of control that science and industry had placed in Britain's hands, was beginning to break down as the dark side of technological progress showed its terrifying face. The British people, with their great faith in education and progress had all but forgotten how wretched even civilized men could become. The British, with their French and American allies eventually prevailed against their Prussian foes, but to a great extent they lost their reckless faith in progress, and with it, the will to maintain their expansive empire.

The British Empire was not defeated or over-run, but rather, it was lost as an ideal. The privileges of self-government were handed over to each of Britainís major colonies. Those colonies that did the best were those with best established British traditions.


Historical Divisions of the British Empire

The British Empire was a complex network of colonies spanning six continents, and encompassing dozens of modern day countries. For ease of study, the historical divisions of the British Empire include both chronological and regional divisions. The first two divisions cover developments in 18th and 19th century British history. The following five divisions each refer to a territory that was colonized and settled by Britain. The history of each of these territories represents a unique story in British colonial history with its own. The final division focuses on the Great War, later known as World War I, which ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the British Empire.


Historical Eras of the British Empire


EraDatesDescription
Foundation of Empire1714-1814First Hanoverian King, to Battle of Waterloo
Height of Empire1814-1902 Aftermath of Napoleonic Wars, to Second Boer War
Ireland450-1922 St. Patrick brings Christianity to Ireland, to Irish Independence
Canada1495-1947Cabot's voyage to North America, to Union of Canada
Australia and New Zealand1770-1931Cooks First Voyage, to First World War
British India1600-1902 Founding of East India Company, to Boxer Rebellion in China
Colonial Africa1770-1920Discovery of the Blue Nile, to the Union of South Africa
Great War1902-1922Prelude to the Great War, to the Aftermath of the Great War


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