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Era Summaries of the
British Empire

Foundation of Empire (18th century)     Height of Empire (19th century)     Ireland     Canada     Australia and New Zealand     India and China     Colonial Africa     The Great War (20th century)    

Foundation of Empire

(1707 to 1815)

Act of Union, to the Battle of Waterloo

The Hanoverís ascension to the crown solidified parliamentís ascendance over the monarchy. There were dozens of other candidates for the throne, James III being the most obvious, but he was disqualified on account of his Catholicism. Instead George I, the German Elector of Hanover, who spoke no English and had no knowledge of political affairs, was selected as king, his main qualification being that he was entirely under the control of Parliament. Since he was unable to run his own cabinet meetings, his leading minister Robert Walpole became the first prime minister of England, and much of the remaining authority of the crown transferred to this position. Walpole served under both George I, and his son George II. His ministry was generally peaceful but not notable for reform or expansion of territory.

Jacobite Rebellions—Although George I had the support of Parliament, there were still many Stuart supporters, especially in Ireland and Scotland. James III, the Old Pretender, led a rebellion in 1715, and his son James IV, the Young Pretender, led another in 1745. Both uprisings, known as the Jacobite Rebellions, failed miserably, but the story of the Young Pretender, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, has become a romantic legend. There were no further serious challenges to Hanoverian rule.

William Pitt and the Seven Years War—During the first half of the 18th century, both France and England were expanding their settlements in North America and developing their trade in the far east. In both locations, the long term interests of France and England were at odds and by mid-century had reached a crisis point. At this time, William Pitt the Elder, one of the greatest statesmen in British history appeared on the scene. He took charge of Britainís foreign affairs at a critical time, reformed its military, and during the course of the Seven Yearsí War (known as the French and Indian Wars in the U.S.), won several enormously important victories for the British Empire. General Wolfeís victory at the Battle of Quebec drove France out of North America; Clive's victory at Plassey won Bengal, in India, for Britain; and the Battle of Quiberon Bay under Lord Edward Hawke, destroyed French naval power.

The Seven Yearsí War made Britain the dominant European power in North America and India and gave its uncontested mastery of the seas. Yet this was only the foundation of its empire, and the struggle against France was not resolved for another half century. For the next fifty years, Britainís politics were dominated by wars and revolutions on four continents and the beginnings of the industrial revolution at home. In spite of these struggles, Britain grew and thrived, its population, commerce, and agricultural production all nearly doubling. George III reigned nearly sixty years, but, although he endeavored to hold power in his own hands, his misguided policies ended up costing Britain its most valuable colonies in North America. This crisis occurred in the first twenty years of his reign and for the rest of his years much of the real power laid with his Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, whose father had opposed the War against the colonies and urged Britain to make peace with the Americans. Pitt the Younger was almost as effective a statesman as his father and favored many important reforms to the British government, but he did not live to see them implemented.

French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars—The French Revolution, in 1789, plunged Britain into a complicated series of wars with France for nearly a quarter century. At first, many people within Britain sympathized with the rebels, but when the true nature of the revolution became apparent, Britain allied with other European powers to oppose the revolutionary government. During the first series of battles, from 1793 to 1802, Britain provided arms and support to various coalitions of European powers fighting against France and won many important naval victories. It was during these wars that Lord Horatio Nelson, the greatest naval hero in Britainís history, proved his mettle at the Battles of St. Vincent, the Nile, and Copenhagen. In spite of these victories, France was generally victorious in its wars with the European governments, and Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power. Soon after he declared himself emperor, the European powers agreed to recognize him and enjoyed a short period of peace before he began his campaign to dominate all of continental Europe, known as the Napoleonic Wars.

For many years, Britain was the only substantial check on Napoleonís power. Napoleon believed that if he were able to land an army on Englandís shores, his superior army would soon prevail. In 1805, however, the Battle of Trafalgar destroyed Franceís naval power, assuring that Britain would remain free from invasion. Though victorious at sea, Britain was unable to stop Napoleonís domination of the continent, and within a year of Trafalgar most of Western Europe was under his control. Portugal and Spain were still resisting the French powers, so the Duke of Wellington, Britainís greatest general, fought Napoleonís forces in the Peninsular War on the Iberian Peninsula. This front, which was active from 1808 to 1813, was Britainís main campaign on the continent. Britain also encouraged smuggling, provided financial support to rebels, and in other ways helped to undermine Napoleonís government, especially following his disastrous campaign in Russia. But it was not until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that Napoleonís power was permanently broken, and France remained in an unsettled condition for years afterward.

Exploration and Colonization—During the last half of the 18th century, Britain led the world in discovery and exploration, and its colonial holdings increased. Captain James Cook, the greatest navigator of the age, not only discovered Australia and New Zealand for Britain, but also improved the British navy by instituting standards of nutrition and cleanliness aboard ships, greatly reducing the risk of scurvy and other diseases. Other explorers of this age included Mungo Park, who traced the mouth of the Niger; George Vancouver, who claimed Western Canada for Britain; Alexander Mackenzie, who explored the far regions of Northwest Canada for the Hudson Bay Company; and James Bruce, who discovered the legendary source of the Blue Nile in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia).

The loss of the American colonies in 1783 accelerated the settlement of Canada and Australia. In the Americas, Tory sympathizers left the new republic in droves to settle in upper Canada (now Ontario). Britain first used Australia for a penal colony, since it could no longer send felons to the American colonies. British citizens also began settling in South Africa, which had been won from Holland in 1795 during the French Revolutionary Wars. The British presence in India also increased during this period, although it was still under the auspices of the British East India Company. Unlike Britainís colonies in the west, India was already heavily populated and English outposts functioned more as trading centers than expanding settlements. The British also held numerous island colonies in the West Indies and continued to import slaves from Africa to work on cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations there until the slave trade was outlawed in 1807. Slavery was finally made illegal in all British colonies in 1833.

British Literature, Science, Industry, Economics and Culture—The 18th century was very fertile for English literature. There emerged several notable English writers, including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first Dictionary of the English Language. Literary greats of the revolutionary era included Robert Burns, the Irish poet; Sir Walter Scott, the greatest of Scottish novelists; Edmund Burke, the political philosopher; and Blackstone, the famous jurist and author of Commentaries on the Laws of England, an authoritative work on English Common Law.

The British writer of greatest long-term importance, however, was probably Adam Smith, who published his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He advocated the novel idea of free trade and low tariffs at time when much of government revenues, monopolies, and money making schemes were tied up with tariffs and other import encumbrances. Although his ideas took several generations to take full effect, they eventually became the foundation of modern capitalism. Adam Smithís economic ideas combined with some of the critical inventions of the eraóJames Watt's steam engine, Hargreavesí spinning Jenny, Cromptonís mule, and George Stephensonís locomotiveóeventually set the stage for an industrial revolution in England which had world-wide repercussions and changed the nature of international commerce.


Height of Empire

(1815 to 1902)

Aftermath of Napoleonic Wars, to the Second Boer War

The years following the Napoleonic Wars were beset by domestic difficulties in Britain. The government had to raise taxes to pay off a massive war debt and post-war unemployment was a serious problem. Numerous domestic reforms had been put off during the war and the industrial revolution was wreaking havoc on traditional economies. Because of population shifting from the countries to the cities, there was a great deal of pressure to reform Parliament to represent newly populated areas more fairly. This resulted in the Reform act of 1832, which enfranchised thousands of middle class citizens and better represented the citizenry. Other important reforms implemented after the war years were Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery in the colonies.

Victorian Era—The Victorian era, lasting from 1837 to the close of the 19th century, was the heyday of the British Empire. During this time, the population of all Britainís colonies increased, both from local growth and migration from the motherland. Land in Canada, Australia, and South Africa was cheap and any landless Englishman who could afford passage could become established in the new colonies. Manufactured goods were becoming inexpensive, trade thrived, and a reasonably prosperous middle class was becoming a predominant political power. Rail travel became widely available, making transportation to and development of the coloniesí interior regions much easier than before. Science and technology both yielded great discoveries, increasing mankind's understanding of his physical world, and new ideas of change and progress were coming into conflict with traditional beliefs and ways of life.

During this same prosperous time, some of the difficulties of governing such a large and diverse empire were becoming apparent on both the domestic and international fronts. Although the decades following the Napoleonic War were relatively peaceful, by the mid-19th century Britain became involved in a series of wars in China, Afghanistan, the Crimea, India, Burma, Egypt, Sudan, Greece, West Africa, Abyssinia, and South Africa. In many cases, these wars were required to maintain Britain's dominion over unruly native populations, but they were not always popular either in Britain's colonial regions or at home.

Politics and Culture—In the realm of domestic politics, the beginning of Queen Victoriaís reign coincided very nearly with the beginning of the new reformed parliament, which was at first dominated by Whigs. The reform-minded Whigs made laws that restricted the abuse of laborers in the factories, encouraged efforts towards public education, revised the poor laws, and even abolished slavery in all of the colonies of the United Kingdom. Many of these laws were controversial, and soon after Victoriaís accession to the throne, the Tories, led by Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, were back in power. The conservative Tory party was becoming increasingly sympathetic to the concerns of the middle classes and lowered import and export duties to encourage more trade. The two most important political figures of this time were William Gladstone, who led the Whigs, and Benjamin Disraeli, who led the Tories. For most of the Victorian era, power alternated between the Whigs, who promoted domestic reform, and the Tories, who supported imperialist policies

The Victorian age was full of astounding genius in literature, arts, science, and invention. Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin, and James Clerk Maxwell explored electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics, while Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley put forth a theory of evolution that challenged accepted notions of biblical creation. Famous Victorian age poets include Rudyard Kipling, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Alfred Tennyson. Victorian age novelists included Charles Dickens, William Thackeray

Commerce and Colonialism—Adam Smithís ideas had taken hold of Britainís commerce-minded middle class, so free-market ideas that encouraged trade were becoming more prevalent in both parties. However, the tariff reductions of foodstuffs, or Corn Laws, which protected English peasant farmers as well as landed squires, were highly controversial since they raised the price of food for everyone. As a result, poor Irish farmers who could not afford to either buy or sell grain subsisted mainly on potatoes they grew themselves. It was not until the Irish potato famine in 1846 that the Corn Laws were finally abolished. This eased the crisis somewhat, but the Irish peasantsí grievances against their British overlords were great and long-standing. Britain had been oppressing Irish Catholics, and encouraging the settlement of English Protestants in Ireland since the time of the Reformation.

Now that the British middle classes had won some political rights, there was a movement afoot in Ireland to achieve self-government, which was opposed by those in Britain who feared the radical element. The "Irish Problem" continued to be a political controversy in Britain throughout Victoriaís reign in spite of the best efforts of some statesmen sympathetic to the Irish, including Daniel O'Connell, Charles Parnell, and William Gladstone.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain's international trade was the envy of the world, and it was by far the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. It had established trade (sometimes forcibly, as in China) with almost every country on the globe, and it was actively trying to develop its colonies by building railroads, encouraging commerce, and in some cases supporting missionary activity. However, its prestige took a blow in the mid 1850's with the Crimean War, when due to commercial concerns it took the side of the degenerate Ottoman Empire against Christian Russia. Soon afterwards, the Indian Mutiny broke out and was only put down at great cost after a series of disturbing atrocities. Following this were the infamous Opium Wars with China. While Britain achieved military victories in all these conflicts, the contention and controversies involved planted seeds of anti-imperialism both inside and outside British domains.

Colonization of Africa—Britain began colonizing and exploring Africa with the specific intent to avoid some of the missteps it had taken in Asia. In Africa, there was a conscious effort to deal fairly with the native populations and use missionaries to help "civilize" the inhabitants. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, was the first white man to set foot in the African interior, but other British explorers included H. M. Stanley, Richard Burton, and John Hanning Speke. For most of the 19th century, Britain worked actively against the slave trade and tried to keep peace among warring tribes. In spite of its best efforts, however, Britain was pulled into South African wars against both the Zulus and their enemies, the Boers, who resisted British rule. There were also conflicts in West Africa and the Egypt-Sudan region, where native warlords rose against the Ottoman-Egyptian government.

By the end of the 19th century, the British Empire made up a vast commonwealth and Britainís merchant marines traded with nearly every country on earth. Yet for all of its wealth and strengths, the Empire was strained by its very success. Increasingly educated and prosperous colonists the world over sought self-rule; Britainís military resources were stretched thin by the demands of a worldwide empire; rebellions and skirmishes among the native populations seemed endless, and some colonies failed to generate enough revenue to pay for their upkeep. At home, the governing class was becoming increasingly decadent, frivolous, and enamored with humanitarian ideals. By end of Victoriaís long reign in 1901, there was increasing friction between the advocates of liberal domestic reforms, and those of a strong imperial government.


Ireland

(450 to 1922)

St. Patrick converts the Irish, to Irish Independence

Ireland, like Scotland, was a Celtic country, with a different language and culture from its neighbor England. Like Scotland, Ireland had a long history of resisting English dominance. In spite of their similar heritage, however, Irish and Scottish histories differ significantly, particularly from the time of the Reformation. During the late Tudor era, Scotland became Protestant and Ireland remained Catholic. From that point on, Scotland and England, although remaining antagonistic on many points, were able to merge their countries under a single Protestant government and live in relative peace. Ireland, on the other hand, became even more doggedly Catholic in response to the oppressions of the English government. When Scotland and England merged to become Great Britain, the Scotsmen enjoyed all due rights of citizenship. The greater population of Ireland, on the other hand, was disenfranchised and dispossessed, and ruled as a conquered colony. For hundreds of years the antipathy between the nations continued. As one politician stated in 1892: "the condition of Ireland is universally recognized as the chief scandal and chief weakness of the Empire."

St. Patrick—Celtic Ireland was never ruled by a single powerful king, but rather by local tribal chiefs. Ireland's inability to resist Englandís oppressions was mainly due to the fact that the Irish, from their earliest history, were disorganized and disunited. Ireland never came under Roman leadership and therefore never enjoyed the benefits of an advanced civilization or centralized government. There were no roads, bridges, sewers, aqueducts, or public buildings of note, and the weapons and tactics of the Celtic tribes could not resist the organized armies of more advanced civilizations.

Saint Patrick converted Ireland to Catholicism in the fifth century A.D., and after that time the Irish monasteries were centers of learning and scholarship. Later, Irish missionaries, such as St. Columba and St. Mungo, helped spread the faith into Scotland. The Celtic church thrived until the ninth century, when, like all of western Europe, Ireland suffered from Viking attacks. However, the disunity of the Irish tribes made it impossible for the Vikings to permanently conquer Ireland, and the scarcity of booty in the impoverished country discouraged the worst depredations.

Around the year 1000 A.D. an Irish chieftain named Brian Boru arose and managed to briefly unite the Irish tribes. He is credited with driving away the Vikings, although most of his wars were actually against other Irish clans. He governed well, but subsequent kings were less successful in holding the kingdom together.

Normans in Ireland—One hundred years after the Normans conquered England, a Norman army was sent to conquer Ireland. The Normans succeeded in subduing many of the chieftains, but failed to actually impose a Norman government outside of a few towns on the eastern and northern coasts. Soon after the battle of Bannockburn, Robert Bruceís brother Edward Bruce landed in Ireland with a plan to drive the English out. The attempt enjoyed early success, but Bruce was killed and the rebellion died with him. Eventually, English influence decreased in Ireland, particularly during the War of the Roses, while England was involved in a ruinous civil war.

Tudor Conquest—It was not until the 16th century, during Henry VIIIís reign that England began to reassert its dominance over Ireland. Henry's primary objective was to bring the Irish monasteries and church under his control, and to obtain land that he could sell to his friends to raise cash for himself. He did not complete his conquest, and the matter was ignored until the reign of Elizabeth I. Once England was officially at war with Spain, it decided that having an independent Catholic nation nearby was a strategic risk. The prospect of confiscating Catholic land to pass on to English nobles was also, as always, an enticing motive. The Nine Years War in Ireland was fought between 1594 and 1603 and resulted in the exile of the traditional Gaelic overlords of Ulster. This gave England free reign to establish Protestant colonies throughout the area. Over the next few decades thousands of Protestant colonists moved into Northern Ireland, pushing the Irish natives to the south and west. At the same time, Penal laws were passed which discriminated against both Irish Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians, leaving virtually all power in the hands of the Anglican English.

Cromwell—When the English Civil War broke out, the Irish took the opportunity to rebel, and in the Irish uprising of 1641, hundreds of Protestant settlers were slaughtered. Eventually the native Irish gentry and clergy put an end to the killing and formed a de facto government that ruled until Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland during the English Civil Wars. When Cromwell arrived in Ireland he took a terrible revenge for the Catholic outrages against Protestants which had occurred nearly a decade previously. At the Siege of Drogheda he ordered the indiscriminate slaughter of every man, woman, and child in the town, and all of Ireland was under his heel within a year. Cromwell remains one of the most hated characters of Irish history, and his atrocities during the civil war era did much to fan the religious hatreds of the following centuries.

Ireland suffered much under the commonwealth, but worse was yet to come. When the Catholic king James II was deposed from the English throne, Ireland immediately declared for him and against William III. When the Williamite War broke out, the Catholics laid siege to Protestant Londonderry and the town was nearly starved by the time English reinforcements arrived. It was finally relieved when one of the English ships rammed through the boom that had prevented provisions from reaching the city. This unexpected setback sent the Irish army into confusion. The following year, the Irish resistance was firmly crushed at the Battle of Boyne, and the English victors took hard measures to punish the rebels. Penal laws were now passed which not only disenfranchised, and dispossessed Catholics, but discriminated against them in other ways, with the explicit intent to force them to convert to Protestantism or be driven to destitution. Instead, the Irish only embraced their Catholicism and suffered horrible oppressions rather than convert to the religion of the hated English.

18th and 19th Centuries—By the mid-eighteenth century, there was a large Protestant Irish population centered in Ulster and eastern coastal towns. Ireland, however, was governed as a colony, and inspired by the American colonists, the local protestant population favored an independent parliament, and Irish self-rule. Naturally, the idea of extending the franchise to Catholics did not occur to anyone, but the Protestant population, led by Henry Grattan, eventually won the right to hold a local parliament. Grattan was sympathetic to granting a very limited franchise to the Catholic gentry, but such proposals provoked a firestorm of controversy.

Soon after the establishment of the Irish Parliament, the French Revolution began, causing great consternation within England. The Irish Catholics were thought to be sympathetic to the Revolutionaries, and Britain feared they would form an alliance with France. Finally, in 1798 there was an Irish Rebellion, accompanied by desperate atrocities on both sides. Grattan's parliament was dissolved, and the government of Ireland was taken under direct control of the English government. Ireland was absorbed into the "United Kingdom of Ireland and Great Britain", and although the Irish Protestants were still able to elect representatives, they had to meet in London, and had virtually no influence within the English dominated Parliament.

Soon after the Napoleonic Wars, a Catholic hero appeared on the scene. Daniel O'Connell worked tirelessly for years to obtain the right to vote for Irish Catholics, and eventually succeeded. He did this by actively foreswearing violence and gaining support among Protestants as well as Catholics. His heroic stance did much to advance Irish sympathy even among the English, who feared the worst sort of violence were the Irish ever to gain political power.

A few years later, spurred on by the Irish potato famine, the English Parliament was compelled to abolish the Corn Laws that had done so much to create the crisis. Gradually, Ireland was granted minor political relief, but their desire for Home Rule was still violently opposed by the English and most Irish Protestants. Both feared that an independent Ireland would make alliances with powers hostile to Britain and become an intolerable security threat. Charles Parnell and William Gladstone made every effort for Irish reform, but could not manage to get a Home Rule bill through Parliament. There remained a violent and radical element to the Irish cause, which sabotaged the moderatesí efforts to work out a compromise.

Irish Independence—It was not until the midst of the Great War that another Irish uprising took place. This one began during Easter of 1916 and turned into a guerilla war for Irish independence. Parliament finally agreed to allow Irish counties to withdraw from the United Kingdom on an individual basis, meaning that the Protestant county of Ulster would be allowed to retain its British identity. Although unpopular with the Irish nationalists, the partition finally occurred in 1922. Even today, Irish republic includes the provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht, while Ulster is governed as part of Great Britain.


Canada

(1497 to 1931)

Cabot's first voyage to North America, to Union of Canada and Newfoundland

French and English began exploring Canada very soon after Columbus discovered the Americas, although the New World colonies were not settled until the early seventeenth century. The early explorers of North America included John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain, Sir Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin, Alexander Mackenzie, and many others, whose names are still recorded on the lakes, bays, and rivers of the region. Many were in search of the elusive Northwest-passage from the Atlantic to Asia, which would have meant enormous riches for its discoverers had it existed.

England's first attempt to colonize Canada was a failed expedition to Newfoundland by Sir Humphrey Gilbert during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was France, led by the explorers Cartier and Champlain, that claimed the regions of Canada along the St. Lawrence seaway. The earliest French colonies were at Montreal and Quebec, which were established as trading posts for the French missionaries and trappers who went to live among the Indians.

From the beginning, Canada was disputed between England and France. England controlled Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and the southern coastal areas, while France centered its colonies around the St. Lawrence seaway and the Great Lakes. Britainís domination of the seas meant that its settlements were better supplied and in closer contact with the mother country, but Franceís close relationship with the Indian tribes gave it almost complete control of the fur trade and easy access to the interior regions.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, France and Britain were continually at war. In America these conflicts were called the French and Indian Wars. These wars in the colonies continued even when France and England were officially at peace, but in spite of over seventy years of fighting and many heroic and horrible events, nothing was permanently resolved until 1759, when Britain conquered Quebec. Within a few years of that battle, fought between the British General James Wolfe and the French General Louis-Joseph Montcalm, Britain drove France from North America and took possession of all of the French colonies in the region.

Canada under British Rule—When Britain took control of New France, it allowed the French settlers to continue to govern themselves according to their own customs and allowed freedom of worship for all Catholics. One exception to this general tolerance for their French subjects occurred in Nova Scotia, where an independent settlement of Acadians refused to take an oath of loyalty to the British government. In consequence, they were forcibly deported from the region, many ending up in New Orleans. The Cajuns of Louisiana are the descendants of these deported Acadians.

The French-speaking colonies of Canada functioned as a British province until 1791, when New France was partitioned into French-speaking Lower Canada (modern Quebec) and English-speaking Upper Canada (modern Ontario). The reason for this partition was that following the revolutionary war, a great many Tory settlers had migrated to Upper Canada, and the two settlements were too dissimilar to rule under a single government. During this time, the British also founded colonies in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia.

Most of the early British settlements in Canada were located off the eastern seaboard, but traders from the Hudson Bay Company, originally chartered in 1670 by Charles II, were busy discovering and mapping the vast land to the west. The colonization of the western plains began in 1811 with the settlement of the Red River Valley, but the settlers there ran into many of the same troubles that plagued the early settlers in America: hostile Indians, disease, and hunger. Nevertheless, over a long period, the southern parts of Manitoba became a thriving colony. In the far west, George Vancouver explored the Columbia River basin and Vancouver Island and claimed the entire region for Britain. Like most of the rest of western Canada, however, permanent settlement occurred slowly until the opening of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885.

Confederation of Canada—In the early 1830's, the elections reform bill in Great Britain resulted in a grand restructuring of the British Parliament. After this, many of the colonies, including the provinces of Canada, became enamored with the idea of democratic self-rule. In 1837, there were widespread riots in both Upper and Lower Canada in protest against the British colonial government. Lord Durham went to investigate and proposed unifying the two provinces under limited self-rule. While the residents were still British subjects, they were allowed to elect parliaments and pass laws that pertained to local matters. In 1867, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia joined the confederation, followed by Manitoba and British Columbia in 1870 and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. The last province to join the Canadian Federation was Newfoundland in 1947.


Australia and New Zealand

(1770 to 1931)

First Voyage of Captain Cook, to the Statute of Westminster

British settlement of Australia and New Zealand proceeded relatively peacefully, since the indigenous residents of these countries were neither populous nor particularly civilized. These colonies grew mainly because of both the population growth in Britain and the availability of inexpensive land. Very poor young men, with limited prospects in their homeland, could move to any of Britainís provinces and find opportunity aplenty. Aside from these similarities, however, the history of the settlement of Austria and New Zealand proceeded quite differently.

Early Settlement of Australia—Captain James Cook claimed both Australia and New Zealand for Britain on his first voyage to the region in 1770, but there was no permanent settlement in Australia until 1788, several years after Britain lost possession of most of its American colonies. New South Wales began as a penal colony, so many of the first European inhabitants of Australia were criminals. This resulted in a high degree of self-reliance among subsequent settlers and a severe system of military justice. Other colonies began in South Australia, Victoria, and Queensland. They were governed independently because of the large distances between them.

In 1850, a gold rush caused a rapid increase in population, but for the most part the population grew slowly and steadily during the 19th century. There were few military actions against the native population for several reasons. First, infectious disease did much to depopulate the natives, and second, the continent was large enough that European settlement could proceed without many serious land disputes with the natives.

Because of the lack of military feats in the history of Australian settlement, ANZAC day is honored on the anniversary of the day that the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the Great War. The united provinces of Australia gained their independence from Great Britain in 1931.

Early Settlement of New Zealand—Although New Zealand's climate was more attractive than Australiaís, it was settled considerably later because of its more populous and warlike natives. The earliest European settlers in New Zealand were sailors, traders, and other adventurers who desired to live among the native Maoris without the benefits or oppressions of civilized society.

After trying to avoid involvement in the region for some time, in 1830 Britain finally decided to claim New Zealand as a colony and peacefully negotiated a treaty with the major native tribes in the region. From that point on, British colonists began to arrive, especially on the Northern island, but it was not for several generations that the Europeans were populous enough to have serious land disputes with the natives. This led to a war between British and the native Maoris, but it was not a particularly vicious conflict, and the Maori's, who were skilled guerilla warriors, seemed to enjoy the excitement. Over the long term the Maori's lost, but their relationship with the British colonizers never soured to the degree of other conquered peoples. There was considerable inter-marriage between the two races and when New Zealand did become independent from Britain, the Maoris and their mixed-race progeny were granted full rights of citizenship.


India and China

(477 to 1901)

First Charter of British East India Company, to Boxer Rebellion in China

The East India Company, which originally set up British trading centers in Asia, was first charted by Elizabeth I of England in 1600. It was not uncommon for European governments to charter private companies to establish coloniesómany of the thirteen American colonies started out as such. These quasi-governmental institutions had the right to make autonomous decisions and to defend their interests, but were required to make a report to their sovereign and have their charter extended every twenty to thirty years.

Carnatic Wars—Between 1600 and 1750, the British East India Company established several trading posts in India, at Surat, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. During his long reign the Great Mogul Jahangir was on good terms with the English traders. After his death, however, the Mughal Empire fell into decline. Hindus and Moslems began fighting and other trading companies from Portugal, Holland and France began competing with the British for trade in India. After the death of Aurangzeb, the last Mughal, the empire collapsed altogether and power was split among warring princes, known as "nawabs". The French governor at Pondicherry, Joseph Francois Dupleix, was particularly astute at making alliances with the Indian princes and in a short time, the French were the predominant power in Bengal. When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out in Europe, Dupleix used the opportunity to try to drive England from India altogether. In 1746 Indian princes backed by French and British companies began a fight for control of Indian trade known as the Carnatic Wars.

At this point Robert Clive appeared on the scene. A lowly company clerk with no military experience, he was stationed at Madras. When the French besieged Ft. David, he distinguished himself with such valor that in 1751, the company sent him on a nearly hopeless quest to take the enemy capital of Arcot. Against tremendous odds, Clive took and held Arcot, greatly improving Britain's status among the nawabs, whose main concern was to make alliances with predominant European powers.

Although Dupleix was a brilliant statesman, his generals were no match for the youthful and fearless Clive and over several years, the British gained the upper hand southeastern India. Finally in 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, Clive won a brilliant victory over a French and native force fifty thousand strong with only eight hundred British and two thousand native troops. From that battle, Britain controlled Bengal, the richest province of India, and was recognized as the most influential foreign power in the region.

The first few years of the British rule in Bengal were miserable. The East India Company was accustomed to trade and fight but not to govern or administer justice in a foreign country. These duties were neglected to the near ruin of the country until Warren Hastings was appointed as the first governor of all British provinces in India. Hasting was only appointed only after a terrible famine had brought the problems to a crisis point. Hastings was a controversial governor, and though he did much to improve the situation, he left many problems unresolved and made powerful enemies. He governed for twelve years, but upon his return home was tried for corruption and acquitted after a contentious seven-year trial. Whether or not he deserved to be condemned, his highly publicized trial raised many of the problems of the British rule in India to the public eye.

Expansion of British Territory in India—Several well-known Indian governors followed Hastings, including Lord Cornwallis, of American revolutionary fame, and Marquis Wellesley, an elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. Britainís original holdings in India were modest, but over time Britain brought more and more Indian provinces under its sway. In some cases, as in the Mysore Wars against Tipu Sultan, British armies conquered nawabs and annexed their regions. In other cases, they simply made a "mutual defense" treaty, and allowed nawabs. under British control to govern their own region. Eventually they established a policy that when no direct heir was left to a region, Britain would annex the area and appoint its own governor.

Yet expansion did not bring peace or a good government. The British government put constraints on the East India Company to curb abuses, but there was no clear consensus about what the ruling policy should be. The only consensus agreed upon was that more money should be raised, but the goals of ruling India well and extracting money from it were at cross purposes.

After many years of misrule, several rebellions and mutinies, and numerous wars against the Marathas, Gurkhas, and Burma, the British government reformed the East India Company to such an extent that it was no longer allowed to carry on trade at all. Instead, it was to focus only on governing the provinces more effectively. Indian ports were thrown open to merchants of every country so that traders who held a monopoly would not cheat the Indians. This reform occurred in 1833 and was part of the "free trade" movement that was becoming common throughout the empire. Soon afterwards, Lord Dalhousie, one of the best rulers of India, was appointed governor. He expanded British territory by adding the Punjab to British domains, but the native Sikhs respected him so much that they became loyal British subjects instead of seething rebels. He also built roads, railways, and telegraphs, which greatly improved communication in the region.

Afghan Massacre—Just when conditions had begun to improve in India, disaster struck. In 1841, due to some foolish statesmanship, the British forced an unpopular ruler on Afghanistan and stationed thousands of British soldiers with their families in Kabul. In the middle of winter, Afghanis surrounded the garrison and forced it to retreat through Khyber Pass back into India. Of the entire garrison of ten thousand, only one man survived to tell the tale. It was the worst massacre in British imperial history.

Indian Mutiny—Fifteen years after the Afghan disaster, the Indian Mutiny broke out in Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Delhi. It was an enormous calamity that cost thousands of lives and nearly succeeded in driving Britain from Indian soil. But after many atrocities and heroics, the British forces with their loyal Indian allies prevailed and, after consolidating their power, embarked on several important reforms with the hope of preventing future outbreaks. The East India Company was dissolved and the British government took responsibility for development of the Indian colonies. India was no longer governed as a captive trading post, but as a colony with independent rights for all its citizens.

China and the Opium Wars—The East India Company established a trading post in Canton, China in 1711, but Britain was a late-comer; Holland and Portugal had established posts years before. Britainís relationship with China was not cordial and all other ports remained closed to the British for over 100 years. Chinese society was relatively closed, so there was not a great demand for English manufactured goods; and the most profitable trade the British could establish with China involved opium, imported from India.

Although the opium trade between India and China had existed for hundreds of years, the British methods of shipping and smuggling increased the trade to the point that the Chinese government outlawed and suppressed it. At first, the British merchants evaded the Chinese laws by means of smugglers and Chinese middlemen, but as the Chinese government increased its enforcement, a crisis point arrived in 1840. The British commander in charge of the region was sympathetic to the Chinese government's concerns and considered the opium trade a blot on British character. He therefore cooperated when the Chinese government, shortly after forbidding the sale of opium, confiscated and destroyed thousands of pounds of the substance found on British vessels. Unfortunately, the British government, which had long wanted to force China to open its ports, decided to use this incident as an excuse to declare war on China. Although Britain believed it carried on this war in a humane and restrained fashion, the scandal of using the opium trade as a cause of war has marked the incident with everlasting ignominy. The British succeeded in gaining trading concessions, but at an enormous cost to their reputation.

The second Opium War, which occurred at almost the same time as the Indian Mutiny, began when the British insisted on renegotiating their treaty with China for even more advantageous trading terms. The commissioner of Canton resisted them, so they attacked and took over the city. One of the most important British characters of this time was Harry Smith Parks, an orphan who had lived with a relative stationed in China and learned the language fluently as a young man. In retaliation for his kidnapping, the British army destroyed the emperor's summer palace. They did this because they wanted to "punish" and humiliate the government but "spare" the citizenry. Even so, historians now deplore this strategy as an act of "cultural vandalism".

Taiping Rebellion—The upshot of the second Opium War was that Britain not only won more concessions from China, but also agreed to help them fight a terrible civil war, known as the Taiping Rebellion that was going on at the same time. The British general Charles Gordon (who later died at the Siege of Khartoum), took command of a Chinese army and eventually put down the rebellion, which devastated much of China. It is estimated that over 20 million were killed in the uprisingó more lives than were lost in the Napoleonic Wars.

Taiping and Boxer Rebellions—After the second Opium War and the Taiping rebellion ended, British citizens and missionaries were allowed to live in China and the Chinese government became militarily dependent on the Western powers. This state of affairs continued until the Boxer Rebellion, directed against foreigners, broke out in southern China. Hundreds of westerners and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed until it was finally put down in 1901.

Most of the reparations demanded by the Western powers in retaliation for this war were used to educate Chinese students in Western universities, in hopes of helping to modernize China. Western educated Chinese, including Sun Yat Sen, helped overthrow the corrupt and feeble Quin dynasty in 1911. Although western powers had great hope for the newly founded Republic of China and did much to aid and support it, the feeble condition of the Chinese government meant that much of the interior was under the control of local warlords, rather than the Western-dominated official government.

Western powers maintained a presence in China until the Second World War threw the entire country into chaos, leaving it susceptible to the communist takeover.


Colonial Africa

(1770 to 1910 A.D.)

Discovery of the Blue Nile, to the Union of South Africa

British Influence in Africa—The British did not have a substantial presence in Africa until the nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, British holdings included the modern countries of Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Botswana, Zambezi, Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya. In addition, British forces controlled regions of Egypt and Sudan, although nominally they were still part of the Ottoman Empire. Although British traders had operated off the west coast of Africa for several hundred years, they traded mainly within a few coastal trading ports, since they believed the African interior was uninhabitable by Europeans. Britain did not gain control of Cape Town in South Africa until around 1800 and did not acquire its other colonial holdings until the late 19th century.

The British colonized Africa nearly one hundred years after its colonial expansion in Asia, and over two hundred years after it founded settlements in North America, and Britainís African holdings were governed with considerably more caution. The trading companies that settled Asia had but one objectiveóto make money, whereas missionaries and humanitarians played a larger role in settling Africa. Even among humanitarians, however, there was little consensus about what could be done about native practices such as domestic slavery, witchcraft, and inter-tribal warfare. Because of the difficulties with native populations, the unhealthy climate, and uncertain commercial opportunities, there was no clear vision regarding what Britainís colonial objectives should be. The British government switched political parties frequently, so it pursued no grand or consistent colonial policy in Africa. For this reason, committed individuals who worked over many years were influential in determining British "African policy", since they tended to outlast politicians. Some of these men included Charles Gordon in the Sudan, George Goldie in Nigeria, Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, and the missionary David Livingstone.

By the 1880ís, gold and diamonds were discovered and hundreds of fortune seekers flocked to the region. There was a great deal of greed and corruption involved in the development of South Africa, but it is false to characterize British influence in Africa as purely exploitive in nature. Britain did not begin seriously colonizing Africa until after the slave trade was outlawed and much of the nativesí wrath against Britain was because of its policy of opposing slavery and witchcraft, which were thoroughly ingrained into African culture. Millions of dollars were spent on humanitarian relief for the natives; hundreds of missionaries risked their lives to bring the best aspects of civilization to the African tribes. Africaís problems were serious and difficult before, during, and after colonization, but many British colonizers of Africa were motivated to alleviate the suffering of the native populations, rather than being driven by greed.

Exploration of the African Continent—The African interior was almost completely unknown well into the 19th century, and its most hardy explorers were the British Scots. One of the earliest African explorers was James Bruce, who discovered the source of the Blue Nile in 1770. A little later, Mungo Park discovered the Niger River, but he never determined its source or mouth. Several other British explorers, including Hugh Clapperton and the Landers brothers, continued to explore this region over the next few decades. They determined the course and outlet of the Niger, but nobody followed up on their discoveries because of the extreme dangers of traveling inland in the region. John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton did not discover the source of the White Nile and Lake Victoria until 1856; David Livingstone, the most famous of African explorers, did not undertake his first expedition across the southern horn of the continent until 1852. Finally, H. M. Stanley, yet another Scotsman, crossed the continent east to west, discovering the Congoís route in 1874. Even after these discoveries, however, development proceeded very slowly, and large swaths of the continent lay unexplored.

West Africa—France was the major colonial power in West Africa; the British traders only held a few meager outposts because it was difficult to retain governors. The climate was deadly for white men, so few ventured into the interior. The coast possessed some honest traders and mission stations, but most of the Europeans who ventured into the regions were unsavory characters, pirates, and slavers. During the 19th century, British traders established several additional outposts in the Gold Coast region and made alliances with the Fanti, who were the dominant coastal tribe at the time. However, the interior Ashanti tribe was becoming more powerful, seeking to displace the Fanti and take over the coastal trade. The first Ashanti War occurred when the Ashanti made several raids into the British coastal settlements and burned Fanti villages. Since the area was under their protection, the British attacked Ashanti territory several times between 1826 and 1874 to punish the incursions. The British declared the Gold Coast a Crown Colony after the final uprising in 1896.

The man most responsible for Nigeriaís establishment as a British colony was George Goldie, who worked for twenty years to establish a functioning government to there. Unable to get Britain to commit, he raised funds privately and founded a government chartered development company. He essentially governed the region himself until he sold out to Britain in 1900. Like most people of the age, he did not think the natives were capable of governing themselves humanely, and saw his role as promoting commerce and civilization.

South Africa—The Dutch East India Company settled the Cape Town region of South Africa in the 17th century so Dutch settlements of the region had been established for over 150 years when the colony fell into British hands. The native Dutch, also called Boers or Afrikaners, were fiercely independent slave-owners who resented British interference. When the British government abolished slavery in its colonies many Boers simply packed up their belongings and moved out of Britainís sphere of influence. They first settled in Natal, on the east side of the peninsula, but eventually moved across the Vaal River into a desolate wilderness inhabited by Zulu tribes. Using their usual combination of slaughter, enslavement, and diplomacy to hold the native tribes at bay, the Boers settled and formed two republics in the region.

Meanwhile, Cape Town, Natal, and several other towns in the south grew under Britainís protection. In 1867, diamonds were found in a remote area of Kimberly, claimed by both Britain and the Boersí Transvaal Republic. The commerce-oriented British were in a far better position to exploit the discoveries, and took over government of the area. Within ten years, Cecil Rhodes, a young man from a middle-class farming family in England, had built a vast diamond empire and had a multi-million dollar cartel at his disposal. In spite of his personal riches, Rhodes led an austere life and threw his entire energy into uniting the South African colonies under British jurisdiction. With this goal in mind, he negotiated with native tribes and laid claim to the regions north of the Transvaal, including modern Botswana, Zambia, and Zambezi. The Boers, who hated British rule and loved their independence, fiercely resisted him.

The Zulu population in the region increased quickly under British protection and soon came into conflict with Boer and British colonies. A British regiment that was sent to capture the Zulu capital was caught off guard and slaughtered, in one of the worst massacres in British history. It took the British nearly a year to regroup, but they eventually destroyed the Zulu settlement and sent the king into exile. Soon after the British prevailed against the Zulus, the first Boer War broke out, and went badly for the British. The British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was glad to make peace with the Boers and granted them their independence, but this dismayed Rhodes and other die-hard imperialists who believed that South Africa could only thrive under a unified government.

Yet the situation would get uglier still. In 1885, an enormous gold vein was discovered in the Transvaal. The Boers were agricultural and only wanted to be left alone, but could do nothing to prevent the enormous influx of foreigners into their territory. They taxed the miners but did not allow the outlanders to have a say in government. Since many of the outlanders were British, Britain took this as an excuse to annex the area, and a contrived "revolution" in favor of British interests was staged which ended in disaster. By 1899, the pressure was intolerable and the Boers laid siege to three British cities. This was the start of the deadly and difficult second Boer War. It lasted until 1902, but ultimately the far stronger British forced the Boers to submit. It took ten more years to integrate the colonies, but neither the imperialist Cecil Rhodes nor his Boer nemesis Paul Kruger lived to see the birth of the South African nation.

Egypt-Sudan—Even before the British took up the Ottoman cause during the Crimean War, the British were friendly with some Ottoman rulers. One of their favorites was Mehemet Ali of Egypt, who allowed the British to run a transportation line from Alexandria to the Red Sea to support their eastern colonies. Unfortunately, Mehemetís successors did not govern as ably as he did. They relied on Britain and other European powers to provide advice for modernization and to bail them out of financial trouble. The Suez Canal was originally a French project, but through diplomacy and other shenanigans, Britain ended up controlling a minority share. Soon after the canalís opening, the Egyptian government called on Britain to help put down a rebellion, and at the Battle of Tel-el-kebir the British drove the rebel leader into exile. By this point, Britain was no longer playing a mere "advisory" role in Egypt, but was effectively ruling the region, having assumed control of the Egyptian governmentís finances as well as its military.

Meanwhile, the great British military hero General Charles Gordon, who had already distinguished himself in China and Britain, was appointed governor of Sudan, a protectorate of Egypt. Slavery was still rife throughout the region and the natives were oppressed by warlords, bandits, and Moslem slavers. Gordon worked for five years to improve the condition of the natives, and returned to Britain in 1879, exhausted. Shortly after Gordon left Sudan, a rebellion broke out, led by the Mahdi, a fanatical Moslem warlord. Within a few years, he had conquered much of Sudan, murdering and enslaving those who opposed him. In 1884, when Gordon heard that Khartoum, the capital of Sudan was threatened, he returned to help defend the city and urged the British government to send a relief party. After many delays, the relief party finally arrived, but it was too late. Gordon was dead and Khartoum was taken. Thirteen years later, Horatio Kitchener, hero of the Battle of Omdurman avenged this disgrace and drove the Mahdists out of Sudan. Egypt and Sudan continued under British protection until they became an official colony after the Great War.


The Great War

(1900 to 1922)

Prelude to Aftermath of the Great War

Thirteen years after the death of Queen Victoriaís, the British Empire faced the worst calamity it its history, the Great War. During the last half of the nineteenth century, Germany, dominated by Prussia, had become the predominant power in continental Europe. Its compulsory education and university system had produced the best-educated population in the world. In the Franco Prussian War of 1870, Germany had established itself as the preeminent military force on the continent. Germany was well educated, industrious, ambitious, and had an enormous standing army. However, it was not a strong naval power, and by the time Prussia rose to center stage, Britain, France, and Spain had already colonized most of the desirable areas of the globe. Undaunted, the Germans realized that if they could get control of the Balkan Peninsula and ally itself with Turkey, they could control important trade routes to the east.

Great Britain was wealthy, powerful, and controlled almost all the strategically important sea routes, but its wealth and industry had given rise to decadence and corruption, and its government alternated between pro-imperialist Tories and pacifist, reform-minded liberals. Britain, an unwieldy, but self-satisfied power, did not want war and was not prepared for it. Germany, a young, vigorous, and ambitious rising power, did. The leaders in Germany undoubtedly believed they could conquer the corrupt western democracies in a short and decisive campaign, as they had done in the Franco-Prussian war. No one believed that the war would sink to the depths of carnage, barbarism and wholesale slaughter to which it did. The Great War, as it was called at the time, was not just a military debacle for all concerned, but also a blow to the modernist ideal of moral progress and the conceits of advanced civilization.

The Western Front—The British were involved primarily on the Western front of the war, particularly in Flanders and northern France. The Germans had planned a foray toward Paris in hopes of a quick victory, but they were delayed by Belgium's refusal to allow their army to pass through their country. This delayed the German advance by three weeks, giving France and Britain time to marshal their forces. Once inside French territory, the Germans advanced rapidly, but were stopped and driven back at the First Battle of the Marne. The Germans retreated to a line of defense that extended across eastern France from the North Sea to Switzerland, and both sides dug in for a protracted war.

Both antagonists attempted numerous offensives in an effort to bring the war to a close, but with modern weapon technology, every offensive resulted in horrendous casualties, and fighting quickly reverted to trench warfare. New weapons such as poison gas, aircraft bombing, and tanks were invented to make progress on this front, but even these were unsuccessful in breaking the deadlock. There were dozens of important skirmishes on the western front, but the two most famous battles were Verdun and Somme, both lasting months and inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties. The western front languished for three years until Germany instigated a final offensive in an attempt to break through the French line before American reinforcements arrived. The object failed, and by 1818, when the Americans arrived, the Germans were driven back into German territory.

Gallipoli—The Invasion of Gallipoli, in 1915, was a disaster for Britain. The British wanted to gain control of the Black Sea in order to supply its ally Russian and to cut off German aid to Turkey. They determined that the British navy could not take the strait of Dardanelles due to heavily fortified forts, so they planned a large-scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Although carefully planned, there were heavy casualties, the conditions were terrible, and the British were too exhausted to follow through on their offensive once they had secured each military objective. After several offensives failed to make headway, the project was abandoned. Winston Churchill, later Prime Minister of England during World War II, was one of the naval commanders who lost their positions as a result of the debacle. Thirty years later, however, the lessons learned from the disaster at Gallipoli, were vital in planning the successful D-day invasion of Normandy.

Mesopotamia and Palestine—Britainís first excursion into Mesopotamia, launched from British outposts in Africa and Asia, was a disaster. Most of the British army was besieged in Kut on its way to Baghdad and forced to surrender. Later Allied campaigns in Iraq and Palestine, however, were more successful. By attacking from British strongholds in the Persian Gulf and Egypt, several British armies were able to land successfully, secure their supply lines, and overrun the southern portions of the Ottoman Empire. They were helped by an Arab rebellion, led by Lawrence of Arabia, a British archeologist who had spent several years traveling in Arabia and befriending important sheiks. The first Allied victory in the area was the successful capture of Baghdad by General Maude in early 1917. A serious of successful campaigns in Palestine and Syria, led by General Allenby, followed this victory. Jerusalem fell to the British in late 1917, and most important cities in Syria were in British hands by early 1918.

The Eastern Front—By 1915 much of the fighting on the Western front descended into trench warfare, so the Germans transferred resources to the Eastern front to oppose Russia. Russiaís forces were ill-equipped, but very numerous and the Eastern front was long and much more fluid than the western front. During the years 1916 and 1917 the Germans, under Hindenburg, gained ground against Russia. At the same time, radicals within Russia were fomenting Revolution and civil war. When the Bolsheviks came to power in November 1917 they negotiated peace with Germany and abandoned their western allies.

With the collapse of Russia, Germany was able to redeploy their resources to the Western front, but by the end of 1917 Britain had conquered much of the Ottoman Empire and blockaded most ports, so the Germans was hemmed in from the west. Their biggest problem, however, was the fact that the United States had finally mobilized for war and was sending more re-enforcements every month. Germanyís last desperate offensive on the Western Front was in early 1918. Their generals understood that they had little time to advance before fresh American troops would overwhelm the war-weary Prussians. The final German offensive was in vain. Thousands more Americans arrive every month and by summer, the central powers were forced to retreat to Germanyís original borders.

Unfortunately for later generations, the allies did not push far into German territory, seek an unconditional surrender, or insist on dismantling the Prussian state. As the outraged French Marshall Foch said after learning the terms of the treaty of Versailles: ďThis is not peace, it is an armistice for twenty years.í Precisely on schedule, twenty years later, Hitler invaded Poland.

Dissolution of the British Empire—One of the immediate effects of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Great War, was to add Egypt, Iraq and Palestine to Britain's dominions. These new acquisitions resulted from the breakup of the Ottoman and brought the size of the British Empire to its greatest extent.

Long term, however, the Great War portended the dissolution of the British Empire. The war had crippled Britain economically, decreased its hold upon its colonies, and severely diminished its will to power. Britain's war debt was enormous and lead to destabilizing inflation. The Anglo-Irish War of 1919 resulted in Ireland's liberation from Great Britain in 1922. A few years later, the Balfour Declaration of 1926 suggested that the imperial possessions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Newfoundland, and South Africa be governed in cooperation with, but independently of Britain. This arrangement was set forth formally in 1931 in the Statute of Westminster.

Gradually, almost all other British possessions gained their independence: Iraq in 1932, India in 1947, Burma in 1948, Egypt in 1953, Nigeria and South Africa in 1960, and Kenya in 1963. Hong Kong was ceded back to the China in 1997. Today, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland enjoys commonwealth trade relations with most of its former colonies, but it only directly governs the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, and the British West Indies.



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