The British Empire was the largest formal empire in history. During the Victorian period, it was at its peak. Britain controlled ¼ of the world’s land area and ruled over 400 million diverse peoples. It was referred to as the ‘empire on which the sun never set’ due to its vast geographical reach. Much like America is today, the tiny island of Britain was the superpower of the time. In many ways, the British Empire laid the foundations of the modern world.
The vast British Empire began as a network of trading posts set up by the East India Company, a London based business. Traders from the Company travelled all around Asia looking for new goods to buy and sell.
The Company became very rich selling newly discovered goods such as spices, silks and cotton to customers back in Europe. The Company also began importing tea back to Britain. It quickly became a popular beverage that we still drink to this day.
Over time, the Company’s trade became focussed on India. Initially, trade was stable and profitable. The East India Company worked in collaboration with existing Indian leaders.
As time progressed, the East India Company began to go beyond the normal bounds of a business: they began intervening militarily and economically in India. By the late eighteenth century, the Company gained increased control of the region in the form of tax collection powers.
This laid the foundations for the transfer of power from the Company to the British Government in 1857. This transfer of power saw the vast region of India come under the direct rule of Britain.
In 1857, the East India Company disbanded and the British government took direct control of India. India became the most highly valued part of the British Empire; it was known as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’.
In 1877, Queen Victoria of Britain was proclaimed ‘Empress of India’. This meant that the Queen of Britain became the official monarch of India, despite the distance between India and Britain. It was an attempt to bind India closer to Britain and foster a sense of loyalty amongst Indians to their ‘Mother Country’.
The British had a deep impact on many areas of Indian life. One of the most profound changes came in the form of railways. The first line from Bombay to Thana opened in 1853. Railways enabled goods and people to travel faster than ever before. They transformed the pace and landscape of India.
However, Indians had no say in the central government of India and had little influence on a local level. This was a source of great discontent for many Indians. Some middle-class Indians formed the Indian National Congress, a political party, in order to argue for government reforms and eventually independence from Britain.
The Scramble for Africa
In the late 1880s, the British sought to expand their empire into Africa. However, they faced competition from other European powers such as Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. In 1884-5, the German leader Otto Van Bismarck held the Berlin Conference in order to resolve tensions within Europe by deciding who would control different parts of Africa.
At this conference, Africa was divided up amongst the competing European powers. Britain gained control of Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Rhodesia, South Africa and Egypt. The conference changed the face of Africa forever and gave rise to most of Africa’s borders today. Yet, no Africans were present at this conference- native Africans did not have a say in the proceedings.
The British wanted to be in Africa as they saw it as a resource rich area where they could also sell goods.
The British also felt that they had a moral duty to ‘uplift’ and ‘improve’ Africa which they saw as the ‘dark continent’, a place of ignorance and superstition. Empire builders felt that their work was ordained by God; they spoke of their duty to bring ‘civilisation’ to Africa in the form of Christianity.
The Settler Colonies
However, these countries were already populated, prior to the arrival of the British. For example, Australia was populated by Aboriginal people who had been living in the country for centuries.
Despite this, the British thought of Australia as ‘terra nullis’ which means ‘no one’s land’. They displaced the Aboriginal people and set-up new societies modelled on Britain. This came at the expense of the original Aboriginal communities who were forced off their land.
Decline of the British Empire
The British Empire was at its peak in the Victorian period. Following the end of World War Two in 1945, it went into decline. A process of decolonisation began. This meant that Britain granted independence to many of its major colonies, beginning with India in 1947.
The war had made it more difficult for Britain to maintain its empire. The war drained Britain financially and also lowered its prestige in the eyes of its colonies.
Independence movements within the colonies had also been growing for decades. These social movements expressed dissatisfaction with British rule. Indeed, Britain had no right to rule over countries who did not want to be ruled by them. They therefore put pressure on the British government. They demanded that the British grant them independence- the ability to self-govern.
Despite the collapse of the British Empire, its legacy is everywhere in the contemporary world. It accounted for the spread of the English language, technologies, people and ideas that we witness today.