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The Rise & Fall of the British Empire

For this week's Life in the UK blog, we thought we would take a look at the past and present of the British Empire, as it remains one of the UK's most significant historical periods.

At its height in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the British Empire was the largest empire in the world, ruling over 23% of the earth's population.

It was once described as "the empire on which the sun never sets", as its vast size meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

For better or worse, the events that took place during rule of the empire have had insurmountable effects on the course of human history: as such, its legacy continues to affect people across Britain (and beyond) to this day.

If you were born abroad, yet wish settle down in the UK, it is important to get at least a basic idea of this part of history, for both practical and cultural reasons. Many of these events, people and places are likely to feature in the Life in the UK test.

When was the British Empire formed?

The foundations of the British Empire were laid with the rising prominence of overseas exploration across Europe in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The 'first' British Empire (1583-1783) was informally established by Queen Elizabeth I, who granted funding to explorers like Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh for voyages of discovery. During this time, some small colonies were established in North America.

The empire would begin to formally take shape in the 17th Century, with the formation of the East India Company (an international trade company that operated across the Indian Ocean) and a much more widespread settlement across the Caribbean and the Americas.

During the 1770s and 1780s, Britain's relationship with North American settlers became precarious, largely due to high taxes. The American revolution began in earnest with a rejection of the British parliamentary authority and, after a period of war between the two groups, America declared its independence on July 4th 1776. This brought an end to the 'first' British Empire.

During which time was it at its most powerful?

Between 1815 and 1915 - a period which historian Ronald Hyam refers to as 'Britain's Imperial Century', the reign of Queen Victoria saw a veritable growth in the Empire.

Over these hundred years, 10 million square miles were added to Britain's ruled lands: including Egypt, Singapore, Penang Island, parts of Africa and, after a period of war, Hong Kong.

A map of British Territories during the peak of the Empire (1910)
A map of British Territories during the peak of the Empire (1910)

In 1858, the East India Company was dissolved, leading to the establishment of the British Raj in India. Queen Victoria was proclaimed 'Empress of India' and the Indian Subcontinent would be considered the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the Empire for almost a century.

How did it affect the people of England and its surrounding countries?

The production and trade of commodities during the time of the British Empire made Britain one of the richest countries in the world.

in 1695, Scotland - which was then a separate kingdom to England - launched an attempt to set up its own overseas colony in the Isthmus of Panama. Due to a Malaria outbreak, as well as objections from neighbouring Spanish colonies, the attempt was a failure: Scotland was on the brink of financial ruin.

The event would go on to have long-lasting political effects, as Scotland would agree to merge with the English Crown for financial support in 1707. This agreement, which established the Kingdom of Great Britain, was known as the Treaty of Union.

Years later, in 1800, the Act of Union was also passed, uniting Great Britain with Ireland. After the Irish Civil War, the Irish Free State (which would later become the republic of Ireland) was established in 1922. Whilst it is true that the relationship between Britain and Ireland has been a point of great contention over the years, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom.

The Union flag (or 'Union Jack'), comprising of the St. George's cross, the St Andrew's saltire and the St. Patrick's saltire
The Union flag (or 'Union Jack'), comprising of the St. George's cross and the saltires of St Andrew and St. Patrick

Wales is also part of the United Kingdom, and has been in legal terms since the 16th Century. We view it in contemporary times as a country within its own right, with established borders and a strong National identity: just like Ireland and Scotland. As it was considered to be part of England, Wales was automatically included in the Treaty of Union in 1707.

How did it affect other countries around the world?

Between 1800 and 1950, the mass migration and transportation of peoples from one place to another transformed the world, in positive and negative ways. As territories were gained and lost by Britain, countries and their borders were ever-changing.

By the time the British Empire began to fall, India had gained its independence and was consequently separated into India and Pakistan. a number of colonies across Africa were also granted independence.

In contemporary terms, some of the former Empire territories now exist as Commonwealth countries. This means that they are ruled by Elizabeth II as their sovereign, but are independently governed in their own right. Commonwealth countries include (but are not limited to) Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

When and why did the empire fall?

The Empire entered a period of steep decline in the mid-20th Century, and was considered to be completely dissolved in 1997. There are a huge number of factors that led to its demise: after two world wars, periods of unrest, and centuries of social and technological transformation, the viability of one united British Empire across a huge expanse of the world simply became untenable.

Whilst there remains a small number of British Territories outside of the British Isles (including the Falkland islands and Gibraltar), it is largely true that all of the former Empire territories have now successfully gained their independence, and hence their recognition as Countries with their own identity and political agency.

There remains evidence to this day of Britain's influence across the world. For instance, traditionally British sports such as Cricket remain popular in India; the Imperial system of measurement is still used in some countries; and the convention of driving on the left side of the road can be seen in places such as Hong Kong and Macau.

For those who wish to about the British Empire, there are a number of excellent resources available online.

To apply your new knowledge within a Life in the UK Test, click here to take a sample exam.

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