Published on Jul 18, 2014
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world's population at the time. The empire covered more than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands, began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain) the dominant colonial power in North America and India.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance and expanded its imperial holdings across the globe. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.
By the start of the twentieth century Germany and the United States had eroded some of Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous financial and population strain on Britain, and although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after the war, it was no longer a peerless industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in South-East Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the eventual victory of Britain and its allies, this damaged British prestige and accelerated the decline of the empire. British India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement, Britain also granted independence to most of the territories of the British Empire. This process ended with the political transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The 14 British Overseas Territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. Sixteen Commonwealth nations share their head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, as Commonwealth realms.
Britain retains sovereignty over 14 territories outside the British Isles, which were renamed the British Overseas Territories in 2002. Some are uninhabited except for transient military or scientific personnel; the remainder are self-governing to varying degrees and are reliant on the UK for foreign relations and defence. The British government has stated its willingness to assist any Overseas Territory that wishes to proceed to independence, where that is an option. British sovereignty of several of the overseas territories is disputed by their geographical neighbours: Gibraltar is claimed by Spain, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are claimed by Argentina, and the British Indian Ocean Territory is claimed by Mauritius and Seychelles. The British Antarctic Territory is subject to overlapping claims by Argentina and Chile, while many countries do not recognise any territorial claims in Antarctica.
Most former British colonies and protectorates are members of Commonwealth of Nations, a non-political, voluntary association of equal members. Sixteen members of the Commonwealth, including the UK, continue to share their head of state as Commonwealth realms.