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British Empire - History

Antigua and Barbuda.. 19.. 19..
Australia.. 19.. 19..
The Bahamas.. 19.. 19..
Bangladesh.. 19.. 19..
Barbados.. 19.. 19..
Belize.. 19.. 19..
Botswana.. 19.. 19..
Brunei Darussalam.. 19.. 19..
Cameroon.. 19.. 19..
Canada.. 19.. 19..
Cyprus.. 19.. 19..
Dominica.. 19.. 19..
Fiji Islands.. 19.. 19..
The Gambia.. 19.. 19..
Ghana.. 19.. 19..
Grenada.. 19.. 19..
Guyana.. 19.. 19..
Hannover.. 19.. 19..
India.. 19.. 19..
Ireland.. 19.. 19..
Jamaica.. 19.. 19..
Kenya.. 19.. 19..
Kiribati.. 19.. 19..
Lesotho.. 19.. 19..
Malawi.. 19.. 19..
Malaysia.. 19.. 19..
Maldives.. 19.. 19..
Malta.. 19.. 19..
Mauritius.. 19.. 19..
Mozambique.. 19.. 19..
Namibia.. 19.. 19..
Nauru.. 19.. 19..
New Zealand.. 19.. 19..
Nigeria.. 19.. 19..
Pakistan.. 19.. 19..
Papua New Guinea.. 19.. 19..
Rwanda.. 19.. 19..
St Kitts and Nevis.. 19.. 19..
St Lucia.. 19.. 19..
St Vincent and the Grenadines.. 19.. 19..
Samoa.. 19.. 19..
Seychelles.. 19.. 19..
Singapore.. 19.. 19..
Sierra Leone.. 19.. 19..
Solomon Islands.. 19.. 19..
South Africa.. 19.. 19..
Sri Lanka.. 19.. 19..
Swaziland.. 19.. 19..
Tanzania.. 19.. 19..
Tonga.. 19.. 19..
Trinidad and Tobago.. 19.. 19..
Tuvalu.. 19.. 19..
Uganda.. 19.. 19..
United Kingdom.. 19.. 19..
United States of America.. 1776xxx
Vanuatu.. 19.. 19..
Zambia.. 19.. 19..
For centuries the unification of the British Isles occupied the chief attention of the rulers. Only when the islands forming Great Britain were conquered, could England look beyond to empire. Henry II (r. 1154-1189) took the title " Lord of Ireland," being the first English ruler to be master, in the vague feudal sense, of the British islands. The reign of this King was noteworthy for the empire he established; it comprised not only Great Britain but many territories on the Continent. All western France was subject to him from Ponthieu on the north to Gascony in the south. The loss of most of the continental possessions by John Lackland in the opening years of the thirteenth century was followed by a rising in Scotland under the inspiring lead of Wallace, and, just as Edward I completed his long reign, Robert Bruce headed a revolt that proved ultimately successful. Scotland became a separate, independent kingdom. England was more or less continually at war with France for one hundred years, but, by the middle of the fifteenth century, the English were driven from the Continent.

Great Britain was remarkably prepared to build an empire at the opening of the seventeenth century. Practical unity had been attained at home; there was a strong government under the control of the representative Parliament. Centuries of struggle had moulded a composite people into a group capable of imperial tasks. The spread of the British Empire began with the permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. With each succeeding century the Empire expanded, with the single exception of the closing years of the eighteenth century, when the American colonies were lost.

Henry Schultes wrote in 1815 that "It is the fixed and unerring law of destiny, that states should emerge by regular gradations from obscurity, and when they have attained the zenith of their glory, to run to decay. If they rest on the pillars of temperance and patriotism, they will indeed stand for ages, but it is impossible in the nature of things, that they should remain for ever in a course of uninterrupted greatness. Nations, like the fabied phoenix, have arisen to celebrity and power, from the dissolution of preceding ones, whose manners, customs, and causes of extinction have been uniformly made known by tradition, or through the medium of literary men, to those which succeeded.... Great Britain having already attained the meridian altitude of her political splendour, and now hastening to decay, it becomes necessary to stimulate men's minds, too much enervated by a long acquiescence in error, to an active and a vigorous exercise of those means, which may prevent the entire loss of their social comforts, and the annihilation of their long preserved civil liberty."

Viewing colonial development as a whole, at least three great periods stand out: that dominated by mercantilism, lasting until well into the nineteenth century; the period of laissez-faire and of increasing democratic self-government for the English-speaking colonies; and the period beginning 1870-80, which may be called the era of Greater Britain, or of the Britannic Commonwealth of Nations, according to the emphasis.

The British Empire was the most impressive political organization the world has ever seen. It was the product of more than three centuries of growth, of evolution, of adaptation to environment. At one time the Union Jack floated over a quarter of the globe, and one-fourth of the human race owed allegiance to the King-Emperor. The diversity of its races, languages, religions, levels of culture, natural environments and resources was paralleled by a variety of governmental relationships.

The Empire was made up of the Dominions, with complete local self-government. It included also the Empire of India and the Crown Colonies, governed largely from England; protectorates in which native governments remained intact, but subject to British advice; territory under chartered trading companies; areas held by lease or other tenure. The Empire proper shaded off into "spheres of influence." The term Empire usually connotes conquest and rule over subject populations, and these elements were present. Unlike the Roman Empire, however, the greater part of the area of the British Empire is held by peoples of British stock whose local independence and attachments do not prevent loyalty to the common sovereign.

The system which had grown up and held the field, like many other concrete facts and institutions in English history, was not logical, difficult if not impossible to define, but none the less a good working organization on the basis of compromise rather than of principle.

The flexibility, variety and adaptability of Britiph policy was really one of its vital features. This had been not so much intentional as the result of dealing with specific situations as seemed best under the circumstances. Seeley's frequently quoted statement that the British apparently had "conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind," has the exaggeration of most epigrams. It ignores the genuine foresight and statesmanship that have gone into the building of the Empire. But it correctly emphasizes the fact that the British did not deliberately set out to conquer the earth. Many of the steps in expansion were taken with genuine reluctance, and only in order to safeguard existing interests.

One of the remarkable traits of the inhabitants of the British Isles has been their genius for colonizing, their adaptability to new conditions. The process of joining peoples and of forming a composite capable of such accomplishment was in progress during the whole of British history. This extension of England beyond the seas had all the attractiveness and swing of a cosmic epic.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:44:12 ZULU