|A HISTORY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE AND COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS
CREATION OF THE UNITED KINGDOM (1603 & 1707) Many people from the British Empire fought during World War Two. This map shows all those countries that were members of the British Empire during that period.
2. Anglo Egyptian Sudan
3. Ascension Island
10. British Guiana
11. British Honduras
12. British Somaliland
18. Crozet Island
20. Diego Garcia
22. Ellice Islands
23. Falkland Islands
26. Gilbert Islands
28. Gold Coast
29. Gough Island
30. Graham Land
31. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Land
32. Hong Kong
42. New Zealand
44. Northern Rhodesia
48. Prince Edward Island
49. Sandwich Islands
51. Sierra Leone
53. South Georgia
54. South Orkneys
55. South Rhodesia|
56. South Shetlands
57. South West Africa
58. St Helena
63. Tristan Da Cunha
64. The United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland
66. Union of South Africa
67. We Hei Wei
68. West Indies
Following the Norman conquest in 1066, England was dominated by Kings who were often more
concerned with their holdings in France. For fully three quarters of the time they were native French-
speakers. The Kings of England held Normandy in France. Aquitaine, also in France, was brought to them
by marriage. After the Hundred Years War with the French, the English lost all of their possessions in
France by 1453, except for Calais which was lost by 1558. By then England, was already building a trans-
Atlantic empire when it claimed Newfoundland in 1497.
King Edward I finally conquered Wales in 1282, and made it a principality to be held by the heir to the
English throne. In 1536, King Henry VIII of England removed the political institutions that had
stigmatized Wales as a conquered country, making it formally part of the Kingdom of England, but the
new united Kingdom was still generally known as England, and it was English law which prevailed.
In 1170, the Normans conquered Ireland and added an area on the east coast they called The Pale to the
English Crown. It also made it necessary for Ireland to be made a Kingdom in 1541, in personal union
with the Kingdom of England, because the lordship of Ireland had been a Papal grant. Henry VIII was
proclaimed King of Ireland as well as England and Wales. During the reign of Henry VIII's daughter
Elizabeth I (1558-1603), English rule over Ireland was made effective for the first time.
Scotland became an English dependency in 1290. It regained its independence under Robert the Bruce in
1328, although with a border adjusted in favour of England by Edward III in 1334.
On the death of the childless Elizabeth in 1603 the kingdoms of England and Ireland went to her nephew
James Stuart, King of Scotland. In this way the British Isles came under one monarch for the first time.
Although James considered himself king of Great Britain (and Ireland), the parliaments of England and
Scotland were less enthusiastic about union, and maintained the distinction between the two countries. In
1606, King James created the first Union Flag with the combination of the English cross of St. George
with the Scottish St. Andrew saltire.
The Stuart dynasty, Kings of Scotland and England from 1603, always considered themselves Kings of
Great Britain. It is thus reasonable to talk of the British Empire from 1603, and it is usual to think of this
as the trans-oceanic dependencies of an insular state. However, it is worth remembering that for almost
the whole time from 1689 to 1820 the monarchs of Britain also ruled considerable continental territories,
just as in the period from 1016 to 1453 when English kings ruled over parts of France such as Normandy
and Aquitaine. The trans-oceanic English and later British Empire, began in the first Elizabethan age
(1558-1603) in Newfoundland, which had been claimed for the English Crown in 1497 and settled in
Under financial strain, the Scottish parliament voted itself out of existence in 1707, joining in a union
with England, known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Oddly enough, the Stannaries parliament, elected by Cornishmen, continued to sit until 1752, and was
never actually abolished. When Anne died in 1714, the parliament of Great Britain found a new Protestant
king in George of Hanover, creating a new personal union with that north German principality, which
lasted until 1837, when Queen Victoria became monarch.
THE BRITISH EMPIRE BEFORE THE SEVEN YEARS WAR
BEGINNINGS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE (1607 – 1756)
In 1607, the first really successful English colony in North America, was established. The town was
named after James, and the colony after his predecessor, the Virgin Queen. The American colonies
continued to grow at the expense of other European powers (Jamaica taken from the Spanish in 1655,
New York from the Dutch in 1664). Scots had attempted to create a colony in the isthmus of Panama in
1698, known as Darien, but this failed due to disease and lack of funding. Gibraltar had been taken by the
English from Spain in 1704 and remains a British territory to the present.
Meanwhile the American colonies on the Atlantic coast continued to expand, and Hudson Bay was settled
by fur traders of the Hudson Bay Company. Small scale trading posts in India were established by the
East India Company throughout the Seventeenth Century. The great leap forward in Britain's colonial
enterprise occurred during the Seven-years war (1756-63) against France and its allies. This conflict was
between Britain and Prussia on one side, and France, Austria, Sweden and Russia on the other. The
superiority of the British navy led to French defeat in Canada and India, and the occupation of Spanish
Havana and Manila. Britain gained all of North America east of the Mississippi, but reserved the
unsettled regions for the natives. This restriction was one reason for resentment by the British settlers on
the Atlantic coast. In India, the East India Company, backed by British troops, annexed Bengal, one of the
most populous provinces of the tottering Mogul Empire.
Britain's control of eastern North America lasted less than 20 years. It was felt by the British Government
that the Seven Years War had benefited the American colonies by the removal of French power from
North America, therefore Americans should help to pay for the costs of maintaining the new expanded
empire. The British Government introduced a series of new taxes starting with a Stamp Act. This
infuriated Americans as they claimed that they were being taxed without political representation. An
THE BRITISH EMPIRE AFTER THE SEVEN YEARS WAR
administration insensitive to the rights and desires of the American colonists led to the revolution of 1776
and the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen American colonies as the United States of America.
By 1781, a French fleet and a Franco-American army was able to force the surrender of the main British
force in North America, and the independence of the United States was recognized in 1783.
Only Canada and Newfoundland remained British. The former acquired a majority English-speaking
population from the influx of loyalists from the United States, and gradually pushed its territories
westward. Partly to compensate for the loss of America, a penal colony was founded in Australia in 1788.
By the end of the Napoleonic wars (1797-1815) Britain had gained South Africa and Ceylon from the
Dutch, and Hanover had extended its territory in Germany. In India, the East India Company steadily
enlarged its territories and sphere of influence. 13,000 British troops failed, however, in an invasion to
annex the Spanish territories in Argentina and Uruguay in 1806-7.
An invasion of Canada by the United States from 1812 to 1814 was defeated, but the fear of another
invasion led Canadians to desire more autonomy and security. Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in
1837 against what they saw as corrupt and unrepresentative government led to the establishment of
responsible self-government for the Canadas in 1840 by Lord Durham.
Meanwhile, in 1801, Ireland joined the United Kingdom, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain
and Ireland, thus encompassing the whole of the British Isles (except for the Isle of Man and the Channel
Islands, which were, and still are, administered separately). The Irish St. Patrick Saltire was added to the
British Union Flag and it took on the design it still has today.
GROWTH OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE (1815 – 1920)
The British Empire expanded enormously during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), as a consequence
of the industrial revolution which put Britain first in the world economically. Following the 1857 Indian
Mutiny, Britain took control of the whole sub-continent. The last Mogul Emperor was dethroned, and
Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1876. India was ruled in part by a British Viceroy and in part
by native rulers in princely states. Singapore was colonized in 1819, and Hong Kong in 1842. A 99-year
lease over Hong Kong’s New Territories was signed between Britain and China in 1898.
The Crimean War (1853–1856) was fought between Imperial Russia on one side and an alliance of
France, the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Britain saw
Russian imperial expansion in southwest Asia as a threat to its links with India. Most of the conflict took
place on the Crimean Peninsula, with additional actions occurring in western Turkey, and the Baltic Sea
region. The war was won by the British and the French and Russia agreed not to establish military bases
in the area and to respect the independence of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Aden was annexed by the
British in 1837. British expansion in South and East Asia was mostly over by 1886, by which time the
focus of attention of the European powers had moved to Africa, with the Berlin Conference of 1884
effectively ‘carving up’ the continent, on paper at least, between rival powers.
In addition to four west African colonies and Somaliland in the northeast, the British, led by De Beers
diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, pursued a north to south ‘Cape to Cairo’ corridor across Africa which
envisaged a continuous British state in Africa from the Cape of Good Hope at the continent’s southern
end to Egypt at the north end. This was almost complete by the 1890’s except for German East Africa in
the middle. The Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in South Africa were
conquered by the British in 1902 and merged with the British colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal into
the Union of South Africa in 1910. By 1902, the European carve-up of Africa on the ground was
complete, and about a third of the continent's area and about half its population ended up under British
rule. Egypt remained nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, but was under British control from 1882 and
was formally annexed as a British Protectorate in 1914. German African colonies were taken by the
British after the First World War, thus completing the ‘Cape to Cairo’ corridor.
THE BRITISH EMPIRE AFTER THE NAPOLEONIC WARS
THE BRITISH EMPIRE BEFORE THE FIRST WORLD WAR
PARTITION OF AFRICA
Canada was extended to the Pacific coast in 1871, and all of Australia and New Zealand annexed by 1842
(although it would be generations before the interior of Australia was fully explored, let alone settled).
Rebellions in Canada in 1837 and in Australia in 1854 led to colonial self-government. Colonial
Conferences of colonial leaders began in London in 1887, becoming Imperial Conferences in 1911 and
eventually becoming Commonwealth Conferences after 1944.
Even though the British Empire in South America was very small consisting of only British Guiana
(annexed 1807) and the Falkland Islands (annexed 1833) at opposite ends of the continent, Argentina was
part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ which was made up of countries which were not under British rule, but
in which Britain maintained a strong economic interest. This was to remain until the Second World War.
In 1908, Britain made large claims to part of Antarctica near the Falkland Islands, now known as the
British Antarctic Territory. These claims were expanded later on to include the Australian Antarctic
Territory and the Ross Dependency.
DOMINION STATUS (1867 – 1948)
All the colonies of British North America (Canada) attained limited self-governance between 1848 and
1855, after rebellions for responsible government in 1837, except the colony of Vancouver Island. Nova
Scotia was the first colony to achieve responsible government in January–February 1848, through the
efforts of Joseph Howe, and by the Province of Canada later that year. They were followed by Prince
Edward Island in 1851, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland in 1855 under Philip Francis Little.
Confederation of the British North American colonies of Canada (subsequently the provinces of Ontario
and Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into "One Dominion under the Name of Canada", became
the first autonoumous federation in the British Empire in 1867 with its capital in Ottawa.
The Australian Constitutions Act 1850 established the machinery for the four then existing Australian
colonies (namely New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia) to establish
Parliaments and responsible government once certain conditions had been met; it also provided for the
separation of Victoria from New South Wales and its establishment as a separate colony (which occurred
in 1851) with similar capacity to attain self-government. New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and
Tasmania, along with New Zealand, attained responsible government soon after in 1856; self-government
for Western Australia was delayed until 1891, mainly because of continuing financial dependence on
Britain. Queensland was separated from New South Wales and established as a separate colony in 1859.
The Australian colonies were federated into an autonomous dominion in a similar manner to Canada in
1901 with a federal government first located at Melbourne and moved in Canberra in 1927.
New Zealand became a dominion in 1907. South African colonies became self-governing later, with the
Cape Colony being the first in 1872; this was followed by Natal (1893), Transvaal (1906), and the Orange
River Colony (1907). The four South African colonies were federated into the autonomous dominion of
the Union of South Africa in 1910. Newfoundland (1917) and the Irish Free State (1921) also became
autonomous dominions. Dominion status for India became an increasingly pressing issue after the First
World War. The establishment of the Irish Free State reduced the United Kingdom to Great Britain and
Northern Ireland as the six northern counties of Ireland opted to remain in the United Kingdom, while the
other twenty-six separated as the Irish Free State.
It is often said that the British Empire peaked territorially in the 1920s, following World War One (1914-
1918), in which it gained most of the German territories in Africa, particularly in East Africa and South-
West Africa, and Ottoman provinces, including Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq), in the Middle East, by
mandates granted by the League of Nations.
THE BRITISH EMPIRE AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR
PARTITION OF THE MIDDLE EAST
THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH (1931 – 1949)
In the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference in 1926, Britain and its Dominions agreed that they
were in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though
united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British
Commonwealth of Nations. The Dominions (Canada, Newfoundland, Union of South Africa, Irish Free
State, Australia and New Zealand) were granted full autonomy by the statute of Westminster in 1931 and
referred to as the British Commonwealth. They even gained the right to secede from the Empire, a right
which the Irish Free State soon exercised and the Union of South Africa would follow thirty years later.
However, the British monarch remained (and still remains today, except for South Africa and Ireland) the
monarch of these territories, and it was not until 1947-9 that the dominions established separate
citizenships from the UK and were declared fully independent and equal to Britain.
World War Two (1939-45) showed that the dominions (Ireland excluded) were indeed still part of the
Empire: in 1939 the Australian prime minister informed his country that Britain had declared war on
Germany and that "as a result Australia is also at war", and in 1940 millions of pounds of gold were
shipped to Canada in preparation for a possible relocation of the British royal family.
By this reckoning, the Empire reached its greatest extent following that war, in 1945. Most of the Italian
territories in Africa were occupied by Britain, as was all of northwest Germany and parts of Austria and
Berlin. Huge areas of the Middle East were occupied (or reoccupied) during the war and beyond, to
secure oil supplies and seaways, or to remove regimes friendly to the Axis. The British occupied the
Italian territory of the Dodecanese Islands in the Mediterranean and wanted to make them into a self-
governing territory under the British Crown, but they were transferred to Greece in 1947.
After violence against the British, nominal independence had been given to Egypt in 1922 and then more
complete independence in 1936 and in Iraq in 1932. However, both of these countries were reoccupied by
the British during World War Two. Iraq was invaded by the United Kingdom in 1941, for fears that the
government of Rashid Ali might cut oil supplies to Western nations and because of his strong leanings to
Nazi Germany. A military occupation lasted there until 26 October 1947. India had been granted partial
autonomy in 1935, but the nationalist movement there wanted complete independence by then.
British Empire Games were established in Canada in 1930 and held every four years between the
Empire preferential trade was established by an agreement in Ottawa in 1932. This made complete free
trade and preference for Empire goods within the British Empire. This made the Empire completely self-
sufficient, but hindered trade with other countries. However, against this backdrop of increased
democracy and territorial expansion, it must be remembered that the powerhouse and centre of the
Empire, Britain, was falling behind other major world powers in industrial performance, and was
economically and psychologically exhausted by meeting the brunt of the costs of the First World War,
then brought almost to its knees by the destruction and cost of the second.
By 1945, the financial means and ideological impetus to keep the empire alive seemed to be missing to a
growing section of the British and colonial establishment.
In the 1930’s, Egypt had concluded a secession treaty with Britian granting it full independence and
nationalists in India were demanding complete independence and secession from the empire. In 1935,
Britain gave India its own parliament, but with Britain retaining the final say over it.
EMPIRE TO COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS (1947 – 1997)
After years of resentment at British domination, catholic southern Ireland gained independence as a
dominion in 1921. Northern Ireland, with a Protestant majority, remained part of the renamed United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Unlike the other dominions, the Irish Free State (Ireland)
declared its independence in 1937 and remained neutral in World War Two.
After World War Two, India was demanding complete independence and the election of an anti-
imperialist Labour Government in Britain that desired change, helped that cause. In 1947, the British
Government recognised all of the Dominions as completely free and equal nations with Britain. In August
of that year, the British Indian Empire was granted independence as the two new Dominions of India and
Pakistan within the British Commonwealth, retaining the British Monarch as head of state. In 1948,
Ceylon became independent as a Dominion. In that same year, Burma gained independence and broke
away from the British Commonwealth to become a sovereign republic.
In 1949, the government of India drew up a national constitution and stated that it would like to become a
completely independent republic with its own President as head of state. They also desired their own
foreign policy as a fully sovereign nation. However, they wished to remain within the Commonwealth.
This meant that the British Commonwealth had to change.
The issue of countries with constitutional structures not based on a shared Crown, but who wished to
remain members of the Commonwealth, was resolved in April 1949 at a Commonwealth prime ministers'
meeting in London. Under this London Declaration, India agreed that, when it became a republic, in
January 1950, it would accept the British Sovereign as a "symbol of the free association of its
independent member nations and, as such, Head of the Commonwealth" – a purely symbolic position.
However, India would have its own President as its head of state. The other Commonwealth countries in
turn recognised India's continuing membership of the association. (At Pakistan’s insistence, India was not
regarded as an exceptional case and other states would be accorded the same treatment as India.) The title
of British Commonwealth was changed to the Commonwealth of Nations to reflect these changes.
THE BRITISH EMPIRE AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The London Declaration is the beginning of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. Following India's
precedent, other new member nations became republics, or constitutional monarchies with their own
monarchs different from the British. Ireland, however, in 1949, chose to break away from the
Commonwealth when it became a republic. Decolonisation all over the world followed in the 1950’s and
1960’s and a majority of Commonwealth members today are republics with their own Presidents. The
Commonwealth continued to evolve over the years and the first non former British Empire country joined
in 1995 when Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, became a member. Cameroon also includes
mostly former French territory.
Members of the Commonwelth exchange High Commissioners to each other instead of Ambassadors,
recognising the special relationship that they have with each other.
Those members who continued to have the British monarch as head of state would now be called realms
instead of dominions. To recognize the new situation, Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation in 1953,
adopted separate titles for each of her realms to emphasize their independence, instead of using one title
for the whole Commonwealth as had been the case previously.
Withdrawal from the Middle East began with the creation of Israel in the British mandated territory of
Palestine in 1948. Newfoundland joined Canada as its tenth province in 1949. In Egypt, Colonel Nasser
assumed power as President in 1953 and declared the full independence of Egypt from the United
Kingdom on June 18, 1954, after the last British troops left the country, even though it had been officially
independent since 1922. Mandates in Africa and the Pacific had become UN Trust Territories in 1946,
though these continued to be administered as before until being granted independence with similar
colonies in the 1960s. Aborted federations in Central Africa and the West Indies were tried in the 1950’s.
The death knell for the empire really came with the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain, beholden to the US
for billions of dollars of war debt, demonstrated its inability to act on the international stage without the
support of the newly dominant United States (a dominance built to a large extent on Britain’s former
wealth). At around the same time, Britain re-evaluated the value and cost of its colonial possessions, and,
under pressure from the United States and United Nations, began a process of serious decolonisation all
over the world. The rest of British Asia (apart from Hong Kong and Brunei) had gained independence
between 1957 and 1971, when the UK abandoned any pretence of being a sea power outside the Atlantic
and Mediterranean. British Africa had gained independence between 1956 and 1968, and most British
territories in the Caribbean between 1962 and 1983. Almost all of these countries remained as members
of the Commonwealth. South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961 following growing criticism of its
policy of apartheid, but returned after the restoration of majority rule in 1994. Rhodesia declared itself
unilaterally independent in 1965 as a white-ruled state like South Africa, but was never recognized until it
became majority-ruled Zimbabwe in 1980.
Today, the only British Overseas Territories large enough to see on world maps are the Falkland Islands
and South Georgia in the South Atlantic. Against the trend, Britain fought a short but deadly war in 1982
with Argentina to keep these sparsely inhabited, but loyal, islands. Spain also claims Gibraltar, which is
also very loyal to Britain. The remaining British Overseas Territories are either too small to become
independent or wish to remain British. The only remaining colony after 1983 with a significant
population (5 million), Hong Kong, was peacefully returned to China in 1997 after a 99-year lease on its
New Territories had expired.
Although Canada, New Zealand and Australia, plus a number of other nations, still have the British
monarch as their head of state, they are no longer referred to as dominions, and had gradually abandoned
almost all their formal political ties with Britain by the 1980s, by gaining control over their constitutions.
Canada joined the United States and Mexico in forming the North American Free Trade Association
(NAFTA) in 1988. Australia and New Zealand are pursuing economic links with nearby Asian countries.
Decolonisation was hastened by Britain's turning its back on the Commonwealth in economic matters and
entering the European Economic Community (now European Union) in 1973. Empire preferential trade,
established in 1932, was abandoned after this as the UK and Commonwealth countries sought increased
trade with other markets in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
At the same time, the unity of the United Kingdom is itself in question. Since 1999, Scotland has had its
own parliament, for the first time in nearly 300 years, Wales and Northern Ireland have had their own
assemblies. Scottish nationalists, however, still push for complete independence. In 2007, Britain claimed
about 350 square miles (1000 sq km) of seabed off Antarctica, off Ascension Island in the South Atlantic
and off Rockall Island near Scotland for the minerals rights to these areas.
The British Empire was the largest empire in the history of mankind which covered one quarter of the
land territory of the world. The Union Jack flew on every continent. Despite its faults, and the
unfashionable nature of empires in today’s world, the British Empire was arguably the most enlightened
in history, often preserving local customs while spreading technology, human rights, the English
language, Common Law and Parliamentary Government around the world. Its successor, the
Commonwealth of Nations, made up of free and independent states, is a still-growing forum for English-
speaking states that emphasises good governance and respect for human rights. Recent economic trends
have made its member countries retreat into regional blocs for trade; but a stronger, more united
economic Commonwealth of the future can bring together the world’s markets and help guarantee the
survival of the freedoms and traditions which so many in the Commonwealth hold so dear.
THE COMMONWEALTH TODAY
Today, there are 53 independent members of the Commonwealth. 16 have Queen Elizabeth II as head of
state, including the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and realms in the Caribbean and in the Pacific,
32 are republics and 5 have their own monarchies.
Queen Elizabeth II is sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but is also
sovereign of and represented by a Governor General in these countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia,
The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint
Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Queen
Elizabeth II is recognised by all members as Head of the Commonwealth. Some countries have left the
Commonwealth and returned to it. South Africa left in 1961 and returned in 1994 after the abolition of
apartheid in that country, Pakistan left in 1972 and returned in 1989 and Fiji’s membership lapsed after a
coup in 1987 but it returned in 1997. In 1995, Mozambique became the first non-former British Empire
country to join. Rwanda, a former Belgian territory, has applied to join also
After 1954, the British Empire Games became the Commonwealth Games and continue to be held all
over the Commonwealth every four years between the Olympics. A permanent Commonwealth
Secretariat was established in 1965 in London with a Secretary General. The Commonwealth has also
established educational and aid programmes. Commonwealth heads of government meet every two years
to discuss issues that affect the Commonwealth. These meetings began as Colonial and Imperial
Conferences that were always held in London. However, since 1973, they have been rotated around the
Commonwealth. These meetings are called CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings).
Commonwealth finance ministers and parliamentarians also have regular meetings to discuss issues that
affect them all.