The British Empire
Episode #7 of the course “The Most Powerful Empires in History”
The British Empire was extremely well-known for its colonization efforts overseas in the 16th Century. At the empire’s height, it controlled 13 million square miles of land, which is nearly one quarter of the land mass of the entire world. This huge territory made it one of the largest empires in history. It contributed to great advances in medicine, art, and engineering, including the creation of penicillin, radar, steam engines, and television.
Britain had colonies in both South and North America, but it relied on merchants and businesses to do much of its colonization. In fact, the British Crown rarely assigned explorers to specific areas. Instead, particular companies and magnates gained control of an area, and then rule was granted to the British government. For example, the areas of Penang, Malacca, Singapore, and Labuan all became colonies because of East India Company activities. Because of the slave trade, Britain also controlled areas of Africa, operating these colonies as monopolized trading posts. The colonies were permitted to ship and receive goods by English ships, but they could not trade with any other people or entity.
Britain won two of the most important parts of the empire from the French in the 18th century—Canada and India. Britain lost the American colonies around the same time that they gained colonies in Australia. The Napoleonic Wars added additional colonies to the empire as well, including what is now Sri Lanka, Malta, Tobago, Mauritius, Malacca, and Saint Lucia.
All of these holdings gave the British access to new resources, markets, and labor, making the empire extremely wealthy. However, each colony gradually announced its independence from Britain, and eventually the British accepted this independence as inevitable in their last remaining colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, but not until the 1960s.
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