The British Empire was the largest empire in history, and for a substantial time was the foremost global power. It was a product of the European age of discovery, which began with the maritime explorations of the 15th century, that sparked the era of the European colonial empires.
By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 36.6 million km² (14.2 million square miles), about a quarter of Earth's total land area. As a result, its legacy is widespread: in legal and governmental systems, economic practice, militarily, educational systems, sports (such as cricket, rugby, and football), traffic practices (such as driving on the left), and in the global spread of the English language. At the peak of its power, it was often said that " the sun never sets on the British Empire" because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations.
During the five decades following World War II, most of the territories of the Empire became independent. Many went on to join the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states.
The Commonwealth of Nations, usually known as the Commonwealth and formerly as the British Commonwealth, is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states, all of which are former British colonies (except for the United Kingdom itself and Mozambique).
The Commonwealth is an international organisation through which countries with diverse social, political, and economic backgrounds cooperate within a framework of common values and goals, outlined in the Singapore Declaration. These include the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism, and world peace!
Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth, recognised by each state, and as such is the symbol of the free association of the organisation's members. This position, however, does not imply political power over Commonwealth member states. In practice, the Queen heads the Commonwealth in a symbolic capacity, and it is the Commonwealth Secretary-General who is the chief executive of the organisation. The Commonwealth is not a political union, and does not allow the United Kingdom to exercise any power over the affairs of the organisation's other members. (more...)
Did you know...
- ...that the Singapore Stone (fragment pictured), a sandstone slab bearing an undeciphered 13th century inscription, was blown up by the British in 1843 to make way for a fort?
- ...that Ethel Benjamin was the first woman in the British Empire to present a legal case in court?
- ...that Major Sir Hamish Forbes, 7th Baronet was awarded the MBE (Military Division) for his many escape attempts while a prisoner-of-war in Germany from 1940 to 1945, and was later patron of the Lonach Highlanders?
- ...that Albert F. A. L. Jones, awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1987 for his services to astronomy, is an amateur astronomer in New Zealand?
- ...that the first shot fired by British Empire forces in World War I was targeted at the German ship Pfalz which was departing Melbourne, Australia as Britain declared war on Germany?
Painting credit: Joshua Reynolds
Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Clive and his family with an Indian maid, painted 1765. Size: 55 by 67 inches (140 by 171 cm). Staatliche Museen, Munich, Germany.
James Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, KT, PC (April 22, 1812 – December 19, 1860) was a British statesman, and a colonial administrator in India.
Born in Dalhousie Castle, Scotland, he crowded into his relatively short life conspicuous public service in the United Kingdom, and established an unrivalled position among the master-builders of the Indian empire. Denounced on the eve of his death and to this day by some as having failed to notice the signs of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and even having aggravated the crisis by his overbearing self-confidence, centralising activity, and reckless annexations. ( more...)
Evolution of the British Empire
This Map animates the Empire's rise and fall.