3. The British Empire at its height controlled more than one quarter of the world’s landmass
The British Empire, born of overseas trading posts and possessions, reached its peak on the eve of the First World War. It began as Spain expanded its power across the globe, in rivalry with the Spanish, French, and Dutch. Despite losing its colonial holdings in North America following the American Revolution, Britain’s empire continued to expand, in India, Asia, Africa, and British Canada. In the late 18th century it included Australia and New Zealand, both developed as colonies to replace those lost to the United States. As Spanish power ebbed, Britain’s grew, and to defend its territories it developed the most powerful navy in the world.
Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, Britain dominated the world’s trade and the economies of roughly one quarter of the globe. Economically, its chief rivals became the United States, and in the second half of the 19th century, a unified Germany. From the fall of Napoleon until the onset of World War One, a century of nearly continuous warfare across the globe, Great Britain, through its economic and military strength, acted as the world’s policeman. The period became known as the Pax Britannica (British Peace). During the so-called time of peace, Britain fought wars in Afghanistan, the Crimea, China, South Africa, East Africa, Sudan, Egypt, and many others.
Britain drew on its imperial holdings to supplement its military forces with “colonial troops” during its many wars. At sea, the Royal Navy remained the world’s most powerful until surpassed by the United States during World War II. After the war a bankrupt Great Britain found the cost of maintaining and defending an empire too expensive. Britain’s position as a global power declined, and its empire withered. The remains of the British Empire can be found in today’s Commonwealth of Nation. Of its 54 member states are nearly all former territories of the Empire.