40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire

Larry Holzwarth - March 25, 2019

At its height, the British Empire encompassed nearly a quarter of the land mass of the globe, and held sway over almost a quarter of the world’s population. It was the largest empire in history. Its economic might made Great Britain the world’s economic powerhouse, but it had rivals in Asia, Africa, North America, and the Indian subcontinent. It was through the might of the empire that Great Britain survived the World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century… but at a cost. Which made the empire no longer sustainable, and by the end of that century, Great Britain’s influence as a global superpower was gone. Here are 40 historical facts about the empire that it once was and the influence on global affairs it once presented.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The British sea raiders such as Sir Francis Drake captured ships of the Dutch and Spanish returning from the Indies and the New World. Wikimedia

1. It was born through privateering and piracy against Spain.

The British Empire was born before the United Kingdom of England and Scotland was formed – with the raiding of Spanish treasure ships from the New World, and the attacks on slave ships off the coast of Africa. Spain was the world’s dominant power, with both Portugal and Spain establishing colonies and trading stations in the Americas and along the African coasts. Throughout the 16th century English ships raided Spanish possessions, often in acts which were clearly piracy, though thinly veiled as privateering. They were protected by letters of marque from the English throne. Late in the sixteenth century, the English established their first colony in the New World, Roanoke, but it did not survive.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Lost Colony of Roanoke was one of several early British overseas colonies which failed. Wikimedia

2. Several of the early British colonies failed miserably.

Early attempts by the British to establish colonies in the Caribbean failed, including at Guiana, where the expected gold failed to materialize, as well as in Saint Lucia – both prior to the establishment of the colony at Jamestown. Other colonies on Caribbean islands survived, thriving on the production of sugar, which required slave labor. Slaves were provided for the most part by the Dutch, whose ships also acquired the sugar. By the mid-17th century England’s Parliament took steps to eliminate the trade with Dutch ships in order to monopolize the trade of sugar and slaves on English ships, leading to the Anglo-Dutch wars.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
English ships raided those of their rivals on the thinnest of legal pretexts. Wikimedia

3. England conducted trade wars with its ships; more like piracy wars.

The rivalry between the Dutch and the English over trade led to British ships seizing Dutch vessels in a manner which was often piracy. Dutch ships were taken under the veneer of examining cargoes for contraband. It was during the Anglo-Dutch Wars that the Dutch colony of New Netherland was taken by the English and renamed in honor of the Duke of York. Sweden had previously been eliminated from colonial expansion in North America when the Dutch seized their colony of New Sweden and absorbed it into New Netherland. England’s main rival in colonization in the New World shifted to France.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Charter companies were formed to encourage colonization for profit by English investors. Wikimedia

4. The British chartered companies to facilitate colonization.

The Virginia Company was formed to establish the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent at Jamestown. The same company also founded the British colony on Bermuda, though it was an accident caused by the wreck of a ship which was bound to resupply the Jamestown colony. The shipwreck inspired William Shakespeare to write The Tempest. Another company was later formed to operate the Bermuda colony, the Somers Isles Company. In the late 17th century King Charles II granted a royal charter founding the Hudson’s Bay Company, giving it a monopoly on the lucrative fur trade from Canada.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The English colonies on the North American continent became havens from religious persecution. Library of Congress

5. The English colonies in North America were born of religious persecution.

An Atlantic voyage was a perilous journey, fraught with dangers from rival nations, pirates, and the perils of the sea. Yet it was a journey taken willingly by those fleeing religious intolerance and persecution in the 1600s. The colonies which gained the English a toehold in North America were less successful financially for their backers than those of the Caribbean, but more attractive to settlers in search of land on which to build homes and farms. Eventually, thirteen English colonies emerged on the North American continent. Meanwhile, the slave trade provided labor to the colonists and profits to its practitioners. English forts were erected along the African coast to support the slave trade and protect the traders.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The slave trade helped enlarge Britain’s west coast ports and expand its overseas colonies. Wikimedia

6. British ports expanded from the sugar and slave trades.

While London remained the center of British trade, the western port cities of Bristol and Liverpool expanded rapidly, their docks forming one point of what became the Triangle Trade routes. Near the end of the 17th century, the Parliament of Scotland established the Company of Scotland, which tried and failed to create a profitable colony on the Isthmus of Panama. The failure was a financial disaster for Scotland, and was one of the prime factors in the union of the governments of England and Scotland in 1707, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Treaty of Union. By that time, England’s colonial ambitions had already extended into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
A trading post of the Dutch East India Company near the Ganges River in Bengal. Wikimedia

7. Trade in the Indies led to further expansion and bitter rivalries.

In the 16th century, Portugal dominated trade with Asia, a position which began to be challenged by the rival British and Dutch companies. By the end of the century, both the English (later British) and Dutch East India Companies were engaged in the spice trade, which was highly lucrative, particularly the market for pepper. Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, William of Orange became King of England, and the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century came to an end. The English ceded the spice trade to the Dutch, obtaining in return the textiles trade with India. Both companies became financial juggernauts; but the textiles trade eventually grew to be the larger of the two, further strengthening the British economy.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Nearly continuous warfare among the European powers around the world helped the British Empire expand. Wikimedia

8. The continental wars of Europe led to an increase in the British Empire.

During the wars which wracked the European continent through the 18th century, the British Empire expanded its territory, gaining Gibraltar following the War of the Spanish Succession as well as Menorca, and in the New World, France was forced to cede Acadia and Newfoundland. Warfare on the Indian subcontinent led to the expansion of British held territory there, under the control of the British East India Company, at the expense of its French counterpart. By the mid-18th century, a series of wars had been fought by the British and its North American colonies against the French and their Indian allies over French possessions in America. In 1763, France was effectively eliminated as a colonial power in the New World.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The loss of the 13 American colonies reduced the size of the British Empire, though it retained Canada and its Caribbean colonies. Wikimedia

9. The American Revolution ended with the first reduction of British Empire territory.

The American Revolution removed the thirteen North American colonies from the British Empire, but it also ensured that Great Britain would become the first global superpower. France was left bankrupt from the war, and was soon torn by a revolution of its own. The British colonies in the Caribbean remained lucrative sources of income to British traders, and Canada and its furs and timber remained another source of wealth for the empire. Great Britain had, by the end of the American Revolution, consolidated its power in India, and its ships had expanded the British influence in the Pacific, including the newly explored continent of Australia.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The loss of the American colonies led Britain to transport convicts to the colony of New South Wales in Australia. Wikimedia

10. Criminal sentencing helped to expand the Empire into Australia in the late 1700s.

Following the loss of the thirteen American colonies, the courts of Great Britain no longer had the option of sentencing felons to transportation to America (which was one of the grievances mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence). James Cook had explored the East Coast of Australia in 1770 and claimed the continent for Great Britain. The Dutch had discovered the West Coast in 1606, named it New Holland, but otherwise left it alone. Cook named the areas he claimed New South Wales, and his botanist on the voyage charted Botany Bay, presenting it to Parliament as an alternative to North America for the transportation of convicts.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
A depiction of the indigenous people of the land which became the British colony of New South Wales. Wikimedia

11. New South Wales became a successful colony in the 19th century.

Starting with the first arrival of transport ships in 1788, New South Wales grew rapidly. Sheep (and later gold) became its main source of income, and Great Britain continued to transport felons to the colony through the first four decades of the 19th century. Other colonies on the Australian continent, as well as New Zealand and Tasmania, continued to receive felons until the late 1860s. The colony of Victoria experienced several gold rushes which fueled its growth and made its capital, Melbourne, the second largest city of the British Empire for a time, second only to London. As Australia grew, Great Britain continued to expand the territory it controlled around the world.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Britisih fought Napoleon with little regard for the neutrality claims of other nations, determined to contain the French Empire. Wikimedia

12. The Napoleonic Wars led to the ruthless expansion of the Empire due to fear of invasion.

England fought Napoleon’s empire through its own Navy, which established control of the seas and blockaded continental ports, and through the economic might of its empire, which it used to help fund the several coalitions formed to depose the French emperor. It also routinely violated the neutrality of other nations, including the Danes and the United States. The ruthlessness of the manner in which Great Britain battled Napoleon was based on its determination to protect itself from the possibility of invasion at first, and later its desire to ensure that it would become the leading economic power of Europe.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Cape Colony was considered for another penal colony in the mid-19th century. Wikimedia

13. Expansion in the Mediterranean and Africa followed the Napoleonic era – triggering warfare for decades to come.

After the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, Great Britain added the Ionian Islands and Malta to its territorial holdings, and further expanded its empire in the Caribbean. The Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope was taken by Great Britain during the Napoleonic wars and the British retained it when the conflict ended. In 1820, Great Britain began to colonize the area, leading to the displacement of Dutch settlers who began to resettle further inland, creating the Boer colonies of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. This created the conditions of resentment which eventually led to open warfare decades later. It also led to armed conflict with the natives, who did not welcome either the Dutch or the British.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
A Cruikshank caricature supporting the abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire. Wikimedia

14. Abolition of the slave trade occurred during the Napoleonic Wars… but the abolition of slavery itself was still an issue.

In 1807, the British Parliament abolished the slave trade, though not slavery, within the British Empire. The following year, the colony of Sierra Leone was established as a Crown Colony. It was designated as a refuge for freed slaves. Throughout the British Empire, the practice of slavery continued, though both Great Britain and the United States patrolled the coasts of Africa to suppress the trade in human beings. Many of the lucrative sources of income for the British Empire remained labor intensive, such as the sugar plantations in the Caribbean and the emerging tobacco and coffee plantations in Africa. The abolition movement in Great Britain, and in the northern United States, continued to lobby for the end of slavery, though it continued as “economic necessity” for many years.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
With Napoleon disposed of the Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe, while the British Empire set out to redraw the map of the world. Wikimedia

15. Great Britain was the most dominant military and economic power, leading to the beginning of an iron-fisted Empire.

Following the final defeat of Napoleon, Great Britain was the dominant European military power and possessor of the most powerful Navy on earth. Its Navy remained the largest in the world until surpassed by the Americans’ during the World War II. Britain’s naval and economic strength was such that it exerted control over the economies of nations not within its empire, through trade policies. Not content with the size and scope of the empire, Great Britain continued to expand its global territorial holdings, though economic pressures, open warfare, and the suppression of native peoples who were not enamored with the presence of the British and the exploitation of their lands.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Throughout the empire the British recruited, trained, and equipped local troops to maintain order and fight enemies of the British. Wikimedia

16. The British Empire converted natives into British troops that would fight wars for them.

Throughout its administration of the empire, Great Britain trained native troops to serve as the enforcement authority of their fellows, usually under British officers. To do so, they exploited native tribal rivalries, choosing one side over the other. Before the Napoleonic wars ended, Great Britain exerted increased authority over the East India Company in India, which had become one of the most lucrative colonies. By the middle of the 19th century, it was the single most valuable of all Great Britain’s possessions. In the late 1850s, Indian troops rebelled against British rule, and in 1858, Great Britain dissolved the East India Company after brutally suppressing the rebellion.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Pax Brittanica was a century of almost constant conflict between the British and their subjects throughout the empire. Wikimedia

17. The era of Pax Brittanica (aka “British Peace”) is a misnomer… it was a very violent and unsettling time.

During the century between the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War I, Great Britain assumed the role of global policeman, an era often referred to as the Pax Brittanica, or British Peace. It was far from peaceful. Native rebellions and warfare occurred almost continuously throughout the period; in India, Africa, China, and virtually everywhere the British flag flew. There were wars in Afghanistan, which became a running sore in the side of the British lion, and with the Dutch Boers in Africa. There was war with the Russian Empire over Crimea. Wars of conquest were fought in Africa and central Asia. Rather than 100 years of peace, the Pax Brittanica was a century of suppression and conflict.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The British dominions in Upper and Lower Canada were troubled with insurrection and natives which chafed at British rule. Wikimedia

18. Armed rebellions in British Canada demonstrated resentment at local governments put into place by the British Empire.

Resentment against the ineffective British government installed in Canada led to armed rebellions in North America during 1837 and 1838. Canada was divided into the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, with separate governments and constitutions. Ineffective governance and poor crop yields led to armed rebellions, with some support from American sympathizers. The rebellions were directed not so much at Great Britain itself, but toward the local representatives of government and the corruption which was the result of the inefficient system adopted. Following the 1840 Act of Union, which merged Upper and Lower Canada as the Province of Canada, French Canadians continued to demonstrate resentment against Great Britain.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The British Empire opposed the French building of the Suez Canal under Napoleon III, and maneuvered to gain control of the passage when completed. Wikimedia

19. Great Britain maneuvered to seize control of the Suez Canal by employing dirty and clever tricks against the French.

The British government opposed the construction of the Suez Canal when it began in 1859. The British instigated rebellions and work stoppages among the workers and forced laborers to hinder the French construction. Once it was opened in 1869, they moved to seize control of the waterway. In 1875, the British government purchased 44% interest in the canal after creating the financial crisis which forced the previous owner to sell, though the French still maintained majority control. In 1882, Great Britain occupied Egypt, ostensibly to quell civil disturbances, and assumed control of the canal, though it was officially neutral territory under British “protection”.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Henry Bartle Frere issued an impossible ultimatum to the Zulu people in order to justify attacking them. Wikimedia

20. The Anglo-Zulu War destroyed Zulu culture and divided the territory into 13 separate kingdoms.

In 1878, Sir Henry Frere created a crisis in the African Kingdom of Zululand by delivering a demand that the native Zulu army disband and that certain aspects of Zulu culture be abandoned in favor of British customs. Unable to comply, the Zulu people rebelled against the British and the Anglo-Zulu War began in January 1879. By the end of July, the war was over and the Kingdom of Zululand was divided into 13 separate kingdoms, each ruled by a leader compliant with British demands. The former Kingdom of Zululand became a part of the British territory in Africa, another addition to the British Empire.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Lord Kitchener’s indifference to the women and children imprisoned in British concentration camps led to the deaths of thousands. Library of Congress

21. The British Empire introduced concentration camps during the Second Boer War.

During the Second Boer War, British commander, Lord Kitchener, decided upon a scorched earth policy to eliminate the guerillas which were plaguing their British masters: “organized like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly ‘bag’ of killed, captured, and wounded”. Kitchener ordered his troops to eliminate anything which potentially could provide aid to guerilla fighters, “including women and children”. Women and children were systematically herded into concentration camps, where disease, malnutrition, and poor sanitation led to the deaths of thousands. In total, 45 camps were built for the Boers, and another 64 for black African natives. Kitchener remained indifferent to the conditions in the camp despite public outcry in Great Britain.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
A satirical French cartoon depicts an Englishman demanding that the Emperor of China purchase his opium. Wikimedia

22. The First Opium War started due to the British smuggling opium into China and ended with the Empire taking Hong Kong control… but that wasn’t enough.

The British East India Company began smuggling opium into China before the American Revolution, and by the turn of the 19th century Great Britain was the leading supplier of opium to China, though far from the only one. The United States and France maintained a high level of opium trade into China as well. In 1839, the First Opium War was fought between the British Empire and the Chinese, ending with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Great Britain claimed Hong Kong for all time in the treaty, and achieved most favored nation status, and created the free trade ports of Canton, Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, and Amoy. Despite Chinese protests to the British government, traders from Great Britain continued to import opium into China.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Opium Wars were trade wars fought with guns rather than tariffs. The British forced the Chinese to make the opium trade legal. Wikimedia

23. The Second Opium War further imposed the will of the British Empire in China by trying to legalize the opium trade so they could capitalize on the 12-15 million citizens addicted to the drug.

Following the First Opium War, British traders lobbied for the legalization of the opium trade and demanded that the Treaty of Nanking be renegotiated, opening all of China to British trade. When the Chinese refused the British demands, diplomatic efforts to resolve the outstanding issues failed. With the support of the French, Great Britain initiated a second war in China, which overthrew the Emperor and deposed the government. The conditions of peace imposed by the British Empire included the opening of all China to British trade and the legalization of the opium trade throughout China, where an estimated 12-15 million people were addicted to its use.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Like other of the empire’s internal wars, the British fought the Anglo-Afghan War with largly Indian troops. Wikimedia

24. The British disaster in Afghanistan used Indian and Sikh troops to trample on the unsuspecting Middle East.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the only continental rival to the British Empire was the Russian Empire. When Russia exhibited adventurism in Turkey and Persia in the 1830s, the British were concerned about their intentions regarding the British holdings in India. To deter the Russians, the British decided to occupy Afghanistan, though the resident Afghanis were not consulted. Using primarily Indian and Sikh troops, the British invaded, captured Kabul, installed a new leader consistent with their aims, and then lost most of the withdrawing army in January 1842. The British responded with another invasion to destroy most of the capital and exact retribution on the Afghani people.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Bengal troops, miners and engineers, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Wikimedia

25. The second invasion of Afghanistan in 1878 was just as devastating.

In 1878, for reasons similar to those in the 1830s, the British again invaded Afghanistan using Indian troops, intent on creating a buffer state between Russia and India. When the Afghanis welcomed a Russian diplomatic mission but refused a British, the invasion was launched. Britain forced the Afghanis to cede territory along the Indian border, and though they guaranteed Afghanistan its freedom. The British assumed all foreign relations responsibilities for the nation, in effect, making it part of the British Empire. Although the British troops withdrew from Afghanistan following the war in 1881, they remained as garrisons in the ceded territories.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Royal Navy was kept busy with the administrative and communication duties of maintaining the empire for more than a century. Wikimedia

26. Administering the British Empire before telecommunications made it simple.

Before the telegraph connected the vast British Empire, the communications between the British Isles and its dominions overseas were in the hands of the Royal Navy and the diplomats it occasionally carried to its destinations. Often, diplomacy was the purview of the ships’ captains, backed by the big guns of the squadrons. During the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, a naval race emerged between the great powers, with Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the United States creating fleets to patrol their growing overseas empires, and deliver the instructions from their capitals to their distant subjects. Overseas coaling stations for ships became critical components of imperial growth.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The All Red Line allowed London to communicate across the Empire at the dawn of the 20th century. Wikimedia

27. The All Red Line created the ability to rule over the ever-growing British Empire with simple telegraphs.

In the 1860s, telegraph cables began to link the far flung British Empire, enabling the government in London to monitor situations around the globe and respond far more quickly than by dispatching ships to areas in crisis. By 1876, cables could be sent from London to Sydney, and thence to New Zealand. By 1911 – three years before the First World War broke out – the global telegraph system, known informally as the All Red Line, connected London with all but the most remote sections of the British Empire. The system remained in place and operated throughout the war, allowing the British superior command and control of their global assets throughout the conflict.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
British global dominance in 1907, with the dominions of the empire bordered in red. Wikimedia

28. The tools of the British Empire created scientific breakthroughs that rippled through history.

The development of steamships, railroads, canals, and other symbols of the industrial age are often cited as critical factors in the expansion of the British Empire, as indeed they were. Military strength and the use of Christian missionaries to convert and pacify native populations are also well represented as necessities for the European empires. Often overlooked, are advances in medical knowledge, in particular quinine as a treatment for the tropical disease of malaria. The use of quinine made the occupation of tropical Africa possible by European settlers and the rich mineral deposits of the continent made the occupation desirable. The empires of Europe, Britain among them, divided Africa among themselves.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
British Marines after capturing the palace in Zanzibar, during another outbreak of violence during the Pax Brittanica. Wikimedia

29. The scramble for Africa was taken to the global stage by creating the Berlin Conference, a meeting of major countries… Africa was not invited.

The division of Africa into European colonies was discussed and agreed to during a formal conference in Berlin, attended by representatives of 13 European nations, plus the United States. There were no representatives from Africa. Although the push inland from the African coasts was already underway, and several of the nations represented at the conference already had bilateral agreements over the division of the continent, the Berlin Conference formalized European carving up of Africa. The conference agreed that under colonial rule all slavery practiced by natives in Africa would be ended, as well as among Islamic states and realms, as a means of justifying the forced colonization.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Four solders of the King’s African Rifles (Kenya) prior to World War I. Wikimedia

30. The push to colonize African lands left Europe in a map race to build up territories as quickly as possible- destroying African culture and lands.

The British Empire controlled vast tracts of land in Africa, but the Berlin Conference adopted the principle of Effective Occupation. It wasn’t enough to claim territories simply on a map, the area had to be placed under occupation of European settlers. British settlers were encouraged through numerous means to settle in British possessions in Africa, displacing the native peoples as they created vast plantations and built infrastructure, their European rivals doing the same in their territories. The peoples of Africa rose up against the British and the other European imperialists, one more example of the Pax Brittanica not having much in it in the way of Pax.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific ocean were part of the British dominions before the Japanese took them during World War II. Wikimedia

31. The British Empire in the Western Pacific largely took advantage of smaller islands.

The British Empire extended in the Pacific beyond the colonies in Australia and New Zealand. Several Pacific Island groups were part of the British Empire, including the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and many others. The British-controlled islands in the Pacific were necessary for the purpose of providing firewood and drinking water during the days of sail, and later coal for steamers. During the World War II, the British temporarily lost control of the Solomon Islands to the Japanese, and they were retaken by the Americans during the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands campaigns. They were later returned to British control.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
British Burma was never fully pacified, with Burmese monks leading the opposition against the British occupiers. Wikimedia

32. The British Empire in Burma took three wars and over 60 years of fighting.

From its base in India, and using predominantly Indian native troops, the British Empire fought three wars of conquest over a period of sixty years before subduing Burma and creating British Burma on New Year’s Day, 1886. The British established Rangoon as the capital, linking the empire’s critical ports of Singapore and Calcutta. The Burmese people were not willing subjects of the British Empire, an impertinence which was led by Burmese monks and created a contentious environment up to the time of the Japanese invasion of the territory during World War II. During the war, Burmese troops supported both sides, with some fighting for the Japanese and others in the British Burmese Army.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Chinese laborers at a pepper plantation in British Singapore. Wikimedia

33. The occupation of Singapore was desirable for its strategic location.

The British Empire expanded to Singapore in 1819, with the establishment of a trading port at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Colonial Singapore was a major link in the chain of empire, due to its strategic location, its superb harbor, and its access to raw materials such as timber, which made it an ideal location for the maintenance of wooden ships. By 1824, Singapore was ceded to the British in perpetuity. Despite British administration and control of the colony’s economy, the majority of the population over the years were Chinese, fleeing the trepidations of the Opium Wars and other strife in China. Singapore fell to the Japanese in early 1942, one of the worst defeats suffered by the Allies during World War II.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Winston Churchill, an unabashed lifelong imperialist, in 1901. Wikimedia

34. Winston Churchill was the epitome of the British Empire.

Born in 1874, Winston Spencer Churchill (who was half American), symbolized the English upper-class and what became known as the White Man’s Burden after Rudyard Kipling published a poem of that name. Churchill was a lifelong advocate of British imperialism, who managed to convince the western world that, despite controlling the largest empire in world history, Great Britain was but a small island battling the Germans alone during World War II. Following the war, he advocated suppression of the independence movements which erupted throughout the empire, especially in India and Singapore. For Churchill, World War II had been about saving the British Empire as much as defeating Nazism.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Battleships being dismantled in Philadelphia following the Washington Naval Treaty between the World Wars. Wikimedia

35. World War I changed the British Empire by aligning Great Britain with the United States and the independence of the Irish Free State.

Following the First World War, the world order changed dramatically. The United States Navy grew exponentially during the war and its main focus was on Japanese adventurism in the Pacific. Great Britain, formerly allied with Japan, shifted to align itself with American interests. The Naval treaty negotiations during the 1920s allowed the US Navy and the Royal Navy to reach parity. One of the first pieces of the British Empire, Ireland, rose in revolt, which ended in 1921 with the creation of the Irish Free State. Within the empire, rumblings for independence shook its core, particularly in India and Egypt. The latter was granted independence in 1922, though British troops remained in the Canal Zone.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
King Faisal I visiting the Iraqi parliament in 1932. Wikimedia

36. Iraq was declared a British mandate in 1921 and the Empire installed an Iraqi King.

In the aftermath of World War I, the territories of North Africa and the Mideast were in turmoil. Armed insurgency in modern Iraq by nationalists who wanted to remove British control of the region, led to concessions by the British, who essentially installed Faisal ibn Husayn as King of Iraq, confident that he was controllable. British forces remained in Iraq, and British troops created, trained, and armed an Iraqi army. In 1930, a second treaty was negotiated which established mutual defense between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Iraq. In 1932, Iraq became fully independent, remaining so until the 1958 revolution.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
The Japanese attacks of 1941-42 demonstrated that Great Britain was no longer able to defend its empire alone. Wikimedia

37. The Empire’s cracks were revealed by the Japanese attacks in 1941 and 1942.

With Great Britain fully engaged with the Germans in 1941, the Japanese struck at points of the Empire in the Pacific, including Hong Kong, Burma, and Singapore, threatening India, Australia, and New Zealand. Both Australia and New Zealand became more aligned with American policy and strategy in the Pacific War. Indian troops fought against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater, under British command. But the main thrust across the Pacific was under American control, supported by the Australians and New Zealanders. The war revealed that Great Britain, even with its powerful navy, could no longer defend the entire British Empire.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was the last British Viceroy of India. Wikimedia

38. The Empire declined quickly following World War II.

When World War II ended, the United States was the only power equipped with the atomic bomb, and the European continent was dominated by the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Royal Navy was dwarfed by the US Navy, especially in the area of more modern ships. Great Britain was saved from complete financial collapse only through an emergency loan from the American government (the British paid the final installment on the loan in 2006). America’s goal in the developing Cold War was the containment of communism, and supported maintaining the British Empire only so far as it contributed to that achieving that aim.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
Churchill arrived at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 determined to preserve the empire, but he was replaced before the conference was over. Wikimedia

39. Churchill’s defeat in 1945 meant the Empire was doomed.

When Clement Attlee and the Labour Party prevailed in the British elections in 1945, the greatest defender of the British Empire, Winston Churchill, fell from power. The Labour government believed that Great Britain could no longer afford the Empire nor defend it from insurrection within or aggression from without. Pressures in India reached the point that all out civil war was threatened, and the last British Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, set the date for Indian independence as August 15, 1947. The partitioning of the subcontinent created the independent states of Pakistan and India, displaced millions along religious lines, and led to decades of strife, poverty, and famine.

40 Violent Realities in the Making of the British Empire
In the early 1980s Great Britain and Argentina fought a war over possession of the Falkland Islands. Wikimedia

40. What’s left of the British Empire?

In 2002, the remaining 14 territories over which Great Britain held sovereignty were named the British Overseas Territories. Several of them remain disputed. Spain has claimed Gibraltar for over two centuries, and the British fought a war in the 1980s over disputes with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The legacy of the British Empire and its dissolution includes ongoing factional and religious strife in the Mideast, the India-Pakistani border, and in South America. Similar problems exist in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other areas where white settlers entered into conflicts with indigenous peoples. The British Empire spread the parliamentary system around the globe (though not in America or most of Africa), and the Commonwealth of Nations claims 52 nations as members, former colonies and protectorates of the Empire upon which, it was said, the sun never sets.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Spanish Seaborne Empire”. John Horace Parry. 1966

“Failed Colonies”. National Humanities Center Toolbox Library. Online

“What was New Netherland?” New Netherland Institute. Online

“Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World”. Niall Ferguson. 2003

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