We explain what the British Empire was, how it originated and its political organization. Also, what are their characteristics and territories.

British Empire
The British Empire came to have about 458 million inhabitants.

What was the British Empire?

The British Empire was known as the set of the owned and controlled territories (colonies and protectorates) of the United Kingdom between the 16th and 20th centuries (until 1949). It was one of the largest empires of its time and of all history (some 33,700,000 km2 of surface), whose heyday is between 1880 and 1930.

It is called “British” because the island where most of the United Kingdom is located is called Great Britain.

In the 20th century, the British Empire It came to have about 458 million inhabitants, almost a quarter of the world’s population, in their territories in Europe, America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. This means that he spread his culture, technology and form of government throughout the planet, establishing an economic and political hegemony that left his current heirs in a very good position.

When referring to the British Empire there is usually talk of a first imperial stage in the eighteenth century and a second dating between 1870 and the beginning of the First World War in the 20th century, known as the European “New Imperialism”.

See also: Ottoman Empire

Origin of British Empire

British Empire
British trade allowed the establishment of a new merchant marine system.

British rule of territories outside Europe and the British Isles started between 1485 and 1509.

this was the call maritime age of King Henry VIIwhich started new sea routes for the wool trade.

In this way, a new and modern merchant marine system was established.

Thanks to him many mercantile institutions developed such as the British East India Company, as well as the maritime exercise in Great Britain. This is also how the Royal Navy was born.

Government needed to control and defend British business interests in these distant territories with which they traded. That is why a direct political, economic and military intervention was also initiated.

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This is how satellite territories were inauguratedwhich were either part of the British crown (colonies) or under its “protection”, which meant its political and military administration (protectorates).

Causes of British Empire

The competition with other nascent empires (such as the Spanish or the German) triggered an ambitious struggle for economic and commercial control of the known world. This struggle was further fueled by the discovery of America by the Spanish.

For this reason, these powers faced each other in wars and also sought to sabotage each other’s trade routes. The objective was the hegemony of natural resources in a Europe that had already exhausted its possibilities.

Thus, the young empires found it necessary to strengthen their positions in places of strategic and commercial interest, giving rise to colonies and protectorates. Interventionist policies were formally applied that would henceforth be known as “imperialist”.

Political organization of the British Empire

British Empire
The British Crown is the product of the union between England, Ireland and Scotland.

The British Empire It was run by the British Crown, based in England. It dominated all the local crowns, such as the Scottish or the Asian sultanates and kingdoms. This continued until 1926, when the British Dominions were granted the status of autonomous communities belonging to the British Commonwealth.

The British Crown is a product of the union of the kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland at the beginning of the 17th century, during the reign of James VI, after the death of Elizabeth I of England, last of the Tudor lineage. They remained separate entities sharing a monarch until the 1707 Act of Union formalized the union of those countries.

mercantilist economy

British colonial expansion was characterized by an economic regime known as mercantilism. In it, governments competed fiercely for a finite amount of wealth to be obtained.

Colonial regimes had the disadvantage that they they had to be paid, maintained and directed from the metropolis. This centralized effort that could only be solved by the benefits of raw material coming from all the dominated regions.

In the XVIII century, the empire tried to increase taxes on the trade of the colonies, which brought about (along with other factors) the independence of the United States. As a consequence, Britain adopted a liberal economic philosophy (the “laissez-faire” or “letting go”) following the doctrines of Adam Smith.

A) Yes, the crown could still benefit from commercial control of their former colonies, now self-managed, without having to invest in their defense and organization. This is why this “autonomous colony” criterion was later applied to Canada and Australia, for example.

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Territories that made up the British Empire

british empire hong kong
Hong Kong began to be a strategic port under British rule.

In 1921 the British Empire had reached its greatest territorial extension on the planet, controlling the territories of:

  • Africa. The current territories of Namibia, Ascension, Botswana, Lesotho, Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia, Mauritius, Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, all of Sudan and part of Cameroon, Egypt and Somalia.
  • America. The current territories of Guyana, Belize, Canada, United States, Falkland Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia , Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos Islands, South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia Islands.
  • Asia. Chagos Archipelago, Kuwait, Bahrain, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Tianjin, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives, Iraq, Isreal, Palestine, Nepal, Oman, Jordan, Malaysia and part of Yemen.
  • Europe. Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Channel Islands, Malta, the Isle of Man, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain (the seat of the Empire).
  • Oceania. Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand, Nauru, Pitcairn, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Samoa.

British Indian

Mahatma Gandhi - British Empire
During British India, Mahatma Gandhi makes his appearance.

The case of Great Britain’s imperial policy in India deserves a separate mention. It began in 1858 with the establishment of the British Raj. or “British India”, which encompassed the entire subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

This unit consisted of Hindu kingdoms under British tutelage. It arose after the assets of the British East India Company passed into the hands of the crown, after the Indian rebellion of 1857.

This colonial state prospered during the 19th century, allowing the rise of a new Indian middle class that aspired to a British educational model, while remaining in touch with its local roots. However, the masses impoverished by the unequal system of wealth distribution characterized this huge Asian nation.

In this context, Mahatma Gandhi appears, the spiritual and political leader who led the impoverished masses of India in peaceful rebellion against the colonial economic yoke. He was assassinated in 1948.

However, after World War II, British control in the area had to give in to the partition of the colony into three independent nations: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This process included friction and extremism, since two large religious communities faced each other: Islam and Hinduism.

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Current overseas territories

After having lost most of its overseas territories in the 20th century, the British government maintains the following overseas territories as part of its commonwealth:

Eel Bermuda
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands Cayman Islands
Falkland Islands Turks and Caicos Islands
Pitcairn Islands Montserrat
Gibraltar British Virgin Islands
st. Helen Ascension
Tristan de Acuna isle of man
jersey ballistic British Antarctic Territory (Antarctic treaty limitations)
Chagos Archipelago (disputed) Sovereign bases on the island of Cyprus

Protestant and Anglican religions

Protestantism and Anglicanism were practiced in the British Empire. Both are variants of Christianity influenced by the reformulations of Martin Luther and the Archbishop of Canterbury, respectively.

End of the British Empire

British Empire
The European crisis that resulted from World War II favored decolonization.

After its period of maximum expansion after the First World War (1914-1918), the British Empire faced legal transformations in the status of their domains. This was due to the fact that the dominated territories progressively refused to blindly participate in the military mobilizations undertaken by

This led to various confrontations to achieve independence, which achieved their goals by 1926. Some, such as Iraq and Egypt, achieved their independence but remained under British tutelage. Others achieved their independence. For example, Ireland in 1922 separated from Northern Ireland, still part of the British Commonwealth.

After World War II, the devastation and economic crisis of all of Europe favored a gradual but firm process of decolonization. This was particularly rapid in the African case, in a string of independences, after years of armed struggle: Ghana (1957) and Nigeria (1960), Swaziland (1968) and Seychelles (1976).

British Empire flag

British Empire
The flag of the British Empire is known as the Union Jack or Union Flag.

The flag of the British Empire is known as the union jack either union flag (Union Flag). It combines the colors and shapes of the crosses of the patron saints of England (Saint George), Scotland (Saint Andrew) and Northern Ireland (Saint Patrick), the regions that together with Wales make up the United Kingdom. These crosses appear with the colors red, white and blue.


  • “British Empire” on Wikipedia.
  • “The British Empire” in History Classes.
  • “The British Empire” (video) in ARTEHistoria.
  • “The power of the British Empire” in Very History.
  • “Features of the British Empire” at Encyclopedia.us.
  • “Map: The rise and fall of the British Empire” in The Washington Post.
  • “British empire”in The Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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