British Empire, in history, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the lands and peoples under its control. Although the Empire's foundation dates back to the 16th century, the term “empire" was not used officially until Queen Victoria became empress of India in 1876. During the period of its greatest extent, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British Empire encompassed the largest area ever governed by one country. It was said that the sun never set on the Empire, so vast was its area.
By the mid-20th century, the British Empire had ceased to exist. It had been replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of Britain and many of its former possessions for mutual economic and political benefit. The transition from empire to Commonwealth was the eventual result of Britain's policy, begun in the mid-19th century, of granting self-government (and ultimately independence) to its possessions. (
In the late 15th century, England began seeking new sources of trade and treasure. These explorations led to the addition of new territory and to the establishment of an empire. The development of the empire was made possible, in large measure, by the English navy's control of the seas.
In 1583 England claimed sovereignty over Newfoundland, thus acquiring its first overseas possession. Soon after 1600, the English founded a line of settlement colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America. The East India Company, chartered as a trading company in 1600, began English expansion in Asia. Between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, the company overcame French, Portuguese, and Dutch attempts to oust it from India. It established itself as the ruler of much of India. In 1858 the British government took over the company's rights and responsibilities.
To protect the sea routes to its dependencies, Britain took possession of other territories in widely scattered regions. It acquired some territories by establishing settlement colonies. Australia is an example. Other possessions, such as Singapore, began as trading colonies. Still others, such as the Falkland Islands, came into the empire through discovery and occupation. In many parts of Africa, new regions were first entered by explorers, traders, or missionaries; soldiers then followed to establish protectorates and colonies.
The British gained much territory as a result of wars. They drove the French out of North America after decades of conflict, ending with the Seven Years' War (1756–63). Through the Napoleonic Wars (1800–15), the British won many colonies from the French and the Dutch. During World War I (1914–18), Britain captured German and Turkish possessions, which it then administered as mandates under the League of Nations. Most of these territories became trust territories under the United Nations in 1946, after the League was dissolved.
As various British colonies developed economically and politically, tensions grew within the Empire. The first crack in the imperial structure came as a result of the American Revolution (1775–83). The resulting loss of 13 of Britain's colonies led to a reexamination of colonial policy. Enlightened British statesmen came to accept the doctrine of Adam Smith that both the mother country and the colonies would benefit if the colonies were given greater freedom.
Lord Durham's report of 1839, describing discontent in the Canadian colonies, caused many British officials to urge the granting of self-government to the more politically advanced colonies. Accordingly, Canada was given self-government in 1867, Australia in 1901, New Zealand in 1907, and South Africa in 1910.
When Canada and the other territories were first granted self-government, they were called dominions. They controlled their internal affairs but were dependent upon Great Britain in foreign affairs. Eventually, the dominions were given complete independence. At the Imperial Conference of 1926, the freedom and equality of the dominions were established and the idea of a Commonwealth of Nations was proclaimed. These resolutions were given legal standing by the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
From that time, the dissolution of the Empire and the development of the Commonwealth proceeded simultaneously. The word “empire" was officially dropped in 1947, when King George VI relinquished the title emperor of India upon granting independence to India and Pakistan.