The British Empire began in 1578 when Queen Elizabeth I started founding colonies in the Caribbean and North America. It expanded in the following centuries involving frequent fighting with European rivals like the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain over territory in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The loss of the "thirteen colonies" in North America after the American War of Independence was significant, but the zenith of the empire was only reached much later at the end of the 19th century under Queen Victoria, when the Empire very nearly covered one quarter of the land in the world.
During the 20th century, the British Empire was to expand even further following World War I, when Britain was awarded some of the colonial possessions of the defeated Central Powers, reaching its greatest extent in 1921. Eventually, the effects of World War II on the United Kingdom led to a decline of empire, with the independence of most of its colonies in the decades thereafter. After a failed military intervention to hold onto the strategic Suez canal in Egypt in 1956, many regarded Britain to be no longer a global power. The formal handover of its last significant possession, Hong Kong, back to China in 1997 was seen as "the end of the Empire".
Today the empire is now reduced to many small islands and lands as 'British Overseas Territories'. It retains a cultural connection to many of its former colonies through the large Commonwealth of Nations, and some countries such as Australia, Canada and others keep a constitutional connection by having the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as their head of state.
The British empire left a lasting impact on its former possessions, and many British cultural exports continue to be popular in the former colonies. For instance, the game of cricket continues to have a strong following in countries including India, Pakistan and Australia. Association Football (known as soccer in some places after an Oxfordian term) and Rugby football were also invented in England and saw a global spread in part through the empire, although only in rugby is a preeminence of former parts of the Empire still pronounced.
Many former colonies, including Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even the United States, continue to have a legal system that is heavily influenced by English Common Law. Unlike Roman law (which serves as the inspiration for Civil Law in much of continental Europe), Common Law has a very heavy focus on precedent, so a case from England that was settled centuries past may still influence jurisprudence in - say - Australia today. In addition, common law typically adopts an adverserial system, in which the court serves as an impartial referee between the prosecution and the defence, who argue their cases before a judge and depending on circumstances, possibly a jury. This stands in contrast to the inquisitorial system adopted by most civil law jurisdictions, in which the court plays an active role in investigating cases.
Articles about the Empire
There are many articles that cover different aspects of the British Empire:
- United Kingdom — the country that built and ran the empire
- Colonial India and the British Raj — the story of India's time as the largest part of the empire
- Victoria — many places today bear the name of Queen Victoria, who reigned at the peak of the British Empire
- Industrial Britain — the industrial growth of the country during time of empire
- Around the World in Eighty Days - famous story by Jules Verne, detailing a journey through the empire and the rest of the world
- On the trail of Kipling's Kim - an itinerary through the places described in the famous novel set on the British Raj
- United States
- Braddock Expedition — A battle between Britain & France before American independence which saw the emergence of many of the future American independence heroes.
- Early United States history — how the United States became a nation and declared independence from the British Empire
- From Plymouth to Hampton Roads is an itinerary of East coast towns that featured in the early British colonies and later in the War of Independence.
British Overseas Territories
Although the term 'British Empire' is rarely used today, some destinations do remain in the form of 'overseas territories'. They are typically self-governing and do not belong to the European Union. The majority are islands.
- British Virgin Islands
- Falkland Islands
- Turks and Caicos Islands
- Cayman Islands
- Pitcairn Islands
- Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
The Commonwealth of Nations is a loose grouping of 53 countries, most of which are former British colonies. All Commonwealth countries are independent, though some of them still share the same monarch as the United Kingdom, with an appointed Governor-General serving as the monarch's representative in each country. The monarch of the United Kingdom retains the position as Head of the Commonwealth, though this position is purely symbolic and does not carry any powers over member countries. The heads of government of the Commonwealth countries meet every two years at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which is hosted by different member countries, and to which the British monarch typically also attends or sends a member of the royal family as a representative.
The following are a list of some of the 53 former colonial countries that choose to be part of the British Commonwealth, with or without the British monarch as the head of state:
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- Sri Lanka
The Commonwealth Games are a multi-sport games competed by national teams from countries in the Commonwealth, the UK and British Overseas Territories. The games are similar in format to the Summer Olympics, and are held every four years, two years apart from the Olympics. The first games were held in 1930 as the British Empire Games.
- Cricket - is a game played by almost all countries of the commonwealth
- Rugby football - a sport that originated in England and is today played in many nations of the former British Empire, although other countries (such as Argentina, France, Italy and Japan) have also enthusiastically taken it up as well
- Association Football was invented in England and was in part spread through merchants, missionaries, teachers and expatriates throughout the entire world.