Annals Britannica
Annals Britannica
THE GROWTH AND DECLINE
OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
A Blissworks Geopolitical Timeline Series

Introduction

The British Empire was the largest and most complex governing structure the world has ever seen. Different forms of administration evolved to manage the many disparate countries under direct British rule or semi-independent guidance and protection of one sort or another. The cohorts of governing officials were backed by the most powerful navy in the world and by a regular army of tough, disciplined soldiers, recruited from the villages and backstreets in Britain; they were assisted by troops drawn from among indigenous people in some of the distant countries over which the Union flag flew.

Until the twentieth century, British army and imperial officers were nearly all drawn from the ruling gentry and nobility classes. They and the engineers, merchants, businessmen and others required to manage and service a multi-facetted empire, were usually endowed with the same class attitudes and social distinctions which stratified society back in their British homeland. The subtle gradations of the British class system were compounded by an ingrained sense of national pride and self-confidence which was shared by most members of the British hegemony, of all classes, in those far-flung countries. They presumed they were naturally equipped with political, cultural and commercial capabilities which allowed them to assume responsibility over less well-endowed countries and peoples. Their numbers also included teachers, doctors, missionaries, etc., of whom many  regarded service in those foreign lands as a spiritual and moral duty with a responsibility to improve the physical and social conditions of the native populations.

For many centuries, slavery was regarded throughout the world as an ubiquitous part of the human condition. Although slavery was not part of their home culture, English settlers, in need of labour to produce tobacco, sugar and other crops in the hot climates of the New World, soon adopted the Spanish-American colonial custom of using black Africans, brought across the Atlantic, to work in the fields and perform menial household tasks. During the eighteenth century, the growing prosperity of expanding colonial enterprises saw British merchants and ships take a predominant position in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Gradually, religious groups – first the Quakers and then other nonconformist sects and members of the established Church – began to campaign against the whole concept of slavery. Granville Sharp brought the inhumanity of slavery to the attention of the High Court of Justice and, with Thomas Clarkson, he awoke growing numbers of influential British people to the vile conditions of the slave trade. The entrenched power of the slave traders was finally overcome with the help of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary skills and the trade was outlawed in 1806.  The Royal Navy then devoted increasing resources to kill off the trans-Atlantic slave trade, although slavery itself continued to flourish in the British Caribbean colonies, the southern American states, throughout Latin America and in other parts of the world. The British parliament finally acted to end slavery in the empire in 1834 by paying colonial slave-owners to set their slaves free, and the Royal Navy eventually completed its long mission to stop the Atlantic slave trade in 1867.

The British Empire reached its greatest extent in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century when, sometimes in concert with other European nations, the British government assumed control of large areas in Africa and promised protection to many far flung islands in the Pacific, where the indigenous people were protected from the semi-slavery practice of ‘Blackbirding’. In the process of protecting trade and providing protection, the Royal Navy also helped to throttle the long-established Indian Ocean trade in slaves from East Africa.

After the Great War of 1914-19, Britain was mandated by the League of Nations with responsibility for the management of some ex-German colonies and the former Ottoman provinces of Palestine (where a Jewish homeland was declared) and Mesopotamia - where discovery of vast oil deposits soon created a new economic power zone in the world. Those new responsibilities in the Middle East plus growing unrest in India, where Mahatma Gandhi was leading demands for independence, placed an increasing burden on a Britain weakened by the war and adjusting to changing social circumstances at home.

The 1939-45 war was the final catastrophe for the British imperial concept. Japanese wartime conquests in the Far East, a bankrupt treasury and the United States’ steady opposition to colonialism, combined to hasten the end of empire. It was partially succeeded by the Commonwealth of Nations, a confederation of free and independent states which at the present time is still headed by Queen Elizabeth II. Nearly all dominions, ex colonies and protectorates, etc. continued to be members of the Commonwealth as they gained independence. They have been joined by Mozambique and Rwanda, which previously had no British imperial connections. Ireland and Burma (Myanmar) are the major countries with previous imperial links which have no connection to the Commonwealth.

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