The British Empire – where the sun never set 

At its peak the British Empire was the largest empire the world had ever known. It was said ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations. Its power and influence stretched all over the globe for several centuries. For better or worse it had a massive impact on the history of the world. It was a product of the European age of discovery that began with the maritime explorations in the 16th century, which sparked the era of the European colonial empires. The America’s colonisation forming part of the first era of the British Empire. 

Trade by British companies largely drove its expansion. The East India Company in 1600 established outposts in parts of India. This led to expansion in the Far East including Penang and Singapore. The Hudson Bay Company led the way in Eastern Canada. The first permanent presence in Africa was at James Island on the Gambia River. Later the British landed at the Cape of Good Hope, going on to conquer what became South Africa. The Slave Trade in West Africa and the Caribbean flourished. Britain lost America but then went on to acquire New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and other islands in the pacific. The British extended their influence in the sheikdoms of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf including Aden. Malta, Cyprus and Gibraltar became key links through the Mediterranean in the line of communication to India - making use of the newly French built Suez Canal. 

The British Empire’s second era and the one that is most associated with it was in the 19th century. During the Victorian period was when it was at its height. Africa became the forefront of its expansion – Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria. The British East African Company extended its influence in Uganda and Kenya. The British South African Company in Rhodesia, Zambia and Malawi. In 1910, an enthusiastic British public had the vision of an empire that extended from the Cape to Cairo. By 1921, the British Empire ruled over a population of 458m people, approximately one quarter of the world’s population. It covered 36.7 million square kilometres, about a quarter of the earth’s total land area. This included India, Australia, Canada, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Burma and Malaya to name a few. 

The British Empire’s legacy is widespread across the globe. This can be seen in legal and governmental systems, economic practice, the military, educational systems, sports and in the global spread of English. Another success of theEmpire is the infrastructure. Roads and in particular railways were built that still survive largely intact today. Many people still thank the British for building them. The British Empire was largely run by governors appointed by London. As it expanded in the 19th century its administration and policy was tightened. The colonies later obtained such complete control of their status that in 1907 they were given the new status of dominions, which following World War I led to a more formal status of these dominions. 
This allowed them to join the League of Nations which recognised them as independent states equal to Britain. In 1931 the Statute of Westminster recognised them as independent countries ‘within the British Empire, equal in status’ to the United Kingdom. 

Following World War II nationalism prevailed in many countries. Most of the territories of the British Empire were hence granted independence - beginning with India in 1947 followed by Ceylon and Burma in 1948. The Gold Coast (Ghana) was the first African country to become independent. 
The British public no longer actively imperial in its sentiments accepted the idea of independence as a foregone conclusion. Many newly independent countries joined The Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independentstates. Today it survives as a flexible and durable institution. 
Queen Elizabeth II remains as head of The Commonwealth. The last significant British colony, Hong Kong, was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Today virtually nothing remains of the British Empire. America rules the world. As for the future – China is already venturing into Africa where the British and other European countries once ruled! Is history about to be repeated?