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The British Empire: The Good, Bad, and Ugly Details of The World’s Largest Empire

Said to be the empire on which the sun never set, the British Empire at its peak covered an extraordinary quarter of the landmass around the world, despite Britain itself accounting for just 242,495 km² (93,637 sq miles) – making it only the 80th largest country in the world – wedged between Guinea and Uganda in terms of size, just in case you’re interested.     

By 1913, the British Empire included some 412 million people scattered across seven different continents and the two World Wars of the 20th Century saw soldiers drawn from all corners of the globe to fight under the British banner. The scale of the British Empire was astonishing and the fact that such a small island was able to exert so much control over so much land, is a feat that may never be achieved again.     

But of course, this is a story that is far darker than mere nostalgic triumph. The tale of the British Empire is one that was often built upon the pain, suffering and death of those it sought to subjugate. The grand empire that expanded out from London may have reached new heights in terms of size, technological advancement, trade and exploration, but it usually came at a painful cost, with effects still felt today.   

We’re not going to sugarcoat the British Empire today, but equally, so we’re not going to present you with 20 minutes worth of colonial horror – though we probably could. This is a topic that has become decidedly dicey to discuss in recent years, but avoiding talking about history rarely gets us anywhere. The story of the rise of the British Empire is both horrifying and fascinating. 

Empires  

If we’ve learnt anything about history, it is that Empires rise and fall with a surprisingly regular pattern. Some last for decades, others stretch to more than a thousand years, but eventually they all fall. The Pandyan Empire is generally regarded as the longest-lasting empire in history, clocking up an impressive 1,850 years. If you’re now scratching your head wondering why on earth you’ve never heard of the Pandyan Empire, well that just reiterates my point that empires come and go. But it was in Southern India from around the 5th Century AD.

Extent of Pandya Territories under Jatavarman Sundara Pandya I (1251 – 1283 C.E.).By Venu62, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

If we’re talking about size, then it’s hard to look past the subject of our video today because the British Empire eventually covered 35.5 million sq kilometres (13.71 million sq miles.) But if you’re interested in the largest contiguous empire – and I’m sure you are – then we can talk about the second on the list, the Mongol Empire which reached its peak in 1270 AD and covered 24 million sq kilometres (9.27 million sq miles) – which is two and half times the size of the U.S. They also butchered their way across the empire, killing maybe as many as 40 million people in the process – but that’s another story.  

Olde Britain

Considering how large the British Empire grew in such a relatively short period, it’s important to remember where it all came from because you don’t need to go far back to find a fairly insignificant nation. The British were beaten into submission by the Romans from 43 AD onwards who ruled over the island for around three and half centuries. Once the Romans left, Britain saw Germanic Anglo-Saxons arrive, along with Vikings from Scandinavia. It’s also worth pointing out that Britain was not a unified country at this point, with England, Wales and Scotland operating independently and at times with multiple groups fighting each other or begrudgingly co-existing. 

In 1066, Britain was invaded by the Normans, who eventually conquered Wales, most of Ireland and gave it a damn good go up in Scotland – but if you’ve ever seen Braveheart, you’ll know how that ended. Britain came under single rule in 1603 when James I of Scotland also inherited the English crown and on 1st May 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain was officially formed after the Acts of Unions were passed in both English and Scottish parliaments. 

Now, I’ve definitely skipped over a few things there, most notably the near-constant bickering and conflict with the French and the fairly vicious Civil War that tore the country apart between 1642 and 1651.

During the late 15th and early 16th Century, Britain was hardly a major player on the world stage, and in fact, was only one of several European nations that would eventually compete for global supremacy. Most notably was Spain, who was already dominating South America, Portugal, with its trading posts around the world, Holland, who were busy setting up colonies in Asia, South America and Africa and of course, the French, who began exploring and colonising what is Canada today in 1534.  

Early Colonies

My point is that Britain’s place as would-be rulers of large swaths of the world was far from set at this point, in fact, if you’d had to place a bet on it by the end of the 15th Century, you probably wouldn’t have backed Britain.

And what better foundation to build an Empire on than piracy. That’s right, considering how snooty we became over the coming centuries, it is somewhat ironic that it all began with Elizabeth I authorising ships to intercept and plunder Spanish and Portuguese ships returning from the Americas laden with treasure. 

When you think about Britain’s first colony you might be slightly surprised to find that it was much closer to home than some of the far-flung, exotic locations that would eventually make up the British Empire. Between the 1550s and 1620s, Britain began colonizing parts of Ireland, which essentially involved kicking the native Irish off their land and replacing them with British settlers. Four hundred years later and we are still experiencing the sectarian hatred that sprouted from these British colonies. 

The first colony established further afield was the Roanoke Colony in what is present-day South Carolina in 1585. Things didn’t exactly go well here, and after a delayed return, it was found entirely abandoned in 1590 with no trace of its inhabitants ever found, apart from a cryptic message, reading “CROATOAN,” carved into one of the buildings. This was Britain’s early foray across the Atlantic, but as we know, things progressed quickly from there. 

The Americas  

While they may have attempted to stake their claim in what would be the continental U.S quite early, it was the Caribbean that held more interest to the British. Colonies in St Lucia and Grenada were established in 1605 and 1609 respectively, but both collapsed quickly in the face of incessant pressure from the local populations. 

Things went better for the British in St. Kitts in 1624, Barbados in 1627, and Nevis in 1628 where Britain was able to establish sugar plantations in the same mould as the Portuguese in Brazil. This was followed by the annexation of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and the colonisation of Barbados in 1666. 

Further north, the first proper colony in what is now the United States was Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 and if you want to know more about that particular colony, we’ve already covered it here on Megaprojects, so why not take a look after this. Things spread quickly from there with several religious groups escaping persecution, along with others simply looking for the ultimate new start, arriving in the New World over the coming years and the eventual establishment of the 13th Colonies. 

Now, the British got involved in some pretty dark acts as the empire expanded, but we can’t talk about the establishment of the colonies in the Americas without addressing the monstrous elephant in the room. It’s estimated that British ships transported roughly 3.1 million African slaves across the Atlantic to work in plantations in the Caribbean and North America. And that’s the number of how many left Africa. With a mortality rate of 1 in 7, perhaps as many as 400,000 to 500,000 slaves died on route under the most horrifying conditions. 

To our modern minds, this is little more than utter savagery, but this practice was wholeheartedly condoned by British authorities until 1807 when it abolished slavery. And let’s be brutally honest here, the slave trade was a spectacular financial success and much of Britain’s early power was built upon this horrifying industry, with cities like Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol growing exponentially on the back of slavery. 

India   

And so from one heinous exploitation to another. When the British first arrived in India in 1606, it’s fair to say that few would have dared dream just how significant India would become to Britain – the jewel in the crown as it came to be known. But things were not quite so cut and dry here. 

Ship of the Dutch East India Company
Ship of the Dutch East India Company.By Thomas Quine is licensed under CC-BY

In the early days, the British East India Company – an organization set up to facilitate trade in the Indian Subcontinent – established a series of trading posts along the coast with the full consent of either local tribes or the Mughal emperor. Britain by no means “invaded” India and in fact, joined a series of European nations that were trading with groups in the region. However – and you knew that that was coming right – the East India Company slowly but surely began worming their way into power by purchasing land and at times using intimidation or outright violence. They may have seemed like fairly innocent traders when they arrived, but the East India Company, which I should add also had an army of over 250,00 men, evolved into an insidious organization that began to quietly dominate large areas of India. 

India proved to be a goldmine for the East India Company and consequently, for Britain also. One of the major commodities was opium, which was increasingly exported to China. This caused such an addiction problem it was banned by the Qing dynasty in 1729, but the British weren’t about to allow a perfectly profitable business collapse. This resulted in not one, but two opium wars which led to British and eventually French troops barging their way into China to “restore order” – and which led to Britain’s 99-year lease of Hong Kong. 

Apart from opium, the British profited handsomely from India by selling on its raw materials with huge markups abroad, while taxing the population to within an inch of their lives. Things exploded in 1857 with the Indian Rebellion, where the local population rose with greater force than ever before, leading to the deaths of 6,000 British soldiers, and shockingly, perhaps as many as 800,000 Indian deaths. This was ultimately put down, but led to the disbandment of the East India Company, with the British government taking formal control over India. But this was just the start. Famines had become a horrifying part of life in the Indian Subcontinent, and the Great famine between 1876 and 1878 claimed between 5 million and 15 million lives, depending on your source. This did lead to a series of policy changes that stabilized food production and distribution and widespread famine was largely a thing of the past by the early 20th Century – with the major exception being the Bengal famine of 1943 in which up to 3 million people died.  

Before we move on, and to really give you an idea of the economic motherload that India became to Britain, I shall leave you with the figure of $45 trillion. That’s the number that economist Utsa Patnaik recently calculated that Britain effectively made from its rule in India. 

Loss and Gain – The United States and Australia  

The first true sucker punch delivered to that British stiff upper lip came with the loss of the 13 colonies in what is today the United States. In the years that followed, the British would attempt to portray an air of ambivalence over the loss of their colonies across the Atlantic, but they certainly put up a hell of a fight over them. 

The American Revolutionary War began in 1775 and lasted eight years, in which things swung back and forth. Had the British been more decisive in the early years, it’s entirely likely that this particular war would have gone the other way, but as the Continental Army grew in size and confidence they eventually prevailed. Oh, and yes, there was the French, who supplied the money, troops, armament, and naval support that helped to tip the balance. A fact that was conveniently forgotten in 2003 with the furious American response to the French decision not to join the Second Gulf War – freedom fries anyone? But I bet the cowardly French felt rather embarrassed when the U.S and Britain finally found all of those weapons of mass…..

Sometimes you’ve just gotta throw a hand grenade into the comments section and just see what happens. 

Anyway, Britain’s pain at losing the 13 colonies was eased considerably with another monstrous addition to the Empire – Australia. While the Dutch had been the first Europeans to land on the continent in the late 17th Century, it wasn’t until James Cook landed there in 1770 that it was formally claimed by the British Crown. Isn’t it unbelievable that people could simply land on a shore, raise a flag and lay claim to a piece of land totalling 7.692 million km² (2.9 million sq miles), already populated by an indigenous population that had called it home for at least 65,000 years? And while we’re talking about the Aborigines, Australia was claimed through proclamation rather than treaties which had often been the case around the world, for the simple and staggeringly obnoxious reason that the Aborigines were deemed too uncivilised to require treaties. 

Britain began shipping convicts to Australia in 1787. The 13 colonies had been a favourite holiday spot for British criminals beforehand, but that particular resort was now under new ownership, and the vastness of Australia was seen as the perfect place to ship all of those undesirables. Roughly 162,000 convicts made the journey up until 1868, but Australia was also proving to be hugely profitable for the crown, with wool and gold paying off handsomely. 

Africa

As the 20th Century dawned, the British Empire was approaching its peak. And I know, we’ve barely touched on much of it.

If you’re wondering about Africa, well at a lot of that happened later. The British acquired its first colony in what is today South Africa from the Dutch in 1806 and slowly expanded from there, leading to an Anglo-Zulu War and two Boer Wars where the British suffered heavily, but managed to cling on.

As for the rest of Africa, well that leads us to another preposterous white colonial act, that came to be known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, where seven European nations; Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium and Italy divided Africa up amongst themselves. Ever wondered about all of those ludicrously straight lines that form many African borders? Well, now you know why.

Britain, as the colonial superpower at the time, received the largest share and took it upon itself to try and “civilise” the natives. It’s difficult to talk broadly about Britain’s involvement in Africa because it was just so vast, but it often followed a fairly similar pattern. Usually the British would choose a particular tribal ethnicity to rule over the rest of the country, which meant they could sometimes leave the dirty work up to others. The effects of this, and the subsequent tribal hatred, are still present day, in Sudan and Nigeria, to name just two. 

The Peak and the Downfall

The British Empire reached its peak in 1921. The First World War had been catastrophic for everybody involved, but Britain had gained territory from the Germans in Africa. The war had also seen roughly 3 million soldiers and labourers from across the Empire fight for Britain, a figure that would be more than tripled during World War II.

Britain may have staggered victoriously from the second major conflict of the 20th Century, but it was the beginning of the end of the largest empire the world had ever known, which at its peak included 57 colonies, dominions, territories or protectorates. Quite simply, the nation didn’t have the money or manpower to cover such a vast area, and one by one, full independence came to countries across the empire. 

And much of it was remarkably peaceful. By that point Britain wasn’t really in any position to be dictating terms and probably quite enjoyed the role of “handing out independence”, conveniently airbrushing the centuries of misrule out of the picture. In 1945, the number of those living within the British Empire outside of Britain itself was 700 million, but by 1965, that number had dropped to just 5 million – most of whom lived in Hong Kong.        

It’s important to add that while many of the independence transitions were essentially peaceful, what came next often wasn’t. One final accusation levied at the departing British was that they failed to lay the groundwork well for independence, and the result, sometimes years later, was frequently horrific. 

In India, the decision to partition the nation, creating a new country, Pakistan where Muslims could live, led to between 200,000 and 2 million deaths in the subsequent violence with another 10-20 million displaced. Across Africa, countless new democracies emerged from colonisation with great hope only to become embroiled in civil wars that would define the final decades of the 20th Century. If British rule could be terrible, the tribal hatred often stoked before independence, sometimes led to absolute carnage.             

The Commonwealth                  

And that nearly brings us to the end of the story of the British Empire, a collection of territories and dominions that eclipsed all before it. Today, the British Empire is long gone but has been replaced by the British Commonwealth, a group of 54 countries spread around the world. This is a voluntary organisation with some fairly vague benefits that include a single unified voice, development assistance, trade and academic links, defence treaties and so forth.    

 As I mentioned at the start of the video, there is real darkness surrounding the British Empire that is often conveniently sidestepped. It’s a topic that certain British people sometimes feel a little uneasy discussing. 

But equally so, we’ve also arrived at the point where people can stand the idea of even talking about anything positive that might have come out of the British Empire – and surely both of these extremes are unhelpful in painting an accurate picture of what really happened. 

The British were responsible for millions of deaths and misery across the world, it essentially started the slave trade, often destroyed indigenous culture and exploited people in imaginable ways. So are there any positives we might be able to glean from the British Empire? 

Maybe a few. Infrastructure is probably the best (and safest) place to start, as railways, ports, schools and hospitals were built across the Empire that are still in use today, while the introduction of modern technology, healthcare and education no doubt benefited many around the British Empire. The British were also the first to outlaw, then aggressively police slavery after 1807. Yes that had started it all, yes they got to the point where it wasn’t particularly profitable anymore and yes you can bicker about the reasons behind it all you want, but those are the facts.

Nowadays, people want to reduce the British Empire to either being good or bad, which completely misses the point. For a small number of people, at the very top, the Empire was a spectacular success as staggering fortunes were made. We can also say that modern Britain was built upon the scaffolding of the empire and it’s entirely likely that the country wouldn’t be what it is today without it. But to parrot that the British Empire was “good” is plainly ridiculous and probably says a lot about modern delusions we often see in the first world. 

Colonialism, whether the British or otherwise, should always be remembered as a dark stain on our history but one we can hopefully learn from. The concept of subjecting other people is a human trait that goes back thousands of years and we are still trying to pick our way through the wreckage of some of the most recent attempts. History can be a dark place to delve into, but not looking back and examining closely is usually even worse.         

I do hope you’ve enjoyed this video about the British Empire, as I said to begin with we’ve tried to stay balanced and stick to the facts, the good, the bad – and at times, the really ugly. 

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