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The British Empire, the Commonwealth and the European Union

Lecture 8

A worldwide system of dependencies (colonies, protectorates, and other territories) that over a span of some three centuries was brought under the sovereignty of the crown of Great Britain and the administration of the British government.

Colonies were those areas directly ruled by a governor on behalf of the British government and representing the Crown. He usually had wide powers of discretion. These were the most common form of imperial control.

Protectorates were territories where the local rulers could continue ruling domestically but they had ceded the foreign and defense aspects of their government to the British. In return, the British respected and were prepared to defend the ruler from foreign or internal threats.

Dominions were those colonies that were granted significant freedom to rule themselves. The settler colonies were afforded this freedom. Dominions were fully independent countries after the 1931 Statute of Westminster, although their Head of State continued to be the British sovereign.

The British Empire was the largest empire in history and for a time was the foremost global power. It was a product of the European age of discovery, which began with the maritime exploration of the 15th century, that sparked the era of the European colonial empires. The British Empire expanded and contracted wildly over the years.

The "First British Empire" (1583-1783) – 17th - 18th century

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain established its first empire, which was centered in the Caribbean and in North America. Britain possessed territories in North America, the Caribbean, Asia (India). The War of the Spanish Succession and The Seven Year’s War on France left Britain as the world's dominant colonial power by the end of the 18th century. The Loss of American colonies in The American War of Independence (1775–1783) led to the end of the 1st British Empire. Acknowledging the United States to be a free, sovereign and independent nation, and that the British Crown and all heirs and successors relinquish claims to the Government, property, and territorial rights of the same, and every part thereof. Establishing the boundaries between the United States and British North America.

The "Second British Empire" (1783-1815)

The American Revolution lost much (but not all) of this territory, but the expansion of British interests in India filled this vacuum. It really was the victory in the Napoleonic Wars that allowed the British to set up naval bases all over the world and provided for the massive expansion in the Victorian period.

Napoleonic wars

The Congress of Vienna 1815 ̶ called to reestablish the territorial divisions of Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars after the downfall of Napoleon. Britain kept Cape Colony in South Africa, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Mauritius, Helgoland, and Malta.


The eastern two thirds of Australia were claimed on behalf of the British Empire in 1770 by Captain James Cook, and was subsequently named New South Wales. The western third, was claimed, but unsettled by the Dutch.

The major purpose of New South Wales was a prison, where convicts from the British Isles could be transported to. The first convicts to come to Australia came on eleven ships, collectively known as the first fleet, and landed at Port Jackson on the 26th of January 1788. This day is now celebrated as Australia day. Western Australia was first settled by the British in 1826, when fears about the establishment of a French colony forced the governor of New South Wales, to establish a settlement . In 1829, the Swan River colony was established, completing the British settlement of Australia. The colonies later became self-governing colonies and became profitable exporters of wool and gold.


1840-60 - Opium Wars - Opium has been known in China since 7th century and for centuries it was used for medicinal purpose. It was not until the middle of the 17th century that the practice of mixing opium with tobacco for smoking was introduced into China by Europeans. British merchants brought opium from India to China, where they sold for a good profit. The growing number of the people became victims of the drug, the Emperor sent Lin Zexu demanded that foreign firms turn over their stocks. Conflicts between Britain and China over trading rights. In response, the British government sent military forces. The Chinese lost both wars. The victory opened the way for further opium trade, but also Britain got some territory in China including Hong Kong.

1841– Britain acquired Hong Kong


Company Rule - these were when private British companies tried to set up their own colonies as private commercial concerns. They frequently found the administration far more expensive than they expected and so often turned to the British government for help - particularly when wars or rebellions occurred.

The British East India Company controlled India since 1757 till 1858, for one century until the Indian rebellion of 1857 (it is referred to as the 'Great Rebellion', the 'Indian Mutiny' or the 'First War of Indian Independence'). In 1858, British Crown rule was established in India. It was called the period of the British Raj ("reign" in Hindi). The British Raj lasted since 1858 till until 1947.

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