British Empire (1583 – 1997)

The biggest empire the world has ever seen.

King Henry VII of England
King Philip II of Spain
The Thirteen Colonies
Triangular trade
Paying British taxes
1815 to 1914

Who were the British?


The British Empire established their first overseas colony, on the coast of North America, in 1607. They were a late starter compared to the Spanish, who had already established colonies in the Americas by 1492.

But in the next few centuries, Britain caught up with their European neighbors, and eventually went on to surpass them. At their height, they were the largest empire in history, with colonies all around the world.

In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. At this moment in time, her subjects included more than a quarter of the world’s population. The British Empire touched millions of people, but not always for the better.

The origins of the British

In the late 1400s, King Henry VII of England wanted to emulate the Spanish, and put together an expedition to the newly discovered Americas.

This expedition, led by John Cabot, landed in Newfoundland in 1497. The place seemed relatively barren, and they did not encounter any native people. They decided to head back to Britain without setting up a colony.


Cabot made the same voyage again a year later, but never returned to England; it is unknown what exactly happened to him, but his ship probably sank. After that, Henry VII gave up on the idea of building an empire, and focused on domestic affairs instead.

Pirate privateers

In 1558 – more than half a century after the failed voyages of John Cabot – Queen Elizabeth ascended to the English throne.

To gain an edge over her Spanish rivals, who were more rich and powerful than ever, Elizabeth encouraged privateers like John Hawkins and Francis Drake to start raiding Spanish ships. These raids often proved unsuccessful due to the strength of the Spanish navy, but there were some notable successes.

In 1573, Drake led a daring attack near the Spanish colony of Nombre de Dios in Panama, where he seized a large amount of silver and gold from Spanish ships. There was so much treasure that his crew could not carry it all, and had to bury some of it on the beach. In England, he was seen as a hero; in Spain, he was seen as a pirate.

The Spanish Armada

In 1588, tensions between Spain and England reached a boiling point when King Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to invade England.

The English navy was vastly outnumbered, and a Spanish victory seemed inevitable. In fact, the Spanish Armada was also called the ‘Invincible Armada’ on account of its staggering strength.

But the English navy had nimbler ships, and the enigmatic tactics of Francis Drake. After several months of fighting, the English navy emerged victorious. This turned out to be a major turning point in history. The English gained confidence from their unexpected victory, and Elizabeth I decided it was time to build a British Empire.

The Thirteen Colonies


The Spanish had monopolized Central and South America, so the English decided to target North America instead. They established their first ever permanent colony in 1607, when Jamestown was founded in Virginia.

This settlement marked the beginning of a long period of British colonialism along the American coast, which would eventually span from Canada all the way to Georgia. Their territory in North America became known as the Thirteen Colonies. The English also established colonies in the West Indies, which became lucrative sources of sugar and other valuable crops like tobacco and cotton.

These colonial outposts also served an important cultural purpose by providing a place where people could practice their religion freely; this was especially true for those who had fled religious intolerance in England itself, such as the puritan Pilgrims who settled in America in 1620.

The slave trade

The early days of the British Empire were defined by one of the darkest aspects of the early modern period: the transatlantic slave trade. The English were not the only Europeans to engage in the slave trade, but they were one of the most prolific.

The plantations in the West Indies and America needed manpower, so British ships began transporting slaves from Africa. This was part of a larger system known as triangular trade, which saw goods such as guns and textiles being shipped from Europe to Africa; slaves then taken from Africa to the Americas; and finally raw materials like sugar or coffee transported from the Americas to Europe.

This lucrative business made Britain incredibly wealthy, but it had devastating consequences for those who were enslaved. More than a million people died on board overcrowded ships, while the ones who made it to the American plantations suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of slave owners.

American Independence

In the late 1700s, the British Empire suffered a major hurdle. Their Thirteen Colonies in North America were unhappy about paying British taxes, and wanted to become an independent state.

The American War of Independence broke out, and lasted for almost a decade. The colonies emerged victorious, and established the United States of America. In the process, Britain lost its most valuable asset.

But that did not mean that Britain’s imperial ambitions were over. They continued to expand their empire elsewhere, taking control of places like Australia. The first settlements in Australia were penal colonies, but in the 1800s, free settlers began to move there too.

The Imperial Century

The period of 1815 to 1914 is sometimes referred to as Britain’s imperial century. During this time, about 400 million people were added to the British Empire, making up for the loss of the American colonies in the 1700s.


Spain had already faded as an imperial power, and in 1815, the British had managed to defeat Napoleon’s France at the Battle of Waterloo. This left them without any serious international rivals: Britain now ruled the world’s oceans, and no one had the power to stop them.

Some of Britain’s most significant acquisitions during the imperial century were South Africa, in 1815, and India, in 1858. Slavery had officially been abolished by now, but Britain still took advantage of many local populations, exploiting these colonies for the good of the British nation.

The decline of the British

Britain maintained their colossal empire well into the modern period. The first cracks began to show in the 20th century, when the two World Wars had a devastating effect on Britain’s finances.

With crippling debts, it was hard for Britain to maintain its empire. As well as this, people were beginning to question whether it was ethical to have an empire in the first place. During World War II, Britain had resisted the encroaching expansion of the German state; did their colonies not deserve independence from imposed British power too?

In 1947, India was granted independence after decades of British rule. In the coming years, other colonies became independent too. Officially, the final British colony was Hong Kong, with Britain cutting ties in 1997.

The legacy of the British

The influence of the British Empire can still be felt in the world today. English has become a global language due to Britain’s imperial expansion; it is now spoken by over one billion people worldwide as either their first or second language.

The Commonwealth is a collection of 56 countries which still hold political ties to Britain. Technically speaking, these countries are still part of the British monarchy, even if they are politically independent. These countries include Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Meanwhile, the scars of the transatlantic slave trade can still be felt around the world. Many African nations have never recovered economically from this period of exploitation, while racial inequality remains prevalent in parts of North America. In recent years, Britain has officially apologized for its past, but for many people, an apology is not enough.

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