British Empire

The British Empire was, at its peak, the largest empire in history; it controlled just short of a quarter of the world's land area and a quarter of the population. There was a saying that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" because there were colonies all around the world.

It was primarily a maritime empire; from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 well into the 20th century Britain was by far the world's greatest naval power ("Britannia rules the waves"), and a great trading nation as well.

Britain and Ireland historical travel topics:
CeltsMedievalEarly modernIndustrial BritainBritish Empire


Coat of arms of the United Kingdom from 1901 to 1952

The British Empire began in 1578 when Queen Elizabeth I started founding colonies in the Caribbean and North America. It expanded in the following centuries, partly through frequent fighting with European rivals like the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain over territory in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The loss of the "thirteen colonies" in North America after the American War of Independence was significant, but the zenith of the empire was only reached much later at the end of the 19th century under Queen Victoria, when the Empire covered nearly one quarter of the land in the world.

During the 20th century, the British Empire was to expand even further following World War I, when Britain was awarded some of the colonial possessions of the defeated Central Powers, reaching its greatest extent in 1921. Eventually, the effects of World War II on the United Kingdom led to a decline of empire, with most of its colonies attaining independence in the following decades. The greatest change was the end of the British Raj in 1947 — creating the new states of India and Pakistan, and eventually leading to the creation of Bangladesh — but there were many others; see below for a list.

British Empire at its greatest extent in 1921.

After a failed military intervention to hold onto the strategic Suez Canal in Egypt in 1956, many considered Britain to no longer be a global power, though its prestige would be somewhat restored in 1982, when the UK was victorious over Argentina in the Falklands War. The formal handover of its last significant possession, Hong Kong, back to China in 1997 was seen as "the end of the Empire".

Today, the main remnants of the empire are the 14 'British Overseas Territories', most of which are self-governing except in matters of defence and foreign relations. The UK retains a cultural connection to many of its former colonies through the large Commonwealth of Nations, and some countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand keep a constitutional connection by having the British monarch as their head of state. The United Kingdom itself continues to be home to large communities of African, Caribbean, South Asian and Chinese origin as a result of its former colonial empire.

The British Empire left a lasting impact on its former possessions, and many British cultural exports continue to be popular in the former colonies. For instance, the game of cricket continues to have a strong following in countries such as India, Pakistan and Australia. Association Football (known as soccer in some places after an Oxfordian term) and Rugby football were also invented in England and saw a global spread in part through the empire, although only in rugby is a preeminence of former parts of the empire still pronounced. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the British Empire that can still be felt today is the spread of the English language around the globe; in modern times English has surpassed other prominent languages such as French and Latin to become by far the world's most widely studied foreign language.

Many former colonies, including Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even the United States, continue to have legal systems that are heavily influenced by English Common Law. Unlike Roman law (which serves as the inspiration for Civil Law in much of continental Europe), Common Law has a very heavy focus on precedent, so a case from England that was settled centuries past may still influence jurisprudence in - say - Australia today. In addition, common law typically adopts an adversarial system, in which the court serves as an impartial referee between the prosecution and the defence. This stands in contrast to the inquisitorial system adopted by most civil law jurisdictions, in which the court plays an active role in investigating cases.

One of the remarkable things about the empire was the extent to which it was able to recruit former enemies into serving it. Overseas, groups who fought the empire and, after being defeated, provided some of its best regiments included:

  • the Gurkhas of Nepal, who even today provide troops to the British, Indian and Bruneian armies. In addition, the Singapore Police Force continues to maintain a Gurkha Contingent as an elite special operations unit and serve as a neutral force in case of race riots (that plagued pre-independence Singapore history).
  • the Sikhs whose kingdom of Punjab fell around 1850. Some Sikhs became soldiers while others were recruited into police forces in places like Aden, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Today, the Sikh Regiment remains the most decorated regiment in the Indian Army.
  • the Pathans of what are now Northwest Pakistan and East Afghanistan. They provided mainly cavalry regiments.
  • the Ibans of Sarawak formed a unit specialising in jungle warfare known as the Sarawak Rangers in 1862. They were highly skilled in guerrilla warfare, and played a key role in fighting the Japanese during World War II, as well as communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). After Sarawak merged with Malaya, North Borneo and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963, the Sarawak Rangers were absorbed into the Malaysian Army as part of the Royal Ranger Regiment.

Within the British Isles the Scots, Irish and Welsh all resisted English domination at some time, but later helped build the empire. Famous examples included the Welshman Henry Morgan who was the greatest of all privateers and had his base at Port Royal in Jamaica, the Irishman John Nicholson in India, and Scotsman Murray MacLehose in Hong Kong, who was the longest-serving British governor and engineered the city's economic prosperity throughout the 1970s.

Articles related to the Empire[edit]

All areas of the world that were ever part of the British Empire.

There are many articles that cover different aspects of the British Empire:

There are articles on more general topics where the empire played a role:

There are also articles about works of fiction involving the empire:

Many of the hotels in the Grand old hotels article were built in British colonies in the days of empire.



  • London — As the headquarters of the empire, London is home to numerous sites connected to Britain's imperial history.
    • 1 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Main Building. Formerly home to the Indian Office and the Colonial Office, which oversaw the governance of colonial India and Britain's other colonies respectively. Open to the public once a year when they hold an open house. Foreign Office building (Q58212077) on Wikidata
    • 2 British Museum. London's most famous public museum, with numerous artifacts from all over the world, including many that were looted from the former empire. The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon frieze, the Rosetta Stone hijacked by Lord Nelson from Napoleon in the 1799 Egyptian campaign, and the Benin Bronzes looted during Britain's conquest of Benin City are some of the museum's main highlights. British Museum (Q6373) on Wikidata British Museum on Wikipedia
    • 3 National Maritime Museum. Britain's vast colonial empire owed its existence in large part to the powerful Royal Navy, which was the world's premier naval force from the 16th century up to World War II. The museum contains numerous exhibits dedicated to Britain's naval exploits, and is adjacent to the famous Greenwich Observatory. National Maritime Museum (Q1199924) on Wikidata National Maritime Museum on Wikipedia
    • 4 British Crown Jewels. A fine collection, kept in the Tower of London. Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom (Q918264) on Wikidata Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom on Wikipedia
  • Portsmouth — Home to HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, in which Nelson himself was killed in action. Despite his death, the British scored a decisive victory against Napoleon's combined French and Spanish navies, thus cementing the Royal Navy's place as the world's foremost naval power.

Various parts of coastal France — notably the ports Calais, Dunkirk and Bordeaux plus some territory around them — were under British rule for part of their history. The British also held the North Sea islands of Heligoland for much of the 19th century, until they ceded them to Germany.

Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in 1713 and is still a British Overseas Territory. Malta was a British possession from 1814 until independence in 1964. Britain controlled Cyprus from 1878 until independence in 1960.


  • Cameron Highlands, Malaysia — Hill station built by the British to escape the tropical heat of the lowlands. Today, it is a popular holiday destination for Malaysians and Singaporeans, and the heart of Malaysia's tea growing industry.
  • Fraser's Hill, Malaysia — Quaint, colonial-era hill station with a high concentration of British colonial buildings.
  • Darjeeling, India — Colonial-era British hill station that is today a popular tourism destination, and the heart of India's tea growing industry.
  • Kolkata, India — Capital of India under British rule, and home to a large number of colonial buildings dating back to that period.
  • Shimla, India — Former British hill station, with a large concentration of Victorian buildings at the higher elevations.
  • Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar — Colonial-era hill station, with the majestic National Kandawgyi Gardens, a botanical garden built by the British during the colonial period.
  • George Town, Malaysia — A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the first British settlement in Southeast Asia. Today, the city boasts a well-preserved core of colonial shophouses that were built in a fusion style with European and Asian elements, as well as numerous government buildings dating back to the days of colonial rule. The colonial-era Eastern & Oriental Hotel is one of the most luxurious in the country, and played host to many foreign celebrities and dignitaries over the years.
  • Ipoh, Malaysia — Founded as a tin mining settlement during the colonial era, it has declined significantly since its heyday, but has a particularly high concentration of well-preserved colonial buildings in its downtown core.
  • Hong Kong — Although returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong still retains many reminders of its British colonial legacy, and also retains most of its governing structures from colonial times. Government House, today the official residence of the Chief Executive, was the official residence of the Governor in colonial times, and is open to the public twice a year. There are also numerous other colonial buildings scattered around the territory, including the Old Supreme Court, the old Central Police Station and the former Victoria Prison. The Peninsula Hotel is one of Hong Kong's premier luxury hotels dating back to colonial times, and remains one of the best places in Asia for traditional British afternoon tea. Another legacy of British colonial rule is that traffic moves on the left in Hong Kong with cars being right-hand drive, in contrast to mainland China where traffic moves on the right with cars being left-hand drive.
  • Yangon, Myanmar — One of the best preserved examples of a British colonial capital in Asia, the city still boasts a large number of surviving colonial buildings. The Strand Hotel is a luxurious colonial-era hotel that visitors can stay in (provided you can afford it, of course).
  • ShanghaiThe Bund is a street along the west bank of the Huangpu River, mostly in the former British and American concessions, and lined with many British and American colonial buildings.

North America[edit]



The two colonies of Upper Canada and Lower Canada were renamed Ontario and Quebec respectively at Confederation in 1867. They merged with two other colonies, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form the Dominion of Canada.

The Hudson's Bay Company were given an enormous land grant by the British Crown in 1670, and they turned it over to the new Canadian government in 1870. The acquisition of this territory, called Rupert's Land, vastly expanded Ontario and Quebec, allowed the creation of three new prairie provinces, and gave Canada its claim to vast areas in the north.

Atlantic Canada[edit]
  • Newfoundland and Labrador — location of the first English claim in North American on 5 August 1583, and still influenced by more than 300 years of British rule and settlement. It was a separate colony until 1949, then joined Canada.
  • Nova Scotia — location of major Scottish settlement and the port of Halifax, Britain's the main naval base on the Western side of the Atlantic from the 1780s to 1905.
  • Prince Edward Island — the other potato-growing island once owned by British absentee landlords that isn't Ireland.
  • New Brunswick — founded explicitly as destination for Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, that connection is still visible especially at Saint-Andrews-by-the-Sea.
  • Quebec City — though founded by the French, it was captured from them in one of Britain's most famous victories on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, and the city's main fortification, the Citadelle of Quebec is British-built. The Citadelle is an official residence of the British monarch in his role as the monarch of Canada, and home to the Royal 22e Régiment of the Canadian Army, which although French-speaking wears British ceremonial uniforms; tourists may view the changing of the guard ceremony in the Citadelle during the summer months.
  • Montreal — it might seem strange in the largely French-speaking and multicultural Montreal of today, but the city considered itself the second city of the Empire after London in the 19th century and it had the money and power to back up the claim, from the mansions of the Golden Square Mile to the bank headquarters of St James Street.
  • Eastern Townships — another region of Canada settled almost entirely by refugees from the American Revolution.

This province's early history is dominated by the United Empire Loyalists who fled the American Revolution. A few of the most prominent sites might include:

  • Kingston — once a British naval lake port and former capital of the colony of Upper Canada
  • Niagara Peninsula — location of most of the fighting in the War of 1812 which determined that Canada would stay in the Empire and not join the United States.
  • Manitoba — location of the main strongholds of the Hudson's Bay Company at Lower Fort Gary (Winnipeg) and York Factory (North of 53)
  • Saskatchewan — British settlers founded utopian communities at places like Saskatoon and Lloydminster
  • Alberta — the province is named after one of Queen Victoria's daughters, and has St. George's Cross on the provincial shield. Many of the "Queen's Cowboys" who fought in the South African Wars came from here.
British Columbia[edit]

The British connection is right there in the name. It can also be seen at:

  • Victoria — the famously anglophile provincial capital and home of high tea at the Empress Hotel.
Northern Canada[edit]

The British presence reached even to the Subarctic forest and Arctic tundra, perhaps most notably at Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site in Nunavut.

United States[edit]

Though the country fought to get out of the Empire, it remains a byproduct of English and British colonisation.

  • Boston — Site of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, one of the key events in the leadup to the American War of Independence. The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum commemorates this key event in American history. Boston is also home to a few buildings dating back to the British colonial period, the most famous being the Old State House, on which symbols of the British crown have been restored. The square in front of the building is where the Boston Massacre occurred in 1770, when British soldiers killed 5 people who were protesting unpopular legislation that had been passed by Parliament.
  • Jamestown — Site of the first successful British settlement in what is today the United States of America.
  • Plymouth — Where the Puritan pilgrims on the Mayflower landed in 1620, a key event in the founding myth of the United States.
  • Philadelphia — The Old City dates back to the days of British colonial rule, with numerous colonial buildings still surviving to the present day. Independence Hall was where the American Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776.
  • Savannah — The oldest city in the state of Georgia, the last of the Thirteen Colonies to be established, and its capital during colonial times. Today, it is well known for its historic old town, with the town plan still largely following what was established during colonial times.
  • Charleston — The largest and oldest city in the state of South Carolina, originally named "Charles Town" after King Charles II. It was the capital of South Carolina and a major slave trading port during colonial times. Today, it is known for having a large number of historic buildings, including Rainbow Row, a series of thirteen historic colonial buildings in the old colonial city core.


  • Australian Convict Sites — various different colonies that now make up Australia were British penal colonies, and numerous sites connected to that history are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Waitangi, New Zealand — The site where the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi with various Maori chiefs in 1840, which established British colonial rule over New Zealand.

Former British Colonies[edit]


  • Egypt
  • Sudan
  • South Sudan — formerly part of Sudan, became independent in 2011
  • Kenya
  • Tanzania — formed from the merger of the colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar
  • Uganda
  • Malawi — known as Nyasaland under colonial rule
  • Zambia — known as Northern Rhodesia under colonial rule
  • Zimbabwe — known as Southern Rhodesia under colonial rule
  • Botswana — known as Bechuanaland under colonial rule
  • South Africa
  • Lesotho
  • Eswatini — formerly known as Swaziland
  • Mauritius
  • Seychelles
  • Namibia
  • Internationally recognised as part of Somalia, but de facto independent
  • Nigeria
  • Sierra Leone
  • Ghana — known as Gold Coast under colonial rule
  • Gambia
  • Parts of northwestern Cameroon, including the cities of Bamenda and Buea. Originally part of the German colony of Kamerun, which was partitioned between the French (French Cameroun) and British (Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons) following the defeat of Germany in World War I. French Cameroun became independent in 1960, while in 1961, Muslim-majority British Northern Cameroons became part of Nigeria, and Christian-majority British Southern Cameroons merged with Cameroun to form the modern country of Cameroon.


  • British Raj — included South Asia and some nearby areas under colonial rule.
    • India — included what is today the separate countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh under colonial rule.
    • Pakistan — split off from India to form a separate country on independence in 1947.
    • Bangladesh — became part of Pakistan after the end of British colonial rule in 1947, before becoming independent in 1971.
    • Myanmar — known as Burma under colonial rule. Split off to form a separate colony in 1937, and became independent in 1948.
    • Sri Lanka — known as Ceylon under colonial rule.
    • Maldives
    • Nepal — never formally colonised but under British suzerainty during the period of colonial rule in India, and still provides Gurkha forces to the British and Indian militaries to this day.
    • Bhutan — never formally colonised but under British suzerainty from 1910-1947, and following Indian independence in 1947 had its foreign policy controlled by India until 2007.
  • Malaysia — formed in 1963 from the merger of Malaya (which had already gained independence from Britain in 1957), British North Borneo (today Sabah) and Sarawak. Singapore, which was part of Malaya under British colonial rule, was originally part of Malaysia, but was expelled in 1965 and became independent.
  • Brunei
  • Singapore — part of Malaya under colonial rule, but remained a British colony when the rest of Malaya was granted independence in 1957; included the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island, which were later transferred to Australia in 1955 and 1958 respectively. Became part of Malaysia after the end of British colonial rule in 1963, but was expelled from the federation in 1965 and became independent.
  • Parts of Sumatra in modern-day Indonesia, including Bengkulu (known as Bencoolen under British colonial rule). Ceded to the Netherlands as part of the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, in which Britain gave up its colonies in Sumatra to the Dutch, in exchange for the Dutch ceding their colony in Malacca to the British.
  • Hong Kong
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Bahrain
  • Qatar
  • United Arab Emirates — British protectorates called the Trucial States 1820-1968
  • Oman
  • Yemen

At the end of World War I in 1918, the League of Nations gave some of the victorious Allied powers mandates over parts of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The French took over Lebanon and Syria, while the British got Iraq and a Palestine Mandate which included what are now:

Jordan's Arab Legion, trained and commanded by the Englishman Glubb Pasha, was the only Arab force that had significant success against the Israelis in the 1948 war, seizing and holding the West Bank.

Britain also held concessions in various parts of China, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Hankou (now part of Wuhan), Gulangyu in Amoy (now called Xiamen), Shamian Island in Canton (now called Guangzhou), Jiujiang and Zhenjiang. At Weihai the concession included a naval base.


North America[edit]


  • The six colonies that make up Australia:
  • New Zealand
  • Papua New Guinea – The Territory of Papua (the southeastern quarter of present-day Papua New Guinea) was annexed by Queensland in 1883, later declared a separate territory before being transferred to Australia in 1902. German New Guinea (the western half) would be awarded to Britain in 1918 following the defeat of Germany in World War I, and administered by Australia on behalf of Britain. Both halves would be merged to form Papua New Guinea in 1949, which would then be granted independence from Australia in 1975.
  • Fiji
  • Tonga
  • Samoa — originally part the German colony of Samoa, which was split between the United Kingdom and the United States after the defeat of Germany in World War I. The British-controlled western half was known as Western Samoa under colonial rule, and re-named to just "Samoa" after independence. The American-controlled eastern half remains the U.S. territory of American Samoa
  • Kiribati — called the Gilbert Islands under colonial rule
  • Vanuatu — called the New Hebrides under a French-British condominium, a unique form of colonial rule
  • Solomon Islands
  • Nauru — former German colony that was placed under joint administration by the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand (the latter two of which were British dominions at the time) following the defeat of Germany in World War I. Became independent in 1968.
  • Tuvalu — called the Ellice Islands under colonial rule

South America[edit]

British Overseas Territories[edit]

Although the term 'British Empire' is rarely used today, some destinations do remain in the form of 'overseas territories'. They are typically self-governing and have never been part of the European Union (Gibraltar used to be an exception). The majority are islands. They include:

Location of British Overseas Territories today

Commonwealth countries[edit]

The Commonwealth of Nations is a loose grouping of 56 countries, most of which are former British colonies. All Commonwealth countries are independent, though some of them still share the same monarch as the United Kingdom, with an appointed Governor-General serving as the monarch's representative in each country. The monarch of the United Kingdom retains the position as Head of the Commonwealth, though this position is purely symbolic and does not carry any powers over member countries. The heads of government of the Commonwealth countries meet every two years at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which is hosted by different member countries. The British monarch typically also attends or sends a member of the royal family as a representative.

For historical reasons, the diplomatic missions between Commonwealth countries are known as high commissions rather than embassies, and the head of the mission is known as a high commissioner rather than an ambassador. The King of the United Kingdom is also King of Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. If an ambassador nominally represents the head of state, a hypothetical New Zealand ambassador to Australia would be representing Charles III to...himself. Wellington would therefore send a high commissioner representing the head of government (in this case the prime minister) instead of an ambassador representing the head of state.

The following are a list of some of the 53 former colonial countries that choose to be part of the British Commonwealth, with or without the British monarch as the head of state:

Countries that form the Commonwealth of Nations today

Commonwealth Games[edit]

Participating Countries in the 2010 Games

The Commonwealth Games are a multi-sport games competed by national teams from countries in the Commonwealth, the UK and British Overseas Territories. The games are similar in format to the Summer Olympics, and are held every four years, two years apart from the Summer Olympics. The first games were held in 1930 as the British Empire Games. Unlike at the Olympics, the home nations of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) send separate teams to the Commonwealth Games, and the Games feature several non-Olympic sports that are popular in the Commonwealth such as squash and lawn bowls. Para-sports are also contested at the Commonwealth Games.

The last Commonwealth Games were held in Birmingham, England in 2022, while the next games will be held in 2026 at a venue to be announced in 2024.


The legacy of British colonial rule is a complex one that differs significantly based on location, political leanings, as well as ethnic background. For instance, in the United Kingdom itself, Conservatives tend to be highly nostalgic for the military achievements of the former British Empire, while supporters of the Labour Party tend to be more critical of the various less glamorous aspects of colonial rule. Attitudes towards British colonial rule among the former colonial subjects also vary greatly between the former colonies; while some locals in places like Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands regard colonial rule positively and are proud of their British colonial heritage, people from India, Kenya and Ireland for instance tend to be very critical of British colonial rule and its role in exacerbating various famines and perpetrating numerous massacres. In Australia, Canada and New Zealand, colonial rule is typically regarded with mixed feelings among the general population, but strongly negatively among indigenous communities.

Related subjects[edit]

Articles about other colonial empires[edit]

This travel topic about British Empire is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.