The British Empire in Retrospect

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

45 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. The rise of the British Empire
1.1. Reasons for building the Empire
1.2. Functions of the Empire

2. The First British Empire (the 16th –18th centuries)
2.1. Beginning of the English colonialism
2.2. The West Indies
2.3. Mainland colonies in America

3. The Second British Empire (from the 18th century)
3.1. British colonial activities in the 18th century
3.2. British colonial activities in the 19th century
3.3. Economic and political strength of the British Empire 1800 - 1870
3.4. Breakdown of Pax Britannica 1870 – 1914

4. The British Empire 1914 – today
4.1. The World War I and its consequences for the British Empire
4.2. The World War II and decolonisation
4.3. The Commonwealth

5. Conclusion: Legacy of the British Empire


1. The rise of the British Empire

1.1. Reasons for building the Empire

The British Empire was the first genuinely global empire, an empire that ranged, at times, from the American colonies in the West, Australia and New Zealand in the East, Canada and her dominions in the North and huge chunks of Africa in the South, including Egypt and Rhodesia.

The history of the British Empire can be divided into two parts. The First Empire, which arose in the 17th century, consisted of North America and the Caribbean and was settled and colonised by British immigrants. This empire basically died with the American Revolution in 1776. The Second Empire arose as the first was dying and was founded primarily for the purpose of foreign trade and consisted of countries in the Pacific, in Africa, and India. In the 20th century, the British Empire practically dissolved and finally replaced by the Commonwealth.

The first question to ask is why did the British feel the need to expand overseas?

One of the main reasons was an economic one and was similar to motives that drove Spain and other European powers to expand their holdings: it was the desire for profitable trade, plunder and enrichment. The overseas expansion, apart from the interest of the City of London, was backed by other important interest groups: manufacturers who needed a vent for their surplus products, export merchants who handled their goods, and import merchants and their associates who dealt with the re-export trades. Expansion abroad also conferred indirect benefits on the home government, which gained from enlarged customer revenues, on the landed interest, which in consequence enjoyed favourable tax treatment, and on investors in national debt, whose returns rose when borrowing and interest rates increased. Therefore, the growth of the British Empire was due in large part to the ongoing competition for resources and markets that existed over a period of centuries between England and her continental rivals, Spain, France, and Holland.

The second reason was both of political and strategic nature: since Britain could not hope to control continental Europe and felt herself to be threatened by the emergence of any larger single power there, she capitalised on her geographical location and her comparative advantage in services by building up her naval power instead. England’s rise as a maritime nation started with the reign of King Henry VIII who managed to lay down financial and military foundations that would be taken advantage of by his successors. By commanding the seas, Britain hoped to prevent France from blockading her trade with the continent and to frustrate any attempt at invasion. Moreover, the considerations of strategic character were inevitably combined with economic ones because, in the words of Sir Walter Raleigh, “Whoever commands the sea commands the trade, whoever commands the trade commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself”.[1]

Therefore, due to the geographical location, Britain adopted “Blue-Water” policy that focused on naval defence and on overseas markets. However, it did not mean that Britain was isolated from the continent. On the contrary, both diplomacy and money were devoted to the task of creating allies in Europe. But the balance of advantage laid in the blue water and overseas.

Why was it Britain who managed to build up such an extended empire with its finger virtually in every pie?

Having won the main battles and destroyed the military forces of her continental rivals – Spain, France and Holland, Britain finally managed to obtain commanding position on the sea. On the other hand, Britain was the first country to industrialise and she was reach in capital. English society in the late 17th century contained a flourishing and more extensive middling sector than any other western country, including the Dutch Republic. This provided a strong platform for commerce with, and settlement in, far-flung territories.

In the late 18th century, the British Empire became recognisably the greatest and most dynamic of European imperial structures and was well on the way to becoming the globe’s greatest international trader and the chief carrier of commerce of other nations. With the development of the cotton industry from the 1780s, Britain finally had a product that gave her a competitive edge in major markets, and exports became a powerful “engine of growth” of national income for the first time.

Besides, centralising tendencies in England in the early 17th century played a certain role, too: the installation in 1688 of a cohesive government as a consequence of the Financial revolution, whose supporters had seen instability and were determined to avoid it, expressed itself in centralising tendencies that aimed at bringing all of the outer provinces under closer central control. Scotland was incorporated by the Act of Union in 1707, the Welsh, who were already incorporated, were subjected to renewed Anglicising influences, and Ireland was placed under the management of Anglo-Irish, protestant gentry. Later, this centralising tendency could be seen in America: the mainland colonies came under firmer direction from the Board of Trade and from a new generation of military governors, and were integrated more closely with the developing Atlantic economy managed from London.[2]

1.2. Functions of the Empire

For what kind of purposes served the Empire, apart from economic benefits expressed in profit and wealth which the Empire brought to a substantial section of the British population?

- The colonies strengthened the British voice in world affairs;
- The empire was the provider of employment, both of military contingent and of a professional or “service” middle class. Among them, India was the main provider, with young men of “propertyless leisured class” competing for employment as officers in the East Indian Company’s armies in the first half of the 19th century. Later, India also provided substantial employment outlets for a “service” middle class. Outside of India, by the late 19th century other colonial services employed a few thousand people, a total which had risen to some 20,000 by the late 1950s.[3] ;
- British colonies became repositories of what was unwanted at home (a great amount of personal and national rubbish could be dumped elsewhere);
- The Empire helped to maintain Britain as a military power on an equal footing with France, Germany and Russia due to the fact that the Indian army could be shipped all over the world on Britain’s behalf;
- The Empire was perceived as underwriting the nation’s future in a variety of ways: as a means of uniting the British people in a common cause; as a means of inspiring a sense of international mission; as a device to blunt the edges of class warfare or as a way of looking in the future with more confidence.

2. The First British Empire (the 16th –18th centuries)

2.1. Beginning of the English colonialism

The foundations of the British Empire were laid during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Under Elizabeth, English support for naval exploration increased dramatically, and in 1580 Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to sail around the world. Overseas commercial and trade interests were also established in the form of the English East India Company in 1600. However, because England was at war with Spain, which had a large colonial empire in the Americas, English colonisation in the Americas remained almost unknown in the 16th century. In search of an alternate route to the Spice Islands, John Cabot reached the North American continent in 1498. The first real venture was the attempted settlement of Roanoke Island off the North American coast in 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh. This settlement did not survive, and the English did not attempt further exploration and colonisation in the Americas until 1604, after peace had been made with Spain. With the removal of the Spanish, the English were free to develop an unprecedented successful economic venture. During the next two centuries, England, and, after 1707, Britain extended its influence abroad and consolidated her political development at home.

The first British Empire

Between 16th and 18th centuries, Britain established her first empire that was centred in the Caribbean and in North America. It began with the establishment of tobacco plantations in the West Indies and religious colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America.

The first British Empire was a mercantile one. Until the early 19th century, the primary purpose of imperialist policies was to facilitate the acquisition of as much foreign territory as possible, both as a source of raw materials and in order to provide real or potential markets for British manufactures. The mercantilists advocated the idea of trade monopolies which would insure that Britain's exports would exceed its imports. A profitable balance of trade, it was believed, would provide the wealth necessary to maintain and expand the empire.

2.2. The West Indies (17th century)

The first British foothold in the West Indies was Saint Christopher (later Saint Kitts), acquired in 1623. In 1625 Barbados was acquired. The English plantations established in the West Indies were worked initially by white indentured servants from England. The West Indian tobacco boom gradually petered out and was replaced by sugar production, which required a larger labour force that was provided by slaves from Africa. This began the transformation of the islands into a plantation economy based on slavery.

In 1655 the English conquered the Spanish colony of Jamaica—the first English colony taken by force. During the 1660s, English privateers[4] raided Spanish trade and settlements. In 1670 England and Spain signed the Treaty of Madrid, in which Spain finally acknowledged English possessions in the Caribbean. The sugar economy expanded, and the Royal Africa Company was formed in 1672 to bring large numbers of African slaves to the Caribbean. They were necessary for work on tobacco, rice and sugar plantations. The first African slaves had been brought to Virginia in 1619. By the 1670s slaves had become the largest proportion of the population in the English islands. Perhaps a quarter of a million were brought in by 1775.[5]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In 1686 alone these colonies shipped goods worth over £1 million to London. Exports to the colonies consisted mainly of woollen textiles; imports included sugar, tobacco and other tropical groceries for which there was a growing consumer demand.[6] Overseas commerce was conducted within the mercantilist framework of the Navigation Acts, first adopted by the English parliament in 1651, which stipulated that imports into English harbours and colonies could only be carried in English ships or those of the producing country.

In the course of further colonisation, the direction of British trade had changed: in 1700 most foreign commerce, by volume and value, was still conducted with Europe, but during the 18th century British overseas trade became “Americanised”. By 1797-8, North America and the West Indies received 57 % of British exports, and supplied 32% of imports.[7]

The slave trade stimulated British manufacturing production by the derived demand for goods such as plantation utensils and clothing needed for slaves and estates, which induced producers to increase productivity and introduce new technologies to meet this additional demand.

On the other hand, merchants in British, American, West Indian and Iberian ports established firm commercial ties and a modern, enterprising outlook with regard to making money through imperial trade (this was true especially after the mid-18th century, when it became possible to speak about an integrated Atlantic economy).

Revenue from slavery and the slave trade filtered back into the British economy in indirect ways, with bankers, insurance specialists and country gentlemen all participating as active investors. The profits of slavery and the slave trade, as a proportion of national income, were impressive.

2.3. Mainland colonies in America

England's American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonisation. The ever-growing American colonies pressed ever westward in search of new agricultural lands. After a series of wars with the Dutch in 17th century and with the French in 18th century, in 1760 Britain obtained control over almost all of North America. The 18th century was the period in which Britain rose to a dominant position among European trading empires. By 1775 Britain possessed far more land and people in the Americas than either the Dutch or the French - who were the two main northern European rivals for international power and prestige.

The 13 colonies in the 18th century were probably the places with the highest standard of living in the world. Cheap land and abundant natural resources allowed settlers opportunities they could only dream of back in Britain.

Over time, the colonists were becoming more confident of being able to manage their own affairs without Britain. Population and wealth were expanding, and there were signs that trade relations could be diversified. Furthermore, segments of the elite were acquiring expansionist ideas of their own which were further encouraged after 1763 by the removal of the threat from France. All this led to the American War of Independence (1775-1783) that deprived Britain of her most populous colonies.

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Seeing the success of the North American ex-colonies, why the planters the West Indies did not rebel? The difference was that Jamaica and Barbados were truly dependent. The planters there were few in number and many of them were absentees. They relieved heavily on British finance and totally on the British navy, and could envisage no alternative to either. In the West Indies, independence was simply not possible, even if it had been conceived.

The loss of the 13 mainland American colonies in the War of Independence was a major blow to British imperial strength, but Britain recovered swiftly from this disaster, and acquired additional territories during the long war years with France from 1793 to 1815. The new colonies included Trinidad, Tobago, St Lucia, Guyana, the Cape Colony, Mauritius and Ceylon. Various Indian states were also subjugated. Besides, extensions of authority in British North America, Australia, the Cape, Ireland, the West Indies, India and south-east Asia reinforced the empire and strengthened Britain’s defence against foreign aggressors. No more colonies were to be lost through the error, as Lord Thurlow saw it, of allowing them too much “political liberty”.[8]

By the mid to end of the 18th century, the British could claim to have the largest and most successful naval forces in the world, both militarily and commercially. By this time, naval traditions, experience and expertise had been fully augmented by advances in science and the latest industrial products and techniques. British ships were familiar sites to ports and coastal regions the world over.

3. The Second British Empire (from the 18th century)

3.1. British colonial activities in the 18th century

After the loss of the American colonies, British commerce turned from the Americas to the east in its search both for spices for re-export and, increasingly, for markets to sell ever-growing amounts of British manufactured goods. The Industrial Revolution had transformed the British economy from a primarily agricultural one to one based much more on mechanised manufacturing, and as a result had drastically increased the amount of British products available for export. The quest for new markets for international trade was the economic incentive behind the Second British Empire. Free trade, the belief that international trade should not be restricted by any one nation, replaced the old colonial system, which had relied on mercantilist ideas of protected commerce. The Second British Empire, focused more on Asia and Africa, continued to expand in the 1800s and early 1900s and reached its apex at the end of the World War I.

Although the first empire was centred in the Americas, the English were also active in India in the 17th century. The English East India Company founded trading posts known as factories at Surat (1612) and Madras, now Chennai, (1639) under the auspices of the native Mughal Empire. Rapid expansion followed, and in 1690 the company set up a new factory further up the River Hugli, on a site that became Calcutta (now Kolkata). By 1700 the company was extending its commercial activities in Bengal and had established itself as a leading player in Indian politics. The ships of the East India Company fleet traded mainly in bullion, textiles and tea with Bengal. India was considered a region of vast riches to the British. They needed to protect India from other power seekers. Great Britain continued acquiring colonies, some for the specific purpose of strategic positioning to protect their interests in India.

After the death of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire in India entered a period of instability. During this time the East India Company - while remaining above all a commercial organization—entered more directly into politics in order to preserve its position. Then, during the 1740s and 1750s, the East India Company fought the French Compagne des Indes for primacy in India during the Carnatic Wars. A series of engagements culminated in the Battle of Plassey in June 1757, in which the British defeated their Indian and French rivals and established the East India Company as the dominant power in the important region of Bengal.[9] Although the English presence in (face) of the East India Company became larger and more entrenched during the 17th and 18th centuries, India did not come under direct British rule until 1858.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The British in Australia in 18th century

Though English expeditions had landed in Australia in the late 1600s, original assessments of the usefulness of the continent were not enough to motivate a large-scale interest in colonisation. It was the more thorough explorations of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, coupled with the loss of the American colonies around the same time, that changed this. Though remote, Australia became important to the British, both as a strategic port near East Asia and as a destination for British convicts after the loss of the American colonies. As a result, a British fleet composed mainly of convicts was dispatched to Botany Bay in the Australian region of New South Wales, resulting in the foundation of Sydney in 1788.

Consolidation of control

In the years following the American Revolution, the British government attempted to consolidate and tighten control over its territory in India and Canada. The India Act of 1785 subjected the East India Company’s administration to the scrutiny of a board of control. Under the governor-generalship (1786-1793) of Lord Cornwallis, Britain put administration in India into the hands of a professional civil service within the East India Company, though the company itself remained a trading concern. The Canada Act of 1791 attempted to ease tensions between French and British inhabitants in Canada somewhat by separating the region into Upper Canada, primarily English speaking, and Lower Canada, primarily French speaking.


[1] Morgan, K., “The British Empire. Trade and the British Empire: A Symbiotic Relationship”, 2001,

[2] Cain P.J., Hopkins A.G., “British Imperialism. Crisis and deconstruction. 1914-1990”, New York 1993, p. 90

[3] Judd D., Empire. The British Imperial Experience, 1765 to the Present, London, 1996

[4] Private vessels commissioned by a government to attack possessions or trade of a rival country

[5] Robbins K., “Great Britain. Identities, Institutions, and the Idea of Britishness”, New York 1998, p. 210

[6] Morgan, K., “The British Empire. Trade and the British Empire: A Symbiotic Relationship”, 2001,

[7] Morgan, K., “The British Empire…”

[8] Cain P.J., Hopkins A.G., “British Imperialism. Crisis and deconstruction. 1914-1990”, New York 1993, p. 96

[9]“British Empire”, Online Encyclopedia 2004

Excerpt out of 45 pages


The British Empire in Retrospect
University of Paderborn
Understanding British Business Culture
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British, Empire, Retrospect, Understanding, British, Business, Culture
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Irina Romanova (Author), 2004, The British Empire in Retrospect, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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