The skillfull employer of men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man, and the stupid man. — Sun Tzu

Historical Eras of British Empire

    Foundation of Empire     Height of Empire     Australasia     Colonies and Canada     British India     Colonial Africa     Science and Invention     Great War

Foundation of Empire—1707 to 1815

Act of Union to Battle of Waterloo

When the English Parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701, to bypass all members of the Stuart family, and pass the throne on to the Hanoverians, the solidified Parliament's control over the monarchy. When George I, ascended to the throne on the death of Queen Anne, he bypassed many members of the royal family, and took his position solely at the discretion of parliament. His main qualifications were 1) he was Protestant rather than Catholic, and 2) he did not speak English and had no knowledge of political affairs. This, however, was an asset as far as Parliament was concerned, since he was entirely under their control. Since George I was unable to run his own cabinet meetings, his leading minister Robert Walpole became the first Prime Minister of England, and much of the crown's authority transferred to this position. Walpole served under George I, and George II, and his ministry was generally peaceful but not notable for reform or expansion of territory.

Jacobite Rebellions—Although George I had the support of Parliament, there were still many Stuart supporters, especially in Ireland and Scotland. James III, the Old Pretender, led a rebellion in 1715, and his son James IV, Young Pretender, led a second in 1745. Both uprisings, known as Jacobite Rebellions, failed miserably, but the story of Young Pretender, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, involved a great deal of romance and dash. There were no further challenges to the Hanoverian rule.

William Pitt and the Seven Years War—During the first half of the 18th century, both France and England had been expanding their settlements in North America, and developing their trade in the far east. In both locations, the long term interests of France and England were at odds, and by mid-century, had reached a crisis point. At this time, one of the greatest statesmen in British History appeared on the scene, William Pitt, also known as the Earl of Chatham. He took charge of Britainís foreign affairs at a critical time, reformed its military, and during the course of the Seven Year's War (known as the French Indian Wars in the U.S.), won several enormously important victories with long-lasting consequences for the British Empire. The victory of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec drove France out of North America; Clive's victory at Plassey won the Indian State of Bengal for Britain; and the Battle of Quiberon Bay, under Lord Edward Hawke destroyed French naval power.

The Seven Yearsí War made Britain the dominant European power in North American and India as well, and gave her uncontested mastery of the Seas. Yet this was only the foundation of her eventual empire, and the struggle against France would not be finally resolved for another half century. For the next fifty years, her politics were dominated by wars and revolutions on four continents, and the beginnings of an industrial revolution at home. In spite of these struggles, Britain grew and thrived during this time, her population, commerce, and agricultural production, all nearly doubling. The reign of George III lasted nearly sixty years, and, although he attempted, much more than his Hanoverian predecessors, to hold power in his own hands, his misguided policies ended up costing Britain her most valuable colonies in North America. This crisis occurred in the first twenty years of his reign, and for much of his succeeding reign, the real power lay with his Prime Minister, William Pitt, whose father had opposed the War against the colonies, and urged Britain to make peace with Americans. Pitt the Younger was almost as effective a statesman as his father, and favored many important reforms to the British government, but could not implement them until the close of the Napoleonic Wars, which he did not live to see.

French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars—The French Revolution, which occurred in 1789 plunged Britain into a complicated series of wars with France, lasting almost a quarter century. At first many people within Britain, sympathized with the rebels, but when the true nature of the revolution became apparent, Britain joined an alliance with most other European powers to oppose the Revolutionary Government. During the first series of battles, lasting from 1793 to 1802, Britain provided arms and support to various coalitions of European powers who fought against France, and won many important naval victories. It was during these French Revolutionary Wars that Horatio Nelson, the greatest naval hero in Britainís history, proved his mettle at the Battles of St. Vincent, Nile, and Copenhagen. In spite of these victories, France was generally victorious in its wars with the European governments, and Napoleon had risen to power. Soon after he declared himself emperor, the European powers agreed to recognize him and enjoyed a short period of peace before he began the conquest of continental Europe, known as the Napoleonic Wars.

For many years Britain was the only check on Napoleonís power, and if he had been able to land an army on her shores, he believed his superior army would prevail against her, but the Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805, destroyed Franceís naval power, assuring that Britain would remain free from invasion. Though victorious at sea, Britain was unable to stop Napoleonís domination of the continent, and within a year of Trafalgar, most of Western Europe was under his control. Portugal, and to some extent Spain however, was still actively resisting the French powers, so the Duke of Wellington, the greatest general within Britain, rose an army and fought Napoleonís forces in the Peninsular War, on the Iberian Peninsula. This front, which was active from 1808 to 1813, was Britainís main campaign on the continent, but it encouraged smuggling, provided financial support to rebels, and in other ways helped to undermine Napoleonís government, especially following his disastrous campaign in Russia. It was not until the Battle of Waterloo however, in 1814 that Napoleonís power was permanently broken, and France remained in an unsettled condition for years afterward.

Exploration and Colonization—The last half of the 18th century was also a period during which Britainís colonial holdings increased, and much exploration done. Captain Cook, the greatest navigator of his age, not only discovered Australia and New Zealand for Britain, in the 1770ís but also much improved the British navy by instituting standards of nutrition and cleanliness aboard ships which greatly reduced the incidence of scurvy and other disease. His explorations of the polar areas, and south sea islands, also much improved geographical knowledge of the time. Other explorers of this age included Mungo Park, who traced the mouth of the Niger, George Vancouver, who claimed Western Canada for Britain, and Alexander Mackenzie, who explored the far regions of Northwest Canada for the Hudson Bay Company, and James Bruce, who discovered the legendary source of the Blue Nile in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia).

The loss of the American colonies in 1783 had the effect of accelerating the settlement of Canada and Australia. In the Americas, Tory sympathizers left the new republic in droves, and settled in upper Canada (now Ontario), and Australia was originally settled as a penal colony, since British felons could no longer be sent to the American colonies. British citizens also began settling in South Africa, which had been won from Holland in 1795 during the French Revolutionary Wars. The British presence in India increased also during this period, still under the auspices of the British East India Company, under the Governorship of Warren Hastings. Unlike Britainís colonies in the west however, India was already heavily populated, and English outposts functioned more as trading centers than expanding settlements. The British also held numerous Island colonies in the West Indies, and continued to import slaves from Africa to work on cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations there, until the slave trade was outlawed in 1807. Slavery was finally made illegal in all British colonies in 1833.

British Literature, Science, Industry, Economics and Culture—The 18th century was a very fertile one for English Literature. There emerged several notable English writers, including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift of Gulliverís Travels fame, and Samuel Johnson, author of the first Dictionary of the English Language. Literary greats of the revolutionary era included the Robert Burns the Poet, Sir Walter Scott, the greatest of Scottish novelists, Edmund Burke, the political philosopher, who was known to be very sympathetic to the American Revolution but was one of the first to condemn the French Revolution; and Blackstone, the famous jurist and author of Commentaries on the Laws of England, the authoritative work on English Common Law.

The British writer of greatest long term importance however, was probably Adam Smith, who published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He advocated the novel idea of free trade and low tariffs at time when much of government revenues, monopolies, and money making schemes were tied up with tariffs and other import encumbrances. Although his ideas took several generations to take full effect, they eventually became the foundation of modern capitalism. The economic ideas of Adam Smith, combined with some of the critical inventions of the era, including James Watt's Steam Engine, Hargreavesí spinning Jenny, Cromptonís Mule, and George Stephenson locomotive, eventually set the stage for an industrial revolution in England which had world wide repercussions and changed the nature of international commerce.

Height of Empire—1815 to 1902

End of Napoleonic Wars to Second Boer War

The years following the Napoleonic Wars were beset by domestic difficulties in Britain. The government had to raise taxes to pay off a massive war debt, and unemployment was a much greater problem than during the war time. Numerous domestic reforms had been put off during the war and the industrial revolution was wreaking havoc on traditional economies. Because of the shifting of wealth from the countries to the cities there was a great deal of pressure to reform Parliament in order to more fairly represent newly populated areas. This resulted in the Reform act of 1832, which enfranchised thousands of middle class citizens and better represented the new distribution of population. Other important reforms that were implemented after the war years were Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery in the colonies.

Victorian Era—The Victorian Era, lasting from 1837 to the close of the 19th century, was the heyday of the British Empire. The population of all of its colonies increased greatly during this time, both from indigenous growth, and the migration of Britain's own growing population. Land in Canada, Australia, and South Africa was cheap and any landless Englishman who could afford passage, could become established in the new colonies. Manufactured goods were becoming inexpensive, trade thrived, and a reasonably prosperous middle class was becoming a predominant political power for the first time in history. Rail travel was becoming widely available, making transportation to, and development of the interior regions of both Britain and its colonies much easier than before. Science and technology were yielding great discoveries during this time, increasing mankind's understanding of his physical world, and new ideas of change and progress were coming into conflict with traditional beliefs and ways of life.

During this same time however, some of the difficulties of governing such a large and diverse empire, were becoming apparent on both the domestic and international fronts. Although the decades following the Napoleonic War were relatively peaceful, by mid-century, Britain became involved in a series of wars, in China, Afghanistan, the Crimea, India, Burmah, Egypt, Soudan, Greece, West Africa, Abyssinia, and South Africa, that in many cases were required to maintain Britain's dominion over unruly native populations. These wars were not always popular either in Britain's colonial regions, or at home, and were the frequent cause of the collapse of whichever British governing party was currently in power.

Politics and Culture—In the realm of domestic politics, the commencement of the reign of Victoria coincided very nearly with the beginning of the new reformed parliament, which was at first dominated by Whigs. The reform-minded Whigs made many new laws which restricted the abuse of laborers in the factories, encouraged efforts applied towards public education, revised the poor-laws, and even abolished slavery in all of the colonies of the United Kingdom. Many of these laws, some of which required higher taxes, were contentious, and soon after the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne, the Tories, lead by Prime Minister Robert Peel, were back in power. The Tory (or conservative party) base however, had changed, and was increasingly sympathetic to the concerns of the middle classes, and was also known for lowering import and export duties, to encourage more trade. For most of the Victorian era power alternated between the domestic-reform minded Whigs, whose best known spokesman was William Gladstone, and the imperial-reform minded Tories, whose best known spokesman was Benjamin Disraeli.

In the fields of literature, arts, science, and invention, the Victorian age in Britain, was full of astounding genius. Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell, were all well known for their inquiries into electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics, while Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley put forth a theory of evolution that challenged accepted notions of Biblical Creation. Famous Victorian age poets include Rudyard Kipling, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and of course, Alfred Tennyson. Victorian age novelists included Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Jules Verne, and the Bronte sisters.

Commerce, Free Trade and Colonial problems—The ideas of Adam Smith had taken great hold of the commerce-minded middle class of Britain so free-market ideas which encouraged trade were becoming more prevalent in both parties. The reduction of import duties on manufactured goods, however, was not as controversial as the reduction of tariffs on food-stuffs (known as corn-laws), since the corn-laws protected the incomes on peasant farmers as well as the powerful landed squires. It was not until the crisis of the Irish potato famine in 1846, that the corn-laws, which raised the price of food for everyone, were abolished. This eased the crisis somewhat, but the grievances of the Irish peasants against their British overlords was very great and long-standing. Catholic Ireland had been oppressed by Britain since the time of the reformation, and now that the British middle classes had won some political rights there was a great movement afoot in Ireland to achieve self-government, that was opposed by those in Britain who feared the radical element. The "Irish Problem", continued to be a controversial political problem in Britain, throughout the reign of Victoria, in spite of the best efforts of some statesmen sympathetic to the Irish, including Daniel O'Connell, Charles Parnell, and William Gladstone.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain's international trade was the envy of the world, and it was by far the wealthiest and most powerful nation the world had ever seen. It had established trade, (sometimes forcibly, as in China), with almost every country on the globe and was actively trying to develop its colonies, by building railroads, encouraging commerce, and in some cases, supporting missionary activity. Its prestige however, took several blows, in the mid 1850's first with the Crimean War, when due to commercial concerns, she took the side of the degenerate Ottoman Empire against Russia. Soon after, the Indian Mutiny, a wide-scale rebellion against British authority, broke out and was only put down at great cost after a series of disturbing atrocities. Following shortly afterward were the infamous Opium Wars with China. While Britain achieved military victories in all these conflicts, the contention and controversies involved planted seeds of anti-imperialism both inside and outside British domains.

Exploration and Colonization of Africa—The colonization and exploration of Africa, particularly the regions of South Africa, was accomplished primarily during the Victorian era, much later than that of Asia, and it was desired to avoid some of the missteps that Britain had taken in Asia. Unquestionably, in Africa there was a more conscious effort to deal fairly with the native populations, and utilize missionary activities to help "civilize" the inhabitants. For most of the 19th century, for example, Britain worked actively against the slave trade, and tried to keep peace among warring tribes, when possible. However, their were, as always, great difficulties, and Britain was pulled into wars in South Africa, against both the Zulus and their enemies, the Boers, who had resisted British rule. Britain was also drawn into conflicts in West Africa, and the Egypt-Sudan region, where native war-lords rose against the Ottoman-Egyptian government, a British ally. The African interior, which was entirely unexplored by white men, was also tackled during this era, most notably by David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, but other British explorers included H. M. Stanley, Richard Burton, and John Hanning Speke.

Australasia—1770 to 1907

Voyage of Captain Cook to New Zealand Dominion

Australia and New Zealand—The British Settlement of Australia and New Zealand, proceeded relatively peacefully, since the indigenous residents of these countries were neither populous nor particularly civilized. A great deal of the growth of these colonies was fueled by the enormous population growth within the British realm during the 19th century, and also by the availability of inexpensive land. Very poor young men and women, with limited prospects in their homeland, could move to any of Britainís provinces and find plenty of opportunity. Aside from these similarities however, the history of the settlement of Australia and New Zealand proceeded quite differently.

Early Settlement of Australia—Australia and New Zealand were both claimed for Britain by Captain Cook on his first voyage to the region in 1770, but permanent settlement did not begin in Australia until 1788, several years after Britain lost possession of most of her American colonies. The initial settlement in New South Wales was a penal colony, and many of the first European inhabitants of Australia were criminals. These resulted in a very high degree of self-reliance among subsequent settlers, and a severe system of military justice because from the earliest times, Australia contained a unusually high outlaw population. Other colonies in Australia were founded in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. They were governed fairly independently because of the large distances between them. In 1850 a gold rush caused a fairly rapid increase in population, but for the most part the population grew slowly and steadily during the 19th century. There were few military actions against the native population for several reasons. First, they were highly susceptible to infection disease, and secondly, the continent was large enough, and European settlement slow enough that when they were forced to resettle, there were few overt land disputes. Because of the almost total lack of military feats in the history of Australian settlement, ANZAC day is honored on the anniversary of the day the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the Great War. The united provinces of Australia gained their independence from Great Britain in 1931.

Early Settlement of New Zealand—Although in many ways New Zealand's climate was more attractive that that of Australia, she was settled considerably later because of her more populous, and somewhat warlike natives. The earliest European settlers in New Zealand were in fact sailors, traders, and other adventurers who desired to live among the native Maoris without the benefits or oppressions of civilized society. After trying to avoid involvement in the region for some time, in 1830 Britain finally decided to claim New Zealand as a colony and peacefully negotiated a treaty with the major native tribes in the region. From that point on, British colonists began to arrive, especially on the Northern island, but it was not for several generations that the Europeans were populous enough to have serious land disputes with the natives. This led to a series of land wars which the Maori's, who were skilled guerilla warriors, occasionally seemed to enjoy.

Over the long term, of course, the Maori's lost, but their relationship with the British colonizers never soured to the degree of other conquered peoples. There was considerable inter-marriage between the two races and when New Zealand did become independent from Britain the Maoris and their mixed-race progeny were granted full rights of citizenship.

Colonies and Canada—1585 to 1885

Roanoke Colony to Saskatchewan Rebellion

The exploration of Canada by French and English explorers commenced very soon after the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, although permanent settlement of the new world colonies did not occur until the early seventeenth century. The early explorers of North America, whose names are still recorded on lakes, bays, and rivers of the region, began with the voyage of John Cabot in 1497, and include Jacques Cartier , Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain, Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin, Alexander Mackenzie, and many others. Most were in search of the elusive Northwest-passage, from the Atlantic to Asia, that would have meant enormous riches for its discoverers, had it existed.

Early French and English Colonies in Canada—England's first attempt to colonize Canada was a failed expedition to Newfoundland by Humphrey Gilbert, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was France, lead by the explorers Cartier and Champlain, that claimed the regions of Canada along the St. Lawrence seaway. The earliest French colonies were at Montreal and Quebec, which were established as trading posts for the French missionaries and trappers who went to live among the Indians.

From the beginning, the region of Canada was disputed between England and France. England controlled Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and the southern coastal areas, while France centered its colonies around the St. Lawrence seaway and the great lakes. Britainís domination of the seas meant that its settlements were better supplied, and in closer contact with the mother country, but Franceís close relations with the Indian tribes gave it almost complete control of the fur trade, and easy access to the interior regions. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, France and Britain were often at war, and although these conflicts went by different names in Europe, in the Americas, they were called the French Indian Wars. These Indian wars even continued when France and England were official at peace, but in spite of over seventy years of fighting, and many heroic and horrible events, nothing was permanently resolved until 1759, the year in which Britain conquered Quebec. Within a few years of that battle, fought between the famous Generals General Wolfe and General Montcalm, Britain had driven France from North America, and taken possession of all of her French colonies in the region.

Canada under British Rule—When Britain took control of New France, she allowed the French settlers to continue to govern themselves according to their own customs, and allowed freedom of worship for all Catholics. One exception to this general tolerance of their French subjects, occurred in Nova Scotia, were an independent settlement of Acadians refused to take an oath of loyalty to the British government. In consequence they were forcibly deported from the region, and many ended up in New Orleans. Many ethnic Cajuns in New Orleans are the descendents of these deported Acadians. The French-speaking colonies of Canada continued as a British province until 1791, when New France was partitioned into French-speaking Lower Canada, (modern Quebec), and English-speaking Upper Canada (modern Ontario). The reason for this, was that following the revolutionary war, a great number of Tory settlers had migrated to Upper Canada, and the two settlements were too dissimilar to rule under a single government. During this time other British colonies were also settled in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia.

Most of the British settlement at this time were located off the eastern seaboard, but traders from the Hudson Bay Company, a company first chartered by Charles II, were busy discovering and mapping the vast land to the west. The colonization of the western plains began in 1811 with the settlement of the Red River Valley, but the settlers there ran into many of the same troubles that plagued the earlier settlers in America: hostile Indians, disease, and hunger. Over a long period of time, however, the southern parts of Manitoba became a thriving colony. In the far west, George Vancouver explored the Columbia river basin and Vancouver Island, and claimed the entire region for Britain. Like most of the rest of western Canada, however, permanent settlement occurred slowly until the opening of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885.

Confederation of Canada—In the early 1830's, the elections reform bill in Great Britain resulted an a grand restructuring of the British Parliament. After this occurred many of the colonies, including the provinces of Canada, became enamored with the idea of democratic self-rule. In 1837 there were widespread riots in both Upper and Lower Canada in protest against the British colonial government. Lord Durham went to investigate and proposed the Union of the two provinces under limited self-rule. While the residents were still British subjects, they were allowed to elect parliaments and pass laws that pertained to local matters. In 1867, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia joined the confederation, followed by Manitoba and British Columbia in 1870, and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. The last province to join the Canadian Federation was Newfoundland in 1947.

British India—1526 to 1914

Baber founds Moghul Empire to First World War

The East India Company, which originally set up British trading centers in Asia, was first charted by Elizabeth I in 1600. It was not uncommon for European governments to charter private companies to establish colonies—many of the thirteen American colonies had started out as such. These quasi-governmental institutions had the right to make autonomous decisions and to defend their interests in far flung regions, but were required to make a report to their sovereign and have their charter extended every twenty to thirty years.

Carnatic Wars and British Conquest of Bengal—During the first 150 years of its existence, the British East India Company established several trading posts in India, first at Surat; then at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. During most of this time, much of India was ruled by the Great Mogul Jehanjir, who was on good terms with the traders, but the Mughal empire was in decline, there was strife between Hindus and Moslems, and other trading companies, from Portugal, Holland and France, competed with the British for trade in India. After the death of the Aurangzeb, much of the power of the Mughal empire devolved to local princes, and these princes, who were often at war with each other, were aware of the advantages of western military power. The French, under Dupleix, governor at Pondicherry, were particularly astute at making alliances with the Indian Princes (Nawabs), and in a short time the French were the predominant power in Bengal. When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out in Europe, the French used the opportunity to attempt to drive England from India altogether, and thus began the Carnatic Wars.

At this point, there appeared on the scene, Robert Clive, a lowly and miserable company clerk, stationed at Madras, with no military experience. When the French besieged Ft. David, he distinguished himself with such valor, that a few years later the Company entrusted him to embark on a nearly hopeless quest, to take the enemy capital of Arcot. In spite of tremendous odds, Clive took and held Arcot, and greatly improved Britain's standing among the local princes, whose main concern was to make alliances with the predominant European power. Although Dupleix was a brilliant statesman, his generals were no match for the youthful and fearless Clive. Six years, and many battles later, he had greatly improved Britain's reputation with the local princes. Finally, in 1757, at the Battle of Plassey Clive won a brilliant victory over a combined French and native force fifty thousand strong, with only 800 British, and 2000 Native troops. From this point on, Britain controlled Bengal, the riches province of India, and was the most influential foreign power in the entire region.

The first few years of the British rule in Bengal, however, were utterly miserable. The East India company was accustomed to trade and to fight, but not to govern or bring justice to a foreign country. These duties were neglected, to the near ruin of the country, until Warren Hastings was appointed the first Governor of all British Provinces in India, but only after a terrible famine had brought the problems to a crisis point. Hastings was a very controversial governor, and though he did much to improve the situation, many problems were left unresolved, and he made powerful enemies. He ruled for twelve years, but upon his return home was tried for corruption, and acquitted after a contentious trial. Whether or not he deserved to be condemned, his highly publicized trial raised many of the problems of the British rule in India to the public eye.

Expansion of British Territory in India—Several well-known Indian governors followed, including General Cornwallis, of American Revolutionary fame, and Marquess Wellesley, an elder Brother of the Duke of Wellington. Britain continued to bring more of India under its sway. In some case, as in the Mysore Wars against Tipu Sultan, they conquered a Nawab and annexed his region. In other cases, they simply made a "mutual defense" treaty with a local prince that gave Britain great advantages. Finally, a policy was established that in cases when no direct heir was left to a region, Britain annexed the area, and appointed its own governor. Yet expansion did not bring peace, nor did it bring good government. The British government continued to put more constraints on the East India Company to curb abuses, but there was not a clear consensus about what the ruling policy should be—only a consensus that more money should be raised. Yet the goals of ruling India well, and at the same time extracting money from her, were at cross purposes.

After numerous missteps, years of misrule, several rebellions and mutinies, and numerous wars against the Marathas, Gurkhas, and Burmah, the British government reformed the East India Company to such an extent that it was no longer allowed to carry on trade at all, and was to focus only on more effective government of the provinces. Indian ports were thrown open to merchants of every country so in this way, the native Indians were not cheated by traders who held a monopoly. This reform occurred in 1833 and was part of the "free trade" movement that was being gradually implemented throughout the growing empire. Soon after, Lord Dalhousie became was appointed Governor and was one of the best rulers of India. He expanded British territory, adding the Punjab to British domains, but accomplished it in such a way that the Sikhs, or native Punjabis, became loyal British subjects, instead of seething rebels. He also built many roads, railways, and telegraphs, which greatly improved communication in the region.

Indian Mutiny—Yet just when conditions had begun to improve in India, disasters struck. First, in 1841, due to some foolish statesmanship, the British forced an unpopular ruler on Afghanistan, and stationed thousands of British soldiers along with their families in Kabul. In the middle of winter, the garrison was surrounded and forced to retreat from through Khyber Pass on its way back to India. Of the entire garrison of ten thousand, only one man survived to tell the tale. It was the worst massacre in British Imperial History. Fifteen years later, the Indian Mutiny broke out in Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Delhi. It was an enormous disaster that cost thousands of lives, and nearly succeeded in driving Britain from Indian soil. But after many atrocities and heroics, the British forces with their loyal Indian allies prevailed, and after consolidating their power, embarked on several important reforms, with the hope of preventing future outbreaks. It was at this time that the East India Company was completely dissolved, and the British Government took full responsibility for development of the Indian colonies.

Colonial Africa—1770 to 1910

Discovery of Blue Nile to Union of South Africa

British Influence in Africa: An Overview—Substantial British Influence in Africa was not established until the 19th century, and was confined to several regions which have separate histories. By the turn of the 20th century, British holdings included Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) and Nigeria in West Africa; the region now composed of South Africa, Botswana, Zambezi, and Zambia in the south; and Uganda and Kenya in the East. In addition, British forces controlled the regions of Egypt and Sudan, although nominally these were still part of the Ottoman Empire. Although British traders, including slave traders, had operated off the west coast of Africas for several hundred years, they confined their operations mainly to a few coastal trading ports and islands, since the African interior was thought to be uninhabitable by Europeans. Britain did not actually gain control of Capetown in South Africa until around 1800, and did not acquire her other colonial holdings until the late 19th century. British colonization of Africa therefore occurred nearly 100 years after its colonial expansion in Asia, and over 200 years since its colonization of North America.

The first seventy years of British colonization South Africa proceeded more slowly and hesitantly than that of Asia. On both continents trading companies played an important role in colonization, but in Asia, commerce was already well established, and the climate was reasonably safe for Europeans. The development of profitable trade with much of Africa was far more difficult, and companies looking for quick profits had difficulties, especially after slavery was abolished in all British colonies.

Missionaries and humanitarians, as well as imperialists and trading companies had much influence on African colonization, but even among the humanitarians there was little consensus about what could or should be done about such native practices as domestic slavery, witchcraft, and inter-tribal warfare. Because of the difficulties with native populations, an unhealthy climate and uncertain commercial opportunities, there was much reluctance and controversy regarding what Britainís objectives should be in the region. Control of the British government changed parties frequently and no consistent African colonial policy was pursued from above. For this reason, committed individuals who were willing to work over the long term were often influential in establishing colonial policies. Some examples of this were Charles Gordon in the Sudan, George Goldie in Nigeria, Harry Smith and George Grey in South Africa, and David Livingstone in Central Africa.

Once gold and diamonds were discovered in the 1870s and 1880s, however, South Africa was over-run by fortune seekers, bankers, and traders. From that point on, the 'Scramble for Africa' by ruthless financial, commercial, and imperial interests was in full swing. It was, in fact, the the financial backers of the Diamond Baron and Cecil Rhodes that formed companies to develop colonies in Western and Eastern Africa. British influence over the Ottoman Empire and over Egypt in particular increased after the Crimean War, but Egypt did not become a protectorate of Britain unitl the 1880s. By the turn of the century, however, Egypt, Sudan, and the entire Nile valley, was firmly under the sway of the British Empire.

Exploration of the African Continent—The geography of the African interior was almost completely unknown well into the 19th century, but when exploration was finally undertaken most of the adventurers were British Scots. One of the earliest explorers of Africa was James Bruce who discovered the source of the Blue Nile in 1770. Soon after Mungo Park discovered the Niger river by traveling across land, but never determined its source or mouth. Several other British explorers, including Hugh Clapperton and the Landers brothers continued to explore this region over the next few decades. They determined the course and the outlet of the Niger, but not much was done to follow up their efforts because of the extreme danger of traveling inland in this region. The source of the White Nile and Lake Victoria, were not discovered until 1856 by John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton, and David Livingstone, the most famous of African Explorers, did not undertake his first expedition to cross the southern horn of the continent until 1852, and by his death in 1873, much of the interior of the continent was still unknown. It was left to H. M. Stanley, yet another Scotsman, to cross the continent east to west, and in 1874 discover the route of the Congo river. Even after these discoveries were made further development was proceeded very slowly, and large swaths of the continent lay unexplored.

West Africa—In West Africa, France was the major colonial power in the region, and British traders held only a few outposts, and even held these half-heartedly at times, since it was difficult to retain governors. The climate was deadly for white men, and few ventured into the interior. The coast possessed some honest traders, and mission stations, but the overall character of many of the Europeans who did venture into the regions was poor—pirates and slavers abounded, and even many philanthropic ventures that were naively attempted ended in disaster. During the 19th century, British traders established several additional outposts in the Gold Coast region, and made alliances with the Fanti, who were the dominant coastal tribes at the time. During the same period, the interior Ashanti tribe was becoming more powerful, and sought to displace the Fanti and take over the coastal trade. The first Ashanti War occurred when the Ashanti's made several raids into the coastal settlements protected by the British and burned Fanti villages. Since the area was under their protection, the British made several raids into Ashanti territory between 1826 and 1874 in order to punish the incursions. A final uprising in 1896 resulted in the declaration of the territory as the Crown Colony of the Gold Coast.

The man most responsible for the establishment of Nigeria as a British colony was George Goldie, who for twenty years worked to establish a functioning government to Nigeria. Unable to get Britain to commit, he raised funds privately, and founded a government chartered development company. He essentially governed the region himself for twenty years, until "selling-out" to Britain in 1900. Like most people of the his age, he did not think the natives were capable of governing themselves humanely, and saw his role both as promoting commerce and civilization.


South Africa—The Cape Town region of South Africa was originally settled by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, and by the time the colony fell into British hands, around 1800, much of the population had been established in the area for over 150 years. The Native Dutch, also called Boers, or Afrikaners, were fiercely independent slave-owners, and they resented the British interference. When the British government decided to abolish slavery in all of its colonies, many of the Boers decided to pack up their belongings and move out of the sphere of British influence. They first settled in Natal, on the east side of the peninsula, eventually moved across the Vaal river, into a desolate wilderness, inhabited by Zulu tribes. After using their usual methods of slaughter and diplomacy to bring the native tribes to bay, the Boers settled and formed two republics in the region, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal Republic.

Meanwhile, Cape Town, Natal, and several other towns in the south grew under Britainís protection. In 1867 however, diamonds were found in a remote area of Kimberly, claimed by both Britain and the Transvaal. The commerce and industry minded English were in a far better position to exploit the discoveries and so took over government of the area. Within ten years of the discovery of South African Diamonds, Cecil Rhodes, with the help of the Rothchild banking conglomerate, had built a diamond-mining empire that eventually became a multi-million dollar cartel. Once his fortune was established, Rhodes entered politics threw his entire energies and much of his wealth into the project of unifying the colonies of South Africa under a single government, within the British commonwealth. With this goal in mind, he negotiated with native tribes for mineral rights, formed colonial companies, and established British claims to Botswana, Zambia, and Zambezi. His efforts to unify South Africa, however, were hotly resisted by the Dutch Boers, who hated British rule and loved their independence.

The efforts to unite South Africa under British rule extended to native regions as well as the Boer Republics, so a pretext was found for war with the Zulus, and a British regiment was sent to Zululand to put down Cetewayo. But the over-confident British were caught off guard and the entire troop was slaughtered in one of the worst massacres in British history. It took the British a year to regroup, but they eventually prevailed against the Zuluís and against great opposition, annexed the independent Boer Republics. Once the Boers decided to resist the British usurpation, however, the conflect want very badly for Britain and the Prime minister was happy to make peace with the Boers and regrant them their independence.

Yet the situation was far from settled. In 1885, an enormous vein of gold was discovered in the Transvaal. The Boers themselves were agricultural and only wanted to be left alone but could do nothing to prevent the enormous influx of foreigners into their territory. They did however, tax the miners, but did not allow the outlanders to have a say in government. Since many of the new arrivals were British, insisting on the "rights" of foreigners became a pretext for re-opening conflict with the Boers. In 1896 an outlander "revolt" was arranged by imperialist conspirators, which ended in disaster and led directly to the second Boer War. The Boers fought valiently and the conflict lasted until 1902, but ultimately, the far stronger British defeated the republic and forced submission to British government. It took ten more years to integrate the South African colonies into a union, and neither the imperialist Cecil Rhodes who had pressed for the Union nor his Boer nemesis Paul Kruger lived a United South Africa.

Egypt-Sudan—Even before the Crimean War, during which Britain allied itself with the Ottoman Turks, British banking and commercial interests hand developed relationships the Egyptian dictator Mehemet Ali, who had come to power in the region following the Napoleonic Wars. He allowed the British to run a transportation line (P.& O.) from Alexandria to the Red Sea, to facilitate travel to India, and developed industries and commercial monopolies with the help of European financiers. Mehemetís successors continued to rely on Britain and other European powers to provide expertise for modernization, and to bail them out of financial trouble. The Suez canal was begun with the aid of the French, but through diplomacy and other shenanigans, Britain ended up controlling a minority share. Soon after the opening of the canal, Britain was called upon to help put down Arabi's Rebellion against the Egyptian government, and at the Battle of Tel-el-kebir drove the rebel leader into exile. By this time Britain was no longer merely "advising" the Egyptian government, but had essentially assumed control of both the finances and the military. Though the Khedive was still nominally in power, British financiers ruled the entire government.

Meanwhile the British military hero Charles Gordon, who had already distinguished himself by his valiant service in China was appointed Governor of Sudan, a region where slavery was still rife, and the natives were oppressed by warlords and bandits. Gordon worked ceaselessly for five years to improve the condition of the natives, and returned to Britain in 1879, exhausted. Shortly Thereafter a rebellion broke out, lead by the Mahdi, a fanatical Moslem warlord. Within a few years he controlled much of Sudan, and murdered and enslaved those who opposed him. In 1884, when Gordon heard that Khartoum was threatened, he returned to Sudan to help defend the city and urged the British government to send a relief party. But the relief party was delayed. It arrived too late, Gordon was killed, and Khartoum fell to the Mahdists. Thirteen years later, this disgrace was avenged at the Battle of Omdurman and the murderous Mahdists were finally driven out of Sudan. Egypt and Sudan continued under British protection until after the Great War.

Great War—1901 to 1921

Death of Victoria to Aftermath of Great War

Thirteen years after the death of Victoria I in 1901, the British Empire faced the worst calamity it its history, the Great War. During the last half of the 19th century, the nation of Germany, dominated by Prussia, had made great gains over its continental neighbors. Its compulsory education and university system produced the best educated population in the world. In the Franco Prussian War of 1870, Germany had established itself as the pre-eminent military force on the continent. Germany was a well-educated, industrious, and ambitious country, with an enormous standing army. It was not, however, a strong naval power and by the time it came to power, most of the desirable areas of the globe had already been colonized by Britain, France, or Spain. Undaunted, Germany realized that if she could get control of the Balkan Peninsula, and ally herself with Turkey, she could control important trade routes to the east.

Great Britain, on the other hand, was very wealthy, powerful, and controlled almost all the strategically important sea routes, but her wealth and industry had given rise to a certain decadence and corruption, and the control of her government alternated between pro-imperialist Tories and liberal, or socialist reformers. Britain, being a self-content, but unwieldly power, did not want war, and was not prepared for it. Germany, being a young, vigorous, and ambitious rising power, did. The leaders in Germany undoubtedly believed they could conquer the corrupt western democracies in a short and decisive campaign, as they had done in the Franco-Prussian war. No one believed in advance that the war would sink to the depths of carnage, barbarism and whole-sale slaughter to which it quickly sank. The Great War, as it was called at the time, was not just a military debacle for all concerned, but a blow at the heart of the modernist idea of moral progress, and the conceits of civilization.

The Western Front—British involvement in the Great war occurred primarily on the Western Front, and in particularly in the regions of Flanders and northern France. The German had planned a very quick foray toward Paris in hopes of a quick victory, but they were frustrated by Belgium's refusal to allow their army to pass through their country. This delayed the German advance by three weeks, giving France and Britain time to marshal forces. Once inside French territory, the Germans advanced rapidly but were stopped and driven back at the First Battle of the Marne. The Germans retreated to a line defense that extended across eastern France from the North Sea to Switzerland, and both sides dug in for a protracted war. Numerous offensives were attempted from this line on both sides, but with modern weapon technology, every offensive resulted in horrendous casualties, and fighting quickly reverted to trench warfare. New weapons, such as poison gas, aircraft bombing, and tanks were invented to make progress on this front, but even these were unsuccessful in breaking the deadlock. The two most famous battles on the Western front, both lasting several months and inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties, were Verdun and Somme. Yet even these ambitious campaigns failed in their objectives. The western front languished for three years, until Germany instigated a final offensive, in an attempt to break through the french line before American reinforcements arrived. The object failed and by 1818, when significant numbers of Americans arrived the Germans were driven out of their positions and far back into German territory.

Gallipoli—The invasion of Gallipoli was the worst British crisis of 1915. The British desired to gain control of the Black Sea in order to supply its ally Russian, and also to cut off German aid to Turkey. It was determined that the straight of Dardanelles could not be taken by British navy due to heavily fortified forts, so a large scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula was planned. Although carefully planned, the casualties were extremely heavy, the conditions were terrible, and the British were too exhausted once they had secured each military objective to follow through on their offensive. After several offensives failed to make headway the project was abandoned. Winston Churchill was one of the Navel commanders at the time who lost their position after the debacle.

Mesopotamia and Palestine—After an initial disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia, in which most of a British army was besieged in Kut en route to Baghdad, the allied campaigns in Iraq and Palestine were generally successful. By attacking from British strongholds in the Persian Gulf and Egypt, several British armies were able to land successfully, secure their supply lines, and over run the southern portions of the Ottoman Empire. They were helped in these endeavors by an Arab rebellion, led by Lawrence of Arabia, a British archeologist who had spent several years traveling in Arabia and befriending important sheiks. The first allied victory in the area was the successful capture of Baghdad by General Maude in early 1917. This was followed up by a series of successful campaigns in Palestine and Syria by General Allenby. Jerusalem fell to the British in late 1917, and most important cities in Syria were in British hands by early 1918.

Dissolution of the British Empire—The immediate effects of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Great War, was to add Egypt, Iraq and Palestine to Britain's dominions. These new acquisitions were the result of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Long term, however, the Great War portended the ultimate dissolution of the Empire. The war had crippled Britain economically, decreased its hold upon its colonies, and most importantly severely diminished its will to power. Britain's war debt was enormous and lead to destabilizing inflation. The Anglo-Irish war of 1919 lead to Ireland's independence from Great Britain in 1922. A few years later the Balfour Declaration of 1926 suggested that the imperial possessions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Newfoundland, and South Africa be governed in cooperation with, but independently of Britain. This arrangement was set formally sent forth in 1931 in the Statute of Westminster. Gradually almost all other British possessions gained their independence: Iraq in 1932, India in 1947, Burma in 1948, Egypt in 1953, Nigeria and South Africa in 1960, and Kenya in 1963. Hong Kong was ceded back to the China in 1997. Today the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland enjoys commonwealth trade relations with most of its former colonies, but it directly governs only the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, and the British West Indies.