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Useful Notes / The British Empire

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To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.

"Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves!
Britons never will be slaves!"
James Thomson, "Rule Britannia!", fifth stanza

The British Empire was the largest to have ever existed, covering over a quarter of the globe and roughly the same again of its population at its peak in 1920. It is usually considered to have existed from 1707 (when the British state was created by the Union of England and Scotland) to 1997 (with the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China). It covered all seven continents — yes, even Antarctica.note  Because of the rotation of the earth illuminating different areas of the globe, it was often stated, and technically true (even today, due to the remaining overseas dependencies such as Pitcairn Island), that the sun NEVER set on the British Empirenote . Home of men in red coats and pith helmets, being served lots and lots of tea by the locals. The Empire disappeared in the 20th Century as a result of decolonization, and by the end of it, England's/Britain's territory more or less returned to what it had been, between the end of The Hundred Years War (when it lost all its overseas holdings in Angevin France) and the birth of The House of Tudor (whose monarchs expanded Britain to Ireland, started settlements in the New World and chartered the East India Company). The Remnant of the Empire includes a small handful of highly contested territory: a part of Ireland, a place with a load of apes— er, monkeys that the Spanish want back because they took it off them 300 years ago and another place with a load of penguins that the Argentinians want because it's close. Its successor organization calls itself The Commonwealth of Nations, which is a more collegiate organization; nations represent their interests there and no longer have the King or Queen as Head of State by default, unless they want to. note 

The Empire that everyone imagines include character archetypes like the Great White Hunter, the Adventure Archaeologist, Mighty Whitey, Evil Brit, the Stiff Upper Lip Englishman who is both a soldier and a scholar, a master of several languages, who worries his seniors about potentially Going Native, and who tend to feel out of place in Britain. The main appeal is exoticism, tourism, visiting new lands and glimpsing it unspoiled and isolated from the world, shedding a single tear, and then making sure that no one can experience that the way they did, either Englishmen after them, or the colonized natives who they oppressed or displaced, who eventually end up Majored in Western Hypocrisy. Romantic notions aside, what kept the British Empire together in its day were ultimately the principles of Divide and Conquer and argumentum ad baculum. There would not have been a British Empire in the first place if its constituent peoples were free, or possessed agency in any meaningful capacity, to leave it whenever they were so inclined. The British ensured wherever possible to militarily disarm the localsnote , ensure the infrastructure and transportation for rapid troop movements and deployments, as well as a steady stream of assassinations, imprisonments and bribery required to maintain control. More occasionally the locals would attempt rebellions which would be greeted with frequently brutal counter-measures; however these were restricted to a small minority of people. This brutality became harder to conceal and make palatable as time went on, and the British lost their grip on the levers of mass media and propaganda which played an immense role in justifying and enabling their regime to its own citizens as well as international observers.

The British Empire is credited, even by its critics, for contributing to general economic development as it enforced a free-trade area over a quarter of the globe with no tariffs (zero) in or out of it. Though of course there were tolls and stamp taxes and such. This resulted in a lot of rather lopsided economic development, with some highly-developed areas right next to or in the middle of totally untouched ones. Likewise, the British served as an agent of modernization, being as Karl Marx noted sardonically, "conservatives at home and revolutionaries abroad". Their activities in many nations and places displaced the traditional aristocratic and tribal elites in charge, forcing the colonized and imperial subjects on a path to modernization. In some cases, the English took an active interest in nurturing and developing middle-classes in these regions to serve as a buffer and proxy to better build consensus for their conquests, as well as enabling them to participate in the developing and nurturing of free trade, general enterprise and Capitalism. They played a part in the foundation and spread of industrialization around the world, leading to the development of railways, cities and bustling ports. Through means of its investments in education systems in the coloniesnote , it provided a channel for The Enlightenment and its ideas of human rights, The Common Law, social contract, and political independence to eventually be applied against them.

Defenders would insist on achievements such as the use of its vast commercial, political and naval power (via the West Africa Squadron) to unilaterally eradicate the Trans-Atlantic, and later, the Indian Ocean slave trade. Critics qualify this achievement by pointing out that this Heel Realization was only possible after a century of Britain becoming the leading slave-owning and slave-trading nation, opposing abolitionist revolutions in the Caribbean in Haiti and Guadaloupe where they supported French slaveowners. A less charitable view would perceive this as the English doing the right thing after doing everything else, and point out that it gave them an excuse to search more or less any remotely suspicious looking ship in the Atlantic. Furthermore, the abolition of slave trade in 1807 did not lead to abolition of already existing slavery in the Caribbean which continued until 1833, and even then took place only after compensating the slaveowners (something that the Americans did not do, to their credit, even when they belatedly got around to it). English liberalism favoured security of property rights before instituting liberal reforms, which did little to curtail the class, caste, religious and racial divides existing in the various colonial societies, and the liberalization only allowed room and space for the resentment simmering beneath to burst out. Their reforms sparked rebellions which the English, in India, Jamaica and other parts of the world, suppressed with brute force but which the English press and intelligentsia back in the metropole, committed to the liberal project of the Empire, willingly supported (for instance, J. S. Mill, future apostle of liberalism, defended the EITC's conduct during the 1857 Mutiny) and which provoked little criticism from English intellectuals until the early twentieth century.

Likewise, the fact that modernization coexisted with colonialism and capitalist exploitation during the Empire, meant that nationalism fostered in former colonial nations often took on a xenophobic, nativist, and negative quality. For instance, the Peoples' Republic of China's Department of Education textbooks portray The Opium Wars as a clear-cut case of the British acting as The Aggressive Drug Dealers who used China as a dumping ground for opium because the Brits ran out of silver to buy more tea and the Chinese were uninterested in buying anything else. While that misses a great deal of nuance, and most of all Chinese traders' desire to make a killing off selling high-quality drugs, it's a powerful and simple argument for fostering Chinese nationalism and xenophobia. In post-independence societies, colonialism still lingers in the form of trauma and psychological baggage, such as the Double Consciousness of seeing colonialism as simultaneously a damaging national humiliation and the beginning of modernization. The colonial-era policies of exacerbating, and in many cases instigating, social tensions between ethnic and religious groups, who thanks to tangled policies and back-and-forth Running Both Sides on the part of the British, tend to see others as Les Collaborateurs and themselves as La Résistance, when at various points for a variety of complex and muddled reasons, some of them were one or the other, as well as both. These divisions were never fully healed on account of the abrupt and reluctant manner in which the Empire ended, so they persist even after independence in the form of "victim nationalism".

Coupled with this is short-sighted British diplomacy and foreign policy, whose ongoing legacy includes the partition of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the partition of India and Pakistan, and the Arab–Israeli Conflict. With the relative and tentative exception of The Troubles, all of them remain essentially unresolved and are still the source of much tragedy and bloodshed. The British participation in the Arab Revolt, which they nurtured for the goals of toppling the Ottomans, only to partner with the French in the notorious Sykes-Picot Treaty and betraying their allies to draw up what are, more or less, the boundaries of the modern Middle East for their own convenience, remains a constant reference point and symbol of Western perfidy well into The New '10s. As is the case with all empires, the successes and pluses are inextricable from the failures and the minuses, and it is perhaps, still too soon to accurately and dispassionately assess the Empire Warts and All (to quote Oliver Cromwell, an oppressor in Ireland and a revolutionary in England).

In either case, the British were far from being the only players of the colonialist game. The Portuguese and the Spanish were the original innovators of the Atlantic Slave Trade, both had preceded Britain in arriving and settling in India, Africa, and the New World. The French and the Dutch likewise followed, and in the 19th Century, the Russians, the Germans and the Belgians also became involved — leading to the so-called 'Great Game' in Central Asia between Britain and Russia. The British were neither the first, the worst (that would be the Belgians, though the Germans ran them close), or the most damaging of the imperialists, but merely the most successful. Profit margins, stability and ease of rule determined whether or not an area would be modernized and developed or not; in a lot of cases, the British were content to rule by proxy (like the Hegemonic Empire of Ancient Rome) rather than stirring things up too much by bringing people 'civilisation' in earnest — especially after earlier policy failures in India such as the Missionaries, who had a habit of making these arrangements rather awkward and more visibly hypocritical. This differentiates the British style from the French who ruled directly more often and even where they didn't rule directly had a habit of extensive meddling in things the British generally left alone, such as providing public education and healthcare.

Co-existing with the English project of imperialism, was its idea of modernism and model of development, i.e. classic liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism and limited, and graduated suffrage. This model was contested at the metropole during the 19th Century, but the application of the same abroad led to horrific negligence (such as the Irish Potato Famine and the various other famines in India, Africa, and other parts of the world) owing to the policy of the English to let private organizations aid and relieve such disasters, the resources and infrastructure to actually do this was obviously far more limited in the colonies than back home, and the colonial governments were famously and notoriously understaffed to tackle these crises even on the occasions when they or other officials did want to step in. In addition to this, the English model faced serious challenges against rival modes of modernization. Its greatest rival and threat was Revolutionary France and the First French Empire. Victory at Waterloo, left Britain without peer or challenger and undisputed superpower in the 19th Century but paradoxically, defeat made the French a Victorious Loser as its enlightened and radical reforms attracted a Nostalgia Filter and Historical Hero Upgrade, and reform movements in England (such as the Chartist movement) and in Ireland and India (such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy's Brahmo Society) drew inspiration from the French Revolution (and it's a reason why independent flags in many nations tend to be in tricoleur format) and its promise of universal suffrage, meritocracy, and equality. The rise of Imperial Germany on the Continent as a rival superpower also made them a model for development (such as Imperial Japan). The dawn of the 20th Century, saw the English model definitively displaced by the arrival of new competing forms of modernization from their eventual allies in World War II (which the English had singularly fought and held the fort against the Nazis before the arrival of first USSR, and then USA).

There are many potential endpoints for the British Empire:

  • The fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.
  • Independence and Partition of the Raj into India and Pakistan in 1947, both of whom had constituted its largest, and only profitable, colony (the "jewel in the Crown").
  • The Suez Crisis in 1956, whose conclusion demonstrated clearly the shift of power in the world away from Britain and France and to the United States and Soviet Union.
  • Others cite the ceding of Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997— 290 years after the start of the Empire— as the real definitive end. Among these were King Charles III (at the time still just Prince of Wales), making this the closest to an "official" end date.

Their only success was by its proxy and, in many respects, its Spiritual Successor, the United States of America. The beginning of America's involvement in the Middle East, the coup of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953, was instigated by the British over his administration's nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil consortium.

Modern Britain has a rather mixed attitude towards the Empire. On the one hand, Brits tend to be fond of its trappings and its mystique, as well as notable imperial figures such as Winston Churchill, all of which tends to fall into Nostalgia Filter and Glory Days in political discourse (in particular, Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands victory reconstructing imperial glory)note . Needless to say, the people in other independent nations don't quite share this sentiment, nor do most other British historians and scholars conducting archival research (including sources in local languages that had been neglected in pro-Imperial accounts). As a result, Brits also usually aren't particularly fond of discussing the Empire, and either venerate independence leaders like Mahatma Gandhi (who might actually be better regarded in Britain than his native India), or prefer to ignore it, looking to a post-imperial future. For a while, the latter seemed to be going rather well — it helped that Britain was still among the world's richest and most powerful nations, had the Special Relationship with the USA which allowed it to maintain a degree of reflected glory, and the national confidence boost that began under Tony Blair, leading to the so-called 'Cool Britannia'.

As noted by George MacDonald Fraser in his non-fiction memoirs, the sudden disappearance of the empire overnight led to a major generation gap between those who had been raised within it, before World War II and the post-war generation of The '50s and The '60s, most of whom were raised in a post-imperial Britain. This has had the paradoxical effect in that very little British media after World War II (even by the Left) really deals with the Empire (something which Fraser wrote Flashman to avert). Period Drama in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras after the war tend to deal with class, gender and LGBT issues in earlier eras which has in some cases dialled down the level of popular and intellectual support the Empire had at its height.

Following the 2016 'Brexit' Referendum, however, the Empire is coming back into public discourse. Among the many reasons behind it, one persistent idea (whether it is justified or not) is that Britain never really adjusted to losing the Empire, which was part of why it never really fitted comfortably in the EU — the idea of Britain being, as Churchill said, 'with Europe but not of it', is a very old one (older in fact than either the EU or the British Empire itself). Furthermore, it is possible that imperial ideas are not so dead and buried as most would like to think — after the Referendum, there remained an underlying belief among some of the populace (the size of which is up for debate, often over-inflated by "Remain" voters and minimalized by "Leave" voters) that after Britain's departure from the EU, the Commonwealth — largely composed of ex-British colonies — would happily support the now "independent" UK as part of a strategy that was described by more realistic Civil Service officials as 'Empire 2.0' (or rather, an attempt at it). Needless to say, once this got out it was met with ridicule. Even after, however, the strategy of the Conservative government was to seek to cultivate links with former Commonwealth nations (and the US) and seek advantageous post-Brexit free trade agreements. One it has found rather difficult for a number of reasons — rich former colonies like India aren't inclined to prioritize a trade agreement with Britain, Donald Trump's notorious unpredictability and belief that America 'is being taken advantage of' (the fact he's also roundly despised in Britain doesn't help) and greater international priorities taking precedence such as the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Critics argue that most polls of Brexit supporters do not even list the Empire amongst the numerous reasons for their support of leaving the European Union. Instead, a proclaimed desire to assert sovereignty over UK law and control over borders as well as a desire for economic opportunities outside of the EU usually trading places for 2nd place depending on the poll. How much Brexit actually contributed to either of those things is debatable to put it mildly. However, it is also argued that Imperial nostalgia led to the unrealistic expectations of Brexit, including in future relations with former colonies. Years after the Referendum, with Britain finally out of the EU, the nature of Brexit is still up for fearsome debate.

The fact that the British Empire is often dragged into this and other fierce political issues, often in a manner designed to either demonize whichever side of the political debate it is associated with, or by those that seek to rehabilitate or revise its modern perception in order to support a political stance, speaks volumes for the still divisive legacy of the British Empire in its own historical center of the United Kingdom.

As such, the British Empire will remain a topic of interest and debate, if only for the small fact that it more or less created the modern world, for better and worse, and to which we owe the development of transport and communication, the spread of science and technology, and the spread of the English language as a global lingua franca with more than 470 million speakers (of which Britain counts for 60 million, not even a quarter).

Particular sub-areas:

The New World

  • The United States of America, which started out as thirteen British colonies. They later got into some serious disagreements with Britain over taxation laws and Parliamentary representation, which led to them revolting and ultimately leaving the empire in 1783.
    • The high point for the British in North America was the Seven Years' War whose North-American theater was called "The French and Indian War", it involved the English allying with colonial settlers, Native tribes allied to the English, against the French and their Native allies. It ended with the French cutting their losses for the North American colonies and settling for their far more lucrative slave-run sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
    • Also, the United States and the British Empire used to have a territorial dispute over a piece of land which the Americans called Oregon and the British called Columbia. Eventually, the Oregon Treaty of 1846 drew a line at the forty-ninth parallel. The land to the north of that line would become the Canadian province of British Columbia and the land to the south would become the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
  • Canada also kept the Union Flag until The '60s. It retained Dominion status and became a haven for Loyalists exiled after the Revolution, as well as the Mohawk and Iroquois Tribes exiled after Washington's Sullivan Expedition, and as a beneficiary of Britain's abolition decree in 1833, it was a haven for freedmen escaping via Underground Railroad from the Fugitive Slave Act. Newfoundland went bankrupt during the Great Depression, voluntarily returned to direct British rule, and later voted to join the Canadian Confederation.
    • In the early years of Post-Revolutionary America, many Americans planned on invading and annexing Canada, and the Canadians played a major role in repelling American invasions during The War of 1812.
    • Canada still retains the name "House of Commons" for its lower house of Parliament, the only country other than the UK to do so. The colour schemes of the Canadian Parliament also match their British counterparts (green for the lower house, red for the upper house).
  • The West Indies: Included Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bahamas, Cuba (briefly), Guyana (actually on South America's Caribbean coast), Trinidad and Tobago, Windward Islands, Leeward Islands. This era preceded, overlapped with, and succeeded The Golden Age of Piracy and its famous legendary figures.
    • The British domination of the Caribbean saw them contending the Spanish, the French and the Dutch, until victory in the War of the Spanish Succession which saw them becoming the apex slave-owning and slave-trading nation, proving itself as the biggest European naval power, and likewise marking the start of a series of victories over Ancien Regime France that gave it the lead in the Anglo-French rivalry.
    • The Caribbean islands were run on sugar plantations and they made many people richer than anyone before had known to be possible, with Peter Beckford becoming the first "world's richest man". The lucrative nature of these colonies, their low defense requirements and the fact that it ran on slave labour meant that the English weren't too upset about the loss of the American colonies during The American Revolution especially since it managed to nick a few more islands from France.
  • Historians sometimes refer to North America, and occasionally specifically North America prior to Britain gaining the French colonies in it as the "First Empire", and the more familiar Asian-African Colonized version as the Second Empire. Others argue that the two empires overlap far too much to be divided. After all, the EITC established itself in 1757 and proxy wars relating to the Seven Years' War and the French Revolutionary Wars had fronts in India, furthermore, it was Indian Tea transported by the East India Company that was dumped by the Patriots in the harbour during the Boston Tea Party. Likewise, if Ireland is considered a part of the Empire, then its colonization preceded both the phases, and it attained independence in the 20th Century, shortly before India.


  • A seemingly random selection of bits of the Mediterranean grabbed from wars with Spain and Napoleon onwards: Gibraltar, as mentioned above, Cyprus, where the UK still has military bases, and Malta, which after World War II was considered so patriotically British, parliament actually considered making it a county of England and is the only EU nation other than Britain and the Republic of Ireland to have a branch of the Campaign for Real Ale. Seriously. Try the Milk Stout: It’s good.
  • Ireland: It's considered by some historians to be the first colony of the British Empire, but this is disputed by others who note that it lacks the economic-capitalist-modernizing aspects familiar from the classic era, and that the primary reasons were defensive/territorial/political, closer to Russia's relationship to its border nations. To wit: If, say, the French took control of India instead of Britain, oh, well, Britain makes less money. But if the French controlled Ireland, Britain would have a serious concern for its physical security (at least, up until around the mid-19th century—though perhaps the late-19th-century Anglo-French chumminess would not have happened if French military power surrounded Britain to both the south and the west). So Britain tried to dominate Ireland for largely the same reason France worked so hard to ensure disunity among the German states, Prussia and Austria always tried to keep Poland down, Denmark and Sweden kept fighting over Norway, and Spain tried to keep Portugal firmly boxed in: to do otherwise risked invasion of the heartland, either by the relevant nearby territory as a new hostile power or by another Great Power using the neighbor as a staging ground or cat's paw. Or more succinctly: Ireland was about Realpolitik; India was about rupees.

    Nevertheless, it has a lot of the classic features that would repeat itself in later colonies. Moreover, the psychological makeup of its nationalism as well as the discrimination faced by the Irish at the hands of the English (and Scots) does make it resemble a colonial enterprise.
    • One of the main facts complicating the narrative of Ireland being the first British colony is that the English/British presence in Ireland dates back to The High Middle Ages. Norman knights came to Ireland from England in the mid-12th century, less than 100 years after Hastings, and declared their king (and duke) "Lord of Ireland." To support this move, they cited the alleged Papal bullnote  Laudabiliter allegedly issued in 1158note  that allegedly authorized the English monarch (at that time Henry II), whose loyalty to Rome in ecclesiastical matters was unquestioned, to conquer Ireland to enforce certain Church reforms that Rome had declared but which the semi-autonomous Irish Church had yet to implement. And if we're being fair, this is exactly the kind of thing a medieval pope would do.

      Whatever the justification, the Normans came in from England in force and established themselves in Ireland quickly. Norman lords held vast territories in Ireland for centuries thereafter. The extent to which these lords were actually controlled by England varied over time, but Dublin and its surrounding "Pale" (which covered anywhere from about a quarter of the province of Leinster to practically all of it, depending on the century) was almost always firmly loyal to the English Crown. On the other hand, the Norman lords and their English-descended followers assimilated to Gaelic Irish culture over the centuries; the most famous of this lot are the Fitzgerald/Fitzmaurice family, who were ludicrously powerful landowners for most of Irish history (and actually kind of still are), and whose name, though purely Norman French,note  is today considered almost parodically Irish. This eventually earned them the observation that they had become "more Irish than the Irish themselves," something they eventually learned to wear with pride. This assimilation led them to side with the native Irish when new groups of English (and later Scottish) settlers arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries.
    • The colonization really begins with Henry VIII's invasion in the 1520s. His motivations were fears of invasion and the fact that the Irish magnates (both "Gaelic" and "Norman"/"English") had supported pretenders such as Lambert Simnel against his father (largely for political and economic reasons—backing a pretender carried the hope of greater autonomy and less taxation). Since his reign coincided with the Reformation, it involved seizures of Catholic Church property and land owned by Catholic Lords to be traded with Protestants, and encouraging conversion. Over the course of 20 years, he largely brought the Irish lords to heel, and English Crown control of Ireland was more or less firm by 1541 when he declared himself King of Ireland (mostly to clarify that he was the allodial sovereign of Ireland and did not hold it in fief from the Pope). However, while the Irish lords bent the knee to Henry, they by and large remained Catholic in their private worship—whether they were "pure" Gaelic lords or Gaelicised Normans (the latter of whom became known as the "Old English" to contrast with the Protestant "New English" royal officials and settlers sent by the Tudor government).
    • Elizabeth I continued and completed her father's policy, and brutally suppressed many rebellions.
    • After James VI and I succeeded Elizabeth and brought Scotland into personal union with England and Ireland, many Scots moved to Ireland under various "plantation" schemes to get a better hold of Irish territory. These Scots—largely Presbyterian Scots-speakers from the Lowlands—quickly became a significant population noted in equal measure for their antipathy to both the local Irish and to the English and for general orneriness. These are (largely) the ancestors of today's Ulster Scots. (Also perhaps to nobody's surprise, these "Scotch-Irish" also frequently moved on to the southern part of the new Thirteen Colonies in North America, where they are the primary progenitors of the famously ornery denizens of Appalachia.)
    • Things went From Bad to Worse during the English Civil War/"Wars of the Three Kingdoms" and the invasion of Oliver Cromwell which led to the loss of a third of Ireland's population and deportation of Irish rebels to the Caribbean to serve as Indentured Servitude. That being said, the situation in Ireland during this period was (surprise, surprise) complicated, as there were many cross-cutting alliances among the Irish, English, and Scots in Ireland. Thus while Cromwell's campaigns were ruthless and bloody, they were also more inspired by a desire to keep royalism at bay and thus preserve the security of the Parliamentary cause than any kind of anti-Catholicism or antipathy towards the Irish.
    • During the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, many Irish were loyal to James II, who (like most Irish) was Catholic. However, his attempt to lead a rebellion against William and Mary from Ireland collapsed, and he fled for the Continent, abandoning his supporters. He therefore became known as Séamus an Chaca ("James the Shite") to a generation of embittered Irish Catholics.
    • The next challenge to the crown from Ireland would ironically come from the Protestant class during the 1798 Rebellion where the Protestant leadership allied with the French under the inspiration of Enlightenment reforms sought to liberate Ireland, and this time the Irish Catholic Church fearing the Dechristianizing and secularizing tendencies of the French, turned to the British to put down the revolt. Said suppression led to 30,000 casualties (comparable to the Reign of Terror).
    • Ireland was part of the UK itself during the 19th century (joining the union exactly as the new century started on 1 January 1801) and throughout the long shared history of Britain and Ireland there has been a significant population cross over with around 25% of modern Brits having at least one Irish grandparent. Many Irish people served in the British armed forces and Britain's greatest general was Arthur Wellesley who became a future Prime Minister. Incidentally his birth name was Wesley and he modified to sound less Irish. During the 19th Century, Ireland experienced the famous famine which combined with massive emigration led to a population imbalance from which it has never recovered. After Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Irish Reform Act 1832, Irish people both Catholic and Protestant had the same formal civil and political rights as anyone in Great Britain;note  now the issue was more about social and economic discrimination and oppression, as well as a question of whether Irish identity was compatible with British identity. As such, during this period that Irish demands for national recognition reached new heights, with Irish rebels such as Fenians becoming notorious for their terrorist activities. Meanwhile, Charles Stewart Parnell as a reformist politician invented a form of protest that became a model for other anti-colonial rebels, the Boycott.
    • In the 20th Century, The Irish Revolution marked the first of many decolonization independence movements accompanied with partition (which also happened later). Nowadays Anglo-Irish relations are pretty good (to the point where the former Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to the Republic in 2011 pretty much without incident), but there are certain issues such as Northern Ireland where people should be very, very careful how they approach this topic.

The Indian Sub-Continent and South-East Asia

  • The Raj: What is now India, Pakistan, Afghanistan (briefly) and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and the Oil Islands (the latter of which are still British and consist of a Joint UK US Airbase and GPS ground station on Diego Garcianote ).
    • There were multiple overlapping eras. Initially the EITC arriving in India, tried to assimilate and work with local rulers and nawabs, leading to the famous "White Rajahs" whereby Englishmen went native, learnt Indian languages, married Indian women (and even engaged in polygamy). The true beginning of the EITC as a N.G.O. Superpower and the founding of the Raj was the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The next century saw a growth of expansion, a series of internecine wars, and the shift from economic and military policies towards the controversial missionary and civilisatrice project in the early part of the 19th Century.
    • The only colony to militarily liberate itself and achieve independence was Afghanistan, the bloodiest and most shocking defeat with the greatest loss of English lives on non-English soil at non-English and worse, non-European hands. This was the first crack in the British Government's trust in the EITC. The North West Frontier, on the border with Afghanistan, an area which was beset with native uprisings and small wars right up until the British left is possibly the nearest Britain got to having a Wild West. A popular setting among authors at one time, especially Rudyard Kipling; also notable as the theatre in which Doctor Watson was wounded.
    • Their biggest challenge was the 1857 Mutiny which made it clear that the EITC was incompetent, unfit, unpopular and incapable of holding on to the region without direct government intervention. The British were absolutely not going to suffer another stain on British European White pride after their defeat in Afghanistan. As such the English became involved actively and ended the remnants of the Mughal Empire and the remains of Indian feudalism. Thanks to its brutal countermeasures, followed by savvy political and social engineering, it would never again face a native military challenge.
    • The lead up to Indian Independence took place in the background of a cascade of events — The World Wars, The Non-violence movement by Gandhi, the symbolical political triumph of Subash Chandra Bose's Free Indian Armynote , and the post-war riots eventually forced the British to leave. The most populous, developed and invested-in of all Britain's overseas possessions, it was one of the few Crown possessions that actually ran at a surplus (chiefly by a lopsided investment in raw-resources and primary industries because of the way the country was 'exposed' to the outside world by the lack of tariffs). When Canada and Australasia stopped contributing tax-revenue upon their independence, it was sole bit of the Empire (Singapore, Hong Kong, British-influenced-Arabia aside) that wasn't running at a (huge) loss.
    • Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Singapore and Burma (which was in fact governed as part of the Raj until 1937). Sites of brutal battles against the Japanese during the Second World War. Burma gained independence in 1948 and has been renamed by the ruling Junta as Myanmar (though the BBC and most of the rest of the world still calls it Burma.) The others gained independence by the late-1960s, Malaya and Singapore becoming Malaysia then Malaysia and Singapore (which Malaysia still hasn't quite forgiven them for). Oil-rich Brunei is a special case, having remained a British protectorate until 1984.

Far-East Asia

  • China: The British expedition opened the China to global trade through the illegal smuggling and trafficking of opium and the attendant Opium Wars, and the Unequal Treaties that opened China to foreign "spheres of influence". This is still, even in Communist China a hundred years later, immensely regrettable, and they call it by the name "Century of Humiliation". Albeit the actual events were more nuanced in context than anyone would want to creditnote .
    • The famous event that often comes up is the destruction and looting of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, which even overshadows the looting and torching of the city of Beijing itself. This occurred in the Second Opium War of 1856-60, in which a regiment of British and French Troops were sent to the Emperor under truce to negotiate a surrender. The soldiers were captured and imprisoned, and all but two were tortured to death. In retaliation, Lord Elgin decided to strike a dramatic and symbolic personal blow against the Emperor: the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, held to be one of the oldest and most beautiful examples of Ancient Chinese architecture. It took 3500 soldiers three days to set fire to the complex, much larger than Vatican City. Several commentators such as Victor Hugo considered this a horrible act of vandalism and the memory of this event, and the justification for it, remains a contentious issue. Note that the torching of the city of Beijing itself goes pretty much unremarked. After all, the suffering a bunch of dirty peasants doesn't make for a good story.
    • Hong Kong: Seized from Qing China during the First Opium War, with more territory taken after the second. The core territory—Hong Kong Island and Kowloon—was taken in perpetuity, while the remaining territory was under a 99-year lease (when the lease expired, the whole thing was given back for reasons of practicality). Considered in mainland China to have been a convenient mouth for pouring opium into the Chinese throat. One inhabited by traitors to the Chinese nation, at that. Often referenced in economics textbooks as the closest thing to a true 'free-market' economic system the world has ever seen. It was one of the last colonies to leave the Empire, the lease expiring in 1997 — by which time it was such an economic success story that more investment flowed from Hong Kong to Britain than the other way around.
    • The British had wide ranging concessions in other parts of China, predominantly along the Yangtze river. The British also leased Weihai on the coast of northern China between 1898 — 1930, mainly to keep an eye on German, Russian and Japanese designs in the region. These were all given up upon Britain's forced entry into the Second Sino-Japanese War, a.k.a. the Pacific Theatre of WWII.
    • Until 1998, Hong Kong was also somewhat infamous for its primary aviation terminus, Kai-Tak airport, frequently listed as one of the top ten most dangerous airports in the world until its closure in mid-1998 and the simultaneous opening of a new airport named Chek Lap Kok.

The Middle East and the Levant.

  • Aden on the southern coast of Yemen at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Gulf States, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and what became the United Arab Emirates.
  • League of Nations Mandates: After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, the British came to control Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, nominally on behalf of the League of Nations. Iraq gained independence in 1932, Jordan in 1946 and Palestine (as Israel) in 1948, though not everyone is happy with the arrangement.
  • It became known and remains famous, and infamous, for the careers of T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and the Sykes-Picot Treaty.

North Africa

  • Egypt: British troops occupied Egypt in 1882 to crush a rebellion against the government the British and French had installed to ensure that Egypt paid back its loans (a gullible ruler had been sweet-talked into borrowing huge amounts to fund the construction of the Suez Canal when the plan to sell shares in Britain and France didn't work, and also borrowed stupid amounts of money to support a foolish campaign against Ethiopia). The British stayed on to guard the route to India via the Suez Canal. This created an odd situation where although Egypt remained technically part of the Ottoman Empire, it was in reality ruled by an Albanian dynasty obsessed with French culture (the language of the Egyptian court was French, the upper classes were all French-educated, and the Egyptian legal system was steadily Frenchified during the period) that nonetheless took its marching orders from the British "Resident General". Egypt was given nominal independence in 1922 but British troops would remain until 1956.
  • Sudan: It became known for one of the most storied images of the Empire; the Last Stand of the delusional General Charles "Chinese" Gordon (in his early career, he served in China as a leader of the mercenary company "Ever Victorious Army" and played a part in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion). It became the source for much kvetching owing to the toppling of the British by the native Mahdi revolt (the British never quite liked being beaten and handled roughly by the "darkies" whether in Afghanistan, India or in the Sudan). It was followed by The River War, in which Kitchener and a young Churchill fought against the successors of the Mahdi, to "avenge Gordon", forgetting of course that the Fall of Khartoum happened because the latter greatly exceeded his command and ignored numerous chances to stand down offered by both the Crown, and the Mahdi himself, and got himself and the entire garrison butchered.

East, West, and South Africa

  • British East Africa/Kenya Colony (then pronounced "Keen-yah" as opposed to the modern pronunciation "Ken-yah"). Older British people sometimes still use the former pronunciation. Became a cause celebre in The '50s during what is the most embarrassingly successful suppression of a rebellion: the 1952-60 Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, where it ultimately proved impossible to fully conceal the ad hoc measures required to eradicate the Communists. Interestingly, Barack Obama's father seems to have been interrogated in the usual fashion due to suspected anti-British sympathies.
  • British Uganda: Had a railway, scorpions, and the young Idi Amin. It is, occasionally, up for discussion.
  • Bechuanaland Protectorate: Now Botswana.
  • Rhodesia: Now Zimbabwe and Zambia. Named for Cecil Rhodes, who colonised the region. A national hero in his day, he is generally perceived as a less pleasant individual by modern audiences; he also established the Rhodes Scholarships for non-British postgraduate students (with a particular eye to binding Americans to Britain). This area had one of the messiest decolonisations, when the predominantly white local ruling class, led by the intransigent Ian Smith, unilaterally declared independence (with the tacit support of hard-right-wing elements in the UK Conservative Party). Fifteen years of war against Communist guerrillas (who were backed by the USSR, China, and North Korea) followed. The entire thing was a violent geopolitical mess. The fallout is still the cause of a whole lot of trouble.
    • Was the subject of the autobiography, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.
  • Nyasaland: Now Malawi. Explored by Livingstone, we presume.
  • West Africa (the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria): Had an unpleasant background as slave stations, although Sierra Leone was actually founded by Freedmen, for Freedmen (even today, the capital of Sierra Leone is still known as Freetown); Britain was one of the first western countries to outlaw slavery and influenced many others to do so, sometimes by force — the West Africa Squadron effectively extinguished the Atlantic Slave Trade (though only after about a century of vigorous British slave trading to begin with).
    • Indeed some West African nations (and Zanzibar on the East coast) were brought into the Empire specifically to close down the slave trade at source.
    • Mozambique deserves special mention. Colonized by Portugal, it became the first member of the present-day Commonwealth that was not part of the empire. They have since been joined by Gabon and Rwanda.
    • South Africa British South Africa is best remembered for the Boer War, which was the cause of South Africa and Scouting.


  • The Dominions: Places which largely ran themselves, and turned out nicely and are still close to Britain (two of them have the Union Jack in their flag). These had and have extremely large Anglo-Saxon populations, the exception being South Africa.
    • Australia One of those who kept the Union Jack Flag.
      • Nauru, which split from Australia in 1968.
    • New Zealand The other country what kept the Union Flag.
  • Fiji Also has the Union Flag on theirs, despite the British monarch not being the Head of State.

Works set in The British Empire:

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    Comic Books 
  • Garth Ennis in comics like his War Stories, Crossed, Kev often have many characters speak sympathetically and nostalgically about the British Empire, seeing it as a force for order, albeit one that doesn't have a place in the modern world. One issue of Kev even has character quoting Kipling's Mandalay in full, unironically.
  • Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen casts a particularly post-colonial reading on the British Empire, and the ways various popular culture produced in its time reflected it:
    Campion Bond: The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.


  • Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was a key novel that portrayed the British colonial project from the perspective of Nigerian tribes.
  • Joseph Conrad was a Polish expat who became a merchant sailor captaining many vessels in the British Empire, before becoming a novelist. He's notable for being among the first to present a sardonic and cynical look at the Empire in works like Lord Jim which drew inspiration from the life of Rupert Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak.
  • Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe stories which chronicles the tail-end of the Anglo-French Rivalry during The Napoleonic Wars and the many fronts of the wars in India (such as the Anglo-Maratha wars which was not featured in the TV series).
  • E. M. Forster's A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, notable for being the first anti-colonial novel, which exposed the British project of India as built on racism, Psychological Projection and lies.
  • H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain novels including King Solomon's Mines and She.
  • George MacDonald Fraser was a soldier in the colonial army serving in India, and later in Burma. Much of his works deals with the Empire.
    • McAuslan is largely autobiographical look at his time in service, as is Quartered Safe Out Here.
    • The Flashman Papers for which he is most well known, is a series of novels featuring the ultimate colonialist cad, Henry Paget Flashman as he blunders his way our of various conflicts in the Empire, with the joke being that many of these real events were just as ill-conceived and stupid as the hero.
  • A few chapters of Gemma Doyle are set in The Raj, and Gemma's lover is Indian.
  • Some of the early James Bond novels are set in Jamaica before independence.
  • Rudyard Kipling is more or less considered the Poet-Laureate of the Empire. His poems, short-stories and novels several of which have been adapted to film, were more or less the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for the Raj as it was depicted in other movies and adaptations, as well as being the Trope Namer of White Man's Burden:
    • The definitive novel is Kim which is more or less a picaresque novel and coming of age novel and spy novel about a Kid Hero becoming involved in special operations in the Great Game.
    • His poem "Mandalay" was popular enough that "East of Suez" became Memetic Mutation to describe British imperial domains in the Far-East:
    "Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
    Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
    For the temple-bells are callin', and it's there that I would be—
    By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea."
  • Jules Verne despite being French often featured the Empire in many of his stories, such as Around the World in Eighty Days and The Begum's Millions. Most notably, his most famous character, Captain Nemo, the protagonist of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was revealed in The Mysterious Island to Prince Dakkar of Bundelkhand, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, and a veteran of the 1857 Mutiny, which better explained his actions in the former book.
  • H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was intended as a Take That! to the invasion literature common in the late-Victorian era, which often had xenophobic What-If situations of other countries invading England, which Wells and later scholars saw as Psychological Projection of guilt of the English doing that to the rest of the world. War of the Worlds more or less cast the Martians as Evil Colonialist treating the English the way they treated its colonies.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: The first 26 seasons of the show spanned the twilight years of the British Empire, and thus several stories both during that period and in the post-handover Revival Series are set in the Empire at various points in its timeline. Among others...
  • Downton Abbey deals with British upper-classes in the early twentieth century, some of whom are upset by the changes to their place in the world by events like The Irish Revolution and Red October.
  • The Jewel in the Crown — a Mini Series in the final days of the Raj, adapted from the Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott.
  • The Promise (2011) partially follows an airborne soldier stationed in Haifa during the twilight months of the British Mandate of Palestine and the emergence of the State of Israel.

    Video Games 


Alternative Title(s): British Empire