The British Empire was distinctive both in its development and in its fall. It had its earliest beginnings in the latter part of the sixteenth century when it claimed Newfoundland in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, and by the close of World War I in 1918, the Empire had reached its acme, with an aggregate territory of about a fourth of the world’s total land area. This made it the largest empire in mankind’s history. In size, Great Britain was a mere 0.7 percent of the 33.7 million square kilometers of territory that it had dominion over. How a small island nation gained sovereignty over so many nations and states, many much larger than itself, is a marvel. How did it happen?
One theory maintains that the British crown never had any intentions of amassing an empire and that it had merely come about through religious, commercial, mercantile, political and military confluences. This idea is supported by historian Sir John Seeley, who noted that the development of the empire occurred in “a fit of absent-mindedness.” Historical records appear to substantiate this, as Britain’s maritime activities were anything but single-minded. The grounds for establishing a colony were varied and isolated; it included defending another colony and expediting a merchant’s trade prospects. Colonies and establishments were mostly organized not by government but by companies and magnates whose objectives were purely commercial. This made colonization haphazard to some degree.
Nevertheless, on the whole, the Empire’s growth was phenomenal. During the nearly four centuries that Britain held superpower status, it would acquire Canada, India, and parts of Australia, Africa and the Middle East. It lost 13 colonies in North America, but managed to annex Hong Kong and take advantage of the trade in Shanghai by establishing British ports in the city. And yet, this enormous empire would vanish by the twentieth century, a mere eighty years after reaching its zenith.
There were essentially two reasons the British Empire collapsed within decades. Britain’s relationship with its colonies and territories lacked balance. Although Britain benefited economically from its territories and had the added advantage of an international body of soldiers to fight its battles during World Wars I and II, the British government had always been reluctant to use its funds to govern its so-called dependencies. It also did not want to handle problems that were indigenous to the localities. Britain thus passed the British North American Act in 1867, making Canada and later Australia and New Zealand self-governing. The term “dominion status” was given to these colonies, making Britain’s sovereignty over them purely symbolic. Nevertheless, the policy allowed the “mother country” to continue exploiting them while spending very little on their subsistence, even cutting ties if threats to security became too difficult to take on.
A second reason is what some historians call “the winds of change”. The world had entered an age of nationalism, and countries began jostling for more land, greater power and natural resources. The United States and Japan quickly became naval powers. Britain not only used the soldiery afforded by colonies such as India, Australia and New Zealand to consolidate its army, but it also allied itself with nations that could help protect its empire, for the British government was beginning to appreciate that it could not keep its empire intact without help. Its quick surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II and its evident dependency on its allies for protection had governments realising that Britain was unable to secure its territorial possessions. This image of a weak Britain was substantiated by the fact that Britain had to negotiate a multi-billion dollar loan after World War II to prevent becoming insolvent.
India’s fight for independence began as early as 1919, after British troops fired upon unarmed demonstrators in what is known as the Amritsar massacre. It caused unrest, which Britain tried to control by passing the Government of India Act in 1919. It soon became clear that the Indian administration was a puppet government and that India was not independent. By the end of World War II, India had two independence movements. With much of Europe and the United States taking an anti-colonialism stance, Britain granted India its freedom in 1947. By then, Britain had already lost much of its empire. The few remaining colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were given independence in the 1960s as international pressure pushed Britain to accede. When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the empire was all but gone, and The Commonwealth, though still standing, was an entity composed of free nations.
It has been sixteen years since Britain lost its global status as empire. For decades after World War II, however, Britain tried to maintain a hold on its former position. The government’s perception of the nation as a first-class world power would result in decisions that only served to decimate the opportunities the country had for a full political, social and economic recovery. Having been granted funds from the Marshall Plan, an American program meant to support post-war recovery, Britain could have used the monies to establish a strong industrial nation and improve its infrastructure. Instead, the funds were used to support its overseas military commitments and to bolster its armed forces. In doing so, the government, which continued to have Winston Churchill at the helm, sacrificed its growth as a nation to continue holding on to a wisp of a dream. Britain has since lost a measure of its national sovereignty by becoming a member of the European Union. The nation is now a second-class power, and only by clinging to its World War II ally, the United States, it continues to give the world the illusion that it still has a world power role.