Overview

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Following the transfer of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) collections to Bristol Culture in Spring 2012, the outreach and loan box services are not currently available.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire contained more than one quarter of the world’s population, and covered one quarter of the world’s land surface.

The Empire fell into two distinct parts: Britain and the dominions such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa; and those regions that were wholly or partly governed from London – Africa, India, the West Indies and the Far East.

From the mid-19th century onwards, those areas of the world under British administration began to be coloured red or pink. For many people, even today, these ‘pink bits’ are the most potent symbol of the extent of the British Empire.

A history of the British Empire and the Commonwealth is not an exclusively British history. It is a history of many nations – including Britain. While the British Empire had a substantial impact upon the countries it included, the influence was seldom one way.

More than five and a half million non-British soldiers, including Indians, Canadians, West Indians, Africans and Australians, fought for Britain during the two world wars.

As today’s Commonwealth, our countries are united by history, language and promoting our values of democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all. There are 54 countries in today’s Commonwealth, the most recent members are Rwanda (2009), Cameroon and Mozambique.

For more information about today’s Commonwealth, click here for The Commonwealth Secretariat website.

For more information about the history of the individual countries of the former British Empire click here for our interactive map.

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Colonies to Commonwealth

The British Empire was never a uniform system of government. Different territories had differing constitutional relations with Britain, which often changed during the history of a country’s subordination to Britain.

British Colony was the most common relationship. In essence, a colony was a territory subject to British sovereignty vested in the Crown, although in later years sovereignty over the Empire was actually exercised by government ministers responsible to Parliament. Sovereignty over overseas territories came to the Crown by conquest, by cessions through treaties and by what was claimed to be the right of first occupation. (This usually meant the right of being the first European state to occupy; the consent of indigenous people to occupation might or might not be taken into account.)

In the early phases of Empire, the Crown’s authority was usually delegated to individuals or to groups. Famous examples were Walter Raleigh’s grant to settle in America or the East India Company’s empire in India. From the 18th century there was a clear trend for the Crown to exercise its authority directly through its royal governors, but private bodies still had a role in Empire in the late 19th century, as was the case with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company in occupying much of Central Africa on Britain’s behalf.

From early in the 17th century, settlers overseas of British origin were able to claim a role in the government of colonies through representative bodies. From the mid-19th century such colonies became self-governing for their internal affairs. By the beginning of the 20th century, predominantly white self-governing communities within the empire were known as Dominions, a term pioneered by Canada. Representative institutions, leading to internal self-government, were conceded much more slowly to non-European peoples in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, but the process was well under way by the mid-20th century.

From the later 19th century, many territories under British domination were known as Protectorates, rather than colonies. The difference in theory was simple. Britain did not exercise sovereignty over a Protectorate. The indigenous government remained under British protection and guidance rather than direct rule. The reality was more complicated. Protectorates often were effectively ruled by Britain. In due course many Protectorates turned into formal colonies.

After World War I, a special category of rule was devised for territories that had been part of the empires of the defeated powers, Germany and Turkey. Mandates, that is the responsibility for ruling people judged not to be fit to rule themselves, were awarded by the League of Nations to powers like Britain. Mandates were intended to be held in trust for the people being ruled, but the difference between them and actual colonies was not very significant.

By the mid-20th century, the British white Dominions were effectively independent countries. Independence was to follow for most of the British Empire, beginning with India in 1947. Most independent former colonies chose to remain within the Commonwealth. This meant that they retained an association with Britain and with other ex-imperial countries. The terms of the association began to be laid down in the 1920s.

The Commonwealth is now defined as ‘a voluntary association of independent sovereign states … consulting and cooperating in the interests of their peoples’. Since 1991 its members subscribe to the principles of ‘free and democratic political processes’ and ‘equal rights’ for all their peoples. The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth. Many Commonwealth countries have become Republics, but for some the Queen, who exercises her functions for them entirely separately from her role in Britain, is head of state.

A number of British colonies have not become independent. They are now called United Kingdom Overseas Territories. In most cases their population or resources are too small to sustain an independent government, but many of them have representative bodies that run their internal affairs. It is official British policy that independence should neither be withheld from peoples that desire it nor forced on those that do not.

Empire and Slavery

The British shipped approximately 350,000 slaves out of Africa during the 1780s. By the 1790s, this figure had risen to 420,000.

Britain’s involvement in the enforced shipment of Black Africans across the Atlantic to the emerging colonies in the New World – and the subsequent use of slave and indentured labour in other parts of the world – should by no means be regarded as a marginal episode running parallel to the main course of Britain’s ‘glorious Imperial past’. The expansion of the slave trade into an industry of huge proportions reflects how crucial slave labour was, both to the development of Britain’s overseas territories, and to the wealth of the ‘mother country’ itself.

By the end of the century however, popular opinion in Britain began to be influenced by liberal thinkers such as William Wilberforce, and Britain eventually played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery – the Abolition Act of 1833 effectively freeing all slaves in British Colonies.

For more information about Slavery click on our resources for Key Stage 3 Slavery workshops.

Black History links