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The British Empire was composed of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It began with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.At its height it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power.[1] By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at the time,[2] and by 1920, it covered 35.5 million km2 (13.7 million sq mi),[3] 24 per cent of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its constitutional, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, it was described as "the empire on which the sun never sets", as the Sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.[4]

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During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated,[5] England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (Britain, following the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland) the dominant colonial power in North America. Britain became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

By the start of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had begun to challenge Britain's economic lead. Military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily on its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on its military, financial, and manpower resources. Although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after the First World War, Britain was no longer the world's preeminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in East Asia and Southeast Asia were occupied by the Empire of Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped accelerate the decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence in 1947 as part of a larger decolonisation movement, in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire. The Suez Crisis of 1956 confirmed Britain's decline as a global power, and the transfer of Hong Kong to China on 1 July 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire.[8][9] Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies, along with most of the dominions, joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. Fifteen of these, including the United Kingdom, retain a common monarch, currently King Charles III.

No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during the last decades of the 16th century.[13] In the meantime, Henry VIII's 1533 Statute in Restraint of Appeals had declared "that this realm of England is an Empire".[14] The Protestant Reformation turned England and Catholic Spain into implacable enemies.[10] In 1562, Elizabeth I encouraged the privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa[15] with the aim of establishing an Atlantic slave trade. This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth I gave her blessing to further privateering raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the New World.[16] At the same time, influential writers such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee (who was the first to use the term "British Empire")[17] were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own empire. By this time, Spain had become the dominant power in the Americas and was exploring the Pacific Ocean, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River area, later to become New France.[18]

The 18th century saw the newly united Great Britain rise to be the world's dominant colonial power, with France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage.[61] Great Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire continued the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted until 1714 and was concluded by the Treaty of Utrecht. Philip V of Spain renounced his and his descendants' claim to the French throne, and Spain lost its empire in Europe.[58] The British Empire was territorially enlarged: from France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain Gibraltar and Menorca. Gibraltar became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. Spain ceded the rights to the lucrative asiento (permission to sell African slaves in Spanish America) to Britain.[62] With the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War of Jenkins' Ear in 1739, Spanish privateers attacked British merchant shipping along the Triangle Trade routes. In 1746, the Spanish and British began peace talks, with the King of Spain agreeing to stop all attacks on British shipping; however, in the Treaty of Madrid Britain lost its slave-trading rights in Latin America.[63]

The loss of such a large portion of British America, at the time Britain's most populous overseas possession, is seen by some historians as the event defining the transition between the "first" and "second" empires,[70] in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist policies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal.[67][71] The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 seemed to confirm Smith's view that political control was not necessary for economic success.[72][73]

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, goods produced by slavery became less important to the British economy.[103] Added to this was the cost of suppressing regular slave rebellions. With support from the British abolitionist movement, Parliament enacted the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which abolished the slave trade in the empire. In 1808, Sierra Leone Colony was designated an official British colony for freed slaves.[104] Parliamentary reform in 1832 saw the influence of the West India Committee decline. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed the following year, abolished slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, finally bringing the empire into line with the law in the UK (with the exception of the territories administered by the East India Company and Ceylon, where slavery was ended in 1844). Under the Act, slaves were granted full emancipation after a period of four to six years of "apprenticeship".[105] Facing further opposition from abolitionists, the apprenticeship system was abolished in 1838.[106] The British government compensated slave-owners.[107][108]

British imperial strength was underpinned by the steamship and the telegraph, new technologies invented in the second half of the 19th century, allowing it to control and defend the empire. By 1902, the British Empire was linked together by a network of telegraph cables, called the All Red Line.[117]

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British Crown began to assume an increasingly large role in the affairs of the Company. A series of Acts of Parliament were passed, including the Regulating Act of 1773, Pitt's India Act of 1784 and the Charter Act of 1813 which regulated the Company's affairs and established the sovereignty of the Crown over the territories that it had acquired.[121] The Company's eventual end was precipitated by the Indian Rebellion in 1857, a conflict that had begun with the mutiny of sepoys, Indian troops under British officers and discipline.[122] The rebellion took six months to suppress, with heavy loss of life on both sides. The following year the British government dissolved the company and assumed direct control over India through the Government of India Act 1858, establishing the British Raj, where an appointed governor-general administered India and Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India.[123] India became the empire's most valuable possession, "the Jewel in the Crown", and was the most important source of Britain's strength.[124]

The last decades of the 19th century saw concerted political campaigns for Irish home rule. Ireland had been united with Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the Act of Union 1800 after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and had suffered a severe famine between 1845 and 1852. Home rule was supported by the British Prime minister, William Gladstone, who hoped that Ireland might follow in Canada's footsteps as a Dominion within the empire, but his 1886 Home Rule bill was defeated in Parliament. Although the bill, if passed, would have granted Ireland less autonomy within the UK than the Canadian provinces had within their own federation,[149] many MPs feared that a partially independent Ireland might pose a security threat to Great Britain or mark the beginning of the break-up of the empire.[150] A second Home Rule bill was defeated for similar reasons.[150] A third bill was passed by Parliament in 1914, but not implemented because of the outbreak of the First World War leading to the 1916 Easter Rising.[151] 041b061a72

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