Chapter 6. Britain’s Great Empire
In the 1930s, about a quarter of the world’s population was ruled by the British. 'The sun never goes down on our empire,’ they said. They meant that it was always daytime somewhere in the Empire. They also meant that their empire was for ever. Perhaps they didn’t remember the history of their first empire, an empire that was lost more than 150 years earlier.
The religious enemies of Britain’s rulers had the first successes of empire. In 1620, a group of English Puritans sailed to America in a boat called the Mayflower. They wanted to practise their religion freely and openly, and this was impossible in England. They built homes on the east coast of America, in an area that they called New England. Their first winter was very hard and more than half of them died. The rest escaped death only because they had help from the local people.
In the next few years, many people followed them across the Atlantic: Puritans and Catholics for religious reasons, and businessmen who were interested in trade. By the middle of the 18th century, there were 1.6 million British people living in North America. Then, in 1763, Britain defeated France in the Seven Years’ War and won control of Canada too.
Sometimes there were attacks by the local American Indians, so the British Americans needed protection. The British government in London wanted taxes from the Americans to pay for an army. But the Americans had no politicians in Parliament, so to them the taxes were unlawful. In 1776 they decided to become independent from Britain. Five years of war followed. Finally, the British accepted that the US was an independent country. Only Canada continued to be British.
The British in India
On the other side of the world, there was better news for the British Empire.
In the 17th century a private English company, the East India Company, controlled a few ports on the west coast of India. To protect their trade interests in times of war, the East India Company employed an army of English officers and Indian men. In 1756 the ruler of Bengal, in north-east India, attacked British soldiers in his capital, Calcutta. He put many of them in prison overnight, but the prison didn't have enough air. In the morning, most of the soldiers were dead. The British called this prison the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta'. They sent an army to defeat the Bengali ruler. From this time the real ruler of Bengal was the East India Company.
Slowly, other Indian states came under British control. By the middle of the 19th century, all India was part of the British Empire.
British lands around the world
The British Empire was also growing in other parts of the world. Criminals were sent abroad because it was cheaper than prison. They went to America before it became independent. Then, from 1788, they were sent in large numbers to Australia. Soon other people were making their homes there too, and in New Zealand and Canada. If the local people — the Aborigines, Maoris and American Indians — were lucky, they only lost their land. If they were unlucky, they were killed.
The area around Cape Town in the south of Africa became British in 1806 after a war with the Dutch. It was a useful place because it was halfway on a ship’s journey between Britain and India. Egypt was another useful part of Africa, between Europe and Asia. Napoleon and his French army invaded Egypt in 1798 but the British, under Horatio Nelson, destroyed most of Napoleon’s ships in a battle on the River Nile.
British success in 19th-century trade and empire was only possible because Britain ruled the seas. This control was mainly the result of the sea battles of Horatio Nelson. Nelson lost an arm in battle and he could only see out of one eye. But he knew how to defeat enemy warships.
After his success in Egypt, he fought the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Nelson was killed in the battle, but most of the enemy ships were destroyed, and Britain’s sea power was made safe for the next hundred years.
The central point of London today is Trafalgar Square, with Nelson in the middle, made of stone.
The war against Napoleon
Napoleon had more success in his battles on land than at sea. Soon he controlled a large part of Europe. He planned an invasion of Britain, but then he changed his mind and invaded Russia — a big mistake. He lost three-quarters of the 450,000 soldiers who went with him. At the same time, the British army pushed his soldiers out of Spain and Portugal. Finally, in 1815. he was defeated by Britain and Prussia* at the Battle of Waterloo.
Empire in Africa
France and Britain continued to build their empires, in Asia and in Africa. Other European countries — Italy, Germany, Belgium — joined them in a race to rule Africa. The British fought for a long time against the African Zulus and the Dutch-speaking white Boers for control of South Africa and its gold. They moved north from there, and south from Egypt, until they controlled land from the top to the bottom of Africa.
Victoria became queen in 1837, at the age of eighteen. She had little real power over the worlds most powerful country, but politicians listened to her strong opinions. She loved the idea of empire and she was pleased with the title ‘Empress of India’. She was the mother of nine children and the grandmother of most of the kings and queens of Europe. When she died in 1901, very few people remembered a time before the Victorian Age.
The First World War
By the early years of the 20th century, Germany, not France, was Britain’s biggest enemy. German factories were becoming more successful than British ones, and the Germans were starting to build a lot of warships. The British didn’t want to lose their control of the seas. They started a race to build more warships.
At that time the countries of Europe were grouping together for protection against their enemies: France and Russia against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The British decided to join with France and Russia. When the future emperor of Austria was murdered by the Serbs in 1914, the Russians joined the Serbs in war against the Austrians. This was the start of the First World War.
People from Britain and the Empire fought against the Germans in Belgium and the north of France, and against the Turks in Gallipoli (north-west Turkey). It was a new type of war. Nobody knew how to defeat enemy machine guns. The numbers of dead went higher and higher. On a single day in 1916, 20,000 British soldiers were killed. In the end, the Americans fought with the British, and the Germans and Austrians were defeated. But there were no real winners in this terrible war.
The 1920s and 1930s
Lands from the German and Turkish empires became British, but there was trouble after the war in other parts of the Empire. Much of Ireland became independent and India wanted independence too. Japan’s power in Asia was growing. Were the British areas of Asia safe?
Britain wasn’t as rich as before the war. In the 1930s, many factories closed and workers lost their jobs. A lot of people were unable to feed their families. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the British didn’t want another war. There wasn’t enough money for a strong British army. And Hitler only wanted land that Germany lost after the First World War.
But Hitler wanted more and more land. When he took control of Austria and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), the British did nothing. But it became clear that he was a danger to all Europeans. There were stories that he was sending large numbers of German Jews to prison for no reason. When he invaded Poland in 1939, the Second World War began.
The Second World War
At first the war went badly for Britain. British soldiers went to France, but they were soon pushed out again by the powerful German army. By 1940, France was under German control. Hitler was making plans to invade Britain.
First, he had to win control of the skies above Britain. The Batde of Britain was the first real air battle in history. German and British planes fought for three months, but the Germans couldn’t defeat the British airmen. Finally, like Napoleon before him, Hitler chose to invade Russia, not Britain. And like Napoleon’s, his invasion failed.
The US was now fighting on the same side as Britain, and together they pushed the Germans out of France. At the same time the Russians were pushing the Germans back through the countries of Eastern Europe. By May 1945, Germany was defeated and Hitler was dead.
But the war in Asia continued. Japan joined Germany in the war in 1941 and took control of many British lands in Asia. A quarter of a million British and American soldiers and ordinary people were made prisoners by the Japanese. But the Americans finally defeated the Japanese in the Pacific Ocean. The British pushed them out of Burma and India. In August 1945, Japan was defeated.
Churchill was from an important family of lords and politicians and he joined Parliament at the age of 25. In the 1930s, he realised before most people in Britain that Hitler was very dangerous. When the Second World War began, he soon became head of the government. Because of his powerful speeches in the most difficult months of the war, the British started to believe that they could win. Churchill played a very important part in the war against Hitler.
The end of the Empire
After the Second World War, Britain couldn’t keep control of its empire. India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, and most other countries in the empire soon followed. Hong Kong stayed British for a much longer time, but in 1997 it became part of China.
When the countries of the Empire became independent, most of them joined the Commonwealth. This is a group of states that work together on many important matters, like business, health and the fight against poverty. The British queen is still the head of the Commonwealth.
Britain’s place in the world today
Britain is part of the Commonwealth and the European Union and, as a result of its history and language, it works closely with the US too. Britain’s days of world power have ended, but it is still richer and more powerful than most countries in the world.
Without its empire, Britain is a small country again — but a small country with a big history.