The British Empire

This topic guide will help you work with the British Empire. The guide is mainly intended for use in English class, but it may also be relevant for other school subjects such as History or Social Studies.

The guide is designed to give you a good overview of the role that the British Empire played in world history, and how the legacy of the Empire is still evident today. You can also find specific suggestions for texts to use as reference points, as well as ideas for further thematic perspectives.


Towards the end of the 16th century, the English Queen Elizabeth I gave British explorers a license to explore new lands and claim territory in the name of the Crown. This marked the beginning of the British Empire, which at first was focused on colonies in North America and the Caribbean, but soon spread to Asia and Africa too.

The so-called First British Empire existed from 1583 to 1783, and was especially evident in North America, India and Africa. However, the American colonies grew increasingly upset with British rule, especially because of concerns about being taxed without having real political power. This dissatisfaction finally led to the American Revolution, which ended with 13 former colonies achieving full independence in 1783 (however, Britain still kept its colonies in the area which would later become Canada). The loss of the American colonies marked the end of the First British Empire.

After losing the American colonies, Britain began to seek new areas that might offer territories and potential riches. The Empire's gaze turned to Australia - a continent that had been discovered relatively recently, and which had previously only seen very limited attempts at colonisation. Britain also retained control of their African and Asian colonies, so the Second British Empire eventually became very widespread. 

In the years 1815-1914 the British Empire enjoyed a golden age, which is also known by the term Pax Britannica, because the Empire had dealt with its main competitors and thus enjoyed a century of relative peace and considerable economic success. 

This development stopped with the World Wars, however, as both Britain and its colonies were pulled into global conflicts with great human and economic losses as a result. At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain also started to grant more independence to selected colonies – such as Canada and Australia - and the Empire gradually went into decline. 

After the Second World War, Great Britain was in a very weak economic position and no longer had the resources to maintain a global empire. At the same time, there were growing independence movement in many of its remaining colonies. India, in particular, started to see very intense protests against British rule. In the decades following the Second World War, most of the remaining colonies were thus granted independence, and the British Empire eventually ceased to be

Great Britain still possesses a number of small overseas territories, however. They are also part of the Commonwealth, an international organisation that encompasses Britain and many of its former colonies. Among other things, the Commonwealth entails that many of its members still recognise the British royal family to some extent. 

Recently, Brexit has led to comparisons with the Empire, as some analysts have interpreted the Brexit-decision as a desire to return to the days when Great Britain was a powerful independent nation with enormous influence and economic success, which was not subject to any foreign powers or intergovernmental organisations.  

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The British Empire

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