The British Empire and its colonial legacy

Seminar Paper 2007 19 Pages

English - Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

3. Britain’s Colonial Legacy
3.1. Liberty
3.2. Predominated Conflicts
3.3. English as a Global Language

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

At its height in the late 19th and early 20th century, the British empire included territories on all continents and comprised about one quarter of the world’s population and area. The way England became a world power is one of the biggest success stories in world history. The British Empire was the biggest empire ever, bar none. How an archipelago of rainy islands off the northwest coast of Europe came to rule the world is one of the fundamental questions not just of British but of world history. How did Britain manage to overcome the imperial giants of the 16th and 17th century, namely Portugal and Spain, establishing their own colonies and dependencies all over the world within the following three centuries? What were the ideas and intentions behind colonizing and conquering the world?

Furthermore, it is interesting to find out what caused the dismantling of the Empire in the second half of the 20th century within just three decades, after three centuries of ruling vast parts of the globe.

Finally, it will be astonishing to find out, what the British Empire has left behind for the modern world. At first, one might think of team sports like soccer, cricket or rugby, which were indeed brought to all parts of the globe by the Empire. Nevertheless, the colonial legacy of the British Empire is not only confined to sports. It can be found in many fields of life like economy, politics, architecture and food. Nor is it always a good legacy. The British Empire was also responsible for various present-day conflicts and it will be found out, how those conflicts came into being and what they are like.

2. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Great Britain’s geopolitical role in the global scheme of things has undergone many radical changes over the last four centuries. Not only has the way the British acquired and ruled their dominions been changing, but the attitudes of the British themselves towards their Empire also developed, occasionally within a time span of just a few years or decades.

No sooner did the first period of British engagement overseas begin than in the 16th century, when imperial giants like Portugal and Spain had already established colonies in the Americas and Africa, gaining enormous profits from gold mines, spice or slave trade. As a matter of fact, the first steps of Britain on the way to rule the world were not taken by the British royalty. According to Niall Ferguson, it was “the idée fixe of the age”[1] to find gold and silver – especially in search of El Dorado – and it were private persons who undertook the first expeditions. Spain owned vast quantities of gold and silver in Mexico and Peru, whereas “the English had tried Canada, Guiana, Virginia and the Gambia, and found nothing.”[2] Generally, when an expedition went wrong, the survivors used to cover their expenses by resorting to piracy. Those buccaneers simply stole the gold from the Spaniards, as they had not been able to find it on their own. In a period of recurrent war with Spain, Elisabeth I decided to license the piracy, therefore establishing the system of privateering or privatised naval warfare. This is how the British Empire began, not conceived by self-conscious imperialists imposing British rule on foreign lands or colonists hoping to find a new life overseas, but “in a maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft.”[3] It were men like Captain Henry Morgan, who invested their plundered pieces of eight in plantations in the New World instead of going back to England, therefore creating the basement of the British rule in the Americas and the West Indies.

The fishing banks offshore Newfoundland had attracted English fishing fleets since the 1520s, but perpetual settlements did not come into being until the early 17th century, namely when Jamestown was founded on May 14 in 1608 on the Chesapeake Island in Virginia. The death rate of the colonists was high, due to the unexpectedly rough climate. Furthermore, the Native Americans, helping the settlers during the first winter and therefore giving the reason for the modern Thanksgiving, felt more and more endangered by the white settlers. Thus the mostly Puritan colonists held their settlement to be the will of the Lord, when an epidemic killed a big part of the local Indian population.[4] Jared Diamond describes the role of germs or diseases brought to the former isolated continents, namely the Americas and Australia, in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel”. In his opinion, diseases like smallpox, malaria and plague were even more important for the white colonization than seemingly superior technology or knowledge. In contrast to the natives, the whites had been able to develop a certain degree of immunity against those germs over the centuries, suffering casualties on their own. As those diseases killed hundreds of thousands Indians in the 17th century, whole areas were henceforth free for white settlement.[5]

The defining feature of the British Empire and the reason for almost all conquests within the next two centuries were trade and the public demand for certain colonial goods back home in England. As it turned out, the British colonies in North America were not as unprofitable as they seemed to be at first. There may not have been found gold in Virginia, but it turned out to have the perfect climate for growing tobacco, hitherto imported from South America at high costs. In the Caribbean, sugar cane was grown on huge plantations. As Ferguson puts it, “tea, coffee, tobacco and sugar were the new, new things. And all of them had to be imported.”[6] Tobacco and sugar were shipped to England from the New World in masses, lowering the prices and therefore reacting to the steadily growing demand. Tea, coffee and spices were imported from Asia, where the British engagement started not until the beginning of the 18th century. The reign of the traders lasted for more than a century.

It was not until the Seven Years War, that the rising imperial powers France and Britain fought against each other overseas. The main battlefield remained in Europe, but for the first time in history, the colonies of two empires were included in the fights. As a matter of fact, that war may be described as the first world war. The British Thirteen Colonies fought against the French in Louisiana and Canada. After having lost the war, France had to give Canada to Britain, which turned out to become one of the most loyal colonies in the future.[7]

Just a few years later, protests started in the Thirteen Colonies. In contrast to what students are taught nowadays, those were not caused by economic burdens, Britain is told to have imposed on the colonies. As a matter of fact, almost all duties were lifted under Lord North in 1770 and for instance tea had never been cheaper in the New World. Furthermore, the membership of the British Empire was actually very good for the American economy, as they were able to export their products to Britain. It was the constitutional principle - “the right of the British parliament to levy taxes on the American colonists without their consent”[8] that caused the protests against the British rule. Samuel Adam’s famous slogan ‘No taxation without representation’ was nevertheless an emphatic assertion of Britishness, as the colonists were just demanding the same liberty “enjoyed by their fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic”[9] As soon as fighting broke out in April 1775, the colonists’ shadow governments took control of each colony and ousted all the royal officials. Among historians there are various opinions, what the war of independence was like. Lawrence James holds it to be mainly the fight of Anglo-German troops on the British side and the supporters of the Continental Congress on the other side.[10] In contrast to that, Ferguson suggests that it was in fact the first Civil War in the American history, as more Loyalists had been fighting on the British side than regular royal troops.[11] The Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July 1776 was followed by five years of war until the British surrendered in Yorktown on the 17th of October 1781, with their band playing ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. There were many reasons for the colonists’ victory like the French support and the incompetence of the British generalship, to mention just two of them. Yet the failure of will in London was even more important. For the first time in history, the British Empire had been challenged by its subjects in a colony, and the way the British reacted was about to become the rule - they reacted with full force at the beginning, but turned to resignation after a while. What remained after the war of independence were a new kind of republic – later becoming some kind of empire itself – and hundreds of thousands of disappointed Loyalists leaving the newly created United States bound for Canada, England or the West Indies.[12] Ferguson is amazed at the fact “that so many people should have voted with their feet against American independence, choosing loyalty to king and Empire over ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’”[13], namely the unalienable rights promised in the Declaration of Independence. The British Empire had lost half a continent to the United States of America, but on the other side of the world it won a whole one: Australia.

When Thomas Cook left England in 1768, he had more in mind than pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. As James puts it, “he was an instrument of national commercial and strategic ambitions”[14] During the next three years, his ship, the Endeavour, visited Tahiti, New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia. Cook had the mandate to declare British sovereignty over any newly discovered territory which he found to be unpopulated or which its inhabitants did not make use of. Thus Australia was declared terra nullus – no one’s land – and annexed. It was not until 1786 that the British government decided to found a small settlement there. On the one hand, it should be used as a base for a seaborne invasion of the unprotected western coast of the Spanish colonies in South America and on the other hand, it should solve the problem of overfilled gaols in England, as convicts could not be sent to the American colonies anymore.[15] Among the convicts were not only men and women who had committed crime against property, but also political prisoners, for instance Irish nationalists or Quebecois patriots. Ferguson describes it as the great paradox of Australian history, “that what started out as a colony populated by people whom Britain had thrown out proved to be so loyal to the British Empire for so long.”[16] America, which had begun as a combination of tobacco plantation and Puritan utopia ended up as a rebel republic, whereas Australia started out as a prison and proved to be settled by the more reliable colonists. One explanation for that might be, that once a convict had survived the transportation and served his or her sentence, he or she was free to start a new life, which was in most of the cases far better than life back in Britain.[17] In 1828, with only one in fourteen electing to return to Britain, there were already more free people in New South Wales than convicts. In the following years, the free emigrants who came to Australia from England were increasingly in the majority.[18] The convict transportation was ended in 1867 after Australia had become a prospering colony and the free settlers did not want and need indentured labourers anymore.


[1] Ferguson, Niall. Empire – The Rise and Demise of British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002. p. 9.

[2] ibid. p. 10.

[3] ibid. p. 4.

[4] James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. pp. 3-16.

[5] Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel – The Fates of Human Societies. London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. pp. 195-215.

[6] Ferguson. p. 14.

[7] ibid. pp. 35-39.

[8] Ferguson. p. 91.

[9] ibid. p. 93.

[10] James. pp. 107-122.

[11] Ferguson. pp. 88-102.

[12] ibid. p. 101.

[13] ibid.

[14] James. p. 142.

[15] James. pp. 142-147.; Ferguson. p. 104.

[16] Ferguson. p. 105.

[17] ibid. pp. 106-109.

[18] Tinker, Hugh. “The British colonies of settlement” in The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cohen, Robin, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. p. 16.


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Dresden Technical University – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
British Empire Watching English




Title: The British Empire and its colonial legacy