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End of British Empire

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End of British Empire

The British Empire was the largest, richest, and most powerful empire in the world. There were British colonies all over the globe. Its demise was not a single event, but rather a series of several events over many years. What remained of the British Empire developed into the Commonwealth in the twentieth century with former British dependencies obtaining sovereignty but retaining ties to the UK.

The rise of the British Empire

To fully understand the end of the British Empire and its implications, we must take a quick look at the beginning of the British Empire first.

The origins of the British Empire

While there is no official start date of the beginning of the British Empire, the foundations were laid in 1497, with successful foreign explorations under the reign of King Henry VII. Then, the sixteenth century, named the ‘Age of Discovery’, brought with it better shipbuilding. This led to more exploration, and eventually the discovery and colonisation of new lands.

Why did Britain want to become an empire?

Finding new countries and building colonies meant more land. The colonies would provide England with valuable materials such as metals, sugar, and tobacco, which in turn could be used by the empire itself or sold to other countries.

The colonies would also offer wealthy Englishmen money-making opportunities, and they provided jobs and new places to live for those who needed it.

The first British colony

The first-ever British colony was set up in Roanoke, Virginia (North America) in 1585. However, it failed and a second one was set up in 1587. The second attempt did not go well. Sometime between 1587 and 1590, the colonists disappeared without a trace and were never found again. It has been dubbed the ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke’.

Did you know? The English named the territory Virginia after one of Queen Elizabeth I's nicknames, the ‘Virgin Queen’.

It wasn’t until 1607 that the first permanent English colony was founded. This was at Jamestown, Virginia, by Captain John Smith.

Did you know? Jamestown got named after James VI, who was king of England, Scotland, and Ireland at the time

Over the centuries that followed, Britain gained and lost several territories all over the world.

The end of slavery in the British Empire

Sadly, the slave trade was ‘big business’. However, the Industrial Revolution meant that goods produced by slavery became less important to the British economy. Also, people’s views on slavery began to change: they started to see it as brutal and inhumane. This eventually led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

Britain and slavery

The so-called Atlantic slave trade involved the transportation of slaves from Africa, mainly to the Americas (figure 1). Britain was also part of the slave trade. Between 1662 and 1807, the British and British colonial ships purchased an estimated 3,415,500 Africans, with 2,964,800 surviving the 'middle passage'. They were sold into slavery in the Americas.

The Atlantic slave trade sailed in a particular triangular route between Europe, Africa, and the Americas and the middle passage was the middle part of the three-part journey, which was the most treacherous part

British abolition of slavery

The slave trade reached its peak in the 1780s. However, people started to voice their concern over the slave trade, the implications of slavery and the brutality of the system.

The biggest event in standing up to slavery came in the form of the Haitian Revolution. The slaves started a massive revolt on 23 August 1791 on the island of Saint Domingue (nowadays Haiti and the Dominical Republic). The revolt would last for 13 years, but on 1 January 1804, Haiti was declared independent. This revolt was a turning point in the fight to abolish slavery.

There were two prominent British abolitionists who played a vital role in the successful campaign against slavery:

  1. Thomas Clarkson: he was an English abolitionist, a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire, co-founder of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and helped to achieve passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
  2. William Wilberforce: he was a British politician, philanthropist, and MP (for Yorkshire) from 1784-1812. Wilberforce headed the campaign against the British slave trade for 20 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 meant that it was now against the law for any British ship or subject to trade in enslaved people.

Even though the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was in place, plantation slavery still existed in some British colonies and it was not until 1838 that the full enslavement had stopped.

The end of the British Empire

The British Empire would diminish over decades when the colonies started to gain their independence. The beginning of the end of the British Empire was not one single event. That being said, the actual end of the British Empire happened in 1997, when the British handed Hong Kong back to China. This was the final British colony that left Britain.

Fall of the British Empire after the Second World War

The majority of the colonies’ independence happened after the Second World War. While these colonies provided a wealth of valuable raw material, manpower, and strategic bases, after the war it simply became too expensive to manage such a vast empire. The war left Britain pretty much bankrupt and it needed a large loan from the U.S. to rebuild the country.

At the same time, there were already anti-colonial movements going on in different parts of the British Empire.

In 1947, India gained its independence. Considering that the vast majority of the British colonies gained their independence after India did, India’s independence is seen as the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

Between 1945 and 1965, the 700 million people living under British rule outside of the UK fell to 5 million, with 3 million of those living in Hong Kong.

Macmillan and the end of the British Empire

PM Harold Macmillan continued the process of ending the empire. While there was a lot of protest from some in government, there was also a general agreement among others that the age of imperialism had passed.

Things were also about to change in Africa. South Africa was white-dominated and the home of apartheid. Macmillan, who urged to move towards racial equality, held his 'wind of change' speech in South Africa in 1960, where he said:

The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, Apartheid is the former social system in South Africa in which black people and people from other racial groups did not have the same political and economic rights as white people and were forced to live separately from white people.

Between 1957 and 1968, Macmillan gave independence to all the remaining African colonies as well as to the majority elsewhere.

Even though the majority of the transitions went peacefully, there were two exceptions:

  1. The Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s: the protests and violent riots were met with the British executing many Kenyans and imprisoning many more in camps where they were living in inhumane conditions.
  2. Rhodesian Bush War (Zimbabwe): the Rhodesian Bush War was a civil conflict from 4 July 1964 to 12 December 1979. It was a conflict between the Rhodesian white minority-led government, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, and the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army. According to Rhodesian government statistics, more than 20,000 people were killed.

Modern Britain Harold Macmillan StudySmarterHarold Macmillan, Wikimedia Commons.

Countries of the British Empire

Here is a list of the former colonies of the British Empire, including the year of their independence:

  • Afghanistan - 1919
  • Antigua and Barbuda - 1981
  • Australia - 1901–86
  • The Bahamas - 1973
  • Bahrein - 1971
  • Barbados - 1966
  • Belize - 1981
  • Botswana 1966
  • Brunei - 1984
  • Canada - 1867-1982
  • Cyprus - 1960
  • Dominica - 1978
  • Egypt - 1922
  • Fiji - 1970
  • Ghana - 1957
  • Grenada 1974
  • Hong Kong - 1997
  • India 1947
  • Iraq - 1932
  • Jamaica - 1962
  • Jordan - 1946
  • Kenya - 1963
  • Kiribati - 1979
  • Kuwait - 1961
  • Lesotho - 1964
  • Malawi - 1964
  • Malaysia - 1957
  • Maldives - 1965
  • Malta - 1964
  • Mauritius - 1968
  • Myanmar (Burma) - 1948-1962
  • Nauru - 1968
  • New Zealand - 1907-1986
  • Nigeria - 1960
  • Pakistan - 1947
  • Qatar - 1971
  • St. Lucia - 1971
  • St. Kitts and Nevis - 1983
  • St. Vincent and the Grenadina lines - 1979
  • Seychelles - 1976
  • Sierra Leone - 1961
  • Soliman islands - 1978
  • Somalia - 1960
  • South Africa - 1910-1961
  • Sri Lanka - 1948
  • Sudan - 1956
  • Swaziland - 1968
  • Tanzania - 1961
  • The Gambia 1965
  • Tonga - 1970
  • Trinidad and Tobago - 1962
  • Tuvalu - 1978
  • Uganda - 1962
  • United Arab Emirates - 1971
  • United States - 1776
  • Vanuatu - 1980
  • Yemen - 1967
  • Zambia - 1964
  • Zanzibar - 1963
  • Zimbabwe - 1980

British culture and the end of the British Empire

British rule and emigration left cultural marks all over the (former) British Empire. Some examples are:

  • The English language: it is the primary language of up to 460 million people, and it is spoken by about 1.5 billion people worldwide either as a primary, secondary, or foreign language.
  • Sports: the main sports that were exported across the British Empire were football (soccer), cricket, lawn tennis, and golf.
  • Religion: British missionaries travelled around the globe to spread Catholicism and in some cases Protestantism.
  • Migration: many people from Britain migrated to other parts of the Empire. Examples are the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. With their migration, they damaged the indigenous people and culture. Furthermore, people from the British Empire (outside of the UK) also migrated within the empire.
  • Imperial system: this is the British measurement system, which is still preferred in some countries.
  • Driving: many of the former colonies of the British Empire kept driving on the left-hand side of the road, which is the same as in Britain.

Britain after the empire

While at first it was believed that giving up the Empire would lead to a serious economic loss, the imperial balance sheets have revealed that Britain put in more money than it received. The colonies were profitable enough, but their upkeep was too high.

As for the regular British people, there seemed to have been little to no impact on their daily lives with the end of the British Empire. It did not affect them personally, financially, or politically. British historian Bernard Porter wrote:

The process of losing an empire had little effect on British politics. Life in the metropolis went on much as before. The rest of us lived through it all hardly noticing it.¹

The end of British Empire: a timeline

  • 23 August 1791: Haitian Revolution. This revolt lasted 13 years and would eventually see Haiti becoming independent. This revolt was a turning point in the fight to abolish slavery.
  • 25 March 1807: The Slave Trade Act was established. This meant that enslaved people could no longer be traded by any British ship.
  • 1838: Full abolition of slavery in the British colonies.
  • 1945: The end of the Second World War left Britain in massive debt. The loans it took out were to rebuild Britain after the war.
  • 15 August 1947: India gained its independence and this was the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
  • 1952–60: The Mau Mau Uprising.
  • 3 February 1960: The 'wind of change' speech by Harold Macmillan.
  • 1957–68: all of the British colonies in Africa, and the majority elsewhere, gained their independence.
  • 1 July 1997: Hong Kong was handed back to China, marking the end of the British Empire.

The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth, or Commonwealth of Nations, was originally created in 1926 and it was formalised through the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The current Commonwealth of Nations was formalised by the London Declaration in 1949.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 member states. Almost all of these states are former territories of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of 15 member states, 34 other member states are republics, and 5 others have different monarchs.

The 15 member states with Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state are:

  1. The United Kingdom
  2. Australia
  3. Canada
  4. New Zealand
  5. Antigua and Barbuda
  6. The Bahamas
  7. Belize
  8. Grenada
  9. Jamaica
  10. Papua New Guinea
  11. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  12. Saint Lucia
  13. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  14. Solomon Islands
  15. Tuvalu

End of the British Empire - Key takeaways

  • The British Empire was the largest, richest, and most powerful empire in the world.
  • The first-ever permanent British colony was set up in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, North America.
  • The Atlantic slave trade involved the transportation of slaves from Africa, mainly to the Americas.
  • The Haitian Revolution was the biggest in standing up to slavery. It started on 23 August 1791 and it lasted for 13 years, until 1 January 1804.
  • The two main British abolitionists who played a vital role in campaigning against slavery were Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce.
  • The Slave Trade Act of 1807 meant it was now against the law to any British ship or subject to trade in enslaved people. It was not until 1838, however, that full enslavement ended.
  • After the Second World War, the colonies proved to be too much to keep up financially. Britain paid more than it gained.
  • India gained independence in 1947, marking the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
  • The end of the British Empire is usually regarded as 1997, with Hong Kong being handed back to China.
  • The Commonwealth has 54 voluntary states.

Sources

1. Bern Porter, British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn't, 2016.

Frequently Asked Questions about End of British Empire

It is considered that the end is 1997, with the British handing Hong Kong back to China.

While it did not have a major effect on the British people in the UK, it did have an effect on the people of the former colonies. Countries/colonies now governed themselves.

There was no one event that caused the end. That being said, the British Empire started to diminish after the Second World War. India gaining its independence in 1947 is considered the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

The Empire was costing more money than it generated, so ending the Empire led to less loss of money. Furthermore, there were no changes to the daily lives of the British people, nor were there any negative political implications.

While there is no official date, Hong Kong being handed back to China in 1997 is considered the end of the British Empire.

Final End of British Empire Quiz

Question

When was the foundation laid for the beginning of the British Empire?

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Answer

In 1497, with successful explorations under the reign of Henry VIII.

Show question

Question

What were the reasons for wanting an empire?

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Answer

Finding new countries and building colonies meant more land. The colonies would provide England with valuable materials such as metals, sugar, and tobacco, which in turn could be used by the empire itself or it could be sold to other countries.

 

The colonies would also offer wealthy Englishmen money-making opportunities, and it provided jobs and new places to live for those who needed it.

Show question

Question

When and where did Britain try to set up a colony first?


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Answer

In 1585 and 1587. Both were in Roanoke, Virginia, North America.

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Question

When was Britain's first permanent colony settled and where?


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Answer

In 1607, in Jamestown, Virginia, North America.

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Question

Where did the placename Virginia come from?


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Answer

From one of Queen Elizabeth I's nicknames: the Virgin Queen.

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Question

Where did the placename Jamestown come from?


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Answer

From James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland, who was King of Scotland, England, and Ireland at the time

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Question

What did the Atlantic slave trade involve?


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Answer

it involved the transportation of slaves from Africa, mainly to the Americas.

Show question

Question

What was the Atlantic slave trade, and what did the middle passage mean?


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Answer

The Atlantic slave trade sailed in a particular triangular route between Europe, Africa, and the Americas and the middle passage was the middle part of the three-part journey, which was the most treacherous part.

Show question

Question

What was the biggest event in standing up against slavery?


Show answer

Answer

The Haitian Revolution, which lasted 13 years, from 23 August 1791 to 1 January 1804.

Show question

Question

Name the two prominent British abolitionists who played a vital role in the successful campaign against slavery.


Show answer

Answer

  1. Thomas Clarkson
  2. William Wilberforce

Show question

Question

What is the Slave Trade Act of 1807?


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Answer

The act made sure that it was against the law for any British ship or subject to trade in enslaved people.

Show question

Question

When did full enslavement end?


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Answer

1838

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Question

What is regarded as the beginning of the end of the British Empire?

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Answer

India's independence in 1947.

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Question

Which British politician continued the process of ending the empire?


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Answer

Harold Macmillan

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Question

What is the name of the famous speech Macmillan gave in South Africa in 1960?


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Answer

The 'wind of change' speech.

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Question

The majority of colonies gained independence peacefully. Which two are the exception?

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Answer

  1. The Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s
  2. The events in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

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Question

Name the six cultural marks left across the former British colonies.


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Answer

  1. The English language
  2. Sports
  3. Religion
  4. Migration
  5. Imperial System
  6. Driving

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Question

What was the effect on Britain after losing the empire?


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Answer

There were no real effects, the exception being that now Britain was not paying unnecessary money to upkeep its colonies.

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Question

What is the Commonwealth?


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Answer

It is a voluntary association of 54 member states. Almost all the member states are former British colonies.

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Question

How many member states is Queen Elizabeth II head of state of?

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Answer

15

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