The world leadership of Great Britain, high international authority, as well as a political, economic, and military power, were associated with the colonial empire. At the beginning of the 17th century, England was a moderately developed feudal state located on the outskirts of Europe. Nevertheless, an active expansionist policy after the English bourgeois revolution of the middle of this century allowed Britain to take a leading place among the great European powers. As a result, the British Empire became the largest ever-existing state in the history of humanity with colonies on all the continents.
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Historical Characteristics of the British Empire
After the failure of the second expedition to North America, the English voyages to the New World ceased for a long time. In the 16th century, the Reformation broke out, and the Anglo-Spanish contradictions escalated, leading to open war at the end of this century (Watson 2). After the defeat of its fleet in 1588, the power of the Spanish Empire decreased (Black 14). During the 17th – the first half of the 18th centuries, the British Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world. However, by the end of the 18th century, the empire began to decline. In 1775, the American colonies of Great Britain began the war of independence, which ended in the victory of the rebels in 1783 (Muller 46). The fall of the empire ended at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1804, Russia and France captured and divided British India, and after a continental blockade in 1810, France finally liquidated the British Empire (Black 17). The British Peninsula was divided into the English Kingdom, the Scottish Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Ireland.
The entire history of the British Empire is usually divided into three periods – the First Empire (1583-1783), the Second (1783-1945), and the Third one (1845-1997 – decolonization and decay) (Black 11). The culmination of the expansion of the colossal state is considered the beginning of the 20th century when imperial moods were the most acute. However, with the development of diplomatic relations in the world, the government had to conduct foreign policy less aggressively. As a result of signing several treaties, the British Commonwealth of Nations was created, which actually testified to the cessation of the world expansion (Richardson 14). The long history of the development of the British Empire allowed it to achieve tremendous superiority in the military, financial, and other sectors, and, despite a decrease in influence, its dominance was considered undeniable for several centuries.
Achievements of the British Empire
Given the British reliance on the navy in the country’s defense strategy, control of naval bases, coasts and communications was of paramount importance for the viability of the empire. According to Bayly, the continuous successes of the people of Great Britain in the economy, politics, and social sphere created a sense of superiority over other nations among its inhabitants (4). In addition, the belief in the backwardness of the indigenous people of Asia, Africa, and Oceania led to the idea of a civilizational mission to disseminate the achievements of their culture. All the extensive conquests and the rapid expansion of the empire became possible not only due to the military-administrative power and skillful diplomacy of Great Britain. The confidence in the beneficial effects of British influence on the peoples of other countries was a common belief. The ideas of messianism and the colonial mission had deep roots not only in the minds of the ruling elites but also among many ordinary citizens.
The enormous wealth of the territories of South and Southeast Asia known in Europe under the common name of India also attracted the attention of the British. As a consequence, in London in 1600, a private East India company was founded to trade with the region (Bayly 9). Great Britain also had other objects of expansion in Asia, which were subordinated to the common interest of protecting India. During several wars and trade agreements, the British Crown received the lands of Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, and some territories of China. In addition, the global expansion allowed conquering significant areas in Africa – Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Uganda, Kenya, and other lands (Bayly 202). However, the key emphasis was on Asia and, in particular, the East India Trading Company, which was considered the pearl of the British colonial era (Lawley 268). During its heyday, the British Empire, the largest in modern history, occupied a quarter of the land and controlled a fourth of the world population, which are unprecedented achievements.
Legacies of the British Empire
The British Empire has changed the world and left a rich legacy. The formation of the US independence was largely due to the introduction of parliamentary institutions laid down by the British. The ideas of freedom, equality, and the rule of law also came to the United States from Europe (Barlas 5). Modern Indian statehood originated in the colonial period, and before the conquest, the country experienced a period of fragmentation and wars. In many ways, it was the power of Great Britain that united these territories into a whole, connected them by railways, created a single economic system, and began to form political institutions (Barlas 193). As a result, the Crown intervention became the key to the successful development of modern India.
Britain played a special role in the formation of new political and cultural elites in Asia and Africa. People born in traditional social entities had an opportunity to receive modern school and university education built on European patterns, join the achievements of Western culture, and learn the basics of cultural communication (Barlas 9). As a result, many territories of these regions have social institutions that have emerged and developed due to the intervention of the British Empire.
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Koh gives an example of the colonization of Malaysia and notes significant changes in the collective and individual perception of the new Western culture that appeared in the country (174). In general, the influence of the British Empire on international diplomacy is significant. Despite some conflicting opinions regarding the aggression of the monarchy and its crimes against humanity, the achievements and development of many regions are largely due to the intervention of the empire. The British Crown has made a contribution to the cultural, commercial, economic, political, and other spheres of many countries.
The role of the British Empire as the largest state in history is significant, and its achievements and heritage are rich in view of the significant influence exerted on the colonial countries. The empire passed through difficult periods, but during its heyday, it had a global influence. There are some controversial opinions regarding high aggression and crimes committed by the British Crown in the era of conquest. Nevertheless, many social, political, cultural, and other institutions in Asia, Africa, and other regions have been formed largely due to the participation of Britain.
Barlas, Asma. Democracy, Nationalism, and Communalism: The Colonial Legacy in South Asia. Routledge, 2019.
Bayly, Christopher Alan. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830. Routledge, 2016.
Black, Jeremy. The British Empire: A History and a Debate. Routledge, 2016.
Koh, Sin Yee. Race, Education, and Citizenship: Mobile Malaysians, British Colonial Legacies, and a Culture of Migration. Springer, 2017.
Lawley, Jonathan. “Achievements of the British Colonial Service: A Retrospective View.” The Round Table, vol. 104, no. 3, 2015, pp. 267-280.
Muller, Hannah Weiss. “Bonds of Belonging: Subjecthood and the British Empire.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 53, no. 1, 2014, pp. 29-58.
Richardson, J. Henry. British Economic Foreign Policy. Routledge, 2018.
Watson, Tim. “British Empire.” The Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies, 2016, pp. 1-10.