The Rise and Fall of the British Empire | Free Essay Example

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Words: 1987
Topic: History


The 16th and 17th centuries saw the emergence of the British Empire that affected world politics considerably before its fall in the 20th century. Particularly, the development of the British Empire required Britain to establish overseas colonies to safeguard its political and economic interests. The British Empire traversed global boundaries as Britain took over the political administration of countries with colonies in America, Australia, New Zealand, and various African countries (Coates, 2014).

Before the integration of the British administration in the various colonies, many delineated landmasses, as well as small islands, were characterized by dullness and the lack of inspiration. Delineating here is used to denote the act of marking boundaries around an area. The entry of the British administration in the various colonies sought to bring about a new era of politics at the global stage besides fostering the unification of countries by a common language.

In addition, factors such as globalization, naval capabilities, trade, and communication improvements favored the rise of the British Empire. However, as the paper reveals, the rise of nationalist movements in the various colonies, especially the ones in Africa and Asia, led to the decline of the British Empire. In this respect, this study offers a detailed discussion of the rise and fall of the British Empire.

The Rise of the British Empire

An array of factors prompted Britain to expand its administration in different colonies globally. The notable factors range from the geographical location of Britain that fostered the development of its naval capabilities. Just like Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands, Britain’s location ensured that Britons enjoyed proximity to the seas (Kaul, 2013). Thus, they could easily adapt to marine life. Britain strategically delineated various regions to help in attaining its imperial agenda.

In politics and the economy, world regions are delineated with the goal of facilitating certain connections between places. Hence, for the British Empire, the need to explore the lands overseas, as well as the knowledge in sailing the seas using sophisticated ships, enhanced the capability of Britain to send its representatives in different parts of the world to identify opportunities that could help the country to persuade its imperial motivations. Therefore, the availability of adequate human resources that could help Britain to man ships sailing to distant places favored the development of the British Empire.

Furthermore, the reign of King Henry VII spanning between 1485 and 1509 facilitated the establishment of various maritime policies that favored the persuasion of Britain’s imperial ambitions. Particularly, King Henry VII focused on enhancing the creation of a new age of English Merchant Marine systems that would foster the expansion of English shipbuilding, as well as seafaring. Moreover, maritime policies led to the creation of the Merchant Marine framework as a move that was geared towards reforming the financial position of Britain.

Besides, financial reforms that were underwritten by Henry sought to expand the size of the Royal Navy as denoted by the construction of a dry dock situated at Portsmouth (Kaul, 2013). The efforts of King Henry VII towards reinforcing the naval capabilities of Britain saw him collaborate with John Cabot, an Italian mariner, between 1496 and 1497. The move resulted in the capturing of Britain’s first overseas colony, Newfoundland, a Canadian island.

The successor of King Henry VII, King Henry VIII, played a considerable part in enhancing the development of the Royal Navy. Importantly, King VIII upheld the relevance of expanding the English warships besides pioneering the construction of vessels that were mounted with heavy ammunition. The leader ensured that the Royal Navy acquired a centralized and formal administrative system characterized by the development of modern docks, the installation of network beacons, and lighthouses. These developments led to the easy navigation of Britain and foreign merchant sailors. Importantly, the munitions-based Royal Navy favored the dominance of Britain’s merchant sailors as denoted by the neutralization of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The passing of the Act for Kingly Title by the parliament of Ireland in 1541 marked the beginning of Britain’s imperial ambitions. The statute helped Ireland to secure its autonomy from the English monarchy to form its distinct kingdom (Coates, 2014). The event triggered Britain to consider the re-conquest of Ireland as a way of enlarging the country’s territory. Eventually, Britain adopted a colonization policy by 1550, a move that led to the development of the Plantation of Ulster (Kaul, 2013). The plantation acted as the model that would facilitate the development of the British Empire. Individuals such as Francis Drake and Humphrey Walter Raleigh who took part in the Ireland re-conquest also participated in the annexation of North America

The establishment of English Navigation Acts in 1651 played an instrumental role in fostering the expansion of the British Empire (Nanni, 2012). Particularly, the policies sought to limit the trading activities between Britain and its colonies. Such policies ensured that Britain took advantage of the resources available in its colonies, thus fostering colonial developments in its favor. As a result, Britain could not engage in direct colonial trade with France and the Netherlands, including other European countries.

Furthermore, the renewal of the original ordinance of 1651 through the Restoration by Acts of 1660 and 1663 provided a legal framework that guided the trading activities of Britain in its overseas colonies (Thompson, 2014). By so doing, Britain merchant sailors could engage in trading activities in different continents to support the financial and imperial ambitions of the growing empire.

The economic interest of Britons also bolstered the rise of the British Empire. Notably, the need to safeguard the financial interests of British-chartered companies influenced the growth of the British Empire in different countries. In 1600, the founding of the British East India Company to secure the financial interests of Britain played a significant role in fostering the annexation of India. For this reason, India became the empire’s largest source of revenue. Importantly, the British East India Company helped Britain to create its Asian territory that favored its trade privileges (Dawson, 2013). Additionally, the operations of British companies such as the British South Africa Company and the United Africa Company in the African continent ensured that Britain acquired adequate revenues to facilitate the running of its empire.

The Industrial Revolution motivated Britain to spread its imperial ideas in different countries, owing to the emergence of new technologies. Notably, the Industrial Revolution influenced Britain’s informal empire by providing it with essential tools, including the Gatling gun, steamship, and the railway. These tools presented by the revolution made it easy for Britain to conquer countries that were experiencing weak industrialization (Coates, 2014). For this reason, Britain realized a remarkable economic leadership against rivals such as France besides the dominance of the Royal Navy in the international seas. Further, the free-trade environment supported by the Industrial Revolution promoted the expansion of the economic and political influence of the informal empire.

During the Industrial Revolution, the informal British Empire valued the essence of identifying new markets that would foster its economic stability. Notably, the 1875 depression prompted Britain to venture into new markets as a strategy for fostering its economic stability amid the economic turbulences experienced globally (Nanni, 2012). In this respect, Britain saw the economic potential of countries that it had found easy to colonize, thus expanding its operations in such places. The outcome of the strategy fostered the colonization of different countries globally, thereby leading to the growth of the British Empire during the 19th century. Other European powers such as France, Spain, and Portugal followed the footsteps of Britain and acquired colonies to realize similar economic benefits.

The scramble for Africa among European nations, including Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal, contributed to the growth of the British Empire in the later years of the 19th century. Britain’s move towards securing parts of the African continent such as Egypt and South Africa among other countries sought to increase the wealth of its empire. The racism factor created the perception that blacks stood as inferior beings compared to whites (Dawson, 2013).

For this reason, Britain took over the political authority of South Africa in 1899 to foster the realization of economic gains from its overseas colonies. Cecil Rhodes led the expansion of the British Empire in South Africa as denoted by the establishment of the British South Africa Company. Besides, Rhodes spearheaded the creation of Rhodesia, north of South Africa, to stamp the authority of British colonial administration in Africa. Britain also took over the political administration of Egypt since it saw the importance of controlling the economic activities along the Suez Canal. Britain gained control of 30% of the African population as an outcome of the scramble and partitioning of Africa (Levine, 2013). Nonetheless, the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the decline of the British Empire, owing to an array of factors, including decolonization.

The Decline of the British Empire

The middle years of the 20th century were marked by a significant decline of the British Empire as its domination of the economic and political aspects of different parts of the world reduced. The decline paved the way for a reduction of injustices and divisions that had been caused by the policies of the British colonial power in different countries around the globe. The former colonies of Britain attained independence, thereby promoting the realization of socio-economic and political justice after periods of exploitation spearheaded by capitalistic interests and racism under the British administration.

The onset of the Second World War affected the stability of the British Empire to a considerable extent. Particularly, the capture of Singapore by Japan in 1942 denoted the invincibility of Britain. Thus, changing the status quo was viewed as a possibility after the global war. Furthermore, an agreement between the British government and the Indian Independence Movement provided room for the loyalty of the Indians during the Second World War after which they would be granted sovereignty. The successful attainment of independence by India inspired many other colonies of Britain to push for decolonization after the Second World War.

The fall of British rule in Ireland further showed the declining authority of the British Empire. Besides, the setting of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 created an opportunity for Ireland to develop structures that would liberate it from the British rule. In 1948, Ireland secured its independence from the United Kingdom to mark a new chapter of the country’s political and economic development (Dawson, 2013). As such, the British Empire was required to withdraw its Royal Navy from the Irish ports.

The emergence of anti-colonial movements in the various African colonies of Britain played a key role in undermining the power of the British Empire (Coates, 2014). Important to note, nationalist movements pushed for decolonization when they organized uprisings that sought to liberate the masses from social, political, and economic unfairness (Plank, 2015). For instance, nationalist movements in Ghana and Kenya prompted British administrators in the colonies to halt their operations to pave the way for independence. Besides, national movements in the Caribbean and Asia also applied a considerable pressure on Britain to rethink its commercial and imperial ambitions in the region (Dawson, 2013).

Surprisingly, in most cases, Britain hardly fought to retain its authority in its overseas colonies. Eventually, the British Empire lost its authority over many colonies it had ruled for decades, owing to the financial and military constraints it faced under the pressing need for decolonization.


The British Empire played a significant role in shaping the political, social, and economic position of different colonies, which it administered. The factors accountable for the emergence of the British Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries include naval capabilities, commercial interests, and the industrial revolution among other influences. However, the British Empire declined in the middle years of the 20th century as the push for decolonization by nationalist movements gained momentum. The Second World War also uncovered the invincibility of Britain. Thus, more countries sought their liberation from its authority.


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Dawson, G. (2013). Soldier heroes: British adventure, empire and the imagining of masculinities. London, England: Routledge.

Kaul, C. (2013). Media and the British empire. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Levine, P. (2013). The British empire: Sunrise to sunset. London, England: Routledge.

Nanni, G. (2012). The colonization of time: Ritual, routine and resistance in the British empire. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Plank, G. (2015). Rebellion and savagery: The Jacobite rising of 1745 and the British empire. Pennsylvania, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thompson, A. S. (2014). Imperial Britain: The empire in British politics, c. 1880-1932. London, England: Routledge.