The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world's population at the time.〔Maddison 2001, pp. 98, 242.〕 The empire covered more than , almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area.〔Ferguson 2004, p. 15., saying: "At its maximum extent between the world wars the British Empire covered more than 13 million square miles, approximately 23 percent of the world's land surface."〕〔Elkins2005, p. 5.saying: "The British Empire encompassed nearly 13 million square miles or roughly 25 percent of the world's total landmass"〕 As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia.〔Ferguson 2004, p. 2.〕 A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain) the dominant colonial power in North America and India.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century (with London the largest city in the world from about 1830).〔Tellier, L.-N. (2009). ''Urban World History: an Economic and Geographical Perspective''. Quebec: PUQ. p. 463. ISBN 2-7605-1588-5.〕 Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as ''Pax Britannica'' ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman.〔Johnston, pp. 508-10.〕〔Porter, p. 332.〕〔Sondhaus, L. (2004). ''Navies in Modern World History''. London: Reaktion Books. p. 9. ISBN 1-86189-202-0.〕 In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain; by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 the country was described as the "workshop of the world". The British Empire was expanded to include India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, British dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America. Domestically, political attitudes favoured free trade and laissez-faire policies and a gradual widening of the voting franchise. During the century, the population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, causing significant social and economic stresses. To seek new markets and sources of raw materials, the Conservative Party under Disraeli launched a period of imperialist expansion in Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became self-governing dominions.
By the start of the twentieth century, Germany and the United States had challenged some of Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain. Although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in South-East Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the decline of the empire.
India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most of the territories of the Empire. The political transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire.〔〔〔〔 Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. The United Kingdom is now one of 16 Commonwealth nations, a grouping known informally as the Commonwealth realms, that share one person—Queen Elizabeth II—as their monarch.
== Origins (1497–1583) ==
The foundations of the British Empire were laid when England and Scotland were separate kingdoms. In 1496 King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic.〔Ferguson 2004, p. 3.〕 Cabot sailed in 1497, five years after the European discovery of America, and although he successfully made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland (mistakenly believing, like Christopher Columbus, that he had reached Asia),〔Andrews 1985, p. 45.〕 there was no attempt to found a colony. Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but nothing was heard of his ships again.〔Ferguson 2004, p. 4.〕
No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during the last decades of the 16th century.〔Canny, p. 35.〕 In the meantime the Protestant Reformation had turned England and Catholic Spain into implacable enemies .〔 In 1562, the English Crown encouraged the privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa〔Thomas, pp. 155–158〕 with the aim of breaking into the Atlantic trade system. This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth I gave her blessing to further privateering raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the New World.〔Ferguson 2004, p. 7.〕 At the same time, influential writers such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee (who was the first to use the term "British Empire")〔Canny, p. 62.〕 were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own empire. By this time, Spain had become the dominant power in the Americas and was exploring the Pacific ocean, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River area, later to become New France.〔Lloyd, pp. 4–8.〕
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