Poster for victory at the end of the First World War showing the flags of the victorious nations. Note that the British Dominions are shown with red ensigns​

Empire unity poster early 1900's.

West Africa  

After the annexation of Australia and New Zealand, Britain proceeds to expand the empire further in the Pacific region. Captain George Vancouver established a UK-Hawaii friendship in 1793-4 and obtained a "cession" of the Islands to the UK, but the British government apparently never took notice of it. From 1794 to 1816, Hawaii flew the British Union Jack as its National Flag. From 1816 to 1843, Hawaii flew an early version of its present flag, containing the Union Jack. British troops occupied the Hawaiian Islands from 25 February to 31 July 1843. A Hawaiian "revolt" led to a British withdrawal in July 1843. The "revolt" consisted of the total ignoring of the presence of the British by the Hawaiians. No talking, no notice, nothing. Actually, the occupation was not sanctioned by London, and February to July is how long it took word to go to London and back again. But the Hawaiians say they defeated the British by ignoring them! Hawaii was occupied by the United States in 1893 and became a state of the United States in 1959. Today, it continues to use a flag containing the Union Jack to honour its original friendship agreement with the UK.  

The Fiji Islands were ceded to the British Crown by their Great Council of Chiefs in 1874. In 1906, a condominium between Britain and France was established for the New Hebrides islands. British New Guinea was established in 1884, becoming the Territory of Papua, governed by Australia, in 1904. German New Guinea was mandated by the League of Nations to Australia in 1919, while the island of Nauru was mandated jointly to Britain, Australia and New Zealand, also in 1919. German Samoa was mandated to New Zealand in 1919 also.  Most of the British islands were administered by a single Western Pacific High Commissioner.

New Zealand poster promoting support for the British Empire during the First World War​

Irish Free State

The Cape of Good Hope in South Africa was occupied by two English captains in 1620, but initially neither the government nor the East India Company was interested in developing this early settlement into a colony. The Dutch occupied it in 1650, and Cape Town remained a port of call for their East India Company until 1795 when, French revolutionary armies having occupied the Dutch Republic, the British seized it to keep it from the French. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the UK bought Cape Town from the new kingdom of the Netherlands for the equivalent of $6 million. British settlement began in 1824 on the coast of Natal, proclaimed a British colony in 1843. Meanwhile, the Boers had started to grow increasingly dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape Colony. The British proclamation of the equality of the races particularly angered them. The need to find new farmland and establish independence from British rule led a body of Boers (Dutch `farmers') from the Cape to make the Great Trek northeast in 1836, to found Transvaal and Orange Free State as independent republics, established in 1852 and 1854 respectively. Beginning in 1835, several groups of Boers, together with large numbers of Khoikhoi and black servants, decided to trek off into the interior in search of greater independence. North and east of the Orange River (which formed the Cape Colony's frontier) these Boers or Voortrekkers ("Pioneers") found vast tracts of apparently uninhabited grazing lands. They had, it seemed, entered their promised land, with space enough for their cattle to graze and their culture of anti-urban independence to flourish. Little did they know that what they found - deserted pasture lands, disorganised bands of refugees, and tales of brutality - resulted from the difaqane, rather than representing the normal state of affairs. 

With the exception of the more powerful Ndebele, the Voortrekkers encountered little resistance among the scattered peoples of the plains. The difaqane had dispersed them, and the remnants lacked horses and firearms. Their weakened condition also solidified the Boers' belief that European occupation meant the coming of civilisation to a savage land. However, the mountains where King Moshoeshoe I had started to forge the Basotho nation that would later become Lesotho and the wooded valleys of Zululand proved a more difficult proposition. Here the Boers met strong resistance, and their incursions set off a series of skirmishes, squabbles, and flimsy treaties that would litter the next 50 years of increasing white domination. The Great Trek first halted at Thaba Nchu, near present-day Bloemfontein, where the trekkers established a republic. Following disagreements among their leadership, the various Voortrekker groups split apart. While some headed north, most crossed the Drakensberg into Natal with the idea of establishing a republic there. Since the Zulus controlled this territory, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief paid a visit to King Dingaan. The Zulus, accusing the Boers of conspiring to overthrow the Zulu state, captured Retief. After receiving the specified cattle ransom, they sent an army to decimate Retief's settlement, killing 280 Boers and 250 black servants. At the Battle of Itala, a Boer army's attempt at revenge failed miserably.

The culmination came on 16 December 1838, at the Ncome River in Natal. Though only several Boers suffered injuries, they killed several thousand Zulus. So much bloodshed reportedly caused the Ncome's waters to run red, thus the clash is historically known as the Battle of Blood River. The Voortrekkers, victorious despite their numbers, saw their victory as an affirmation of divine approval. Yet their hopes for establishing a Natal republic, established in 1839, remained short lived. The British annexed the area in 1843, and founded their new Natal colony at present-day Durban. Most of the Boers, feeling increasingly squeezed between the British on one side and the native African populations on the other, headed north. The British set about establishing large sugar plantations in Natal, but found few inhabitants of the neighbouring Zulu areas willing to provide labour. The British confronted stiff resistance to their encroachments from the Zulus, a nation with well-established traditions of waging war, who inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats on the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, where over 1400 British soldiers were killed. During the ongoing Anglo-Zulu Wars, the British eventually established their control over what was then named Zululand, and is today known as KwaZulu-Natal Province. The British turned to India to resolve their labour shortage, as Zulu men refused to adopt the servile position of labourers and in 1860 the SS Truro arrived in Durban harbour with over 300 people on board. Over the next 50 years, 150,000 more indentured Indians arrived, as well as numerous free "passenger Indians", building the base for what would become the largest Indian community outside of India.

As early as 1893, when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Durban, Indians outnumbered whites in Natal.  The Boers meanwhile persevered with their search for land and freedom, ultimately establishing themselves in various Boer Republics, eg the Transvaal or South African Republic and the Orange Free State. For a while it seemed that these republics would develop into stable states, despite having thinly-spread populations of fiercely independent Boers, no industry, and minimal agriculture. The discovery of diamonds near Kimberley turned the Boers' world on its head (1869). The first diamonds came from land belonging to the Griqua, but to which both the Transvaal and Orange Free State laid claim. Britain quickly stepped in and resolved the issue by annexing the area for itself. The discovery of the Kimberley diamond-mines unleashed a flood of European and black labourers into the area. Towns sprang up in which the inhabitants ignored the "proper" separation of whites and blacks, and the Boers expressed anger that their impoverished republics had missed out on the economic benefits of the mines. Long-standing Boer resentment turned into full-blown rebellion in the Transvaal (under British control from 1877), and the first Anglo-Boer War, known to Afrikaners as the "War of Independence", broke out in 1880. The conflict ended almost as soon as it began with a crushing Boer victory at Battle of Majuba Hill (27 February 1881). The republic regained its independence as the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek ("South African Republic"), or ZAR. Paul Kruger, one of the leaders of the uprising, became President of the ZAR in 1883. Meanwhile, the British, who viewed their defeat at Majuba as an aberration, forged ahead with their desire to federate the Southern African colonies and republics. They saw this as the best way to come to terms with the fact of a white Afrikaner majority, as well as to promote their larger strategic interests in the area. 

In 1879 Zululand came under British control. Then in 1886 an Australian prospector discovered gold in the Witwatersrand, accelerating the federation process and dealing the Boers yet another blow. Johannesburg's population exploded to about 100,000 by the mid-1890s, and the ZAR suddenly found itself hosting thousands of uitlanders, both black and white, with the Boers squeezed to the sidelines. The influx of Black labour in particular worried the Boers, many of whom suffered economic hardship and resented the black wage-earners. The enormous wealth of the mines, largely controlled by European "Randlords" soon became irresistible for British imperialists. In 1895, a group of renegades led by Captain Leander Starr Jamesonentered the ZAR with the intention of sparking an uprising on the Witwatersrand and installing a British administration. This incursion became known as the Jameson Raid. The scheme ended in fiasco, but it seemed obvious to Kruger that it had at least the tacit approval of the Cape Colony government, and that his republic faced danger. He reacted by forming an alliance with Orange Free State.

Conflict between the British government, which claimed sovereignty over those areas (since the settlers were legally British subjects), and the Boers culminated, after the discovery of gold in the Boer territories, in the South African War of 1899-1902, which brought Transvaal, led by President Paul Kruger, who had been a prominent Boer resistance leader against British rule, and Orange Free State definitely under British sovereignty. The situation peaked in 1899 when the British demanded voting rights for the 60,000 foreign whites on the Witwatersrand. Until that point, Kruger's government had excluded all foreigners from the franchise. Kruger rejected the British demand and called for the withdrawal of British troops from the ZAR's borders. When the British refused, Kruger declared war. This Second Anglo-Boer War lasted longer than the first, and the British preparedness surpassed that of Majuba Hill. By June 1900Pretoria, the last of the major Boer towns, had surrendered. Yet resistance by Boer bittereinders continued for two more years with guerrilla-style battles, which the British met in turn with scorched earth tactics. By 1902 26,000 Boers had died of disease and neglect in concentration camps. On 31 May 1902 a superficial peace came with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Under its terms, the Boer republics acknowledged British sovereignty, while the British in turn committed themselves to reconstruction of the areas under their control. This had been an Imperial war as forces from all over the British Empire - Canadian, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and British South Africans fought together to defeat the Boers.

Largest Expansion Of Empire

The British Empire underwent several growth ‘spurts’. Its largest expansion was during the Victorian era (1837 to 1901). During the first half of the nineteenth century, expansion of the Empire was mostly in Asiawith the creation of the Indian Empire by 1877 and the annexation of Burma in the 1880’s. Aden was annexed in 1839 and an invasion of Afghanistan was launched during the same year. Britain also established a presence in Malaya and annexed Hong Kong by 1842. The surrounding New Territories were added toHong Kong by a 99-year lease in 1898. Additions were also made to British possessions in Canada, Australiaand India. New Zealand was annexed in the 1840’s and many islands in the Pacific were added to the Empire after the annexation of the Fiji Islands in 1870.

Early 20th century cartoon showing the unity of the British Empire with Britain

1924 Exhibition building                                                                                   1924 Exhibition stamp

Glasgow, Scotland 1938

British Empire Exhibition, Glasgow was an international exposition held at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, from May to December 1938. The Exhibition marked fifty years since Glasgow's first great exhibition, the International Exhibition (1888) held at Kelvingrove Park. It also offered a chance to boost the economy of Scotland, recovering from the depression of the 1930s. Despite 1938 being one of the wettest summers on record, the Exhibition attracted 12 million visitors.

An international football competition, the Empire Exhibition Trophy, was held in conjunction with the Exhibition. Exhibition pavilions were erected on the site, the two largest being the Palace of Engineering and Palace of Industry, and countries in the British Empire contributed their own national pavilions. The Exhibition was masterplanned by Thomas S. Tait, who headed of a team of nine architects, which included Basil Spence and Jack Coia. In keeping with its status, Glasgow had a tradition of holding major events such as the Exhibitions of 1888, and 1901. However, its industrial fortunes had been in decline since the First World War hastened by the depressed years of the 1920s and early 1930s. Concern that Glasgow’s industrial base might fail, rooted in the declining heavy industries, provided part of the impetus behind the Empire Exhibition in which Glasgow’s industries, old and new, would be showcased to the world. 

By 1938 however, British rearmament was well underway in response to threatening political events worldwide. This meant that the traditional heavy industries, including those in Glasgow, had been re-energised in the wholesale production of armaments. In 1938, largely because of this, Glasgow was a city on the move once again with reducing unemployment and rising living standards.

The 1938 Empire Exhibition was the only second one so named to have been held in Britain the other being at Wembley in 1924.

Click on this link for a web site with information about the 1938 Exhibition

Click on the gallery of world maps for British Empire themes below to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

The outbreak of war made the position of Britain in Egypt a difficult one. The situation was met by the declaration of a British Protectorate over the country on 18th December 1914, when the Khedive Abbas Hilmi was replaced by a Sultan. An uprising against the British in Egypt in 1919 required a tactful solution. On the 28th February 1922, the Protectorate was brought to an end, Egypt was declared sovereign and independent, and the reigning Sultan proclaimed King as Fuad I. Britain was allowed to keep troops in the country, particularly to guard the Suez Canal. This was reviewed with a new Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed in 1936 when British troops were reduced to just the Suez Canal Zone. The British High Commissioner in Egypt was replaced by an Ambassador.

1900 Imperial lion drawing to show patriotism towards the Empire

Poster promoting loyalty to the Crown and the Empire from the 1920's

Click to view a video of Empire Day celebrations in the 1920's

Britain's self-governing Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Newfoundland and the Irish Free State, and to a lesser degree, Malta and Southern Rhodesia, enjoyed a large measure of autonomy which was confirmed in the Balfour Report of 1926 and recognised in the Statute of Westminster of 1931. This gave them self-rule while keeping them firmly within the British Empire. India was moving towards joining this group and was granted some limited autonomy in 1935. The Empire was also economically united and self-sufficient. 

Click on this link to view a chart comparing all the countries of the British Empire at its height in the 1920's, including size and population of member countries.

The British Empire reached its widest extent between the two world wars in the period 1918 to 1942. The British Empire was originally overseen in the British Government by two offices – the Colonial Office (responsible for the dominions, colonies and protectorates) and the India Office (responsible for the British Indian Empire and Aden) – each office with its own Secretary of State. The Foreign Office handled diplomatic relations with foreign non-British Empire countries. The Dominions Section of the Colonial Office was established in 1907 to oversee the then newly-created self-governing dominions. As the dominions became more autonomous after the First World War, a separate Dominions Office was created in June 1926 with its own Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs.  

During the immediate post-war years the British focussed their attention on rebuilding the country, in particular the mining industry. By 1907 the mines of the Witwatersrand produced almost one-third of the world's annual gold production. But the peace brought by the treaty remained fragile and challenged on all sides. The Afrikaners found themselves in the ignominious position of poor farmers in a country where big mining ventures and foreign capital rendered them irrelevant. Britain's unsuccessful attempts to anglicise them, and to impose English as the official language in schools and the workplace particularly incensed them. Partly as a backlash to this, the Boers came to see Afrikaans as the volkstaal ("people's language") and as a symbol of Afrikaner nationhood. Several nationalist organisations sprang up. The system left Blacks and Coloureds completely marginalised. The authorities imposed harsh taxes and reduced wages, while the British caretaker administrator encouraged the immigration of thousands of Chinese to undercut any resistance. Resentment exploded in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, in which 4,000 Zulus lost their lives after protesting against onerous tax legislation. 

The British meanwhile moved ahead with their plans for union. After several years of negotiations, the South Africa Act 1909 brought the colonies and republics - Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State - together. Given self-government in 1907, they were formed, with Cape Colony (self-governing in 1872) and Natal (self-governing in 1893), into the Union of South Africa in 1910. German South-West Africa was transferred to the Union of South Africa by League of Nations mandate in 1919 and the territory was absorbed into the Union in 1948. Under the provisions of the act, the Union remained British territory, but with home-rule for Afrikaners. The British High Commission territories of Basutoland (now Lesotho), Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Swaziland, and Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) continued under direct rule from Britain. English and Dutch became the official languages. Afrikaans did not gain recognition as an official language until 1925. Despite a major campaign by Blacks and Coloureds, the voter franchise remained as in the pre-Union republics and colonies, and only whites could gain election to parliament. Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, chartered in 1889, extended British influence over Southern Rhodesia (a colony in 1923) and Northern Rhodesia (a protectorate in 1924); with Nyasaland, taken under British protection in 1891, the Rhodesias were formed into a federation (1953-63) with representative government. Uganda was made a British protectorate in 1894. Kenya, a protectorate, became a colony in 1920; coastal areas forming part of the sultan of Zanzibar's Dominions remained a protectorate. Rhodes’ plan was to create a British state in Africa stretching from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the continent to Cairo in Egypt, known as the ‘Cape to Cairo route’. The Rhodesias had been named after Cecil Rhodes.

Click on the gallery of maps below of South Africa for 1898 to 1914 to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

Egypt made independent

Click on the gallery of world maps for 1837 to 1914 below to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

Cecil Rhodes' 'Cape to Cairo' flag representing his plan for a British state in Africa stretching from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip to Egypt in the north. This was finally completed in 1919 when German East Africa was taken over by a British mandate.

Imperial Federation Proposal

In 1884, the Imperial Federation League was established with the purpose of promoting a Federation of the British Empire governed by an Imperial Parliament with representatives from Britain and the colonies. Firm proposals were drawn up for imperial free trade and for a parliament in London with M.P.'s from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies. It was proposed that M.P.'s from India and other colonies would be added later. The idea of a global inter-continental state was far ahead of its time as international communications and travel were very slow at this time. Joseph Chamerberlain, the Secretary for the Colonies in the early 1900's, was an avid supporter of the idea. However, it was opposed by many Canadian and South African politicians. The movement dissolved in 1911 due to disagreement and the last proposal for an imperial federation parliament was put forward in 1919. However, the movement was successful in getting Imperial Conferences established, which continue today as Commonwealth Conferences. Colonial Conferences in London of leaders of the various parts of the British Empire began in 1887, being restyled as Imperial Conferences in 1911 and continuing as such until 1937. They then stopped due to the Second World War, but then resumed in 1944 as British Empire and Commonwealth Conferences, becoming just Commonwealth Conferences in 1949. Since 1973, they have been held every two years in all different parts of the Commonwealth and are called CHOGM – Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting. Empire Free Trade was established at Ottawa in 1932. After the First World War, the idea of drawing the British colonies closer together in imperial federation faded away to be replaced by greater colonial self-government and cooperation. The last Imperial Federation proposal put forward in 1919:

British Empire Federal Parliament: 300 Seats

England and Wales: 185 seats
Scotland: 25 seats
Ireland: 40 seats
Canada and Newfoundland: 20 seats
Australia: 15 seats
New Zealand: 5 seats
South Africa: 5 seats
West Indies: 5 seats​

Additions to the British Empire 

Britain and her Empire partners were shouldered with these responsibilities: Britain received the mandates for Mesopotamia (later renamed Iraq), Palestine, Transjordan, Tanganyika Territory (for­merly German East Africa), and the Island of Nauru. In addition the mandates for the Cameroons and Togoland were given jointly to Britain and France, and later agreements defined the areas of control. German South West Africa, renamed the South West Protectorate, was placed under the Union of South Africa. All the German Pacific Islands south of the Equator were assigned to Australia, which included the Bismarck Archipelago, the German Solomon Islands, and German New Guinea. North of the Equator Japan was the mandatory Power. German Samoa was given to New Zealand, and its name changed to Western Samoa. The Empire expanded from 1/4 of the world to 2/5 of the world - it's greatest extent ever.​

The end of the nineteenth century saw the ‘Grab for Africa’ with the annexation of large stretches of the African continent. In 1815, Britain had only toeholds in the Cape of Good Hope and in west Africa. In 1882,Britain occupied Egypt and the major African additions soon followed. The Berlin Conference of 1884 was a large meeting of European leaders to decide how to carve up Africa among the European powers. No Africans were represented or had any input. In 1889, Cecil Rhodes established the British South Africa Company which opened up the territory of Rhodesia and governed it until 1923. Throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s, Britain’s west African possessions were expanded and a great north-south corridor of British rule was created up the east side of Africa ultimately connecting the Cape of Good Hope with Egypt under the guidance of Cecil Rhodes and his ‘Cape to Cairo’ plan with the annexation of Rhodesia, Nyasaland, British East Africa, Somaliland and the Sudan. This ended with the annexation of the Boer Republics of theTransvaal and the Orange Free State on the conclusion of the Boer War in 1902. In 1910, these were united with the Cape Colony and Natal to form a new Dominion known as the Union of South Africa. Only German East Africa then stood in the way of the completion of this ‘Cape to Cairo’ corridor. In 1908, Britain laid claim to a large section of Antarctica, immediately south of the Falkland Islands. Australia also claimed part of the Antarctic in 1933.

Fear of further American invasion of Canada led to a movement among leading Canadian colonial politicians for a unified federation of the British North American colonies which would be strong, united, self-governing and could defend itself.  With the British North America Act of 1867, the autonomous Dominion of Canada came into existence with the union of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia with Sir John A. MacDonald as the first Prime Minister. Later, further territories were added until the federal government of the Dominion of Canada controlled all the northern part of the continent, except Alaska, which belonged to the U.S.A. Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, followed by Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 all became provinces of the Dominion. The British Government transferred the Arctic islands in the north to the Dominion government in 1880. The northern parts of Canada remain to this day as territories. Canada gained full autonomy within the British Empire in 1931.  In 1854, Newfoundland was granted responsible government by the British government. Newfoundland remained a colony until acquiring dominion status as the Dominion of Newfoundland on September 26, 1907, along with New Zealand. It successfully negotiated a trade agreement with the United States but the British government blocked it after objections from Canada. In 1927, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London settled the boundary dispute between Quebec and Labrador by ruling in Newfoundland’s favour. In 1934, the Dominion, because of financial difficulties, was obliged to give up its self-governing status and a British Commission of Government took its place. Following World War II, the Commission held elections for the Newfoundland National Convention which debated the dominion's future in 1946 and 1947. Two referenda resulted in which Newfoundlanders decided to end the Commission, and join the Canadian Confederation in 1949 as Canada’s tenth province. Currently, a movement is underway to promote the idea of the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British colony in the Caribbean, to possibly become Canada’s eleventh province.

Click on the gallery of maps below of Canada for 1858 to 1927 to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

When the Netherlands came under French occupation (1793-1815) the East India Company took the opportunity to occupy parts of the East Indies, such as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) annexed to the East India Company in 1796. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles, an official with the British East India Company, established Singapore as a trading post and settlement. In 1818, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was appointed as the Lieutenant Governor of the British colony at Bencoolen. He was determined that British should replace the Dutch as the dominant power in the archipelago, since the trade route between China and British India, which had become vitally important with the institution of the opium trade with China, passed through the archipelago. The Dutch had been stifling British trade in the region by prohibiting the British from operating in Dutch-controlled ports or by subjecting them with high tariff. Raffles hoped to challenge the Dutch by establishing a new port along the Straits of Malacca, the main ship passageway for the India-China trade. He convinced Lord Hastings, the Governor-General of India and his superior at the British East India Company, to fund an expedition to seek a new British base in the region. The British briefly ruled the island of Java from 1811-1816. Bencoolen and Java were recognised as Dutch in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. Britain concentrated on establishing itself further north in Borneo and Malaya.  Raffles arrived in Singapore on 29 January 1819 and soon recognised the island as a natural choice for the new port. It lay at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, near the Straits of Malacca, and possessed a natural deep harbour, fresh water supplies, and timber for repairing ships. Raffles found a small Malay settlement, with a population of a few hundreds, at the mouth of the Singapore River, headed by Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman. The island was nominally ruled by the Sultan of JohorTengku Rahman, who was controlled by the Dutch and the Bugis. However, the Sultanate was weakened by factional division and Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman and his officials were loyal to Tengku Rahman's elder brother Tengku Hussein (or Tengku Long) who was living in exile in Riau. With the Temenggong's help, Raffles managed to smuggle Hussein back into Singapore. He offered to recognise Hussein as the rightful Sultan of Johor and provide him with a yearly payment; in return, Hussein would grant the British the right to establish a trading post on Singapore. 

A formal treaty was signed on 6 February 1819 and modern Singapore was born. When the British government took over from the company, it also acquired the Straits Settlements by 1826, and by 1914, all of Malaya was under British control. Britain gained Hong Kong as a result of the Opium Wars (1839-42) and Kowloon was added to the colony after a second Opium War (1856-58). The surrounding New Territories were added to Hong Kong in a 99-Year lease in 1898. In the same year, Wei Hai Wei, on the northeastern coast of China, was leased by Britain for 25 years. It was returned to China in 1930.

Click on the gallery of maps below  of the East Indies and Hong Kong for 1842 to 1930 to enlarge them. These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera ​

Indian poster promoting support for the British Empire during the First World War​

British Empire Exhibitions

Exhibitions were held in the United Kingdom between the two world wars in 1924 and again in 1938 to promote the Empire and its trading links. They were large fairs held in the summers which attracted millions of  visitors and showed off the British Empire at its height. They included pavillions showcasing nearly all of the dominions, colonies, protectorates and mandates of the Empire representing one quarter of the world which was under the British flag. 

Wembley, London 1924 

It was opened by King George V on St George's Day, 23 April 1924. The British Empire contained 58 countries at that time, and only Gambia and Gibraltar did not take part. It cost £12 million and was the largest exhibition ever staged anywhere in the world - it attracted 27 million visitors. Its official aim was "to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other". Maxwell Ayrton was the architect for the project. The three main buildings were the Palaces of Industry, Engineering and Arts. The Palace of Engineering was the world's largest reinforced concrete building, a building method that allowed quick construction. 

Click on this link for a web site with information about the 1924 Exhibition

South Africa

Click on the gallery of world maps for 1918-1930 below to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD


The Informal Empire

In addition to the British territories around the world, customarily shown in red or pink on maps of the world, there was the British sphere of influence, often known as the ‘Informal Empire’. These were countries which had either been occupied by British troops at one time or had been of strategic or of economic interest to Great Britain. They were independent, but British military and/or economic involvement was significant.  Argentina, in South America, was occupied by the British from 1806 to 1807 in an aborted attempt by Britain to build a South American empire. After the country gained its independence in 1816, many British people continued to settle there and the country was built up on British investment and finance. It has the only Welsh-speaking community outside of Wales. Other South American countries such as Chile and Uruguay were also part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ due to heavy British investment in their economies. Egypt was occupied by British troops in 1882 to safeguard the Suez Canal. The country was declared as a formal protectorate of Britain in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. However, after a nationalist revolt in 1919, Egypt received nominal independence in 1922, but British troops remained in the Suez Canal Zone until 1954.  Afghanistan, on the North-West Frontier of the Indian Empire, was invaded by British troops in 1839. An informal protectorate over the country was declared in 1880 with Britain controlling the country’s foreign affairs, but it was abandoned in 1919 as it was difficult to defend during the Third Afghan War (1919-1921).  Nepal, a kingdom on the northern frontier of India, though never annexed into the Indian Empire, was definitely in the British sphere of influence. The famous Ghurkas in the British Army come from Nepal. Its independence was recognised by treaty in 1923. 

In 1904, the Viceroy of India sent troops into Tibet, immediately north of Nepal, to open up a trade route to China, but this invading force quickly withdrew after meeting heavy resistance. British influence in Tibet did remain for some time. In addition to colonies along the China coast, Britain also had a large area of influence over southeastern China along with France, Germany, Russia and Japan which also had coastal colonies and spheres of influence in other parts of China. British, Americans and French nationals also inhabited the Shanghai International Settelement, a part of the City of Shanghai occupied by foreigners. The Europeans had just carved up Africa among themselves and now they were starting to carve up China. This increasing of foreign spheres of influence over parts of China led to the Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901 in which Chinese nationals attacked foreign properties. This was put down by the armies of the foreign powers. Japan went on to occupy most of eastern China in the 1930's and 1940's. The Chinese Revolutions of 1912 and 1949 helped to end foreign spheres of influence over China.

India was at the heart of the British Empire but it was initially controlled, not directly by the British government, but through the East India Company. This huge company, chartered in 1600, set up a number of factories, as their trading posts were called, and steadily increased its possessions and the territories over which it held treaty rights until its power extended from Aden in Arabia to Penang in Malaya, both vital ports of call for company vessels plying between Britain, India, and China. Robert Clive, the first British Governor of Bengal, established the Company’s great military power. The East India Company was the most powerful private company in history, controlling India partly by direct rule and partly by a system of alliances with Indian princes, maintained by the Company's powerful army. The company's political power was ended by the Indian War of Independence (referred to by the ruling British as the ‘Indian Mutiny’) in 1857. 

The rebellion began with mutinies by sepoys of the Bengal Presidency army; in 1857 the presidency consisted of present-day Bangladesh, and the Indian states of West BengalBihar and UP. However, most rebel soldiers were from the UP region, and, in particular, from Northwest Provinces (especially, Ganga-Jumna Doab) and Oudh, and many came from landowning families. Within weeks of the initial mutinies—as the rebel soldiers wrested control of many urban garrisons from the British—the rebellion was joined by various discontented groups in the hinterlands, in both farmed areas and the backwoods. The latter group, forming the civilian rebellion, consisted of feudal nobility, landlords, peasants, rural merchants, and some tribal groups

Although this revolt was put down, it resulted in the Crown taking over the government of India in 1858; Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India on 1 Jan 1877. India then became known as the Indian Empire and the vice-regal representative was called a Viceroy. The British army fought two wars withAfghanistan (1839-41 and 1878-80) to protect India's northwest frontier and invaded Tibet in 1904. A semi-protectorate existed in Afghanistan from 1880 to 1919 with Britain controlling the country’s foreign affairs.Afghanistan declared full independence during the Third Afghan War (1919-1921). British influence in Nepalbegan in 1857 with the country having a very pro-British king. Nepal’s independence was recognised by a Treaty of Friendship with Britain in 1923. Burma was part of India until 1937. In that year it became a separate British colony.

Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Act for the Better Government of India (1858) made changes in the governance of India at three levels: in the imperial government in London, in the central government in Calcutta, and in the provincial governments in the presidencies (and later in the provinces).

In London, it provided for a cabinet-level Secretary of State for India and a fifteen-member Council of India, whose members were required, as one prerequisite of membership, to have spent at least ten years in Indiaand to have done so no more than ten years before. Although the Secretary of State formulated the policy instructions to be communicated to India, he was required in most instances to consult the Council, but especially so in matters relating to spending of Indian revenues. The Act envisaged a system of "double government" in which the Council ideally served both as a check on excesses in imperial policy-making and as a body of up-to-date expertise on India. However, the Secretary of State also had special emergency powers that allowed him to make unilateral decisions, and, in reality, the Council's expertise was sometimes outdated. 

Suzerainty over 175 Princely States, including some of the largest and most important, was exercised (in the name of the British Crown) by central government of British India under the Viceroy; the remaining, approximately 500, states were dependents of the provincial governments of British India under a Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or Chief Commissioner (as the case might have been). A clear distinction between "dominion" and "suzerainty" was supplied by the jurisdiction of the courts of law: the law of British India rested upon the laws passed by the British Parliament and the legislative powers those laws vested in the various governments of British India, both central and local; in contrast, the courts of the Princely States existed under the authority of the respective rulers of those states.

In Calcutta, the Governor-General remained head of the Government of India and now was more commonly called the Viceroy on account of his secondary role as the Crown's representative to the nominally sovereign princely states; he was, however, now responsible to the Secretary of State in London and through him to British Parliament. A system of "double government" had already been in place in the East India Company rule in India from the time of Pitt's India Act of 1784. The Governor-General in the capital, Calcutta, and the Governor in a subordinate presidency (Madras or Bombay) was each required to consult his advisory council; executive orders in Calcutta, for example, were issued in the name of "Governor-General-in-Council" (i.e.the Governor-General with the advice of the Council). The Company's system of "double government" had its critics, since, from the time of the system's inception, there had been been intermittent feuding between the Governor-General and his Council; still, the Act of 1858 made no major changes in governance. However, in the years immediately thereafter, which were also the years of post-rebellion reconstruction, the Viceroy Lord Canning found the collective decision-making of the Council to be too time-consuming for the pressing tasks ahead. He therefore requested the "portfolio system" of an Executive Council in which the business of each government department (the "portfolio") was assigned to and became the responsibility of a single Council member. Routine departmental decisions were made exclusively by the member, however, important decisions required the consent of the Governor-General and, in the absence such consent, required discussion by the entire Executive Council. This innovation in Indian governance was promulgated in the Indian Councils Act of 1861.

From 1877 until Indian independence in 1947, the British Monarch was known as Queen-Empress or King-Emperor. The Monarch was represented by a Viceroy in India because he or she was an Emperor or Empress in India and was represented by a Governor or Governor-General in the rest of the Empire because there the Monarch was King or Queen. There was also a distinctive India Office and a Secretary of State for India in the British Government. The British colony of Aden on the Arabian Peninsula was also governed by the India Office. The Monarch also had a distinctive crown of India which was worn by King-Emperor George V at his Delhi Durbar in 1911. It was kept with the other British crown jewels at the Tower of London and remains there to this day.

Egypt and Iraq were independent (since 1922 and 1932 respectively) but were in alliance relationships with Britain. The formal treaty between Britain and Egypt was not agreed up on until 1936. At that point, the British High Commissioner in Egypt became the British Ambassador. These alliances with Egypt and Iraq were ended after revolutions in those countries (in 1952 and in 1958 respectively) ousted their pro-British monarchs and replaced them with nationalistic republics. These countries had been re-occupied by the British during World War Two. Colonel Nasser declared Egypt’s full independence on 18 June 1954 when the last British troops left that country. British occupation ended in Iraq on 26 October 1947, but today, British and Australian troops are back in Iraq, since 2003, supporting the United States in an effort to bring order and democracy to that country. 

The First World War

In August 1914, when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany and its allies, all of the British Empire was automatically at war. 

Canadians and Newfoundlanders mainly fought in Europe alongside the British and distinguished themselves in the Battles of Ypres and Vimy Ridge. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was a First World War army corps of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force that was formed in Egypt in 1915 and operated during the Battle of Gallipoli. The corps was disbanded in 1916 following the evacuation of Gallipoli. The corps is best remembered today as the source of the acronym ANZAC which has since become a term, "Anzac", for a person from Australia or New Zealand. South Africans mainly fought in Africa and conquered German East Africa and German South West Africa. The war gave the dominions a sense of nationhood and individuality. Separate Dominion armies and navies, later followed by air forces after the war, were created to help Britain. As far as India was concerned, the war began with an unprecedented outpouring of loyalty and goodwill towards the United Kingdom from within the mainstream political leadership, contrary to initial British fears of an Indian revolt. India under British rule contributed massively to the British war effort by providing men and resources. This was done by the Indian Congress in hope of achieving self-government as India was very much in control of the British. The United Kingdom disappointed the Indians by not providing self-governance, leading to the Gandhiian Era in Indian history. About 1.3 million Indian soldiers and labourers served in EuropeAfrica, and the Middle East, while both the Indian government and the princes sent large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. In all 140,000 men served on the Western Front and nearly 700,000 in the Middle East. 47,746 Indian soldiers were killed and 65,126 wounded during World War. Zones of French and British influence and control in the Ottoman Empire were established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French governments on 16 May 1916.

More than 65 million - that's more than the population of Britain today - fought in the 1914-18 conflict. More than half were casualties: listed wounded, missing in action or killed. There were about 42 million Allies and 23 million within the Axis of Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria. Among the Allies there were 12 million Russians. The second biggest group were the nearly 9 million from the British Empire: 15 African countries, from Basutoland to Zanzibar. Five British Atlantic islands. More than 20 islands in the Pacific and Australasia - from Borneo to Tonga. Ten islands in the West Indies, 2 in the Mediterranean , 5 in the India Ocean plus Canada, India, Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Singapore.

Climax of Empire

The addition of the mandates after the First World War from former German colonies and Ottoman provinces was the last major global expansion of the territory of the British Empire, bringing it to its widest extent. Over one million square miles of extra territory with a population of twenty-five million was added to the British Empire after the First World War - an area nine times the size of Britain itself. Another modest expansion occured after the Second World War when Britain became briefly responsible for former Italian colonies in North Africa. The British Empire remained at its widest extent for thirty years from 1918 to 1948.

Every 24 May was celebrated as Empire Day. This was Queen Victoria's birthday, and since she was Queen when most of the Empire was built up, it was decided to celebrate Empire Day on her birthday. This was a holiday with patriotic festivities celebrated all over the British Empire. This tradition continued until 1958.

1898 Canadian postage stamp expressing pride in the British Empire

Height of Empire 1815-1930

Click on the gallery of maps below of Ireland 1916-1922 and the British Isles in 1930 to enlarge them. These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

Burma (now Myanmar) became a province of British India in 1886 after a series of Anglo-Burmese Wars from 1824. In Borneo, Sarawak was ruled as a personal possession by James Brooke, a former soldier of the East India Company, and the British North Borneo Company acquired Sabah in 1888. The sultanate ofBrunei, which had formerly possessed Sarawak and Sabah (British North Borneo), itself came under British protection in the same year. Labuan, Malacca, Penang, Singapore and the Straits Settlements on and near theMalay peninsula formed the Federated Malay States.

The final large expansion of the British Empire came after the First World War in 1919, when former German colonies in Africa and the Pacific became British, thus completing the British ‘Cape to Cairo’ corridor in Africa, and the annexation of former Ottoman Turkish provinces in the Middle East of Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq). 

After victory by the Allies in 1918, at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the British Dominions insisted on signing the peace treaty separately but were happy to participate in a British Empire delegation. The territories of the defeated powers were divided up among the victorious powers in a mandate system organised by the newly-established League of Nations. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were the British Empire beneficiaries of this. All the territories subject to League of Nations mandates were previously controlled by states defeated in World War I, principally Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The mandates were fundamentally different from the protectorates in that the Mandatory power undertook obligations to the inhabitants of the territory and to the League of Nations. 

The process of establishing the mandates consisted of two phases:

  • The formal removal of sovereignty of the previously controlling states 
  • The transfer of mandatory powers to individual states among the Allied Powers.  

Germany's divestiture of territories was accomplished in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 and allotted to the Allied Powers on May 7, 1919. Ottoman territorial claims were first dispensed with in the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 and later finalized in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. The Turkish territories were allotted to the Allied Powers in the Conference of Sanremo of 1920. While most mandate territories were situated in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the régime was also applied in Europe, notably to the DanzigMemel and Saar territories of Germany which went to a newly-independent Poland. The British Protectorate in Egypt, declared in 1914, was recognised by the international community in 1919, but following a revolution in Egypt during that year, Britain unilaterally recognised Egypt’s independence in February 1922 with some reservations regarding defence and security. The exact level of control by the Mandatory power over each mandate was decided on an individual basis by the League of Nations. However, in every case the Mandatory power was forbidden to construct fortifications or raise an army within the mandate and was required to present an annual report on the territory to the League of Nations. Despite this, mandates were seen as de facto colonies of the empires of the victor nations.

The mandates were divided into three distinct groups based upon the level of development each population had achieved at that time: The first group or Class A mandates were areas formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire deemed to "...have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory."

The Class A mandates were:

  • Iraq – Mosopotamia (United Kingdom), 10 August 1920. 
  • Palestine (United Kingdom), from 25 April 1920 (effective 29 September 1923 - 14 May 1948 to the independence of Israel), till 25 May 1946 including Transjordan (the Hashemite emirate, later Kingdom of Jordan). 

The second group or Class B mandates were all former Schutzgebiete (German territories) in the Subsaharan regions of West - and Central Africa, which were deemed to require a greater level of control by the mandatory power: "...the Mandatory must be responsible for the administration of the territory under conditions which will guarantee freedom of conscience and religion". The mandatory power was forbidden to construct military or naval bases within the mandates.

The Class B mandates were: 

  • Tanganyika Territory (United Kingdom) from 20 July 1922,
  • The former German colony of Togoland was split in British Togoland (under an Administrator, a post filled by the colonial Governor of the British Gold Coast (present Ghana) except 30 September 1920 - 11 October 1923 Francis Walter Fillon Jackson) and French Togoland (under a Commissioner) (United Kingdom and France), 20 July 1922 separate Mandates.

The final group, the Class C mandates, including South-West Africa and certain of the South Pacific Islands, were considered to be "best administered under the laws of the mandatory as integral portions of its territory"

The Class C mandates were former German possessions:

former German New Guinea (Australia) from 17 December 

A major challenge to the Empire came from Ireland, where it can be argued the British Empire began when Henry II declared himself `Lord of Ireland' in 1171. Ireland had been under English rule for 630 years and 120 years as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland since 1801. 

Home rule for Ireland within the United Kingdom had been sought by Charles Stewart Parnell from 1880. Irish nationalist leader John Redmond had achieved the Home Rule Act of 1914 through parliamentary proceedings, but it was shelved due to the outbreak of the First World War. More extreme Irish nationalists had unilaterally declared an independent Irish Republic in 1916 which was formally established in January 1919 when a more extremist party called Sinn Fein which wanted outright independence for Ireland, won all of the seats in Parliament in Ireland, except for the Protestant northern counties. They refused to take their seats and demanded immediate independence. This was followed by the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) with the rest of Britain, which was ended by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The predominantly Protestant counties in northeastern Ireland remained fervantly loyal to Britain. 

Implementation of Irish home rule was resumed after the First World War. However, due to the opposing views of Catholic and Protestant Irish, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 was passed by the British Parliament which established two autonomous provinces in Ireland with home rule within the United Kingdom. The partition of Ireland  between six north-eastern counties and the rest of Ireland took place on 3 May 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The 1920 Act created two jurisdictions on the island :Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland both of which were part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  However, with continued violence and this not being satisfactory in Southern Ireland, further negotiations resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, which took effect exactly one year later.

On 6 December 1922, in accordance with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922, the entire island of Ireland became the Irish Free State, a dominion in the British EmpireBritish forces would withdraw from most of Ireland which was to become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire; a status shared by CanadaNewfoundlandAustraliaNew Zealand and the Union of South Africa. As with the other dominions, the British monarch would be the head of state of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) and would be represented by a Governor General. The National Army of the Irish Free State was established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and fought the Irish Civil War between June 1922 and May 1923 against republican opponents of the treaty. 

The Treaty was given legal effect in the United Kingdom through the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. That Act established, on 6 December 1922, the new Dominion for the whole island of Ireland. Legally therefore, on 6 December 1922, Northern Ireland became an autonomous region of the newly created Irish Free State. However, the Treaty and the laws which implemented it also allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of the Irish Free State. Under Article 12 of the Treaty, Northern Ireland could exercise its opt out by presenting an address to the King requesting not to be part of the Irish Free State. Once the Treaty was ratified, the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had one month (dubbed the Ulster month) to exercise this opt out during which month the Irish Free State Government could not legislate for Northern Ireland, holding the Free State’s effective jurisdiction in abeyance for a month.

On 8 December 1922 the Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland exercised its right in accordance with Section 12 of the Act and presented to the King an Address whereby it opted out of the new Dominion. The making of the Address had been passed in Belfast the previous day. With this, Northern Ireland had left the Irish Free State and rejoined the United Kingdom. If the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had not made such a declaration, under Article 14 of the Treaty Northern Ireland, its Parliament and government would have continued in being but the Irish Free State parliament would have had jurisdiction to legislate for Northern Ireland in matters not delegated to Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act. Northern Ireland had been part of the Irish Free State for two days. The six counties in the north of Ireland chose to remain in the United Kingdom as the province of Northern Ireland, which it continues to be today. Northern Ireland was a self-governing province of the United Kingdom with its own parliament. It had a Prime Minister and a Governor representing the Crown. Northern Ireland was almost a Dominion, but it sent members to the British Imperial Parliament at Westminster as well. In 1927, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was renamed as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which it remains today, to reflect the departure of most of Ireland. The King's title was changed accordingly. 

The Free State had Dominion status but in contrast to the relatively amicable and gradual develvement of the four other existing Dominions, only after centuries of hatred culminating in civil war. A new constitution adopted by the Free State under the leadership of Eamon de Valera in 1937 dropped the name Irish Free State, renaming it as Eire and declaring it to be a `sovereign independent state'. The Governor General was replaced by a President, though Eire was not technically a republic. This was because the principal key role possessed by a head of state, that of symbolically representing Eire internationally remained vested under statutory law, in the British king as an organ of the Irish government. . The break was completed in 1949 when Eire became the Republic of Ireland outside the Commonwealth, though remaining in a special relationship with the now United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and becoming a fellow European Union member. 

The desire for home rule or Dominion status, similar to Ireland, began to grow in the rest of the United Kingdom. A Scottish home rule bill was first presented to the British Parliament in 1913, its progress, along with that of the Irish Home Rule Act 1914, was interrupted by the First World War  and subsequently became overshadowed by the Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence, although the Scottish Office was relocated to St. Andrew's House in Edinburgh during the 1930s. The Scottish National Party was founded in 1934 after the union of two previous nationalist parties and quickly advocated self government for Scotland, probably as a Dominion. Welsh nationalists demanded Dominion Status for Wales also as early as 1934. In 1946, some Ulster Unionists began to consider full Dominion Status for Northern Ireland.

First World War recruiting posters promoting Imperial unity​

Captain James Clark Ross and his Antarctic expedition in 1840.

Captain Robert Scott explored Antarctica for Britain The British National Antarctic Expedition (1901–1904), led by Robert Falcon Scott, came to within 857 km (463 nautical miles) of the South Pole from its base at McMurdo Sound. In 1903, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition established Osmond House, a meteorological observatory on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. A year later, ownership of the base was passed to Argentina and it was renamed to Orcadas Base. It is the continent's oldest permanent base, and, until World War II, the only one present. Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of Scott's expedition, organised and led the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), again with the primary objective of reaching the South Pole. It came within 180 km (97 nautical miles) before having to turn back. during the expedition, Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier and was the first to reach the polar plateau. Parties led by T. W. Edgeworth David also became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole. On December 141911, a party led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from the ship Frambecame the first to reach the South Pole, using a route from the Bay of Whales (his camp Polheim and up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. Amundsen was followed by Robert Falcon Scott from the Terra Nova over a month later, using the route pioneered by Shackleton. Scott's party later died on the return journey after being delayed by a series of accidents, bad weather, and the declining physical condition of the men. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was later named after these two men. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, led by Ernest Shackleton, set out to cross the continent via the pole, but their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed by pack ice before they even landed. The expedition members survived after an epic journey on sledges over pack ice to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others crossed the Southern Ocean, in an open boat to South Georgia to raise the alarm at the whaling station Grytviken. In 1908, a large section of Antarctica south of the Falkland and South Georgia Islands was claimed for Britain.

In 1923, Britain handed over the Ross Dependencies, to New Zealand. In 1924, France laid claim to Terre Adlie. Australia claimed a large chunk of territory in 1933. In January 1939, Norway formalized its claim to Dronning Maud Land (largely to protect its whaling interests and pre-empt the anticipated claims of the German Schwabenland Expedition). Finally, in 1940, Chile became the third country to claim sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula (after Britain and Argentina). Although the United States pursued no claims of its own, the flurry of international land grabbing may have encouraged the U.S. Congress to establish the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1939. From that moment on, the U.S. government assumed almost complete control of American Antarctic exploration. Other countries were soon to follow suit. By the late 1940s Antarctic exploration had entered a new phase, and one not just due to increased government involvement. For the first time in history, permanent bases were established. The British had been the first when they erected their secret bases in the closing days of the Second World War. Once their existence was known, however, the scramble to occupy the continent was on and other countries established bases there as well. These bases remain active in Antarctica today. Previously a dependency of the British colony of the Falkland Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, claimed by Britain in 1908, was established as a separate British territory in 1962. In 2007, Britain claimed 1 million sq km (386,000 sq miles) of seabed off the Antarctic coast in order to protect oil and gas reserves in the area, thus vastly extending its sovereignty over the continent’s coastal areas. This is permitted under the international Law of the Sea Convention.

Click on these British colonial flags circa early 1900's to enlarge them.

Cartoon from 1900 depicting China being divided up by Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan while Chinese anger over the situation grows.

In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention divided Persia (now Iran) into three zones including a British Zone in the southeast, a Russian Zone in the north and a Neutral Zone between them. Afghanistan had also been in the British Sphere of Influence as a virtual protectorate since 1881. It remained so until the Third Afghan War in 1919, when the country proclaimed its complete independence. After annexing Iraq, British troops entered Iran (Persia) at the end of the First World War and an informal semi-protectorate was declared over the country in 1919. A more ambitious plan to create new British Protectorates in the Caucasus region after the fall of the Russian Empire, in Georgia and Azerbaijan, was not pursued. The semi-Protectorate in Iran was abandoned also as unworkable. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company opened up much business between Britain and Iran. The British sphere of influence began to fade after the Second World War, but much British investment remains in countries all over the world. 

Click on the gallery of maps below of British Empire countries following the changes after the First World War to enlarge them. These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD


British Empire in the Middle East mostly lasted for a short time. Britain was interested in securing the trade route to India, particularly after the Suez Canal was built. The British Government wanted to achieve the securing of the trade route to India by annexing territories along the route between Britain and India. It began with the British annexation of Aden in 1839, which was later governed by the India Office. However, the main British interest over the Middle East grew when the British government bought shares in the Suez Canal in 1856. Britain subsequently occupied Egypt in 1882, in which British forces were led by Viscount Edmund Allenby. Cyprus was also annexed.  In 1882 opposition to European control in Egypt led to growing tension amongst native notables, the most dangerous opposition coming from the army. A large military demonstration in September 1881 forced the Khedive Tewfiq to dismiss his Prime Minister. In April of 1882 France and Great Britain sent warships to Alexandria to bolster the Khedive amidst a turbulent climate, spreading fear of invasion throughout the country. Tawfiq moved to Alexandria for fear of his own safety as army officers led by Ahmed Urabi began to take control of the government. By June Egypt was in the hands of nationalists opposed to European domination of the country. A British naval bombardment of Alexandria had little effect on the opposition which led to the landing of a British expeditionary force at both ends of the Suez Canal in August 1882. The British succeeded in defeating the Egyptian Army at Tel El Kebir in September and took control of the country putting Tawfiq back in control. The purpose of the invasion had been to restore political stability to Egypt under a government of the Khedive and international controls which were in place to streamline Egyptian financing since 1876. It is unlikely that the British expected a long-term occupation from the outset, however Lord Cromer, Britain's Chief Representative in Egypt at the time, viewed Egypt's financial reforms as part of a long-term objective. Cromer took the view that political stability needed financial stability, and embarked on a programme of long term investment in Egypt's productive resources, above all in the cotton economy, the mainstay of the country's export earnings. Britain declared a full Protectorate over Egypt in 1914 at the ourbreak of the First World War to protect it against the neighbouring Turkish Ottoman Empire which was allied with Germany. Viscount Allenby became High Comissioner of Egypt, a position of governorship.

An uprising against British control in Egypt in 1919 led to independence for the country in 1922. Egypt was declared independent, but with Britain retaining responsibility for maintenance of communications, defence, protection of European interests and the question of Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 recognised the complete independence of Egypt and the termination of British military occupation. However, it provided for British troops to continue to guard the Suez Canal Zone until the 1950’s. The British High Commissioner in Egypt became the British Ambassador. Egypt had been officially part of the British Empire for only eight years (1914-1922), however British influence remained until after the Second World War.

Middle East

During the First World War, the British encouraged an Arab revolt against the Turks, the Ottomans. The revolt started in June 1916 but most Arabs in the important provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul did not support the British backed leader of the rebellion, the Sherif of Mecca. The revolt was not a success. During this period, the British had invaded Mesopotamia (Iraq) because among other considerations they they believed intervention would stretch German and Turkish resources. In spite of dreadful conditions of heat and disease, they secured southern Iraq. But General Sir Charles Townshend then decided to assault Baghdad. Townshend's army, was defeated and retreated to Kut-al-Amaya where, it was besieged by the Turks for five months when, 9,000 British and Indian troops surrendered. 

In 1917 General Stanley Maude's re-organized the army and took Baghdad. The mandate to stay in Iraq came through the post war treaties when the French were given a mandate to run Lebanon and Syria and the British, Iraq and Palestine.

In 1921 a conference was held in Cairo to decide the future of Iraq. The colonial secretary was Winston Churchill who rightly believed that Britain couldn't afford to defend Iraq and thought if he could show big savings it would help his ambition to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. The conference chose Faisal the Hashemite son of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali as Iraq's first king. T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, was at the Cairo conference - reluctantly perhaps - and supported Faisal from his personal knowledge and friendship. The Cairo Conference introduced a twenty year plan that would let Faisal rule but with British advice. In August 1921 Faisal became king and the British ruled.

The British claim their first colony in Australia and first raise the Union Jack at Botany Bay, New South Wales in 1778. 

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, assisted by Arab tribesmen led by British Colonel T.E. Lawrence, Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq (Mesopotamia) were mandated by the League of Nations to Britain. Colonel Lawrence had promised the Arabs their independence after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, so the Arabs felt betrayed by the British after they found themselves mandated to British rule after the First World War. At that time, many British statesmen believed in creating a vast new British Dominion across the Middle East, however, this proved to be not possible. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised the Jews a home in Palestine. This also infuriated the Arabs.  By the Treaty of Jeddah, signed on 20 May 1927, the United Kingdom recognised the independence of the kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd. In 1932, these regions were unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A semi-Protectorate existed in Iran (Persia) from 1919 to 1921 with an offer of British military and financial assistance; abandoned after being rejected by Iranians. The British mandate in Iraq was terminated in 1932 and the country became an independent kingdom. However, it was re-occupied by the British from 1941 until 1947. Transjordan gained independence as Jordan in 1946 and the State of Israel was declared in a partitioned Palestine in 1948. Aden joined with other British protectorates as the Federation of South Arabia in 1962.

Australia, New Zealand and Oceania 

Click on the gallery of maps below for various British Empire territories until 1914. 

These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

British East Africa which became a protectorate covering roughly the area of present-day Kenya. It grew out of British commercial interests in the area in the 1880s and lasted until 1920, when it became the colony of Kenya. European missionaries began settling in the area from Mombasa to Mount Kilimanjaro in the 1840s, nominally under the protection of the Sultan of Zanzibar. In 1886 the British government encouraged William Mackinnon, who already had an agreement with the Sultan and whose shipping company traded extensively in East Africa, to establish British influence in the region. He formed a British East Africa Association which led to the Imperial British East Africa Company being chartered in 1888. It administered about 150 miles of coastline stretching from the river Tana via Mombasa to German East Africa which were leased from the Sultan. The British "sphere of influence", agreed at the Berlin conference of 1885, extended up the coast and inland across the future Kenya, and after 1890 included Uganda as well. However, the company began to fail, and on July 11895 the British government proclaimed a protectorate, and in 1902 made the Uganda territory part of the protectorate also. In 1902, the East Africa Syndicate received a grant of 500 square miles in order to promote white settlement in the Highlands. The capital was shifted from Mombasa to Nairobi in 1905, and on July 231920 the protectorate became the Kenya Colony. The high ground of the area made it far more suitable for settlement by white colonists than the colonies in the west. Once again, private companies under charter from the British government pioneered the way, establishing their control over Kenya in 1888 and Uganda in 1890. Somaliland came under direct control of the British government in 1884 and in 1890 Germany, which had already relinquished its interests in Uganda, ceded Zanzibar to Britain in exchange for Heligoland, an island off the German coast. After first losing to the Mahdi of Sudan in 1885, then a victory over him in 1898, a condominium between Britain and Egypt was established over the territory, known from then on as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. German East Africa was transferred to British administration by League of Nations mandate, and renamed as Tanganyika, in 1919, thus completing the Cape to Cairo route. Britain occupied and administered Italian colonies of Italian Somaliland and Eritrea from 1945 to 1952. 

Click on this link to view a video of the history of early British colonialism in Kenya from an African point of view


Click to view a chronological list of British Governors in territories of the British Empire 

The Britsh Empire included some famous landmarks all over the world including the Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal of India, Victoria Falls in Central Africa, Niagara Falls in Canada, the Rock of Gibraltar and glamorous cities in the Middle East like Jerusalem and Baghdad. The Empire also included all of the world's major sea gates such as Gibraltar, Suez and Singapore. It was said that the 'sun never set on the British Empire' because it was so big and existed in every part of the world that the sun was shining on some part of it at all times.​

The Victoria Memorial Hall, is a memorial building dedicated to VictoriaQueen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India, which is located in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India - the capital of West Bengal and a former capital of British India

1938 Exhibition building                                                                                                  1938 Exhibition logo​

Visual Of Empire

Videos of the British Empire in the 1930’s and later. Click on the links to view the videos:

Canada (Vancouver & Victoria): 
Hong Kong: 
India (Bombay): 
South Africa: 
East Africa and Indian Ocean Islands: 
New Zealand: 
South Pacific (Fiji and Samoa): 
Royal Visit to Fiji and Tonga: 
West Indies: 
Falkland Islands: 
Aden: ​

The Berlin Conference of 1884 in which representatives of the European powers divided up Africa among themselves based on their own interests. No consideration was given to Africans.

Click on the set of charts below to enlarge it.

The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 to push for greater self-government for India. The first steps were taken toward self-government in British India in the late 19th century with the appointment of Indian counsellors to advise the British viceroy and the establishment of provincial councils with Indian members; the British subsequently widened participation in legislative councils with the Indian Councils Act of 1892Municipal Corporations and District Boards were created for local administration; they included elected Indian members.

The Government of India Act of 1909 — also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms (John Morley was the secretary of state for India, and Gilbert Elliot, fourth earl of Minto, was viceroy) — gave Indians limited roles in the central and provincial legislatures, known as legislative councils. Indians had previously been appointed to legislative councils, but after the reforms some were elected to them. At the centre, the majority of council members continued to be government-appointed officials, and the viceroy was in no way responsible to the legislature. At the provincial level, the elected members, together with unofficial appointees, outnumbered the appointed officials, but responsibility of the governor to the legislature was not contemplated. Morley made it clear in introducing the legislation to the British Parliament that parliamentary self-government was not the goal of the British government. The Government of India Act of 1919 set up further reforms. In the 1920’s, the capital and government of the Indian Empire was moved to a new city called New Delhi. The Government of India Act of 1935 set up the Indian Empire as an autonomous federation with its own parliament, almost as a Dominion. Burma was separated from the Indian Empire in that year and became a separate colony. Aden, near the Persian Gulf, was also governed by the India Office in London.

League of Nations Mandates​

Click on the set of charts below to enlarge it.

At the turn of the 20th century, British India consisted of eight provinces that were administered either by a Governor or a Lieutenant-Governor. The following table lists their areas and populations (but does not include those of the dependent Native States): During the partition of Bengal (1905–1911), a new province,Assam and East Bengal was created as a Lieutenant-Governorship. In 1911, East Bengal was reunited with Bengal, and the new provinces in the east became: Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa

Click on the gallery of maps below of India for 1858 to 1931 to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD

The flag of the British South Africa Company which governed the Rhodesia area until 1923

It was said that the ‘sun never set on the British Empire’ because the empire was so vast and far-flung that it was never out of daylight somewhere. In 1904, celebration of Empire Day throughout the British Empire on 24 May, the late Queen Victoria’s birthday, began. Queen Victoria’s birthday was chosen for Empire Day as she was the sovereign who reigned over the largest expansion of the Empire during the 19th Century and she became the first Empress of India. The Empire Day holiday usually consisted of fireworks, parties, flags and patriotic songs. This lasted until 1958 when it was renamed as Commonwealth Day. In the 1970’s, Commonwealth Day was moved to the second Monday in March to mark a break from the imperial past. Empire Day continues to be celebrated in Canada as Victoria Day.

Berlin Conference

The Berlin Conference (German: Kongokonferenz or "Congo Conference") of 188485 regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period, and coincided with Germany's sudden emergence as an imperial power. Called for by Portugal and organised by Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, is often seen as the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity on the part of the European powers, while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.

Portugal - Britain The Portuguese Government presented a project known as the "Pink Map" in which the colonies of Angola and Mozambique were united. All the countries but United Kingdom agreed with this project. In 1890 the British Government, in breach of the Treaty of Windsor and of the Treaty of Berlin itself, launched an ultimatum forcing the Portuguese to withdraw from this area. 

France - Britain A line running from Say in Niger to Baroua, on the north-east coast of Lake Chad determined what part belonged to whom. France would own territory to the north of this line, and the United Kingdom would own territory to the south of it. The Nile Basin would be British, with the French taking the basin of Lake Chad. Furthermore, between the 11th and 15th degrees longitude, the border would pass between Ouaddaï, which would be French, and Darfur in Sudan, to be British. In reality, a no man's land 200 kilometres wide was put in place between the 21st and 23rd meridian. 

France - Germany The area to the north of a line formed by the intersection of the 14th meridian and Miltou was designated French, that to the south being German.
Britain - Germany The separation came in the form of a line passing through Yola, on the BenouéDikoa, going up to the extremity of Lake Chad

France - Italy Italy was to own what lies north of a line from the intersection of the Tropic of Cancer and the 17th meridian to the intersection of the 15th parallel and 21st meridian. 

The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers still had to take possession under the Principle of Effectivity. In central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary, as for example in the case of Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891. Within a few years, Africa was at least nominally divided up south of the Sahara. By 1895, the only independent states were: Liberia, founded with the support of the USA for returned slaves; Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the only free native state, which fended off Italian invasion from Eritrea in what is known as the first Italo-Abyssinian War of 1889-1896. The following states lost their independence to the British Empire roughly a decade after: Orange Free State, a Boer republic founded by Dutch settlers;  South African Republic (Transvaal), also a Boer republic.

By 1902, 90% of all the land that makes up Africa was under European control. The large part of the Sahara was French, while after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudanremained firmly under joint British–Egyptian rulership. The Boer republics were conquered by the United Kingdom in the Boer war from 1899 to 1902Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish in 1911, and Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912. The official British annexation of Egypt in 1914 ended the colonial division of Africa. By this point, all of Africa, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, was under European rule. Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was occupied by Italy in 1936.


Antarctica, as more and more government officials began to realise the potential strategic, economic, and scientific importance of the last continent, governments began to lay claim to vast tracts of land there, basing their claims on the prior discoveries of their countrymen. The oldest continuously occupied station is the weather station on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys, turned over to Argentina by W.S. Bruce in 1904. This history of occupancy forms a key element of the Argentinean claim to the Peninsula, but the first formal claim over Antarctic territory was made by Britain in 1908 to a large part of the continent south of the Falkland Islands.

The first British explorer to discover Antarctica was James Clark Ross. Between 1839 and 1843 Ross commanded an Antarctic expedition comprising the vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and charted much of the coastline of the continent. The Ross Dependency, a British territory in Antartica, now claimed by New Zealand, is named after him.

Click on the set of charts below to enlarge it.

East Indies  

In Australia, claimed for the British by Captain James Cook, colonization began with the desire to find a place for penal settlement after the loss of the original American colonies. The first shipload of British convicts landed in Australia in 1788 on the site of the future city of Sydney.  The expedition of the Endeavour under command of British Royal Navy Lieutenant James Cook navigated and charted the east coast of Australia, making first landfall at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. Cook continued northwards and before leaving put ashore on Possession Island in the Torres Strait off Cape York on 22 August 1770. Here he formally claimed the eastern coastline he had discovered for the Crown, naming it New South Wales. Given that Cook was a British explorer and his discoveries would lead to the British settlement of Australia, he is often popularly considered its European discoverer, although he had been preceded by many—and by Janszoon in particular—more than 160 years prior. The favourable reports of these lands relayed by Cook's expedition upon their return to England generated interest in its offered solution to the problem of penal overcrowding in Britain, which had been exacerbated by the loss of its American colonies. Accordingly, on 13 May 1787, the 11 ships of the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth, England, bound for Botany Bay. The British Crown Colony of New South Wales started with the establishment of a settlement at Sydney Cove by Captain Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. This date later became Australia's national day, Australia Day. These islands included the current islands of New Zealand, which was administered as part of New South Wales. Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825. New South Wales was opened to free settlers in 1819. Britain formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1829.

Separate colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, New Zealand in 1840, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded in 1863 as part of the Province of South Australia. In 1829, the Swan River Colony was declared by Charles Fremantle for Britain, which later became Western Australia, with Albany coming under the authority of the governor at Perth. Western Australia was founded as a free colony but later accepted transported convicts because of an acute labour shortage. The transportation of convicts to Australia was phased out between 1840 and 1868. In 1853 transportation of convicts was abolished. A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Stockade rebellion in 1854 was an early expression of nationalist sentiment; the flag that was used to represent it has been seriously considered by some as an alternative to the Australian flag. The gold rushes brought many immigrants from Great BritainIrelandEuropeNorth America and China. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs, defence and international shipping. The gold led to a period of great prosperity, but eventually the economic expansion came to an end, and the 1890s were a period of economic depression. Before the end of the century five Australian colonies - New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland - and the island colony of Tasmania had each achieved self-government; an act of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster created the federal Commonwealth of Australia, a self-governing Dominion, in 1901.  New Zealand, annexed in 1840, was at first a dependency of New South Wales.

In 1788, the colony of New South Wales had been founded. According to Captain Phillip's amended Commission, dated 25 April 1787, the colony included all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean within the latitudes of 10°37'S and 43°39'S which included most of New Zealand except for the southern half of the South Island. In 1825 with Van Diemen's Land becoming a separate colony, the southern boundary of New South Wales was alteredto the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean with a southern boundary of 39°12'S which included only the northern half of the North Island. However, these boundaries had no real impact as the New South Wales administration had little interest in New Zealand. In response to complaints about lawless white sailors and adventurers in New Zealand, the British government appointed James Busby as Official Resident in 1832. In 1834 he encouraged Maori chiefs to assert their sovereignty with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1835. This was acknowledged by King William IV. Busby was provided with neither legal authority nor military support and was thus ineffective in controlling the European population.

In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced its plans to establish colonies in New Zealand. This, and the continuing lawlessness of many of the established settlers, spurred the British to take stronger action. Captain William Hobson was sent to New Zealand to persuade Maori to cede their sovereignty to the British Crown. On 6 February 1840, Hobson and about forty Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country to be signed by other chiefs. A significant number refused to sign or were not asked but, in total, more than five hundred Maori eventually signed. The Treaty gave Maori control over their lands and possessions and all of the rights of British citizens. Britain was motivated by the desire to forestall other European powers (France established a very small settlement at Akaroa in the South Island later in 1840), to facilitate settlement by British subjects and, possibly, to end the lawlessness of European (predominantly British and American) whalers, sealers and traders. Officials and missionaries had their own positions and reputations to protect. Maori chiefs were motivated by a desire for protection from foreign powers, the establishment of governorship over European settlers and traders in New Zealand, and to allow for wider settlement that would increase trade and prosperity for Maori.  The practical effect of the Treaty was, in the beginning, only gradually felt, especially in predominantly Maori regions. Having been administered, through 1840 when the treaty was signed, as a part of the Australian colony of New South Wales, New Zealand became a colony in its own right on 3 May1841. It was divided into provinces that were reorganised in 1846 and in 1853, when they acquired their own legislatures, and then abolished in 1876. The country rapidly gained some measure of self-government through the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, which established central and provincial government. Autonomous dominion status as the Dominion of New Zealand was achieved in 1907.

Click on the gallery of maps below of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands for 1825 to 1927 to enlarge them. These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD