Another evident legacy of the British Empire is driving on the left side of the road. Most former British colonies, with some exceptions, their cars drive on the left side of the road, as opposed to the right which was adopted by the United States of America, Latin American countries and European countries.
However, the story of left or right hand side driving is more than just a derivative of British Imperialism. Right-handedness, a trait shared by 85 to 90% of people, is the reason for the initial preference for left andfor the switch to right side driving.
Throughout the ages, horsemen preferred passing each other on the left side, because this allowed them to hold on to the reins with their left hand while with their right they shook hands with or swords at passers-by (as the situation warranted).
In the late 1700's, teamsters in many countries switched to bigger freight waggons drawn by multiple pairs of horses. They would sit on the left rear horse, thus able to whip with their right hand. This allowed them better vision on their left-hand side, so they preferred the opposing traffic to cross them on the left – meaning they switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road. So nowadays, an estimated 66% of people worldwide live in right-hand side countries, and 72% of all distances are completed while driving on the right side of the road.
Britain was the main exception: smaller wagons meant the driver was able to sit on top of them, not needing to ride one of the horses. British drivers remained seated on the right-hand side, and thus kept driving on the left-hand side of the road. This British custom would be adopted in most if not all British colonies, at least initially.
One of the main promulgators of driving on the right was revolutionary France, at that time Britain’s arch-enemy, thus lending a ‘political’ subtext to this purely practical question. France spread the practice to most of the countries it conquered at the turn of the 19th century.
Even in spite of France’s revolutionary conquests, several European countries other than Great-Britain kept their traffic on the left of the street. Most eventually made the switch to right side driving: Finland (1858), Russia (at the end of the Czarist era in the 1920’s), Italy (1924), Portugal (1928), Austria, Czechoslovakiaand Hungary (all three in the Nazi era), Sweden (1967) and Iceland (1968). One boy broke his leg due to that last European switch. Today, the only European countries driving on the left of the road, excepting Britain, were once ruled by it: Ireland, Malta and Cyprus (including the separate but internationally unrecognised Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus). Ironically, Gibraltar, the last colony in Europe and still ruled by Britain, switched to right-hand driving in 1929. Argentina and Uruguay switched from left to right in 1945 after completion of the Pan American Highway to keep its length on a constant side.
Many former British colonies outside of Europe continue to drive on the left: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong (even though it was returned to right-side driving China in 1997), Australia, New Zealand and the former British colonies in the West Indies, the Pacific and eastern and southern Africa. Colonies of Portugal and the Netherlands opted for the left ‘British’ side of the road due to proximity to British colonies. This may also be why Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, drives on the left: its neighbour is the ex-British, left-driving country of Guyana. Those two countries are the last on continental America to drive on the left. Indonesia, another former Dutch colony, drives on the left possibly because it is bordered by the former British colonies of Malaysia and formerly Australian-controlled Papua New Guinea. Former Portuguese colonies of Macau, East Timor and Mozambique also drive on the left. Mozambique has joined the Commonwealth. Rwanda, since it joined the Commonwealth in 2009, has considered switching from driving on the right to the left like its neighbours to the east.
Many other ex-British colonies did change to driving on the right, as with Gibraltar mostly to conform to the practice on the other side of the border. In Canada, the practice varied between the provinces and territories. The switch to the right side took place from 1920 onwards, to be completed by Newfoundland in 1947, as a result of a recommendation of the Canadian Automobile Association to encourage American tourism in Canada. Until the 1920s, the 10 present Canadian provinces were split 5-5 between driving on the right and the left. Others have noted that Ontario switched from left to right in the 1820s, and B.C. and the Maritimes switched from left to right in the 1920’s. Since 1 December 1922 there had been a problem for automobile drivers who crossed the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick - on that date New Brunswick had switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road, while Nova Scotia remained with the left-side rule. For four and a half months, drivers crossing the border in both directions had to remember to change to the other side of the road, and even with the relatively low traffic levels of that day there were some near - misses resulting from this conflict. All of Canada was driving on the right by the late 1940's. Other cases in point: Belize (1961), the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Burma (1970) all switched from left to right.
Namibia and Samoa, both former parts of the British Empire, recently switched from driving on the right to driving on the left. A national revolt occurred in Samoa due to the confusion resulting from this change.
The introduction of right-side driving sometimes did coincide with anti-British politics. This certainly was a factor in the American switch (the USA went right-side not long after independence, from 1792 onwards). And both on the Channel Islands, occupied by Germany in 1940, as on the Falklands, occupied by Argentina in the early 1980s, right-side driving was imposed, only to be reversed when both territories were reconquered by the British.
In spite of all the preceding, the choice of which side to drive on can not be reduced to a matter of British influence or not. Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and the US Virgin Islands were never British colonies, but today they too drive on the left.
Click on the maps below showing the Commonwealth Future, original Sterling Bloc and which countries of the world drive on the left and which countries drive on the right today. These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD.
Commonwealth of Nations
Of all the countries of the world, the ones with the highest credit ratings (AAA or AA) are mostly Commonwealth countries besides western European countries, China, Japan and the USA, according to Standard & Poor, a foremost credit rating agency. The USA has now lost its AAA rating because of its high debt, being downgraded to AA. The Eurozone countries are also in trouble and may lose their AAA ratings also. However, the main economies of the Commonwealth are stable (including the UK which remains outside the Eurozone) and are maintaining their AAA ratings. Some former British Empire territories not in the Commonwealth today also have high credit scores.
Isle of Man
The British Union Flag (Union Jack) is still prominent around the world and remains officially used in many countries and territories, but their own choice. These are the official flags of these nations, states, provinces and territories today. There are thirty in total all over the world.
The British Empire brought products which we use today into general use including sugar, coffee, tobacco, cocoa and chocolate (from the Americas), tea, rice (from India) and rubber (from Malaya). The development of rubber created today's useful products such as tyres and Wellington boots. Hindi words from India including "bungalow", "veranda" and "pyjamas" also entered the English language due to India's place in the British Empire.
Products and industries of the British Empire were shown on cigarette cards available before the Second World War. They can be viewed by clicking on this link.
Source: Rev. Anthony Hathaway-Taylor's Empire to Commonwealth Project.
Besides having an international sporting event for former British colonies in the Commonwealth Games (British Empire Games until 1954), some sports have become a legacy of the British Empire. The most notable is cricket which is played in every Commonwealth country, though less so in Canada. It is a summer sport in the United Kingdom and a very popular year-round sport in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, African and Caribbean countries. A few non-Commonwealth countries are now getting interested in cricket such as the United States and the Netherlands. Football (soccer) and rugby are also very popular and widely played throughout Commonwealth countries. Football (soccer) is now a global game and rugby, though most notably played in the Unied Kingdom, New Zealand and South Africa, is also played in parts of France. Cricket and rugby are now starting to catch on in Canada which was always distinctly known for hockey. Football (soccer) is now a summer sport in Canada as well as cricket which has been brought into Canada mostly by immigrants from Commonwealth countries such as those in the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Flags and the Military
Obvious visible legacies of the British Empire are flags and the military. Many countries around the world still use flags which contain the British Union Jack besides remaining British Overseas Territories - Australia and its states, New Zealand, Fiji Islands, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, Niue and three Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario). Even the U.S. State of Hawaii still flies a flag containing the British Union Jack to honour its historical connection with the United Kingdom. British flag practice is used throughout all Commonwealth countries. Military and civil flags in Commonwealth countries are based on the British family of ensigns with countries using a white ensign for their navies with their own flags in them instead of the Union Jack, a light blue ensign with a roundel for their air forces, red ensigns containing their own flags in the corner for their merchant and civil shipping and blue ensigns for government shipping. In countries using the Union Jack such as Australia, their own emblems such as the stars of the Southern Cross are placed on the military ensigns. By contrast, in most foreign countries, only the national flag is used on all shipping. Canada no longer has a white ensign for its naval ships, and has adopted the foreign practice of using the national flag on all shipping, but Canada has a white jack for the bow of its ships, similar to the traditional white ensign. Canada does have a light blue air force ensign which is similar to the light blue British Royal Air Force ensign.
Commonwealth countries also have armies, navies and air forces modelled on the British armed forces with similar or even identical uniforms, rank structures and insignia. They identify themselves by placing their own emblems or country names on the British-style uniforms and insignia. The Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force are all modelled on the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Their armies also have British-style regiments. Other Commonwealth countries, including the republics, have their militaries set up similar to the British forces. In 1968, Canada unified its armed forces into a single Canadian Armed Forces with a common uniform and rank structure, but some British traditions remained and others are now slowly being reintroduced in Canada. Separate uniforms for the three branches of the Canadian Armed Forces returned in the 1980's and the British-style 'executive curl' for uniforms of naval officers was restored in 2010. The titles 'Royal Canadian Navy' and 'Royal Canadian Air Force' were resintated in 2011. Despite the adaption of British military practice throughout the Commonwealth, the United Kingdom remains the only Commonwealth country with Royal Marines. Membership in the British armed forces is open to citizens of all Commonwealth countries.
The British Empire has had a huge impact on the world. The most obvious legacy of the British Empire is the English language which has spread all over the world and become the world's international language of business. However, one of the other best legacies of the British Empire is Westminster-style parliamentary government. This collueagal cabinet system with a Prime Minister as head of government, but with the British monarch as head of state represented by a Governor General, or a ceremonial President as head of state. It is a stable system of free and democratic government, with regular elections. The UK Parliament in Westminster, known as the 'Mother of Parliaments', has served as the model for the parliaments of Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa (until the 1960's), India, Jamaica, Malta, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas. Other countries such as the United States of America and some African nations have adopted a different system, such as the US Congress, with a powerful Executive President who is both head of state and head of government.
The very existence of the Commonwealth of Nations today is a positive legacy which grew out of the British Empire. The desire to remain within it or to join it shows the benefits of this association. Another part of government which is a legacy of the British Empire is the shared Crown. Currently, 16 independent Commonwealth member nations all over the world share Queen Elizabeth II as their Sovereign or Head of State. Beside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Queen is also Queen of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, 9 countries in the Caribbean including Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize (actually in Central America), Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and 3 countries in the Pacific including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Theses nations are now all totally independent but share a common allegiance to the Queen by choice, and in each one, except the United Kingdom, the Queen is represented by a Governor General and also by Governors in the Australian states and by Lieutenant Governors in the Canadian provinces. This has come out of the common Imperial bonds which these nations have shared in the past and maintained after independence by their own choice.
Historical Atlas of the British Empire
An overview of left-side driving countries per continent (current and former British territories underlined):
Africa: Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. (off Africa: ) Mauritius, Saint Helena, Seychelles.
Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, East Timor, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand.
In the Carribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Island, US Virgin Islands.
On mainland America: Guyana and Suriname. (off mainland America: ) Bermuda, Falkland Islands.
In Oceania: Australia and dependencies, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand, Nauru, Niue, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Islands, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu.
In Europe: United Kingdom and dependencies (Channel Islands, Isle of Man), Cyprus, Ireland, Malta.
The Imperial system of measurement is another legacy of the British Empire. All countries which are former British colonies used this system until recently. It consisted of pounds, ounces, feet, inches, gallons, miles, pints, etc. In Africa, for example, this system was used in former British colonies such as South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya, while the metric system was used in former French colonies such as Algeria and Ivory Coast. The fact that the United States of America still uses this system is part of its British heritage.
However, after the Second World War, the need to develop trade around the world made Commonwealth countries take the decision to convert to the metric system of measurement, known as SI - Systeme Internationale with its metres, centimetres, kilometres, grammes, kilogrammes, litres, etc. The first recommendation to convert to the metric system in the United Kingdom was made by the scientific community in the 1880's, but this was not acted upon. By the 1960's, the United Kingdom was developing trading links with continental Europe and the decision was made to fully convert to the metric system in 1965. This process was begun with the decimalisation of the British Sterling currency in 1971, replacing shillings and pence with new pence (now just caled pence). The Republic of Ireland also followed suit. A gradual conversion to the metric system for all uses then took place in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Commonwealth countries followed suit and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Jamaica and others began converting to the metric system of measurement. Metrication became a Commonwealth-wide movement. Today, not all former British Empire countries have gone fully metric - some have completed their conversions and others are still slowly changing. The United Kingdom today is predominantly metric, but still has miles on its road signs, while kilometres are now used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. Though these countries have gone metric, Imperial units are still widely used on a personal basis by many of the people.
The United States of America, with its fiercely independent spirit, has remained committed to the old British system of measurement, though it has its own variations of the liquid measurements. The U.S. gallon is equivalent to 3.6 litres, while the British Imperial gallon (formerly used in Canada) was equivalent to 4.5 litres.
Common law (also known as case law or precedent) was developed in England and used throughout the British Empire. It is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals (as opposed to legislative statutes or executive branch action).
A "common law system" is a legal system that gives great precedential weight to common law, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions. The body of precedent is called "common law" and it binds future decisions. In cases where the parties disagree on what the law is, a common law court looks to past precedential decisions of relevant courts. If a similar dispute has been resolved in the past, the court is bound to follow the reasoning used in the prior decision (this principle is known as stare decisis). If, however, the court finds that the current dispute is fundamentally distinct from all previous cases (called a "matter of first impression"), judges have the authority and duty to make law by creating precedent. Thereafter, the new decision becomes precedent, and will bind future courts.
In practice, common law systems are considerably more complicated than the simplified system described above. The decisions of a court are binding only in a particular jurisdiction, and even within a given jurisdiction, some courts have more power than others. For example, in most jurisdictions, decisions byappellate courts are binding on lower courts in the same jurisdiction and on future decisions of the same appellate court, but decisions of lower courts are only non-binding persuasive authority. Interactions between common law, constitutional law, statutory law and regulatory law also give rise to considerable complexity. However, stare decisis, the principle that similar cases should be decided according to consistent principled rules so that they will reach similar results, lies at the heart of all common law systems.
One third of the world's population (approximately 2.3 billion people) live in common law jurisdictions or in systems mixed with civil law. Particularly common law is in England where it originated in the Middle Ages, and in countries that trace their legal heritage to England as former colonies of the British Empire, including India, the United States, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Canada, Malaysia, Ghana, Australia, Sri Lanka,Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, New Zealand, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Cyprus, Barbados, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Namibia, Botswana, Guyana and Israel.