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The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. At the peak of its power it was often said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous territories.
- During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires.
- Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia.
- A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain) the dominant colonial power in North America and India.
- The loss of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after a war of independence deprived Britain of some of its oldest and most populous colonies.
- The growth of Germany and the United States eroded Britain’s economic lead by the end of the 19th century.
- After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states.
- By this time, Spain was entrenched in the Americas, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River, later to become New France.
- The British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and the smaller islandsof the Caribbean, and the establishment of private companies, most notably the English East India Company, to administer colonies and overseas trade.
- To ensure that the increasingly healthy profits of this trade remained in English hands, Parliament decreed in 1651 that only English ships would be able to ply their trade in English colonies.
- The American colonies were less financially successful than those of the Caribbean, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants who preferred their temperate climates.
- At the end of the 16th century, England and the Netherlands began to challenge Portugal’s monopoly of trade with Asia, forming private joint-stock companies to finance the voyages—the English, later British, East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, chartered in 1600 and 1602 respectively.
- The 14,000 Loyalists who went to the Saint John and Saint Croix river valleys, then part of Nova Scotia, felt too far removed from the provincial government in Halifax, so London split off New Brunswick as a separate colony in 1784.
- Later, under direct British rule, commissions were set up after each famine to investigate the causes and implement new policies, which took until the early 1900s to have an effect.
- In the process the Voortrekkers clashed repeatedly with the British, who had their own agenda with regard to colonial expansion in South Africa and with several African polities, including those of the Sotho and the Zulu nations.
- Ireland had been united with Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the Act of Union 1800 after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and had suffered a severe famine between 1845 and 1852.
- The Anglo-Irish War ended in 1921 with a stalemate and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, creating the Irish Free State, a Dominion within the British Empire, with effective internal independence but still constitutionally linked with the British Crown.
- In 1922, Egypt, which had been declared a British protectorate at the outbreak of the First World War, was granted formal independence, though it continued to be a British client state until 1954.
- Much of Europe, a continent that had dominated the world for several centuries, was in ruins, and host to the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union, to whom the balance of global power had now shifted.
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