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When Britain first, at Heaven's command
—James Thompson (1740)
Formerly the world's largest colonial empire, covering a quarter of the globe and roughly the same again of its population. Because of the rotation of the earth illuminating different areas of the globe, it was often stated, and technically true (even today), that the sun NEVER set on the British Empire . That's how big it was. Home of men in red coats and pith helmets, being served tea by the locals.
All that remains now are a few islands, a place with a load of apes-- er, monkeys that the Spanish want back because they took it off them 300 years ago and another place with a load of penguins that the Argentines have strong feelings about.
The British Empire was less brutal than most of the colonial empires and most of its former protectorates, dependencies and colonies are now democracies. Economically, it was a good thing for general economic development as it enforced a free-trade area over a quarter of the globe with no tariffs (zero) in or out of it. Though of course there were tolls and stamp taxes and such. This resulted in a lot of rather lopsided economic development, with some highly-developed areas right next to or in the middle of totally untouched ones. Profit margins, stability and ease of rule determined whether or not an area would be modernised and developed or not; in most cases, the British were content to rule by proxy rather than stirring things up too much by bringing people 'civilisation' in earnest - with the muddled exception of Missionaries, who had a habit of making these arrangements rather awkward.
Though a lot of people look upon it with a sort of disapproving ambivalence, a few countries have far less favourable memories of the British Empire. In the Peoples' Republic of China the Department of Education's textbooks portray the Opium Wars as a fairly clear-cut case of the British wiping out the Chinese army when they objected to the British using China as a dumping ground for opium. And then exploiting China as a market for their manufactured goods, like everyone else. Not quite true, of course - the way foreign investment in China worked out, through the Concession-port system, was actually a pretty good thing for the country's economic development. But yes, it's very easy to make it sound un-equivocably bad. The British have a pretty bad rep in India as well, where they are blamed for pretty much everything that has gone wrong for the last 300 years, when the British East India Company first managed to crowd out the Dutch and French East India Companies and rise to prominence. Technically India was only under British rule for less than a century, after the Rebellion of 1857-8. Although India also saw development and modernisation under the Empire, the unrestrained nature of British trade and investment saw the country develop along rather skewed lines which put them in an awkward position when they tried to adopt protectionist policies in the aftermath of independence. Speaking of which, the Indian nationalist and independence movements were also defined quite specifically in opposition to Britain, and the promotion of Indian nationalism in the 1950s-70s invariably meant embracing anti-English sentiment.
Many historians distinguish between the First and the Second British Empire, with the first being pre-American-rebellion and the Second being everything else. It should also be noted that much of the Empire, being pre-Industrial and often pre-Agrarian, was actually a bit of a money pit, costing a lot more to maintain and control than it generated in profits. 'Empire on a Shoestring', it has been termed.
Replaced by The Commonwealth, where the locals get to make their own decisions, and aren't even ruled by the Queen if they don't want to be. This has caused some Britons to see the empire as their Glory Days.
- Ireland: Although generally not counted as part of the British empire the history of Irish-British relations has been iffy to say the least. Ireland was part of the UK itself during the 19th century and throughout the long shared history of Britain and Ireland there has been a significant population cross over with around 25% of modern Brits having at least one Irish grandparent. Nowadays Anglo / Irish relations are good, but there are certain issues such as Northern Ireland where people should be very, very careful how they approach this topic.
- The Raj: What is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and the Oil Islands . Called the "Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire"; Winston Churchill once noted, "The Indian empire was the finest achievement of the British people". Began after the Indian Mutiny, when Westminster woke up to the fact that CorruptCorporateExecutives make for rather negligent rulers, and from then on steadily got better (famine and negligence would never go away, though) until a certain bespectacled lawyer articulated the view of many wealthy citizens - that said wealthy citizens should continue to rule India, without the British. The most populous, developed and invested-in of all Britain's overseas possessions, it was one of the few Crown possessions that ran at a surplus, hence "The Jewel".
- Bits and pieces of Southeast Asia, largely confined to Malaya, Singapore and Burma (which was in fact governed as part of the Raj until 1937). Sites of brutal battles against the Japanese during the Second World War. Burma gained independence in 1948 and has been renamed by the ruling Junta as Myanmar (though the BBC and most of the rest of the world still calls it Burma.) The others gained independence by the late-1960s, Malaya and Singapore becoming Malaysia then Malaysia and Singapore (which Malaysia still hasn't quite forgiven them for). Oil-rich Brunei is a special case, having remained a British protectorate until 1984.
- Hong Kong: Seized from Qing China during the First Opium War and leased for 99 years after the second; considered in mainland China to have been a convenient mouth for pouring opium into the Chinese throat. One inhabited by traitors to the Chinese nation, at that. Often referenced in economics textbooks as the closest thing to a true 'free-market' economic system the world has ever seen. It was one of the last colonies to leave the Empire, the lease expiring in 1997 - by which time it was such an economic success story that more investment flowed from Hong Kong to Britain than the other way around.
- The British had wide ranging concessions in other parts of China, predominantly along the Yangtze river. The British also leased Weihai on the coast of northern China between 1898 - 1930, mainly to keep an eye on German, Russian and Japanese designs in the region. These were all given up upon Britain's forced entry into the Second Sino-Japanese War, a.k.a. the Pacific Theatre of WWII.
- Bits and pieces of the Middle East: Aden on the southern coast of Yemen at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Gulf States, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and what became the United Arab Emirates.
- League of Nations Mandates: After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, the British came to control Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, nominally on behalf of the League of Nations. Iraq gained independence in 1932, Jordan in 1946 and Palestine (as Israel) in 1948, though not everyone is happy with the arrangement.
- Egypt: British troops occupied Egypt in 1882 and stayed on to guard the route to India via the Suez Canal. Egypt was given nominal independence in 1922 but British troops would remain until 1956.
- The Sudan: Britain's Darkest Africa setting. Notable for the Mahdist wars, in which Kitchener and a young Churchill fought against a fanatical Dervish army led by the Mahdi, an Islamic messiah-figure-thingy.
- British East Africa/Kenya Colony (then pronounced "Keen-yah" as opposed to the modern pronunciation "Ken-yah"). Older British people sometimes still use the former pronunciation.
- British Uganda: Had a railway, scorpions, and the young Idi Amin. It is, occasionally, up for discussion.
- Bechuanaland Protectorate: Now Botswana.
- Rhodesia: Now Zimbabwe and Zambia. Named for Cecil Rhodes, who colonised the region. A national hero in his day, he is occasionally perceived as a somewhat less pleasant individual by modern audiences. This area is still the cause of a whole lot of trouble.
- Was the subject of the autobiography, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.
- Nyasaland: Now Malawi. Explored by Livingstone, we presume.
- West Africa (the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria): Had an unpleasant background as slave stations, although Sierra Leone was actually founded by Freedmen, for Freedmen (even today, the capital of Sierra Leone is still known as Freetown); Britain was one of the first western countries to outlaw slavery and influenced many others to do so.
- Indeed some West African nations (and Zanzibar on the East coast) were brought into the Empire specifically to close down the slave trade at source.
- Mozambique deserves special mention. Colonized by Portugal, it is the only member of the present-day Commonwealth that was not part of The British Empire.
- This now includes Rwanda.
- The West Indies: Welcome to The Caribbean Luv. Included Jamaica and Dominica.
- A seemingly random selection of bits of the Mediterranean grabbed from wars with Spain and Napoleon onwards: Gibraltar, as mentioned above, Cyprus, where the UK still has military bases, and Malta, which after World War Two was considered so patriotically British, parliament actually considered making it a county of England and is the only EU nation other than Britain and the Republic of Ireland to have a branch of the Campaign for Real Ale. Seriously. Try the Milk Stout: It’s good.
- The Dominions: Places which largely ran themselves, and turned out nicely and are still close to Britain (two of them have the Union Jack in their flag). These had and have a majority Anglo-Saxon population, the exception being South Africa.
- South Africa British South Africa is best remembered for the Boer War, which was the cause of South Africa and Scouting.
- Canada eh?, also kept the Union Flag until The Sixties.
- Newfoundland went bankrupt during the Great Depression, voluntarily returned to direct British rule, and later voted to join the Canadian Confederation.
- Australia One of those who kept the Union
- Nauru, which split from Australia in 1968.
- New Zealand The other country what kept the Union Flag.
- A, um, certain country that started out as colonies and, uh, didn't like paying taxes so they revolted. Bit of a shame really, but they seem to have done all right for themselves....
- An unusual case, The United States left the empire before the Conquest of India, which is why it's not often included in the empire classic.
- Historians sometimes refer to North America, and occasionally specifically North America prior to Britain gaining the French colonies in it as the "First Empire", and the "classic" version as the Second Empire.
Works set in The British Empire:
- Many of the Sharpe stories.
- The Flashman Papers.
- Some of the early James Bond novels are set in Jamaica before independence.
- The Jewel in the Crown- Miniseries in the final days of the Raj.
- Pretty much anything (although NOT everything) written by Rudyard Kipling.
- Around the World in Eighty Days (the novel, not the Michael Palin TV series).
- Pirates of the Caribbean.
- The better part of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, mainly due to the League being based in London.
- Axis Powers Hetalia has strips and arcs set here. Which isn't that surprising considering that England himself is running things.
- A few chapters of Gemma Doyle are set in The Raj, and Gemma's lover is Indian.
- The traditional Irish retort was "because God can't trust an Englishman in the dark"
- which are still British and consist of a Joint UK US Airbase and GPS ground station on Diego Garcia (the building of which required evicting and re-locating the locals, possibly unlawfully: the case is still in and out of the courts) and not much else