- Molly Ward
The British Empire, Explained
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
The expansion of the British Empire is not always as positive as history has stated. From
the fifteenth century until the end of the Second World War, Britain inflicted control over
emerging nations through exploration, exploitation, oppression and violence.
It is true that Europeans began to explore by sea to find ‘New Worlds', but something
that is missed out from the dominant historical narrative is that these worlds were
already inhabited by the native communities. European explorers used their
wealth and fire-power to overrule native communities and control natural resources for
their own gain.
1497: The Building
The early stages of the British Empire began in 1497 with explorers being sent (by the royal request of Henry VII) to ‘privateer’ on Spanish ports in the Americas. The practice of ‘privateering’, meant stealing treasures, materials and enslaved people, in this case from Spanish and Portuguese ships.
Furthermore, such raids brought treasures like dyes, gold and sugar back from the New
World through exploitation of natural resources and communities. These actions were
taken to ensure that the English were reached the same level of economic success as
the Spanish and Portuguese, who had already begun expanding their overseas
To find out more about how this process actually worked, head to our Guide: British Colonialism.
16th - 17th Century: The Expansion
Between 1502 and 1554, English explorers were commissioned in search of new lands and
resources to occupy. Within this time frame, English forces established their own trade
networks and communities within Caribbean and Asian areas in an attempt to
compete with the authority they had witnessed Spanish and Portuguese forces
In 1556, Ireland became the first official British overseas colony. English forces began
confiscating plantations as a way to control the population through their food supply,
land ownership and economic advancement.
The British settlement in Ireland was a ploy to resettle the Protestant population who
were persecuted by the Catholic rulers. Such resettlement of populations became a
frequent tactic in the expansion of the British Empire as the years passed in order to
exert British control and ‘anglicise’ insecure foreign government structures. The land on
which the English were settling was forcibly confiscated from the Irish clans who
formally had jurisdiction of the areas by armed British forces.
Under the reign of Elizabeth I, Britain began its involvement within the slave trade
between the New World in the Americas and West Africa from 1562. British privateers
violently oppressed the native Caribbean and African populations. The success in the
trading of resources that was developed as a result of the enslavement of native
peoples advanced British global and economic status.
Want to find out more about Britain's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade? Head to our Guide.
In the same year, Britain inflicted violent raids on other European forces in order to
compete within the global economy. It is evident that the foundations of the British
Empire are firmly cast in violence and exploitation.
From 1597 to 1788, English Parliament created Acts of Parliament granting the
transportation of British communities to overseas colonies. As evident throughout the
history of the British Empire, this method of colonisation was a method of establishing
control by overpowering native structures of government with British communities and
By 1788 the resettlement of British populations in foreign countries had turned into
resettling criminals in Australia. ‘Penal transportation’, the transportation of criminals,
became a key motivation for the expansion of the British Empire. As a result Ireland,
Australia and North America had become dumping grounds for British criminals.
By formulating trade monopolies such as the East India Company in 1600, Britain were
able to maintain their dominance and jurisdiction over their colonies. The trading of
cotton, silks, dyes, tea and opium between India, the Persian Gulf and East Asia ensured
the company were at the pinnacle position of trading throughout the world.
The seventeenth century was when the real expansion of the British Empire can be seen
to be documented. Throughout the century, British explorers found themselves occupying their own territories outside of England in North America, Caribbean Islands and India.
1607 saw the first permanent settlement of a British community in North America in
Jamestown, Virginia. Alongside the exploitation of natural resources, resettling of
populations and violent tactics used to ensure control over this area. British
resettlement was sustained because of the wiping out of the Native American
population. Some settlers were infected with smallpox, which European immune
systems were used to, but which Native Americans had never been exposed to before.
The spread of small pox from 1617-1618 amongst Native American communities wiped
out up to 90% of the indigenous population.
The Caribbean saw itself subject to the exploitation of their natural resources in the
form of cotton and sugar plantations, but also of their people. Between 1623 and 1628
the British settled in St. Kitts, Barbados and Nevis whilst continuing their exploration
around the globe. The Caribbean Islands and their resources were used to ensure the
survival of British settlements without regard for their native populations. For example,
sugar plantations in Barbados which were set up by James Drax helped the British
Empire and helped them to sustain the wealth to expand.
As British wealth accumulated, the Empire began to expand significantly.
Additionally, the British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar gave the Royal Navy control of
the seas, and more authority in the accumulation of foreign territories. Between the
continued transportation of prisoners to Australia in 1788 and the occupation of Cape of
Good Hope in 1806 and Sierra Leone, Gambia and British West Africa in 1821, the British
Empire had expanded threefold and made up a large majority of the globe.
19th - 20th Century: The Downfall
The sheer size of the British Empire was the reason for its downfall, as it was effectively
impossible to effectively govern and control all overseas territories from London. As a
result, when rebellion struck, Britains territories were nearly always dismantled. During
the Opium Wars in 1839 and the Maori revolt in 1843, the lack of easy communication
with British bases within the colonies meant that when native populations began to
fight against their oppression, the British could not always put up an adequate defence.
The true demise of the British Empire came after the Second World War, as Britain
could not afford to maintain the needs of its own population while also fighting to
maintain its colonies.
From natural resources to populations themselves, the British Empire built itself on
accumulating the wealth of other nations and passing it off as its own. When the
money ran out, so did any hope of continuing to exert control over Britain’s colonial
Remember to check out our British History & Revisionism section for more articles and guides on the topics school probably should have taught you.