How did Britain manage to acquire an empire?

The British Empire is mentioned several times in your textbook. Here is a text which gives you more information about the growth of the empire.

At the end of the 19th century Britain’s position as the world's greatest imperialist power was uncontested, and the expression "the sun never sets on the British Empire" was coined – meaning, literally, there was always some part of the empire on which the sun was shining, and, figuratively, that the empire would never end. One can understand the thought – after all, between 1880 and 1900 new colonies were added to the empire, and the population of the empire had grown by a third. Through its colonies and dominions, Britain exercised authority over one fifth of the world's entire population.

How did Britain manage to acquire such an empire? It is a complicated story and there are no easy “reasons” or “causes”. One thing is certain: at no time did the government in London sit down and look at a map of the world and say “We want that…and that…that.” Instead, the empire grew in fits and starts. Three basic factors made it possible: people, skills, and resources.

Remnant of Empire: classic British phone booth in Antigua Remnant of Empire: classic British phone booth in Antigua


The people who built the empire often did not mean to: they were simply involved in a whole range of activities which took them overseas to new lands. Explorers explored. Traders traded. Ship-owners and sailors carried trade to and from harbours all over the world. Britain was the world’s leading trader, and even after about 1870 when the USA and Germany had overtaken Britain as industrial nations, Britain continued to be the world’s leading trading nation. Bankers invested money in trading projects. Above all, people emigrated. From 1800 to 1900 Britain’s own population increased fourfold. Earlier, it was feared that emigration might deprive Britain of the people it needed. No one worried about this with such a huge population increase at home. Between 1815 and 1880, about 12 million Britons emigrated, most of them either to British colonies or to the USA.



The skills were primarily sailing skills, financial skills, medical skills and technological skills. Sailing skills made it possible to reach places all over the world. Financial skills allowed the City of London to lend money to traders and others. Medical skills reduced the dangers of tropical diseases. Technological skills – notably the production of trains, steamships and underwater and overland telegraph – shortened distances that had once seemed unmanageable.



The resources were ships to cross oceans and steamboats to sail up rivers and money that could be invested by the City of London in all sorts of commercial operations – England was the first country to develop a modern financial and banking system. The industrial revolution gave Britain low-cost, factory-made goods for which it wanted world markets. If and when things got difficult, there were military resources to protect the British traders: a navy that was the world’s strongest, and soldiers that could be stationed overseas.

None of these factors – people, skills, resources – alone explains the growth of the empire, and most historians today reject the belief that a single theory can account for the growth of the British empire; instead, they study the edges and corners of the empire and recognise how different the story was in different places.


Ruling the waves

Trade and naval power went hand in hand in the sense that the navy could send a warship to any British “interests” that were in trouble, or two warships, or a garrison of soldiers who could build a fort. This was the period when Britain’s navy “ruled the waves” and could control sea traffic almost anywhere in the world, fighting off competitors like Holland and France, and at times using a form of piracy, such as when warships were sent up Chinese rivers to force China to import opium. The best example of empire building is India, where, until the 1850s, trade was organised and protected by a series of arrangements with local elites by which the East India trading company “ran” parts of India. Britain chose to take over the government of India after 1858, when the Indian Mutiny collapsed. India became the most important colony – the “jewel” in the imperial crown. To ensure safe access to India, Britain established control over a series of ports and islands on the sea route. This, too, was typical. Many outposts of the empire were established to protect trading routes and to provide coaling-stations for naval ships.

Once direct imperialism was the chosen policy for any part of the world, it was not half-hearted. British officials took over government; British engineers took over major construction projects such as sewage systems for towns and railway systems; British administrators organised local government, and so on. Clearly, with this sort of commitment, Britain’s impact on its colonies was enormous and lasting.