British Empire

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Flag of the British Empire
Anthem of Great Britain and the British Empire (God Save the Queen)
The British Empire at its territorial peak in 1921

The British Empire was composed of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It began with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913 the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24 percent of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its constitutional, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, it was described as "the empire on which the sun never sets", as the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.


A replica of the Matthew, John Cabot's ship used for his second voyage to the New World
Fort St. George was founded at Madras in 1639.
Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power.
British territories in the Americas, 1763–1776, extending much further than the Thirteen Colonies on the Atlantic coast
James Cook's mission was to find the alleged southern continent Terra Australis.
The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 ended in the defeat of Napoleon and marked the beginning of Pax Britannica.
An 1876 political cartoon of Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) making Queen Victoria Empress of India. The caption reads "New crowns for old ones!"
British cavalry charging against Russian forces at Balaclava in 1854
During the Second World War, the Eighth Army was made up of units from many different countries in the British Empire and Commonwealth; it fought in North African and Italian campaigns.
... the Pirate said to the king... '...each of you must mind your own business or off go your heads. I’m the only one who minds everybody’s business' ~ Buckminster Fuller
The Rhodes Colossus—Cecil Rhodes spanning "Cape to Cairo"
Henry Every sells his Jewels
The so-called British Empire was a manifest of the world-around misconception of who ran things. ~ Buckminster Fuller
  • "If then, we are a part of the British empire, we must be subject to the supreme power of the state, which is vested in the estates of parliament." Here again, we are to be conjured out of our senses by the magic in the words "British empire" and "supreme power of the state." But, however it may sound, I say we are not a part of the British empire, because the British government is not an empire. The governments of France, Spain, &c. are not empires, but monarchies, supposed to be governed by fixed fundamental laws, though not really. The British government is still less entitled to the style of an empire. It is a limited monarchy. If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They defined a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government's being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend. An empire is a despotism, and an emperor a despot, bound by no law or limitation but his own will; it is a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy. For, although the will of an absolute monarch is law, it must be registered by parliaments. Even this formality is not necessary in empire.
  • Here in this country, although our political divisions were deep, in time of need we were able to transcend them in the interests of the whole community. Throughout the British Commonwealth and Empire there were immense diversities of race, colour, creed, and degrees of civilization, yet the links that united all together, though often intangible, proved strong as steel in the day of trial. This was because, despite many shortcomings and failures to implement fully the ideals which we held, the British Commonwealth and Empire had stood for freedom and justice, and because we had learnt through long centuries the lesson of how to live together without attempting to exact regimented uniformity.
    • Clement Attlee, speech in Carmarthen, Wales (3 September 1943), quoted in The Times (4 September 1943), p. 2
  • When we speak of Empire, it is in no spirit of flag-wagging...we feel that in this great inheritance of ours, separated as it is by the seas, we have yet one home and one people... [G]reat as the material benefits are, we do not look primarily to them. I think deep down in all our hearts we look to the Empire as the means by which we may hope to see that increase of our race which we believe to be of such inestimable benefit to the world at large; the spread abroad of people to whom freedom and justice are as the breath of their nostrils, of people distinguished, as we would fain hope and believe, above all things, by an abiding sense of duty. If ever the day should come when an appeal to that sense of duty falls on deaf ears among our own kin, that day indeed would be the end of our country and of our Empire, to which you and I have dedicated our very lives.
  • Our Empire grew from the adventurous spirit of our fathers... Wherever they went, they carried with them the traditions, the habits, the ideals of their Mother Country... [T]hey never lost that golden thread of the spirit which drew their thoughts back to the land of their birth. Even their children, and their children's children, to whom Great Britain was no more than a name, a vision, spoke of it always as Home. In this sense of kinship the Empire finds its brightest glory and its most essential strength. The Empires of old were created by military conquest and sustained by military domination. They were Empires of subject races governed by a central power. Our Empire is so different from these that we must give the word Empire a new meaning, or use instead of it the title Commonwealth of British Nations... I am sure that none among us can think upon this Commonwealth of British nations, which men and women of our own race have created, without a stirring of our deepest feelings.
  • As we study [the British Empire's] destiny, we are bound to think of it less as a human achievement than as an instrument of Divine Providence for the promotion of the progress of mankind.
  • We [Britain and the Dominions] stand on an equality, and if some foreign critics are disposed to say that standing on an equality means that we are bound to separate in a short time my view is precisely the contrary. My view most strongly is that the British Empire is now a more united organism than it has ever been before, that that organism is held together far more effectually by the broad loyalties, by the common feelings and interests—in many cases, of history—and by devotion to great world ideals of peace and freedom. A common interest in loyalty, in freedom, in ideals—that is the bond of Empire. If that is not enough, nothing else is enough.
  • Except for copper and tungsten in the Rhodesias, oil in Trinidad, and tin in Malaya, the colonial empire's potential mineral riches lay mostly undiscovered for want of large-scale exploratory survey-work. Even in 1925–9 the colonial empire supplied Britain with only 8 per cent of her raw materials. Its under-populated regions, inhabited for the most part by peoples only just emerging from the Stone Age, and even by some tribes hardly yet in it, provided in 1901 only 4 per cent of Britain's export market. Nevertheless it took less than half its imports from Britain, and sent her only 42 per cent of its exports. Malaya...was the only wealthy portion of the colonial empire and the only one whose resources and potentialities had been energetically exploited. It produced 53 per cent of the world's rubber and 55.6 per cent of the world's tin. Yet Britain as late as 1938 drew a fifth of her supplies of rubber from outside her empire, while in the same year Malaya sent only 10 per cent of her exports of tin to Britain. And, although there was oil in Trinidad, Britain took only 36 per cent of Trinidad's exports. Thus while the colonial empire added mightily to the pink on the map of the world, it added little in the way of economic strength to Britain, although the British people perhaps found Gold Coast cocoa comforting at bedtime.
  • The empire, all shades of opinion were agreed therefore, was a high trust, rather than a mere source of wealth and power as our ancestors had seen it. In fact the combination of a cheerfully rapacious colonial past and a post-evangelical conscience gave the British a constant twinge of guilt – not the most effective inspiration of self-confident policy... In this kind of mood, therefore, the thought of deliberately dismantling the empire, or portions of it, entered few heads. Equally there was no systematic attempt to dissect the anatomy of British power in order to determine which parts of the empire, if any, were showing – or could be made to show – a profit. For the British governing classes, true to their upbringing, saw the empire less as a strategic and economic enterprise than as a family estate which they had inherited, and from which derived their consequence in world society... The British governing classes saw the native races of the colonial empire, therefore, rather as old family tenants or cottagers; as a responsibility, rather than as instruments of British power. This attitude, coupled with the universal moralism, determined British colonial policy: the colonial empire existed first and foremost in the interests of its native peoples, not of Britain.
  • British colonial policy between the wars was therefore an essay in altruism. Yet however admirable the British respect for the cultures and personalities of the peoples under their rule, however Christian the British spirit of guardianship, British colonial policy was an absurdity when considered in terms of British power. The colonies were not so much an empire as the field for an overseas Toynbee Hall mission. The contrast with the colonial polices of the French, Dutch and Belgians was striking, for it was the curious idea of these nations that the purpose of having an empire was to make the imperial power richer and stronger... The European colonial empires were great State enterprises, organised and directed from head office in pursuit of clear and logical policies... The British colonial empire in the 1920s, on the other hand, had no "policy" in the French sense: "In my day", a colonial servant of the era told an American inquirer, "we had not all forgotten Aristotle. I was continually asking, "What is the end or object of this endeavour?" But no one could or would give me an answer."
  • The British colonial servants saw their task as one of efficient, fair public administration, of providing justice, law and order: the Roman imperial virtues. They tended to neglect – as did the Colonial Office itself – the modern importance of science and economics, subjects they understandably found alien and somewhat uncomfortable. Thus, although the British showed a far more tender regard for native culture than other colonial nations, British colonies were often backward in research and technical services, for the staffing of which British education in any case made small provision.
  • War tore the guts out of the British empire, weakening it in resources and morale. The first major loss was Ireland.
  • Between 1750 and 1900, Britain became the foremost power in the world, both territorially and in economic terms. An intellectual powerhouse, Britain also became a model political system for much of the world. These changes were connected. Territorial expansion provided raw materials, markets and employment and, combined with Protestant evangelicalism and liberal self-confidence, encouraged a sense in Britain of being at the cutting edge of civilisation. Indeed, empire was in part supported on the grounds that it provided opportunities for the advance of civilisation. This was seen not least by ending what were regarded as uncivilised as well as un-Christian practices, such as widow-burning and ritual banditry in India, and slavery and piracy across the world.
  • In the face of near bankruptcy, and of changing political and public attitudes in Britain, these hopes were indeed misplaced. Instead, there was a major retreat from the empire, a retreat encouraged by the USA which believed that newly-independent countries could be encouraged to be pro-Western. India and Pakistan were given independence in 1947, Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Palestine following in 1948. The Labour government of 1945–51 wished to keep the empire going, notably in Africa, in part to provide economic help for Britain, but it supported an independence for India that greatly lessened the military strength of the empire. In the long-term, the British retreat from empire was to cause problems for the USA and to be closely linked to the Cold War. Indeed, across much of the world, and notably in the Middle East and South Asia, the Cold War took on the character of the War of the British Succession, as Britain’s imperial inheritance was contested. Similarly, after World War One and notably until 1927, challenging British imperial power had been a major theme. For example, in 1948, the breakout of war over the newly-formed state of Israel, as the British Mandate in Palestine ended, provided Stalin with an opportunity. He offered weapons both to Israel and to one of its opponents, Egypt, via Czechoslovakia. This was intended to give the Soviet Union a way into the Middle East, where Britain was the major power. However, despite providing significant amounts of supplies there, especially to Israel, no alliances resulted.
  • The first thing you notice about Mumbai is the first thing you notice about every place the British once occupied, which is how much of themselves they left there. The United States spent over a decade and trillions of dollars in Iraq, and the only physical evidence that remains is a concrete embassy compound, some airstrips, and a sea of steel shipping containers. Maybe because they never considered that they might leave, the British built entire cities out of stone, with railways to connect them. And they did it with reliably good taste. Too often lost in the hand-wringing over the evils of colonialism is the aesthetic contribution of the British Empire. The Brits tended to colonize beautiful places and make them prettier. Bermuda, New Zealand, Fiji, Cape Town—notice a theme? Style wasn’t an ancillary benefit; it was part of the point. Behind every Gurkha regiment marched a battalion of interior designers.
    • Tucker Carlson, “Tucker Carlson's Diary: The Aesthetic Merits of British Colonialism" Spectator, March 3, 2016
  • I hope we may be able sooner or later to federate, to bring together, all these great dependencies of the British Empire into one supreme and Imperial Parliament (cheers), so that they should be all units of one body, that one should feel what the others feel, that all should be equally responsible, that all should have a share in the welfare and sympathize with the welfare of every part. That is what I hope, but there is very little hope for it if you weaken the ties which now bind the central portion of the Empire together. (Cheers.)
    • Joseph Chamberlain, speech in Rawtenstall (8 July 1886), quoted in The Times (9 July 1886), p. 6
  • I venture to claim two qualifications for the great office which I hold, which to my mind, without making invidious distinctions, is one of the most important that can be held by any Englishman; and those qualifications are that in the first place I believe in the British Empire, and in the second place I believe in the British race. I believe that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen.
    • Joseph Chamberlain, speech to the Imperial Institute (11 November 1895), quoted in The Times (12 November 1895), p. 6
  • I believe in a British Empire, in an Empire which, though it should be its first duty to cultivate friendship with all the nations of the world, should yet, even if alone, be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, able to maintain itself against the competition of all its rivals. And I do not believe in a Little England which shall be separated from all those to whom it would in the natural course look for support and affection, a Little England which would then be dependent absolutely on the mercy of those who envy its present prosperity, and who have shown they are ready to do all in their power to prevent its future union with the British races throughout the world.
    • Joseph Chamberlain, speech in Birmingham Town Hall in favour of imperial tariffs (15 May 1903), published in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (1994), p. 7
  • Today, it is the British Empire rather than the United Nations that still provides the unacknowledged, unspoken standard by which most observers measure a country’s success. If we say that Canada, Australia, and the United States are generally successful countries, we say so because they have followed the British model of liberty and free commerce. If we judge a country like Zimbabwe a failure we do so not because it is governed contrary to the majority of countries in the United Nations and not because it is governed contrary to African traditions but because it is governed contrary to British laws and traditions — even as it maintains a pretense of following them.
    • H. W. Crocker III, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire (2011)
  • The starting point for understanding the Arab revolution is an overview of the political and economic characteristics of pre-revolutionary Arab societies. Most Arab nations have authoritarian governments. Students of the region attribute this pervasive authoritarianism to the policies of powerful non-Arab nations, in particular Great Britain and later the US. Before World War I, a number of Arab societies were controlled by the Ottoman Empire (Ibrahim 2006). After the war, Great Britain dominated most of the Arab territories previously under Ottoman control and played a major role in determining that going forward they would be monarchies rather than republics (Gelvin 2012). The monarchies that received British support had vast oil and natural gas resources, like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and what became the United Arab Emirates. The monarchies of Egypt and Jordan, which also received British support, were not as well endowed with oil.
    • James DeFronzo, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements, p. 417-418
  • Why would a democracy like Great Britain support dictatorial monarchies in Arab countries? Many analysts believe that the monarchies which owed their existence and security to Great Britain tended to be very cooperative in providing access to crucial energy resources at reasonable prices and supporting Britain’s global policies. Democratic governments were considered less reliable. Many residents of these countries were hostile to British policies and would likely have elected governments less obedient to Britain if the people had the vote. The same was true in the late twentieth century and the twenty-first century after the US replaced Britain as the prime supporter of the Arab monarchies. Neither Great Britain nor the US nor other democracies reliant on Middle Eastern oil acted as if they wanted Arab monarchies to become democracies. Instead, they assisted the monarchs who denied their people the very political and human rights Britain and America claimed to champion as worldwide goals. This is one reason why Arab populations viewed American and British claims of supporting democracy as blatant hypocrisy.
    • James DeFronzo, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements, p. 418
  • What may be the fate of the Eastern part of Europe it would be arrogant for me to speculate upon... But I am sure that as long as England is ruled by English Parties who understand the principles on which our Empire is founded, and who are resolved to maintain that Empire, our influence in that part of the world can never be looked upon with indifference... The present is a state of affairs which requires the most vigilant examination and the most careful management. But those who suppose that England ever would uphold, or at this moment particularly is upholding, Turkey from blind superstition and from a want of sympathy with the highest aspirations of humanity are deceived. What our duty is at this critical moment is to maintain the Empire of England. Nor will we ever agree to any step, though it may obtain for a moment comparative quiet and a false prosperity, that hazards the existence of that Empire.
  • It has been said that the people of this country are deeply interested in the humanitarian and philanthropic considerations involved in [the Eastern Question]. All must appreciate such feelings. But I am mistaken if there be not a yet deeper sentiment on the part of the people of this country, one with which I cannot doubt your lordships will ever sympathise, and that is—the determination to maintain the Empire of England.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in the House of Lords (20 February 1877), quoted in William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume II. 1860–1881 (1929), p. 994
  • In assuming that peace will be maintained, I assume also that no Great Power would shrink from its responsibilities. If there be a country, for example, one of the most extensive and wealthiest of empires in the world—if that country, from a perverse interpretation of its insular geographical position, turns an indifferent ear to the feelings and the fortunes of Continental Europe, such a course would, I believe, only end in its becoming an object of general plunder. So long as the power and advice of England are felt in the councils of Europe, peace, I believe, will be maintained, and maintained for a long period. Without their presence, war, as has happened before, and too frequently of late, seems to me to be inevitable. I speak on this subject with confidence to the citizens of London, because I know that they are men who are not ashamed of the Empire which their ancestors created; because I know that they are not ashamed of the noblest of human sentiments, now decried by philosophers—the sentiment of patriotism; because I know they will not be beguiled into believing that in maintaining their Empire they may forfeit their liberties. One of the greatest of Romans, when asked what were his politics, replied, Imperium et Libertas. That would not make a bad programme for a British Ministry. It is one from which Her Majesty's advisers do not shrink.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in the Guildhall, London (9 November 1879), quoted in William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume II. 1860–1881 (1929), pp. 1366-1367
  • The British Empire was the nearest thing there has ever been to a world government. Yet its mode of operation was a triumph of minimalism.
  • In 1615 the British Isles had been an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class entity. Two hundred years later Great Britain had acquired the largest empire the world had ever seen, encompassing forty-three colonies in five continents.
  • Between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles to begin new lives across the seas. Only a minority ever returned. No other country in the world came close to exporting so many of its inhabitants. In leaving Britain, the early emigrants risked not merely their life savings but their very lives. Their voyages were never without hazard; their destinations were often unhealthy and inhospitable. To us, their decision to gamble everything on a one-way ticket seems baffling. Yet without millions of such tickets - some purchased voluntarily, some not - there could have been no British Empire. For the indispensable foundation of the Empire was mass migration: the biggest in human history. This Britannic exodus changed the world.
  • .. the nineteenth-century Empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the twentieth century too it more than justified its own existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. And without its Empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.
  • The so-called British Empire was a manifest of the world-around misconception of who ran things, and a disclosure of the popular ignorance of the Great Pirates’ absolute world-controlling through their local-stooge sovereigns and their prime ministers, as only innocuously and locally modified here and there by the separate sovereignties’ internal democratic processes... The British Isles lying off the coast of Europe constituted in effect a fleet of unsinkable ships and naval bases commanding all the great harbours of Europe. Those islands were the possession of the topmost Pirates. Since the Great Pirates were building, maintaining, supplying their ships on those islands, they also logically made up their crews out of the native islanders who were simply seized or commanded aboard by imperial edict. Seeing these British Islanders aboard the top pirate ships the people around the world mistakenly assumed that the world conquest by the Great Pirates was a conquest by the will, ambition, and organization of the British people, Thus was the G. P.’s (Great Pirate's) grand deception victorious. But the people of those islands never had the ambition to go out and conquer the world. As a people they were manipulated by the top pirates and learned to cheer as they were told of their nation’s world prowess. p. 25 These hard, powerful, brilliantly resourceful sea masters... found it necessary to surround themselves with super-loyal, muscular but dull-brained illiterates who could not see nor savvy their masters’ stratagems. There was great safety in the mental dullness of these henchmen. The Great Pirates realized that the only people who could possibly contrive to displace them were the truly bright people. For this reason their number-one strategy was secrecy.
  • What happened at the time of Leonardo and Galileo was that mathematics was so unproved by the advent of the zero that not only was much more scientific shipbuilding made possible but also much more reliable navigation. Immediately thereafter truly large-scale venturing on the world’s oceans commenced, and the strong sword-leader patrons as designing their new and more powerful world-girdling ships...The topmost Great Pirates... developed the comprehensive strategy for running the world for a century to come.
  • The Great Pirate came into each of the various lands where he either acquired or sold goods profitably and picked the strongest man there to be his local head man... If the Great Pirate's local strong man in a given land had not already done so, the Great Pirate told him to proclaim himself king... the Great Pirate allowed and counted upon his king-stooge to convince his countrymen that he, the local king, was indeed the head man of all men -the god—ordained ruler. To guarantee that sovereign claim the Pirates gave their stooge-kings secret lines of supplies which provided everything required to enforce the sovereign claim. The more massively bejewelled the king’s gold crown, and the more visible his court and castle, the less visible was his pirate master... The Great Pirate [ruled]... And when the next bright boy was brought before him the King was to say, “I’m going to make you my Royal Treasurer,” and so forth... Then the Pirate said to the king, “You will finally say to all of them: ‘But each of you must mind your own business or off go your heads. I’m the only one who minds everybody’s business ”... This is the way schools began — as the royal tutorial schools. You realize, I hope, that I am not being facetious. That is it. This is the beginning of schools and colleges and the beginning of intellectual specialization.
  • [W]e believe in the British Empire because it stands for liberty; because it has given us all that we have; because it has protected us all our lives; because it now protects us; because we know that without its protection in this war we should long ago have become a German colony; that our lot would have been that of Belgium.
  • We are loyal to the Empire first and foremost because we are of the British race.
    • Billy Hughes, speech during the 1917 federal election campaign (c. March 1917), quoted in Neville Kingsley Meaney, Australia and World Crisis, 1914-1923: Volume 2 (2009), p. 202
  • The B[ritish] E[mpire] is a sisterhood of nations—the greatest in the world. Look at this table: There sits AfricaEnglish and Boer; there sits CanadaFrench, Scotch & English; there sits Australia, representing many races—even Maoris; there sits India; here sit the representatives of England, Scotland & Wales; all we ask you to do is to take your place in this sisterhood of free nations. It is an invitation, Mr. De Valera: we invite you here.
    • David Lloyd George, recorded in Frances Stevenson's diary entry (14 July 1921), quoted in Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George: A Diary, ed. A. J. P. Taylor (1971), pp. 227-228
  • We are wasting our Empire. It is the richest Empire in the world...but it is an undeveloped Empire... There is no party that has such interest in developing the Empire as the Liberal Party. The strength and unity of the Empire were due to Liberal ideals. But for Liberalism there would have been no Empire... The British Empire stands in the world for peace, for right, for freedom, for fair play. It is the great fair-play Empire of the world... It ought to be the special task of Liberalism to make this Empire stronger, and stronger, and stronger, because it is the hope of mankind today.
    • David Lloyd George, speech to the Lancashire and Cheshire Federation of the League of Young Liberals in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester (28 April 1923), quoted in The Times (30 April 1923), p. 17
  • As far as I can see, it is the only Empire that takes risks for humanity. There are men who fight for the flag, and rightly should do it for their national interest, but this is the one Empire that goes out armed for right, for freedom. It is the interest of Liberalism to make it strong. That I put as one of the chief items of any Liberal policy I would have anything to do with.
    • David Lloyd George, speech to the Lancashire and Cheshire Federation of the League of Young Liberals in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester (28 April 1923), quoted in The Times (30 April 1923), p. 17
  • We weren’t taught Shakespeare or Milton in order to understand our own situation—they were taught as the jewels in Queen Victoria’s crown. The point of the colonial enterprise was that it had all these people to control. Our education was about imprinting on us the greatness of England, the idea that the people who could produce these works were of a superior kind of people...I came to understand that I should separate Shakespeare and all of the rest from Disraeli and Horatio Nelson—that the British Empire is one thing and literature another. I’ll take everything except Kipling. Wordsworth would have been very upset to know that his wonderful poems were being used as a weapon of empire.
  • God of our fathers, known of old—
      Lord of our far-flung battle-line—
    Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
      Dominion over palm and pine—
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget, lest we forget!
    The tumult and the shouting dies—
      The captains and the kings depart—
    Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
      An humble and a contrite heart.
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget, lest we forget!
    Far-call’d our navies melt away—
      On dune and headland sinks the fire—
    Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
      Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
    Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
    Lest we forget, lest we forget!
    If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
      Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
    Such boasting as the Gentiles use
      Or lesser breeds without the Law—
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget, lest we forget!
    For heathen heart that puts her trust
      In reeking tube and iron shard—
    All valiant dust that builds on dust,
      And guarding calls not Thee to guard—
    For frantic boast and foolish word,
    Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
  • England, who had become the greatest of the colonial powers, managed her possessions according to the principles of free trade theory. It was not cant for English free traders to speak of England's vocation to evaluate backward people to a state of civilization. England has shown by acts that she has regarded her position in India, in the Crown Colonies, and in the Protectorates, as a general mandatory of European civilization. It is not hypocrisy when English liberals speak of England's rule in the colonies as being not less useful for the inhabitants and for the rest of the world than it is for England.
    • Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (1922; 1981), p. 207
  • The mere fact that England preserved Free Trade in India shows that she conceived her colonial policy in a spirit quite different from that of the states who entered, or re-entered the sphere of colonial policy in the last decades of the nineteenth centuryFrance, Germany, the United States, Japan, Belgium and Italy. The wars waged by England during the era of Liberalism to extend her colonial empire and to open up territories which refused to admit foreign trade, laid the foundations of the modern world economy. To measure the true significance of these wars one has only to imagine what would have happened if India and China and their hinterland had remained closed to world commerce. Not only each Chinese and each Hindu, but also each European and each American, would be considerably worse off. Were England to lose India today, and were that great land, so richly endowed by nature, to sink into anarchy, so that it no longer offered a market for international trade—or no longer offered so large a market—it would be an economic catastrophe of the first order.
    • Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (1922; 1981), pp. 207-208
  • He hoped he was not a Jingo, but he still felt that the British were the best Colonial administrators of any government in the world.
    • Herbert Morrison, speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton (2 October 1935), quoted in The Times (3 October 1935), p. 7
  • Oliver briefly summarized the royal family’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, established under royal charter. “I do get that people shouldn’t be held personally responsible for whatever their ancestors did,” he said, “but trying to talk about the British role in the slave trade without talking about the monarchy is sorta like trying to talk about Jeffrey Epstein without talking about the monarchy. They are inextricably linked, however uncomfortable they might find that fact.”
    He also reminded viewers of “one of the most brutal atrocities carried out by the British”: the crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion by the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which happened in the first years of Elizabeth’s reign. The Kenya Human Rights Commissions estimates that the British executed, tortured or maimed 90,000 people during the crackdown, and detained 160,000 in barbed-wire camps.
    “We don’t know what the Queen knew – what she is briefed on is kept secret, very conveniently – but we do know what was done in her name, by her government,” said Oliver. “If you’re the symbol of a country, you represent what it does.
    “You can’t say you’re just a symbol and bear no responsibility for how the institutions that you are the head of behave,” he added, pointing to, among many examples, the Church of England’s role in Canada’s residential forced assimilation schools for Indigenous people.
    The royal family, he continued, has “refused to reckon” with why many Commonwealth countries have either left (Barbados) or are considering it (Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize). “Instead, they’ve continued working hard to be perceived as a mere symbol while never taking responsibility for what that symbol excused, all while ignoring calls for true apologies and reparations to those who suffered tremendously because of what was done in their name.”
  • During the colonial epoch, the British forced Africans to sing, ''Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, Britons never never never shall be slaves.'' The British themselves started singing the tune in the early eighteenth century, at the height of using Africans as slaves. “What would have been Britain’s level of development had millions of them been put to work as slaves outside of their homelands over a period of four centuries?” Furthermore, assuming that those wonderful fellows could never never never have been slaves, one could speculate further on the probable effects on their development had continental Europe been enslaved. Had that been the case, its nearest neighbors would have been removed from the ambit of fruitful trade with Britain. After all, trade between the British Isles and places like the Baltic and the Mediterranean is unanimously considered by scholars to have been the earliest stimulus to the English economy in the late feudal and early capitalist period, even before the era of overseas expansion.
  • [The British Empire is] the greatest secular agency for good now known to mankind.
  • [I]f our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British empire would not have been made.
    • Lord Salisbury's remarks to the Cabinet (8 March 1878), quoted in John Vincent (ed.), The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, Fifteenth Earl of Derby (1994), p. 523
  • We are trustees for the British Empire. We have received that trust with all its strength, all its glory, all its traditions; and the one thing we have to care for is that we pass them untarnished to our successors.
  • In our belief, the great empire of England, which we have inherited from our forefathers, concerns all alike, but it concerns those most who depend most for trade and employment upon the constant prosperity of the country. (Cheers.) I do not believe that England, stripped of India, stripped of its colonies, humbled before Europe, would be a happy England for the working classes. (Cheers.) We have received from the self-denial, the heroic actions of our forefathers a great empire. We mean, if we can, to keep it (cheers), to develop it, to strengthen it, to enrich it, and that not in the interests of a class, but of all, and most of all the industrial classes of this country. (Loud and prolonged cheers.)
    • Lord Salisbury, speech in Birmingham (29 March 1883), quoted in The Times (30 March 1883), p. 10
  • The business which brings you here to-day is of a peculiar character, due to the very peculiar character of the Empire over which the Queen rules. It yields to none, it is perhaps superior to all in its greatness, in its extent, in the vastness of its population, in the magnificence of its wealth. But it has this peculiarity which separates it from other empires—the want of continuity. The Empire is separated into parts, and distant parts, by large stretches of ocean, and what we are really here to do is to see how far we must acquiesce in the conditions which that separation causes, how far we can obliterate them by agreement and by organization.
  • The grand success of the British Empire depends not on its having followed any constitutional precedent of the past but on having met a new situation in history with a creation in law; and as a matter of fact the new constitutional system grew empirically and organically out of the practical necessities of the colonial situation.
    • Jan Smuts, quoted in The League of Nations - A Practical Suggestion (1918), pp. 37-38, as cited by W. K. Hancock in Smuts 1: The Sanguine Years 1870-1919, p. 502
  • By the middle of 1940, Hitler had conquered much of central, western, and northern Europe, and had only one enemy: Great Britain. His government was backed by Soviet wheat and oil, and his army was seemingly unbeatable. Why, given the very real gains to Germany of the Soviet alliance, did Hitler choose to attack his ally? In late 1940 and early 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were the only great powers on the European continent, but they were not the only two European powers. Germany and the Soviet Union had remade Europe, but Great Britain had made a world. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany influenced each other in certain ways, but both were influenced by Great Britain, the enemy that defied their alliance. Britain’s empire and navy structured a world system that neither the Nazis nor the Soviets aimed, in the short run, to overturn. Each instead accepted that they would have to win their wars, complete their revolutions, and build their empires, despite the existence of the British Empire and the dominance of the Royal Navy. Whether as enemies or as allies, and despite their different ideologies, the Soviet and Nazi leaderships faced the same basic question, posed by the reality of British power. How could a large land empire thrive and dominate in the modern world without reliable access to world markets and without much recourse to naval power? Stalin and Hitler had arrived at the same basic answer to this fundamental question. The state must be large in territory and self-sufficient in economics, with a balance between industry and agriculture that supported a hardily conformist and ideologically motivated citizenry capable of fulfilling historical prophecies—either Stalinist internal industrialization or Nazi colonial agrariansm. Both Hitler and Stalin aimed at imperial autarky, within a large land empire well supplied in food, raw materials, and mineral resources. Both understood the flashy appeal of modern materials: Stalin had named himself after steel, and Hitler paid special attention to its production. Yet both Stalin and Hitler understood agriculture as a key element in the completion of their revolutions. Both believed that their systems would prove their superiority to decadent capitalism, and guarantee independence from the rest of the world, by the production of food.
  • That the reason the sun never set on the British Empire was that God didn't trust an Englishman in the dark.
    • The Role of the Oceans in the 21st Century (1993), p476.
  • While some studies find that former British colonies have performed better economically and politically than others, virtually none find that colonial rule was itself an effective method of setting up long-term prosperity and stability.
  • Concerning living standards, the Frankema and Waijenburg paper he cites on real wage growth in British colonial Africa 1880 to 1965, which is meant to test the thesis that Africa suffered from impediments to growth due to geography and colonialism, shows instead that both are untrue: “Real wages increased during the colonial era in all of the countries we studied” and that such growth rates “were in line and sometimes even outpaced the growth rate of real wages of unskilled workers in London during the nineteenth century.
  • Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free, How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee? Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet, God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
    • A.C. Benson, set to music by Edward Elgar, 1901.
  • The British colonial empire has done more to fight poverty than all post-war development aid combined.
    • The Good Side of Colonialism: An Interview with Bruce Gilley. The British colonial empire improved the standard of living for many people in the Third World thanks to better healthcare and better agriculture, brought education and infrastructure, connected economies with the rest of the world, offered people opportunities which they wouldn’t otherwise have had, and in many respects brought social, political and economic progress.
  • She stands, a thousand-wintered tree,
      By countless morns impearled;
    Her broad roots coil beneath the sea,
      Her branches sweep the world;
    Her seeds, by careless winds conveyed,
      Clothe the remotest strand
    With forests from her scatterings made,
    New nations fostered in her shade,
      And linking land with land.
    O ye by wandering tempest sown
      ’Neath every alien star,
    Forget not whence the breath was blown
      That wafted you afar!
    For ye are still her ancient seed
      On younger soil let fall—
    Children of Britain’s island-breed,
    To whom the Mother in her need
      Perchance may one day call.

The British Empire in World War I

The Empire Needs Men, WW I
  • The British people realise that they are fighting for the hegemony of the Empire. If necessary we shall continue the war single-handed.
    • Lord Curzon, quoted in King Albert I of Belgium's diary (7 February 1916), cited in R. van Overstraeten (ed.), The War Diaries of Albert I King of the Belgians (1954), p. 85
  • [W]e believe in the British Empire because it stands for liberty; because it has given us all that we have; because it has protected us all our lives; because it now protects us; because we know that without its protection in this war we should long ago have become a German colony; that our lot would have been that of Belgium. We are for the Empire because the Empire is at once our sword and our shield. It is the greatest guarantee of the world's peace, of true civilisation. We are for the Empire because we are true to Australia, to liberty, to ourselves.
  • To be ready for 1918 means victory, and it is a victory in which the British Empire will lead. It will easily then be the first Power in the world. And I rejoice in that not merely for selfish reasons, but because with all its faults, the British Empire is the truest representative of freedom—in the spirit even more than in the letter, of its institutions. We are here representing a great many races. Even in the United Kingdom there are three or four different races, and the Dominions and more especially India, represent a very considerable number of races. Of their free will they have come together to tender spontaneously their assistance to the Empire in this great struggle. That I regard as the triumph of the spirit and tradition of British institutions; and therefore, when I foresee that in 1918, with a special effort on the part of all of us, we shall be able to win not merely a great triumph, but to win it through the agency of the British Empire, I feel that it is worth our while to take steps to organise the Empire now, and to enable it to attain the heights of noble achievement and influence in the glorious task which is set before it.
  • [W]e must profit by the lessons of the war. ... [T]he first lesson it has taught is the immense importance of maintaining the solidarity of the British Empire. (Cheers.) It has rendered a service to humanity the magnitude of which will appear greater and greater as this generation recedes into the past. ... This Empire has never been such a power for good. To suggest that such an organization could fall to pieces after the war would be a crime against civilization. ... The British Empire will be needed after peace to keep wrongs in check. Its mere word will count more next time than it did the last. For the enemy know now what they have got to deal with.

The British Empire in World War II

Over 2.5 million Indians enlisted in the largest volunteer army in history
  • [T]he people of Britain and the Dominions were not much given to self-glorification. We were indeed inclined to a certain self-depreciation which was not always understood outside our own family of nations; but this was an occasion when they might take a proper pride in themselves. The world knew that in the critical time after Hitler's victories in 1940 it was the British Commonwealth and Empire that stood alone in defence of freedom for a whole year. It was British steadfastness that held the line while the forces of freedom were gathering.
    • Clement Attlee, speech to the conference of representatives of the British and Dominion Labour parties in Westminster, London (12 September 1944), quoted in The Times (13 September 1944), p. 8
  • I returned last week...from visiting the Italian front. I was up with the Eighth Army, that Army which will always seem to me to epitomize the unity of our Commonwealth and Empire. I saw there in Italy Canadians, South Africans, and New Zealanders. I recalled talking with General Alexander the great deeds of the Australians. As I saw our lads from all our countries so fine and gallant, I was thrilled with pride.
    • Clement Attlee, speech to the conference of representatives of the British and Dominion Labour parties in Westminster, London (12 September 1944), quoted in The Times (13 September 1944), p. 8
  • So much better known is the war in South-East Asia and the Pacific that it is easy to forget that these theatres were always subordinate to China in terms of the resources committed by the Japanese. China was to Japan what the Soviet Union was to Germany, absorbing the greater part of its military manpower - up to a million men at the peak. In all, 52 per cent of Japanese military personnel deployed overseas served in China, compared with 33 per cent in the Pacific theatre and 14 per cent in South-East Asia. These figures also provide some indication of the relative ease with which the Japanese were able to oust the European empires. By any standards, these were low-hanging fruit. The Dutch colonies were defended by a fleet of 5 cruisers, 8 destroyers and 24 submarines, an air force of 50 obsolescent planes and an army of just 35,000 regulars with 25,000 reservists. Singapore, the supposedly impregnable British fortress, was woefully short of anti-aircraft guns and had virtually no armour. So certain were British planners that the base would face only a naval challenge that its rear was virtually undefended. Even a naval assault might have succeeded, since there was never any serious intention of sending the British fleet east in the event of a war in Asia. Malaya at least had men, altogether around 80,000 Australian, British, Indian and Malay troops. But its air defences were feeble. With good reason the forces of the European empires in Asia have been called 'Forgotten Armies'; in some respects they had been forgotten even before the war began.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 483
  • And [the attack on Pearl Harbor] was merely the opening salvo. Thereafter, Japanese forces fanned out across the Pacific and South-East Asia in a vast centrifugal offensive that achieved breathtaking speed and success. On December 8, the first Japanese troops landed on the eastern side of the Malay peninsula, followed two days later by the rest of General Yamashita Tomoyuki's 25th Army. Naval aircraft based in Saigon smashed the British naval force off Malaya, sinking the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Lieutenant-General Iida Shôjirô's 15th Army stormed up the Kra isthmus into the heart of Burma, routing better-armed but less mobile British forces. British Borneo was invaded on December 16; a month and three days later it surrendered. Hong Kong's garrison of 12,000 held out for barely a week after Japanese troops landed there on December 18; it surrendered on Christmas Day. Meanwhile the 25th Army was advancing down the Malayan peninsula towards Singapore, using bicycles to speed down the well-tended plantation roads. On February 15 Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival and his garrison of 16,000 Britons, 14,000 Australians and 32,000 Indians surrendered, unaware of the exhausted condition of their 30,000 adversaries, who had all but run out of food and ammunition. Here was a humiliation even worse than that of May 1940, and there was more to come. Rangoon fell in March, despite Chinese attempts to assist Burma's beleaguered British-Indian defenders; Mandalay followed on May 1, along with the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. As General Henry Pownall admitted, the British had been 'out-generalled, outwitted and outfought . . . by better soldiers'.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 493

British India

Main article: British Raj
  • English rule has enabled India still to retain her identity and social type; it has awakened her to herself and has meanwhile, until she became conscious of her strength, guarded her against the flood which would otherwise have submerged and broken her civilisation. It is for her now to recover herself, defend her cultural existence against the alien penetration, preserve her distinct spirit, essential principle and characteristic forms for her own salvation and the total welfare of the human race.

British Cape Colony

British Cape Colony
  • When I was in South Africa nothing was more inspiring, nothing more encouraging, to a Briton to find how the men who had either themselves come from its shore or were the descendants of those who had still retained the old traditions, still remembered that their forefathers were buried in its churchyards, that they spoke a common language, that they were under a common flag, still in their hearts desired to be remembered above all as British subjects, equally entitled with us to a part in the great Empire which they, as well as us, have contributed to make...I did not hesitate, however, to preach to them that it was not enough to shout for Empire...but that they and we alike must be content to make a common order to secure the common good. To my appeal they rose. And I cannot believe that here in this country, in the mother country, their enthusiasm will not find an echo. They felt, as I felt, and as you feel, that all history is the history of States once powerful and now decaying. Is Britain to be numbered among the decaying States? Has all the glory of the past to be forgotten? Have we to prove ourselves unregenerate sons of the forefathers who left us so glorious an inheritance? Are we to be a decaying State? Are the efforts of all our sons to be frittered away? Are their sacrifices to be vain? Or are we to take up a new youth as members of a great Empire which will continue for generation after generation, the strength, the power, and the glory of the British race?
    • Joseph Chamberlain, speech in Greenock (7 October 1903), quoted in The Times (8 October 1903), p. 8.

British Kenya

Flag of British Kenya
  • The nutritional status of cohorts born 20 years before and after colonization did not change significantly, during the colonial period expanding health infrastructure, slightly favoring the central region and urban areas, improved the nutritional and health status of most Kenyans. The net outcome of colonial times was a significant progress in nutrition and health. While anti-colonialism is fashionable it is not supported by evidence.
  • Any claim about…the level of colonial violence, requires not just assumptions about the scale of violence that would have occurred absent colonial rule but also a careful measure of that violence relative to the population, security threat, and security resources in a given territory. One is hard-pressed, to take a prominent example, to find a single example of such care in measurement in the vast critical cholarship on the British counter-insurgency campaign against the Mau in Kenya from 1952 to 1960…At the very least, it is incumbent on scholars to show that the brutalities unleashed by the British in this campaign were not the likely result of a proportionate response given the context and scale of the threat. If this supposedly solid case is wobbly, what does it tell us about the lesser ‘violence’ often cited as invalidating colonialism?
  • The Duke of Devonshire... left a permanent mark on British colonial development, by a declaration of policy which brought upon him severe criticism from many quarters. This was in regard to British East Africa—or Kenya, as it was now called. After much thought and full consideration of the hostile reaction which would be caused among the settlers and the Right wing of the Conservative Party, the Duke laid down the principle of "paramountcy". It was formally declared that on any question which might arise where the interests of the settlers and native inhabitants were in conflict, those of the latter must be regarded as "paramount". In 1923 this doctrine, if not revolutionary, was certainly unexpected. Great pressure was brought upon the Duke to withdraw or amend it. But he remained quite firm and, for good or ill, this decision set the pattern of events which culminated in some of the decisions which Governments had to take many years later.

British Nigeria

  • We the Habe wanted them to come, it was the Fulani who did not like it.

Colony of the Gold Coast


Northern Rhodesia


Sierra Leone Colony and Protectorate

  • Between July 1891 and February 1896, no fewer than 62 convictions admittedly representing a small proportion of offences actually committed were recorded against them for flogging, plundering, and generally maltreating the natives.
    • Casement Report, Page 4 Casement cites an example of difficulties he has seen previously in Sierra-Leone to compare this to the situation in the Congo Free State.

The Commonwealth of Australia

  • It is impossible to imagine Australia outside the Empire. Throughout our history we have been sheltered by the majesty and might of the British Navy—our prestige in the councils of the world is the reflection of the light of Britain.
  • We believe in the British Empire because it stands for liberty; because it has given us all that we have; because it has protected us all our lives; because it now protects us; because we know that without its protection in this war we should long ago have become a German colony; that our lot would have been that of Belgium. We are for the Empire because the Empire is at once our sword and our shield. It is the greatest guarantee of the world’s peace, of true civilisation. We are for the Empire because we are true to Australia, to liberty, to ourselves.
  • Australia regards the unveiling of the National Memorial not only as a tribute to her 60,000 dead but as a lasting symbol of that brotherhood of arms and blood which binds the Empire together. They and their brothers in Britain and the other Dominions fought and died to preserve the Empire and safeguard civilisation. They died that we might live as free men. They left us the legacy of liberty and a united Empire. It is for us to treasure their memory not only in the memorial now to be unveiled but in the realisation of those ideals and the maintenance of the Empire for which they gave their lives.

British concession in Tianjin

Map of the concessions
  • Japanese actions during the Tianjin incident is part of its 'new order' policy meant to completely squeeze out British influence in China
    • Watt, D.C. How War Came, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989 page 353.

See also

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