The Rise and Fall of the British Empire Part 1 (of a 3 Part Series)

Great Britain’s geopolitical role has undergone many changes over the last four centuries. Once a maritime superpower and ruler of half the world, Britain now occupies an isolated position as an economically fragile island often at odds with her European neighbors.

The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated 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% of the world population at the time, ]and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km – 24% of the Earth’s total land area.[4] As a result, its political, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its 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. It then became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company’s conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century.  Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica (“British Peace”), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon(supreme leader) and adopted the role of global policeman] In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain; so that by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the country was described as the “workshop of the world”.  The British Empire expanded to include most of India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. Alongside the formal control that Britain exerted over its own colonies, its dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America..

During the 19th century, Britain’s population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, which caused significant social and economic stresses. To seek new markets and sources of raw materials, the British government under Benjamin Disraeli initiated a period of imperial expansion in Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became self-governing dominions.

By the start of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had begun to challenge Britain’s economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain. Although the British Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world’s pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain’s colonies in East and Southeast Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the decline of the empire. India, Britain’s most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire. The Suez Crisis confirmed Britain’s decline as a global power. The transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire. Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. The United Kingdom is now one of 16 Commonwealth nations, a grouping known informally as the Commonwealth realms that share a monarch – currently Queen Elizabeth II.

Origins (1497–1583)

The foundations of the British Empire were laid when England and Scotland were separate kingdoms, until they united, in 1707. The subsequent Protestant Reformation turned England and Catholic Spain into implacable enemies.

Plantations of Ireland

Although England trailed behind other European powers in establishing overseas colonies, it had been engaged during the 16th century in the settlement of Ireland with Protestants from England and Scotland, drawing on precedents dating back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169.

“First” British Empire (1583–1783)

In 1603, James VI, King of Scots, ascended (as James I) to the English throne and in 1604 negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain. Now at peace with its main rival, English attention shifted from preying on other nations’ colonial infrastructures to the business of establishing its own overseas colonies.  The British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean, and the establishment of joint-stock companies, most notably the East India Company, to administer colonies and overseas trade. This period, until the loss of the Thirteen Colonies after the American War of Independence towards the end of the 18th century, has subsequently been referred to by some historians as the “First British Empire”.

Americas, Africa and the Slave Trade

The Caribbean initially provided England’s most important and lucrative colonies. The colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations successfully used by the Portuguese in Brazil, which depended on slave labour, and—at first—Dutch ships, to sell the slaves and buy the sugar . This led to hostilities with the Dutch Provinces—a series of Anglo-Dutch Wars—which would eventually strengthen England’s position in the Americas at the expense of the Dutch
British Colonies in the Americas, 1763 – 1776

England’s first permanent settlement in the Americas was founded in 1607. 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.
African slaves working in the 17th century Virginia, by an unknown artist, 1670

 From the outset, slavery was the basis of the British Empire in the West Indies. Until the abolition of its slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic. For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay. For the transported, harsh and unhygienic conditions on the slaving ships and poor diets meant that the average mortality rate during the Middle Passage was one in seven.

Rivalry with the Netherlands in Asia
Fort St George was founded in Madras in 1639

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 primary aim of these companies was to tap into the lucrative spice trade, an effort focused mainly on two regions; the East Indies archipelago, and an important hub in the trade network, India. There, they competed for trade supremacy with Portugal and with each other.  Although England ultimately eclipsed the Netherlands as a colonial power, in the short term the Netherlands’ more advanced financial system[ and the three Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century left it with a stronger position in Asia. Hostilities ceased after the Revolution of 1688 when the Dutch William of Orange ascended the English throne, bringing peace between the Netherlands and England. A deal between the two nations left the spice trade of the East Indies archipelago to the Netherlands and the textiles industry of India to England, but textiles soon overtook spices in terms of profitability, and by 1720, in terms of sales, the British company had overtaken the Dutch.

The Role of Jewish Finance

When the Moors conquered Spain, many Jews moved to Spain, and became administrators to the Muslim government. Not long after this, the Talmudic government, the ruling body of the Jewish race, relocated to Spain from the Middle East. In 1492, the Muslim rule of Spain ended, and the Muslims were expelled. Two years later, the Jews were expelled, and dispersed to various other parts of Europe-with the majority going to newly-conquered Constantinople. But, the ruling government moved its headquarters to eastern Poland. Why Poland?. It was to this region that the bulk of the Khazar Jews settled. These Khazar Jews originated from the Caucasus regions- and began their westward migration to central Europe, starting in the 10th century.

The Jewish financial class, as a whole, moved over to Amsterdam. They were soon joined by the top Venetian trading company, the Levant trading Company. They worked together, and over the next 150 years, made the Dutch a powerful force. In 1652, they established the world’s first central bank, the Bank of Amsterdam. By 1660s, these Jewish financiers were successful in toppling the Catholic Stuart Dynasty from the English throne, and replaced him with a Dutch person, whose descendants became the Windsors – the British royal family. Then these two nations, England and Netherlands, were ruled by the same Jewish financial elite.

Global Conflicts with France

Peace between England and the Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two countries entered the Nine Years’ War as allies, but the conflict—waged in Europe and overseas between France, Spain and the Anglo-Dutch alliance—left the English a stronger colonial power than the Dutch, who were forced to devote a larger proportion of their military budget on the costly land war in Europe.[57] The 18th century saw England (after 1707, Britain) rise to be the world’s dominant colonial power, and France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage

Gibraltar (which Britain took from Spain as war booty) became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. During the middle decades of the 18th century, there were several outbreaks of military conflict on the Indian subcontinent, the Carnatic Wars, as the English East India Company and its French counterpart, the French East India Company struggled alongside local rulers to fill the vacuum that had been left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. The Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the British, led by Robert Clive, defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, left the British East India Company in control of Bengal and as the major military and political power in India.  France was left control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, ending French hopes of controlling India. The following decades the British East India Company gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or via local rulers under the threat of force from the British Indian Army, the vast majority of which was composed of Indian sepoys.  The British and French struggles in India became but one theatre of the global Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) involving France, Britain and the other major European powers. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for the future of the British Empire. Along with its victory over France in India, the Seven Years’ War therefore left Britain as the world’s most powerful maritime power.

Loss of the Thirteen American Colonies

During the 1760s and early 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament’s attempts to govern and tax American colonists without their consent. Britain sent troops to reimpose direct rule, leading to the outbreak of war in 1775. The following year, in 1776, the United States declared independence. The entry of France and Spain into the war tipped the military balance in the Americans’ favour and after a decisive defeat in 1781, Britain began negotiating peace terms. American independence was acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783.]
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown – The Loss of the American Colonies marked the end of the “first British Empire”

The loss of such a large portion of British America, at the time Britain’s most populous overseas possession, is seen by some historians as the event defining the transition between the “first” and “second” empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Tensions between Britain and the United States escalated again during the Napoleonic Wars, as Britain tried to cut off American trade with France. The US declared war, the War of 1812, and invaded Canadian territory. In response Britain invaded the US, but the pre-war boundaries were reaffirmed by the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, ensuring Canada’s future would be separate from that of the United States.

  In our next article, we will discuss the rise of the House of Rothschild. We need to do this in order to understand the British Empire. For, by 1820, the House of Rothschild and the British Empire became as one entity, with the British Empire operating at the service of the Rothschild family. To understand either of these two empires, we need to treat them as one, especially in the period from 1815 on. To do them separately will not do justice to the subject matter.

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