The British Empire was the largest empire in history, larger even than the Mongol empire. It ruled the seas, a fourth of the land and a fourth of mankind. It had more people than even China. It was the top power in the world from Napoleon to Hitler, from 1815 to 1942. The war against Hitler left it broke and worn out and it fell apart in the years that followed.
During the war its wealth and position went to America, a daughter of the empire. Many regard present American world power as the British Empire II. New York and Washington have simply taken the place of London.
Although the rise of industry started in Britain, it did not spread to its empire – most of the empire remained shockingly backward and poor. But by the 1940s industry had spread to Europe, America and Japan. So when war came in the 1940s it found that it was no longer the mighty power that it once had been. The world had changed.
In the old days, land was power. Now it was industry and business. The landed rich of Britain saw this shift in power in their own island in the 1800s and then saw it take place again in the world at large in the 1900s.
The empire was built on sea trade and sea power. For the most part it was made up of ports and countries along the sea from London to Hong Kong.
London was the centre of the empire and world trade. At the time it was the largest port and largest city in the world.
In 1940 the empire had 600 million people. A tenth lived in Britain, two-thirds in India and the remaining 140 million in other parts of the empire.
By 1940 Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were dominions. That meant they were no longer ruled by Britain, but they still worked within the empire in matters of trade and war.
Most of the countries that were once part of the empire are now part of the Commonwealth.
In the late 1600s and 1700s it got rich mainly from slaves and sugar. It lost its American colonies but then became the top power in the West after defeating Napoleon.
In the 1800s it freed the slaves and shifted its attention to India and later Africa. In the 1900s it went broke fighting two wars against Germany.
What the British Empire gave the world among other things: cricket, world trade, parliaments, football, capitalism and English as a world language.
It brought the Christian faith to much of Africa but left Africa and the Arab world weak and divided. It left Hindu India poor but in one piece and so it is much stronger today because of it.
Hitler and Gandhi, more than anyone else, brought the empire down. But it had fallen behind in many ways – in teaching science, in building arms, in spreading industry, in freeing trade – and so it was only a matter of time before it fell.