Between the late eighteenth century and the era of ‘‘new imperialism’’ starting in the 1870s, Britain did not experience serious competition from other European powers in its empire-building efforts. However, France started to recover from its internal problems in the middle of the nineteenth century. And the German unification of 1871 created another global player longing for colonial expansion. Italy developed similar ambitions. Internal rivalries between these powers made them overambitious colonizers and heralded the period of ‘‘new imperialism.’’
But the more accessible and economically attractive parts of the world had already been colonized (or even decolonized)—only most of Africa and large parts of the Pacific had been spared as yet. Thus began what has been aptly described as the ‘‘Scramble for Africa.’’ The major European powers started to occupy territories in Africa. Britain secured control over the Suez Canal by occupying Egypt in 1882. Most of southern Africa, modern Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Nigeria, and the Gold Coast in western Africa followed.
During the partition of Africa, European rivalry manifested itself in numerous crises. French and British interests, for instance, clashed in the Fashoda Incident of 1898 when both countries strove to establish themselves in Sudan and complete their north-to-south (British) or west-to-east (French) territorial connections. Outside Africa, Britain’s adoption of new imperialism led to the complete occupation of Burma in 1885 and its annexation to British India in 1886.
While the era of new imperialism saw the establishment of formal British control over wide parts of Africa and imperial expansion in Asia and the Pacific, a first devolution of power took place in the white settler colonies of North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Self-government had already been granted to most of these colonies when the British North America Act raised Canada to dominion status in 1867. The federations of Australia and South Africa (including the self-governing territories of the Orange Free State and Transvaal) acquired dominion status in 1901 and 1910, respectively. New Zealand had chosen not to join the Australian federation and was made a dominion in 1907. However, the motherland retained legislative authority over the dominions (consolidated by the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865) until the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1931. The dominions’ foreign relations were also centrally administered through the Foreign Office in London, and the British monarch remained the head of state in the dominions.
Britain had not seriously resisted the settlement colonies’ pursuit of home rule. On the contrary, in an empire of free trade it feared little economic loss and anticipated financial relief due to lower administration costs. However, in its colonies of domination the empire fiercely clung to direct control and was little willing to devolve power.
Aggressive colonial policy, combined with mounting intra-European tensions, eventually led to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After four years of global warfare, the victors (particularly France and Britain) took over most of the colonies of the defeated. Britain inherited most of the German colonies in Africa and acquired League of Nations mandates over Palestine and Iraq, both former territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The British Empire had reached its greatest extent, but found it increasingly hard to maintain control over its vast territories. Britain’s economy lay in ruins and local nationalist movements demanded concessions recognizing the colonies’ exhaustive financial and military support of the British war effort.
On that background, Egypt was granted quasiindependence in 1922 with British soldiers remaining solely at the Suez Canal. The Indian nationalist movement gained momentum after World War I and could not be satisfied with the half-hearted reforms of 1919 and 1935. However, as in other colonies, the Indian nationalist movement was mainly carried by local elites and thus did not initially aim at total independence but at increased political and economic autonomy within the empire. Accordingly, excluding the case of Ireland, Egypt remained the only decolonized colony of domination until the end of World War II, while the white settler dominions had achieved full sovereignty over their affairs with the Statute of Westminster and the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1931.
But after World War II, the pace of decolonization quickened immediately. Facing a serious economic crisis, the government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883–1967) saw no gains in keeping up colonial control over South Asia. India achieved independence in 1947; Ceylon and Burma followed a year later. Britain’s sudden loss of interest in South Asia, combined with the diverse notions of local nationalist movements, rendered decolonization a thoroughly unorganized and hurried affair. Indian decolonization eventually led to the partition of British India into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, a development that was accompanied by a mass exodus on both sides and the death of over one million people in the resulting atrocities.
African decolonization commenced only in the late 1950s. Britain’s territories in Africa had been important for the motherland’s economic recovery after the war. But now Britain yielded to rising national consciousness in the colonies and released Sudan (1956), Nigeria (1960), Sierra Leone (1961), Tanganyika (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963), Zambia (1964), Malawi (1964), Gambia (1965), Botswana (1966), and Swaziland (1968). In most of these cases, the devolution of power worked comparatively smoothly. In Rhodesia, however, the presence of a substantial and influential white settler community complicated matters and eventually led to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Rhodesia became modern Zimbabwe only in 1980.
In the West Indies, the creation of the West Indies Federation in 1958 was meant to satisfy local desire for increased autonomy. However, the largest members— Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago—left the federation in 1961 and 1962 to become fully independent. The federation was dissolved and the remaining members became British colonies again. They achieved full independence in 1966 (Barbados), 1974 (Grenada), 1978 (Dominica), 1979 (Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), 1981 (Antigua and Barbuda), and 1983 (Saint Kitts and Nevis). British Guyana and British Honduras on the American mainland became independent in 1966 and 1981, respectively.
With the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain handed back its last remaining crown colony. However, Great Britain today still controls strategically or financially important territories outside the British Isles, including Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Saint Helena, the Turks and Caicos islands, Gibraltar, and Pitcairn.
While British decolonization has been practically completed with the return of Hong Kong, the legacy of the British Empire still reverberates in the political, economic, social, and cultural makeup of the world today. The emergence of the English language as the international lingua franca and the spread of the English legal system are parts of this heritage. The dissemination of European religious and cultural ideas throughout the world needed the vehicle of European expansion in general. The British Empire, in particular, made possible the worldwide spread of the Church of England and Puritanism.
British culture and lifestyle also influenced the emergence of national identities after decolonization. British sports, most prominently cricket, remain a favorite pastime in many former colonies. On the other hand, the hurried decolonization in large parts of Asia and Africa often left behind a geopolitical landscape full of unresolved ethnical, political, or economic issues leading to violent clashes, civil war, or international conflicts. Apartheid policy in South Africa, violence in Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Sinhala- Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, and the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan all have their roots in British imperial policy and decolonization.
Much of the ethnic composition of the United States, the Caribbean, parts of the Pacific, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia today has its origins in forced (slavery) or semiforced (the indenture system) labor migration within the British Empire. Similarly, the obvious or at times only latent racism displayed by the British colonizers towards the colonized contributed to the development of modern racist prejudice. On the other hand, the multiethnic composition of large parts of Britain today has its roots in the open British immigration policy towards former colonial subjects and commonwealth citizens.
The final question of whether the British Empire has been a boon or a bane to the colonial territories has been asked often, but cannot be answered satisfactorily. Advocates of empire—in accordance with the colonizers themselves—advance the argument that colonialism actually brought economic and political development to hitherto underdeveloped countries and regions. More critical scholars argue that colonialism in general and British imperialism in particular brought about a transfer of wealth from the periphery to the core and thus, in fact, delayed or prevented sustainable development in the colonies.