The growth and decline of the British empire
It all started from the ongoing competition for resources and markets between England, Spain, France and Holland.
The first British empire was a mercantile one (newly conquered territories were a source of raw materials and provided real or potential markets for British manufactures.
Britain set up trading companies in Turkey, Russia and the East Indies and explored the coasts of North America.
After successful wars with the Dutch, the Spanish and the French, Britain managed to acquire most of the eastern coast of North America, The St.Lawrence river basin in Canada, territories in the Caribbean, stations in Africa for the acquisition of slaves and important interests in India.
In 1783 the ‘Treaty of Versailles’ marked the birth of a new nation, the US, and the loss of the thirteen North American colonies for Britain.
From 1788 Australia served as a penal colony.
Some factors diminished the power of the old British mercantile empire at the beginning of the century:
1807: abolition of slavery in England;
1833:freeing of slaves held elsewhere in the Empire;
adoption of free trade (see Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations;
colonial movements for political and commercial independence.
The Victorians inherited both the remnants of the old mercantile Empire and the new commercial network in the East, neither of which they were sure they wanted.
However,the acquisition of territory and trading concessions continued:
1876 Queen Victoria crowned herself ‘empires of India’
Britain felt its interests were put at risk by the southern and eastern expansion of Russia and engaged in a war to protect its trading route to the East ( see Crimean War 1853-56).
It further expanded its territory with the acquisition of South Africa after The Boers’ Wars against the Dutch.
Sources of Britain's imperialist policy are to be found in erroneous generalizations derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution which saw imperialism as a manifestation of what Kipling defined ‘the white man’s burden’.
The implication was that the Empire existed not for the benefit of Britain itself but in order that primitive people, incapable of self-government could, by British guidance, eventually become civilized (and Christianized).
The dissolution of the empire:
At the beginning of the 20th c. there were growing nationalist movements; the process accelerated after WWI.
The English-speaking colonies agreed to form ‘The commonwealth of Nations’. The Dominions came to the aid of Britain during WWII but Great Britain no longer possessed the resources to maintain the old order of things.
India achieved self-government in 1935 and independence in 1947. Ireland had acquired ‘home rule’ in 1921 after a brutal civil war and independence in 1949 (except for Ulster).
The process of decolonization in Africa and Asia accelerated during the late 1950ies. Today, any affinities which remain between former portions of the Empire are primarily linguistic or cultural rather than political.