The Fall of the Empire

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It was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth that the British Empire began with its roots being traced back to the colonisation of America in 1583. The empire swelled and collapsed during the period before its eventual dissolution; the most notable crash being when America won its independence in 1783. The Empire had two distinct phases; the first belonging to the occupation of America and the second falling under the control of Queen Victoria. Her conquest and spread of the British Empire throughout the Napoleonic wars and furthered by the capture of India meant that in 1922, 21 years after Victoria’s death[1], Britain controlled one fifth of the world’s population. The spread of British control was so extensive that it was known as the empire of eternal sun, in that, as the sun set on one part of the world it rose on another, thereby lighting the day on yet another country under British rule[2].

Through a weakened economy and military after the First World War Britain’s grasp of its vast empire began to slip. India, with its growing educated middle class, started to become disillusioned with idea of their country being governed by a British minority. Through the peaceful protest by the population and prominent figures such as Ghandi the situations in India became of global interest. Ireland was granted its independence in 1921 which meant that Britain had less power to oppress the freedoms of Indians[3]. Therefore during the 1920s and 1930s Indians were given more freedoms in their country; a greater number were allowed to vote, for example, and to hold positions of power in the government.

As with the first Great War the strain of the Second World War, with its mass drain on the country of Britain’s resources, managing to retain control of countries so far across the globe became nigh impossible. In the period following the Second World War India became self-governing. Although Britain still had colonies in the Caribbean and Hong Kong, the term Empire began to fall out of use. Britain, though a victor of the war, had suffered incalculable damage to its power and prestige because of the war. After 1945 two new super powers grew out of the ashes, that of the United States of America and the Soviet Union. These two massive powers with their fingers on the triggers of nuclear war made the former great and bountiful British Empire appear puny and out dated. Due to the history of British rule in America naming them self as in charge of and “Empire” appeared in bad taste, therefore Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan[4], when in conversation with America during the Cold War, was careful to refer the “Empire” as the “Commonwealth”. It was from this moment that the British Empire can be said to have lost its power. From here on out the Empire was no longer relevant on an international scale. The loss of the population of India along with its natural resources left Britain unable to physically stand next the enormous scale of the USA and Soviet Union. Looking at a 1922 map of the world and colouring in all the sections ruled by Britain in yellow, next to one coloured thusly from after 1947 it would appear the eternal sun had indeed set.

This is not to say that the loss of the Empire was a bad thing for Britain. Internationally it removed the idea of them as a tyrannical power, with their fingers in many pies all over the world. The Second World War was a grand awakening for the world to what can happen under massive oppression. Pride in the preservation and justice of the British war effort meant that it had become hypercritical for Britain to hold power over its colonies so far from home, when they too wished to have their own freedom. The loss of Empire can be seen as working in correlation with growing ideals of freedom and liberty. It also helped to create lasting international friendships between Britain and past colonies.

It was during the aftermath of the Second World War Britain called in help from the Commonwealth. They mainly sought help from Australia and New Zealand. It should not be forgotten that the all of this empire was not without conflict, there were wars to hold onto the Falkland’s in 1982, but it can be said that in some aspects there was a peace to the final crumbling of the world’s largest imperial power. It was with friendship and community that Britain finally lost its imperial crown. By joining the European Community in 1973, Britain’s imperial sceptre was finally set out to pasture.  Although it was not until the handing over of Hong Kong in 1997 that Britain formally lost its empirical status, it had from 1973 lost its massive influence on the world.

The legacy of the Empire is that English is the language of commerce. The friendships developed with the Commonwealth mean there ‘dense global network of informal connections’[5]. These are increasing important in a globalised world. The death of an empire, therefore, and the forming of a Commonwealth, appears, to hold the potential to greater the bonds of community across the world. Commonwealth for all, it could become. But as with our looking back on the collapse of the Roman Empire, the fall of the British Empire and the birth of the Commonwealth will only be judged good or bad by the historians to come.


Written by Lucinda Weston, Edited by Simon Renwick