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British Empire

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British Empire, 1897

The British Empire was the largest empire in history, and for a substantial time was the foremost global power. It was a product of the European age of discovery, which began with the maritime explorations of the 15th century, that sparked the era of the European colonial empires.

By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 36.6 million km² (14.2 million square miles), about a quarter of Earth's total land area. As a result, its legacy is widespread: in legal and governmental systems, economic practice, militarily, educational systems, sports (such as cricket, rugby, golf and football), traffic practices (such as driving on the left), and in the global spread of the English language. At the peak of its power, it was often said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations.

During the five decades following World War II, most of the territories of the Empire became independent. Many went on to join the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states.

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Streets of Hong Kong, 1865.

In the 19th century the British, Dutch, French, Indians and Americans saw Imperial China as the world's largest untapped market. In 1840 the British Empire launched their first and one of the most aggressive expeditionary forces to claim the territory that would later be known as Hong Kong. In a few decades, Hong Kong was transformed from rocky undeveloped mountainous terrain to a major entrepot for global trade. By means of the First and Second Opium Wars and the resultant series of treaties, the British were able to legitimately claim the territory until 1997. Early social and economic problems existed in the colony, as there were drastic differences between Eastern and Western philosophy and culture. Nonetheless, Hong Kong seized the opportunity to become one of the first parts of East Asia to industrialise and modernise.

One observer summed up the decades as "politics, propaganda, panic, rumour, riot, revolution and refugees". The role of Hong Kong as a political safe haven for Chinese political refugees further cemented its status, and few serious attempts to revert its ownership were launched in the early 20th century. Both Chinese Communist and Nationalist agitators found refuge in the territory, when they did not actively participate in the turmoil in China. However, the dockworkers strikes in the 1920s and 1930s were widely attributed to the Communists by the authorities, and caused a backlash against them. A strike in 1920 was ended with a wage increase of HKD 32 cents.

When modern China began after the fall of the last dynasty, one of the first political statements made in Hong Kong was the immediate change from long queue hairstyles to short haircuts. In 1938, Guangzhou fell to the hands of the Japanese, Hong Kong was considered a strategic military outpost for all trades in the far east. Though Winston Churchill assured that Hong Kong was an "impregnable fortress", it was taken as a reality check response since the British Army actually stretched too thin to battle on two fronts.

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Beijing Castle Boxer Rebellion 1900 FINAL.jpg
Credit: Torajirō Kasai

A 1900 print depicting a battle between allied British and Japanese troops against Chinese combatants at Beijing Castle during the Boxer Rebellion.

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SingaporeStone-drawings-detail.jpg

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Mountbatten.jpg

Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas George Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC (25 June 1900–27 August 1979) was a British admiral and statesman and an uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He was the last Viceroy and first Governor-General of independent India, and First Sea Lord, as was his father, Prince Louis of Battenberg. Mountbatten was assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), who planted a bomb in his boat at Mullaghmore, County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland. (more...)

Evolution of the British Empire

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British Empire evolution3.gif

This Map of the world animates the Empire's rise and fall.

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British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations

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* now a Commonwealth realm  ·   now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations
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