The empire on which the sun never sets
The phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" has been used with variations to describe certain global empires that were so extensive that there was always at least one part of their territory that was in daylight.
It was originally used for the Spanish Empire, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. In more recent times, it was used for the British Empire, mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, the British Empire reached a territorial size larger than that of any other empire in history.
A similar concept in the Old Testament might pre-date Herodotus and Xerxes I where Psalm 72:8 speaks of the Messianic King: ‘He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth’  for ‘as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations’ Ps 72:5. This concept had existed in the Ancient Near East before the Old Testament. The Story of Sinuhe (19th century BC) announces that the Egyptian King rules “all what the sun encircles.” Mesopotamian texts contemporary to Sargon of Akkad (c. 2334 – 2279 BC) proclaim that this king ruled “all the lands from sunrise to sunset.”
In the early 16th century, the phrase, "el imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol" (the empire on which the sun never sets) originated with a remark made by Fray Francisco de Ugalde to Charles I of Spain (r. 1512 to 1556), who as king of Spain and as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had an empire, which included many territories in Europe, islands in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, cities in North Africa and vast territories in the Americas.
The phrase gained added resonance during the reign of Charles's son, Philip II of Spain, when the Philippines and several other island chains in the Pacific were obtained by Spain. When King Henry of Portugal died, Philip II pressed his claim to the Portuguese throne and was recognised as Philip I of Portugal in 1581. He then reigned over all his father's possessions in Europe, Africa and the Americas (except the Holy Roman Empire) and Asia and the Portuguese Empire, which itself included territories in the Americas, in the North and the Subsaharian Africa, in all the Asian Subcontinents, and islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.
In 1585, Giovanni Battista Guarini wrote Il pastor fido to mark the marriage of Catherine Michelle, daughter of Philip II, to Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. Guarini's dedication read, "Altera figlia / Di qel Monarca, a cui / Nö anco, quando annotta, il Sol tramonta." ("The proud daughter / of that monarch to whom / when it grows dark [elsewhere] the sun never sets.").
In the early 17th century, the phrase was familiar to John Smith (explorer), and to Francis Bacon, who writes: "both the East and the West Indies being met in the crown of Spain, it is come to pass, that, as one saith in a brave kind of expression, the sun never sets in the Spanish dominions, but ever shines upon one part or other of them : which, to say truly, is a beam of glory [...]". Thomas Urquhart wrote of "that great Don Philippe, Tetrarch of the world, upon whose subjects the sun never sets."
In the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller's 1787 play, Don Carlos, Don Carlos's father, Philip II, says, "German: Ich heiße / der reichste Mann in der getauften Welt; / Die Sonne geht in meinem Staat nicht unter." ("I am called / The richest monarch in the Christian world; / The sun in my dominion never sets.").
Joseph Fouché recalled Napoleon saying before the Peninsular War, "Reflect that the sun never sets in the immense inheritance of Charles V, and that I shall have the empire of both worlds."  This was cited in Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon.
In the 19th century, it became popular to apply the phrase to the British Empire. It was a time when British world maps showed the Empire in red and pink to highlight British imperial power spanning the globe. Scottish author, John Wilson, writing as "Christopher North" in Blackwood's Magazine in 1829, is sometimes credited as originating the usage. However, George Macartney wrote in 1773, in the wake of the territorial expansion that followed Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War, of "this vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained."
In a speech on 31 July 1827, Rev. R. P. Buddicom said, "It had been said that the sun never set on the British flag; it was certainly an old saying, about the time of Richard the Second, and was not so applicable then as at the present time." In 1821, the Caledonian Mercury wrote of the British Empire, "On her dominions the sun never sets; before his evening rays leave the spires of Quebec, his morning beams have shone three hours on Port Jackson, and while sinking from the waters of Lake Superior, his eye opens upon the Mouth of the Ganges."
Daniel Webster famously expressed a similar idea in 1834: "A power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England." In 1839, Sir Henry Ward said in the House of Commons, "Look at the British Colonial empire — the most magnificent empire that the world ever saw. The old Spanish boast that the sun never set in their dominions, has been more truly realised amongst ourselves." By 1861, Lord Salisbury complained that the million spent on colonial defence by Britain merely enabled the nation "to furnish an agreeable variety of stations to our soldiers, and to indulge in the sentiment that the sun never sets on our Empire".
From the mid-nineteenth century, the image of the sun never setting can be found applied to Anglophone culture, explicitly the British Empire as well as the United States, for example in a speech by Alexander Campbell in 1852.
An 1897 magazine article titled "The Greatest Nation on Earth" boasted, "[T]he sun never sets on Uncle Sam". In 1906, William Jennings Bryan wrote, "If we can not boast that the sun never sets on American territory, we can find satisfaction in the fact that the sun never sets on American philanthropy"; after which, The New York Times received letters attempting to disprove his presupposition.
A 1991 history book discussion of U.S. expansion states, "Today ... the sun never sets on American territory, properties owned by the U.S. government and its citizens, American armed forces abroad, or countries that conduct their affairs within limits largely defined by American power."
The phrase is sometimes used critically with the implication of American imperialism, as in the title of Joseph Gerson's book, The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases.
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- Psalm 72:5
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- Don Carlos, Act I, Scene 6.
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Not a more abstemious man than old Kit North in his Majesty's dominions, on which the sun never sets.
- Vance, Norman (2000). "Imperial Rome and Britain's Language of Empire 1600–1837". History of European Ideas. 26 (3-4): 213, fn.3. doi:10.1016/S0191-6599(01)00020-1. ISSN 0191-6599.
It seems this proverbial phrase was first used by 'Christopher North' (John Wilson) in Blackwood's Magazine (April 1829).
- Morris, Jan (1978). Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat.
as Christopher North the poet, had long before declared it, an Empire on which the sun never set.
- Miller, Karl (9 August 2003). "Star of the Borders". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-06-15.
the British empire, on which, as Wilson may have been the first to say, the sun never set.
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- "To Britain and America God has granted the possession of the new world; and because the sun never sets upon our religion, our language and our arts..."Speeches of Alexander Campbell. Archived April 10, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.[dead link]
- Jordon, William (July 1897). "The Greatest Nation on Earth". Ladies' Home Journal: 7–8.; cited by Kaiser, Kaitlyn (2005). "Americanizing the American Woman: Symbols of Nationalism in the Ladies Home Journal, 1890–1900". Salve Regina University (thesis): 17, fn.57,58.
- Bryan, William Jennings (1908). "American Philanthropy". In Richard Lee Metcalfe. The real Bryan; being extracts from the speeches and writings of "a well-rounded man". Vol. 2. Des Moines: Personal Help Publishing Company. pp. 44–45.
- "That never-setting sun". The New York Times. 5 August 1906. p. 8. Retrieved 2009-06-14.
- Williams, William Appleman (1991). "Expansion, Continental and Overseas". In Eric Foner; John Arthur Garraty. The Reader's companion to American history. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 365. ISBN 0-395-51372-3. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
- Gerson, Joseph; Bruce Birchard, American Friends Service Committee Disarmament Program & New England Regional Office (1991). The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-399-3. Cite uses deprecated parameter