To briefly give a description of the rise and fall of the British Empire is quite a daunting task. This is mainly because it was never a static empire. It changed a lot because it had to react to events, opportunities and threats, and if you look at it historically there were actually two empires. The period in which the colonies in North America where created and eventually lost is usually called ‘the First Empire’ by historians. The loss of the 13 colonies was a big, but not a knockout, blow for England. From the ashes of the first empire the ‘Second Empire’ was born. England still had control over a large number of colonies in other parts of the world and quickly added new ones. Their attention shifted towards Asia, Africa and the Pacific. This Empire lasted until the late 1900s. The transfer of power in Hong Kong in 1997 is usually seen as the ‘end of the Empire’.
The foundations of the British Empire were lain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. That is why I have chosen this period as the starting point of this story about the British Empire. Since the Empire was the largest empire the world has ever seen and if you combine the two ‘Empires’ it spans nearly five centuries. It is remarkable that an empire so large could last for so long. For that reason I will try to describe just how it was able to do so. And to complete the story I will cover the end of the Empire. Because there were many reasons I will limit myself to economic and political reasons of the demise of the Empire.
What caused the rise of the British Empire during the reign of Queen Elizabeth?
It was the year 1558 when the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty came to power. Elizabeth was a long ruling queen. She held the throne for 45 years, giving the country a long period of needed stability. The foundations of what was going to be the British Empire were laid during Elizabeth\’s reign.
Elizabeth\’s reign is known as the Elizabethan era. This period is famous for great English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare, and for the skilled seamanship of English adventurers such as Francis Drake. But the most important things Elizabeth did as queen was getting the country in order. Her reign started with a lot of problems that needed to be resolved as you cannot build a house on loose sand.
The one great concern for Elizabeth during her reign was security. She needed to secure her right to the throne of England but that also meant making sure that England was strong enough to withstand a foreign invasion from, and in particular, Catholic nations. Spain, a big and powerful catholic country, had recently taken control of the Low Countries and was stifling trade with England whilst trying to stamp out Protestantism in what they referred to as the Spanish Netherlands. To counter the threat of Spain Elizabeth tried to encourage merchants to trade elsewhere and by looking away when pirates and corsairs took the law into their own hands on the seas around England.
In 1577, Francis Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth to undertake an expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas. After a troublesome journey Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Later he would be the second in command of the Royal Navy when it defeated the Spanish Armada. Shortly after this battle some merchant from London presented a petition to Queen Elizabeth for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean. Even though the first couple of expeditions failed or had not been completely successful the commercial ambitions of England’s merchants were relentless.
Around the same time Elizabeth also sent ships west. Since Spain had a lot of
colonies in Central and South America so England aimed at the eastern coast of North America. The first expeditions that were meant to establish colonies were not successful. One expedition which was quite promising failed nonetheless. The settlers arrived too late to grow crops and when a ship returned to England for supplies it got caught up in the battle with the Spanish Armada. When it finally did return to the colony all the settlers were gone and the have never been seen again.
The disappearance of the colony was a hard blow, and the vision of America as a source of instant wealth disappeared with it. The dream to establish a permanent colony in Virginia was only realised when the settlement of Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company in 1607. Although these first attempts at colonising America ended in failure, the drive and ambition of Elizabeth\’s adventurers paved the way for other explorers.
Elizabeth changed England from an introverted Kingdom into a world player. This was done largely as a reaction to the threat towards Elizabeth and her Kingdom from the Catholic powers of Europe, but her reaction to the threat had set England on the course of becoming an empire. The growing military might of the Royal Navy led to the belief that it was possible to settle colonies in other parts of the world as well, to search for new trade routes and to take over existing trade routes when necessary.
What were just a means for survival for Elizabeth turned out to be exactly what was needed to lay the foundations of an empire.
Why was the British Empire so successful?
At its peak in the 1920s the British Empire covered over 25% of the earth’s lands surface or 50% of the world if you count the sea as well (\’Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves\’) and governed over more than a fifth of the world’s population. This translates to an estimate of 13,000,000 square miles of land and 500,000,000 people.
Growing from a relatively small island nation to an empire that big does not happen overnight. And answering the question of how England managed to acquire such an empire requires a difficult and complicated answer. It is a complicated story and there are no easy “reasons” or “causes”. We know for sure that there was no ‘Empire building plan’. Different regions were added to the Empire or colonized by the Empire for different reasons. So there is not a single conclusive answer to the question of how the Empire expanded. The only thing we do know for certain it that a mixture of location, people, skills, and resources made the growth of the Empire possible.
The fact that England is an island nation is a huge advantage in the 18th and 19th century. The sea is a natural border that keeps the country relatively safe from foreign invasion. But being an island nation can also be a disadvantage. It means that the natural resources of the country are limited.
In order to engage in foreign trade the English merchants had no other choice than to take to the seas. This meant that maritime trade and naval power have always had great importance for England. The British people did not see the sea as a barrier but as a connector. Through it they could gain wealth and experience form all sorts of seagoing engagements from beyond the British Isles. And after the union with Scotland in 1707 it was impossible to invade England by land. That meant it could
invest more in the Royal Navy than it could when it still needed to guard the Northern borders. The Royal Navy grew to be the largest navy in the world. It was able to maintain almost uninterrupted ascendancy over its rivals through superiority in financing, tactics, training, organisation, social cohesion, hygiene, dockyard facilities, logistical support and (from the middle of the 18th century) warship design and construction. The Royal Navy did not just rule the waves, more importantly it also ruled the naval trade routes. The lack of natural resources in England was more than compensated by the continuous flow of resources coming in from the colonies.
In an age where the airplane was not yet invented naval power is paramount for empire building. But it takes more than a strong navy and a skilled crew to become a world superpower. The obvious example of this is the fact that even though Britain had the strongest navy in the world they still lost the 13 colonies in North America.
So we have established that naval power alone does not guarantee the ability to gain and maintain an empire. Something else was needed as well.
But before we go into that we need to ask a different question. Where did Britain get the funds to build the strongest and biggest navy in the world?
The answer is surprisingly simple: The government got a loan from the Bank of England.
Even though it was called The Bank of England it was owned by merchants and aristocrats. How this came to be is a story that starts in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution. King James II had openly converted to Catholicism. The majority of the population of England was Protestant so they had no need for a Catholic king. Parliament had sent an invitation to Prince William of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands, and his wife Mary to become King and Queen. They invited them because Mary was the Protestant daughter of James II. James did not
give up without a fight and the civil war that followed ended with the defeat of James II in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. At the same time The Nine Years War (1688-1697) also raged on. These wars had cost the government a lot of money. The Government of William was heavily in debt and a group of businessmen saw an opportunity to get involved in the business of banking. This group of businessmen offered the government a loan of £1.2 million, at the very high interest rate of 8% per year, in exchange for a Royal Charter for a bank, with important privileges, to be known as the Bank of England. It drew its funds from the investments made and stocks bought by rich businessmen. This way the government would loan money from its citizens instead of having to raise taxes and therefore risk an uprising or revolt. That meant that huge amounts of fund became available for the British government. Financial power was converted into military power.
A strong economy and a strong navy made sure that colonies could be established. But to maintain an empire other changes were needed. One of the greatest changes in the history of mankind started in Britain. Today we call this great change The Industrial Revolution. And through this change Britain became the first industrialised country in the world. In order to make this revolution happen a lot of requirements had to be met.
The first requirement is the availability of privately owned, surplus capital that can be used to invest in the production process. This surplus of capital came from the merchants who traded in raw materials coming in from the colonies and usually owned the production process. The textile industry, in particular, was transformed by industrialization. Before mechanization and factories, textiles were made mainly in people’s homes, with merchants often providing the raw materials and basic equipment, and then picking up the finished product. Workers set their own schedules under this system, which proved difficult for merchants to regulate and resulted in numerous inefficiencies. As the demand for finished products increased, the merchants wanted a more cost effective method of production.
This leads us to the second requirement: the availability of raw materials and a markets big enough for all the goods that were produced. This requirement was easily met by the colonies Britain possessed.
The third requirement is knowledge. To make the production process more cost effective and invent and use new machines advances had to be made in the iron
industry. Of the few natural resources England had it was lucky enough to have a lot of coal and iron ore. But the trouble with coal mining is that the deep mines tend to flood. Pumping out this water was a costly and difficult enterprise. But around 1712 Thomas Newcomen introduced the first piston steam engine that was able to pump the water out of the deep coal mines with relative ease. James Watt later perfected the machine so it could make a rotating motion instead of only the up and down motion of Newcomen’s machine. This way the steam engine was able to power all sorts of machines. This opened the door to the building of factories and mass production.
This brings us to the fourth requirement: the availability of labourers. Before the Industrial Revolution people lived in small rural villages. Their lives revolved around the farm. Agriculture was not working very effectively and food was usually scarce. New methods of fertilizing the land, a system of crop rotation, introduction of new crops from the colonies such as corn and potatoes, the invention of new farm equipment such as the plow, scythe and seeder all made agriculture more efficient. ‘Enclosure Acts’ ended the inefficient ‘open fields’ which the small self-providing farmers used. By consolidating these pieces of land agriculture was made more productive. Rich landowners bought up the lands and started to specialize. All of these changes led to a dramatic increase of productivity. This meant that less people were needed to produce more food. Many people who worked in agriculture were now free to work in the factories. An added advantage of a more effective agriculture was that food was cheaper as well. The effects of that could clearly be seen in the rapid growth of population from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by after 1800.
The fifth requirement: a safe and stable political environment. Throughout much of 19th century, England was ruled by Queen Victoria. Her long reign (1837-1901) brought stability and scientific progress that a lot of other European countries did not have. Of all the wars fought in Europe in the 19th century (around 20) the British were only involved in two: The Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War. By mostly keeping out of European affairs the British had their hands free to expand their Empire. Not only did the rest of Europe fight a lot of wars they also had their own domestic problems.
The French were too busy getting their own country in order after the Napoleonic wars, the Italians, just as the Germans, were competing city-states that not unite and form Germany and Italy respectively until late in the second half of the 19th century. The Spanish got the most of their wealth from their colonies in South America but the gold mines dried up leaving the Spanish in without the means to pose a threat. The Dutch could have been a major threat because of their excellent trade network, but they were not able to match the military might of the British.
India was called the “jewel in the crown of the British Empire\”, and for good reason. The Empire probably would not have been able to grow and maintain itself for so long as it did without the possession of India. And surprisingly it was all done by accident!
John R. Seeley, way back in 1883, in his “The Expansion of England” had famously quoted: “Our acquisition of India was made blindly, nothing great that has ever been done by Englishmen was done so intentionally and so accidentally, as the conquest of India”. Followed by his oft-quoted: “We seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind”.
It all started with a couple of trade posts and the forming of the East India Company in 1600. The first trading posts were made in small coastal villages. The biggest problem for any foreign trader in India was that the Indians wanted gold for their goods. That meant that the gold had to come from the home country which obviously means that the total gold supply of that country is going to diminish. The Company figured out a way to generate the gold from India itself. But that plan meant that they had to go to war with some of the Indians. At the same time the Company was also trading with China. The Chinese also wanted gold for their goods. To generate all this gold the Company started to trade in opium. To do that they needed to get a hold of Bengal to protect their plantation territory. This led to the raising of huge armies, which required more money. To raise more money the Company started collecting taxes which in turn, because of greed, led to gaining more territories. Mind you, this was all done by a
trading company. This company eventually defeated the last Indian rulers before it got dissolved. A couple of years later in 1877 the government takes over and Queen Victoria becomes the Empress of India.
British colonial power was ultimately centred around India, which had a population comparable to all of Europe on its own. It supplied the Empire with a seemingly endless supply of gold, trade goods, raw materials and men. None of the other colonial ‘empires’ could compete with it.
To sum up: the British had a strong navy that controlled the seas with skilled crews because of their dependency of the sea since it is an island nation, a good financial system in the form of the Bank of England, a technological edge because of the Industrial Revolution, a large labour force, a stable government and dominion over India. It was the combination of all these factors that made the British Empire so successful.
What political changes led to the demise of the British Empire?
The fall of the British Empire is not something that happened overnight. Where the ancient empire of Rome or Soviet Russia fell suddenly because of revolution or foreign invasion, the fall of the British Empire was the result of the colonies they controlled becoming nation states. This is a long process that starts small but keeps growing and growing until it is unstoppable.
According to Simon Smith (British Imperialism 1750–1970, Cambridge University Press, Retrieved 22 July 2009) the path to independence for the white colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand began in 1839. In this year a report was written suggesting the unification and self-government for Upper and Lower Canada as a solution to the political unrest which had turned into armed rebellion. This unification came in the shape of the passing of the Act of Union in 1840, which created the Province of Canada. Self-government was out of the question for now but that would change in 1867 with the passage of the British North America Act. With this Act the Dominion of Canada was formed. From that moment on the Dominion of Canada enjoyed full self-government with the exception of international relations. Australia and New Zealand followed in 1901 after the forming of the Federation of Australia.
For the non-white colonies it was a different story altogether. Unlike the white colonies, the non-white have always been treated differently and were regarded as inferior. By the end of the 19th century there grew an idea that it was the duty of the civilised European man to bring culture and civilisation to the native people of the colonies. People were convinced that these areas could benefit from this kind of ‘education’. There even was a name for this idea: ‘The white man’s burden’. The name was derived from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling. The poem was first published in 1899 in New York since it was addressed to the American people after winning the Spanish-American war. It urged the readers and listeners to take up the ‘burden’ of becoming an imperialist country since the war ended with a treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. The white man’s burden was seen as an obligation to \”better the lives\” of the people they conquered.
Take up the White Man’s burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captive\’s need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild
Your New caught, sullen peoples
Half devil and half-child
But unfortunately for the Empire, the idea of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ backfired. Bringing education to the colonies also brought new ideas like democracy and the want for self-government. But the non-white colonies did not dare to seize their independence through armed conflict since it was thought to be impossible to defeat
white people on the field of battle. It had never happened before. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was a huge game changer for this ‘white supremacy’. The Japanese victory over a European nation inspired a lot of colonies. It showed them that it was possible though modernisation and westernisation to get rid of the imperialistic European nations. The unrest in Russia from this defeat eventually led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. But for short time effects it causes the Russians to turn their attention towards Europe for their expansion plans instead of Asia. And in an attempt to balance the growing power of the Germans Russia formed an alliance with France and England. This set the stage for World War I.
WWI was inevitable because of imperialism. Britain knew that Germany was on the rise and could be serious competition. They had kept out of European wars for a long time but that was no longer possible. The system of alliances and imperialism made Europe a powder keg ready to explode. Britain was sucked in WWI at a great cost.
With the outbreak of World War I Britain quickly seized the opportunity to conquer Germany’s colonies in Africa. Australia and New Zealand occupied German New Guinea and Samoa. Britain and France secretly made plans for a post-war division of the Ottoman Empire, since it was an ally of Germany. So World War I brought great danger but also great opportunity for the Empire. After The Great War the British Empire reached its territorial peak ruling over 25% of the earth\’s land surface. At this point it was absolutely correct to say that ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’.
The Great War ended four major empires; German, Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian. The British Empire survived but the cracks were starting to show. The British Empire was at its territorial peak but maintaining an empire of that size was a huge financial burden. It did not take long before the British government realized that it no longer had the men, material and finances to keep the Empire profitable. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy and dependent on the US for financial assistance after the Great War. The financial costs of paying back the loans to the United States and suppressing the various independence movements in the colonies was greater than the gain from maintaining the colonies. Especially the independence movements in Ireland and India were a great threat to the Empire.
Ireland was the colony closest to Great Britain. Successful revolution here would make the Empire look weak. The biggest nationalistic threat in Ireland came from a group of Irish republicans who saw the Great War as an opportunity to proclaim their independence. The Easter Rising took place in April 1916. A group of some 1.600 Irish Nationalists staged a rebellion against British rule in Ireland by seizing prominent buildings in Dublin and started fighting with British troops. The uprising lasted less than a week. But in that week more than 3.000 people were dead or wounded. While the Rising itself did not have the effect the nationalists in Ireland had hoped for, ironically the way the British handled the events after the Rising did. The execution of the leaders of the Rising shifted public opinion in favour of the nationalists. Nationalistic movements in Ireland gained support and declared themselves independent in 1922.
The situation in India looked a lot like Ireland when the ‘government of India Act’ did not meet the Indians’ expectations. They had expected to be rewarded for their enormous contribution to the war effort. Around 1.5 million volunteers served in the British Army during the Great War. Besides men the Indians sent a lot of materials and granted huge loans to the British war effort. In total the Great War had cost India approximately £130 million. Viceroy Hardinge later said in his biography that the enormous contribution made by India to the Great War had ‘bled the country dry’.
India was vital for the success of the British Empire. The vast amounts of resources enabled the Empire to stay ahead of the competition. But the Great War left India near bankruptcy and its inhabitants were no longer satisfied with British rule. Nationalistic ideas spread further thanks to the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. He stated that the Great War was fought to: ‘save democracy and freedom, and to establish a new world order where all subject peoples would gain the right of self-determination’. The United States Congress demanded that Britain would state its intentions towards India. Britain complied by declaring that reforms will take place that would lead to self-government in India. But it took a long time before these reforms would be implemented. This was the time in which Gandhi started his, now legendary,
Again, it was a different situation for the ‘white colonies’, the dominions. These dominions already had some limited form of self-government but the Imperial Conference of 1923 expanded that by granting all dominions in the Empire the right to make their own foreign policy and trade relations. Two more Conferences were needed to dot the I’s and cross the T’s by declaring that the dominions are all equal in status, and \”autonomous communities within the British Empire\” not subordinate to the United Kingdom. This was the beginning of the Commonwealth of Nations.
In the 1930s most of the countries in the Middle East under British control gained some independence. The Empire got these territories after the Great War as temporary mandates, not permanent colonies. These transitions caused some unrest in the rest of the Empire but it was still at a manageable level. It was the rearming of Germany in Europe and the rise of the Empire of Japan in the East that posed the greatest threat to the Empire. At the start of WW II the Empire was in no condition to fight. It was still recovering from the Great War and the effects from the depression. So once again the Empire had to call in help from the colonies, dominions and the rest of the Commonwealth. And despite the tension between Britain and some of the colonies, they answered the call to fight for freedom and democracy.
To fund all this the Empire borrowed money where it could. It made huge debts all over the world. But nevertheless, it worked like never before. In a time where the Empire seemed almost spent the soldiers from all corners of the Empire managed to fight as a single unit. As Ashley Jackson states it in The British Empire and the Second World War (2006): “British soldiers fought in the Malayan jungle, Indians fought in Iraq, New Zealanders attempted to repel German paratroopers in Crete, Scottish troop looked out upon Japanese positions on the Chinese mainland, Canadian seamen hunted U-boats off Iceland and Basotho muleteers brought wounded Australians down from inaccessible mountain ranges in Italy. They were all imperial soldiers”.
But wars cannot be fought without money and money ran out. It was the United States that could provide the money during, but after the war as well. The Marshall Plan was a way to let the war-torn European countries rebuild themselves. The Empire turned from creditor into debtor, with the US supplying all the funds. The Great War was a major blow to the might of the Empire but the Second World War was the nail in the coffin. Even though the imperial soldiers fought as a single unit and the Empire played a significant role, the weakness of the Empire was clearly visible. It could only play this important role during the war because of the colonies and the aid it got from them. This aid came at a price. You cannot expect your subjects to fight for freedom and democracy and when the war is over not give them this freedom and democracy for a second time. Similar promises had been made to India during the outbreak of the Great War but those promises were not kept. After the war, Britain elected its first Labour MP by a landslide who was an advocate for decolonisation, and so it begun. Two years after the Second World War the most prized possession of the Empire, the Jewel in the Crown, the main reason for Britain’s imperial ambitions, gained independence. The end of the Empire was near.
What also played an important role in the process of decolonisation was the creation of the United Nations. The Charter of the United Nations established, in Chapter XI (Articles 73 and 74), the principles that continue to guide United Nations decolonization efforts, including respect for self-determination of all peoples. This means that there was pressure from the outside and willingness from the inside in favour of decolonization. After India the floodgates opened. Without India there was no possible way for Britain to maintain the Empire. This is clearly seen in population numbers; in 1945 the number of people living under British rule was an estimate of 700 million. Twenty years later it was just five million, three million of whom lived in Hong Kong. In 1997 the ‘handover ceremony’ in Hong Kong marked for many ‘the end of the Empire’. Nearly all of the former colonies are now a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, which counts as many as 52 member states today.
What economic changes led to the demise of the British Empire?
As long as a country’s economy thrives, so does the country. The same goes for empires. Without a proper economy there are no funds to govern, control and maintain an empire. By the time of the Industrial Revolution the British Empire was called the ‘workshop of the world’. Through its colonies raw materials came in from all over the world. These were processed in the factories and the finished good were sold to every corner of the world. The Empire could do so because of the Royal Navy who ‘ruled the waves’ and nearly all international trade was done by ship. The colonies enabled the British to gain an empire. Without them they would have been able to get their hands on the raw materials they needed to manufacture goods. The manufacturing process was done more efficiently in Britain than anywhere else because they could mass produce using steam power instead of relying of cottage industry. But the colonies did not only provide the raw materials. What good is it to mass produce all kinds of products without a market to sell the products? The search for new markets was a driving force behind the expansion of the Empire. The bigger it got the more resources it got, more resources means more production, more production means more profit and more profit meant that it could invest in expanding the empire. After years of expanding the British finally found the ideal colony: India. With the colonization of India the Empire gained unlimited access to its resources, markets, armed forces and labour to engage in British plantations throughout the world.
The possession of India guaranteed a surplus of income. A part of this surplus was invested in the Empire but, obviously, a large part was kept in reserve. This reserve was highly needed at the time the Great War broke out in 1914. The costs of war are usually high but the costs of the Great War were astronomical. It even came to a point where the Empire had to borrow funds from the US. After the war the Empire had a huge outstanding debt.
After the First World War the financial hits kept on coming for the Empire. It was still recovering from the war when the depression of the 1930 started. The depression reduced the funds available for colonial development such as limiting resources available to provide jobs at all levels and a decline in markets for colonial goods. As a result, social tension in the colonies grew. Often this led to violence, causing a lot of unrest in the Empire.
During the interbellum the Empire was struggling to hold the empire together. The dominions gained independence and together with Great Britain they formed the Commonwealth of Nations. This ensured economic ties with the dominions and enabled the Empire to continue trade with the dominions.
In the 1930 the Germans violated the agreements made in Versailles in 1919 by rearming and seizing land (annexing Austria and Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia). The British were still war-weary and did not want to get dragged into another expensive war. But in 1939 war came to the Empire. Germany invaded Poland and Britain had no other choice than to declare war on Germany. In spring 1940 Germany invaded France and conquered it in a couple of weeks. Shocked by the fact that Britain was now the only European country that faced the German might the British government borrowed money everywhere it could. By the end of the Second World War the total debt was ₤3.75 billion, or the equivalent of about $US 200 billion in 2017 dollars.
After two World Wars the Empire had neither the military nor financial resources to maintain its colonies. Maybe even more important: the public was completely war-weary and did not want to shed any more blood in trying to keep the failing Empire together. It can be argued that while England emerged victorious from the Second World War, but the Empire lost.
The final nail in the economic coffin for the Empire was the loss of India in 1947. The rise of the British Empire was powered by Indian labour, raw materials from India, taxes from India and troops from India. Keeping an empire together without these resources proved to be impossible.
Britain still holds some overseas territories today but it is little more than a shadow of its enormous empire.
The British Empire was built on trade and making a profit. This is why the British started colonizing far-away lands in the first place. In order to go to these far-away lands they needed a good and strong navy. Great Britain is an island so that means that there are a lot of skilled seamen. An island-nation is a lot safer from foreign invasion than a landlocked nation and it provides the choice of staying out of costly European wars. A country that is not under constant threat is a country that can flourish. It means that it can invest in its economy and its technology. The technological edge the British had over the rest of the world was caused by the Industrial Revolution. But being an island-nation also has its drawbacks as it is rather limited in natural resources. The need to colonize came from the need for more resources and raw materials to fuel the fires of industry. At first they tried their luck in the west, in what is now the USA. But the highly educated people living there did not like the idea of being ruled by a government on the other side of the globe. They fought for their independence and won. Because of this the British turned their attention towards the east, India to be specific. And if they had not done so there is a good chance that the Empire would not become the largest empire the world had ever seen. India was the key that would open the door that lead the British to empire-
building. It provided them not only with resources and raw materials, but also with; manpower, a market to sell their finished goods and tax revenues as it had a population comparable to all of Europe on its own. Almost all the territories that were added to the Empire where India-related. A good example of this is Egypt as it has the Suez Canal that enables the British to sail to India much faster.
But what goes up, must come down. Two World Wars proved too much to handle for the Empire. After the wars the treasury was empty and the British were in serious debt. It no longer had the means to maintain an empire. The British accepted that the Empire was lost. Instead of trying to suppress the nationalistic groups in the colonies which would lead to longer fighting and more bloodshed, the British mostly allowed the colonies to seek their independence. By doing this they hoped that the new governments were friendly towards Britain and continue mutual trade. This proved to be successful, as the number of former colonies of who are a member of the Commonwealth of Nations illustrates.
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