British Empire

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British Empire,

overseas territories linked to Great Britain in a variety of constitutional relationships, established over a period of three centuries. The establishment of the empire resulted primarily from commercial and political motives and emigration movements (see imperialismimperialism,
broadly, the extension of rule or influence by one government, nation, or society over another. Early Empires

Evidence of the existence of empires dates back to the dawn of written history in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, where local rulers extended their
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); its long endurance resulted from British command of the seas and preeminence in international commerce, and from the flexibility of British rule. At its height in the late 19th and early 20th cent., the empire included territories on all continents, comprising about one quarter of the world's population and area. Probably the outstanding impact of the British Empire has been the dissemination of European ideas, particularly of British political institutions and of English as a lingua franca, throughout a large part of the world.

The First Empire

The origins of the empire date from the late 16th cent. with the private commercial ventures, chartered and encouraged by the crown, of chartered companieschartered companies,
associations for foreign trade, exploration, and colonization that came into existence with the formation of the European nation states and their overseas expansion. An association received its charter from the state and sometimes had state support.
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. These companies sometimes had certain powers of political control as well as commercial monopolies over designated geographical areas. Usually they began by setting up fortified trading posts, but where no strong indigenous government existed the English gradually extended their powers over the surrounding area. In this way scattered posts were established in India and the East Indies (for spices, coffee, and tea), defying Portuguese and later Dutch hegemony, and in Newfoundland (for fish) and Hudson Bay (for furs), where the main adversaries were the French.

In the 17th cent. European demand for sugar and tobacco led to the growth of plantations on the islands of the Caribbean and in SE North America. These colonies, together with those established by Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters in NE North America, attracted a considerable and diversified influx of European settlers. Organized by chartered companies, the colonies soon developed representative institutions, evolving from the company governing body and modeled on English lines.

The need for cheap labor to work the plantations fostered the growth of the African slave trade. New chartered companies secured posts on the African coasts as markets for captured slaves from the interior. An integrated imperial trade arose, involving the exchange of African slaves for West Indian molasses and sugar, English cloth and manufactured goods, and American fish and timber. To achieve the imperial self-sufficiency required by prevailing theories of mercantilismmercantilism
, economic system of the major trading nations during the 16th, 17th, and 18th cent., based on the premise that national wealth and power were best served by increasing exports and collecting precious metals in return.
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, and, more immediately, to increase British wealth and naval strength, the Navigation ActsNavigation Acts,
in English history, name given to certain parliamentary legislation, more properly called the British Acts of Trade. The acts were an outgrowth of mercantilism, and followed principles laid down by Tudor and early Stuart trade regulations.
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 were passed, restricting colonial trade exclusively to British ships and making England the sole market for important colonial products.

Developments in the late 17th and early 18th cent. were characterized by a weakening of the Spanish and Dutch empires, exposing their territories to British encroachment, and by growing Anglo-French rivalry in India, Canada, and Africa. At this time the British government attempted to assert greater direct control over the expanding empire. In the 1680s the revision of certain colonial charters to bring the North American and West Indian colonies under the supervision of royal governors resulted in chronic friction between the governors and elected colonial assemblies.

The early 18th cent. saw a reorganization and revitalization of many of the old chartered companies. In India, from the 1740s to 1763, the British East India CompanyEast India Company, British,
1600–1874, company chartered by Queen Elizabeth I for trade with Asia. The original object of the group of merchants involved was to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade with the East Indies.
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 and its French counterpart were engaged in a military and commercial rivalry in which the British were ultimately victorious. The political fragmentation of the Mughal empire permitted the absorption of one area after another by the British. The Treaty of Paris (1763; see under Paris, Treaty ofParis, Treaty of,
any of several important treaties, signed at or near Paris, France. The Treaty of 1763

The Treaty of Paris of Feb. 10, 1763, was signed by Great Britain, France, and Spain.
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) firmly established the British in India and Canada, but the financial burdens of war involved the government in difficulties with the American colonies. The success of the American RevolutionAmerican Revolution,
1775–83, struggle by which the Thirteen Colonies on the Atlantic seaboard of North America won independence from Great Britain and became the United States. It is also called the American War of Independence.
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 marked the end of the first British Empire.

The Second Empire

The voyages of Capt. James Cook to Australia and New Zealand in the 1770s and new conquests in India after 1763 opened a second phase of territorial expansion. The victories of the Napoleonic WarsNapoleonic Wars,
1803–15, the wars waged by or against France under Napoleon I. For a discussion of them see under Napoleon I.
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 added further possessions to the empire, among them Cape Colony, Mauritius, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, British Guiana (Guyana), and Malta. During the second empire mercantilist ideals and regulations were gradually abandoned in response to economic and political developments in Great Britain early in the 19th cent. Britain's new industrial supremacy lent greater force to doctrines of free tradefree trade,
in modern usage, trade or commerce carried on without such restrictions as import duties, export bounties, domestic production subsidies, trade quotas, or import licenses.
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, which, as part of their critique of mercantilism, questioned the economic value of political ties between the colonies and the mother country.

The plight of large nonwhite populations within the empire became a matter of concern to humanitarians. Abolition of the slave trade (1807) and of slavery (1833) was accompanied in the colonies by efforts to improve the lot of indigenous groups. Better communications and the establishment of a regular civil service facilitated the development of a more efficient colonial administration. But the growth, notably in the English-speaking colonies, of national identity and of relative national self-sufficiency, as well as a trend of opinion in Britain favoring colonial self-government, made the British, now engaged in liberalizing their own governing institutions, willing to concede certain powers of self-government to the white colonies. In 1839, Lord Durham, in response to unrest in Canada, issued his "Report on the Affairs of British North America." Durham stated that to retain its colonies Britain should grant them a large measure of internal self-government.

The British North America ActBritish North America Act,
law passed by the British Parliament in 1867 that provided for the unification of the Canadian provinces into the dominion of Canada. Until 1982 the act also functioned as the constitution of Canada.
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 of 1867 inaugurated a pattern of devolution followed in most of the European-settled colonies by which Parliament gradually surrendered its direct governing powers; thus Australia and New Zealand followed Canada in becoming self-governing dominions. On the other hand, the British assumed greater responsibility in Africa and in India, where the Indian MutinyIndian Mutiny,
1857–58, revolt that began with Indian soldiers in the Bengal army of the British East India Company but developed into a widespread uprising against British rule in India. It is also known as the Sepoy Rebellion, sepoys being the native soldiers.
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 had resulted (1858) in the final transfer of power from the East India Company to the British government. To govern territories with large indigenous populations, the crown colony system was developed. Such colonies, of which one of the most enduring was Hong Kong, were ruled by a British governor and consultative councils composed primarily of the governor's nominees; these, in turn, often delegated considerable powers of local government to local rulers.

In the later decades of the 19th cent. there occurred a revival of European competition for empire in which the British acquired or consolidated vast holdings in Africa—such as Nigeria, the Gold Coast (later Ghana), Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Egypt—and in Asia—such as Burma (Myanmar) and Malaya. The size and wealth of the empire and the anxieties produced by European colonial competition stimulated a desire for imperial solidarity. The Imperial ConferenceImperial Conference,
assembly of representatives of the self-governing members of the British Empire, held about every four years until World War II. The meetings prior to 1911—in 1887, 1897, 1902, and 1907—were known as Colonial Conferences, and were chiefly
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, begun in 1887, represented an attempt to strengthen Britain's ties with those colonies that had become self-governing territories.

From Empire to Commonwealth

World War I brought the British Empire to the peak of its expansion, but in the years that followed came its decline. Victory added, under the system of mandatesmandates,
system of trusteeships established by Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations for the administration of former Turkish territories and of former German colonies.
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, new territories, including Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, and several former German territories in Africa and Asia. Imperial contributions had considerably strengthened the British war effort (more than 200,000 men from the overseas empire died in the war; the dominions and India signed the Versailles Treaty and joined the League of Nations), but at the same time expectations were raised among colonial populations that an increased measure of self-government would be granted.

Nationalist agitation against economic disparities, often stimulated by acts of racial discrimination by British settlers, was particularly strong in India (see Indian National CongressIndian National Congress,
Indian political party, founded in 1885. Its founding members proposed economic reforms and wanted a larger role in the making of British policy for India.
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) and in parts of Africa. Although loath to lessen its hold over countries it had done much to develop, and thereby to incur great economic and political loss, Britain gradually capitulated to the pressures of nationalist sentiment. Iraq gained full sovereignty in 1932; British privileges in Egypt were modified by treaty in 1936; and concessions were made toward self-government in India and later in the African colonies.

In 1931 the Statute of WestminsterWestminster, Statute of,
1931, in British imperial history, an act of the British Parliament that gave formal recognition to the autonomy of the dominions of the British Empire and was in effect the founding charter of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
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 officially recognized the independent and equal status under the crown of the former dominions within a British Commonwealth of NationsCommonwealth of Nations,
voluntary association of Great Britain and its dependencies, certain former British dependencies that are now sovereign states and their dependencies, and the associated states (states with full internal government but whose external relations are
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, thus marking the advent of free cooperation among equal partners. After World War II self-government advanced rapidly in all parts of the empire. In 1947, India was partitioned and independence granted to the new states of India and Pakistan. In 1948 the mandate over Palestine was relinquished, and Burma (Myanmar) gained independence as a republic. Other parts of the empire, notably in Africa, gained independence and subsequently joined the Commonwealth. In 1997 Hong Kong passed to China and, in the opinion of many historians, the British Empire definitively ended.

While the empire may have faded into history, Great Britain still continues to administer many dependencies throughout the world. They include Gibraltar in the Mediterranean; the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, and St. Helena (including Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) in the South Atlantic; Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies; and Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. These dependencies have varying degrees of self-government. In 1982 Britain clashed with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, retaking them by force after Argentina, which also claims them, had invaded and seized the islands.


See The Cambridge History of the British Empire (8 vol., 1929–1963); R. A. Huttenback, The British Imperial Experience (1966); J. A. Williamson, A Short History of British Expansion (2 vol., 6th ed. 1967); C. E. Carrington, The British Overseas (2d ed. 1968); C. Cross, The Fall of the British Empire (1968); G. S. Graham, A Concise History of the British Empire (1970); C. Barnett, The Collapse of British Power (1972); T. O. Lloyd, The British Empire, 1558–1982 (1984); A. Clayton, The British Empire as a Superpower, 1919–1939 (1986); A. J. Christopher, The British Empire at Its Zenith (1988); P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688–2000 (rev. ed. 2003); N. Ferguson, Empire (2003); S. Schama, A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776–2000 (2003); P. Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (2008); P. Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997 (2008); J. Darwin, The Empire Project (2009) and Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (2013); D. Gilmour, The British in India (2019).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

British Empire


the designation given to the aggregate of Great Britain and its colonial possessions. The term “British Empire” came into official use in the mid-1870’s.

The first colonial seizures by England date back to the epoch of feudalism. In the 12th century the conquest of Ireland began. In a later period, with the ripening of capitalist relations within English feudalism, England began its colonial policy proper. In 1583 the island of Newfoundland was seized, and in 1607 the first English colony in North America (Virginia) was founded. In wars at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century England dealt a number of heavy blows to Spain, its chief rival at sea and the biggest colonial power of the time. Large-scale monopolistic trading companies were formed in England, including the East India Company (1600). These companies not only carried on trade with overseas countries but also began the seizure of strongholds in Asia and Africa. In this period the English policy of colonial seizures, although it was directly related to the development of trade and industry, was determined mainly by the interests of the aristocracy, which was seeking to acquire overseas territories for the consolidation of its feudal land monopoly.

With the establishment of the capitalist system in England as a result of the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, English colonial expansion intensified. In wars in 1652-54, 1665-67, and 1672-74, England defeated Holland and captured a number of territories in North America. In the mid-17th century, Portugal and its large colonial empire became dependent on England. During the War of the Spanish Succession, Great Britain (the name that became established after 1707 for the united kingdom of England and Scotland) seized Gibraltar and new territories in North America. In the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, Great Britain dealt a heavy blow to feudal-absolutist France, which by that time had become its chief rival in the struggle for commercial and colonial hegemony, and fatally undermined Spain’s colonial might. The English annexed French Canada and installed their rule in North America. The conquest of India unfolded: the East India Company took over Bengal in 1757. “The events of the Seven Years’ War transformed the East India Company from a commercial into a military and territorial power. It was then that the foundation was laid of the present British Empire in the East,” wrote K. Marx in 1853 (K. Marx, and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 9, p. 152).

The formation of the British colonial empire was a constituent part of the single world-historical process of the establishment of capitalism, which occurred most swiftly in Great Britain. The exploitation of colonies (especially India), along with the slave trade, was one of the principal aspects of the primary accumulation of capital in that country and contributed in large measure to the Industrial Revolution. The development of capitalist relations in the colonies (above all in India) was hampered by the policy of the mother country, which sought to preserve the feudal and prefeudal forms of land ownership. The situation of the British colonies in North America was different. These colonies were populated by English settlers, while Indian tribes were driven from their lands and annihilated. In the North American colonies, despite the resistance of the mother country, capitalist relations developed relatively quickly.

In the last quarter of the 18th century, the British Empire experienced its first crisis. As a result of the War of Independence in North America (1775-83), Great Britain lost 13 North American colonies. English capitalism overcame this crisis comparatively easily. As a result of wars with Napoleon’s France, Great Britain triumphed in the struggle for colonial and commercial supremacy. The Congress of Vienna (1814-15) secured for Great Britain the Cape Colony (South Africa), Malta, Ceylon, and other territories that it had seized in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The victory over France and the establishment of Great Britain’s domination of the sea promoted an increase in its colonial expansion in all parts of the world. In the first half of the 19th century Great Britain, in the main, completed the conquest of India and was colonizing Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. As a result of the Opium Wars of 1840-42 (in Russian, the Anglo-Chinese War) and 1856-60 (the Anglo-French-Chinese War), the first unequal treaties were imposed on China, and a number of Chinese ports were forcibly opened for British trade. Great Britain seized the island of Hsiangkang (Hong Kong), which was subsequently turned into a base for British expansion in China.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, two distinguishing features of imperialism were manifested in Great Britain: vast colonial possessions and a monopolistic position on the world market. In this period a system of economic relations was evolving within the British Empire, based on the domination of the mother country, which used the colonies as sources of raw materials and markets. The growing competition of British industry was having an increasingly destructive effect on the economies of the colonies. The import of British industrial goods led to the ruin of local domestic industry (especially in India, where cheap English fabrics caused no less devastating consequences than the military expeditions of the colonialists) and led to the destruction of the alliance between the craftsmen and the farmers, on which the rural community was based in most colonies. Relying on the support of the exploiter (most often feudal) classes of the colonies, the British colonialists practiced on a wide scale in the colonies the principle of “divide and rule”; in India, enmity was artificially inflamed between Hindus and Muslims and between individual provinces and principalities.

The intensification of the British colonial yoke caused a number of anticolonial revolts. The largest of them was the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59, which threatened British rule in India and forced the colonialists to change the system of government of India. In 1858 the East India Company was liquidated; India became a crown colony, and in 1876 the English Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India.

A special case was the settled colonies (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), a large part of whose population was composed of emigrants from Great Britain (in Canada, from Great Britain and France). By the mid-19th century, during a tenacious struggle (revolts in Canada in 1837-38, in Australia in 1854), these colonies achieved internal self-government (in 1867, Canada became the first British dominion) and began to develop as overseas branches of British capitalism; their ruling circles regarded the remaining colonies as being under their joint ownership with the English bourgeoisie.

In the last quarter of the 19th century Great Britain, despite the loss of its world industrial monopoly, not only preserved but substantially enlarged its colonial empire. The struggle for the capture of not yet divided territories and for the strengthening of the British Empire was the core of British foreign policy. Making use of its supremacy at sea and of its vast network of naval bases and strongholds, the British colonialists waged numerous colonial wars. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, enormous territories were taken over on the western and eastern coasts of Africa. With the seizure of Cyprus (1878), the establishment of control over the Suez Canal (1875) and of British rule in Egypt (1882), and with the completion of the conquest of Burma (1885), Great Britain’s position in vast regions of Asia and Africa was solidified. After bloody wars, Great Britain established a de facto protectorate over Afghanistan. In 1898, under the guise of a “lease,” it seized from China the port of Weihaiwei andcompleted the seizure of the peninsula of Jiulong (Kowloon).

Great Britain entered the age of imperialism as the possessor of an enormous colonial empire that provided it with monopolistic markets and spheres for investment. “In this case, enormous exports of capital,” V. I. Lenin pointed out, “are bound up most closely with vast colonies” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, p. 361). By the end of 1913 the countries of the British Empire accounted for about half of all British investments abroad (£1,780,000,000 out of £ 3,763,000,000). The exploitation of the colonies led to the intensification of the features of parasitism and decay in the British economy. The desire of British capitalists to preserve and enlarge the British Empire remained one of the determining factors of Great Britain’s foreign policy. This purpose was served by a naval-arms race and an increase in the army and the colonial bureaucracy. The British Empire was a complex political-economic system, all of whose members were closely tied to the mother country and obeyed it. This situation was promoted, in large part, aside from direct political and military coercion, by the system of economic relations that had evolved and that made the countries of the empire fully dependent on Great Britain.

Despite tenacious resistance by the mother country, industry was developing in the countries of the British Empire (especially in the settled colonies and India); a national bourgeoisie and a proletariat were taking shape and becoming an increasingly serious force in political life. The Russian Revolution of 1905-07 was a major influence on the development of the national liberation movement in the British Empire. The Indian National Congress in 1906 put forth a demand for self-government for India. However, the British authorities brutally suppressed the anticolonial activities.

In the first decades of the 20th century the dominions of the Commonwealth of Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), the Union of South Africa (1910), and Newfoundland (1917) were formed. The governments of the dominions were called to discuss questions of the foreign policy and defense of the British Empire at the imperial conferences. The capitalists of the dominions participated with the British capitalists in the exploitation of the colonial part of the British Empire. By V. I. Lenin’s definition, this was the participation of the dominions in the imperialism of the mother country. In addition to this, “local imperialism” by the dominions was developing, manifested at that time in their effort to subordinate certain parts of the British Empire to their influence (ibid., vol. 28, p. 511).

In the late 19th century and early 20th, particular importance was acquired by Anglo-German imperialist contradictions (including their colonial and maritime rivalry), which played the principal role in the onset of World War I (1914-1918). Great Britain’s entry into the war automatically entailed the participation of the dominions as well. (See the state of the British Empire before World War I in Table 1.) Great Britain’s dominance in fact extended also to Egypt (area, 995,000 sq km; population, over 11,000,000), Nepal (area, 140,000 sq km; population, about 5,000,000), Afghanistan (area, 650,000 sq km; population, about 6,000,000) and to Hsiangkang (Hong Kong; population, 457,000) and Weihaiwei (population, 147,000), which were wrested from China.

World War I upset the economic relations that had evolved in the British Empire. This contributed to the stepped-up economic development of the dominions. Great Britain was compelled to recognize their rights to conduct an autonomous foreign policy. The first appearance of the dominions and India in the world arena was their participation in the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919). The dominions joined the League of Nations as autonomous members.

As a result of World War I, the British Empire expanded. The imperialists of Great Britain and the dominions annexed a number of possessions from their rivals. Mandated territories of Great Britain (Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, Tanganyika, parts of Togo and of the Cameroons), the Union of South Africa (Southwest Africa), the Commonwealth of Australia (part of New Guinea and contiguous islands of Oceania), and of New Zealand (West Samoa Islands) entered the British Empire. British imperialism expanded its positions in the region of the Near and Middle East. Many states of that region that formally did not belong to the British Empire (for example, the states of the Arabian Peninsula) in fact were semicolonies of Great Britain.

Table 1. The British Empire in 1912-13, on the eve of World War I
Mother countryArea (sq km)Population
Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales)...............230,60041,653,000
Dominions Canada...............9,974,4007,758,000
Commonwealth of Australia...............7,704,1004,802,000
New Zealand...............267,9001,128,000
Union of South Africa...............1,223,4006,212,000
Colonies In Europe:  
Ireland (the whole island was considered part of the United Kingdom)...............84,0004,383,000
In Africa:  
Ascension Island...............918,400
St. Helena Island...............4004,000
Northern Nigeria...............
Southern Nigeria
Gold Coast...............237,9001,503,000
Sierra Leone...............72,3001,403,000
Mauritius Island...............2,100378,000
Seychelles Islands...............40024,000
British East Africa (terr. of Kenya)...............582,6004,038,000
Rhodesia(N. Rhodesia, S. Rhodesia)...............1,141,2001,750,000
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan...............2,511,0003,000,000
In Asia:  
Aden (with the islands of Perim and Socotra)...............28,400158,000
India, Burma...............4,226,600315,156,000
Sarawak, North Borneo, Brunei...............204,900740,000
In America:  
Newfoundland and Labrador...............419,600245,000
British Honduras...............22,90041,000
British Guiana...............214,900299,000
Bermuda Islands...............5019,000
Bahama Islands...............11,40056,000
Jamaica Island...............11,500856,000
Trinidad Island and Tobago Island...............5,100345,000
Windward Islands...............1,300335,000
Leeward Islands...............1,800128,000
Turks and Caicos Islands...............5006,000
Falkland Islands...............15,0003,000
Barbados Island...............400173,000
In Oceania:  
Papua (colony of the Commonwealth of Australia)...............234,500271,000
Tonga Islands, Solomon Islands, Gilbert Islands and a number of lesser ones29,100201,000
Entire British Empire...............31,878,965427,467,400

Under the impact of the Great October Socialist Revolution, a powerful national liberation movement began in the colonial and dependent countries. A crisis unfolded for the British Empire and became a manifestation of the general crisis of capitalism. In 1918-22 and 1928-33 mass anticolonial actions took place in India. The struggle of the Afghan people compelled Great Britain in 1919 to recognize the independence of Afghanistan. In 1921, after a stubborn armed struggle, Ireland achieved the status of dominion (without the northern part, Ulster, which remained part of Great Britain); in 1949, Ireland was proclaimed an independent republic. In 1922, Great Britain formally recognized the independence of Egypt. In 1930 the British mandate over Iraq was brought to an end. However, one-sided “alliance treaties,” which in fact preserved British dominance, were imposed on Egypt and Iraq.

There was a further strengthening of the political autonomy of the dominions. The 1926 Imperial Conference and the 1931 Statute of Westminster officially recognized their full autonomy in foreign and domestic policy. But economically the dominions (except Canada, which was becoming increasingly dependent on the USA) remained, to a considerable extent, agrarian and raw-material appendages of the mother country. The countries of the British Empire (except Canada) joined the sterling bloc, which Great Britain created in 1931. In 1932 the Ottawa Accords were concluded, establishing a system of imperial preferences (preferential duties for trade between the countries and territories of the British Empire). This attested that ties between the mother country and the dominions were still firm. Despite the recognition of the autonomy of the dominions, the mother country basically still retained control over their foreign relations. The dominions had virtually no direct diplomatic ties with foreign states. In late 1933, Newfoundland, whose economy was on the verge of collapse as a result of heavy-handed interference by British and American monopolies, was stripped of its status of dominion and came under the administration of a British governor. The world economic crisis of 1929-33 significantly exacerbated the contradictions within the British Empire. American, Japanese, and German capital was penetrating the countries of the British Empire. However, British capital retained its dominant position in the empire. In 1938 countries of the British Empire accounted for about 55 percent of total British investments abroad (£1,945,000,000 out of £3,545,000,000). Great Britain held the principal place in their foreign trade.

All the countries of the British Empire were encompassed by a single system of “imperial defense,” whose constituent parts were military bases in strategically important points (Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Aden, Singapore, and others). British imperialism made use of the bases in its struggle to expand its influence in the countries of Asia and Africa, against the national liberation movement of the oppressed peoples.

At the very beginning of World War II (1939-45), centrifugal tendencies intensified within the British Empire. While Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa entered the war on the side of the mother country, Ireland (Eire) declared its neutrality. During the war, which brought out the feebleness of British imperialism, the crisis of the British Empire was sharply exacerbated. As a result of a number of heavy setbacks suffered in the war with Japan, Great Britain’s position was undermined in Southeast Asia. A wide-scale anticolonial movement unfolded in the countries of the British Empire.

The results of World War II, which concluded with the total defeat of the bloc of fascist states, the formation of the world socialist system, and the overall weakening of the positions of imperialism, created exceptionally favorable conditions for the struggle of the colonial peoples for their liberation and for the defense of newly acquired independence. A process of disintegration of the colonial system of imperialism, a component of which was the downfall of the British colonial empire, began to unfold. In 1946 the independence of Transjordan was proclaimed. Under pressure from the powerful anti-imperialist struggle, Great Britain was compelled to grant independence to India (1947); at the same time the country was divided according to religion into India (dominion beginning in 1947, republic since 1950) and Pakistan (dominion beginning in 1947, republic since 1956). Burma and Ceylon also embarked on an independent path of development (1948). In 1947 the UN General Assembly adopted a decision to liquidate (as of May 15, 1948) the British mandate on Palestine and to create on its territory two autonomous states (an Arab and a Jewish one). In attempting to stop the struggle of peoples for independence, the British imperialists waged colonial wars in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden and used armed force in other colonies.

However, all attempts to preserve the colonial empire failed. The overwhelming majority of the peoples of the colonial part of the British Empire achieved political independence. In 1945 the population of the British colonies was about 432,000,000, and by 1970 it was about 10,000,000. The following were freed from British colonial rule: the Sudan in 1956; Ghana (the former British colony of the Gold Coast and the former British trust territory of Togo) in 1957; Malaya (together with the former British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo [Sabah], it formed the Federation of Malaysia) in 1963 (Singapore withdrew from the federation in 1965); Somali (the former British colony of Somaliland and the former UN trust territory of Somali, which was under Italy’s administration), Cyprus, and Nigeria (in 1961 the northern part of the UN trust territory of the British Cameroons became part of the Federation of Nigeria; the southern part of the British Cameroons, after joining the Republic of Cameroon, formed the Federal Republic of Cameroon) in 1960; Sierra Leone, Kuwait, and Tanganyika in 1961; Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda in 1962; Zanzibar (in 1964, as a result of the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the United Republic of Tanzania) and Kenya in 1963; Malawi (formerly Nyasaland), Malta, and Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) in 1964; Gambia and the Maldive Islands in 1965; Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Lesotho (formerly Basutoland), and Barbados in 1966; the former Aden (until 1970, the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen; since 1970, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) in 1967; Mauritius and Swaziland in 1968; and Tonga and Fiji in 1970. Pro-British monarchic regimes were overthrown in Egypt (1952) and Iraq (1958). Independence was achieved by Western Samoa (1962), a former trust territory of New Zealand, and by Nauru (1968), a former trust territory of Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand. The “old dominions”—Canada (Newfoundland became part of it in 1949), Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—turned once and for all into states politically independent of Great Britain.

The process of disintegration of the British Empire led to the appearance in its place of the so-called Commonwealth, which comprises the majority of the liberated countries that made up the British Empire. The imperialist circles of Great Britain and of the “old dominions” seek to utilize the Commonwealth as a screen to conceal their neocolonialist policy, which is aimed at preserving their economic and political positions in the countries of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth includes territories that are still under the rule of Great Britain—Australia and New Zealand—which attests to the retention by the Commonwealth of a number of features of the old British Empire. (The African population of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia is waging a struggle for liberation from the rule of a racist regime supported by Great Britain.) Great danger for the new independent states and colonial territories that belong to the Commonwealth is posed by the economic and political expansion of the USA, the chief bulwark of present-day colonialism. The peoples of the countries of the Commonwealth continue the struggle against all forms of colonialism and neocolonialism.


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1. Chapters 24, 25.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch.,2nd ed., vol. 23.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. [Articles about British dominion in India and about the Indian Mutiny.] Ibid., vols. 9, 12.
Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadiia kapitalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch.,5th ed., vol. 27.
Lenin, V. I. “Tetradi po imperializmu.” Ibid., vol. 28.
Lenin, I. M. Obostrenie krizisa Britanskoi imperii posle vtoroi mirovoi voiny. Moscow, 1951.
Raspad Britanskoi imperii. Moscow, 1964.
Erofeev, N. A. Zakat Britanskoi imperii. Moscow, 1967.
Fox, R. Angliiskaia kolonial’naia politika. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934. (Translated from English.)
Kuchinskii, Iu. Istoriia uslovii truda v Velikobritanii i Britanskoi imperii. Moscow, 1948. (Translated from English.)
Datt, R. P. Krizis Britanii i Britanskoi imperii. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Knowles, L., and C. Knowles. The Economic Development of the British Overseas Empire, vols. 1-3. London, 1928-36.
The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vols. 1-9. Cambridge, 1929-59.
Magnan de Bornier, J. L’Empire britannique : son evolution politique et constitutionnelle. Paris, 1930.
Williamson, J. A Short History of British Expansion, 3rd ed., vols. 1-2. London, 1943-45.
Knaplund, P. The British Empire: 1815-1939. London, [1942].
Carrington, C. E. The British Overseas: Exploits of a Nation of Shopkeepers. Cambridge, 1950.
Southgate, G. W. The British Empire and Commonwealth. London, 1953.
The Concept of Empire: Burke to Attlee: 1774-1947, 2nd ed. Edited by G. Bennett. London, 1962.
Burt, A. The Evolution of the British Empire and Commonwealth From the American Revolution. Boston, [1956].
Knaplund, P. Britain, Commonwealth and Empire: 1901-1955. London, [1956].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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