1607年，在约翰·史密斯的带领下，英格兰在詹姆斯敦成立首个美洲永久定居点，由弗吉尼亚公司管理。由于1609年弗吉尼亚公司旗舰的海难，百慕大被英格兰占领并宣称拥有主权，并于1615年移交给新成立的萨默斯群岛公司。弗吉尼亚公司的特许状于1624年被撤销，弗吉尼亚的直接控制权由王室接管，从而建立了弗吉尼亚殖民地。伦敦和布里斯托尔公司成立于 1610 年，目的是在纽芬兰建立永久定居点，但基本上没有成功。1620年, 普利茅斯殖民地作为清教徒宗教分离主义者（后来被称为朝圣先辈）的避风港而建立。逃离宗教迫害成为许多英格兰准殖民者冒着艰巨风险跨大西洋航行的动机：马里兰省建立时是罗马天主教徒的避风港(1634), 罗德岛殖民地及普罗维登斯庄园(1636)是宽容所有宗教的殖民地，而康涅狄格州(1639)是公理会的天堂。卡罗莱纳省成立于1663年。随着1664年阿姆斯特丹堡的投降，英格兰获得了对荷兰殖民地新尼德兰的控制权，并将其更名为纽约。这是在第二次英荷战争后的谈判中正式确定的，以换取苏利南。1681年，宾夕法尼亚省殖民地由威廉·佩恩建立。虽然美洲殖民地在经济上不如加勒比地区成功，但这些地区拥有大片优质农田，吸引了更多喜欢温带气候的英格兰移民。
Peace between England and the Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two countries entered the Nine Years' War as allies, but the conflict—waged in Europe and overseas between France, Spain and the Anglo-Dutch alliance—left the English a stronger colonial power than the Dutch, who were forced to devote a larger proportion of their military budget to the costly land war in Europe. The death of Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain and its colonial empire to Philip V of Spain, a grandson of the King of France, raised the prospect of the unification of France, Spain and their respective colonies, an unacceptable state of affairs for England and the other powers of Europe. In 1701, England, Portugal and the Netherlands sided with the Holy Roman Empire against Spain and France in the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted for thirteen years.
In 1695, the Parliament of Scotland granted a charter to the Company of Scotland, which established a settlement in 1698 on the Isthmus of Panama. Besieged by neighbouring Spanish colonists of New Granada, and afflicted by malaria, the colony was abandoned two years later. The Darien scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland—a quarter of Scottish capital was lost in the enterprise—and ended Scottish hopes of establishing its own overseas empire. The episode had major political consequences, helping to persuade the government of Scotland of the merits of turning the personal union with England into a political and economic one.
The 18th century saw the newly united Great Britain rise to be the world's dominant colonial power, with France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage. Great Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire continued the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted until 1714 and was concluded by the Treaty of Utrecht. Philip V of Spain renounced his and his descendants' claim to the French throne, and Spain lost its empire in Europe. The British Empire was territorially enlarged: from France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain Gibraltar and Menorca. Gibraltar became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. Spain ceded the rights to the lucrative asiento (permission to sell African slaves in Spanish America) to Britain. With the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War of Jenkins' Ear in 1739, Spanish privateers attacked British merchant shipping along the Triangle Trade routes. In 1746, the Spanish and British began peace talks, with the King of Spain agreeing to stop all attacks on British shipping; however, in the Treaty of Madrid Britain lost its slave-trading rights in South and Central America.
In the East Indies, British and Dutch merchants continued to compete in spices and textiles. With textiles becoming the larger trade, by 1720, in terms of sales, the British company had overtaken the Dutch. During the middle decades of the 18th century, there were several outbreaks of military conflict on the Indian subcontinent, as the English East India Company and its French counterpart, struggled alongside local rulers to fill the vacuum that had been left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. The Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, left the British East India Company in control of Bengal and as the major military and political power in India. France was left control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, ending French hopes of controlling India. In the following decades the British East India Company gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or via local rulers under the threat of force from the Presidency Armies, the vast majority of which was composed of Indian sepoys, led by British officers. The British and French struggles in India became but one theatre of the global Seven Years' War (1756–1763) involving France, Britain, and the other major European powers.
The signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 had important consequences for the future of the British Empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power effectively ended with the recognition of British claims to Rupert's Land, and the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. Along with its victory over France in India, the Seven Years' War therefore left Britain as the world's most powerful maritime power.
During the 1760s and early 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament's attempts to govern and tax American colonists without their consent. This was summarised at the time by the slogan "No taxation without representation", a perceived violation of the guaranteed Rights of Englishmen. The American Revolution began with a rejection of Parliamentary authority and moves towards self-government. In response, Britain sent troops to reimpose direct rule, leading to the outbreak of war in 1775. The following year, in 1776, the United States declared independence. The entry of French and Spanish forces into the war tipped the military balance in the Americans' favour and after a decisive defeat at Yorktown in 1781, Britain began negotiating peace terms. American independence was acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783.
The loss of such a large portion of British America, at the time Britain's most populous overseas possession, is seen by some historians as the event defining the transition between the "first" and "second" empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist policies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 seemed to confirm Smith's view that political control was not necessary for economic success.
The war to the south influenced British policy in Canada, where between 40,000 and 100,000 defeated Loyalists had migrated from the new United States following independence. The 14,000 Loyalists who went to the Saint John and Saint Croix river valleys, then part of Nova Scotia, felt too far removed from the provincial government in Halifax, so London split off New Brunswick as a separate colony in 1784. The Constitutional Act of 1791 created the provinces of Upper Canada (mainly English speaking) and Lower Canada (mainly French-speaking) to defuse tensions between the French and British communities, and implemented governmental systems similar to those employed in Britain, with the intention of asserting imperial authority and not allowing the sort of popular control of government that was perceived to have led to the American Revolution.
Tensions between Britain and the United States escalated again during the Napoleonic Wars, as Britain tried to cut off American trade with France and boarded American ships to impress men into the Royal Navy. The US declared war, the War of 1812, and invaded Canadian territory. In response, Britain invaded the US, but the pre-war boundaries were reaffirmed by the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, ensuring Canada's future would be separate from that of the United States.
Since 1718, transportation to the American colonies had been a penalty for various offences in Britain, with approximately one thousand convicts transported per year. Forced to find an alternative location after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies in 1783, the British government turned to Australia. The coast of Australia had been discovered for Europeans by the Dutch in 1606, but there was no attempt to colonise it. In 1770 James Cook charted the eastern coast while on a scientific voyage, claimed the continent for Britain, and named it New South Wales. In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook's botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788. Unusually, Australia was claimed through proclamation. Indigenous Australians were considered too uncivilised to require treaties, and colonisation brought disease and violence that together with the deliberate dispossession of land and culture were devastating to these peoples. Britain continued to transport convicts to New South Wales until 1840, to Tasmania until 1853 and to Western Australia until 1868. The Australian colonies became profitable exporters of wool and gold, mainly because of gold rushes in Victoria, making its capital Melbourne for a time the richest city in the world.
During his voyage, Cook visited New Zealand, known to Europeans due to the 1642 voyage of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, and claimed both the North and the South islands for the British crown in 1769 and 1770 respectively. Initially, interaction between the indigenous Māori population and Europeans was limited to the trading of goods. European settlement increased through the early decades of the 19th century, with numerous trading stations established, especially in the North. In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced plans to buy large tracts of land and establish colonies in New Zealand. On 6 February 1840, Captain William Hobson and around 40 Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty is considered to be New Zealand's founding document, but differing interpretations of the Maori and English versions of the text have meant that it continues to be a source of dispute.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, goods produced by slavery became less important to the British economy. Added to this was the cost of suppressing regular slave rebellions. With support from the British abolitionist movement, Parliament enacted the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which abolished the slave trade in the empire. In 1808, Sierra Leone Colony was designated an official British colony for freed slaves. Parliamentary reform in 1832 saw the influence of the West India Committee decline. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed the following year, abolished slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, finally bringing the Empire into line with the law in the UK (with the exception of the territories administered by the East India Company and Ceylon, where slavery was ended in 1844). Under the Act, slaves were granted full emancipation after a period of four to six years of "apprenticeship". Facing further opposition from abolitionists, the apprenticeship system was abolished in 1838. The British government compensated slave-owners.
Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain's "imperial century" by some historians, around 10 × 106 sq mi（26 × 106 km2） of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire. Victory over Napoleon left Britain without any serious international rival, other than Russia in Central Asia. Unchallenged at sea, Britain adopted the role of global policeman, a state of affairs later known as the Pax Britannica, and a foreign policy of "splendid isolation". Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain's dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many countries, such as China, Argentina and Siam, which has been described by some historians as an "Informal Empire".
British imperial strength was underpinned by the steamship and the telegraph, new technologies invented in the second half of the 19th century, allowing it to control and defend the empire. By 1902, the British Empire was linked together by a network of telegraph cables, called the All Red Line.
The East India Company drove the expansion of the British Empire in Asia. The Company's army had first joined forces with the Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War, and the two continued to co-operate in arenas outside India: the eviction of the French from Egypt (1799), the capture of Java from the Netherlands (1811), the acquisition of Penang Island (1786), Singapore (1819) and Malacca (1824), and the defeat of Burma (1826).
From its base in India, the Company had been engaged in an increasingly profitable opium export trade to China since the 1730s. This trade, illegal since it was outlawed by the Qing dynasty in 1729, helped reverse the trade imbalances resulting from the British imports of tea, which saw large outflows of silver from Britain to China. In 1839, the confiscation by the Chinese authorities at Canton of 20,000 chests of opium led Britain to attack China in the First Opium War, and resulted in the seizure by Britain of Hong Kong Island, at that time a minor settlement, and other Treaty Ports including Shanghai.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British Crown began to assume an increasingly large role in the affairs of the Company. A series of Acts of Parliament were passed, including the Regulating Act of 1773, Pitt's India Act of 1784 and the Charter Act of 1813 which regulated the Company's affairs and established the sovereignty of the Crown over the territories that it had acquired. The Company's eventual end was precipitated by the Indian Rebellion in 1857, a conflict that had begun with the mutiny of sepoys, Indian troops under British officers and discipline. The rebellion took six months to suppress, with heavy loss of life on both sides. The following year the British government dissolved the Company and assumed direct control over India through the Government of India Act 1858, establishing the British Raj, where an appointed governor-general administered India and Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India. India became the empire's most valuable possession, "the Jewel in the Crown", and was the most important source of Britain's strength.
A series of serious crop failures in the late 19th century led to widespread famines on the subcontinent in which it is estimated that over 15 million people died. The East India Company had failed to implement any coordinated policy to deal with the famines during its period of rule. Later, under direct British rule, commissions were set up after each famine to investigate the causes and implement new policies, which took until the early 1900s to have an effect.
纵观整个十九世纪，大英帝国与俄罗斯帝国为了争夺随奥斯曼帝国、波斯帝国和大清帝国衰落而在亚洲逐渐扩大的地缘政治真空而在各个领域明争暗斗，这种主要集中在中亚地区的斗争被称为“大博弈”。 对于英国而言，俄国对波斯王国和奥斯曼帝国的军事胜利将其帝国野望昭示无疑。 鉴于俄国有可能通过中亚入侵印度，1839年，英国先发制人侵入阿富汗，但是第一次英阿战争以英国惨败告终。
1853年，俄国侵入土耳其控制下的巴尔干地区。出于对俄国凭借巴尔干霸权向地中海地区和中东投射影响力的恐惧，大英帝国和法兰西第二帝国组成联军攻入克里米亚，以摧毁俄国在黑海的海军设施。此为克里米亚战争，是次战争乃是不列颠治世时期英国同其它列强之间爆发的唯一一场战争，作战双方都将新兴技术和现代战术投入其中，最终俄军为联军所败。 此后二十年间，随着俄国转向远东扩张，中亚地区的大博弈一度平寂，在此期间，英国吞并了俾路支斯坦，俄国则将吉尔吉斯斯坦、哈萨克斯坦和土库曼斯坦收入囊中。英俄两国之间一度可能爆发战争，但是两国最终就势力范围问题达成妥协，并于1907年形成英俄协约。 日俄战争期间，日本联合舰队在旅顺口击败俄国海军也会缓解了俄国对英国的压力。
1869年，苏伊士运河在拿破仑三世的支持和运作下竣工并通航，沟通地中海与印度洋。尽管英国一开始极力反对该计划，在运河通航后，英国的政策还是大幅转向，苏伊士运河成为了帝国的“大动脉”。1875年，保守党首相本杰明·迪斯雷利出价四百万英镑（相当于2021年的四亿英镑），向当时负债累累的埃及统治者伊斯梅尔帕夏购得了苏伊士运河44%的股份。Although this did not grant outright control of the strategic waterway, it did give Britain leverage. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882. Although Britain controlled Egypt into the 20th century, it was officially part of the Ottoman Empire and not part of the British Empire. The French were still majority shareholders and attempted to weaken the British position, but a compromise was reached with the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, which made the Canal officially neutral territory.
With competitive French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region undermining orderly colonisation of tropical Africa, the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 was held to regulate the competition between the European powers in what was called the "Scramble for Africa" by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims. The scramble continued into the 1890s, and caused Britain to reconsider its decision in 1885 to withdraw from Sudan. A joint force of British and Egyptian troops defeated the Mahdist Army in 1896 and rebuffed an attempted French invasion at Fashoda in 1898. Sudan was nominally made an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, but a British colony in reality.
British gains in Southern and East Africa prompted Cecil Rhodes, pioneer of British expansion in Southern Africa, to urge a "Cape to Cairo" railway linking the strategically important Suez Canal to the mineral-rich south of the continent. During the 1880s and 1890s, Rhodes, with his privately owned British South Africa Company, occupied and annexed territories named after him, Rhodesia.
The path to independence for the white colonies of the British Empire began with the 1839 Durham Report, which proposed unification and self-government for Upper and Lower Canada, as a solution to political unrest which had erupted in armed rebellions in 1837. This began with the passing of the Act of Union in 1840, which created the Province of Canada. Responsible government was first granted to Nova Scotia in 1848, and was soon extended to the other British North American colonies. With the passage of the British North America Act, 1867 by the British Parliament, the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were formed into Canada, a confederation enjoying full self-government with the exception of international relations. Australia and New Zealand achieved similar levels of self-government after 1900, with the Australian colonies federating in 1901. The term "dominion status" was officially introduced at the Colonial Conference of 1907.
The last decades of the 19th century saw concerted political campaigns for Irish home rule. Ireland had been united with Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the Act of Union 1800 after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and had suffered a severe famine between 1845 and 1852. Home rule was supported by the British Prime minister, William Gladstone, who hoped that Ireland might follow in Canada's footsteps as a Dominion within the empire, but his 1886 Home Rule bill was defeated in Parliament. Although the bill, if passed, would have granted Ireland less autonomy within the UK than the Canadian provinces had within their own federation, many MPs feared that a partially independent Ireland might pose a security threat to Great Britain or mark the beginning of the break-up of the empire. A second Home Rule bill was defeated for similar reasons. A third bill was passed by Parliament in 1914, but not implemented because of the outbreak of the First World War leading to the 1916 Easter Rising.
在英国对同盟国的战争中，各殖民地和自治領都作出了贡献，提供了大量的軍事、財政和物質支持。战争期间，有超過 250 萬人在各自治領的軍隊中服役，還有來自殖民地的數千名志願者也参军作战。澳新军团在1915年加里波利战役期间英勇作战，为其民族意识产生了深远影响，这也是澳大利亚和新西兰有殖民地向主权国家过渡的分水岭。时至今日，澳大利亚和新西兰仍共同纪念澳新军团日。维米岭战役对于加拿大而言也有着相同的含义。各自治领为战争作出的贡献并没有被忽视，1917年，时任英国首相大卫·劳合·乔治邀请个各自治领总理加入帝国战争内阁，以便协调帝国战争政策。
Though Britain and the empire emerged victorious from the Second World War, the effects of the conflict were profound, both at home and abroad. Much of Europe, a continent that had dominated the world for several centuries, was in ruins, and host to the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union, who now held the balance of global power. Britain was left essentially bankrupt, with insolvency only averted in 1946 after the negotiation of a $US 4.33 billion loan from the United States, the last installment of which was repaid in 2006. At the same time, anti-colonial movements were on the rise in the colonies of European nations. The situation was complicated further by the increasing Cold War rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union. In principle, both nations were opposed to European colonialism. In practice, American anti-communism prevailed over anti-imperialism, and therefore the United States supported the continued existence of the British Empire to keep Communist expansion in check. At first British politicians believed it would be possible to maintain Britain's role as a world power at the head of a re-imagined Commonwealth, but by 1960 they were forced to recognise that there was an irresistible "wind of change" blowing. Their priorities changed to maintaining an extensive zone of British influence and ensuring that stable, non-Communist governments were established in former colonies. In this context, while other European powers such as France and Portugal waged costly and unsuccessful wars to keep their empires intact, Britain generally adopted a policy of peaceful disengagement from its colonies. In reality, this was rarely peaceable or altruistic. Between 1945 and 1965, the number of people under British rule outside the UK itself fell from 700 million to 5 million, 3 million of whom were in Hong Kong.
The pro-decolonisation Labour government, elected at the 1945 general election and led by Clement Attlee, moved quickly to tackle the most pressing issue facing the empire: Indian independence. India's two major political parties—the Indian National Congress (led by Mahatma Gandhi) and the Muslim League (led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah)—had been campaigning for independence for decades, but disagreed as to how it should be implemented. Congress favoured a unified secular Indian state, whereas the League, fearing domination by the Hindu majority, desired a separate Islamic state for Muslim-majority regions. Increasing civil unrest and the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy during 1946 led Attlee to promise independence no later than 30 June 1948. When the urgency of the situation and risk of civil war became apparent, the newly appointed (and last) Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, hastily brought forward the date to 15 August 1947. The borders drawn by the British to broadly partition India into Hindu and Muslim areas left tens of millions as minorities in the newly independent states of India and Pakistan. Millions of Muslims crossed from India to Pakistan and Hindus vice versa, and violence between the two communities cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Burma, which had been administered as part of the British Raj, and Sri Lanka gained their independence the following year in 1948. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka became members of the Commonwealth, while Burma chose not to join.
The British Mandate in Palestine, where an Arab majority lived alongside a Jewish minority, presented the British with a similar problem to that of India. The matter was complicated by large numbers of Jewish refugees seeking to be admitted to Palestine following the Holocaust, while Arabs were opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. Frustrated by the intractability of the problem, attacks by Jewish paramilitary organisations and the increasing cost of maintaining its military presence, Britain announced in 1947 that it would withdraw in 1948 and leave the matter to the United Nations to solve. The UN General Assembly subsequently voted for a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. It was immediately followed by the outbreak of a civil war between the Arabs and Jews of Palestine, and British forces withdrew amid the fighting. The British Mandate for Palestine officially terminated at midnight on 15 May 1948 as the State of Israel declared independence and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War broke out, during which the territory of the former Mandate was partitioned between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. Amid the fighting, British forces continued to withdraw from Israel, with the last British troops departing from Haifa on 30 June 1948.
Following the surrender of Japan in the Second World War, anti-Japanese resistance movements in Malaya turned their attention towards the British, who had moved to quickly retake control of the colony, valuing it as a source of rubber and tin. The fact that the guerrillas were primarily Malayan-Chinese Communists meant that the British attempt to quell the uprising was supported by the Muslim Malay majority, on the understanding that once the insurgency had been quelled, independence would be granted. The Malayan Emergency, as it was called, began in 1948 and lasted until 1960, but by 1957, Britain felt confident enough to grant independence to the Federation of Malaya within the Commonwealth. In 1963, the 11 states of the federation together with Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo joined to form Malaysia, but in 1965 Chinese-majority Singapore was expelled from the union following tensions between the Malay and Chinese populations and became an independent city-state. Brunei, which had been a British protectorate since 1888, declined to join the union.
In 1951, the Conservative Party returned to power in Britain, under the leadership of Winston Churchill. Churchill and the Conservatives believed that Britain's position as a world power relied on the continued existence of the empire, with the base at the Suez Canal allowing Britain to maintain its pre-eminent position in the Middle East in spite of the loss of India. Churchill could not ignore Gamal Abdul Nasser's new revolutionary government of Egypt that had taken power in 1952, and the following year it was agreed that British troops would withdraw from the Suez Canal zone and that Sudan would be granted self-determination by 1955, with independence to follow. Sudan was granted independence on 1 January 1956.
In July 1956, Nasser unilaterally nationalised the Suez Canal. The response of Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, was to collude with France to engineer an Israeli attack on Egypt that would give Britain and France an excuse to intervene militarily and retake the canal. Eden infuriated US President Dwight D. Eisenhower by his lack of consultation, and Eisenhower refused to back the invasion. Another of Eisenhower's concerns was the possibility of a wider war with the Soviet Union after it threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side. Eisenhower applied financial leverage by threatening to sell US reserves of the British pound and thereby precipitate a collapse of the British currency. Though the invasion force was militarily successful in its objectives, UN intervention and US pressure forced Britain into a humiliating withdrawal of its forces, and Eden resigned.
The Suez Crisis very publicly exposed Britain's limitations to the world and confirmed Britain's decline on the world stage and its end as a first-rate power, demonstrating that henceforth it could no longer act without at least the acquiescence, if not the full support, of the United States. The events at Suez wounded British national pride, leading one Member of Parliament (MP) to describe it as "Britain's Waterloo" and another to suggest that the country had become an "American satellite". Margaret Thatcher later described the mindset she believed had befallen Britain's political leaders after Suez where they "went from believing that Britain could do anything to an almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing", from which Britain did not recover until the successful recapture of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.
While the Suez Crisis caused British power in the Middle East to weaken, it did not collapse. Britain again deployed its armed forces to the region, intervening in Oman (1957), Jordan (1958) and Kuwait (1961), though on these occasions with American approval, as the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's foreign policy was to remain firmly aligned with the United States. Although Britain granted Kuwait independence in 1961, it continued to maintain a military presence in the Middle East for another decade. On 16 January 1968, a few weeks after the devaluation of the pound, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that British troops would be withdrawn from major military bases East of Suez, which included the ones in the Middle East, and primarily from Malaysia and Singapore by the end of 1971, instead of 1975 as earlier planned. By that time over 50,000 British military personnel were still stationed in the Far East, including 30,000 in Singapore. The British granted independence to the Maldives in 1965 but continued to station a garrison there until 1976, withdrew from Aden in 1967, and granted independence to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
Macmillan gave a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in February 1960 where he spoke of "the wind of change blowing through this continent". Macmillan wished to avoid the same kind of colonial war that France was fighting in Algeria, and under his premiership decolonisation proceeded rapidly. To the three colonies that had been granted independence in the 1950s—Sudan, the Gold Coast and Malaya—were added nearly ten times that number during the 1960s.
Britain's remaining colonies in Africa, except for self-governing Southern Rhodesia, were all granted independence by 1968. British withdrawal from the southern and eastern parts of Africa was not a peaceful process. Kenyan independence was preceded by the eight-year Mau Mau uprising, in which tens of thousands of suspected rebels were interned by the colonial government in detention camps. In Rhodesia, the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the white minority resulted in a civil war that lasted until the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, which set the terms for recognised independence in 1980, as the new nation of Zimbabwe.
In Cyprus, a guerrilla war waged by the Greek Cypriot organisation EOKA against British rule, was ended in 1959 by the London and Zürich Agreements, which resulted in Cyprus being granted independence in 1960. The UK retained the military bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia as sovereign base areas. The Mediterranean colony of Malta was amicably granted independence from the UK in 1964 and became the country of Malta, though the idea had been raised in 1955 of integration with Britain.
Most of the UK's Caribbean territories achieved independence after the departure in 1961 and 1962 of Jamaica and Trinidad from the West Indies Federation, established in 1958 in an attempt to unite the British Caribbean colonies under one government, but which collapsed following the loss of its two largest members. Jamaica attained independence in 1962, as did Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados achieved independence in 1966 and the remainder of the eastern Caribbean islands, including the Bahamas, in the 1970s and 1980s, but Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands opted to revert to British rule after they had already started on the path to independence. The British Virgin Islands, The Cayman Islands and Montserrat opted to retain ties with Britain, while Guyana achieved independence in 1966. Britain's last colony on the American mainland, British Honduras, became a self-governing colony in 1964 and was renamed Belize in 1973, achieving full independence in 1981. A dispute with Guatemala over claims to Belize was left unresolved.
British territories in the Pacific acquired independence in the 1970s beginning with Fiji in 1970 and ending with Vanuatu in 1980. Vanuatu's independence was delayed because of political conflict between English and French-speaking communities, as the islands had been jointly administered as a condominium with France. Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu became Commonwealth realms.
By 1981, aside from a scattering of islands and outposts, the process of decolonisation that had begun after the Second World War was largely complete. In 1982, Britain's resolve in defending its remaining overseas territories was tested when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, acting on a long-standing claim that dated back to the Spanish Empire. Britain's successful military response to retake the islands during the ensuing Falklands War contributed to reversing the downward trend in Britain's status as a world power.
The 1980s saw Canada, Australia, and New Zealand sever their final constitutional links with Britain. Although granted legislative independence by the Statute of Westminster 1931, vestigial constitutional links had remained in place. The British Parliament retained the power to amend key Canadian constitutional statutes, meaning that effectively an act of the British Parliament was required to make certain changes to the Canadian Constitution. The British Parliament had the power to pass laws extending to Canada at Canadian request. Although no longer able to pass any laws that would apply as Australian Commonwealth law, the British Parliament retained the power to legislate for the individual Australian states. With regard to New Zealand, the British Parliament retained the power to pass legislation applying to New Zealand with the New Zealand Parliament's consent. In 1982, the last legal link between Canada and Britain was severed by the Canada Act 1982, which was passed by the British parliament, formally patriating the Canadian Constitution. The act ended the need for British involvement in changes to the Canadian constitution. Similarly, the Australia Act 1986 (effective 3 March 1986) severed the constitutional link between Britain and the Australian states, while New Zealand's Constitution Act 1986 (effective 1 January 1987) reformed the constitution of New Zealand to sever its constitutional link with Britain.
On 1 January 1984, Brunei, Britain's last remaining Asian protectorate, was granted independence. Independence had been delayed due to the opposition of the Sultan, who had preferred British protection.
In September 1982 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, travelled to Beijing to negotiate with the Chinese government, on the future of Britain's last major and most populous overseas territory, Hong Kong. Under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and 1860 Convention of Peking, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula had been respectively ceded to Britain in perpetuity, but the majority of the colony consisted of the New Territories, which had been acquired under a 99-year lease in 1898, due to expire in 1992. Thatcher, seeing parallels with the Falkland Islands, initially wished to hold Hong Kong and proposed British administration with Chinese sovereignty, though this was rejected by China. A deal was reached in 1984—under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong would become a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, maintaining its way of life for at least 50 years. The handover ceremony in 1992 marked for many, including Charles, Prince of Wales, who was in attendance, "the end of Empire".
Britain retains sovereignty over 14 territories outside the British Isles. In 1983, the British Nationality Act 1981 renamed the existing Crown Colonies as "British Dependent Territories",[註 1] and in 2002 they were renamed the British Overseas Territories. Most former British colonies and protectorates are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of equal members, comprising a population of around 2.2 billion people. Fifteen Commonwealth realms voluntarily continue to share the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as their head of state. These fifteen nations are distinct and equal legal entities – the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
Decades, and in some cases centuries, of British rule and emigration have left their mark on the independent nations that arose from the British Empire. The empire established the use of the English language in regions around the world. Today it is the primary language of up to 460 million people and is spoken by about 1.5 billion as a first, second or foreign language. Individual and team sports developed in Britain; particularly football, cricket, lawn tennis, and golf were exported. British missionaries who travelled around the globe often in advance of soldiers and civil servants spread Protestantism (including Anglicanism) to all continents. The British Empire provided refuge for religiously persecuted continental Europeans for hundreds of years.
Political boundaries drawn by the British did not always reflect homogeneous ethnicities or religions, contributing to conflicts in formerly colonised areas. The British Empire was responsible for large migrations of peoples. Millions left the British Isles, with the founding settler populations of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand coming mainly from Britain and Ireland. Tensions remain between the white settler populations of these countries and their indigenous minorities, and between white settler minorities and indigenous majorities in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Settlers in Ireland from Great Britain have left their mark in the form of divided nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. Millions of people moved to and from British colonies, with large numbers of Indians emigrating to other parts of the empire, such as Malaysia and Fiji, and Chinese people to Malaysia, Singapore and the Caribbean. The demographics of Britain itself were changed after the Second World War owing to immigration to Britain from its former colonies.
In the 19th century, innovation in Britain led to revolutionary changes in manufacturing, the development of factory systems, and the growth of transportation by railway and steam ship. British colonial architecture, such as in churches, railway stations and government buildings, can be seen in many cities that were once part of the British Empire. The British choice of system of measurement, the imperial system, continues to be used in some countries in various ways. The convention of driving on the left hand side of the road has been retained in much of the former empire.
The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy has served as the template for the governments for many former colonies, and English common law for legal systems. International commercial contracts are often based on English common law. The British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council still serves as the highest court of appeal for twelve former colonies.
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Category:1583 establishments in the British Empire Category:States and territories established in 1583 Category:Former countries in Ireland Category:Historical transcontinental empires