At its apogee, around 1920, the British empire was the largest ever known, reputed to cover a quarter of the world's land area, and a fifth of its population. Like all mighty oaks, this one had a tiny origin. It grew out of the seafaring voyages of the Tudor age. The first British colony was Virginia, settled in 1585, but not for long. A ship returning four years later found that the colonists had disappeared. In 1607 the colony was re‐established, and survived. Other places were also colonized, especially some Caribbean islands. Trading posts were established in India.
It was mainly a commercial empire, run by chartered monopoly companies, and defended by the Royal Navy. Britain made sure its benefits accrued to her exclusively, by a series of Navigation Acts passed in the mid‐17th cent. to prevent the colonies dealing with anyone else. The Seven Years War saw Britain take control of much of India (1756–7). That marked the peak of what later came to be called the ‘first’ British empire, which came to an end with the rebellion of the thirteen American colonies in 1776.
The loss of America (except Canada) threatened the British empire as a whole. In fact, however, it continued to expand. Even while America was being lost, Captain Cook was sniffing out new possibilities in the antipodes. The first colony there, New South Wales, was established in 1788. Sierra Leone in west Africa was established as a home for freed slaves at the same time. Other gains—*Trinidad, Malta, Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope—were made as a result of the French Revolutionary wars.
In the 1880s Britons became infused with a conscious mood of imperialism. They sought empire deliberately, instead of merely accepting its growth in what the imperialist J. R. Seeley called ‘a fit of absence of mind’. It sparked off the Scramble for Africa, which added much of the eastern and southern part of the continent to Britain's collection. The culmination of this phase was the second Boer War (1899–1902). The only substantial additions to the British empire after this were the ‘*mandated’ territories—ex‐German and Ottoman possessions—which were allocated to it in the wake of the First World War.
This was the empire's zenith. Most Britons felt it was beneficial: ‘the greatest secular agency for good that the world has seen’, according to Lord Rosebery, though there were other opinions, voiced by J. A. Hobson. The wonder was that so small a country as Britain was able to exercise so wide a sway. How was it done?
The simple answer to that is: ‘with difficulty’. Britain's empire would have been too much for her, if she really had tried to dominate it. She succeeded in holding it mainly by persuading others to take the strain. In the ‘white’ dominions these were the European settlers, who were given effective self‐government from early on in the 19th cent. Elsewhere local governors utilized divisions amongst natives, or adopted a policy of preserving native social and power structures, so as to keep disruption to a minimum. Every colony had its class of collaborators. Later they proved less willing, especially as Britain's strength came to look more vulnerable. That, in the end, was what brought the empire down, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when decolonization began.