The British Empire 

Territories of the British Empire

In order of settlement and acquisition


The British Empire was a system of control whereby the metropolitan power controlled subordinate territories. The reasons for this empire varied overtime. Territories might be acquired to provide sources of raw materials that the mother country wanted to control to guarantee a regular source of supply and a ready market for the Mother country's own manufactured products. Other reasons for annexing land included acquiring areas for settlement by dissenting groups or to provide land for migrants wanting to better themselves. Some territories were acquired because they were of strategic importance  and in the last quarter of the c19th colonies were acquired to gain prestige.

Territories were governed in various ways and at different times. Territories might be crown colonies and be directly governed by a representative appointed from London (such as a Governor). They might be protectorates by which the territory was governed by its own representatives but with British influence over its foreign policy and perhaps its economic  and financial policy. Many territories were run by chartered companies or groups of individuals who were given a royal charter by the monarch to run the territory as they saw fit. Dominions were self governing with their own legislative assembly and executive. Some territories, particularly in India, were governed by their own rulers but with a British representative at the court of the Prince. The British Empire then consisted of a range of territories consisting of different languages, cultures ranged across the world all with different climatic conditions and economies. Territories had little in common beyond their connection to London and were acquired in a random and unsystematic way, often against the will of the London government.

Here is an excellent website which shows the development of the Empire through maps.

Ireland was arguably England's first colony having been invaded by Anglo-Normans in the late c12th. The English influence gradually waned with estates given to Gaelic lords in return for paying rent to the Crown but following a rebellion by Hugh O,Neill in 1593 the English began to reassert their control.

Virginia was settled in 1607 after James I had given the London Company a charter. It was in may 1607 that that three ships carrying 104 men and boys landed in Chesapeake Bay to begin the British settlement of America and it was under the leadership of John Smith that the colony flourished.

Cape Cod: In 1620 the so called Pilgrim fathers left Southampton bound for the eastern seaboard of America. They landed in a part of the area named New England by John Smith. The Pilgrim Fathers who had come from Scrooby in Lincolnshire originally before moving to Holland in search of religious tolerance. Of the 102 passengers on board the Mayflower only a third were separatists. They landed outside of the jurisdiction  James I had established for them but nevertheless they stayed in the Cape Cod area remaining isolated until they were absorbed by the Massachusetts bay Company in 1691.

Bahamas: The Caribbean archipelago was  settled by inhabitants from Bermuda in 1629. It was associated with pirates, smuggling and during the US Civil War, blockade running.

Barbados: the island was colonised by British settlers in 1627 together with other nearby islands. It was intended as a tobacco colony with indentured servants forming the labour force but later switched to sugar with negro labour replacing the white indentured servants.

Massachusetts: In 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Company received its charter from Charles I and 17 ships with  1000 passengers made the journey to America. Boston was established in 1630 and soon after a circle of settlements had been established up to 30 miles inland. John Winthrop was elected the first Governor. The colony was based on Puritan beliefs and the lack of tolerance towards those dissenting from the views of the majority gradually began to settle elsewhere leading to the creation of other colonies.

Maryland: It was in 1633 that the 2nd Lord Baltimore with a grant of land from Charles I sent two ships carrying 200-300 passengers to begin the settlement of the province. The leaders were Roman Catholic but the settlers themselves were mainly Protestant.

Rhode Island: This colony was established from 1636 when Providence was founded by those regarded as heretics in Massachusetts who looked for more religious tolerance and who claimed that the Massachusetts had been established by cheating the Indians of their land. The land for Providence had been bought from local Indians.

Connecticut: In 1636 the Reverend Thomas Hooker led an expedition overland to the Connecticut valley and established the town of Hartford. Charles II granted a royal charter to the territory in 1662.

New Hampshire: was founded as a religious refuge in 1638 by followers of Anne Hutchinson who had helped to establish Rhode Island.

New Haven: This territory was founded in 1638 by another group from Massachusetts but was eventually absorbed into Connecticut in 1662 when Connecticut received a royal charter.

St Helena: this island in the middle of the South Atlantic was claimed by the Dutch but annexed by the East India Company in 1651. The British government assumed full responsibility in 1834 and it was  to St Helena that Napoleon was sent in 1815, and where he  died in 1821.

Jamaica: the island  was seized from Spain in 1655. Its  status was confirmed by the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 and quickly became a sugar producing island as well as being used by pirates and buccaneers. Sit Thomas Modyford was the island's first governor in 1661 being sent from Barbados and taking with him a thousand  settlers. As early as 1670 there were 57 plantations  and by 1780 more than a thousand  sugar plantations. Later coffee and rum became important exports. Slow progress towards emancipation of the slaves led to the Baptist War revolt in 1831but when  slavery was abolished there was economic chaos and a slump in sugar production. In October 1865 following years of exploitation of the ex-slave community the Morant Bay rising occurred with the brutal repression of Governor Eyre during which 439 black people were executed and 1000 homes burned. The Governor was subsequently exonerated of any charge of wrongdoing.

North and South Carolina: Between 1663 and 1665 Charles II gave grants of land to the south of Virginia to a group of eight proprietors. John Locke helped to produce a constitution that envisaged a highly stratifies society in which negro  slavery and religious tolerance were allowed. The halves of the territory were physically distinct and settled by different groups of settlers: in the north there were settlers from Virginia growing tobacco whilst in the south the majority of settlers were from Barbados, displaced by the cultivation of sugar using a slave economy. In 1712 the  proprietors appointed separate governors for North and South Carolina.

New York: In 1664 Charles II made a grant of the land between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers to his brother James. The area though was occupied by the Dutch but they were there as traders and not interested in settlement. In the Second Anglo-Dutch War the Duke of York's forces forced the surrender of the Dutch who were thereafter allowed to remain and follow their own religion and commercial interests. In 1685 new York became a royal colony.

New Jersey: From 1664 the Duke of York began to give away chunks of New York, it being too large for him to control. He began by making a grant of the land between the Hudson and the Delaware to his friends Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. They in turn sold off parts of the territory, selling parts of west Jersey to the Society of Friends and then selling east jersey to a syndicate headed by William Penn, the Quaker. In 1702 east and west jersey were united as a royal colony.

Pennsylvania: Although William Penn had acquired new Jersey as a refuge for Quakers he wanted a colony just for Quakers. In 1681 Charles II granted what became Pennsylvania to William Penn and the Quakers.

Delaware: in 1682 William Penn bought the former Swedish settlements along the Delaware River and they became a royal colony in 1703.

Gibraltar: captured by Admiral Rooke in 1704 and confirmed in British possession by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713)

New Brunswick: a Canadian maritime province that was granted to Britain by the French at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Responsible government came in 1848 and in 1868 the area became part of the dominion of Canada.

Newfoundland: British claims to the territory went back to the reign of Henry VIII. A governor was appointed in 1729 and settlement increased throughout the 18th century. Self government was granted in 1855 but it was decided not to join the Canadian federation.

Georgia: This territory was acquired in order to be a buffer against Spanish and Indian attacks on the Carolinas. The land was settled from 1732 when George II granted a 21 year charter to a group of wealthy philanthropists. It was hoped that Georgia could become an asylum for debtors and the fur trade could be developed but few debtors were sent. Attempts to set up vineyards and mulberries failed and although there had been laws preventing slavery these were eventually overturned. The economy was initially based on indigo and rice but development was slow and the population was only 6,000 by 1760. Georgia became a royal colony in 1651.

India: A British presence was established in India following the creation of the HEIC in 1600 but it was in the c18th that British power was established in India by Clive, Governor of Bengal, with the collapse of the Moghul Empire. Conflict with the French and the Nizam of Hyderabad led to the spread of British influence and with the capture of the Mysore capital in 1799, the HEIC controlled Bengal, Bihar, Benares and much of the Bay of Bengal as far as the Coromandel Peninsula. Permanent settlement of Bengal began in 1793. The early c19th saw rapid expanse of the area under British influence, mainly to secure the western regions from the Russian threat. Under Dalhousie, much progress was made with the Grand Trunk Road built and railways and the telegraph extended but attempts to change some Indian traditions eventually led to the Mutiny of 1857 after which the British government took India back under central control. It was accepted that India could never become a colony and was controlled by a Secretary of State for India. In 1876, Disraeli, in an attempt to gain more electoral support made Victoria  Empress of India. The exploitation of India though was to lead to the development of a national pride which became the focus of the Congress Party after its foundation in 1885.

Manitoba: the easternmost of Canada's prairie provinces. It became British following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, being run by the Hudson Bay Company, until in 1870 a small area around Winnipeg was transferred to the new Dominion in response to the uprising by the Metis in the Red River colony. Garnet Wolseley was sent to quell the uprising.

New South Wales: Cook discovered Botany Bay in 1770 and the botanist  Joseph Banks urged the government to use one of its harbours as a penal colony. With the independence of the American colonies it became urgent to find  another penal colony so Banks' suggestion was a timely one  for the government. The first penal colony was established in 1788 in Botany Bay when the first fleet of eleven ships arrived.  Officials hoped that penal servitude would be not only be  a check on crime but would  in time lead to the reform of criminals by making them  the basis of a new colony. The first governor of the colony was Captain Arthur Philip - he had with him male and female convicts, soldiers, free settlers and officials - and having anchored off Botany Bay decided on a better location for his ships, a nearby bay which became Sydney Harbour. Within twenty years the population of the colony had risen to 38,000 and the economy was sound, although free settlers continued to  be scarce. Sheep, introduced in 1797,  had  become the most important part of the economy with over 300,000 sheep producing 10 million pounds in exports by 1830. Penal transportation continued until 1840 by which time 80,000 inhabitants had come as convicts compared to 70,000 free  settlers. A nominated  legislature was set up in  1823 followed by a partially  elected one in 1843. Federation of the Australian colonies came in 1901.

Sierra Leone: was associated with the slave trade from 1562 and later used by the Royal African Company. The spread of ideas on the emancipation of slaves led to the creation of the Sierra Leone Company in  1790 which bought land and founded Freetown as a  settlement for 60 Europeans and 400 freed slaves, mainly from Bristol and other British  ports. The Church Missionary Society became involved with the territory which was taken over by the government in 1807 after which it became a crown colony.

Cape Colony: The Dutch East India Company founded a settlement in 1662 to act as a re-provision station. During the Napoleonic Wars the British seized the colony in 1795 and restored the colony to the Dutch in 1802 before seizing it again in 1806. It was eventually ceded to Britain in 1814. Administration was at first autocratic before representative government was established in 1853. During this time there was an exodus from 1835 of the Dutch settlers who wanted to escape the British administration and particularly the abolition of slavery in 1834. there were also five military campaigns fought against Bantu Kaffirs and Zulus. In 1843 Cape Colony assumed responsibility for the territory of Natal. In 1852 the British recognised the Boer colony of the Transvaal and two years later recognised the creation of the Orange River colony.

Ceylon: the island was annexed to the Madras presidency of the HEIC in 1796. Previously Portuguese traders had established settlements but in 1658 lost them to the Dutch East India Company. Ceylon was declared a British colony in 1802 although at that time the central Sinhalese Kandyan Kingdom had not been destroyed. The main products were tea and rubber exported from the main port of Galle.

Malta: In 1802 during the Napoleonic Wars, the Maltese people asked for British protection and for their civil and religious rights to be acknowledged. The islands (of Malta and Gozo) were formally annexed in 1814 and Grand Harbour, Valetta, became an important base for the Mediterranean fleet until 1979. During WW1, the island became a hospital base for the invasion of Gallipoli.

Trinidad: an island captured from the Spanish in 1797 and ceded to Britain in 1802 along with Tobago. The two islands became a joint colony in 1888.

Ionian Islands: islands off the north west coast of Greece including Corfu, most of which were occupied by the British from 1809. The islands were treated as a Protectorate by the British to protect the Christian inhabitants and governed by a High Commissioner. In 1864 the islands were granted to the Greek government.

Mauritius: Martinique was seized by the Royal Navy in 1810 and then formally annexed in 1814 at the Treaty of Paris, becoming a Crown Colony with an important naval base. The island's economy was based on sugar production and following the abolition of slavery indentured workers from India were brought in to supply labour to the industry.

Ascension: a volcanic island in the South Atlantic which was garrisoned by the British in 1815, fearing that it might serve as a base for a rescue effort of Napoleon from St Helena. The island was a cable station under Admiralty control until 1922 when it came under the administration of the Colonial Office.

Bermuda: this territory is still a dependant colony. It was inhabited from 1819 after a ship bound for Virginia foundered on its coast and then became part of the territories administered by the Virginia Company in 1612,  becoming  a crown colony in 1684.

British Guyana: the only British territory on the South American mainland. It was first settled by the Dutch in 1616 but occupied by the British in 1796 and 1803. In 1831 the settlements were brought together to form the colony of British Guyana. With the abolition of slavery migrants from the East Indies were settled to work the sugar plantations.

New Zealand: the islands were visited by whalers, sealers and timber traders from the 1790s. The first Christian mission was established in the Bay of Plenty in 1814 before Wakefield and the New Zealand Company brought large scale emigration to the islands in the 1830s. To head off a possible French interest in the islands, in 1840 Captain William Hobson was sent to establish British sovereignty and sign a treaty with the local Maoris (1840 Treaty of Waitangi). A separate colony was established in 1841 and much of the early development of towns was through the New Zealand Company. In 1852 a quasi federal structure was created by Governor Grey, with self government following in 1856. The economy of the islands became to be based on wool and with the coming of refrigeration in the 1880s, exports of meat began and became a major industry.

Hong Kong: the island was taken by the British during the 1st Opium War in 1841. Official annexation came with the Treaty of Nanking, 1842, and the island became a Crown Colony in 1843. Kowloon was acquired in 1860 and in 1898 the New Territories were leased from China.  The colony developed as Britain's main naval and trading base in the far east with a railway to Canton in China opened in 1910.

Natal: a coastal settlement was established in 1824, mainly for hunters. In 1835 the town of Durban was founded (named after D'Urban, Governor of the Cape Province). Meanwhile forty miles inland the Boers established a capital for their settlers who had come from the Cape Province during the Great Trek. The Boers called their settlement Natalia but in 1843 this was annexed by the British and joined to Cape Province. In 1856 the separate colony of Natal was established. There was an important sugar industry which led to the importation of indentured labour from India. Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa in 1877 to attempt to create a federation of the various white settler colonies but only succeeded in creating an uprising of the Zulu nation and the debacle of Isandhlwana. Boer troops entered Natal during the First Boer War, defeating British forces at Majuba Hill in 1881 and then again during the Second Boer War in 1899 when they laid siege to Ladysmith and held up Buller's relief force at Colenso defeating them in a number of engagements including at Spion Kop.

Gambia: is made up of territory on both sides of the Gambia river extending for 200 miles inland. The area was discovered by Portuguese traders in the c15th and English traders followed  from 1587. British rights were established in 1783 and in 1816 a garrison was established on a nearby island to ensure compliance with the abolition of the slave trade. The Gambia became a Crown Colony in 1843 and its borders were established in 1888 following discussions with the French. The main export was ground nuts but due to the prevalence of disease the colony was never an economic asset.

British Kaffraria: a region between the Great Kei River and Natal became a Crown Colony from 1847 to 1866 when it was annexed to the Cape Colony.

Bahrain: an archipelago in the Persian Gulf that became a protectorate in 1861, having previously been an independent emirate that had signed treaties with the British. Treaties on defence arrangements with the British were signed in 1882 and 1892.

Burma: the HEIC established three trading stations by 1612. The Burmese had established some of its former power by the early c19th so that by 1824 it was considered a threat to the British trading interests of Assam and Bengal. After the 1st Burmese war of 1824-6, Assam, Arakan and Tenasserim were annexed. Following a second war in 1852, Lord Dalhousie annexed Pegu. In 1862 several of these territories were joined together as British Lower Burma. In 1885 King Thebaw, encouraged by the French, confiscated the property of the Bombay-Burma Company. A strong British army deposed Thebaw and Burma was administered from India as an Indian province until 1937 when it received non-colonial status and was given limited self-government.

Basutoland: a mountainous enclave that was home to a number of tribes who had fled the Zulus and then the Boers. British protection was granted in 1868 although the territory was absorbed into the Cape Colony in 1871. Direct control from London was restored in 1882 and this remained the arrangement for 70 years.

Fiji: These islands were visited by Cook in 1774 and following the mutiny on the Bounty Bligh surveyed them in 1789. Following talks with tribal leaders, the island was declared a Crown Colony in 1874. Indians were then  brought in to work the sugar plantations.

Egypt: never formally a part of the British Empire but it was a British Protectorate from 1914 to 1922. It was subjected to an element of British control following the British invasion led by General Garnet Wolseley in 1882 which had been sent to Egypt to quell a nationalist revolt led by Arabi Pasha. For four years from 1878 Britain together with France had taken on the administration of Egypt which was virtually bankrupt at a time when British and French investment in Egypt, particularly the newly built Suez Canal, was very high. The revolt by Pasha threatened British interests in the country, now holding a strategic position on the route to India. The military occupation became semi-permanent as a result of a rebellion in the Sudan then occupied by Egyptian forces and the administration of the country particularly its financial arrangements were overseen by British officials. Alexandria became the principal base for the Royal Navy in the eastern Mediterranean, 5,000 British troops were stationed in Egypt and by the end of the c19th over half of Egypt's trade was with Britain.

Bechuanaland: the territory was claimed in 1885 becoming a Crown Colony and the land north of the Molopo was designated to the British South Africa Company in 1889. The Crown Colony was absorbed into the Cape Colony in 1895. The three main chiefs were given an assurance that provided  they gave their assent to a railway from Mafeking to Bulawayo, the region north of the Molopo would remain a protectorate. This arrangement remained for 70 years.

Nigeria: earliest British involvement began with the taking of  Lagos in 1851 for use as a naval  base for the squadron involved in stopping the slave trade. The territory was administered from Sierra  Leone initially until a separate colony was  established in 1886. The government reluctantly established the crown colony only after French and German interest in the palm oil trade. At the same time the Royal Niger Company negotiated treaties with many inland tribal leaders until in 1900 all of the Company's land was passed over to the British government which established the protectorate of Southern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria.

Maldives: an archipelago of 2,000 coral islands which were taken under British Protection in 1887 and administered from Ceylon.

Brunei: the Sultanate was a British protectorate from 1888 until 1983.

Mashonaland: an area in the north east of Zimbabwe which from 1889 to 1923 was administered by the British South African Company before becoming part of Southern Rhodesia.

Matabeleland: the home of the Ndebele people during the scramble for Africa. Their king, Lobengula in 1888 granted to Cecil Rhodes the right to develop the area's minerals. The Ndebele rose up against the British in 1893, but the uprising was put down by Rhodes.

Nyasaland: became a British protectorate in 1891.

Kenya: The coast of Kenya has a history of association with traders going back to the c10th. Vasco da Gama visited in 1498 and Portuguese traders established posts from 1505. Trading communities were also established by Arabs from Oman. The inland was left undisturbed until the coming of missionaries in 1848 and the opening up of farmland by the British East Africa Company from 1888. In 1895 a protectorate was established which led to a steady flow of settlers and the construction of the Uganda railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. The protectorate did not become a Crown Colony until 1920.

Malaya: The East India Company first established a presence in the Straits before in 1896 a British Protectorate was established.

Kuwait: in 1899 the emirate became a British Protectorate which gave the Amir increased protection against encroachment from the Turks.