HOW THE SUN SET ON THE BRITISH EMPIRE: AN INSIGHT INTO THE FALL OF THE LARGEST EMPIRE IN HISTORY
By Chris Hall
At its peak in 1921, the British Empire stretched from Canada to Australia and from the Falklands to Malaysia. Its navy was the bane of any nation trying to expand its empire overseas and it had beaten every major European power in war. Almost ninety years later, the British Empire has been divided up into dozens of different nations; any colonies that do remain are only small island chains or small military bases. So what was it that made this great empire fall?
The single event which caused the downfall of the British Empire was World War II. Although many reasons that will be discussed started much earlier than the war, this was definitely the trigger cause.
One of the major reasons for the fall of the British Empire was the treatment of the colonies’ citizens. Despite Britain being one of the most prosperous countries in the world, people living in India, Ireland and Africa were unhappy with their end of the deal. After centuries of the slave trade, which left Africa with a low population and constant intertribal conflict, and famine, which reduced the Irish population to reduce by a quarter, many citizens were frustrated. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, uprisings and rebellions were common, notably the Irish Easter rising in 1916 and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. This constant conflict took its toll on the British Empire, as resources depleted and more and more manpower was needed to defuse these conflicts. Once World War II started, there was no feasible way for the British government to fight abroad and against its own citizens. This led to a series of new countries gaining independence.
Another reason for the fall of the British Empire was the rise of nationalism across the colonies. Due to the treatment of the citizens of the colonies, many people felt as if they deserved self-determination and several nationalist movements started. In Ireland, the Plough in the Stars became a symbol of freedom and a new national unity. In India, Gandhi was able to ease tensions between religious groups to create an Indian national identity against the British. During World War II, many soldiers were brought into the army from places such as India and Africa, being recruited by propaganda posters. Many residents of these colonies believed that as repayment for fighting a war they did not want, they should be granted independence, meaning that nationalism and self-determination became the major political fight for the British colonies in the coming years. This newfound nationalism reinforced previous rebellions and uprisings, meaning that eventually the British caved in.
What Britain ended up trying to do to save the empire ended up being one of the main reasons why it fell – they gave too much power to the colonies. From a moral point of view, this would be correct – why should people have their homes taken away from them by overseas invaders and then not get a say in the decision-making process? Unfortunately, this was not the reason why the British gave their colonies more self-devolution. In a desperate attempt to maintain power, ‘independent’ governments were set up – mostly authoritarian dictators who were friendly to the former British regimes. The citizens of the colonies, however, saw through most of these puppet governments and founded their own governments. By the end of the 20th century, the British Empire was as we see it today – a husk of its former self.
The last major loss to the British Empire was when China gained control of Hong Kong in 1997. Even though the Empire doesn’t stand to this day, it’s influence can still be seen around the world. English is the second most widely spoken language in the world today and British culture and infrastructure has lasted decades. Many former British colonies actually made new links to the former colonial power through the Commonwealth (and potentially CANZUK in the future) and only the future can tell what will come of the remaining small colonies.