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The Expansion and Contraction of the British Empire, c.1870-1980

Jonathan Colman provides an overview of modern British Imperial History, introducing the key events and issues that students need to understand.


The British Empire – those countries under British sovereignty or control – existed as early as the sixteenth century but reached its fullest extent around 1920, when it covered some 14 million square miles of territory with over 400 million subject people. Yet by 1980 all of the major colonies had gained their independence. This article surveys the Empire’s expansion and contraction in the period c.1870- 1980, exploring the role of factors such as nationalism, economics and changing international relations.

Expansion, 1870-1914

In 1875 Britain bought almost a halfshare in the recently completed Suez Canal in Egypt, thereby securing a hold over this valuable new trade route to India. There was more expansion in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and above all in Africa in subsequent years. This rapid growth of the Empire was part of the ‘New Imperialism’, when Britain and other European powers embarked upon an accelerated phase of colonisation. This process was encouraged by the Berlin Conference of 1884, which in effect provided a charter for the division of Africa into ‘spheres of influence’.

There were various motives behind Britain’s zealous participation in the New Imperialism. Firstly, there were intensified rivalries with other powers, as states such as the newly-unified Italy and Germany, along with France, which sought to compensate for its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, looked to the non-European world for expansion. An expansionist Russia posed a particular threat in the decaying Turkish (Ottoman) Empire in the Middle East. British policy-makers wanted to secure further gains before their rivals did, in case they lost out in the international ‘balance of power’.

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