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Episode
109

The British Empire

Nov 24, 2020
History
-
21
minutes
The British Empire
India
USA
The Victorian Era
Great Britain

Discover how one small country's appetite for expansion led it to control a quarter of the world's population and a quarter of the world's land area.

Learn about the how, when, and why of the British empire, and learn about the complicated legacy it has left in Britain and abroad.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The British Empire.

[00:00:29] It’s the story of how one little island gained control over almost a quarter of the world’s population, a quarter of the total land area, and left a lasting legacy that we are still struggling to properly come to terms with.

[00:00:47] Now, the British Empire is a long and complicated subject, and 20 minutes is far too little time to do it justice. 

[00:00:57] In today’s episode we’ll go over how it started, the different stages of the empire, what life was actually like under the British, and talk about some of the complications that the imperial legacy has left the world with.

[00:01:14] So, without further ado, let’s get started.

[00:01:19] There is a saying that the sun never set on the British Empire. 

[00:01:25] At its zenith, at its greatest point, it stretched over huge swathes of the world, covering 35 million kilometres squared, with 412 million people living under its rule.

[00:01:42] It propelled English to be the world’s lingua franca, the common language, and if there were no empire, you probably wouldn’t be learning English today.

[00:01:54] The British Empire wasn’t the first empire, of course, Britain didn’t invent the concept of empire. 

[00:02:00] From the Egyptians to the Romans, The Mongols to the Ottomans, societies had sought to expand their territory for all manner of different reasons.

[00:02:12] Indeed, large parts of Britain were conquered by other empires. 

[00:02:18] It was conquered by the Romans in 84 AD, then in 1066 it was conquered again by William the Conqueror, a Norman.

[00:02:29] At the start of the Middle Ages, Britain, as a unified country, didn’t exist. England, Scotland and Wales were all separate countries. 

[00:02:40] Then at the end of the 13th century England conquered Wales, and it wasn’t until 1707 that England, Wales and Scotland united to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. 

[00:02:55] In this episode I’ll normally refer to Britain, even if the Kingdom of Britain wasn’t actually formed until 1707.

[00:03:05] Towards the end of the 15th century and during the 16th century Spain and Portugal had started their own global exploration, setting off across the Atlantic to the Americas, discovering large amounts of precious metals, growing rich off the profits, and starting their own empires in Latin America.

[00:03:29] Britain saw how profitable this naval exploration was for Spain and Portugal, and started sending ships off to discover new, virgin territory that could be claimed for Britain, to look for Britain’s El Dorado.

[00:03:48] This started as early as 1497, when the Italian Explorer John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto, was sent by King Henry VIII of England across the Atlantic. He landed in what’s now Canada, but no great settlement was made.

[00:04:10] It wasn’t to be until just under 100 years later, in 1585, that the first English colonies were formed in North America, when an explorer called Sir Walter Raleigh formed a settlement in Virginia.

[00:04:27] British settlers continued to land on the east coast of North America, claiming territory on behalf of the British monarch, on behalf of the British king.

[00:04:39] At the same time they ventured south, towards the colonies held by the Spanish and Portuguese in the Caribbean.

[00:04:48] At the start of the 17th century Britain took control of the Caribbean islands of St Kitts, Barbados and Antigua. 

[00:04:57] The British learned how to grow sugar, and built large plantations on these islands using slaves who were brought over from Africa.

[00:05:08] Now, the British Empire, especially in the Americas, was enabled by slavery. 

[00:05:14] It wouldn’t have been possible without it.

[00:05:17] It’s believed that British ships transported almost 3 million slaves from Africa to the Americas, out of a total of around 12 million Africans who were taken from their homeland, piled into ships and sold into slavery. 

[00:05:35] It’s one of the darkest parts of the story of the British Empire, which is often brushed under the carpet and not spoken about, it’s conveniently forgotten, when discussing the empire in Britain. 

[00:05:50] Especially with the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a renewed need to confront and discuss quite how awful this was, and there’s renewed discussion of how we treat people who had previously been considered masters of the British Empire. 

[00:06:10] You’ve probably seen clips of statues being torn down in Britain, and debates about things like whether names of buildings should be changed.

[00:06:22] Evidently, it’s a very complicated subject, but it’s certainly a good thing that there is a growing understanding of quite how inseparable the British Empire and the slave trade were.

[00:06:36] Boosted by favourable conditions for growing products like cotton and sugar, and powered by slave labour, Britain’s power and wealth continued to grow. 

[00:06:48] It was growing rich off the proceeds of its plantations and colonies, which were paying taxes to the British monarch.

[00:06:56] And up until the mid 18th century, the going was pretty good for Britain. 

[00:07:03] Its colonies included most of the eastern part of what’s now the US and Canada, as well as Caribbean islands such as Jamaica and Barbados.

[00:07:15] But for the colonies that were paying taxes to the British, and having their natural resources sent back to Europe, this wasn’t a great deal. 

[00:07:25] They weren’t getting much in return.

[00:07:28] For the Caribbean colonies, there wasn’t a huge amount they could do about this. 

[00:07:34] But the American colonies were growing stronger, and in 1776 thirteen American colonies joined together and declared that they would stop paying taxes to the British monarch, and they would club together to form the United States of America.

[00:07:54] The British king, King George III, didn’t think much of this, so sent troops to fight the Americans, starting the American War of Independence. 

[00:08:06] It wasn’t just the British against the Americans though. 

[00:08:09] The French, the Spanish and the Dutch joined forces with the Americans as a way to undermine British power and ultimately the Americans won the war, gaining independence from Britain on the 4th of July 1776, a day that’s now celebrated as Independence Day.

[00:08:30] For Britain, and the British Empire, this was a big problem. 

[00:08:35] These 13 colonies formed the largest and most powerful part of its empire at the time, and they were now gone, never to return. 

[00:08:46] The loss of America to the empire is often considered the end of the first British Empire, but it most definitely wasn’t the end of The British Empire.

[00:08:59] Britain had experienced the power that empire brings, so started to focus its attention elsewhere, and specifically, to the east.

[00:09:10] In 1787, as you may have learned about in the last episode on Penal Colonies, the first settlement was established in Australia. 

[00:09:21] But Australia was really a minor feature in the British Empire. 

[00:09:26] The jewel in the crown, as it was nicknamed, was India.

[00:09:32] There had actually been British settlers in India since 1608, and Britain had been building up trading outposts near the coast. 

[00:09:44] Unlike in the Americas, it didn’t go in and immediately enslave the local population.

[00:09:51] The British Empire in India was also really pushed forward by a semi-private company, not by the British government itself directly. 

[00:10:02] This company was called the East India Company, and had actually been set up in the year 1599 for the purposes of trade with India and East Asia. 

[00:10:15] Although it was a private company, it became heavily involved with politics, and it also had its own private army, with over a quarter of a million soldiers, a larger army than the British army.

[00:10:31] It grew and grew in power in India, exporting spices and tea back to Europe, and also getting heavily involved in the opium trade, triggering the Opium Wars with China in the mid-19th century.

[00:10:47] As the East India Company continued to grow and grow in strength, it started stretching its military muscles against the local population.

[00:10:57] After a series of battles, it proved victorious over the local rulers, and morphed from a purely trading company to a political and governmental organisation, essentially taking over the administration of India.

[00:11:16] This period, called Company Rule, when most of what’s now India was controlled by a British company, began in 1757 and lasted until 1858, when the rule of India was passed to the British crown.

[00:11:35] Both during the Company Rule period and while it was under the rule of the crown, the British imposed British cultural norms on the local population, and created British-style institutions in India. 

[00:11:52] Although there was some pretty awful treatment of the local Indian population, a major difference between the treatment of the Indians vs the non-British population in places like the Caribbean was that the Indians were viewed more as equals to the British, perhaps with less developed institutions, a different view of the rule of law, but a people to deal with on a similar level nonetheless

[00:12:21] In the Caribbean, the black, enslaved, population was viewed as inferior, viewed as property to be bought and sold, not even in the same category. 

[00:12:34] You can put this down to simple racism, which of course, it is. 

[00:12:38] There’s also the factor that India was initially viewed as a trading partner, merchants to do business with, rather than completely virgin territory to exploit full of culturally and racially inferior people.

[00:12:55] It’s a subject that historians are still debating, but the point is that there’s no one blanket answer to how the British treated the people living in its colonies.

[00:13:07] But the British weren’t content just with India though, and in the 19th century large parts of Africa and SouthEast Asia were also swept up into the British empire.

[00:13:20] There are almost too many to name, but modern day Cameroon, Egypt, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Malta, Myanmar, Mauritius, Oman, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe, along with many others, were all British colonies.

[00:13:40] The heyday, the peak for the British Empire came at the start of the 20th century, which is quite mad to think - this was only just over 100 years ago.

[00:13:53] Britain controlled a quarter of the Earth’s land area, with a quarter of its population ruled by the British monarch.

[00:14:02] But beneath the surface, things were starting to crumble.

[00:14:06] Throughout British colonial history there had been uprisings

[00:14:12] Some had succeeded, like the American War of Independence.

[00:14:16] Others had been brutally crushed, like the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831 or the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 

[00:14:27] But even those that were crushed, often with a large human cost, they created even more animosity in the local population towards their British rulers, and triggered debate back in Britain about whether it was indeed right to have such a large empire, and to keep so many people of different cultures and traditions under British rule.

[00:14:54] The Declaration of The Rights of Man and The Citizen had come in 1789, and there had been an increasing understanding of people’s rights to be treated as human beings, to control their own destiny and not be under the control of others.

[00:15:13] Indeed, at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 one of the big concepts promoted was the right for a country to administer itself. 

[00:15:25] It was hard, and certainly hypocritical, for Britain to promote this idea while it was the largest administrator of other countries in the history of the world.

[00:15:38] Maintaining an empire was also very expensive. 

[00:15:42] It did of course bring in large amounts of money through trade and taxes, but controlling the local population and stopping uprisings was a difficult and expensive task.

[00:15:56] At the end of the Second World War, Britain was financially in a pretty poor position and it could no longer really afford to keep its empire. 

[00:16:08] There was also a growing feeling among several colonies that had contributed hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the war effort that they had deserved the right to independence, and pro-independence movements started to bubble up across the globe.

[00:16:27] Long story short, one by one the vast majority of Britain’s colonies were either given independence by Britain or there were rebellions, and independence was declared. 

[00:16:42] Now there are only 14 colonies left, they’re called British Overseas Territories, and they’re mainly small islands, tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

[00:16:58] Although the legacy of British colonial rule is undeniable, what is still very much debated is how much was positive and how much was negative.

[00:17:09] Of course, it’s impossible to generalise here, and opinions will differ hugely depending on the country and of course within the country. 

[00:17:21] Some of the advantages that colonial rule is said to have brought include the implementation of bureaucratic institutions and the building of infrastructure. 

[00:17:33] India, for example, is now the world’s largest democracy, and the East India Company built a large railway network throughout the country that of course was left behind when the British left. 

[00:17:48] But the argument that Britain brought infrastructure, stability and culture to so called ‘barbarian’ regions is countered by the fact that we have no way to know what would have happened to these countries if they hadn't been subjected to British rule. 

[00:18:07] Japan, for example, was never colonised by the British, and has managed to develop into one of the world’s most successful countries.

[00:18:17] And looking at countries that were colonised by Britain vs those that weren’t, it’s hard to make the case that being part of the British empire left them all in a better position.

[00:18:30] There are not many success stories that one can point at of ex-colonial countries, especially in Africa. On the other hand, the one that is most commonly used as an example of a booming ex British colony is Singapore, but it’s hard to attribute its success to being part of the British Empire.

[00:18:54] Of course, the enslavement of millions of Africans is a hideous aspect of the British Empire, as is the persecution of indigenous peoples in North America and Australia, and I don’t think there are any supporters of the British Empire that would try to deny that. 

[00:19:13] So, was the British Empire a good or bad thing? 

[00:19:17] The answer to that question is definitely ‘it’s complicated’, and it’s a bit of a silly question really.

[00:19:25] Good or bad for whom? And when? And where? And why?

[00:19:31] One thing is for sure though. 

[00:19:33] It certainly did happen, it’s very complicated, and trying to avoid talking about it and pretending that it didn’t happen doesn’t help anybody.

[00:19:47] OK then, that is it for The British Empire.

[00:19:51] It’s a fascinating subject, and we really have only just scratched the surface.

[00:19:57] I know we could do individual episodes on probably a hundred different aspects of the empire, all of which would be interesting in their different ways, but I hope that this has at least given you an overview of what happened, and quite how complicated it is.

[00:20:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The British Empire.

[00:00:29] It’s the story of how one little island gained control over almost a quarter of the world’s population, a quarter of the total land area, and left a lasting legacy that we are still struggling to properly come to terms with.

[00:00:47] Now, the British Empire is a long and complicated subject, and 20 minutes is far too little time to do it justice. 

[00:00:57] In today’s episode we’ll go over how it started, the different stages of the empire, what life was actually like under the British, and talk about some of the complications that the imperial legacy has left the world with.

[00:01:14] So, without further ado, let’s get started.

[00:01:19] There is a saying that the sun never set on the British Empire. 

[00:01:25] At its zenith, at its greatest point, it stretched over huge swathes of the world, covering 35 million kilometres squared, with 412 million people living under its rule.

[00:01:42] It propelled English to be the world’s lingua franca, the common language, and if there were no empire, you probably wouldn’t be learning English today.

[00:01:54] The British Empire wasn’t the first empire, of course, Britain didn’t invent the concept of empire. 

[00:02:00] From the Egyptians to the Romans, The Mongols to the Ottomans, societies had sought to expand their territory for all manner of different reasons.

[00:02:12] Indeed, large parts of Britain were conquered by other empires. 

[00:02:18] It was conquered by the Romans in 84 AD, then in 1066 it was conquered again by William the Conqueror, a Norman.

[00:02:29] At the start of the Middle Ages, Britain, as a unified country, didn’t exist. England, Scotland and Wales were all separate countries. 

[00:02:40] Then at the end of the 13th century England conquered Wales, and it wasn’t until 1707 that England, Wales and Scotland united to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. 

[00:02:55] In this episode I’ll normally refer to Britain, even if the Kingdom of Britain wasn’t actually formed until 1707.

[00:03:05] Towards the end of the 15th century and during the 16th century Spain and Portugal had started their own global exploration, setting off across the Atlantic to the Americas, discovering large amounts of precious metals, growing rich off the profits, and starting their own empires in Latin America.

[00:03:29] Britain saw how profitable this naval exploration was for Spain and Portugal, and started sending ships off to discover new, virgin territory that could be claimed for Britain, to look for Britain’s El Dorado.

[00:03:48] This started as early as 1497, when the Italian Explorer John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto, was sent by King Henry VIII of England across the Atlantic. He landed in what’s now Canada, but no great settlement was made.

[00:04:10] It wasn’t to be until just under 100 years later, in 1585, that the first English colonies were formed in North America, when an explorer called Sir Walter Raleigh formed a settlement in Virginia.

[00:04:27] British settlers continued to land on the east coast of North America, claiming territory on behalf of the British monarch, on behalf of the British king.

[00:04:39] At the same time they ventured south, towards the colonies held by the Spanish and Portuguese in the Caribbean.

[00:04:48] At the start of the 17th century Britain took control of the Caribbean islands of St Kitts, Barbados and Antigua. 

[00:04:57] The British learned how to grow sugar, and built large plantations on these islands using slaves who were brought over from Africa.

[00:05:08] Now, the British Empire, especially in the Americas, was enabled by slavery. 

[00:05:14] It wouldn’t have been possible without it.

[00:05:17] It’s believed that British ships transported almost 3 million slaves from Africa to the Americas, out of a total of around 12 million Africans who were taken from their homeland, piled into ships and sold into slavery. 

[00:05:35] It’s one of the darkest parts of the story of the British Empire, which is often brushed under the carpet and not spoken about, it’s conveniently forgotten, when discussing the empire in Britain. 

[00:05:50] Especially with the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a renewed need to confront and discuss quite how awful this was, and there’s renewed discussion of how we treat people who had previously been considered masters of the British Empire. 

[00:06:10] You’ve probably seen clips of statues being torn down in Britain, and debates about things like whether names of buildings should be changed.

[00:06:22] Evidently, it’s a very complicated subject, but it’s certainly a good thing that there is a growing understanding of quite how inseparable the British Empire and the slave trade were.

[00:06:36] Boosted by favourable conditions for growing products like cotton and sugar, and powered by slave labour, Britain’s power and wealth continued to grow. 

[00:06:48] It was growing rich off the proceeds of its plantations and colonies, which were paying taxes to the British monarch.

[00:06:56] And up until the mid 18th century, the going was pretty good for Britain. 

[00:07:03] Its colonies included most of the eastern part of what’s now the US and Canada, as well as Caribbean islands such as Jamaica and Barbados.

[00:07:15] But for the colonies that were paying taxes to the British, and having their natural resources sent back to Europe, this wasn’t a great deal. 

[00:07:25] They weren’t getting much in return.

[00:07:28] For the Caribbean colonies, there wasn’t a huge amount they could do about this. 

[00:07:34] But the American colonies were growing stronger, and in 1776 thirteen American colonies joined together and declared that they would stop paying taxes to the British monarch, and they would club together to form the United States of America.

[00:07:54] The British king, King George III, didn’t think much of this, so sent troops to fight the Americans, starting the American War of Independence. 

[00:08:06] It wasn’t just the British against the Americans though. 

[00:08:09] The French, the Spanish and the Dutch joined forces with the Americans as a way to undermine British power and ultimately the Americans won the war, gaining independence from Britain on the 4th of July 1776, a day that’s now celebrated as Independence Day.

[00:08:30] For Britain, and the British Empire, this was a big problem. 

[00:08:35] These 13 colonies formed the largest and most powerful part of its empire at the time, and they were now gone, never to return. 

[00:08:46] The loss of America to the empire is often considered the end of the first British Empire, but it most definitely wasn’t the end of The British Empire.

[00:08:59] Britain had experienced the power that empire brings, so started to focus its attention elsewhere, and specifically, to the east.

[00:09:10] In 1787, as you may have learned about in the last episode on Penal Colonies, the first settlement was established in Australia. 

[00:09:21] But Australia was really a minor feature in the British Empire. 

[00:09:26] The jewel in the crown, as it was nicknamed, was India.

[00:09:32] There had actually been British settlers in India since 1608, and Britain had been building up trading outposts near the coast. 

[00:09:44] Unlike in the Americas, it didn’t go in and immediately enslave the local population.

[00:09:51] The British Empire in India was also really pushed forward by a semi-private company, not by the British government itself directly. 

[00:10:02] This company was called the East India Company, and had actually been set up in the year 1599 for the purposes of trade with India and East Asia. 

[00:10:15] Although it was a private company, it became heavily involved with politics, and it also had its own private army, with over a quarter of a million soldiers, a larger army than the British army.

[00:10:31] It grew and grew in power in India, exporting spices and tea back to Europe, and also getting heavily involved in the opium trade, triggering the Opium Wars with China in the mid-19th century.

[00:10:47] As the East India Company continued to grow and grow in strength, it started stretching its military muscles against the local population.

[00:10:57] After a series of battles, it proved victorious over the local rulers, and morphed from a purely trading company to a political and governmental organisation, essentially taking over the administration of India.

[00:11:16] This period, called Company Rule, when most of what’s now India was controlled by a British company, began in 1757 and lasted until 1858, when the rule of India was passed to the British crown.

[00:11:35] Both during the Company Rule period and while it was under the rule of the crown, the British imposed British cultural norms on the local population, and created British-style institutions in India. 

[00:11:52] Although there was some pretty awful treatment of the local Indian population, a major difference between the treatment of the Indians vs the non-British population in places like the Caribbean was that the Indians were viewed more as equals to the British, perhaps with less developed institutions, a different view of the rule of law, but a people to deal with on a similar level nonetheless

[00:12:21] In the Caribbean, the black, enslaved, population was viewed as inferior, viewed as property to be bought and sold, not even in the same category. 

[00:12:34] You can put this down to simple racism, which of course, it is. 

[00:12:38] There’s also the factor that India was initially viewed as a trading partner, merchants to do business with, rather than completely virgin territory to exploit full of culturally and racially inferior people.

[00:12:55] It’s a subject that historians are still debating, but the point is that there’s no one blanket answer to how the British treated the people living in its colonies.

[00:13:07] But the British weren’t content just with India though, and in the 19th century large parts of Africa and SouthEast Asia were also swept up into the British empire.

[00:13:20] There are almost too many to name, but modern day Cameroon, Egypt, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Malta, Myanmar, Mauritius, Oman, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe, along with many others, were all British colonies.

[00:13:40] The heyday, the peak for the British Empire came at the start of the 20th century, which is quite mad to think - this was only just over 100 years ago.

[00:13:53] Britain controlled a quarter of the Earth’s land area, with a quarter of its population ruled by the British monarch.

[00:14:02] But beneath the surface, things were starting to crumble.

[00:14:06] Throughout British colonial history there had been uprisings

[00:14:12] Some had succeeded, like the American War of Independence.

[00:14:16] Others had been brutally crushed, like the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831 or the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 

[00:14:27] But even those that were crushed, often with a large human cost, they created even more animosity in the local population towards their British rulers, and triggered debate back in Britain about whether it was indeed right to have such a large empire, and to keep so many people of different cultures and traditions under British rule.

[00:14:54] The Declaration of The Rights of Man and The Citizen had come in 1789, and there had been an increasing understanding of people’s rights to be treated as human beings, to control their own destiny and not be under the control of others.

[00:15:13] Indeed, at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 one of the big concepts promoted was the right for a country to administer itself. 

[00:15:25] It was hard, and certainly hypocritical, for Britain to promote this idea while it was the largest administrator of other countries in the history of the world.

[00:15:38] Maintaining an empire was also very expensive. 

[00:15:42] It did of course bring in large amounts of money through trade and taxes, but controlling the local population and stopping uprisings was a difficult and expensive task.

[00:15:56] At the end of the Second World War, Britain was financially in a pretty poor position and it could no longer really afford to keep its empire. 

[00:16:08] There was also a growing feeling among several colonies that had contributed hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the war effort that they had deserved the right to independence, and pro-independence movements started to bubble up across the globe.

[00:16:27] Long story short, one by one the vast majority of Britain’s colonies were either given independence by Britain or there were rebellions, and independence was declared. 

[00:16:42] Now there are only 14 colonies left, they’re called British Overseas Territories, and they’re mainly small islands, tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

[00:16:58] Although the legacy of British colonial rule is undeniable, what is still very much debated is how much was positive and how much was negative.

[00:17:09] Of course, it’s impossible to generalise here, and opinions will differ hugely depending on the country and of course within the country. 

[00:17:21] Some of the advantages that colonial rule is said to have brought include the implementation of bureaucratic institutions and the building of infrastructure. 

[00:17:33] India, for example, is now the world’s largest democracy, and the East India Company built a large railway network throughout the country that of course was left behind when the British left. 

[00:17:48] But the argument that Britain brought infrastructure, stability and culture to so called ‘barbarian’ regions is countered by the fact that we have no way to know what would have happened to these countries if they hadn't been subjected to British rule. 

[00:18:07] Japan, for example, was never colonised by the British, and has managed to develop into one of the world’s most successful countries.

[00:18:17] And looking at countries that were colonised by Britain vs those that weren’t, it’s hard to make the case that being part of the British empire left them all in a better position.

[00:18:30] There are not many success stories that one can point at of ex-colonial countries, especially in Africa. On the other hand, the one that is most commonly used as an example of a booming ex British colony is Singapore, but it’s hard to attribute its success to being part of the British Empire.

[00:18:54] Of course, the enslavement of millions of Africans is a hideous aspect of the British Empire, as is the persecution of indigenous peoples in North America and Australia, and I don’t think there are any supporters of the British Empire that would try to deny that. 

[00:19:13] So, was the British Empire a good or bad thing? 

[00:19:17] The answer to that question is definitely ‘it’s complicated’, and it’s a bit of a silly question really.

[00:19:25] Good or bad for whom? And when? And where? And why?

[00:19:31] One thing is for sure though. 

[00:19:33] It certainly did happen, it’s very complicated, and trying to avoid talking about it and pretending that it didn’t happen doesn’t help anybody.

[00:19:47] OK then, that is it for The British Empire.

[00:19:51] It’s a fascinating subject, and we really have only just scratched the surface.

[00:19:57] I know we could do individual episodes on probably a hundred different aspects of the empire, all of which would be interesting in their different ways, but I hope that this has at least given you an overview of what happened, and quite how complicated it is.

[00:20:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The British Empire.

[00:00:29] It’s the story of how one little island gained control over almost a quarter of the world’s population, a quarter of the total land area, and left a lasting legacy that we are still struggling to properly come to terms with.

[00:00:47] Now, the British Empire is a long and complicated subject, and 20 minutes is far too little time to do it justice. 

[00:00:57] In today’s episode we’ll go over how it started, the different stages of the empire, what life was actually like under the British, and talk about some of the complications that the imperial legacy has left the world with.

[00:01:14] So, without further ado, let’s get started.

[00:01:19] There is a saying that the sun never set on the British Empire. 

[00:01:25] At its zenith, at its greatest point, it stretched over huge swathes of the world, covering 35 million kilometres squared, with 412 million people living under its rule.

[00:01:42] It propelled English to be the world’s lingua franca, the common language, and if there were no empire, you probably wouldn’t be learning English today.

[00:01:54] The British Empire wasn’t the first empire, of course, Britain didn’t invent the concept of empire. 

[00:02:00] From the Egyptians to the Romans, The Mongols to the Ottomans, societies had sought to expand their territory for all manner of different reasons.

[00:02:12] Indeed, large parts of Britain were conquered by other empires. 

[00:02:18] It was conquered by the Romans in 84 AD, then in 1066 it was conquered again by William the Conqueror, a Norman.

[00:02:29] At the start of the Middle Ages, Britain, as a unified country, didn’t exist. England, Scotland and Wales were all separate countries. 

[00:02:40] Then at the end of the 13th century England conquered Wales, and it wasn’t until 1707 that England, Wales and Scotland united to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. 

[00:02:55] In this episode I’ll normally refer to Britain, even if the Kingdom of Britain wasn’t actually formed until 1707.

[00:03:05] Towards the end of the 15th century and during the 16th century Spain and Portugal had started their own global exploration, setting off across the Atlantic to the Americas, discovering large amounts of precious metals, growing rich off the profits, and starting their own empires in Latin America.

[00:03:29] Britain saw how profitable this naval exploration was for Spain and Portugal, and started sending ships off to discover new, virgin territory that could be claimed for Britain, to look for Britain’s El Dorado.

[00:03:48] This started as early as 1497, when the Italian Explorer John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto, was sent by King Henry VIII of England across the Atlantic. He landed in what’s now Canada, but no great settlement was made.

[00:04:10] It wasn’t to be until just under 100 years later, in 1585, that the first English colonies were formed in North America, when an explorer called Sir Walter Raleigh formed a settlement in Virginia.

[00:04:27] British settlers continued to land on the east coast of North America, claiming territory on behalf of the British monarch, on behalf of the British king.

[00:04:39] At the same time they ventured south, towards the colonies held by the Spanish and Portuguese in the Caribbean.

[00:04:48] At the start of the 17th century Britain took control of the Caribbean islands of St Kitts, Barbados and Antigua. 

[00:04:57] The British learned how to grow sugar, and built large plantations on these islands using slaves who were brought over from Africa.

[00:05:08] Now, the British Empire, especially in the Americas, was enabled by slavery. 

[00:05:14] It wouldn’t have been possible without it.

[00:05:17] It’s believed that British ships transported almost 3 million slaves from Africa to the Americas, out of a total of around 12 million Africans who were taken from their homeland, piled into ships and sold into slavery. 

[00:05:35] It’s one of the darkest parts of the story of the British Empire, which is often brushed under the carpet and not spoken about, it’s conveniently forgotten, when discussing the empire in Britain. 

[00:05:50] Especially with the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a renewed need to confront and discuss quite how awful this was, and there’s renewed discussion of how we treat people who had previously been considered masters of the British Empire. 

[00:06:10] You’ve probably seen clips of statues being torn down in Britain, and debates about things like whether names of buildings should be changed.

[00:06:22] Evidently, it’s a very complicated subject, but it’s certainly a good thing that there is a growing understanding of quite how inseparable the British Empire and the slave trade were.

[00:06:36] Boosted by favourable conditions for growing products like cotton and sugar, and powered by slave labour, Britain’s power and wealth continued to grow. 

[00:06:48] It was growing rich off the proceeds of its plantations and colonies, which were paying taxes to the British monarch.

[00:06:56] And up until the mid 18th century, the going was pretty good for Britain. 

[00:07:03] Its colonies included most of the eastern part of what’s now the US and Canada, as well as Caribbean islands such as Jamaica and Barbados.

[00:07:15] But for the colonies that were paying taxes to the British, and having their natural resources sent back to Europe, this wasn’t a great deal. 

[00:07:25] They weren’t getting much in return.

[00:07:28] For the Caribbean colonies, there wasn’t a huge amount they could do about this. 

[00:07:34] But the American colonies were growing stronger, and in 1776 thirteen American colonies joined together and declared that they would stop paying taxes to the British monarch, and they would club together to form the United States of America.

[00:07:54] The British king, King George III, didn’t think much of this, so sent troops to fight the Americans, starting the American War of Independence. 

[00:08:06] It wasn’t just the British against the Americans though. 

[00:08:09] The French, the Spanish and the Dutch joined forces with the Americans as a way to undermine British power and ultimately the Americans won the war, gaining independence from Britain on the 4th of July 1776, a day that’s now celebrated as Independence Day.

[00:08:30] For Britain, and the British Empire, this was a big problem. 

[00:08:35] These 13 colonies formed the largest and most powerful part of its empire at the time, and they were now gone, never to return. 

[00:08:46] The loss of America to the empire is often considered the end of the first British Empire, but it most definitely wasn’t the end of The British Empire.

[00:08:59] Britain had experienced the power that empire brings, so started to focus its attention elsewhere, and specifically, to the east.

[00:09:10] In 1787, as you may have learned about in the last episode on Penal Colonies, the first settlement was established in Australia. 

[00:09:21] But Australia was really a minor feature in the British Empire. 

[00:09:26] The jewel in the crown, as it was nicknamed, was India.

[00:09:32] There had actually been British settlers in India since 1608, and Britain had been building up trading outposts near the coast. 

[00:09:44] Unlike in the Americas, it didn’t go in and immediately enslave the local population.

[00:09:51] The British Empire in India was also really pushed forward by a semi-private company, not by the British government itself directly. 

[00:10:02] This company was called the East India Company, and had actually been set up in the year 1599 for the purposes of trade with India and East Asia. 

[00:10:15] Although it was a private company, it became heavily involved with politics, and it also had its own private army, with over a quarter of a million soldiers, a larger army than the British army.

[00:10:31] It grew and grew in power in India, exporting spices and tea back to Europe, and also getting heavily involved in the opium trade, triggering the Opium Wars with China in the mid-19th century.

[00:10:47] As the East India Company continued to grow and grow in strength, it started stretching its military muscles against the local population.

[00:10:57] After a series of battles, it proved victorious over the local rulers, and morphed from a purely trading company to a political and governmental organisation, essentially taking over the administration of India.

[00:11:16] This period, called Company Rule, when most of what’s now India was controlled by a British company, began in 1757 and lasted until 1858, when the rule of India was passed to the British crown.

[00:11:35] Both during the Company Rule period and while it was under the rule of the crown, the British imposed British cultural norms on the local population, and created British-style institutions in India. 

[00:11:52] Although there was some pretty awful treatment of the local Indian population, a major difference between the treatment of the Indians vs the non-British population in places like the Caribbean was that the Indians were viewed more as equals to the British, perhaps with less developed institutions, a different view of the rule of law, but a people to deal with on a similar level nonetheless

[00:12:21] In the Caribbean, the black, enslaved, population was viewed as inferior, viewed as property to be bought and sold, not even in the same category. 

[00:12:34] You can put this down to simple racism, which of course, it is. 

[00:12:38] There’s also the factor that India was initially viewed as a trading partner, merchants to do business with, rather than completely virgin territory to exploit full of culturally and racially inferior people.

[00:12:55] It’s a subject that historians are still debating, but the point is that there’s no one blanket answer to how the British treated the people living in its colonies.

[00:13:07] But the British weren’t content just with India though, and in the 19th century large parts of Africa and SouthEast Asia were also swept up into the British empire.

[00:13:20] There are almost too many to name, but modern day Cameroon, Egypt, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Malta, Myanmar, Mauritius, Oman, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe, along with many others, were all British colonies.

[00:13:40] The heyday, the peak for the British Empire came at the start of the 20th century, which is quite mad to think - this was only just over 100 years ago.

[00:13:53] Britain controlled a quarter of the Earth’s land area, with a quarter of its population ruled by the British monarch.

[00:14:02] But beneath the surface, things were starting to crumble.

[00:14:06] Throughout British colonial history there had been uprisings

[00:14:12] Some had succeeded, like the American War of Independence.

[00:14:16] Others had been brutally crushed, like the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831 or the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 

[00:14:27] But even those that were crushed, often with a large human cost, they created even more animosity in the local population towards their British rulers, and triggered debate back in Britain about whether it was indeed right to have such a large empire, and to keep so many people of different cultures and traditions under British rule.

[00:14:54] The Declaration of The Rights of Man and The Citizen had come in 1789, and there had been an increasing understanding of people’s rights to be treated as human beings, to control their own destiny and not be under the control of others.

[00:15:13] Indeed, at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 one of the big concepts promoted was the right for a country to administer itself. 

[00:15:25] It was hard, and certainly hypocritical, for Britain to promote this idea while it was the largest administrator of other countries in the history of the world.

[00:15:38] Maintaining an empire was also very expensive. 

[00:15:42] It did of course bring in large amounts of money through trade and taxes, but controlling the local population and stopping uprisings was a difficult and expensive task.

[00:15:56] At the end of the Second World War, Britain was financially in a pretty poor position and it could no longer really afford to keep its empire. 

[00:16:08] There was also a growing feeling among several colonies that had contributed hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the war effort that they had deserved the right to independence, and pro-independence movements started to bubble up across the globe.

[00:16:27] Long story short, one by one the vast majority of Britain’s colonies were either given independence by Britain or there were rebellions, and independence was declared. 

[00:16:42] Now there are only 14 colonies left, they’re called British Overseas Territories, and they’re mainly small islands, tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

[00:16:58] Although the legacy of British colonial rule is undeniable, what is still very much debated is how much was positive and how much was negative.

[00:17:09] Of course, it’s impossible to generalise here, and opinions will differ hugely depending on the country and of course within the country. 

[00:17:21] Some of the advantages that colonial rule is said to have brought include the implementation of bureaucratic institutions and the building of infrastructure. 

[00:17:33] India, for example, is now the world’s largest democracy, and the East India Company built a large railway network throughout the country that of course was left behind when the British left. 

[00:17:48] But the argument that Britain brought infrastructure, stability and culture to so called ‘barbarian’ regions is countered by the fact that we have no way to know what would have happened to these countries if they hadn't been subjected to British rule. 

[00:18:07] Japan, for example, was never colonised by the British, and has managed to develop into one of the world’s most successful countries.

[00:18:17] And looking at countries that were colonised by Britain vs those that weren’t, it’s hard to make the case that being part of the British empire left them all in a better position.

[00:18:30] There are not many success stories that one can point at of ex-colonial countries, especially in Africa. On the other hand, the one that is most commonly used as an example of a booming ex British colony is Singapore, but it’s hard to attribute its success to being part of the British Empire.

[00:18:54] Of course, the enslavement of millions of Africans is a hideous aspect of the British Empire, as is the persecution of indigenous peoples in North America and Australia, and I don’t think there are any supporters of the British Empire that would try to deny that. 

[00:19:13] So, was the British Empire a good or bad thing? 

[00:19:17] The answer to that question is definitely ‘it’s complicated’, and it’s a bit of a silly question really.

[00:19:25] Good or bad for whom? And when? And where? And why?

[00:19:31] One thing is for sure though. 

[00:19:33] It certainly did happen, it’s very complicated, and trying to avoid talking about it and pretending that it didn’t happen doesn’t help anybody.

[00:19:47] OK then, that is it for The British Empire.

[00:19:51] It’s a fascinating subject, and we really have only just scratched the surface.

[00:19:57] I know we could do individual episodes on probably a hundred different aspects of the empire, all of which would be interesting in their different ways, but I hope that this has at least given you an overview of what happened, and quite how complicated it is.

[00:20:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.