Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, England gained large colonies in North America and further south in what is now known as the Caribbean Islands. English explorers also established trading settlements in India and Africa.
By the 1950s, many of these British colonies were pushing for independence. Some had fought in the Second World War, while others had suffered from racism and oppressive government policies.
The modern nation of Canada was established as a self-governing colony in the mid-19th century, though it retains ties to the British monarchy. It is comprised of ten provinces and three territories.
In the 1700s, English traders founded the Hudson’s Bay Company to gain trading rights for regions drained by rivers into the Hudson Bay. The company and its European and African employees cemented alliances with First Nations in the Maritime region, such as the Haudenosaunee (the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca).
Britain emerged as a global hegemon in the 19th century, expanding its influence through trade concessions and territorial acquisitions in Asia and Africa. The loss of India to independence in 1947 marked the decline of Britain as a world power. However, it continues to control parts of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, and its former colonies remain a vital component of its economy.
Australia’s unique geography and long isolation has had a major influence on its culture, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples providing significant cultural input. This has influenced the development of a distinctive Australian identity based on Western traditions, such as democracy, Westminster government and parliamentarianism and American constitutionalist and federalist traditions.
At its peak, the British Empire ruled over a quarter of the world’s population. It was characterised by two broad types of colonisation: settler colonies, where settlers established institutions and forms of government that mirrored those in England; and economic colonialism, where the British exploited indigenous natural resources and labour.
The National Archives has extensive holdings of records from the British colonies in Australia, New Zealand and India. These are contained in a variety of series, including correspondence, PCAP (printed papers from appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) and HCA.
Located far from other major countries, New Zealand had a strong British culture. Its European immigrants brought Western religions and English language, influencing Maori culture. They also introduced their farming techniques and agricultural food products, creating a distinct Pakeha or New Zealand European culture.
The country is a member of the Commonwealth, an association of former British colonies that promotes democracy and human rights. It has its own parliament and government and is a constitutional monarchy.
The British Empire ruled over a quarter of the world’s population at its peak. Its colonisation was based on two main strategies: colonisation through settlement and economic exploitation. The first involved overtaking and taking control of the indigenous people, while the second focused on exploiting the native natural resources and labour.
Britain’s colonial empire was vast, reaching from the Atlantic islands of Bermuda and Gibraltar to Africa, India, Asia and Australia. It encompassed a quarter of the world’s population at its height in 1922.
These colonial holdings were governed by a governor acting on behalf of the Crown and with wide powers of discretion. Administrative records relating to these colonies are often held by The National Archives.
The emergence of the British Empire as a global hegemon was largely due to its economic control of trade, resources and sea lanes – a system described as ‘Pax Britannica’. However, the end of World War Two transformed global politics and prompted a decline in imperialism. Ultimately most of the former British colonies attained independence in the 1950s.
The second-largest continent in the world and a place of immense cultural diversity, Africa was colonised by Britain in the late 19th century. The “scramble for Africa” was driven by trade and resource concessions, as well as a desire to compete with Germany’s expanding empire in Asia.
Although some former British colonies are now independent, many retain strong cultural connections with their past colonial era. This is evident in places like the quaint hill station of Cameron Highlands, Malaysia which is still home to numerous British-era buildings, and Darjeeling, which is famous for its tea production. Aside from being a popular tourist destination, these areas are also important sources of history and culture. This is especially true of the former British colonies in Africa.