Subject Material

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Published: 10.05.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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British Empire 1886. Photo.British Empire 1886  

"The sun never sets on the British Empire." To what extent is this expression true?

The British Empire is no doubt the largest empire history has ever seen. In the early 1920s, it covered one fourth of the globe. Britain had colonies on all continents - Europe, America and the Caribbean, Asia and Africa and all the colonies had English as their official language.


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The Empire came about as a result of long historical processes, stretching from the Renaissance in the 16th century to 1997, when Hong Kong was given back to China. Hence, when we talk about the British Empire, we normally distinguish between the first Empire and the second Empire, although the British Empire in singular, often refers to the second Empire.

There is a correlation between the Empire and the contemporary composition of British society. Mass immigration to the United Kingdom began in the decades when most of the colonies were in the process of regaining their independence in the latter part of the 20th century. (See texts on Multiculturalism in Britain and Post-War Immigration to Britain).

Before doing the tasks below, read more about the different stages of the British Empire in these articles.

The First Empire – From Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Victoria 

The Second Empire - From Queen and Empress Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II  

The Dismantling of the Empire 

The Legacy of an Empire