Examining the Importance of the British Empire
Britain's place in world history cannot be understood without reference to the British Empire, an entity whose influence extended, even beyond its expanding borders, to almost every part of the world over the span of four hundred years. The sheer scale and breadth of historical experience encapsulated by the term 'the British Empire' is truly mind-boggling. While its origins are disputed, its genesis is generally taken to be in the early territorial claims to parts of North America and the Caribbean undertaken in the sixteenth century, and the plantations in Ireland and Virginia of the early seventeenth century. A period of decline in the fortunes of this 'First British Empire' following the American War of Independence led some to believe that Britain's days of imperial glory were at an end, but in reality this was just the beginning. Britain now looked eastwards to the vast Asian continent for further expansion. By the beginning of the nineteenth century British culture had already incorporated such exotic products as tea, tobacco and cotton into everyday experience, and the East India Company (an English trading company founded in 1600, and exercising effective rule over parts of India from the mid-eighteenth century until 1858) was growing rich and powerful by supplying them. Over the course of ninety-nine years, from 1815 to 1914, British rule had, by design, consequence or accident, extended to cover another ten million square miles of territory. At the high water mark of Empire, after the First World War, it covered over thirteen million square miles – a quarter of the Earth's surface – and ruled over 450 million people, roughly one fifth of the world's population.