The British Empire

By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features | Published: 4:01 AM May 8 2021
Scribbler The British Empire

By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features

Do you know that before our country came to be called Sri Lanka, we were called Ceylon? Ceylon was the name given to us by the British Empire that occupied our country for around 133 years. The British Empire existed for over 400 years, and even today, historians and researchers continue to discover new details about it. Today, we’re going to look at how this empire emerged and what took place during this time in history. 

The beginning 

Britain (today’s United Kingdom) began to build its empire in the 16th century. They did this by spreading their power and rule beyond the borders of their own country through a process called ‘imperialism’. Empire is a term used to describe a group of lands or territories controlled by a single ruler. Imperialism is the process of extending one country’s power and influence to others through diplomacy or military force. The British Empire brought huge changes to societies, cultures, industries and lives of people all around the world. They introduced the indigenous people of the lands they conquered to their rules and practices, and used their resources for their own gains through a process called colonialism. The British Empire eventually grew to include large areas of North America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa and smaller areas of Central and South America. 

Why an Empire? 

The 16th century is known as the ‘Age of Discovery’. At this time, new ways of thinking and better shipbuilding led to the ability to venture out further and discover new lands. Britain wanted more lands overseas where they could establish communities and gain control over valuable resources like metals, sugar, and tobacco. These lands were called colonies. The new colonies provided new sources of wealth for Britain, and provided the country’s poorer and unemployed with new places to work and live. Britain was not alone in this venture of colonialism, other European countries too were exploring the world and discovering new lands. 

The first colonies 

The first British colonies were in North America that was known as the New World at the time. Building settlements in the new lands were not easy, and took a lot of effort. The indigenous people of the land resisted the arrival of new people and this often led to battles and bloodshed. Britain also had to fight with other European nations seeking to lay claim to the same lands. Over the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain gained large colonies in North America and the Caribbean Islands, where they found the climate perfect for growing crops like sugar and tobacco. Britain’s East India Company created trading settlements in India that gave them control over luxury goods like spices, cotton and tea from both India and China. However, between 1775 and 1783, Britain lost a huge part of its empire in the American War of Independence. The 13 colonies set up in North America felt more American than British and fought to be free of British rule. They succeeded (with the help of Spain, France and the Netherlands) and gained independence from the British. 

The second British Empire 

In the 18th and 19th centuries Britain gained new lands in Australia, Trinidad, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. Despite the loss of the North American colonies and the end of the first Empire, these new successes made space for the second Empire. Between 1881 and 1902 Britain competed with other European nations for Africa, gaining large areas including Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria 

The price of power 

The British Empire gained vast amounts of wealth and power through colonialism, but at what cost? Unfortunately, the cost of this power was mostly borne by the indigenous people of the colonies. Tribes and communities who had lived on those lands first. Britain’s settlers did not treat these people well. Locals were taken advantage of, robbed of their lands and even faced with violence and death if they resisted. The social and cultural changes made by the British can still be seen today, leaving many indigenous people without their culture, traditions and identities. 


Perhaps the darkest part of the British Empire was their involvement in the slave trade. People from colonies were made property of other people and forced to obey their owners’ demands. Though slavery had existed for a long time before the colonial era, Britain, along with other European nations started what is known as the most organised slave operation the world has ever seen. They transported people from African countries to their own countries in Europe, forcing them to work for European slave owners with no pay and no rights. It was only in 1807 that Britain banned the trading of enslaved people within its empire. However, slavery gave way to racism, causing previously enslaved people to still suffer in the societies they lived in. 

The collapse 

There were many reasons for the collapse of the British Empire. Some suspect that it had grown too large to function properly under a single ruler. Over the 20th century, bit by bit, one of the world’s largest empires began to crumble. In the aftermath of the First World War, a feeling of ‘nationalism’ swept the globe, causing colonies to fight for their independence. As a result, in 1926, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa became gained independence from the British. Over the years that followed, more countries began to push for independence. After the First World War, Britain no longer had the finances or the power to resist them. In 1947, India won its independence, followed by Sri Lanka in 1948. Between 1950 and 1980, many African countries too fought and won their independence. What had taken centuries to build was broken down in the span of just a few decades. Still, some small fragments of the great Empire remain today, known as British Overseas Territories. Ultimately, the British Empire was replaced by The Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation former colonies of the British can choose to join. Today, the Commonwealth is made up of 50 countries.

By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features | Published: 4:01 AM May 8 2021

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