Pic 1-(A replica of The Matthew,John Cabot's ship used for his second voyage to the New World)
The foundations of the British Empire were laid when England and Scotlandwere separate kingdoms. In 1496 King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, commissionedJohn Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed in 1497, five years after the European discovery of America, and although he successfully made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland (mistakenly believing, like Christopher Columbus, that he had reached Asia), there was no attempt to found a colony. Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but nothing was heard of his ships again.
No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until well into the reign of Elizabeth I, during the last decades of the 16th century. The Protestant Reformation had made enemies of England and Catholic Spain. In 1562, the English Crown sanctioned the privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa with the aim of breaking into the Atlantic trade system. This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth lent her blessing to further privateering against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the New World. At the same time, influential writers such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee(who was the first to use the term "British Empire") were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own empire. By this time, Spain was entrenched in the Americas, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River, later to become New Francepic 2-(All areas of the world that were ever part of the British Empire. Current British Overseas Territories have their names underlined in red.)
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies,protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with theoverseas possessions and trading posts established byEngland between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world's population at the time. The empire covered more than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal,linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain) the dominant colonial power in North America and India.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independencecaused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance and expanded its imperial holdings across the globe. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.
By the start of the twentieth century Germany and the United States had eroded some of Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous financial and population strain on Britain, and although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after the war, it was no longer a peerless industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies inSouth-East Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the eventual victory of Britain and its allies, this damaged British prestige and accelerated the decline of the empire. British India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement, Britain also granted independence to most of the territories of the British Empire. This process ended with the political transfer ofHong Kong to China in 1997. The 14 British Overseas Territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. Sixteen Commonwealth nations share their head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, asCommonwealth realms.