Britain used to rule a quarter of the world. What happened?

For centuries, British monarchs — including Queen Elizabeth II — ruled over vast swathes of the globe as head of the most powerful empire in history. 

Even as it has crumbled, its legacy of colonialism lives on in the countries forever changed by British imperialism.

The UK is small, but once ruled a mighty empire.(ABC News Story Lab)

The year is 1901. From this small island on the edge of Europe…

… a sprawling and expansive empire is ruled.

A globe has numerous countries highlighted, including Australia, India and large swathes of Africa.
The British Empire as it stood in 1901.(ABC News Story Lab)

It’s four years after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Queen Elizabeth II is not yet born. But there’s not a continent on Earth that isn’t touched by her grandmother’s empire.

Victoria’s realm covers close to a quarter of Earth’s land mass — and the same proportion of the world’s population are her subjects.

But that’s about to change.

A globe has numerous countries highlighted, including Australia, India and large swathes of Africa.
The British Empire as it stood in 1901.(ABC News Story Lab)

By the time of Elizabeth’s birth in 1926, the spoils of World War I have seen Britain’s influence grow in parts of the Middle East.

Just 25 years later, when she ascends the throne in 1952,  the decline of the empire has begun in earnest.

Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and their territories, were all self-governed by 1931.

As were Canada and Ireland.

And British India had also achieved independence.

By 1982, Britain no longer controls any territory in Africa …

… nor on the mainland of the Americas.

And in 1997, Britain’s last toehold in Asia is extinguished…

…when Hong Kong is handed back to China.

And that’s how it has remained until now. This once-sprawling empire that dwarfed its own mother country many times over is now reduced to a collection of far-flung islands.

The largest island left by far is the one that started it all.

A globe shows the UK highlighted, as well as a few small islands off America.
By 2022, when Queen Elizabeth II died, the days of the British Empire were well and truly over.(ABC News Story Lab)

British colonialism touched close to 80 of the 195 countries on Earth since it began in the 15th century.

A globe highlights Australia and countries in Africa and Asia with a history of British rule
In dozens of countries around the globe, millions of people are still dealing with the fallout of British colonialism.(ABC News Story Lab)

Each of those countries is still dealing with the fallout of colonialism’s legacy today.

Taking over an empire

There is a photograph of Queen Elizabeth in Kenya taken around the time she ascended the throne that captures her standing on a bamboo bridge in a pale cotton dress, her husband Philip beside her pointing thoughtfully into the distance.

The duke points at something as he stands on a bridge with the princess
Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh admiring the view from a bridge in the grounds of Sagana Lodge,in Kenya in 1952. The following day, news would arrive of the death of King George VI and Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.(Getty Images: Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive )

The image has a fairy tale quality; the African sunlight glows around the couple and they seem almost to float above the river.

Surely this image is a metaphor? The light portraying them as almost holy figures. Prince Philip pointing to the bright future that lies ahead. The bubbling water beneath the bridge representing the rocky times that their leadership will rise above.

Attempts to recreate Britain’s monarchs as icons were typical of the Imperial era, says Jeremy Martens, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Western Australia.

“The figure of the monarch became an important symbol around which Imperial identity was hitched and was particularly powerful in settler colonies like Australia and South Africa,” he says.

A B&W photo of three women in see-through veils travel in a car, looking sombre
Queen Elizabeth (right) during the mourning period for King George VI in February 1952.(AFP: Sport and General Press Agency Limited )

Just days later, in early February 1952, images of the stoic and benevolent young Queen Elizabeth — grieving the death of her father King George VI, while promising to serve her subjects in the largest Empire the world had ever known — were published around the globe inspiring respect and loyalty.

Yet elsewhere in Kenya a very different story was unfolding.

B&W photo of two men in colonial uniforms with guns guarding about 20 African men, crouching with their hands up
British policemen hold villagers at gunpoint while their huts are searched for evidence they participated in the Mau Mau Rebellion of 1952.(Getty: Bettmann)

Kenya’s rebellion

Africa was one of the last regions of the world to be explored by Europeans. Its potential as a source of cheap labour and  resources made the continent attractive as economic depression gripped Europe.

As British colonialists began arriving in east Africa from the mid-1880s — seeking entrepreneurial adventure and a comfortable life in the sunshine — native Kenyans were kicked off their traditional land and either forced to farm whatever infertile plots they could find, or to work for British plantation owners.

In 1901 the territory was officially named a British colony and a process of rebranding Britain’s land grab began: the Empire was not stealing land, but rather “civilising” the natives.

B&W photo of a man in uniform pointing at the chest of an African man, giving orders.
The lieutenant of the Kenyan Constabulary issuing instructions for a raid on suspected Mau Mau rebels. (Getty: Three Lions)

By the time the Queen began her tour of Kenya in 1952, 60 years of British imperialism had sparked rising tension. The visit almost didn’t go ahead because of fears for then-Princess Elizabeth’s safety.

A guerilla force known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), dominated by the Kikuyu people, as well as the Meru, Embu, Kamba and Massai from Kenya’s centre and east, had begun an armed rebellion against colonisation known as the Mau Mau Uprising.

KLFA members wanted higher wages and better education. They wanted their land returned and African self-determination.

It wasn’t to be.

suspected members of the Mau Mau
Suspected members of the Mau Mau are questioned about the murder of two Europeans in 1953.(AP)

As citizens of places like Australia and Britain watched the Queen began her reign amid pomp and celebration, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya and British-controlled forces began to fight back.

KLFA members were described as savages and fanatical terrorists and the reaction was swift.

“British troops were being sent to Kenya and helping to very brutally and violently suppress the Mau Mau,” Martens says.

By the time the conflict ended in 1956 more than 11,000 Kenyans were dead, 100,000 had been rounded up and placed in detention camps, and the leader of the Mau Mau Uprising, Dedan Kimathi, had been captured. In 1957 he was executed.

British settlers and loyalists had also been killed, and accusations of war crimes from both sides abounded.

‘A very sanitised version’

Stories like this help to explain why many citizens of colonised nations such as Kenya did not mourn the death of the Queen.

While in much of the West she is remembered for her integrity, and duty to her role decades after retirement age, many who were oppressed in the name of the British Empire are critical the Queen didn’t do more to acknowledge damage done to her “great Imperial family”.

Sipho Hlongwane, a Johannesburg-based writer, has noted that while colonialism was considered history in the West “in our countries, colonialism is now.”

“In post-Brexit Britain there is a real amnesia about the underbelly of Empire,” Martens says. “The way the Queen’s life is remembered is a sanitised version of how loved she was that glosses over the very real role the monarch had in providing a figure around which the Empire was organised.”

Queen Elizabeth II smiles as people in traditional dress stand behind her in Nigeria.
Queen Elizabeth II in Nigeria in 2003.(Reuters: Ian Jones)

And while not suggesting the Queen bears personal responsibility for the Empire’s violence, Martens says it’s impossible to ignore that as symbolic head of the British government in colonial Kenya “her position was invoked all the time to legitimise what was going on there and everywhere else in the Empire.”

Thalia Anthony, a legal academic with the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at UTS Sydney, says in Australia some of the colony’s earliest legal decisions made clear British rule was justified with reference to the Crown. Even the explorations of Captain James Cook were funded by the Crown, meaning it “profited from the expansion of empire to Australia”.

“It dispossessed Aboriginal people of the operation of their laws and it’s still part of the skeleton of our sovereign institutions,” she says, citing the Mabo decision of 1992 that recognised native title “on the basis that all land is sovereign Crown land and part and parcel of that is that the Crown gets the land because it’s considered”.

An African man with a sombre look grabs a barbed wire fence he's standing behind.
An imprisoned Mau Mau soldier in Kenya.  (Getty Images: Three Lions)

Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, although at first unsuccessful, signalled things were changing. The so-called Scramble for Africa — that saw almost 90 per cent of the continent controlled by seven European nations by 1914 — was coming to an end.

By the close of the 1960s almost every colonised African nation had reclaimed its independence.

The rest of the Empire was taking note.

The largest Empire in history

Britain was far from the first nation to build an Empire. From the Romans to the Ottomans, the Mongols to China’s Qing Dynasty: history is littered with eras in which powerful nations ruled vast swathes of the globe, all with their own stories of horror.

Yet the size, wealth and influence of the British Empire dwarfed them all.

The roots of British imperialism began in the 1500s and by 1920 it was the largest in history. King George V — the Queen’s grandfather and the great grandfather of the new King Charles III — governed a vast territory of 57 colonies spread across 35.5 million square kilometres, equivalent to 26.5 per cent of the world.

balck and white photo of two royals sit on a platform under a tent
King George V and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar in 1911, held to mark the King’s succession to Emperor of India. (Supplied: Wikimedia)

King George V, like the monarchs before him, also held the title Emperor of India.

The steady globalisation of European economies from the late 1400s underpinned the growth of colonialism as European nations rushed to control markets, resources and trade routes using imperial structures.

Britain’s success was influenced by the fact that “they were globally active very, very early”, says Professor Matthew Fitzpatrick, an expert in international history from Flinders University.

While the Portuguese and Spanish began colonial expansion even earlier, the British were well ahead of countries like Germany, Belgium and even France.

“They asserted themselves in many places around the globe and became enormously wealthy. Later on, much of the globe had already effectively been sewn up,” he says.

Queen waits for Liz Truss
The Queen at Balmoral Castle, two days before her death at 96. (Reuters/Pool: Jane Barlow)

It took hundreds of years to build the British Empire yet the span of the Queen’s life mirrored its comparatively rapid decline.

By the time of her death, Britain’s monarch was head of state in just 14 countries, with active republican sentiment — including in Australia — placing the future of even these realms in question.

Even within Great Britain itself, secessionist movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland place in doubt their future within the United Kingdom.

‘Everything starts to unravel’

In the early 1950s, it wasn’t just Africa showing discontent with British imperialists. Signs of fracture were everywhere.

The British were managing the Anti-British National Liberation War in Malaya, for example, known as the Malayan Emergency — a war in present-day Malaysia to which Australia also contributed troops.

The American colonies had long ago won independence from Britain, and after 200 years as a jewel of the British Empire, India had also been lost. It gained independence in 1947 after a campaign championed by Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi sits cross legged on the floor surrounded by pillows, cloth and a few books on a small table.
Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence.(Supplied: Immigration Museum)

“Personally, I crave not for ‘independence’, which I do not understand, but I long for freedom from the English yoke,” he said.

Once India became independent the logic of maintaining other colonies “starts to fall away”, and it is impossible to avoid the fact that “once India is gone everything starts to unravel”, Fitzpatrick says.

The Suez Canal in Egypt and the position of Iran as a safe route to India begin to have less strategic importance. Yet Britain struggles to hold on, reflecting “the pressure points of Empire”, Fitzpatrick says.

In 1961 the Queen undertook a very public display of soft power after Ghana’s leader Kwame Nkrumah voiced a desire for independence. The Queen flew to visit him, taking part in a widely photographed dance that was seen as a personal attempt to ensure Ghana stayed within Britain’s orbit.

“Queen Elizabeth II is a very good example of ceremony and grandeur softening the appearance of British power around the world whether that be in Africa, Asia or elsewhere,” says Fitzpatrick.

Yet he points out the role of Britain in a coup that overthrew Nkrumah a few years later “remains a bit murky”. Was Britain involved alongside the United States in replacing Nkrumah with a more compliant leader?

And of course, Britain’s swift military response in the Falkland Islands in 1982 to squash Argentina’s ambitions to take the territory was neither murky, nor soft, and a striking anomaly in Britain’s steady divestment of its colonial acquisitions fought in the name of the Queen.

Fitzpatrick describes this war as “imperial nostalgia” and argues it foreshadows contemporary debates over Britain’s place in the world: an attempt to offset the growing power of the European Union, an ideology that “comes into its own during the Brexit debate”.

Margaret Thatcher visits Falklands in 1983.
British PM Margaret Thatcher tours Port Stanleyduring a visit to the Falkland Islands in January, 1983.(AFP)

The jewel of the British Empire

When it came to it, Britain did not resist India’s independence.

Following World War II, exhausted by war, the British had little appetite to control brewing dissatisfaction among Indian soldiers under the Empire’s command fearing mutiny could spark widespread violence. The large number of Britishers, British settlers in India, intensified that fear.

“Britain finds itself unable to maintain its position as before and the voices of those colonised places became more insistent,” says Fitzpatrick.

As in Kenya, reaction in India to the Queen’s death has been mixed, says Meera Ashar, the director of the South Asia Research Institute at Australian National University.

kids sit on plastic stools in the street painting portraits of royals
On the streets of former colonies — like these students painting tributes in Mumbai — there are mixed feelings about the Queen’s death.(Reuters: Niharika Kulkarni)

She argues Britain’s retreat from India was less about post-war fatigue and strategic planning and more because “there was little left to exploit”.

The last generation born into Empire is still alive: those who were children or young adults when India gained independence in 1947. These people grew up hearing stories of Empire’s legacy — not just economic exploitation, but of Indians coerced into labouring for British business and violence against pro-independence activists. Most notable was 1919’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which up to 1,500 people were killed and many more seriously wounded.

“After about 200 years of exploitation, plunder, theft, the Empire unleashed economic devastation on India,” she says, referencing Scottish author William Dalrymple who’s latest book notes the word “loot” was one of the first to be absorbed from Hindi into English. “Lut” is the Hindi word for spoils of war.

“That tells you something about what the Empire was all about,” Ashar believes.

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