At its height in the early 20th century the British Empire included about one-quarter of the world's population and land surface. Emerging gradually from its 16th century beginnings in separate commercial ventures, it rapidly expanded into a loose union of varied sovereignties during the European colonizing competition of the 19th century. By mid-20th century most of its territories had gained independence, and the Empire had evolved into the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of equal and autonomous states loyal to the British crown and enjoying special trade interests.
.... The origins of English influence in North America (began) with John Cabot's discovery of Newfoundland in 1497. The South Pacific was opened by the voyages of Capt. James Cook (late 18th century), while Africa was explored in the 19th century by such travellers as David Livingstone and Richard Burton. British imperial growth largely arose from 18th- and 19th-century foreign diplomacy and military conquest, which resulted in an aggregate of self-managing territories more closely related to the British crown than to parliament - e.g., Canada, the American colonies, India, and Africa - although missionary activity and the slave trade also played significant roles.
Britain's mastery of France in North America (James Wolfe at Quebec, 1759) and India (Robert Clive at Plassey, 1757) laid the foundation for English foreign dominance. This trend, although interrupted by the loss of the American colonies, the 'first British Empire' (1783), and by transfer of control from the Crown to Parliament, was resumed at the conclusion of the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars (1799 - 1815), which strengthened Britain's influence in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Malaya. After Britain claimed HongKong (1841), British control in the Far East grew to the extent of an 'informal empire' in China by the end of the 19th century. The naval bombardment of Alexandria (1882) determined Britain's dominance in Egypt and the Sudan, and the Boer War in South Africa (1899 - 1902) accelerated the Empire's development throughout the rest of that continent.
Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839) probably marked the start of the self-government movement that evolved into the present structure of the Commonwealth of Nations... The British North America Act (1867) and the forming of an Australian federation (1901) changed the status of Canada and Australia from colony to virtually autonomous dominion. British overseas territories convened the 1926 Imperial Conference that drafted the Statute of Westminster (1931), formally initiating the Commonwealth of Nations. This charter guaranteed all member nations equal status with Great Britain. World War II demonstrated that Commonwealth nations could even pursue independent foreign policies. Significant changes in Commonwealth relations were exemplified by India's assumption of the status of a republic within the Commonwealth (1949), a step imitated by other member countries in Asia and Africa.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica

1. What is the most important difference between the Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations?
2. Describe how Britain expanded her influence in the world, pointing out the most decisive milestones.
3. Pick two countries belonging to the British Empire and pursue their way to independence. Use a history book or an encyclopedia.
4. Find out more about people like Capt. James Cook or David Livingstone.

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