I was talking in my previous post about how China was on the receiving end of imperialism in the last two centuries, with some observation on how it is currently rising in its own influence. Here, I will talk about what it’s been like to grown up and learn about the other side, and to discover some things I was never taught in school about the British Empire(s).
Yes, empires. I can count at least four, together with other strange arrangements both formal and informal that have occurred through the years.
The first empire concerned both Britain and France. Now referred to as the Angevin Empire, it covered a good chunk of both countries, together with significant influence over Scotland, Ireland and Wales, back in the time of Henry II and the House of Plantagenet. The French possessions dwindled over the years, the last one being the Pale of Calais which was only relinquished in 1558.
The Conquest of Wales took place under Edward I in 1277-1283, when England effectively annexed Wales. It was governed under the Statute of Rhuddlan until 1536, when Welsh law was ousted by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542, and Wales was merged with England.
Ireland came into personal union with the English Crown in 1542, but the Kings of England had acted as Lords of Ireland since 1177, as a consequence of its invasion being authorized by Pope Adrian IV (an Englishman!) in his bull Laudabiliter. It did not become part of the United Kingdom until the passage of the Acts of Union in 1800, but its history and governance have always had different characteristics, with much to be regretted.
And then there was what has come to be called the First British Empire, being the various colonial possessions gathered in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of it through the use of chartered companies, of which the East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were the most successful.
British possessions in North America were greatly increased as a result of the Seven Years’ War. Sadly, the Thirteen Colonies left to form the United States of America, but Canada is the result from what Britain still held.
When George I ascended to the throne in 1714, he already ruled the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg (also known as Hanover), which was part of the Holy Roman Empire. (Now that is a subject for another day!) That personal union would continue until Victoria became Queen in 1837, as the dukedom was not open to female heirs. As a consequence of Victoria marrying Prince Albert, their grandson the Duke of Albany would become the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1900.
The 19th century saw the formation of what has come to be known as the Second British Empire, which largely coincided with Victoria’s reign. That is the one we were taught about in school, on which “the sun never set.” The above map, however, does not reveal how complex it really was.
Take India, which was in reality a separate empire of its own. Besides the area shown above, it also at times extended to Singapore, Aden, British Somaliland and the Trucial States (now known as the United Arab Emirates).
And then there was Egypt. Actually part of the Ottoman Empire, it came under British control in 1882, and became a British protectorate in 1914. That lasted until 1922, when the Kingdom of Egypt was established, but British troops remained in the Suez Canal Zone (another strange creature) until 1956.
If Egypt was a strange creature, Sudan was even more bizarre, being an Anglo-Egyptian condominium!
Most of the colonies attained their independence during the 20th century. Africa, in particular, saw dramatic change. The last jewel left in 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China. There some that still remain, now known as the British Overseas Territories, as shown below.
I know I’ve simplified this, and haven’t even mentioned the Commonwealth of Nations, as well as some really strange features:
- the extraterritorial privileges enjoyed not just in China, but also in the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Siam
- the residencies of India and the Persian Gulf
- the spheres of influence exercised in Africa and Asia
- the Great Game that occurred with Russia in Central Asia
- the Straits Settlements
- the mandates granted by the League of Nations after the First World War, as well as the Trust Territories granted by the United Nations after the Second World War
- the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands
- the English settlements in Argentina
Was there anything positive that came from all this? I believe there was, and not from anything like a superiority complex or any other form of prejudice. As a follower of history, it amazes me that we have had to take a worldview from very early times, and many elements of that still continue to this day. Being in Canada seems to place us on the fringe of these events, but we should always remember what came before. I can take a look at the next image and see pride, but I can appreciate that it may operate more like a Rohrschach test for others.