Growth of the Empire

The Early Years

The beginnings of the British Empire took place in the 16th century when efforts to discover new routes to the Far East resulted in many voyages for discovery and trade. The next two centuries saw the establishment of colonies in North America and trade established with India and the Far East. Such men as Cabot, Frobisher, Drake, Hudson, and Cook carried the English flag to far corners of the earth.

Drake’s victory over the Spanish Armada, 1588, established Great Britain’s sea power, without a serious challenger, and opened the door to world trade and empire.—Courtesy Culver Service.

First permanent British colony in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. In the terrible winter of starvation of 1609–10 the settlers were reduced from 500 to 60.

Before British control was established in India, trade was carried on. This scene of English traders in India dates from about 1612.

By capturing Gibraltar from Spain in 1704, the English gained a key to control of the Mediterranean.

After the capture of Quebec in 1759, shown here, and Montreal a year later, France ceased to threaten British dominance in North America.

Colonial Expansion


After the American Revolution the Canadian colonies were extended westward, settlements were made in Australia, New Zealand, and Africa; India came under British rule; and other new British colonies were established. London became the center of world commerce.

Early view of Sydney, 1809, 21 years after the founding of the first Australian colony

Cape Town shortly before 1820 when Britain strengthened the colony by assisting 4,000 emigrants to unoccupied land in South Africa

British troops put down a series of Indian mutinies in the 1850’s. Here they march before Government House, Calcutta.

Hong Kong, 1845, a few years after the Chinese war which resulted in China’s ceding Hong Kong and opening five treaty ports to the British

Wellington, New Zealand, shortly after it was settled by British colonists in 1840

West Indian slaves hear the news of their emancipation in 1833, when slavery was abolished in the Empire.

The Empire Comes of Age


Progress in trade and communication after the 1850’s caused many British emigrants to seek new homes in the colonies where discoveries of valuable minerals and rich land brought great expansion. Development of the steamship and locomotive, opening the Suez Canal, new colonial policies giving dominion status and self-government to many colonies, all contributed to strengthening the Empire.

London in 1851 had become the center of world trade. Ships from all over the globe brought raw materials there and took out finished goods.

Adventurers flecked to Australia after gold was discovered in 1851. Population of Victoria rose from 77,000 in 1851 to 333.000 in 1855.—Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

The landing of the first permanently successful transatlantic cable on the shores of Newfoundland in 1866 was achieved after many disheartening attempts. A telegraphic link was now established with Britain.—Courtesy Western Union Telegraph Co.

The Suez Canal, completed 1869, became a vital link to the East.—Courtesy Culver Service.

British defeat Allied Republics of South Africa in Boer War, 1899–1902. The Union of South Africa was formed and granted self-government, 1909.

The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1885, opened a route across Canada and resulted in settling the prairie provinces.—Courtesy Canadian Pacific Railway.

From EM 16: What Makes the British Commonwealth Hold Together? (1946)