The Empire on Which the Sun Never Set

HMS Victory, a British warship used in battle around the year 1800.
Areas in pink show all areas that were once part of the British Empire. Zoom in to better be able to read individual place names and countries.
The British establish themselves in India.
British-controlled Hong Kong.
An open bible and a tree cross.
Britain’s colonial self-image was largely one of domination.
Statue of Queen Victoria, queen of the United Kingdom for most of the 19th century.

Its extremely powerful navy, rivaled by no other nation on earth, helped Britain conquer large parts of the world from around the 17th century onward. British dominance on the high seas lasted for several hundred years, and in the early 20th century, the expanse of the British Empire peaked at one fourth of all land on earth. British-controlled territory now stretched from Canada in the north to New Zealand in the south, and since it was always daytime somewhere within the British Empire, it gained the name “the empire on which the sun never sets”.

Access to trade

An important impetus for Britain to try to conquer other parts of the world and, in effect, build its mighty empire, was a desire to grow rich from production and trade. In line with this desire, once military hegemony in conquered territories overseas was secured, loyal businessmen were given land grants and trade privileges in these areas. As envisioned, by implementing effective Western production methods, the new colonies then started to produce large quantities of cotton, sugar and other products for export to Britain.

Profitability and exploitation

With regard to the profitability of producing in and trading with the colonies, various things worked in the British traders’ and ruling class’s favor. Climatic conditions for agricultural production, for example, were usually much better in the colonies than in Britain, and trade tariffs on bringing commodities into Britain were avoided, since Britain controlled the entire trade route. Local populations working for low pay in the colonies, furthermore, made sure that colonial products remained inexpensive, and colonial subjects buying imported clothes and other consumer goods from Britain guaranteed that British manufacturing companies had reliable foreign markets to sell on. However, the great business successes were not seldom accompanied by contempt, or at least disregard, for the peoples and the land that had been subdued. This, not least, was the case in India, where Britain extracted great riches on the backs of an often exploited local population.

Religious conversion and technical development

The exploitation of local people notwithstanding, not all Brits traveling overseas were interested in selfish material gains. Christian missionaries, among others not looking for monetary profits, arrived in the colonies to preach the gospel, and successfully converted millions of people to the Christian faith, particularly in Africa. Moreover, to help both colonial society and individual people advance, politicians or managers of British-run schools sometimes made their institutions available for native people, in effect spreading education worldwide. Even so, relatively few colonial subjects received an education, but as it turned out, the training that indeed was provided to locals, in combination with the British people’s advanced technical knowledge and effective administrative systems, over time, came to modernize important parts of colonial society.