“The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire.” This old phrase contained more than an ounce of truth to it. At its height, the British Empire ruled 412 million people, which constituted twenty-three-percent of the entire world’s population. A full one-fourth of the globe belonged to London.
The British Empire began in earnest in the 15th century when England (there was no such thing as Great Britain back then) began colonizing large swaths of Ireland. From there, English explorers began establishing trading posts in Africa, India, East Asia, and the Americas.
By the early 20th century, Britain controlled Africa from Cairo to the Cape Colony (modern day Cape Town, South Africa), Asia from Mesopotamia to Singapore, and the entire continent of Australia. It was the largest sea-borne empire in world history.
Because of this domination, British culture can be found in places as disparate as Hong Kong and Boston, Massachusetts. English is a global commerce language, while the Anglican church remains one of the largest Protestant sects in the world.
Most people know this history, but there are parts of the British Empire’s story that are lesser known. The following are just a few examples.
15. War Against Radical Islam
Today, the biggest story in foreign news is the West’s ongoing war against Islamic terrorism. To too many readers, this war seems like a new one. In truth, the West has fought numerous wars with Islam since the 8th century, when Muslim armies overran Spain and Portugal and tried to conqueror Gaul (France). During the 19th century, as European power began to expand in regions previously occupied by the Ottoman, new religious wars began to flourish.
For the British, their biggest battle against a resurgent Islam occurred during the 1880s. In 1882, a small British force managed to overrun the Khedive of Egypt and establish British colonial control over the entire country. London decided to keep British troops in the region in order to protect the Suez Canal.
In Sudan, Egyptian forces remained in control over domestic affairs. At that time, Muhammad Ahmad, a Sudanese religious fanatic who called himself the Mahdi (“redeemer”) of Islam, was leading a revolt against Egyptian rule. By 1883, the Mahdists controlled large swaths of Sudan. Fearing as Mahdist invasion of Egypt proper, a combined force of Anglo-Egyptian soldiers moved en masse to Sudan in order to defeat the rebellion. The British general chosen to head the garrison at Khartoum was Major General Charles Gordon.
Just as many in London began to question the reason for maintaining a presence in Sudan, Gordon’s garrison in Khartoum was put under siege by the Mahdist rebels. After a gruelling battle, the city fell and Gordon was decapitated.
This outrage so shocked the British public that London had to redouble its efforts against the Mahidst forces. Although Muhammad Ahmad died in 1885, his rebellion dragged on until 1899.
14. War Against The Slave Trade
In 1833, the British Empire passed the Slavery Abolition Act which outlawed the importation or trade of African slaves by any British ship, company, or persons. Following this decree, the British Empire became the leading anti-slavery force in the world at that time.
The Royal Navy was specifically tasked with disrupting the transatlantic slave trade. Even before the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, the British Navy had begun blockading the major slave ports of West Africa in 1808. The Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron was tasked with denying the now illegal trade in slaves by capturing slave ships as they tried to cross the Atlantic.
All told, the West Africa Squadron helped to free 150,000 African slaves. Unfortunately, due to Britain’s clampdown on the slave industry, European countries still engaged in the practice, from France to Spain and Portugal, increasingly relied on very dangerous practices in order to get enslaved Africans to places like Martinique and Brazil. As for the United States, British seapower effectively ended most transatlantic slave trades to the U.S.
However, thanks to a naturally increasing slave population in the U.S., the Southern economy was not adversely affected by Britain’s anti-slavery measures. London even considered supporting the Confederacy during the American Civil War because of their reliance on Southern cotton.
13. The Earliest Concentration Camps – 28,000 Deaths
The native Afrikaners of South Africa were arguably the most troublesome citizens of the British Empire. The descendants of the first settlers of the Dutch East India Company, who established the first permanent European colony in South Africa in 1652, the Afrikaner people proved unwilling to abide by all the dictates of London.
After the Battle of Blaauwberg, the British Empire took control of the Cape Colony. Seeking more land and an escape from British rule, Afrikaner farmers (known as “Boers”) began moving east from the Cape. These people, known as Voortrekkers, came up against another group of new settlers — Bantu-speaking people like the Zulu. Despite British attempts to get the Voortrekkers to stop progressing to the east, the Afrikaners managed to carve out several states in the east. These states included the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.
In December 1880, the Boer “commandos” began active resistance against British attempts to annex the Afrikaner states in the east. The First Boer War ended in an Afrikaner victory and the British recognition of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.
This uneasy peace would shatter by 1899. By that time, after diamonds had been discovered on the lands run by the Afrikaners, Great Britain used an ultimatum issued by Transvaal authorities to ignite the Second Boer War. Again, the well-trained British Army faced major obstacles against the Boer commando units that used guerrilla warfare to their advantage.
Hoping to break the fighting spirit of the Boers, the British Army established concentration camps that were designed to hold Afrikaner families. Between June 1901 and May 19o2, 115,000 people passed through these camps. 28,000 died from disease or starvation. About 22,000 of these deaths were children.
12. Famine Or Genocide?
Most historians agree on the basic perimeters of the Irish Potato Famine. In 1845, a blight struck the potato crop of Ireland, thus causing many families to grow hungry. Eventually, one million Irish citizens died from starvation due to the failing health of the potato crop.
The long famine that lasted between 1845 and 1852 caused the massive migration of Irish Catholics to Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. At worst, many historians accuse the British government of callousness towards its starving Irish subjects. Others blame absentee British landlords who kept demanding rent payments even when the peasants on their land were slowly dying of starvation.
However, there are some historians who consider the “potato famine” to be a British-engineered genocide. Many of these people tend to be Irish nationalists, so their findings can be clouded by political passions. That being said, it is interesting to note that the largest crop failure during that time actually occurred in Scotland, but few deaths came as a result of it.
In Ireland, British official Charles Trevelyan and others saw the potato blight as a way to forever end the power of Irish Catholic resistance to British rule. Not only did the British government stop local efforts to feed the starving Irish population, but the largest contingent of British Army soldiers during that time were deployed to Ireland in order to collect rents and stop the pilfering of food.
11. The Shortest War In History
Thirty-eight minutes. That is precisely how long the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted. Zanzibar, now a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, was once a well-known slave port used by Arab slave traders. Zanzibar’s Muslim sultans had overseen the sale of enslaved Africans since the Middle Ages. By 1896, the island nation was under British control because of the ever-pervasive desire of the British to protect the sea routes to India.
The war started when Khalid bin Barghash, the cousin of the supposedly murdered Sultan Hamad, took control of Zanzibar without British authority. After Khalid surrounded his palace with 3,000 men and guns, the British decided to act. The Royal Navy bombarded the royal palace beginning at 9:02 A.M. By 9:40, the palace was in ruins, the sultan’s forces were obliterated, and the British flag was once again hoisted above Zanzibar.
10. The Battle of Omdurman
One of the more persistent myths about the age of European imperialism is that it featured technologically advanced armies against tribal militias armed mostly with outdated weapons like spears or muskets. While there are certain instances of such battles happening, the truth is that many of the European armies that went conquering in Asia and Africa were seriously outmanned.
Before World War I, the largest the British Army ever got was during the Second Boer War of 1901, when the army stood at 430,000 troops. Although Britain was a naval power, such a small ground force often proved inefficient in holding the line in places like India’s Northwestern Frontier (part of modern Pakistan), Afghanistan, and South Africa.
However, one classic battle showed what the small British Army could do against a larger force. On September 2, 1898, 8,200 British troops, along with 17,600 Egyptian-Sudanese allies, fought 50,000 fighters loyal to the Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad. In this decisive battle, the Anglo-Egyptians utilized a new invention, the Maxim machine gun, to great effect. All told, the British forces lost just over four hundred men to death and injury, while the army of the Khalifa lost about 30,000 to death, injury, or capture.
In a sad bit of irony, the experience of seeing calvary charge with machine guns did not register with the British High Command, for, during World War I, the British Army would emulate their Sudanese foes by charging headlong at German Maxim guns.
9. Expedition To Tibet – A Violent Confrontation Between The British And The Chinese Qing Dynasty
For centuries, European travelers had been fascinated with stories about the secretive Kingdom of Tibet. This Buddhist land had long been off-limits for Westerners. However, by the early 20th century, the British had the manpower and proximity (thanks to British India and their control of Burma) to set out on a military expedition to Tibet.
Known as the Younghusband Expedition of 1903, Brigadier General J.R. MacDonald and Major Francis Younghusband led some 3,000 Gurkha and Afghani troops into Tibet on what the claimed was a peaceful “trading mission.” In truth, Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India, sought a way to occupy Tibet because he was convinced that the Russians were close to taking the Himalayan kingdom for their own empire.
The expedition ultimately turned into a violent confrontation between the British and the Chinese Qing Dynasty. When it ended, approximately 2-3000 Tibetan and Chinese troops were dead. Several times the outnumbered British garrisons came under siege, but managed to break out. Ultimately, the British entered the holy city of Lhasa and occupied the Chumbi Valley until China paid off a war indemnity.
8. Third Anglo-Afghan War
Afghanistan is known as the “Graveyard of Empires.” This nickname was earned at the expense of both the British and the Soviets. For the British, securing Afghanistan was key because in Indian history, most successful invasions were always launched via the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. Therefore, the forces of British India sought to stop any possible invasion of Pashtun tribesmen by capturing Afghanistan and turning it into a British protectorate.
During the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842, the British failure to achieve this objective. Although the British East India Company, which ruled British India at the time, managed to capture Kabul and the Afghani Emir, bad weather and several tribal revolts doomed the mission. In 1842, an entire British army was completely annihilated during the retreat from Kabul, with only one British soldier surviving.
The Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880 ended in a British victory, with Afghanistan becoming a protectorate of British India. This did not create a lasting peace, however. The tribal fighters continued to plague the frontier country well into the 20th century.
The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 started when anti-British forces in Afghanistan managed to install Amanullah Khan into power after assassinating the former ruler Habibullah Khan. Habibullah Khan declared Afghanistan’s independence. The exhausted soldiers of British India managed to always defeat the Afghani army on the ground, but ultimately, the treaty signed at Rawalpindi gave Afghanistan complete independence. Soon thereafter, Kabul began an alliance with Soviet Russia.
7. The Aden Emergency – Terror Campaign Targeting Britain
Common wisdom holds that the British Empire ended after 1945. While it is true that the major bloodletting of World War II helped to accelerate the decline of global British power (especially after the loss of India in 1947), imperial-style wars continued on well into the 1960s.
In 1931, the port city of Aden in today’s Yemen was made into a British Crown Colony. This city was prized by the British because it controlled the access point for all ships in Indian Ocean, especially those en route to India. By the 1960s, regional instability convinced London that a united protectorate consisting of all the small British outposts in the region could turn the Aden colony into a redoubt of calm. Unfortunately for the British, the radical National Liberation Front (NLF) wanted complete independence for South Arabia.
When Britain announced in 1962 that Aden would be home to a permanent British garrison, the NLF insurgency began a terror campaign targeting British soldiers, police officers, and civilians. In one infamous incident, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, the High Commissioner of the colony, barely survived an NLF grenade attack.
After declaring a state of emergency, British soldiers began aggressive patrols all throughout the city. Often, though, there were certain districts that were considered “no-go zones.” By 1967, due to increasing sabotage attacks by Arab police officers and widespread rioting, the British left Aden for good.
6. The Mau Mau Uprising – A Death Toll Of 90,000
During the 1950s and 1960s, the term “Mau Mau” was widely used by the media to describe any black nationalist movement. The origin of this term comes from the brutal British clampdown on insurgent forces in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.
Beginning in 1945, recognizing that the British Empire was no longer sustainable, Kenyan nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta and the Kenyan African Union began pushing for independence. Most of their supporters belonged to the Kikuyu majority, who felt economically and socially oppressive by the white and Asian settler minorities, especially after many British citizens began moving to the Kenyan Highlands after World War II.
Calling themselves the Mau Mau, Kikuyu and other tribal insurgents began killing their political opponents and attacking white farms all across the country. Because of this, the British government declared a state of emergency in 1952 and used the army to suppress the rebellion.
Officially, when the state of emergency was lifted in 1960, thirty-two white settlers were dead, while 11,000 Mau Mau rebels had been killed. Because of the use of concentration camps and extrajudicial tactics, Kenyan authorities has stated that the death toll was much closer to 90,000.
5. The Malayan Emergency
The conflict in British Malaya (today’s Malaysia) that lasted from 1948 to 1960 is often held up as the classic example of the British approach to counter-insurgency warfare. For American strategists, British success in Malaya is especially painful given that London showed how small unit tactics could defeat a well-supplied and determined local adversary in Southeast Asia. Washington did not learn these lessons at all before embarking on its war in Vietnam.
The insurgency began when members of the Malayan Communist Party began murdering white plantation owners. On June 18, 1948, after three such estate owners were murdered in Perak, the British Empire declared a state of emergency. There were many serious problems facing the British: 1) the MCP had financial and equipment support from both the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, 2) the guerrillas of the MCP had sizable support from the Malayan population and could operate easily in the country’s jungles, and 3) the British Army was still exhausted from World War II and could no longer rely on India as a large source of manpower.
In October 1951, after the MCP assassinated the colony’s High Commissioner, London began to aggressively pursue the MCP while simultaneously trying to woo the colony’s Chinese population to Britain’s side. On the frontline, Mike Calvert led the reconstituted SAS (then called the Malayan Scouts) in a brilliant counter-insurgency campaign that featured small units of British troops occupying and patrolling the Malayan jungles in order to deny the MCP any sort of breathing room.
The war not only proved the worth of the SAS, but it showed that soldiers in Australia, New Zealand, Southern Rhodesia, and the British colonies could fill the combat void left after the dissolution of the British Indian Army.
4. The Greatest British Battle
The British people themselves voted the Battle of Imphal-Kohima as the greatest moment in British military history. The battle itself is a testament to the bravery and skill of British soldiers, both British-born troopers and Indian grunts.
Following a series of major setbacks in Asia, which included the largest surrender in British history at Singapore, British forces were starting to turn the tide against the Japanese. By 1943, the Royal Air Force (RAF) dominated the skies over Burma, even though Japanese ground troops maintained control over much of the country. Between March and July 1944, the desperate Japanese Army sought a way to break the back of the British Indian forces and occupy large swaths of far-eastern India.
Four Japanese divisions attacked the British garrisons at Imphal and Kohima located in the Indian state of Manipur. Their goal was to take the major airfield at Dimapur. Initially, the Indian IV Corps was forced to withdraw from Imphal after holding out against the Japanese attack for several weeks.
Then after a long stalemate, a British counteroffensive at Imphal pushed the Japanese back, while Indian troops and the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment managed to outlast the Japanese siege at Kohima. Well over 60,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in the simultaneous battles. The outnumbered British lost almost 20,000. After this defeat, the Japanese Army could no longer seriously threaten India and began retreating from Burma.
3. The Great Indian Mutiny Of 1857
The Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, which is also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, forever changed the nature of British imperialism. Prior to the widespread revolt against British rule in India, British India was not ruled directly by the British government. In fact, the colony was under the control of the British East India Company, a private company with its own government and military. Ever since the 17th century, the British East India Company controlled not only the spice trade, but also the political life of the Subcontinent.
In order to keep the peace, the British East India Company employed many native soldiers, which were called “sepoys.” By the mid-19th century, many of these soldiers, almost all of whom belonged to religions like Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Jainism, became worried that the British were trying to convert the Indian population to Christianity. This suspicion was bolstered by the presence of thousands of British missionaries in India.
Added to this growing problem was the British East India Company’s policy of “doctrine of lapse,” whereby Indian provinces were annexed after heirs could not be found. Many sepoys disliked this policy immensely.
On March 20, 1857, Mangel Pandey shot a British sergeant-major and a lieutenant after his unit, the Bengal Army, was about to be disarmed and punished for refusing to be issued a new rifle cartridge. The mutiny spread after Pandey was hanged by company authorities. By that summer, large portions of the Indian Army was in open revolt against the company and against British settlers.
Ultimately, by 1858, the British Army managed to bring the mutiny to an end. Due to shocking newspaper accounts of the murder of wounded British soldiers, women, and children during the Siege of Cawnpore, London decided to bring India under its direct control, thus ending the British East India Company for good.
2. The Scottish Influence
Scotland and Scottish people played an outsized role during the British Empire. During the earliest days of British imperialism, Scottish settlers drastically altered the make-up and attitudes of colonial territories like Canada and America. Indeed, Scots-Irish immigrants (also known as Ulster Scots) formed the backbone of the American resistance against the British king during the American Revolution. Many Scottish slaves were sent to the Caribbean and North America in order to work on the emerging tobacco and sugar plantations of the 1630s.
However, the greatest contribution of the Scots came during the heyday of the British Empire in the 19th century. During that time, Scottish regiments were sent all across the globe due to their reputation for being the best-trained and toughest British units available. At the administrative level, many British governors, viceroys, and High Commissioners were Scotsmen.
While it was less true in Africa, British India was a virtual Scottish colony where Scottish doctors, lawyers, soldiers, missionaries, and engineers provided both the hammer and the velvet glove for London. Even during the twilight years of the empire, Scotsmen played a large role in the colonial wars in Africa and Asia.
1. The Influence of the Rothschilds
While many people avoid this subject due to the many conspiracy theories surrounding it, it is a historical fact that the Rothschilds, an Anglo-Jewish banking family, played a prominent role in the economic activities of the British Empire. One story highlights this fact very well.
In 1858, the Khedive of Egypt, the autonomous ruler of Ottoman Egypt, granted the French-owned Suez Canal Company permission to begin constructing the Suez Canal. London officially objected to France’s use of forced Egyptian labor during the building of the canal. Unofficially, London was worried that a French-owned Suez Canal would directly threaten their control of India.
By the 1870s, the Suez Canal proved its worth to the world economy. However, due to massive debts, the Egyptian government was forced to sell its shares to any foreign power willing to agree to their multi-million dollar asking price. Seeing a major opportunity, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli sought to buy out the Egyptians. However, the British government did not have enough money.
No worries. Disraeli’s friend Nathan Rothschild decided to provide his friends with the necessary funds. In today’s money, Rothschild loaned the British government 550 million British pounds. Thanks to this loan, London eventually took complete control of the Suez Canal.