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Its empire-building began during the late 16th century, inspired by the Age of Discovery, when Portugal and Spain conquered vast amounts of land in the Americas. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands, began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. During a series of wars with the Netherlands and France during the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain gained vast amounts of land in the Americas and India.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American Revolutionary War that created the United States of America caused the British imperial ambition then turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, particularly to India, created the second British Empire. Following the defeat of French Empire in 1815, Britain enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance and expanded its imperial holdings across the globe. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.
With French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region undermining orderly incursion of Africa, the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 was held to regulate the competition between the European powers in what was called the "Scramble for Africa" that saw the transition from European imperial hegemony by military influence and economic dominance, to the direct rule of colonies. British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Cecil Rhodes, pioneer of British expansion in Africa, to urge a "Cape to Cairo" railway linking the strategically important Suez Canal to the mineral-rich southern portion of the continent.
By the end of the 19th century, the German Empire and the United States had eroded Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between the British and the Germans were major causes of World War I, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous financial and population strain on Britain, and although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after the war, it was no longer a peerless industrial or military power. Despite the eventual victory of Britain and its allies in World War II, the British prestige was already damaged and accelerated the decline of the empire. British India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence two years after the end of the war.
After the end of World War II, communal violence on the British colonies in South Asia and a bloody colonial war in Burma catalyzed a large decolonization movement. Britain then granted independence to most of the territories of the Empire. This process ended with the political transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The 14 British Overseas Territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth Confederation, a free association of independent states. Sixteen Commonwealth nations share their head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, as Commonwealth realms.
Imperial dominions, protectorates and possessions
- Minorca (1708-57; 1763-82, 1798-1802) → ceded to the Kingdom of Spain (1757, 1782, 1802)
- Malta Protectorate (1800-13) → Crown Colony of Malta (1813-1964) → gained independence as the Commonwealth realm of Malta (1964)
- Ireland within the Union (1801-1921) → gained independence as Irish Free State (1921-37) → southern Ireland became the Republic of Ireland (1937) & Northern Ireland remained on the Union (1922)
- Heligoland (1807-90) → ceded to the German Empire (1890)
- United States of the Ionian Islands (1809-64) → united into the Kingdom of Greece (1864)
- Second Corsican Republic (1815-48) → relinquished its protectorate status from the British (1848)
- Crown Colony of Cyprus (1878-1960) → gained independence as the Republic of Cyprus (1960)
- British America (1579-1776) → thirteen North American colonies gained independence as the United States of America (1776). Remaining colonies were divided as British North America and British West Indies.
- British West Indies (1605-1964) → seven colonies became the West Indies Federation (1958) → British Honduras gained self-governing right (1964)
- British North America (1776-1907) → the Floridas ceded to the Spanish Empire (1783) → five colonies became the Dominion of Canada (1867) → Columbia District was ceded to the United States (1870) → the last North American colony became the Dominion of Newfoundland (1907)
- Dominion of Canada (1867-1931) → gained independence as the Commonwealth realm of Canada (1931)
- Dominion of Newfoundland (1907-49) → reverted its status as a colony (1949) → became one of the British Dependent Territories (1981)
- Saint Andrew and Providence Islands (1670-88) → ceded to the Spanish Empire (1688)
- British Guiana (1814-1966) → gained independence as the Commonwealth realm of Guyana (1966)
- British South America (1821-1920) → gained self-governing right as the Dominion of Patagonia (1920-41) → gained independence as the Commonwealth realm of Patagonia (1941)
- South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (1908-1981) → became one of the British Dependent Territories (1981)
- Saint Helena (1658-1981) → became one of the British Dependent Territories (1981)
- British West Africa (1792-1965) → two colonies and two mandates gained independence as the Union of West Africa (1957) → Sierra Leone gained independence as the Commonwealth realm (1961) → the Gambia gained independence as the Commonwealth realm (1965)
- British Cape Colony (1795-1803; 1814-1910) → handed to the Batavian Republic (1803-14) → united into the Union of South Africa (1910)
- Ascension Island (1815-1981) → became one of the British Dependent Territories (1981)
- Tristan Da Cunha (1816-1981) → became one of the British Dependent Territories (1981)
- Colony of Madeira (1807-08) → ceded back to the Kingdom of Portugal (1808)
- British Mauritius (1810-1968) → gained independence as the Commonwealth realm of Mauritius (1968)
- Colony of Natal (1856-1910) → united into the Union of South Africa (1910)
- Territory of Basutoland (1868-1966) → gained independence as the Kingdom of Lesotho (1966)
- South African Republic (1877-1881) → gained independence (1881-1902) → annexed by the British as the Transvaal Colony (1902-1910) → united into the Union of South Africa (1910)
- Sultanate of Egypt (1882-1922) → gained independence as the Kingdom of Egypt (1922)
- Bechuanaland Protectorate (1885-1966) → gained independence as the Republic of Botswana (1966)
- British Somaliland (1884-1960) → gained independence as the State of Somaliland (1960)
- Zulu Kingdom (1887-1897) → absorbed into the Colony of Natal (1897)
- Uganda Protectorate (1894-1962) → gained independence as the Republic of Uganda (1962)
- Sultanate of Zanzibar (1890-1963) → relinquished its protectorate status from the British (1963)
- British Central Africa Protectorate (1893-1907) → renamed as the Nyasaland Protectorate (1907-1953) → incorporated into the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953-1963) → seceded from the Federation (1963) → gained independence as the Republic of Malawi (1964)
- Swaziland Protectorate (1893-1968) → gained independence as the Kingdom of Swaziland (1968)
- East Africa Protectorate (1895-1920) → became the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya (1920-1963) → gained independence as the Commonwealth realm of Kenya (1963)
- Anglo Egyptian Sudan (1899-1956) → gained independence as the Republic of Sudan (1956)
- Orange River Colony (1902-1910) → united into the Union of South Africa (1910)
- Union of South Africa (1910-1931) → South Africa gained independence as the Commonwealth realm (1931)
- South-West Africa (1915-1931) → the authority was transferred to South Africa (1931)
- British Bencoolen (1685-1824) → handed to the Netherlands (1824)
- Côn Đảo (1702-1705)
- British India (1757-1947) → the authority of Singapore was transferred to British Malaya (1867) → British Somaliland was made as separate colonies (1898) → Aden Settlement and British Burma were made as separate colonies (1937) → gained independence as the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan (1947)
- Manila and Cavite (1762-1764) → ceded back to the Spanish Empire (1764)
- British Malaya (1786-1950) → gained self-governing right as the Federation of Malaya (1950-1965) → gained independence (1965)
- British Ceylon (1795-1948) → gained independence as the South Ceylon and the North Ceylon (1948)
- Maldive Islands Protectorate (1796-1965) → gained independence as the Kingdom of the Maldives (1965)
- Banka and Biliton Islands (1812-1824) → handed to the Netherlands (1824)
- British occupation of Afghanistan (1839-1842) → successfully ousted by the Afghans (1842) → British imposed a protectorate status over Afghanistan (1879-1919) → relinquished its protectorate status from the British (1919)
- British Hong Kong (1841-1997) → handed over to China as a Special Administrative Region (1997)
- Kingdom of Sarawak (1841-1955) → relinquished its protectorate status from the British (1955)
- British North Borneo (1885-1950) → gained self-governing right as North Borneo (1950-1975) → gained independence (1975)
- Sultanate of Brunei (1888-1984) → relinquished its protectorate status from the British (1984)
- Muscat and Oman (1891-1971) → relinquished its protectorate status from the British and became the Sultanate of Oman (1984)
- Trucial States (1892-1971) → gained independence as the United Arab Emirates (1971)