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The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the one of the largest empires in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power.
The British Empire originated from the charters granted to Englishmen companies during the late 1500's and early 1600's that were meant to exploit natural resources in overseas regions to generate wealth for the United Kingdom. Following Spain and Portugal's recent success in colonizing and overseas exploration, in 1496 King Henry VII of England commissioned John Cabot to lead an expedition west, hoping to uncover a passage to the Asia via the Americas.
The English would not attempt the establishment of a permanent settlement in the Americas until over a century later under the leadership of Elizabeth I. England and Spain would continue to be rivals into the sixteenth century, and after the Protestant Reformation becoming enemies. England would invest in a number of privateer operations to help harass the Spanish and Portuguese trade routes across the Atlantic Ocean, culminating in the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585 to 1604. Elizabeth I authorized further privateering as the war continued, leading to raids against several Spanish ports in the Americas, returning with large bounties of gold and other riches.
During this time several influential writers, such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee, would begin popularizing the term "British Empire", and pressed for the establishment and expansion of England's own empire.
- See: Anglo-Spanish War
First British Empire (1583–1776)
Elizabeth I would grant Humphrey Gilbert a patent for discovery and overseas exploration in 1578. In 1583 the patent was passed to Gilbert's half brother Walter Raleigh, who would lead a number of expeditions to the New World, beginning in 1584 with the establishment of the colony of Roanoke. The Roanoke Colony would ultimately fail due to unknown causes.
James VI, King of Scots would succeed Elizabeth I in 1603, negotiating the Treaty of London the next year, officially ending hostilities with Spain. England would largely turn its attention to the establishment of overseas colonies, leading to the growth of the British Empire into the seventeenth century.
English settlement of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean began during this time, led by newly established private companies, most notably the English East India Company, to administer colonies and overseas trade. Putting companies in the spotlight to manage overseas colonies and territories areas such as India, Jamaica, and eventually much of the rest of the Caribbean not under Spanish control would prove to be largely successful for the British, and their colonies would continue to be controlled this way in the North American colonies until their succession following the Vinland Rebel of 1765 and the War of American Independence. The territory of Vinland would prove to be an exception to the spread of propriety colonies, and would be managed directly by the crown due to its massive population and need to be controlled by the English, and eventually British colonial administration.
Up until the loss of the American and Vinland colonies the British empire would manage to secure large trading rights and territory in multiple areas such as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and India. The First British Empire is believed to have ended around the year 1776 just after the success of the American Rebellions and the establishment of the United States and the Kingdom of Vinland, respectively.
During this time the British would also develop a large scale rivalry with the Dutch over the colonization of Asia, and during this time would secure multiple colonies in the region, including a vastly settled region in Australia, which had reached a population of 1.3 million by the conclusion of the wars in the Americas. This led to further British settlement in Oceania and major parts of Asia, and would even bring the British against the Chinese on more than one occasion.
Following the French Revolution the rise of French power began to directly challenge British dominance in Europe, as Spain also begin to diminish in power. The French Revolution, while particularly more bloody, was based off the same principals as the American Revolution years earlier, and led to Napoleon Bonaparte taking power. The British were hard pressed to fight the French in various engagements, and organized many coalitions against France to challenge Napoleon in the next few years.
The British would fight a number of coalition wars against France, partaking in major naval engagements and skirmishes on the mainland and in overseas colonies, acquiring Dutch South African and other possessions. The British would eventually bring an end to Napoleonic France, restoring order in Europe and beginning a period of relative peace and prosperity between European nations.
During this period the British added huge swaths of territory to their empire, secured the entirety of Australia, India, and decent portions of China while simultaneously settling them and expanding other existing colonies exponentially.
Even with very few military disasters such as the surprise attack on the British fleet off of China, the subsequent failed invasions of Hong Kong, the British managed to secure internal alliances which gave them large territory in Southern China, while simultaneously wiping out millions of Chinese in Southern China from population displacement.
The rapid displacement of native populations by the British would become known as the Anglo First Policies, and deal devastating blows to local population. The policies would become directly responsible for the deaths of an upwards of 20 million in Africa, 25 million in China, but interestingly enough left India untouched, as the British used internal fighting to handle population control until the British assumed total control.
The Anglo First Policies, while directly detrimental to millions of Africans, Chinese, South American natives, and Proxy Indians, did however secure sizable populations of British citizens in the various foreign colonies. By 1900 the Anglo population in colonies such as India, China, and South Africa was about 10 million, and areas like Australiahad also grown successfully.
Pax Britannica ended about 1919 with the end of the first world war, which saw the British Empire transform into a a more organized and equal entity known as the British Commonwealth. Later following the Second World war this evolved into the more modern Commonwealth of Nations which maintains a large scale economic and influential presence in most of the world except North America.