British Empire: c1650-1900

At its peak the British Empire was the largest empire that has existed. Following the Glorious Revolution there followed a period in which modern political Britain emerged. This developing Britain had a thirst for riches, was inquisitive and believed that her ideals and virtues were worthy of being spread. Exploration led to lands being settled, resources being acquired and domination of lands taking place. Wars were fought to maintain dominance. Empire impacted at home and abroad. It brought a diversity of people and goods. Empire also saw cultures collide and opposition turn to violence. The British Empire is both loved and loathed. It is a source of national pride to some and shame to others. 

British Empire Facts Lessons and Resources for teaching and learning

Making of the United Kingdom

Making of the United Kingdom unit homepage

Glorious Revolution
The British in Ireland, 1688-1691
Settlement of Ireland
Jacobite Opposition
Glencoe Massacre
Darien Scheme
Act of Union
Migration to the Americas

Economic Consequences of Empire

Economic Consequences of Empire – Unit homepage

Royal African Company
Triangular Trade
Lifting of the RAC monopoly
The Slave Economy
Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America
Slave Resistance
East India Company
Expansion of trade in East India
Bank of England
South Sea Bubble Bursts

How did the Empire affect working lives and consumer habits in Britain?

Empire and consumerism

Involvement of the British population in the slave trade and the ‘slave ports’
Emergence of consumerism

How did the Empire affect British politics and changing ideas?

Politics and changing ideas

Coffee houses and developing political activism
growth of ideas of a racial hierarchy and the impact on settled minority communities

Common questions about the British Empire

Questions about the British Empire

British Global Domination

The British Empire dominated world trade and politics throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Emerging from the colonisation of North America it soon added trading companies that grew to control trade in Slaves, Spices, Sugar and Cotton. Companies such as the Royal African Company and East Indian Company became large, global concerns. Commercial ventures led to war, administrative control being asserted and British ways of life being imposed. This imposition of rule leads to critical commentary of some aspects of British rule. Exploration and settlement of virgin lands brought many benefits. It created new countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. Indigenous peoples were both feted and subjugated at times. Wars against indigenous peoples of North America, Australia and New Zealand show the extremes to which the British would go to expand her empire. Yet it was also the British who became the policemen of the seas. Though they weren’t the only European power to abolish Slavery, they were the ones who established naval patrols to intercept Slave ships.

Empire and Culture

Empire brought goods and culture from around the globe into the heart of the British Isles. The vast array of fabrics, foods, minerals and cultural ideas could all be found in shops. Fashion became influenced by colonial produce. Politicians and the monarchy became bound to the Empire. Views of how the population of this huge empire should be treated varied. Examples range from brutality, enslavement and nonchalant overworking of peoples through to views along more philanthropic or missionary basis.

The British Empire became involved in the politics of most parts of the globe. British interests were protected by the Royal Navy. A large army was nominally controlled by the British: the Empire providing millions of men to both world wars. Control could not be just won through weight of arms though. As the empire aged, it’s component parts began to want independence. From the American Revolutionaries onward there were calls for reform, for colonies to have a greater say in their governance. This led to dominion status for some, then, particularly after the Second World War, independence for others.


This unit has initially been developed based on the content of the OCR GCSE unit on the British Empire. It does not cover all aspects of the British Empire. Areas such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are not included on that course and so for the time being are not included here. Some of the content included in this unit on the British Empire are ones in which a great deal of scholarly work has been undertaken. They could quite easily be units in their own right, for example the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The pages here are intended to act as summaries suitable for young adults, learners at GCSE, A Level and K-12. Links to more academic work are included to extend this for teachers, interested adults and undergraduate students.

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