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The British Empire pre 19th century

The rise of the British Empire was mainly brought about by the European quest to discover new lands, mainly initiated in the 15th century. At the peak, the British Empire consisted of 25% of the World’s population, and spanned all the continents. At this stage, the saying, ‘The Sun never sets on the British Empire’ had developed. King Henry VII encouraged the British forces to explore the oceans and settle in foreign lands outside Europe during the late 15th century and the early 16th century.

He also established the British Power at the sea by developing new routes, constructing lighthouses and protecting trade. There was fierce competition from the Spanish Armada at that time, and the British managed to take an upper hand over them. The process of colonization began as early as the mid 16th century, when the British brought Ireland under its control. The British managed to seize lands belonging to the native Irish and place it under their control (plantations of Ireland).

This policy was later utilized while colonizing North America. Sir Francis Drake managed a trip around the World in 1577, and discovered North California. He claimed this to be the ‘Nova Albion’ or New England, and gradually the British curiosity shifted to the outside world. John Dee, a famous explorer, coined the word ‘British Empire’. North Carolina and Newfoundland were the first places colonized by the British, but they had to be abandoned because of severe climatic problems and conflicts with the Native Americans.

Queen Elizabeth I managed to expand Henry VII’s navy forces and encouraged trade in the sea with the Dutch and other countries. By the end of the 16th century, the British forces were weakened by the Spanish who slowly became dominant in the Atlantic Ocean. The first British permanent settlement was established by King James I in 1607 in Virginia, after he managed to sign a treaty with the Spanish. Several colonies in North America began to be slowly established. The English began to use the several island of the Caribbean for sugarcane plantations.

They employed slaves and businesses thrived. Several other British colonies provided the English with several useful agricultural products such as tobacco, rice, cotton, furs, etc. The British began considering agricultural land in far off nations for establishing their colonies. The search for colonies often promoted wars with other European countries such as the Dutch, Spanish, French and the Portuguese. Besides, conflicts enabled using land further and discovery of new continents. Australia and New Zealand were discovered in this manner, and were being used to dispose of criminals.

Several colonies (such as Australia and North America) were of exclusive interest because of the discovery of gold. Towards the end of the 18th century, the American War of Independence began to weaken the British Empire, as men, food and other material began to be used in this region. For about 50 years, before the American War, the British were experiencing several internal political issues. The period until the end of the American War was often termed as the ‘First British Empire’, because the architecture of the empire and the interests of the British significantly changed.

The period after the American War was termed as the ‘Second British Empire’, as they began to concentrate more on Asia and Africa. The British sought alternative colonies because doing trade with their previous colonies did not seem to profit them any more. Besides, slavery was being abolished and the British industry that was occupied in the slave trade seemed to be out of work. At the end of the 16th century, the British East India Company was established by a group of traders interested in doing business with the Indian sub-continent during the rule of Elizabeth I.

This was the only company that had monotony over the East Indies, and slowly they began to misuse their power by shifting from trade to virtually ruling the East Indian region. Large armies consisted of British commanders and Asian soldiers loyal to the British. Besides, having their strong hold in the India, the company also extended their businesses to other areas such as South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore. Initially, the East India Company only wanted to organize its factors and industries in certain parts of India.

They would in turn trade several valuable obtained from Europe with the Indian rulers. The British were very successful at organizing trade with the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, who governed India in the early part of the 17th century. The British industries established in India at that time were very successful and lucrative. They soon began to overpower the French, Dutch and Portuguese traders. They set up armies consisting of Indian soldiers. In the mid 18th century, the Mughal rule was in turmoil in India, and had several clashes with other rulers.

Towards, the end of the 18th century, the British forces captured Bengal after a war with the Nawab of Bengal, and established it as a manufacturing and commercial hub. In other parts of India, the British fought battles with several other regimes such as the Mysore and Hyderabad rulers. By the beginning of the 19th century, the British had a stronghold over several parts of India. However, the British East India Company came to an end in the year 1858, following the Indian Mutiny, 1857, that was arranged against the various atrocities committed against the Indians.

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