The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Emory University

Patrick Allitt has been a professor of American History at Emory University since 1988, where he teaches courses on American intellectual, environmental, and religious history, as well as Victorian Britain and the Great Books. After earning an undergraduate degree at Oxford and a Ph.D. in American history at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard and Princeton. He is the author of seven books, including his most recent: A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism.



November 7, 2022, 4:00 pm

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The British Empire was not planned. It began with a series of trading ventures in distant parts of the world after England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. The motive was commercial profit, not national power, with the East India Company, the Virginia Company, and other chartered groups taking the initiative. By the mid 1700s, however, government was closely involved and underwrote the conquest of India and Canada, and the settlement of Australia. Britain, despite losing its American colonies in the 1770s and 1780s, continued to grow its empire through the Nineteenth Century–especially in Africa. The empire justified itself as an instrument of civilization that benefited colonizers and colonized alike. Britain’s sense of certainty that it was morally defensible declined after the horrors of World War I, especially when Gandhi and other anti-colonial leaders emerged. Confidence declined further after World War II when Britain, nominally victorious but actually weakened, declared itself unwilling and unable to maintain its world-bestriding role.

Recommended Reading:
The Pax Britannica Trilogy, by James Morris
Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson
British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset, by Philippa Levine
Rise and Fall of the British Empire, by Lawrence James

Discussion Questions:
1. How strong were the arguments in favor of the Empire, and why did they gradually lose force?
2. Why was India — the “jewel in the crown”– different from all of Britain’s other colonies?
3. Why did many former colonies decide to join the British Commonwealth?
4. Has the British Empire conferred long-term benefits on the places it influenced.

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