When it comes to the British Empire then two things have always fascinated me. First, the enormous size of the Empire stretched from the British Isles all the way to South-East Asia. And second is the fact that even though it was only dissolved rather recently.
In the following, I would like to present the reasons why the British Empire ended but I will also briefly talk about what happened to it.
A military that had been reduced due to massive debts Great Britain had accumulated during WW II in combination with emerging nationalism and independence movements all over the British Empire made it clear that the colonial Empire could not be maintained. So Britain decided to dissolve the Empire in an orderly manner rather than being forced out of their colonies.
When looking at the end of the British Empire we have to remember that the dissolving of the Empire was started with the goal in mind to forestall the collapse of the Empire.
So let`s find out more about the reasons for the looming danger of the collapse of the British Empire.
Great Britain`s financial problems after World War II
After World War I had ended in 1918, Great Britain had drastically reduced its military (actually one of the reasons for the British weakness during the early days of World War II, more on that here). But the rising threat of National socialist Germany and Fascist Italy during the 1930s resulted in Great Britain increasing both its military and its military spending.
But that arming was expensive.
Great Britain’s financial position after the end of World War II was so bad that only a US-American loan of over $3,5 billion could prevent bankruptcy.
By the way. The size of the loan was heavily debated since critics feared that such a dependency on the US would turn Great Britain into a US-American satellite when it came to economics. The upside of the US loan was that even with its debt problem Great Britain could still maintain a military with 1,4 million members.
Now, why am I telling you about Great Britain’s financial problems after World War II? Well, because a military with 1,4 million soldiers was not enough to secure the British Empire that stretched from the British Isles, the Medditeraneum, Tropical Africa, all the way to South East Asia.
And that brings us to problem number 2.
Not enough soldiers for securing British rule in the entire Empire
As mentioned, the financial problems that Great Britain faced after World War II resulted in a reduction of its military to only 1,4 million soldiers. Now while that sounds like a lot it was not sufficient, especially not since conflicts erupted at all ends of the Empire. But more on that later.
After World War II the British military was overextended. And while British and Indian troops were successful at bringing the economically important Malaya back under colonial rule other inventions, predominantly in South-East Asia were less successful.
By the way, the reason why Malaya was so important to Great Britain can be found in its resources. Both tin and rubber were produced in Malaya and selling these materials brought in some nice money (that the heavily indebted Great Britain could definitely use).
But while taking back Malaya had worked out other British interventions were less successful. One example of that is Indo-China. The British military had originally supported the French efforts of taking back colonial control over Indo-China but soon had to end its efforts.
The reason for that can be found in the independence movements and starting conflicts all over the British Empire.
Independence movements & conflicts all over the British Empire
While British troops had supported French efforts of regaining colonial power in Indo-China more and more Independence movements, as well as violent conflicts (for example in Palestine), erupted. In the following, I will focus on India as one of the earliest independence movements as an example of how Britain decided to give up its colonial powers in an orderly fashion before having them taken from them.
The Indian struggle for Independence had already started before World War II but had been a long and difficult process. In 1942 Winston Churchill had sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India where he submitted the offer that India would become independent after the end of WW II if India cooperated with Great Britain during WW II.
As you see, Great Britain was eager not to open up other conflicts in its colonies while still fighting in World War II. By the way. Have you ever wondered why France and Great Britain did not invade Germany after the German attack on Poland even though Germany’s western border was only weakly defended? You can find the answer to that question in my article here!
But let`s return to the British situation in India after the end of World War II.
In 1946 the British cabinet had to realize that they could no longer put their trust in the Indian army when it came to securing British rule in India. The British government feared that clinging to power in India would lead to a situation like in Palestine, just on a much larger scale. So on 17th February 1947, it was decided that the rule over India would be returned to the Indians in June of 1947.
By the way, one part of that handing over of power was that the British colony would be divided into a predominantly Muslim Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India. Immediately after the British government had handed over power violence erupted. In both Pakistan and India the respective religious minorities were pursued and many were killed.
But that was no longer a British problem.
Palestine and the violence between native Arabs and newly arrived Jews however was still a British problem. Well, at least until 30 September 1947 when Great Britain pulled out of Palestine.
In the following years more and more of the British colonies (more on the differences between a colony and a dominion here) became independent and in the early 80s, the decolonization of the British Empire was almost finished.
Only Hongkong remained.
30th June 1997 – The final end of the British Empire?
In 1982, only Hongkong remained as a British colony. But there was a problem.
While the Chinese had handed over Hongkong Island for eternity in the treaty of Nanjing on 29 August 1842, the New territories, which made up the majority of the British Colony Hongkong, had only been leased from China for 99 years. And that lease expired in 1997!
A solution had to be found and so China and Great Britain started negotiating in 1982. Only two years later, in 1984, an agreement was made regarding the future of Hongkong.
In 1984 China and Great Britain agreed that Hongkong as the last British colony should be transformed into a Chinese special administrative zone on 30 June 1997. Many attendees – including Prince Charles – saw it as the end of the British Empire when Hongkong as the last British colony was handed over to China as a special administrative zone on 30 June 1997.
Since that moment the Oversea territories of Great Britain are limited to 14 small territories like for example Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands. However, many of the former colonies and dominions have joined the Commonwealth of Nations.
But the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations is a story for another time.
If you want to learn more about British history then I would like to recommend you my article here with the reasons why Edward VIII, the short-time king of England and uncle of Queen Elisabeth II, was not allowed to marry Wallis Simpson.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
J. Brown, Wm. R. Louis: The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume IV The Twentieth century (Oxford New York 1999).