The British Empire was the collective name for the land, countries, kingdoms, dominions, colonies and dependencies controlled by the British Government. At its height, it was the largest official realm in the world comprising approximately one quarter of the earth's surface, with territories in every continent and a population of between 400 and 500 million people.
Britain's overseas Empire took shape in the 17th century as a result of the country's great commercial, financial and maritime power. More territories were added throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Empire reached its largest size around 1920. It was made up of the Dominions, the self-governing 'white' nations - Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa, and the colonies ruled directly from London. These included Ireland (until 1922) Kenya, Nigeria and other African states, India, Burma, Singapore, British Guyana and the West Indies. Egypt and Sudan were ruled as 'protectorates' (although Egypt got nominal independence in 1922 the British militarily presence was maintained because of the strategic importance to Britain of the Suez Canal.)
The newest arrivals in 1920 were the 'mandates', territories awarded to Britain as part of the League of Nations settlement after the first world war. One of the League's first acts was to re-assign to the winners the colonies of the two losers, Germany and Turkey, thus giving Britain political sovereignty over Tanganyka, the Cameroons, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine.
In 1922 Ireland became the first colony to break away from the British Empire since the Americans in 1789. The southern provinces became the independent Irish Free State, leaving the province of Ulster still under British rule, an unsatisfactory compromise that created trouble throughout the rest of the century.
During the 1920s and 1930s the relationship between Britain and the Dominion countries was re-negotiated to acknowledge a greater sense of equality between them. The alliance between the former Empire countries became known as the Commonwealth.
During the second half of the 20th century this process continued as the colonies too gained independence, led by India in 1947. The independence movement was quickened by the second world war and the rapid social and economic progress made in colonial countries. By the end of the century the Empire had been formally dissolved, leaving behind the British Commonwealth as an organisation better suited to the needs of the time.
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