The Rise and Fall of the British Empire: a Historical Perspective

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The British Empire is one of the largest and most influential empires in world history. Spanning over four centuries and covering territories in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, it was a dominant force in international relations and shaped the modern world in many ways. The rise and fall of the British Empire is a complex and controversial topic that has been studied and debated by scholars and historians for many years. In this essay, we will explore the history of the British Empire and its impact on the world.

The unification process began in 825 when the kingdom of Wessex absorbed the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex. Over the next 100 years, the kingdoms that allied with each other worked with high king system. This system meant that each kingdom had its own king but they all served under a high king, this king was the king of Wessex. Eventually, on July 12th 927 the Kings of England meet and recognized King Egberg as King of the English. This can be viewed as the foundation date of the British Empire

In 1215 the documen called 'The Magna Carta' was signed by King John that gave the Baron's protection from illegal imprisonment, protected the church’s rights, and limited the feudal payments to the crown. These rights were later granted to every citizen. During the 1337 - 1453 years was a The Hundred Years’ War. This was a war between France and England. As the name would suggest, the war went on a for about 100 years, lasting from 1337 to 1453. The war started as a result of a territory dispute between the French and English royalty. However, When England could no longer maintain their claim to Gascony, the current 17-year-old paid homage to the French king. French and English relations were still rather bad. At the time, England was interested in taking Scotland which led to France and Scotland becoming allies, the French king at this time renewed a treaty with Scotland. This treaty declared they would come to each other's aid in the event that either of their countries was attacked. And in 1336, France moved a huge naval fleet that they had been building for a crusade into the English channel putting pressure on England. In 1337 the king of France was invited to meet with a delegation from England, however, he declined and a literal call to arms was declared in France, the war had begun. Eventually, the English kings declared that they had a right to the french crown. Over the years there were a few breaks in the war. These “breaks” were more like cold wars however, both countries hired pirates to raid each other's ships and coastal towns. The battle of Castillon in 1453 is considered to be the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the war didn’t formally end until 20 years later. The French ultimately won the war taking back England’s territories. However the war was hard and had lasting effects on both sides, the war is credited for creating a stronger sense of French and English identity.

In 1586 England tried to establish a colony in North America, this colony was named Roanoke and. This, however, was a colossal failure and the colony was abandoned the next year. In 1607 England tried again and successfully founded Jamestown in collaboration with Virginia Company of London. Over time England would go on to finding thirteen colonies in North America by 1732. These colonies were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia (Jamestown), New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.

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The Beginning and Influence of the Scientific Revolution

In 1543 the Scientific Revolution began. The Scientific Revolution was the sudden development of the sciences in a more reason-based environment that changed the views of the natural world. Many of the key minds and ideas of the Scientific Revolution came from England including Edmond Halley, Isaac Newton, coffeehouses, Robert Hooke, and the Royal Society. The Royal Society started as a group of physicians and natural philosophers meet on November 28th 1660. The committee of twelve that made up this group, announced that they would be founding a group to promote the physical sciences and perform experiments. At the second meet, however, it was announced that the king had granted them a royal charter. Since then, the Royal Society has published many scientific books that were vital to the development of the sciences. These include Hooke’s “Micrographia” and Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” and others. Robert Hooke was born in 1635 and died in 1703 at the age of 67. While Hooke is not very well known today, he was one of the biggest contributors to the scientific revolution. He was the inventor of the Pendulum and Balance Spring in clocks and watches respectively. However, Hooke’s longest lasting contribution to the sciences was coining the term “cells” for microorganisms. He named them so because he thought that the cell walls of a plant looked like prison cells. He also wrote the “Micrographia” which was an encyclopedia of drawings Hooke had made based off of his observations. Hooke eventually developed an interest in astronomy. During one of his speeches for the Royal Society, he declared that there must be a gravitational force that diverts objects from their paths, that heavenly bodies all attract one another, and that the attraction becomes stronger the closer two objects get to each other. Isaac Newton was born in 1642 and died in 1726 at the age of 84. Isaac Newton is one of the most well-known scientists to have ever existed. He is mostly known for his discovery of gravity using math he created and is still somewhat used today. However, he also came up with a theory of colour and invented the Newtonian telescope, which is more powerful and easier to use than Galilean telescopes. Newton’s theory of colour was that colour resulted from the removal and reflection of light that had already existed as described in his book “Opticks.” While the details are not very clear it is known that Newton and Hooke had many disagreements over the years. This started with Hooke criticizing some of Newton’s ideas, Newton was apparently so offended that he removed himself from public debate. Hooke, as curator of experiments at the Royal Society intentionally tried to prevent Newton's works from being published or shared. Years later when Newton published his “Principia Mathematica” Hooke declared that Newton either stole his work or didn’t credit Hooke enough. Today there are no surviving portraits of Hooke, this leads many to believe that either Newton intentionally tried to remove Hooke’s portrait from history, or that nobody ever really took care in preserving any of His portraits. It is known that Hooke was not very liked among the scientific community, he was even described by his biographer to be “despicable' and 'melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous.”

Edmond Halley was born in 1656 and died in 1742 at age 84. Halley was an astronomer, physicist, mathematician, geophysicist, and meteorologist. Halley is best known for predicting the return of Halley’s comet 1758, which is pronounced. Halley became interested in the problems of gravity, and one day he travelled to Oxford and arranged to meet with Isaac Newton and discuss the matter. To Halley’s surprise, however, Newton had already completed the math after being questioned by one of Halley’s colleagues. When Halley asked to look it over Newton told him that he had lost it, but that he would re-make it and send it to Halley. Newton did this and Halley recognized the importance of his work, enough so that Halley actually paid for the all of the printing and publishing costs. Without Halley Newton’s revolutionary book may have never been printed.

The Glorious Revolution was the overthrow of King James II in 1688, carried out by Members of parliament lead by William of Orange. King James II was overthrown because many powerful politicians were concerned with his ties to France and his policies for religious tolerance. King James, unlike his predecessor, was openly Catholic, would change laws on a whim, and would appoint Catholics to important positions. William of Orange replaced King James and set more tolerant laws including passing the bill of rights. However, a Catholic group of James’ supporters called the Jacobites revolted in 1689, leading to the Williamite war in Ireland and the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland.

The American Revolution lasted from 1765 to 1783. During this period the colonists residing in the thirteen British North American colonies declared their rejection of British law, pushed their forces out of the colonies, gained independence, and formed the United States of America. There were many reasons for the American Revolution. The main cause is usually considered to be the large taxes imposed on the colonists and the lack of representation in the British Parliament. Eventually, the American Revolution developed into a war. The colonists won the war and created The United States of America.

In 1791 was enacted a Bill called 'The Bill of Rights'. That was enacted by King William III and it granted many “ancient rights and liberties” to the english citizens and parliament. These included requiring regular parliament, limited power of the monarch, the ability to petition the monarch without fear of retribution, and it also enacted free elections of parliament. And it also denounced King James II and listed many of his policies that 'endeavour to subvert and extirpate the protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom.” The Bill of Rights is one of the most important bills ever passed in England, it had long-reaching influence, laying down the foundations of modern democracy, even inspiring the U.S Constitution.

1920s: Decline of the British Empire

Technically the end of the British Empire that I’ve been discussing came when they founded the U.K. with Scotland after joining the two kingdoms. But that would a very boring end to the project and it would have ended before it’s height in 1920. In 1706 a group of Scottish and English commissioners developed the “Treaty of Union.” This treaty leads to the creation of Great Britain or as it’s known today the United Kingdoms. The treaty details of the treaty were agreed to in 1706, however, both the Scottish and English parliaments had to approve separate “Acts of Union.” on May 1st 1707, the treaty officially took effect, creating the United Kingdoms. In the 1920s the U.K. had reached its height and was the largest empire in history. It possessed 23.8% of earth's land mass and about one-fifth of the human population. The empire was so large that it was nicknamed “The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets” this was because the sun was always shining on at least one of the Empire’s territories. However, after WW2, the Empire had suffered many casualties and damages and could not maintain its territories. This resulted in many of its territories being granted independence. Finally, in 1997, the 99-year lease on Hong Kong expired, Great Britain gave Hong Kong to China. This marks the end of the British Empire. 

To conclude, the history of the British Empire is a fascinating and complex subject that has had a profound impact on the world we live in today. From its early beginnings as a trading power to its eventual decline and dismantlement, the British Empire has left an enduring legacy that continues to shape our modern world. While it is important to recognize the many achievements of the empire, it is also essential to acknowledge the harm and exploitation that occurred under its rule. By understanding the history of the British Empire, we can gain a greater appreciation for the complexities of global power dynamics and learn important lessons about the importance of responsible leadership and respect for human rights.

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