From Empire to Commonwealth
World War I brought the British Empire to the peak of its expansion, but in the years that followed came its decline. Victory added, under the system of mandates, new territories, including Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, and several former German territories in Africa and Asia. Imperial contributions had considerably strengthened the British war effort (more than 200,000 men from the overseas empire died in the war; the dominions and India signed the Versailles Treaty and joined the League of Nations), but at the same time expectations were raised among colonial populations that an increased measure of self-government would be granted.
Nationalist agitation against economic disparities, often stimulated by acts of racial discrimination by British settlers, was particularly strong in India (see Indian National Congress) and in parts of Africa. Although loath to lessen its hold over countries it had done much to develop, and thereby to incur great economic and political loss, Britain gradually capitulated to the pressures of nationalist sentiment. Iraq gained full sovereignty in 1932; British privileges in Egypt were modified by treaty in 1936; and concessions were made toward self-government in India and later in the African colonies.
In 1931 the Statute of Westminster officially recognized the independent and equal status under the crown of the former dominions within a British Commonwealth of Nations, thus marking the advent of free cooperation among equal partners. After World War II self-government advanced rapidly in all parts of the empire. In 1947, India was partitioned and independence granted to the new states of India and Pakistan. In 1948 the mandate over Palestine was relinquished, and Burma (Myanmar) gained independence as a republic. Other parts of the empire, notably in Africa, gained independence and subsequently joined the Commonwealth. In 1997 Hong Kong passed to China and, in the opinion of many historians, the British Empire definitively ended.
While the empire may have faded into history, Great Britain still continues to administer many dependencies throughout the world. They include Gibraltar in the Mediterranean; the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, and St. Helena (including Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) in the South Atlantic; Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies; and Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. These dependencies have varying degrees of self-government. In 1982 Britain clashed with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, retaking them by force after Argentina, which also claims them, had invaded and seized the islands.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.