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A world map showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886

Rule Britannia: How did Britain conquer the world?

Image: A map showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886 | Map / Public Domain | Background /

How did a small, rain-sodden island off the coast of Northern Europe end up ruling the biggest empire the world has ever seen? Was it by accident or design? Well, it was actually a bit of both. And it all started, believe it or not, with a handful of pirates.

The buccaneers take on the might of Spain

The story of the British Empire begins in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Following her father Henry VIII’s break from Rome, Catholic Spain became England’s number one enemy. Elizabeth gave men like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh permission to steal everything they could from the Spanish, and to grab any territory they could get their hands on while they were at it.

Elizabeth’s ‘privateers’ threw themselves into the task with gusto, hassling Spanish slavers off the coast of West Africa, robbing ships laden with gold and jewels from Spain’s colonies, and raiding its ports in South America and the Caribbean. Soon, Spanish treasure was not making its way to Madrid, but to London instead. Who needed an empire when you could just steal from one ruled by another country instead?

Unfortunately for the pirates, the state-sponsored fun came to an end when Elizabeth’s successor, James I, signed the Treaty of London in 1604, formally ending the country’s hostilities with Spain. The treaty proved highly unpopular in England, where it was seen as a betrayal of the Netherlands, England’s ally at the time. The peace lasted until 1625, after which, Spain’s ships and overseas possessions were fair game once more.

The man who made the most hay when hostilities resumed was a Welshman by the name of Henry Morgan. Working out of Port Royal in Jamaica, which had been captured from Spain by the English in 1655, Morgan led a daring set of raids against Spanish ports in Cuba, Panama and Venezuela. These raids made him enormously wealthy, and instead of returning to England with his loot, he was made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and invested his money in huge tracts of fertile land on the island.

With the acquisition of Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, and with the establishment of colonies on the American mainland in the early 1600s, England was now officially in the empire game. She had made a tidy sum robbing the Spanish, but that was nothing compared to what she was about to make from a couple of commodities that her new overseas possessions grew in abundance - tobacco and sugar.

The English went mad for these new products. To meet demand, plantation owners bought and transported African slaves across the Atlantic in appalling conditions to work their lands. The life expectancy of a slave was just ten years.

While the slaves toiled away in the plantations to service the English craze for tobacco and sugar, it was the demand for another product that brought the growing empire the biggest prize of them all - India.

The Dutch dilemma

After centuries of dressing in drab woollens, the English developed a taste for sumptuous textiles. The very best materials came from India, then still arguably the biggest economy in the world. The company that brought India’s exquisite calicoes and silks back home was the infamous East India Company.

The company was formed by a group of prominent merchants in London in 1600. They successfully petitioned Elizabeth I to grant them a monopoly over trade east of the Cape of Good Hope, laying the foundations for what would eventually become the biggest corporation in the world. However, by the middle of the 17th century, there was a rather large obstacle in the way of the company cornering the lucrative market of the Indian textile trade - the Dutch.

A series of wars, collectively known as the Anglo-Dutch Wars, followed. At stake was the future of India and the control of not just the textile trade, but also the spice trade. Unfortunately for the English, they lost two out of the three wars against the Dutch in the 17th century because their enemy had something they didn’t - enormous sums of money.

Unlike the English, the Dutch had developed a sophisticated economy with a stock exchange and a central bank. This enabled the Dutch government to borrow money at very low rates, and use that money to build what was then the biggest navy in the world. If England was going to beat the Dutch and control the Indian textile trade, she would need to get creative. What she came up with wasn’t another war, but a merger.

In 1688, the English invited the Dutch Prince William of Orange to come and run their country after growing tired of the Catholic James II. William’s ascension to the throne meant peace with their rival in India and the introduction of their economic system. The English welcomed this collaboration with open arms. No longer at war, the two countries could get on with carving up trade in the east. England - soon to be rebadged the Kingdom of Great Britain after the Acts of Union of 1707 - would get the textiles trade and the Dutch would keep the spice trade. The road was now almost clear for the British Empire to emerge as the dominant power in the world. With the Dutch increasingly a junior partner as the bigger British economy overtook theirs, and Spain a shadow of its former self having exhausted the opportunities to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down in South America, only one country stood in Britain’s way - France.

The French go all in

In an alternative universe, the sun would never have set on the French Empire. Back in the 18th century, this was still a distinct possibility. After the Dutch had been dealt with, the East India Company established several trading posts on the Indian subcontinent that would one day become the mighty cities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. However, they weren’t the only ones hoping to gain a monopoly on Indian trade. Just down the Bay of Bengal coast from the first East India Company trading station of Fort St. George was the French town of Pondicherry, and its rulers were just as eager as the British to shut off all rivals to the spoils of the subcontinent.

Inevitably, the two countries came to blows. The Seven Years War was the world war of the 18th century. A conflict primarily between Britain and France and their allies, the war spread to every corner of the world where the great European colonial powers had a foothold. It was a war that would prove disastrous for Spain, France's main ally, who lost control of the port of Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines. It would be even worse for France, who lost their possessions in Canada, north of the Mississippi in America, the Caribbean islands of Tobago, St.Vincent, Dominica and Grenada and, most importantly, any hope of controlling the trade routes between India and Europe. France lost the Seven Years War because the British had, by this time, more ships than any other nation in the world.

Unlike France’s outdated financial system, the British economy now followed the Dutch model, which meant the British government had access to what seemed like an inexhaustible sum of borrowed money. They used this money to build the biggest navy the world had ever seen. In the 18th century, the most efficient way to move goods and people around the world was by sea. Whoever controlled the sea controlled the trade routes, and whoever controlled the trade routes ruled the world. By building the biggest navy, and by beating the French in the Seven Years War, Britain was now the master of the world’s oceans. And for the next 200 years, there was nobody who could stop them from acquiring a colossal empire.

Britannia rules the waves

France would not be in a position to take another crack at ending British dominance until after the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, that too ended in failure at Trafalgar and Waterloo. Following the Seven Years' War, Britannia truly did rule the waves, and the business of acquiring the largest empire in the world could begin in earnest.

The East India Company turned from a trading monopoly into a de facto sovereign state with a standing army of 260,000 men, gradually conquering India - the Jewel in the Crown.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand all became successful cogs in the colonial machine. Britain gobbled up territories all over the world, from tiny islands in the South Pacific to vast swathes of Africa and trading posts in South East Asia that would one day become some of the richest cities on the planet. Only the Thirteen Colonies refused to stay the distance, fighting a war of independence that resulted in a brand-new nation - the United States of America.

That newly minted nation would not become the top dog for 150 years. Having seen off all the competition, it would be a small, rain-sodden island off the coast of Northern Europe that would rule the world.