Many Americans don't really know the true history of the British Empire. We learn about slavery, the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution but don't know much beyond that. However, since the passing of Queen Elizabeth, we've watched news channels cover every detail of her funeral, present her only in a positive light and shy away from discussing any real detail of the real history of the British Monarch and Colonialism. So to help readers we will give a brief history and then talk about the impact of this royal family on the world.
Royal Beginnings: King Arthur to William the Conqueror
Britain boasts one of the eighth-longest monarchies in the world, and certainly the most famous. It has outlasted most of its European counterparts, adapting to changing times and expectations and managing to maintain enough popularity to survive for more than a thousand years.
Historians disagree about exactly how and when the monarchy began, but the notion of a central controlling figure is part of the kingdom’s story from King Arthur’s legendary reign in the 6th century. Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor left lasting marks before William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and initiated Normal rule. William initiated the Domesday Survey, which recorded all of England, setting the parameters for the land the king controlled and the people he ruled. With these boundaries clear, monarchs formalized their kingdom and their reigns.
Who was the earliest king of England?
The first king of all of England was Athelstan (895-939 AD) of the House of Wessex, grandson of Alfred the Great and 30th great-granduncle to Queen Elizabeth II. The Anglo-Saxon king defeated the last of the Viking invaders and consolidated Britain, ruling from 925-939 AD.
The Rise and Fall of the Plantagenets
The men who ruled Medieval England centralized their power by creating images that were larger than life. The Plantagenet kings—Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John, and several King Edwards—had to dominate their country and the powerful nobles who controlled much of the land and most of the people. The strength of the nation depended on the strength of the king—the successes and failures of this arrangement played out for all the world to see. Not content with England, the Plantagenets set out to conquer and rule France as well, creating conflicts with the French that would last for centuries.
The Wars of the Roses and the Tudors
When Henry V succeeded to his father’s throne as an adult, he was the only king to gain it in a traditional, peaceful way over a 200-year period. If the essence of the monarchy is a strong king chosen by God, what happens when the crown is worn by a child or won in battle? The 15th century presented challenges that shook the very foundation of the English monarchy when powerful families battled each other and the king for control. Henry Tudor went from unknown upstart to become the founder of the most famous dynasty in English history.
The Stuarts, the Georgians, and Queen Victoria
The tuart dynasty was troubled and the Parliament executed the king, abolished the monarchy, restored it and officially united England and Scotland into Great Britain. The Hanoverian kings disrupted the British monarchy with an early preference for Germany and ultimately the loss of the American colonies. The reign of Queen Victoria endured more than 60 years and saw the expansion of the British Empire and the nation’s entry into a new world of technology and industry.
From War to Windsor: Creation of the Modern Monarchy
The 20th century began with the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family on the British throne. As World War I raged, the royal family decided to turn away from their German heritage and become the Windsors. This newly named royal family faced two world wars and a stunning abdication of the throne, and then a 25-year old woman had to weather cultural changes around the world to lead the monarchy into the modern age. HM Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in history, has spent nearly 70 years guiding her family through changing times and circumstances, including the creation of the Commonwealth.
Are The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom Stolen?
The death of Queen Elizabeth II has triggered former British colonies to call for the royal family to return some of the world’s most famous jewels. When the British Empire was expanding and acquiring colonies, precious stones (among other invaluable possessions) were taken back to Britain, and presented as souvenirs, or the spoils of war.
Now, as the Queen was seen as one of final connections to the UK’s imperial past, these countries want their jewels back. To make matters more difficult, these stones are actually embedded within the crown jewels, and have been put on display repeatedly for this period of national mourning. Here’s what you need to know. South Africa There are renewed calls for the UK to return the world’s largest known clear-cut diamond, the Great Star of Africa also known as Cullinan I, now the centre piece in the Queen’s sceptre. This stone was actually just one part of the much larger Cullinan diamond, which was discovered in South Africa in 1905 when the British ruled over the country. It was the largest uncut diamond ever discovered at 3,106 carats, weighing slightly over a pound.
It was then cut into nine major stones and 96 smaller ones, including the 500-carat Great Star of Africa. Another stone from the large diamond is also part of the crown jewels – the Cullinan II or Second Star of Africa sits on the front band of the Imperial State Crown. But, it’s the Great Star of Africa that has drawn the most attention.
More than 6,000 people have now signed a petition asking for the Great Star of Africa to be sent back to its supposed place of origin and put in a South African museum. Many also suggested that the country’s president President Cyril Ramaphosa should have asked for the stone to be returned, rather than offering his condolences overt the Queen’s death.
The South African media has been debating the gem’s ownership too, and calling for reparation payments. Activist Thanduxolo Sabelo told local media: “The Cullinan Diamond must be returned to South Africa with immediate effect. The minerals of our country and other countries continue to benefit Britain at the expense of our people.” A member of the South African parliament Vuyolwethu Zungula also called for his government to “demand reparations” and demanded the “return of all the gold, diamonds stolen by Britain” on Twitter. He pushed for South Africa to leave the Commonwealth too, and draft a new constitution based on the “will of the people of South Africa”. South African formally became part of the British Empire in the early 19th century, and only became independent in 1931.
India India – ironically once called the ‘Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire’ – has now started calling for its own jewel, in one of Britain’s crowns, back. The Koh-i-noor weighs around 105.6 carats, and is thought to have been discovered in southern India in the 1300s. But, it is currently sitting at the top of the Queen Mother’s crown, which was first made back in 1937 for her coronation as King George VI’s Queen consort.
The UK got the Koh-i-noor when the East India Company took the jewel from the deposed 10-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1849, as part of the Treaty of Lahore. But, due to the stone’s elaborate history, people from all over the world have tried to claim it as their own – it has passed through Mughal emperors, Iran, Afghanistan and Sikh maharajas over the years. According to ABC News, the jewel was said to be “cursed for men”, and so was first worn as a brooch by Queen Victoria, before being placed into separate crowns for Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary. It is currently on display in the Queen Mother’s crown in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Some reports suggest it will be worn by Queen consort Camilla when King Charles is crowned. India was officially placed under British Crown rule in the 19th Century, and it did not become independent until 1947 – a moment now widely considered the beginning of the end for the entire British Empire.
So, will the stones be returned? The Palace has not openly acknowledged these calls for the jewels to be returned. But, the changeover from the Queen to her successor King Charles III has prompted a wide range of questions about the royal family’s legacy. So, acknowledging the origins of the some of the royal jewels could potentially be addressed in the future – especially as more Commonwealth nations are considering removing the monarch as their head of state. The exact values of these stones is also unclear, although their history means they would be worth a fortune.
The Global Impact of Colonialism
At the height of the British Empire, just after the First World War, an island smaller than Kansas controlled roughly a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. To the architects of this colossus, the largest empire in history, each conquest was a moral achievement. Imperial tutelage, often imparted through the barrel of an Enfield, was delivering benighted peoples from the errors of their ways—child marriage, widow immolation, headhunting. Among the edifiers was a Devonshire-born rector’s son named Henry Hugh Tudor. Hughie, as he was known to Winston Churchill and his other chums, pops up so reliably in colonial outposts with outsized body counts that his story can seem a “Where’s Waldo?” of empire.
He’s Churchill’s garrison-mate in Bangalore in 1895—a time of “messes and barbarism,” the future Prime Minister complained in a note to his mum. As the century turns, Tudor is battling Boers on the veldt; then it’s back to India, and on to occupied Egypt. Following a decorated stint as a smoke-screen artist in the trenches of the First World War, he’s in command of a gendarmerie, nicknamed Tudor’s Toughs, that opens fire in a Dublin stadium in 1920—an assault during a search for I.R.A. assassins which leaves dozens of civilians dead or wounded. Prime Minister David Lloyd George delights in rumors that Tudor’s Toughs were killing two Sinn Féinners for every murdered loyalist. Later, even the military’s chief of staff marveled at how nonchalantly the men spoke of those killings, tallying them up as though they were runs in a cricket match; Tudor and his “scallywags” were out of control. It didn’t matter: Churchill, soon to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, had Tudor’s back.
The Queen's Passing
In his speech to the Conservative party conference this month, David Cameron looked back with Tory nostalgia to the days of empire: "Britannia didn't rule the waves with armbands on," he pointed out, suggesting that the shadow of health and safety did not hover over Britain's imperial operations when the British were building "a great nation". He urged the nation to revive the spirit that had once allowed Britain to find a new role after the empire's collapse.
Tony Blair had a similar vision. "I value and honor our history enormously," he said in a speech in 1997, but he thought that Britain's empire should be the cause of "neither apology nor hand-wringing"; it should be used to further the country's global influence. And when Britain and France, two old imperial powers that had occupied Libya after 1943, began bombing that country earlier this year, there was much talk in the Middle East of the revival of European imperialism.
Half a century after the end of empire, politicians of all persuasions still feel called upon to remember our imperial past with respect. Yet few pause to notice that the descendants of the empire-builders and of their formerly subject peoples now share the small island whose inhabitants once sailed away to change the face of the world. Considerations of empire today must take account of two imperial traditions: that of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Traditionally, that first tradition has been conspicuous by its absence.
Cameron was right about the armbands. The creation of the British empire caused large portions of the global map to be tinted a rich vermilion, and the colour turned out to be peculiarly appropriate. Britain's empire was established, and maintained for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence, brutality, conquest and war. Not a year went by without large numbers of its inhabitants being obliged to suffer for their involuntary participation in the colonial experience. Slavery, famine, prison, battle, murder, extermination – these were their various fates.
Yet the subject peoples of empire did not go quietly into history's goodnight. Underneath the veneer of the official record exists a rather different story. Year in, year out, there was resistance to conquest, and rebellion against occupation, often followed by mutiny and revolt – by individuals, groups, armies and entire peoples. At one time or another, the British seizure of distant lands was hindered, halted and even derailed by the vehemence of local opposition.
A high price was paid by the British involved. Settlers, soldiers, convicts – those people who freshly populated the empire – were often recruited to the imperial cause as a result of the failures of government in the British Isles. These involuntary participants bore the brunt of conquest in faraway continents – death by drowning in ships that never arrived, death at the hands of indigenous peoples who refused to submit, death in foreign battles for which they bore no responsibility, death by cholera and yellow fever, the two great plagues of empire.
Many of these settlers and colonists had been forced out of Scotland, while some had been driven from Ireland, escaping from centuries of continuing oppression and periodic famine. Convicts and political prisoners were sent off to far-off gulags for minor infringements of draconian laws. Soldiers and sailors were press-ganged from the ranks of the unemployed.
Then tragically, and almost overnight, many of the formerly oppressed became themselves, in the colonies, the imperial oppressors. White settlers, in the Americas, in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Rhodesia and Kenya, simply took over land that was not theirs, often slaughtering, and even purposefully exterminating, the local indigenous population as if they were vermin.
The empire was not established, as some of the old histories liked to suggest, in virgin territory. Far from it. In some places that the British seized, they encountered resistance from local people who had lived there for centuries or, in some cases, since time began. In other regions, notably at the end of the 18th century, lands were wrenched out of the hands of other competing colonial powers that had already begun their self-imposed task of settlement. The British, as a result, were often involved in a three-sided contest. Battles for imperial survival had to be fought both with the native inhabitants and with already existing settlers – usually of French or Dutch origin.
None of this has been, during the 60-year post-colonial period since 1947, the generally accepted view of the empire in Britain. The British understandably try to forget that their empire was the fruit of military conquest and of brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination.
A self-satisfied and largely hegemonic belief survives in Britain that the empire was an imaginative, civilising enterprise, reluctantly undertaken, that brought the benefits of modern society to backward peoples. Indeed it is often suggested that the British empire was something of a model experience, unlike that of the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese – or, of course, the Americans. There is a widespread opinion that the British empire was obtained and maintained with a minimum degree of force and with maximum co-operation from a grateful local population.
This benign, biscuit-tin view of the past is not an understanding of their history that young people in the territories that once made up the empire would now recognise. A myriad revisionist historians have been at work in each individual country producing fresh evidence to suggest that the colonial experience – for those who actually "experienced" it – was just as horrific as the opponents of empire had always maintained that it was, perhaps more so. New generations have been recovering tales of rebellion, repression and resistance that make nonsense of the accepted imperial version of what went on. Focusing on resistance has been a way of challenging not just the traditional, self-satisfied view of empire, but also the customary depiction of the colonised as victims, lacking in agency or political will.
The theme of repression has often been underplayed in traditional accounts. A few particular instances are customarily highlighted – the slaughter after the Indian mutiny in 1857, the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, the crushing of the Jamaican rebellion in 1867. These have been unavoidable tales. Yet the sheer scale and continuity of imperial repression over the years has never been properly laid out and documented.
No colony in their empire gave the British more trouble than the island of Ireland. No subject people proved more rebellious than the Irish. From misty start to unending finish, Irish revolt against colonial rule has been the leitmotif that runs through the entire history of empire, causing problems in Ireland, in England itself, and in the most distant parts of the British globe. The British affected to ignore or forget the Irish dimension to their empire, yet the Irish were always present within it, and wherever they landed and established themselves, they never forgot where they had come from.
The British often perceived the Irish as "savages", and they used Ireland as an experimental laboratory for the other parts of their overseas empire, as a place to ship out settlers from, as well as a territory to practise techniques of repression and control. Entire armies were recruited in Ireland, and officers learned their trade in its peat bogs and among its burning cottages. Some of the great names of British military history – from Wellington and Wolseley to Kitchener and Montgomery – were indelibly associated with Ireland. The particular tradition of armed policing, first patented in Ireland in the 1820s, became the established pattern until the empire's final collapse.
For much of its early history, the British ruled their empire through terror. The colonies were run as a military dictatorship, often under martial law, and the majority of colonial governors were military officers. "Special" courts and courts martial were set up to deal with dissidents, and handed out rough and speedy injustice. Normal judicial procedures were replaced by rule through terror; resistance was crushed, rebellion suffocated. No historical or legal work deals with martial law. It means the absence of law, other than that decreed by a military governor.
Many early campaigns in India in the 18th century were characterized by sepoy disaffection. Britain's harsh treatment of sepoy mutineers at Manjee in 1764, with the order that they should be "shot from guns", was a terrible warning to others not to step out of line. Mutiny, as the British discovered a century later in 1857, was a formidable weapon of resistance at the disposal of the soldiers they had trained. Crushing it through "cannonading", standing the condemned prisoner with his shoulders placed against the muzzle of a cannon, was essential to the maintenance of imperial control. This simple threat helped to keep the sepoys in line throughout most of imperial history.
To defend its empire, to construct its rudimentary systems of communication and transport, and to man its plantation economies, the British used forced labor on a gigantic scale. From the middle of the 18th century until 1834, the use of non-indigenous black slave labor originally shipped from Africa was the rule. Indigenous manpower in many imperial states was also subjected to slave conditions, dragooned into the imperial armies, or forcibly recruited into road gangs – building the primitive communication networks that facilitated the speedy repression of rebellion. When black slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the thirst for labor by the rapacious landowners of empire brought a new type of slavery into existence, dragging workers from India and China to be employed in distant parts of the world, a phenomenon that soon brought its own contradictions and conflicts.
As with other great imperial constructs, the British empire involved vast movements of peoples: armies were switched from one part of the world to another; settlers changed continents and hemispheres; prisoners were sent from country to country; indigenous inhabitants were corralled, driven away into oblivion, or simply rubbed out.
There was nothing historically special about the British empire. Virtually all European countries with sea coasts and navies had embarked on programs of expansion in the 16th century, trading, fighting and settling in distant parts of the globe. Sometimes, having made some corner of the map their own, they would exchange it for another piece "owned" by another power, and often these exchanges would occur as the byproduct of dynastic marriages. The Spanish and the Portuguese and the Dutch had empires; so too did the French and the Italians, and the Germans and the Belgians. World empire, in the sense of a far-flung operation far from home, was a European development that changed the world over four centuries.
In the British case, wherever they sought to plant their flag, they were met with opposition. In almost every colony they had to fight their way ashore. While they could sometimes count on a handful of friends and allies, they never arrived as welcome guests. The expansion of empire was conducted as a military operation. The initial opposition continued off and on, and in varying forms, in almost every colonial territory until independence. To retain control, the British were obliged to establish systems of oppression on a global scale, ranging from the sophisticated to the brutal. These in turn were to create new outbreaks of revolt.
Over two centuries, this resistance took many forms and had many leaders. Sometimes kings and nobles led the revolts, sometimes priests or slaves. Some have famous names and biographies, others have disappeared almost without trace. Many died violent deaths. Few of them have even a walk-on part in traditional accounts of empire. Many of these forgotten peoples deserve to be resurrected and given the attention they deserve.
The rebellions and resistance of the subject peoples of empire were so extensive that we may eventually come to consider that Britain's imperial experience bears comparison with the exploits of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun rather than with those of Alexander the Great. The rulers of the empire may one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity.
The drive towards the annihilation of dissidents and peoples in 20th-century Europe certainly had precedents in the 19th-century imperial operations in the colonial world, where the elimination of "inferior" peoples was seen by some to be historically inevitable, and where the experience helped in the construction of the racist ideologies that arose subsequently in Europe. Later technologies merely enlarged the scale of what had gone before. As Cameron remarked this month, Britannia did not rule the waves with armbands on.
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