British Empire

dominions of the United Kingdom

The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

British Empire


  • Here in this country, although our political divisions were deep, in time of need we were able to transcend them in the interests of the whole community. Throughout the British Commonwealth and Empire there were immense diversities of race, colour, creed, and degrees of civilization, yet the links that united all together, though often intangible, proved strong as steel in the day of trial. This was because, despite many shortcomings and failures to implement fully the ideals which we held, the British Commonwealth and Empire had stood for freedom and justice, and because we had learnt through long centuries the lesson of how to live together without attempting to exact regimented uniformity.
    • Clement Attlee, speech in Carmarthen, Wales (3 September 1943), quoted in The Times (4 September 1943), p. 2
  • [T]he people of Britain and the Dominions were not much given to self-glorification. We were indeed inclined to a certain self-depreciation which was not always understood outside our own family of nations; but this was an occasion when they might take a proper pride in themselves. The world knew that in the critical time after Hitler's victories in 1940 it was the British Commonwealth and Empire that stood alone in defence of freedom for a whole year. It was British steadfastness that held the line while the forces of freedom were gathering.
    • Clement Attlee, speech to the conference of representatives of the British and Dominion Labour parties, Westminster, London (12 September 1944), quoted in The Times (13 September 1944), p. 8
  • When we speak of Empire, it is in no spirit of flag-wagging...we feel that in this great inheritance of ours, separated as it is by the seas, we have yet one home and one people...great as the material benefits are, we do not look primarily to them. I think deep down in all our hearts we look to the Empire as the means by which we may hope to see that increase of our race which we believe to be of such inestimable benefit to the world at large; the spread abroad of people to whom freedom and justice are as the breath of their nostrils, of people distinguished, as we would fain hope and believe, above all things, by an abiding sense of duty. If ever the day should come when an appeal to that sense of duty falls on deaf ears among our own kin, that day indeed would be the end of our country and of our Empire, to which you and I have dedicated our very lives.
  • Our Empire grew from the adventurous spirit of our fathers. ... Wherever they went, they carried with them the traditions, the habits, the ideals of their Mother Country. ... [T]hey never lost that golden thread of the spirit which drew their thoughts back to the land of their birth. Even their children, and their children's children, to whom Great Britain was no more than a name, a vision, spoke of it always as Home. In this sense of kinship the Empire finds its brightest glory and its most essential strength. The Empires of old were created by military conquest and sustained by military domination. They were Empires of subject races governed by a central power. Our Empire is so different from these that we must give the word Empire a new meaning, or use instead of it the title Commonwealth of British Nations...I am sure that none among us can think upon this Commonwealth of British nations, which men and women of our own race have created, without a stirring of our deepest feelings.
  • As we study [the British Empire's] destiny, we are bound to think of it less as a human achievement than as an instrument of Divine Providence for the promotion of the progress of mankind.
  • We [Britain and the Dominions] stand on an equality, and if some foreign critics are disposed to say that standing on an equality means that we are bound to separate in a short time my view is precisely the contrary. My view most strongly is that the British Empire is now a more united organism than it has ever been before, that that organism is held together far more effectually by the broad loyalties, by the common feelings and interests—in many cases, of history—and by devotion to great world ideals of peace and freedom. A common interest in loyalty, in freedom, in ideals—that is the bond of Empire. If that is not enough, nothing else is enough.
  • It is we, on this side, who object to dreams of empire, because we think in terms of free association and we believe that the empire that was built up was based on force and domination by this country.
  • I believe in a British Empire, in an Empire which, though it should be its first duty to cultivate friendship with all the nations of the world, should yet, even if alone, be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, able to maintain itself against the competition of all its rivals. And I do not believe in a Little England which shall be separated from all those to whom it would in the natural course look for support and affection, a Little England which would then be dependent absolutely on the mercy of those who envy its present prosperity, and who have shown they are ready to do all in their power to prevent its future union with the British races throughout the world.
    • Joseph Chamberlain, speech at Birmingham Town Hall in favor of imperial tariffs (15 May 1903), published in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (1994), p. 7
  • The British people realise that they are fighting for the hegemony of the Empire. If necessary we shall continue the war single-handed.
    • Lord Curzon, quoted in King Albert I of Belgium's diary (7 February 1916), cited in R. van Overstraeten (ed.), The War Diaries of Albert I King of the Belgians (1954), p. 85
  • [W]e must profit by the lessons of the war. ... [T]he first lesson it has taught is the immense importance of maintaining the solidarity of the British Empire. (Cheers.) It has rendered a service to humanity the magnitude of which will appear greater and greater as this generation recedes into the past. ... This Empire has never been such a power for good. To suggest that such an organization could fall to pieces after the war would be a crime against civilization. ... The British Empire will be needed after peace to keep wrongs in check. Its mere word will count more next time than it did the last. For the enemy know now what they have got to deal with.
  • The B[ritish] E[mpire] is a sisterhood of nations—the greatest in the world. Look at this table: There sits AfricaEnglish and Boer; there sits CanadaFrench, Scotch & English; there sits Australia, representing many races—even Maoris; there sits India; here sit the representatives of England, Scotland & Wales; all we ask you to do is to take your place in this sisterhood of free nations. It is an invitation, Mr. De Valera: we invite you here.
    • David Lloyd George, quoted in Frances Stevenson's diary entry (14 July 1921), A. J. P. Taylor (ed.), Lloyd George: A Diary (1971), pp. 227-228
  • If we are to receive self-government, we shall have to take it. We shall never be granted self-government. Look at the history of the British Empire and the British nation; freedom-loving as it is, it will not be a party to give freedom to a people who will not take it themselves.
    • Mahatma Gandhi, (4 February 1916), published in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (1994), p. 43
  • [The British Empire is] the greatest secular agency for good now known to mankind.
  • [I]f our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British empire would not have been made.
    • Lord Salisbury's remarks to the Cabinet (8 March 1878), quoted in John Vincent (ed.), The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, Fifteenth Earl of Derby (1994), p. 523
  • The grand success of the British Empire depends not on its having followed any constitutional precedent of the past but on having met a new situation in history with a creation in law; and as a matter of fact the new constitutional system grew empirically and organically out of the practical necessities of the colonial situation.
    • Jan Smuts, quoted in The League of Nations - A Practical Suggestion (1918), pp. 37-38, as cited by W. K. Hancock in Smuts 1: The Sanguine Years 1870-1919, p. 502
  • That the reason the sun never set on the British Empire was that God didn't trust an Englishman in the dark.
    • The Role of the Oceans in the 21st Century (1993), p476.

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