After the British defeated the Dutch, Great Britain and its allies (Austria, Prussia, and Russia) continued to fight the French led by Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars.  Finally, after more than two decades of wars, the British and its allies won in 1815.  That’s the beginning of Great Britain’s 100-year-long “imperial century” during which the British Empire became the world most powerful empire and the British pound became the world’s dominant currency. London replaced Amsterdam as the world’s capital markets centre.  

In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain and the country became the “workshop of the world”. The British were the first to use machines powered by steam engines in manufacturing processes. They created iron production processes, new chemical manufacturing and developed machine tools and mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution raised living standards and made Britain very rich. It also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

By early 20th century, the British Empire ruled over 23% of the world population at the time, and 24% of the Earth’s total land area. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire as the Sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. There was a relative period of peace and prosperity in Europe and the world during the imperial century because no country wanted to challenge the dominant world power and overturn the world order that was working so well.  As is typical during this phase, other countries, especially Germany, copied Britain’s technologies and techniques and used this period of relative peace and prosperity to get richer and stronger themselves. This is when Germany grew strongly and begun to challenge Britain’s economic lead. Military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War.

First and Second World Wars

Britain’s policy was to maintain a balance of power in Europe. Germany’s growing strength and apparent pursuit of ‘world power’ status persuaded Britain to align with its traditional rivals: France in 1904 and Russia in 1907. This connected Britain, France and Russia in the ‘Triple Entente’ and stoked German fears of ‘encirclement’. German viewed Britain and its allied as a barrier to their global ambitions and this pushed Germany into closer alliance with its neighbour, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Consequently, in the early 20th century, Europe experienced a succession of diplomatic crises that heightened antagonism between the two blocs.

World War I began in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His murder set off a chain of events that led to war across Europe that lasted until 1918. The United States joined the war in 1917 after the German sunk five of its merchant ships. By the time the war was over and the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and the United States) claimed victory, more than 21 million soldiers and civilians died. Europe lay in ruins. The losing powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman empire, and Bulgaria) were carved up and put under the controls of the winning empires and were required to pay war costs.

During a decade of peace and prosperity after the first world war from mid-1920s to mid-1930s, Germany and Japan got stronger again economically and militarily and gained in power relative to the UK. The US however preferred to remain isolationist so it was essentially out of the emerging conflict.

As Germany and Japan became more expansionist economic and military powers, they increasingly competed with the UK and France for both resources and influence over territories. The Japanese and Germans started to make territorial expansions in the early to mid-1930s, which led to wars in Europe and Asia in the late 1930s that ended in 1945.

The Decline of the British Empire

The wars placed enormous strain on Britain’s financial, manpower and military resources. After World War I, Britain was no longer the world’s leading industrial or military power. After the Second World War, Britain lost most of its colonies in Asia. The Suez Crisis confirmed Britain’s decline as a global power, and the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire.

History has shown that the successes of all empires depend on their ability to maintain their strengths without producing the excesses that lead to their declines. The really successful ones have been able to do that for 200-300 years.  None has been able to do it forever.

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