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British Empire


Subject Imperial, Colonial, and Postcolonial History » Postcolonial History

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781444334982.2016.x


Although the phrase “the British Empire” seems straightforward to twenty-first-century readers, it is important to recognize that the concept of the empire as an integrated territorial unit is largely a nineteenth-century invention, one that was mobilized partly as a response to a series of threats to imperial rule. “The British Empire” was never a simple geographical description. Before the 1870s, the British were notably reluctant to describe their territorial holdings as an empire, especially after Napoleon Bonaparte became Empereur des Français in 1804 and “empire” became synonymous with the conquests of Britain's principal European rival. Those on the receiving end of empire tended, understandably, to be preoccupied with local negotiation and survival tactics and mostly did not see themselves as inhabitants or victims of a larger, multicontinental organization. Moreover, for the British, the original model for empire, and the etymological source of the word, the imperium romanum , provided a cautionary history: if empire could mean greatness, it could also lead to overextension, corruption, and, ultimately, decline and fall. The titles of the various British bodies and institutions that dealt with imperial matters never carried the name of empire: the Royal African Company, the East India Company, the Board of Trade, the Southern Department, the War and Colonies Department, ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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