Unit 3

Britain: Losing and Gaining an Empire.

This option comprises two parts: the Aspects in breadth focus on long-term changes and contextualise the Aspects in depth, which focus in detail on key episodes. Together, the breadth and depth topics explore the development of the British empire and the part played in this by the Royal Navy and merchant marine. Looking at social, economic and
political issues, students will study a series of developments that started with an imperial catastrophe which threatened to reduce Britain once more to a European offshore island, but would then transform Britain’s standing in the world so that by the end of the period it had the largest empire the world has known.


Aspects in breadth: ruling the waves

The changing nature and extent of trade

Reasons for, and nature of, the changing patterns of trade, 1763-1914: the importance of government policy (key developments: the abolition of the slave trade 1807, the adoption of free trade 1842–46, the repeal of the Navigation Acts 1849).

The changing importance of ports, entrepôts and trade routes within the UK and throughout the Empire, 1763-1914: (key developments: the acquisition of Singapore 1819 and Hong Kong 1842, the opening up of Shanghai to trade 1842, the purchase of the Suez Canal shares 1875, the acquisition of Zanzibar 1890, the lease of Wei hai-wei 1898).


The changing Royal Navy, 1763-1914

The significance of changing ship types; the growing role of commerce protection, including protecting, and later suppressing, the slave trade; suppressing piracy and defending British commerce (key development: the attack on Algiers 1816); the work of exploration and mapping (key development: Captain Cook’s exploration of the South Seas, 1768-71).

The importance of the acquisition and retention of key strategic bases around the globe, 1763-1914 (key developments: Gibraltar retained 1783, and the acquisition of Malta, Ceylon and Cape Town in 1815, the Falklands in 1833, Aden in 1839 and Cyprus in 1878).

Aspects in depth: losing, gaining and governing territory

Key topics Content

1 The loss of the American colonies, 1770–83

Tensions between colonists and the British, 1770–75: the issue of custom collection and tea duties, including the Boston Tea Party; the Coercive Acts 1774 and their impact. Clashes between British forces and rebels, 1775–76; the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation.

Britain’s defeat, 1778–83: French and Spanish involvement; Britain’s limited military resources; the defeats of Burgoyne 1778, and Cornwallis 1781; the decision to seek peace and accept the Treaty of Paris. Impact of defeat on Britain 1783.

Was Independence Inevitable?

A Timeline of the rising tensions 1763-1775

Massachusetts History Archives

Yale Course overview




The beginning of the conflict



















Thomas Paine

Common Sense

















2 The birth of British Australia, 1788–1829

Australia’s role as a penal colony from 1788. The importance of Lachlan Macquarie: the development of Sydney; land grants to ex-convicts and development up the Hawkesbury River; the growth of Macquarie towns. Impact of British settlement on Aborigines in Tasmania and New South Wales, 1788-1829.














The spreading impact: penal settlement in Van Diemen’s land 1803; development of whaling; first crossing of the Blue Mountains 1813; first settlements in Western Australia 1826; extent of colonial control by 1829.

3 Learning from past mistakes: Canada and the Durham Report, 1837–40

The political nature and governmental system of Upper and Lower Canada and the perceived threat from the USA. The revolts of 1837–38: causes, course and impact. The importance of the Earl of Durham’s appointment as High Commissioner; the roles of Charles Buller and Edward Gibbon Wakefield; the main recommendations and importance of the Durham Report.

Canada History Project

Canada Encyclopedia 1837

Canada Encyclopedia Durham Report

Canada Encyclopedia Papineau

4 Nearly losing an empire: the British in India, 1829–58

The role of the East India Company and the Governor General; the importance of Bengal and the Company Army. William Sleeman’s campaign against Thagi: the drive against Sati and female infanticide; the impact of missionaries. The Indian Rebellion: the reforms of Dalhousie; the annexation of Awadh; outbreak and events in Meerut, Cawnpore and Delhi; the siege and relief of Lucknow; reasons why the British retained control.


In Our Time: The Indian Mutiny






5 The Nile valley, 1882–98

Reasons for intervention in Egypt 1882: Arabi Pasha and Arab nationalism; protecting European loans and people. French withdrawal; the British military campaign. Egypt as a ‘veiled protectorate’; the promises to withdraw and the failure to do so; the work of Sir Evelyn Baring. The problem of the Sudan: the Mahdi; Gladstone’s concerns and policy; Gordon’s mission, 1884–85. The conquest of the Sudan 1898: the fear of French occupation; the role of Kitchener; the significance of Omdurman.



In Our Time: The Berlin Conference

Debt & Egypt


Peter Cain – Free Trade

Robinson and Gallagher – Free Trade

BBC History British History in depth symbiosis-trade-and-the-british-empire


Here are links to a some of the more relevant episodes on In Our Time, which has an amazing archive of panel discussions about a huge range of topics:

  1. Wealth of Nations
  2. The Corn Laws
  3. Africa
  4. Slavery & Empire
  5. Consequences of the Industrial Revolution
  6. History and understanding the past
  7. Legacy of the British Empire
  8. The Indian Mutiny
  9. Tea
  10. The East India Company
  11. Opium Wars
  12. Wilberforce
  13. The voyages of James Cook
  14. Astronomy & Empire
  15. Washington and the American Revolution




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