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8.1 The British Empire (In One Take)

Francis Drake

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Francis Drake

Francis Drake was an explorer and fought for Queen Elizabeth I in the Spanish Armada. However, along with John Hawkins, he was also involved in the first English slaving voyage, taking enslaved people from Africa to be sold in the Americas in the 1560s.

Jamestown

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Jamestown

Jamestown was England’s first permanent settlement in the Americas, founded in May 1607. It was built on land close to the local Powhatan people and the chief’s daughter Pocahontas acted as a messenger between the indigenous people and the colonists.

Nanny of the Maroons

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Nanny of the Maroons

Nanny of the Maroons was the leader of a rebel community of formerly enslaved people in Jamaica in the 1730s. Thanks to her guerilla tactics, the Maroons signed a peace treaty with the English.

Battle of Plassey

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Battle of Plassey

The Bengali leader Siraj ud-Daulah fought for independence against British troops, led by Robert Clive, at the Battle of Plassey in June 1757. Clive’s men won and this led to British rule in India.

American War of Independence

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American War of Independence

A group of Americans, including George Washington, fought the ruling British forces in the American War of Independence (or the American Revolutionary War), after declaring their independence on 4 July 1776.

Wolfe Tone

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Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone was one of the key leaders of the political group the Society of United Irishmen. They fought for greater Irish representation in parliament and launched the Irish Rebellion, 1798.

Olaudah Equiano

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Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was key figure in the British abolition movement, fighting against the slave trade. He wrote letters to powerful people and published a best-selling autobiography describing his life experiences as an enslaved person.

Slavery Abolition Act, 1833

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Slavery Abolition Act, 1833

In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act banned slavery in the British Empire, after decades of protests by abolitionists.

Woollarawarre Bennelong

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Woollarawarre Bennelong

Bennelong was an Aboriginal man and Australia’s first diplomat. He was kidnapped by British forces in 1789 and escaped, but eventually chose to help Governor Arthur Phllip communicate with other native Australians.

Boer War

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Boer War

The Boer War was a war between the British, who wanted access to African gold mines, and Afrikaans farmers called the Boer people, from 1899-1902. Soldiers from Africa, South Asia, Canada and Australia fought in the conflict.

Windrush Generation

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Windrush Generation

The Windrush Generation is the name given to the people who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1973. They first arrived on the ship Empire Windrush in June 1948, responding to a call-out for people to work in Britain.

Mahatma Gandhi

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Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi fought for Indian Independence against British rule and promoted non-violent forms of protest, such as the 1930 Salt March. Thanks to his work, India finally gained independence in 1947.

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Lesson description

Welcome to the history of the British Empire!

In this overview we set sail through five hundred years of global history. Experience the rise and fall of one of the world’s most powerful empires, from colonial expansion in the 16th century to decline and break-up in the 20th century.

Lesson highlights:

  • Chronology of the British Empire, including its biggest conflicts, players and events.
  • Analysis of the reasons why and how the British Empire declined in the 20th century.
  • A vital guide for students to form their own judgements on the British Empire’s historical impact, from economic development and politics to cultural exchange and resistance movements.
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Fact Sheet

What was the Atlantic Slave Trade?

The Atlantic Slave Trade was a system of human trafficking that forcibly transported millions of Africans to the Americas as enslaved labourers from the 15th to the 19th centuries. It played a crucial role in the empire’s economic growth and expansion. 

 

British involvement began in the late 16th century and intensified in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Royal African Company, with a royal charter, held a monopoly on the English slave trade for a time. The British exchanged European goods for enslaved Africans in Africa and then sold them in the Americas, primarily the Caribbean and mainland North America. 

 

The British Empire later became a prominent hub for the abolitionist movement, culminating in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. The legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade continues to shape historical and contemporary discussions on race, economics, and social justice.

Who was Pocahontas?

Pocahontas was a Native American woman known for her association with the English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 17th century. She was a member of the Powhatan tribe, led by her father, Chief Powhatan.

Pocahontas is most famous for her interactions with the English colonists. She was kidnapped by colonists but later married an Englishman and travelled to England as a diplomat for Native Americans. 

Who was Nanny of the Maroons?

Nanny of the Maroons was a leader of a community of former enslaved Africans. This community fought the British colonists in Jamaica in a successful Guerrilla war which led the colonists to sign a peace treaty.

How did America resist the British Empire?

The US led a revolutionary war against the British colonists from 1775-1783 under the command of General George Washington, which led to America declaring independence on July 4th 1776.

What was the EIC?

The East India Company was a British trading company that played a significant role in the colonisation of India and other parts of Asia. The EIC had its own armed forces and came to control several parts of India. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Government of India Act in 1858, the company was nationalised, and control of India was handed over to the crown.

How did British imperialism affect Australia?

The colonisation of Australia brought many civilians and convicts from Britain to Australia. The arrival of these colonists displaced Indigenous people, with many persecuted or kidnapped. This was justified as a mission to spread Christianity and to ‘civilise’ the nation. 

 

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Video Transcript

SailorCaptain!
CornwallisWhat do you see, sailor?
SailorIt’s History Bombs, sir. The British Empire, In One Take!
CornwallisThey’ll never take the British Empire!
Sailor...I think he’s misunderstood the concept.
NelufarAs the sails are being unfurled
On this complex journey all around the world, One note: this video’s just eight minutes,
ChrisYeah that’s not long – the form has limits! Centuries of change, resistance and violence All involving this rainy little island –
Starting in England for the first verse,
It’s fifteen-eighty-one: cue Elizabeth the First.
ElizabethI knight thee Sir Francis Drake,
Your ship sailed round the world for my sake, Proclaiming the glory of England’s name
And embarrassing our rivals, Portugal and Spain!
Francis DrakeMy honour your majesty – let the legends be told,
I stole more Spanish gold than our ship could hold – On the Golden Hind I went to find gaps
To fill in our ever-growing global maps!
ChrisExploring the so-called ‘New World’ by ship was big business at the time. Great riches could be traded or stolen from indigenous people and European rivals. But that’s not the whole story about Drake. Alongside Sir John Hawkins, he was there at the very start of one of the British Empire’s worst atrocities: the enslavement of millions of African people.
Drake...In the powerful kingdoms of Africa,
We have seen Portuguese slave traffickers,
So there’s money to be made if we could go on a raid – We could start our own Atlantic slave trade!
ElizabethEngland must get in on it too!
Drake and Hawkins, you know what to do – Take enslaved people over the seas,
And sell them to Spanish colonies!
ChrisBritish slave trading developed rapidly with active support from monarchs, merchants, the military, and the public. More on this to come.
NelufarAt the same time, British colonists built permanent settlements in a place they called America. Some wanted land and wealth, others sought refuge from religious persecution. But wherever they went, they of course met people who were already living there...
PocahontasIndigenous princess, dressed to impress
Proud daughter of the Powhatan, east coast power clan The British built Jamestown close to me,
I was kidnapped, but saw an opportunity,
Married a colonist to stop the war between our peoples Went to London, met the King, saw St Paul’s steeple, Leader and a diplomat – what, they never taught
you that?
I brokered peace among us. My name? Pocahontas.
NelufarIn 1616 Pocahontas was an honoured guest in England, but sadly the peace she achieved didn’t hold. Colonists killed millions of Indigenous people in wars, land grabs, and pandemics like smallpox.
ChrisMeanwhile, British ‘triangular trade’ routes took enslaved people from Africa, over the horrific ‘Middle Passage’,
to work on Caribbean plantations. But there was always resistance.
Nanny of the MaroonsResistance that led to a victory
Sweeter than the sugar in a British cup of tea. Nanny of the Maroons, I led a liberation,
Our community thrived when we escaped
the plantations.
A fighter and Obeah magic-maker,
I led Maroons in the hills of Jamaica,
And our tactics beat the British down
To sign a peace treaty with Nanny Town.
NelufarThe sixteen- and seventeen-hundreds saw resistance to Britain’s growing empire. During the Seven Years War, the Bengali leader Siraj ud-Daulah fought to keep independence against the expanding British East India Company, but was defeated by Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey.
ChrisAnd by now there were thirteen British colonies in America, who didn’t get on with their rulers in London...
CornwallisStop, that’s our property! In seventeen-seventy-three
The Americans are throwing British tea into the sea!
WashingtonIt’s no longer ‘proper tea’. This is a lot of fun – Here comes the General! George Washington! Earl Cornwallis, lemme give you the recap,
Your response to Boston is a storm in a teacup – It’s simple: taxes that the British levy
On American colonies are getting too heavy, And we have no say in your Parliament.
CornwallisAnd this is how you want to make your argument?! Washington, you once fought for the Brits
In the Seven Years War, but I see that it’s
Too late to change you anymore –
Get ready for a Revolutionary War!
Washington...which we will win against the British Crown – You surrender to the revolutionaries at Yorktown!
CornwallisWe’ve lost America! The empire is diminished! Surely my colonial career is finished...
No wait, I’m fine! Off to fight another war,
In southern India, at Mysore.
TipuCornwallis, this invasion is deeply insulting, You’ve met your match in Tipu Sultan!
Our strong and diverse society
Will resist the onslaught of the E.I.C.!
My innovative rocketry will guarantee us victory...
[CORNWALLIS turning to camera]
Hmm, we’ll see. They end up a colony.
Well that’s that. Now I’m fed up of roaming. Time to head back to my home in...
WolfeIreland is not your home!
CornwallisLeader of the Irish rebels, Wolfe Tone!
WolfeThat’s right Cornwallis, don’t look so surprised – Ireland’s the first place the English colonised, Suppressed our culture and brought endless slaughter, Gonna send the invaders back over the water!
ChrisThe British responded with deadly force to uprisings like the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Britain could manufacture weapons at huge scale and speed during the Industrial Revolution, partly due to the wealth that was pouring into the country via the triangular slave trade.
NelufarBut in the United Kingdom itself, attitudes to the slave trade were beginning to change...
EquianoOlaudah Equiano is the name, I rose to fame With a book on my enslavement, and how I came To make a payment for my freedom – I’m a self-made man –
I made England home, and then had bigger plans: Abolition of the brutal slave trade!
With my writing and the speeches I made, hearts were swayed.
Not bad for a boy kidnapped from Nigeria,
With eloquence and acumen highly superior.
ChrisWhile the British public argued over the morality of slavery, the government looked for new territory to make up for the loss of the American colonies.
NelufarA British Navy officer called James Cook had mapped a vast continent on the other side of the world. But like America two hundred years before, there were people already there...
BennelongI’m Bennelong. I met British sailors
Who said my land was called Australia –
Which is not our name, and we’ve been here
Caring for Country for tens of thousands of years. They kidnapped me so I could do translations –
I went to England, and mediated for our nation,
But when I came home, I left the colonists behind. Their diseases and their violence troubled my mind.
NelufarHundreds of thousands of British convicts and civilians went to Australia, where they devastated Indigenous people through persecution and kidnappings, justified as a mission to ‘civilise’ and spread Christianity.
ChrisThe government was finally persuaded to abolish slavery in 1833, but compensated former slave owners with huge sums of money. This historic injection of capital set the stage for even more expansion...
VictoriaFeel the euphoria for the reign of Victoria!
Check out my Great Exhibition of Britannia Gloria. Ruled a quarter of the globe – no empire finer! Got rich from the Opium Wars against China, Forced most of Asia to buy our drugs,
And then we crushed the mutinous thugs
In India – no more East India Company!
I’m Empress now. It’s our national destiny!
RhodesLet’s scramble for Africa! A continent of loads
Of land and diamonds for me – Cecil Rhodes.
The empire needs metals, ivory, rubber –
With our European rivals we’ve agreed among each other Over who gets where, which resources and jewels, Because we believe whites have a right to rule!
GandhiBut your plan to colonise had a surprise in store:
You were soon embroiled in the Boer War,
A white man’s conflict on African soil
With British concentration camps, murder for the spoils. I was in South Africa with Indian workers,
We organised a volunteer ambulance service, Which the warring British found pretty handy – Recognise me? I’m M.K. Gandhi!
NelufarGandhi’s time in South Africa was crucial in forming his methods for non-violent resistance. He later returned to India to lead the struggle for independence...
ChrisThe pseudo-scientific racism of Cecil Rhodes was common among white elites of the time. The Boer War had a terrible death toll. But an even bloodier conflict arose between European rivals in World War One...
Indian SoldierWe answered the call from all over the empire, To stand together under enemy fire,
For a promise of freedom, safety, respect,
Or believing the empire was ours to protect –
West Indies SoldierFrom India, Australia, Canada, West Indies, Millions signed up, hoping that in these Sacrifices, our common humanity
Could remake the world after war’s insanity.
ChrisMillions of people across the empire made vital contributions to both World Wars. But Britain was now weakened, in huge debt, and needed help.
West Indies SoldierSo many people took up Britain’s invitation
To live and work here – we’re the Windrush Generation.
NelufarStill, many other citizens resisted being part of British-led conflicts. Movements for independence grew across the world, from the Easter Rising in Ireland to the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya.
ChrisThe empire’s retreat involved massacres and torture by British soldiers, and provoked civil wars that continue to shape our world. No-one saw this more directly than Gandhi...
GandhiBritish wars and trade were built on maps. But when the empire began to collapse The colonial lines they drew still remained, Dividing people, and causing deep pain. The India-Pakistan partition
Caused a million deaths and stoked nationalism Which inspired my assassin. It’s hard to find humanity After centuries of imperial brutality.
The scars are deep, but many are covered.
Let us witness how people survived and suffered. Instead of a myth of pomp and glory,
Let us look for, and listen to, the real stories.
CornwallisOh. Is it over, then?