There is a picture from the 2012 Summer Olympics that was recently added to the world wide web’s ever-growing collection of internet memes. If you aren’t familiar with this picture, of Queen Elizabeth II (left), here ya go! While it is humorous, it is also historically correct. There are many–and I do mean many–countries competing in the Olympics that were once colonies of Britain. While most of the former colonies were not during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the sentiment still rings true.
Coincidently, the inception of the colonization of America was under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1584, after several unsuccessful attempts by others (in 1578 and 1583), Walter Raleigh landed on the coast of present-day North Carolina and founded the colony of Roanoke. (While a complete flop, it was still a start!) The first successful colony established in America, in 1607, was Jamestown. While I focus on America’s colonization, it was not the first and certainly not the last colony established under Britain. The reason I focus on America is because it was the first successful colonial rebellion, which resulted in gaining independence. Seeing as this particular article is about the loss of colonies, I thought it proper. The American Revolutionary War was the first blow against the real estate portfolio of Britain.
Founding Father Thomas Paine said it best in Common Sense:
There is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.
While Paine was referring specifically to the American Revolution, his published work foreshadowed what was to happen to the British Empire. Britain’s control over so many colonies and territories was absurd; not in the sense that Britain itself was absurd, but the fact that a country could control as much as the world as it did was absurd. (That last sentence is absurd, and maybe not even grammatically correct!) At the height of the British Empire, in 1922, it covered one-fifth (1/5) of the world’s population and it was spread over 13,000,000 sq miles. What made it “absurd” was that this “island” had colonies spread so far, that it was often said that:
The sun never sets on the British Empire.
While Britain still has sovereignty over fourteen territories, it granted the majority of its colonies, territories, and dominions independence after World War II. I think you be slightly surprised to see the full list of countries formerly under British control. After looking at the map below (if you click on it, you can blow it up and read all the countries), I can see why the meme of Queen Elizabeth is not only funny, but accurate.