The British Empire was the largest empire in history. It reached it's zenith in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It included Great Britain, Ireland, India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh), large parts of Africa, Canada, Australia, various Caribbean islands, Belize, and other places.
It was made possible by the strongest navy in the world and technological advances made during the Industrial Revolution. Rudyard Kipling was famous for writing about the empire. Winston Churchill spent the early part of his career in Africa and India.
Following two world wars the United Kingdom could no longer maintain the large empire and most countries negotiated independence in a process called decolonization. Rhodesia declared independence unilaterally (as the United States had done nearly 200 years previously).
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world's population at the time. The empire covered more than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain) the dominant colonial power in North America and India.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance and expanded its imperial holdings around the globe. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.
By the start of the twentieth century, Germany and the United States had eroded some of Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain. Although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in South-East Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the inevitable decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most of the territories of the Empire. The political transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire. Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. Sixteen Commonwealth nations share their head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, as Commonwealth realms.
In 1982, the United Kingdom fought a short war against Argentina to defend the Falkland Islands, one of the last pieces of the empire, located in the South Atlantic.