Monday, 12 May 2008

WRONG: The British Empire ended in 1947

John Dee, alchemist and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, first mooted the idea of a British Empire in 1577, undeterred by the fact that Britain didn’t exist as a single political entity, and wouldn’t till 1707. Over the next four centuries Britain’s dominions grew to cover an area so great that it was claimed “the sun never set” on it. (“Because god doesn’t trust the British in the dark,” according to one spectator.)

In actual fact, after a close analysis of historical maps (well, a bit of scribbling on the back of an envelope and a glance at a map), I estimate that at the Empire’s height in the 1920s, the sun set on it for at least one hour 26 minutes a day. Most of it across Greenland.

George VI may have relinquished the title of Emperor shortly after Pakistan and India became independent in August 1947, but not having an Emperor doesn’t mean not having an Empire. There are no established rules, after all, about what constitutes an Empire and what doesn’t.

Let’s begin with what definitely isn’t the British Empire. The Commonwealth Of Nations, an organisation that promotes “international understanding and world peace”, consists of 53 member nations (nearly a third of the world’s population), almost all of which were once British dominions, but which have since gained independence. No Empire there.

Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are Crown Dependencies of the United Kingdom with a strong degree of independence [see WRONG: The British Isles have only one monarch], but they’re not the British Empire either.

There are also 14 non-independent British Overseas Territories subject to British sovereignty (not that that makes them an Empire):

• Anguilla.
• Bermuda, which isn’t one island but 138 of them.
• The British Antarctic Territory, a wedge of Antarctica agreed by treaty in 1961 to be used only for peaceful, scientific purposes. In 1978 Emilio Palma became the first person known to have been born there. It must be assumed the birth was both peaceful and scientific.
• The British Indian Ocean Territory, a series of islands that were the site of a disgraceful land grab when Britain illegally ousted the entire native population of the Chagos Archipelago in 1967 in order to lease the land to the US Navy in return for a subsidy on Polaris submarines. The Chagossians remain homeless despite a High Court decision that their eviction was illegal.
• The British Virgin Islands. Not named for any supposed chastity on the part of the inhabitants, or even after the “virgin” Queen Elizabeth I (source of “Virginia”), the islands were somewhat fancifully named Santa Ursula Y Las Once Mil Virgenes by Columbus after the myth of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were supposedly martyred alongside her by the Huns.
• The Cayman Islands.
• The Falkland Islands.
• Gibraltar, ceded to the British in perpetuity under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713.
• Montserrat, a volcanic island in the Caribbean.
• The Pitcairn Islands, four South Pacific outposts originally settled by the mutineers of HMS Bounty and their Tahitian companions. Pitcairn became famous again in 2004 when seven islanders went on trial for 96 charges of rape and the indecent assault of minors. Such was the mistrust of outsiders at the time, visiting Animal Park presenter Ben Fogle was denounced as a spy and deported.
• St Helena, which also includes the “nearby” islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, is an Atlantic island some 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass. St Helena is famous for being the place of Napoleon’s final exile and death, but it was also home to 6,000 PoWs during the second Boer War. Tristan da Cunha, meanwhile, is officially the most remote inhabited island on Earth. It is 1750 miles from South Africa, 2088 miles from South America and even 1350 miles from St Helena. It is home to 269 citizens, who share only seven surnames and, it’s fair to assume, more than a few genes.
• South Georgia, a series of wildlife sanctuaries in the far south Atlantic staffed by scientists.
• The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, two garrisons on the island of Cyprus.
• The Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean.

So is there an Empire? Possibly. The one exception to the decolonisation trend of the 20th century occurred in 1955, when the Royal Navy claimed the barren North Atlantic outcrop of Rockall in the name of the Queen, mainly to prevent the Soviets grabbing it first and spying on the UK’s naval missile-testing programme. You don’t get more imperial than planting a flag in the name of the Sovereign. That soggy lump of granite, part of the County of Inverness according to the 1972 Island Of Rockall Act, is pretty much the only bit of land that you could get away with calling the British Empire. Not really what John Dee had in mind, and, for the record, the sun most emphatically does set on it.

A point worth noting is that not all British land is British. Not only are embassies technically foreign soil, but other land can be voluntarily ceded by the State. During World War II, Winston Churchill temporarily designated a suite in Claridge’s Hotel as Yugoslav territory so that the queen in exile could give birth on home soil and thereby maintain her son’s claim to the throne. Among the other lands with overseas sovereignty are an acre of forest in Runnymede, Kent, which was donated to America as a memorial to John F Kennedy, and Victor Hugo’s house in Guernsey, which belongs to the City of Paris.

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