The british empire

The British Empire

The British Empire refers to those parts of the world that were, through a variety of arrangements, agreements and invasions, under the partial or direct control of the British government in London. Although the Empire itself grew or contracted over the centuries, at its largest extent in 1920, it covered more than a quarter of the world's land and population.

The British Empire was predominately built on the control of access to trade, funded by enormous and valuable trading networks that criss-crossed the world's oceans. Goods were produced in British-controlled territories and then moved through British controlled ports to such a degree that, for most of the nineteenth century, Britain was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. This colossal enterprise required the political, and often military, subjugation of millions of people from the Canadian Arctic to distant Pacific islands, often resulting in a violent legacy of invasion and repression. Other peoples, however, benefitted under British rule, amassing wealth and power from their willing participation in the networks of trade that the Empire allowed them to access.

At various times, the Empire could be a contradictory institution--both establishing and then forcibly abolishing the transatlantic slave trade, protecting some indigenous peoples from persecution while waging genocidal campaigns against others, and fighting wars over territory against other European nations in distant parts of Asia or the Americas before remaking alliances and changing sides. Attempts at consistency and universal law across the Empire, although never very consistent or well-explained, became known as the Pax Britannia and were enforced by a system of colonial governance by military, political and religious figures sent in large numbers to the far flung corners of the Empire. When these officials returned to Britain at the end of their service, they often brought objects back with them from the places they had been--some purchased, some gifts from local rulers and some simply stolen. It is these objects that form the basis of anthropological museums, such as the Horniman.

Although the story of wiki:world_gallery:layered_info:publish:people:frederick_horniman|Frederick Horniman and his collection is not directly an Imperial one, the ethos and means by which his collection was assembled and displayed relied heavily on the British Empire. Horniman 's wealth was built on the tea trade, grown in British India, particularly the northern province of Assam and exported all over the world. Horniman made his fortune as a tea importer, reliant on the Imperial trade networks. The collection, too, was made in the tradition of Empire. By the late nineteenth century, when Horniman was assembling his collection, other museums, such as the British Museum and the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, had established galleries depicting the peoples of the Empire through the frame of the new academic discipline of anthropology, the study of people; it was this model Horniman followed in his museum.

In the early twentieth century, the enormous financial strain of the First and Second World Wars, the growing movements for democracy, particularly in India, and the changes in the structure of global trade, made the Empire no longer economically viable. From 1948, the Empire was, largely peacefully, dissolved. The new nations that emerged formed the Commonwealth, a trade association of independent partners rooted in the historic ties established under the Empire. The British Empire substantially shaped the world in which we live and has left a complex legacy of global partnerships and enmities, collaborations and conflicts; this gallery explores some of these relationships through its displays and invites the visitor to consider its impact on their own lives.

Collection Information

These objects are only a part of our collections, of which there are more than 350,000 objects. This information comes from our collections database. Some of this is incomplete and there may be errors. This part of the website is also still under construction, so there may be some fields repeated or incorrectly formatted information.

The database sometimes uses language taken from historical documents to help research, which may now appear outdated and even offensive. The database also includes information on objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities.

If you have any further information about objects in our collections or can suggest corrections to our information, please contact us: