In the 19th century, the British Empire became the most powerful of European empires, with trading settlements and territorial claims spread across the world. By 1790, the Empire already had significant official holdings in North America, Australia, India, and the Caribbean, territories which would form the basis for its world empire in the coming century.

North America

In 1790, the only British territory in North America was Canada, as the American colonies declared independence in 1776. Britain acquired Canada in 1763, after the conclusion of the Seven Year's War which saw Britain victorious over France. Before the war, Britain held territory in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, while France occupied most of the rest of Canada but the provisions of the 1763 Treaty of Paris had France cede its North American provinces to Britain.


Though the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch had been making reconnaissance voyages to Australia since the 16th century, the British were the first Europeans to settle the territory. In 1770, British Naval Captain James Cook made landfall on Australia and began exploring. In response to his reports, and in the wake of the loss of its American colonies, the British turned Australia into a penal colony by sending convicts to settle the vast land. In 1788, Australia's first official British colony, Sydney Cove, was proclaimed.


The British also controlled a substantial part of India in 1790, though indirectly so through the private East India Company. The East India Company had a royal charter founded in 1600 that allowed it to establish trading posts which were secured and defended with mercenaries. In 1757, however, the Company, with aid from the British army under Colonel Robert Clive, defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey and established official Company "rule" over a large part of India. In 1773 the Company established its capital at Calcutta, and by 1790 the British indirectly controlled large parts of the eastern coast of India and dominated Indian trade.

Caribbean and Africa

Great Britain also had colonies on islands in the Caribbean, most of which were economic way stations designed for trade stops rather than long-term settlement. By 1790, British territories in the Caribbean included Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Leeward Islands – Antigua, Dominica, St. Kitts, among others – and the Windward Islands – Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, among others. The British also had several outposts in West Africa related to slave commerce, which were active until the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

Related Articles