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The British Empire: Trading Routes and Construction

This map is part of a series of 19 animated maps showing the history of Europe's colonial expansion, 1820-1939.

England developed its imperial expansion throughout the 19th century, thanks to its undisputed “domination of the seas”.

The importance of protecting its ocean trading routes, and in particular the sea routes to India, explains the pragmatic approach behind British expansionism:

- On the West Coast of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea provided several harbours along the route to the Cape of Good Hope. From there, ships sailed up the East Coast and into the Indian Ocean.

- From there, trading posts in Malaysia gave access to the Strait of Malacca, the maritime gateway to China. With Hong Kong, they were well placed for “opening up” a sphere of influence in the Middle Kingdom.

- Another route to China, this time to the West via Cape Horn, was made possible by annexation of the Falkland Islands and other ports in the Pacific.

- But most of all, centuries-old interests in the Mediterranean increased with the opening of the Suez Canal which considerably reduced the time and cost of travel to India. Great Britain then strengthened its control of this sea route through acquisition of Cyprus, the military occupation of Egypt, and the establishement of Protectorates in Aden and British Somalia.

Military garrisons were installed in the British Empire’s territories and ports as strategic sites along the great maritime routes.

London also controlled most of the great transoceanic cables which, between 1865 and 1914, constituted a world communication network used for both military and commercial purposes. The adoption of Greenwich Mean Time for fixing world time zones is further evidence of British influence.

This influence was reinforced by flows of British migrants to the colonies and the multiplication of Christian missionary societies. As a result, British traditions and social structures were spread through conversion of native populations and campaigns against slavery.

Spearheading the development of free trade until the 1870s, Great Britain sought, towards the end of the century, to establish a protected trading area within its empire. However, most of its profits came from the “informal empire” created by British investments throughout the world.