This map is part of a series of 19 animated maps showing the history of Europe's colonial expansion, 1820-1939.
In 1914, Great Britain was the leading colonial power. Its empire, 100 times larger than the British Isles, covered one-fifth of the planet’s land mass and included a quarter of the world population. Nevertheless, the evolution of their various political structures created a marked difference between the former colonies of white settlement and the Crown colonies.
Canada was the first territory to throw off the colonial yoke. In order to counter the influence of the United States and integrate the specificity of the French community, Great Britain gradually conceded more and more autonomy. In 1867, the Canadian Confederation became a Dominion, with a parliament and independent executive, under the formal authority of the British Crown.
For a long time, Australia remained an isolated and under-populated penal colony but, during the second half of the 19th century, it began attracting migrant pioneers. It gradually moved towards autonomous government and its colonial states formed a Commonwealth in 1901. New Zealand followed soon after.
After the Boer War, South Africa moved quickly towards establishing an independent Union. In 1910, it became a dominion with a strong central government which sought to unite the white population, while refusing the black majority access to civil rights.
The rest of Britain’s African colonies, the British West Indies, the Indian Empire and the collection of archipelagos and coastal trading posts under the Union Jack, were known collectively as the Crown colonies, or sometimes as commercial colonies. A wide range of administrative structures were established for them, each the product of the method by which the colony was acquired and of the specific objectives they served.
Despite the flexibility of these Westminster-inspired institutions, unification of such a vast and disparate collection of territories proved particularly difficult during the Imperial Conferences, which were held regularly after 1887.
The Empire remained loyal throughout the Great War. After the war, it was further extended by mandates in the Middle East and Africa conferred by the League of Nations.
Nevertheless, the dominions’ growing autonomy led to the adoption of the Westminster statute and the Ottawa agreements in 1931, thus establishing the Commonwealth as an economic entity and area of joint prosperity. Thus, the English throne could continue to rely on the British Imperial colonies’ loyalty and allegiance to the Crown.