British Empire – Europe

The British Empire was at its height, a truly global empire with territories on every continent. However, Britain’s first colonial conquests occurred much closer to home. Ireland was to become the first victim of colonial rule, which was to last hundreds of years. Ironically, Ireland became one of the first to demand independence and created a crack in the empire that would eventually spread to other subjugated peoples around the world.
Of course, even today in the independent Irish republic (Éire), the legacy of empire remains, Northern Ireland remains under British control, and English remains the principle language used in daily life. The Irish Republic has done much to promote and preserve the native Irish language.
This legacy was not one sided, the Irish remain one of the largest minorities in the UK, with many Britons being able to claim some Irish ancestry. Ireland is said to have ‘colonized Britain through the back door’.
The legacy of empire can clearly be seen in other now independent countries such as Malta, where English remains an official language and is spoken by the vast majority of its people.
Europe is also home to two remaining territories, Gibraltar and the British Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which are areas that remained under British control after Cyprus gained independence. Other less well known possessions were Heligoland (Helgoland), Menorca and the Ionian Islands.



In 1878 as a result of the Cyprus Convention, the United Kingdom received as a protectorate, the island of Cyprus from the Ottoman Empire in exchange for United Kingdoms military support to the Ottoman Empire if Russia would attempt to take possession of territories of the Ottomans in Asia. The first British official who was placed in charge of the administration was given the title of “High Commissioner” and was Lieutenant-General Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley (1833-1913). The British faced a major political problem on the island. The indigenous Cypriots believed it their natural right to unite the island with Greece following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

On August 16, 1960 Cyprus gained its independence from the United Kingdom, after an anti-British campaign by the Greek Cypriot EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters), a guerrilla group which desired political union with Greece, or enosis. Archbishop Makarios III, a charismatic religious and political leader, was elected the first president of independent Cyprus. In 1961 it became the 99th member of the United Nations.

The British Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia comprise those parts of Cyprus which stayed under British jurisdiction and remained British sovereign territory when the 1960 Treaty of Establishment created the independent Republic of Cyprus.
Akrotiri and Dhekelia are UK Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) on Cyprus, a former British Crown Colony. Akrotiri is located in the south of the island near the city of Limassol (or Lemesos).
Dhekelia is in the southeast near Larnaca. Both of these areas include military bases as well as farmland and some residential land.
Akrotiri is surrounded by the territory controlled by the Republic of Cyprus, but Dhekelia also borders on the UN buffer zone and the territory controlled by the Turkish occupied part of the island.



Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. A peninsula with an area of 6.843 square kilometres (2.642 sq miles), it has a northern border with Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the major landmark of the region. At its foot is the densely populated city area, home to almost 30,000 Gibraltarians and other nationalities.

An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession. The territory was subsequently ceded to Britain by Spain “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. It was an important base for the British Royal Navy; today its economy is based largely on tourism, financial services, and shipping.

The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians resoundingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in a 1967 referendum and again in 2002.
Under Gibraltar constitution of 2006, Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defence and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the UK Government.


Heligoland (Helgoland)

On 11 September 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, HMS Carrier brought to the British Admiralty the despatches from Admiral Thomas McNamara Russell announcing Heligoland’s capitulation to the British. Heligoland became a centre of smuggling and espionage against Napoleon. Denmark then formally ceded Heligoland to the United Kingdom by the Treaty of Kiel (14 January 1814). Thousands of Germans came to Britain and joined the King’s German Legion via Heligoland.

In 1826, Heligoland became a seaside spa and soon it turned into a popular tourist resort for the German upper-class. The island also attracted artists and writers, especially from Germany and even Austria who enjoyed the freedom of the benignly ruled (British) island, including Heinrich Heine and August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben.
It was a refuge for revolutionaries of the 1830 and 1848 German revolutions. Britain gave up the islands to Germany in 1890 in the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty.


Ionian Islands

In 1809, the British defeated the French fleet in Zakynthos (October 2, 1809) captured Kefallonia, Kythera and Zakynthos, and took Lefkada in 1810. The French held out in Kerkyra until 1814. The Treaty of Paris in 1815 turned the islands into the “United States of the Ionian Islands” under British protection (November 5, 1815). In January 1817, the British granted the islands a new constitution. The islanders elected an Assembly of 40 members, who advised the British High Commissioner. The British greatly improved the islands’ communications, and introduced modern education and justice systems. The islanders welcomed most of these reforms, and took up afternoon tea, cricket and other English pastimes.

Once Greek independence was established after 1830, however, the islanders began to resent foreign rule and to press for enosis – union with Greece. The British statesman William Ewart Gladstone toured the islands and recommended that they be given to Greece. The British government resisted, since like the Venetians they found the islands made useful naval bases. They also regarded the German-born king of Greece, King Otto, as unfriendly to Britain. However, in 1862, Otto was deposed and a pro-British king, George I, was installed.



The first English involvement in Ireland took place in this period. In 684 AD an English expeditionary force sent by Northumbrian King Ecgfrith invaded Ireland in the summer of that year. The English forces managed to seize a number of captives and booty, but they apparently did not stay in Ireland for long. The next English involvement in Ireland would take place a little less than half a millennium later in 1169 AD when the Normans invaded the country.
In 1800, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the British and the Irish parliaments enacted the Acts of Union. The merger created a new political entity called United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with effect from January 1, 1801. Part of the agreement forming the basis of union was that the Test Act would be repealed to remove any remaining discrimination against Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists and other dissenter religions in the newly United Kingdom. However, King George III invoking the provisions of the Act of Settlement 1701 controversially and adamantly blocked attempts by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Pitt resigned in protest, but his successor Henry Addington and his new cabinet failed to legislate any repeal or change to the Test Act.

The period from 1916–1921 was marked by political violence and upheaval, ending in the partition of Ireland and independence for 26 of its 32 counties. A failed militant attempt was made to gain separate independence for Ireland with the 1916 Easter Rising, an insurrection in Dublin. Though support for the insurgents was small, the violence used in its suppression led to a swing in support of the rebels. In addition, the unprecedented threat of Irishmen being conscripted to the British Army in 1918 (for service on the Western Front as a result of the German Spring Offensive) accelerated this change. In the December 1918 elections Sinn Féin, the party of the rebels, won a majority of three-quarters of all seats in Ireland, twenty-seven MPs of which assembled in Dublin on 21 January 1919, to form a thirty-two county Irish Republic parliament, the first Dáil Éireann unilaterally declaring sovereignty over the entire island.

The treaty to sever the Union divided the republican movement into anti-Treaty (who wanted to fight on until an Irish Republic was achieved) and pro-Treaty supporters (who accepted the Free State as a first step towards full independence and unity). Between 1922 and 1923 both sides fought the bloody Irish Civil War. The new Irish Free State government defeated the anti-Treaty remnant of the Irish Republican Army, imposing multiple executions. This division among nationalists still colours Irish politics today, specifically between the two leading Irish political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Today Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, while the rest of Ireland forms the Republic of Ireland (Poblacht na hÉireann).



In 1800, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but failed to keep this obligation – one of several mutual cases of non-adherence to the treaty, which eventually led to its collapse and the resumption of war between Britain and France.
Although initially the island was not given much importance, its excellent harbours became a prized asset for the British, especially after the opening of the Suez canal. The island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet.

Home rule was refused to the Maltese until 1921 although a partly elected legislative council was created as early as 1849, and the locals sometimes suffered considerable poverty. This was due to the island being overpopulated and largely dependent on British military expenditure which varied with the demands of war.
Before the arrival of the British, the official language since 1530 (and the one of the educated elite) had been Italian, however this was downgraded by the increased use of English.
In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages.

After World War II, the islands achieved self-rule, with the Malta Labour Party (MLP) of Dom Mintoff seeking either full integration with the UK or else “self-determination (independence), and the Partit Nazzjonalista (PN) of Dr. George Borg Olivier favouring independence, with the same “dominion status” that Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoyed.
In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta, attended by Mintoff, Borg Olivier and other Maltese politicians, along with the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The British government agreed to offer the islands their own representation in the British House of Commons, with the Home Office taking over responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office.

Under the proposals, the Maltese Parliament would retain responsibility over all affairs except defence, foreign policy, and taxation. The Maltese were also to have social and economic parity with the UK, to be guaranteed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the islands’ main source of employment. A referendum was held on 14 February 1956, in which 77.02 per cent of voters were in favour of the proposal, but owing to a boycott by the Nationalist Party, only 59.17 per cent of the electorate voted, thereby rendering the result inconclusive.

Malta achieved its independence on 21 September 1964 (Independence Day) after intense negotiations with the United Kingdom, led by Maltese Prime Minister George Borg Olivier.
Under its 1964 constitution, Malta initially retained Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta and thus Head of State, with a Governor-General exercising executive authority on her behalf.
In 1971, the Malta Labour Party led by Dom Mintoff won the General Elections, resulting in Malta declaring itself a republic on 13 December 1974 (Republic Day) within the Commonwealth, with the President as head of state.


Minorca (Menorca)

Invaded by Britain’s Royal Navy in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Minorca became temporarily a British possession. Great Britain took possession under the terms of the Article XI of the Treaty of Utrecht. Under the governorship of General Richard Kane, this period saw the island’s capital moved to Port Mahon, and a naval base established in that town’s harbour.

During the Seven Years’ War, however, Spain regained the island in 1756 after the battle of Minorca. British resistance persisted at Port Mahon, but the garrison was forced to capitulate under honourable terms, including free passage back to Britain, on 29 June of that same year. Thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1763), however, the British returned to the island again following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War. During the American War of Independence, the British were defeated for a second time, in this instance by a combination of French and Spanish forces, which regained the island after a long siege of St. Philip’s Castle in Port Mahon on 5 February 1782.

The British ceded the island back to Spain the next year in the Treaty of Versailles. Minorca was invaded by the British once again in 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, but it was finally and permanently repossessed by Spain by the terms of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
The British influence can still be seen in local architecture with elements such as sash windows.
As the rest of the Balearic Islands, Minorca was not occupied by the French during the Peninsular War, as it was successfully protected by the British Navy, this time allied to Spain.