During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and theNetherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England (and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707,Great Britain) the dominant colonial power in North America and India.
The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance and expanded its imperial holdings around the globe. Increasing degrees of autonomy were granted to its white settler colonies, some of which were reclassified as dominions.
By the start of the twentieth century, Germany and the United States had eroded some of Britain's economic lead. Subsequent military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany were major causes of the First World War, during which Britain relied heavily upon its empire. The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain. Although the empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power. In the Second World War, Britain's colonies in South-East Asia were occupied by Japan. Despite the final victory of Britain and its allies, the damage to British prestige helped to accelerate the inevitable decline of the empire. India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a largerdecolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most of the territories of the Empire. The political transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire. Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty. After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. Sixteen Commonwealth nations share their head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, as Commonwealth realms.
All sources from Wikidpedia.