When Britannia Ruled the Waves
The desire to explore the unknown is an inherently human trait. To voyage to places unseen, sail uncharted waters, and set foot on the shores of a new land has been the dream of countless people. Imagine what it would have been like to live during the Age of Exploration, when a New World had just been discovered!
Portugal and Spain began global exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, and started to establish overseas empires. But, despite a slow start in the 16th century, England’s kingdom eventually became the true behemoth.
Spurred by the Spice Trade, European powers began their worldwide explorations, constantly seeking new ways to acquire these pricy commodities. Spices from the Orient were, literally, worth more than their weight in gold. By the late 16th century, England began creating overseas trading posts and ports, and soon became the largest empire in world history.
As England’s maritime fleet grew, sailors needed an effective and cohesive way to measure time. Before a ship left for sea, mariners would set the ship’s chronometer to noon in Greenwich, which was the exact moment when the sun crossed the Greenwich meridian.
Throughout their journey the sailors kept track of the sun, and the difference between local noon and Greenwich noon could be used to find how many degrees they had travelled from England. Based on this, 24 time zones were created, each an hour apart from the other. We travellers have a lot to thank the British Empire for!
The 18th century saw a major increase in England’s colonial power, and its escalating imperial ambitions were clear. In 1776, when the 13 colonies in America declared their Independence, Britain shifted its focus toward Asia, the Pacific, and later to Africa.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the United States and Germany had claimed much of the British Empire’s power. World War I and World War II further injured Britain’s prestige and military power. Throughout the rest of the century, British colonies like India would gain independence, and when Hong Kong was politically transferred to China in 1997, many historians marked it as the true end of the British Empire.
Today, billions of people’s lives are in some way defined by the economic, political, and cultural legacies of British rule. This year, I’m spanning the globe, and London is my staring point. Together we’ll journey on to explore Sydney, Montreal, Mumbai, Malaysia, Singapore, St. Kitts, and Zambia to gain an understanding of how this relatively small country could possess such immense power.