Empires and great powers rise and fall. Sometimes the fall of one empire has unintended consequences and gives rise to another empire. One prime example of this pattern in history is the Napoleonic wars and how it laid the seeds of the German unification. But this war also indirectly resulted in the rise of the British empire. Prior to the Napoleonic wars, Britain had global ambitions. But it is the North America that brought the empire to internal decline and the other European navies severely restricted any further British expansions. Then came Napoleon and in his first military phase his French Navy wiped out all the other European navies. However, later in the war the French Navy was defeated at the battle of Trafalgar by the British and finally the French army was defeated at the Waterloo. In short, Napoleon had just devastated continental Europe, wiped out all the navies and finally the French empire had collapsed. The only navy to survive the Napoleonic wars was the British. And they quickly moved to dominate the north Atlantic ocean and the trading routes into India and Pacific ocean. But Britain just not emerged as the naval power, the leadership used the economic opportunities of trade and they emerged as the leader in industrial revolution. The unintended consequences of the Napoleonic wars was the rise of the British empire.Â Britain’s power lasted undisputed for several generations i.e another until another unintended consequence led to the replacement of Britain by another country.
As a manufacturer Britain needed raw materials from abroad and so they acquire new protectorates and established strategic supply stations throughout the world to ensure the security of trading routes. It was an empire that had clearly over extended itself and was carrying huge burdens. But also it was an empire that unified the world by trade. It was this economic foundation that came on the threat with German unification in 1871. Once unified, Germany transformed the world as it became the most dynamic economy in Europe. The Germans were under selling British goods with their more effective production. The other threat to the economic dominance of Britain came from the United States which was also industrialising at a record breaking pace. In reality the industrialisation of US was heavily influenced by British investors who were making heavy profits investing in US rather than that at home. The US industrial base established a navy that rivalled the British navy in early 20th century. So the British were facing two rising powers on the opposite sides. It did not take long for the eruption of a new massive war. World war 1 devastated Europe including the British nations were destroyed, whole generations were lost. This was the cost of the war and it was a huge burden on the economic base of Britain. And yet the first world war didn’t solve anything. In fact it laid the seeds for the 2nd world war because the German questions were not yet solved, and the US emerged even stronger than before. And by the time second world war had ended, Britain had lost its empire. But this wasn’t something that was apparent immediately after the war. The British empire remained intact, but actually they were essentially bankrupt and were unable to hold on to their overseas holding. So the company started to withdraw from key locations that it had struggled acquiring for centuries.
Basically in the six years the 2nd world war lasted, the British had lost two centuries of expansionism and conquests. But it was not the Germans who had defeated the British, it was the Americans who actually threw them out from the business. You see, US assistance to Britain was based on Washington’s own interest. The Americans saved the British from being forced into accommodation with the Germans only to force Britain to accommodate with the US. The balance of power completely shifted towards the United States. But the British did not really understand or accept the collapse of their empire. It took major international crisis to occur for the British to finally realise what they had lost. The first crisis was the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. The British were unable to act and made tremendous concessions. This event was followed by the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. But this time the British with the aid of French were willing to act. However, the US politically intervened against the British and this really marked the turning point in British history, because it was a clear wake up call. Their empire was no more, it was the US that was calling the shots now.
The fall of British empire shows us just how quickly things can change. In 1939, Britain controlled 1/4th of the world, six years later the empire had collapsed. This all shows how quickly a global power can get caught off guard if it continues to increase military power and neglect its financial decline.