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British Empire

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The British Empire was an empire ruled by the United Kingdom (and earlier, Great Britain, before Ireland joined the Kingdom). It was a global empire, and the largest the world had ever seen. At its largest extent in the early 1920s, it covered 13.7 million square miles (35.5 sq km) of land area, and ruled nearly a quarter of the world's population.

The original Thirteen Colonies situated on the eastern coast of North America were part of the British Empire. After the American War of Independence, the Thirteen Colonies drew up the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and founded the United States. Great Britain then set up the penal colony of New South Wales in part of what is today Australia (a penal colony is a colony to which prisoners are sent from abroad).

Britain subsequently gained control of the Indian subcontinent, Hong Kong, Malaya, much of northern Borneo, among other lands. During the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, during which European countries contested for land to colonise in Africa, Britain gained vast colonies in the continent, such as British East Africa (later renamed Kenya), Rhodesia and Nigeria. The British Empire was known as 'the Empire on which the Sun never sets', because it was so vast, the sun was always shining on part of the Empire at any time of day.

Decolonisation occurred during the 20th century, and the British Empire lost most of her colonies as they gained independence. Today, the remains of the former British Empire are the fourteen British Overseas Territories scattered all across the world, which are owned by the United Kingdom but do not form part of it. Technically, the sun is still always shining on part of these territories at any time of day, but they only comprise around a quarter of a million people, while at the height of the Empire in the 1920s it included well over 400 million subjects.

The legacy of the Empire is prevalent in the political systems, culture, and languages of her former colonies. For instance, the Government of Malaysia is modelled after the British Westminster parliamentary system; cricket, a popular British sport, is played widely in South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand; and English is widely spoken and is an a official language in many of the Empire's former territories.