Map of the British Empire, 1886 (©NTB scanpix)
The Last of the Pink Bits by Richard Burgess
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In British maps of the world from the colonial period, countries or territories under British rule were always coloured pink. (It should actually have been red, but printers discovered that a red background made it very difﬁcult to read the names printed over in black, so pink was chosen as a compromise.) At the height of the British Empire – and in terms of geographical size this was around 1920 – the pink bits covered
Richard Burgess is currently busy co-writing a new edition of Access to English: Social Studies. Nevertheless, he has found time to write a short piece for your students about the remnants of the once great British Empire. He also promised that some of these “pink bits” will be given further treatment in the new textbook.
a good portion of the globe: half of North America, all of Australasia, the whole Indian subcontinent and nearly half of Africa. Only South America and Asia north of India seemed relatively pink-free. The days of British Empire are over. Or are they? For one of the problems with dismantling an empire is what to do with the bits that, for one reason or another, don’t want to go. For most of
the former colonies, independence was something deeply wished for and, with some very notable exceptions (Ireland and India spring to mind), relatively gracefully given when the time came. But some parts of the far-ﬂung empire were so small and so isolated that independence was neither desired nor feasible. It is these territories, most of them tiny specks of land surrounded by vast tracts of ocean, that today have the status of BOTs – British
Gibraltar from above
Overseas Territories. With a total population of no more than 200 000, there are fourteen in all (although some consist of several islands thousands of miles apart), each one with a unique story to tell. Take, for example, the island of Pitcairn in the southern Paciﬁc Ocean with a population of 48, some of whom are descended from mutineers from the HMS Bounty who arrived on the island in 1790 with women they had brought from Tahiti. Their story is immortalised in several ﬁlms entitled Mutiny on the Bounty. Or there’s Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic rock that juts out of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between South Africa and South America, its population of 264 sharing just eight surnames. And then there are the heavyweights, like the Turks and Caicos Islands, situated some 650 miles off the coast of Florida, inhabited by 46 400 people, mostly descended from slaves, who in elections and referendums consistently vote to remain under British rule. Most BOTs are isolated and insigniﬁcant enough to keep out of the news and not cause their colonial alma mater too much trouble. However, there are exceptions. Gibraltar, the only colony on mainland Europe, was acquired (i.e. captured) by Britain in 1704 because of its strategic position at the southernmost tip of Spain and at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Its importance as a naval base is long since past, and Spain has consistently complained that it is time the stolen colony was returned. But Gibraltar’s population of 30 000, most of them bilingual in Spanish and English, show no desire for change. In a referendum in 2002 over 98% voted against a proposal to give Britain and
Spain shared sovereignty over the colony. The most troublesome BOT to date has undoubtedly been the Falkland Islands. Before 1982 most British people had never heard of them, much less known where to ﬁnd them on the map (in the South Atlantic, about 300 miles from the coast of Argentina). Populated by 3000 descendants of British settlers, as well as 488 000 sheep, these windswept islands seemed an unlikely setting for a major international conﬂict. However, Argentina had long claimed sovereignty over the islands, which they call Los Malvinas and which they claimed were illegally occupied by the British in 1833. When on the 2nd April 1982 Argentina’s ruling military junta invaded and occupied the islands, Britain responded by dispatching a naval task force to liberate them. Two months later they had achieved their objective, but at a heavy price. 907 lives were lost in 74 days of conﬂict. 649 of these losses were Argentine.
The conﬂict stunned the world because it was so unexpected – “gunboat diplomacy” about colonial possessions seemed absurdly out of place in the late 20th century. Since then, Britain has maintained a strong military presence on the islands at great expense, while Argentina has renewed its claim of sovereignty of the islands. The islanders themselves are in no doubt about where they stand. A recent referendum (2013) showed that they beat even the Gibraltarians for loyalty: just three of a total of 1,517 votes cast were against remaining a British territory.
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For anyone considering starting a global empire, the lesson is clear: Don’t.
Bill Poole, aged 85, Falkland Islander, stands beside posters calling to vote YES to remain British in the referendum held on the Falklands Islands in March 2013. (©NTB scanpix)