Has the sun finally set on the British Empire? Prince Charles thinks so. When Great Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, the heir to the British throne called it the “end of the Empire.” His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving sovereign in British history, has thus presided over the end of an empire that once ruled a quarter of the world. (These are the most famous female rulers in history.)
Some empires ended with a bang, others ceased to exist with barely a whimper. Wars, politics, and zeal for democratic principles. have spelt the end for many. The Byzantine Empire, which had lasted more than 1,000 years, disappeared in 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople and the death of the emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, in a decisive battle with the Ottomans. The Holy Roman Empire, which also lasted about 1,000 years, was in effect ended by a decree from Napoleon in the early 19th century. (These are the longest-lived empires in history.)
At the start of the 20th century, some empires still dominated the world, with colonies in much of Africa and Asia as well as some in the Americas. The imperial quest for power and influence contributed to the start of World War I, a conflict that led to the end of imperial systems in Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, while boosting the ambitions of the Japanese Empire. Other empires that had their roots in the Age of Discovery, those of Portugal and Spain, vanished into the mist of history in something close to our own times.
The British Empire began during the Age of Discovery as well, and its demise likely closes the final chapter of the age of empires, a legacy of international trade and ethnic interaction, but also of slavery, internal conflicts, cultural suppression, and environmental degradation.
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