At the peak of its power, the British empire encompassed about one-fourth of the world’s area and population, making it by far the largest empire in history. Like every other successful empire before it, a large part of that was acquired on the battlefield, thanks to a formidable navy, technological improvements like cannons, and a strong economy based on trade from across the globe.
10. Tacky’s Rebellion
The British colony of Jamaica went through a series of slave revolts in 1760, collectively known as Tacky’s Rebellion after one of its notable commanders. It all began on April 8, when about 100 slaves from the northern St. Mary’s parish rebelled and captured the surrounding estates, killing any European settlers they found along the way. It grew into a serious uprising when the rebels – mostly from the Akan tribe in what is now Ghana – marched on an unguarded British fort and raided its armory.
While it soon spread to other regions of Jamaica and posed a serious challenge to British colonial power in the Caribbean, the rebellion was eventually suppressed by brutal counter insurgency tactics. By one estimate, more than 500 people – including black civilians suspected of aiding the rebels – were killed by British soldiers and local collaborators during the uprising. Hundreds of others were deported as enslaved workers to other regions, like the Bay of Honduras and Nova Scotia.
9. Battle Of Omdurman
The Battle of Omdurman in Sudan was a part of the larger Mahdist war – a decades-long fight between the Egyptian government and a branch of Islam known as Mahdism. It began in 1881, when a Sudanese cleric, Muhammad Ahmad, declared an independent Mahdi state and rebelled against Egyptian rule. Britain entered the conflict on the side of Egypt, mostly to protect the newly-built Suez canal and its trade route to India.
It was a long and bloody conflict, lasting until the final battle at Omdurman in 1898. Despite being outnumbered, the Anglo-Egyptian contingent was armed with state-of-the-art weapons – like Maxim machine guns and early bolt-action rifles – resulting in a massacre for the Mahdists. By the end of it, around 10,000 were killed in battle, compared to about 500 casualties on the Anglo-Egyptian side.
8. Queen Anne’s War
The Second Intercolonial War, also known as Queen Anne’s War in the UK, was primarily fought between colonial Britain and an alliance of France and a few native American tribes, with a limited involvement of other countries like Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Beginning in 1702 with a formal declaration of war by Britain, it was a part of the larger colonial rivalry between Britain and France. Some historians have even called it the North-American theater of the Spanish War of Succession.
Fighting was largely limited to the New England-New York frontier between England and France, and often involved raids on settlements ruled by the other side instead of open battles. In one of its bloodiest episodes, about 100 people – including children – were killed by French and native American forces in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Queen Anne’s War would last until peace was established in Europe between 1713 and 1715. As a result, France was forced to concede Acadia – now called Nova Scotia – Newfoundland, and a few other colonies in the region to Britain.
7. First Matabele War
The Matabele kingdom was a powerful state in what is now Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, it was also an obstacle to British colonial ambitions in the region, specifically of the British South Africa Company. By 1891, Matabeleland and a few other nearby provinces had been declared British protectorates by the government in London, setting the stage for an inevitable confrontation with Matabelese forces.
The First Matabele War happened in 1893, pitting a massively outnumbered force of about 700 soldiers of the British South African Police against more than 100,000 professional Matabele warriors. While the defenders wielded a large number of rifles, too, they were no match against British firepower, especially Maxim guns. Fighting ended with the capture of the capital Bulawayo on November 4, 1904, and the war came to an official end with the death of the Matabele king in 1894.
6. Mau Mau Rebellion
The Kenya Land and Freedom Army – also called Mau Mau – was a popular African nationalist movement that posed a major threat to British rule in Kenya. While it originally started as a secret society within the Kikuyu tribe, it soon turned into a unified effort by various tribes against European colonialism. As it turned into a large fighting force and started targeting British interests, the authorities responded by declaring a state of emergency in October 1952.
The Mau Mau were adept at guerrilla warfare due to their extensive knowledge of the terrain, though the better-equipped British forces ultimately proved victorious. Hostilities came to an end at the end of 1955, resulting in the deaths of more than 10,000 natives due to the harsh counter-insurgency measures deployed by Britain and local loyalists.
5. Malayan Emergency
The Malayan Emergency was one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, fought between British colonial forces and the Malaysian Communist Party. Like other British possessions in the region, the Malayan states had returned to British control after the end of Japanese occupation in WW2, despite the decisive role played in the war by MCP militias. In 1948, the Federation of Malay was formed as a British protectorate, restoring British colonial interests in the region and putting the previous rulers – called sultans – back into power.
A state of emergency was declared by the government in June, 1948, after guerrilla fighters from the MCP and other communist factions started a violent insurgency to establish a people’s Malaysian state. British forces responded with a massive counter-insurgency campaign, involving repressive measures against civilians and forced relocation of at least 500,000 people across the territory, mostly Chinese. The conflict officially ended in a British victory in 1960, with a total loss of around 500 soldiers and 1,300 policemen on the British side, and about 6,000 fighters on the rebel side.
4. Anglo-Ashanti Wars
The Ashanti empire was a powerful kingdom in the southern part of the modern nation of Ghana, ruling over a large territory for over two centuries. Much of its wealth and power came from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as it was both a major source and destination of slaves in the resource-rich Gold Coast region.
For much of its existence, the Ashanti kingdom was at war with the British colonial empire. The Anglo-Ashanti wars were a series of conflicts between the two powers in the 19th century, beginning in 1823 and ending with a bloody rebellion in 1900. While Ashanti forces were victorious in the initial conflicts, they were outmatched by the British war machine. The Anglo-Ashanti Wars consolidated British control over the Gold Coast region, until Ghana gained its independence in 1957.
3. Cape Frontier Wars
Between 1779 and 1878, Dutch colonists and later British forces around Cape Colony engaged in one of the longest anti-colonial struggles in history. Fought primarily between European colonists and the Xhosa people – a pastoralist tribe in the Eastern Cape region of modern-day South Africa – they were a series of conflicts for the control of the eastern frontiers of South Africa, now known as the Cape Frontier Wars, or the Xhosa Wars.
It could be placed in the context of larger struggles against colonialism and slavery ongoing at the time, as the Xhosa people were also prime targets for slavers in South Africa. While Xhosa forces were successful against Dutch militias in the beginning, the entry of British forces in 1811 turned the war in the colonists’ favor. In a curious turn of events, the Xhosa willingly slaughtered all their cattle following a prophecy in 1857, resulting in the decimation of their economy and widespread starvation. The defending forces were decisively defeated by 1878, and all Xhosa lands were eventually incorporated into the colony.
2. Battle Of Plassey
The Battle of Plassey was fought in the northeastern part of what is now India, between the British East India Company and the ruling Nawab of Bengal, aided by the French East India Company. The short-lived battle – lasting for only a few hours on June 23, 1757 – could be seen as a part of the global Seven Years’ War between France and England.
While the Nawab’s forces – numbering close to 50,000 men, including 16,000 cavalry – vastly outnumbered the 3,000-strong British contingent, he was eventually betrayed by one of his commanders, Mir Jafar. About one-third of that large army never entered the fight, causing confusion and a loss of morale amongst the rest of his troops. By the end of it, the Nawab was forced to flee the battlefield, resulting in a British victory at a cost of about 21 lives, compared to more than 1,500 casualties on the Bengali and French side.
1. Battle Of Peking
The Battle of Peking on August 14, 1900 was only a part of the larger Boxer Rebellion – an anti-foreign nationalist uprising across China supported by the ruling Qin dynasty. By June, 1900, the uprising threatened almost all foreigners and Christians in the capital of Peking – now Beijing. A small relief force, led by the British Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour, was sent in from Tianjin on June 10, though they had to retreat due to heavy resistance by imperial Chinese troops.
As the situation deteriorated rapidly, a much larger force of 55,000 soldiers from Britain, America, Japan, France, and Russia was assembled. By this time, foreigners and Chinese Christians in the city had organized themselves into a besieged zone called the Legation Quarter, defended by makeshift fortifications and a few hundred soldiers. Despite heavy resistance by rebels and Chinese soldiers, the International coalition was able to lift the siege and rescue most of them by August 14.