The genre of animated time-lapse video maps—portraying the rise and fall of empires, the spread of people groups, the succession of rulers over hundreds of years, and other histories that used to fill entire textbooks—is one of those internet-only phenomena with useful, if limited application. As the bombastic music that sometimes accompanies these videos suggests, one primary effect is the production of maximally sweeping historical drama through mapping, which captures the imagination in ways dry prosaic descriptions often can’t.
The subject of the video above—the British Empire—seems to justify such an approach, given that, as one educational website notes, “the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known.” Whether one celebrates or deplores this fact is a matter for political or moral debate—categories that have little seeming relevance to the production of animated video maps.
“At its height in 1922,” writes Jon Stone at The Independent, “the British Empire governed a fifth of the world’s population and the quarter of the world’s total land area.” His comment that this legacy “divides opinion” grossly understates the case. Yet as bare historical fact, the spread of the Empire is astonishing, an achievement of military and maritime power, unprecedented commercial ambition, bureaucratic systemization, trade maneuvering, and the massive displacement, detention, and enslavement of millions of people.
How did it happen? To paraphrase an often-divisive British singer, empire began at home.
The video begins in 519 A.D., after the end of Roman rule in England, when the so-called Heptarchy formed, the seven Anglo-Saxon tribal kingdoms ruled by Germanic peoples who killed off or enslaved the native Celts. From there, we proceed through the Norman invasion, the English attempts to take French territory in Europe, Henry VIII’s invasion and annexation of Ireland, and other colonizing and empire-building events that precede British entry onto the far-flung global stage with the founding of the British East India Company’s first post in Surat, India in 1612 and Puritan settlement at Plymouth in 1620.
We see these events unfold in a split screen map showing different parts of the world, with a box on the side providing context and a color-coded legend. This rush through Imperial history occurs at a relatively breakneck speed, taking only 18 minutes to cover 1,500 years.
The long, slow rise of the British Empire was followed by a precipitous fall. By the mid-20th century postwar years, Britain saw its major colonies in India, Africa, and the West Indies achieve independence one by one. “By 1979,” writes Adam Taylor at The Washington Post, the Empire “was reduced to a few pockets around the world.” And by the current year, the former global power’s overseas colonial holdings comprise 14 small territories, including mostly unpopulated Antarctic land and the Falkland Islands.
See many more fascinating animated time-lapse maps, documenting all of world history, at the creator Ollie Bye’s YouTube channel.