Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Animated Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

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.

Related Content:

5-Minute Animation Maps 2,600 Years of Western Cultural History

Watch the History of the World Unfold on an Animated Map: From 200,000 BCE to Today

Animated Map Shows How the Five Major Religions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Alan says:

    This animation is confused, although understandably, because it presupposes some stable thing called Britain and an identity, ‘British’, separate from Empire.

    The video title is the rise and fall of the British Empire but a huge chunk at the beginning has nothing to do with the British Empire and is in fact an annimated history of how the country of England came into being. The actual title on the video itself at the start is “The complete history of England, Britain and its empire”, which is maybe more accurate if the title is understood as two parts: 1 the history of England and 2. Britain and its empire. 

    It starts with an image of England and Wales (you can see little bits of Scotland and Ireland) that is captioned the British Isles. The British Isles is a geographic term; not a political one. And England and Wales are not the British Isles. England and Wales are the part of the British Isles that was known as Britain under the Roman Empire. The term Britain is used variously and often confusingly. It has different meanings at different times and in different contexts. The home state of the “British Empire” has in fact been constantly changing and is variously made up of different countries, that have at various times had different crowns, parliaments, and have *never* had a unified set of major institutions. There is no stable thing that is Britain. In fact, it is not clear that what is now commonly understood as ‘Britain’ , what is now shorthand for the “UK of Britain and NI”, can exist separate from ‘Empire’. Empire is what has held the disparate parts together and is arguably essential to British identity. Now Opinion polls in the UK show that without Empire, the majority of people in the different parts of the UK identify primarily as English, Scottish, etc.

  • Josh Jones says:

    All excellent points, Alan, thanks

  • Julia Logan says:

    This video leaves out the first British settlement in America, Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607 by the Virginia Company. In addition, the language, “Britain grant’s independence to the thirteen colonies” is misleading. Britain ceded the colonies to the colonists following the Revolutionary War. Florida was ceded to Spain, allied to the colonists. Small errors and omissions, perhaps, but they call into question the scholarship of the rest of the video, and point out the dangers of relying on the colonizer’s telling of history.

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