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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Comments (3)
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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.‑1–4851882

  • 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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