Singer Sewing Machine – Bed-Extension Table

It’s taken years and months, but my grandmother’s Singer 99k vintage sewing-machine is finally, and at last, complete! It has reached this level of completion thanks to the procurement of the last, and most hard-to-find Singer sewing-machine accessory…the bed-extension table. The extension-table may be seen here, hooked onto the end of the needle-bar side of the sewing-machine:

It’s the thing with the three spare vintage lightbulbs on top. The lightbulbs are spares for the one which goes into the light-socket at the back of the sewing-machine. They came as part of the package.

The extension-table came as standard with some models of vintage Singer sewing machines, such as the Singer Model 99 and it’s variants. However, not all of Singer’s sewing-machines were sold with this very handy feature included, which I think is a pity. The table measures roughly eight inches by eight inches, and the steel hook at the end simply slots into the lock-plate of the machine-bed. It extends the sewing-machine bed. That’s why it’s called a bed-extension table. Duh!

Sadly, these handy little extension-tables are not easy to find these days, and I had almost given up hope of ever getting one. I had even considered fabricating a homemade one! But fortunately, I found this, instead.

Their handiness lies in the fact that they give you a larger work-area when sewing, to stop your pieces of fabric from flopping off the end of the sewing-machine (and possibly pulling out of alignment). They also give you somewhere to rest your left hand and arm as you feed the fabric through the machine.

This is what the extension-table looks like, when it’s housed inside the case:

You can see it in this picture from a 1930s Singer 99k user-manual. It’s on the bottom of the picture (labeled ‘D’ in this picture).

It’s rather amazing how much those innovative Singer chaps could cram into such a restricted space as the lid of a sewing-machine! This is what the same arrangement looks like in real life; again, using my grandmother’s 99k as the example:

In all the same positions, you can see the green SINGER accessories box (on the left), the ‘?’-shaped knee-lever at the back, the oval-based green SINGER oil-can on the right, and at the bottom, the extension-table. Amazingly, even with all this stuff in-place, you can still put the lid comfortably over the top of the sewing-machine and lock it down tight!

Bed-extension tables. If you have a vintage Singer sewing machine and you don’t have one of these…start looking for one. They’re getting harder and harder to find, so don’t waste time!


The Bombing of Darwin – Australia’s First Taste of War

Countries considered virtually untouched by the ravages of the Second World War include the United States, the Dominion of Canada, New Zealand, and the Commonwealth of Australia, even though this was not entirely true. About all that most people know about the bombing of Darwin is what’s featured in the film “Australia“, starring Hugh Jackman.

The United States naval-base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was hit hard in 1941 by a surprise Japanese air-raid which killed thousands of American servicemen, planes and ships. But while the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor has gone down in history as one of the most famous surprise-attacks of all time, most people have completely forgotten about another, similar, and even more devastating attack, which took place in northern Australia, in the early months of 1942.

This posting will look at the famous Darwin air-raids, the two Japanese airborne attacks on the town of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory during the Second World War, and the effects that these raids had on the city and its inhabitants, and the rest of Australia.

Darwin, 1942

Darwin, named after the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, is the capital city of the Northern Territory of Australia. It was founded in 1869, and was originally named “Palmerston”. It gained the name “Darwin” in 1911. Darwin was a small-fry among Australia’s bigger and more prominent cities. Population-centers such as Melbourne and Sydney were famous around the world, they were major ports and trading-centers. Darwin, by contrast, was a sleepy backwater town that most people had never even heard of!

In the 1940s, Darwin was little more than an isolated country town at the top end of Australia. Its population in 1940 was a minuscule 5,800 people. By comparison, Melbourne at the same time had a population of over a million. This, when the population of Australia numbered some 6,900,000 people in 1939.

Darwin and the Second World War

Darwin in 1939 was an isolated country town, at the top of the nation, but at the bottom of the population-ladder. War seemed far away, and any notion that Australia might be threatened by enemy action were laughable. Germany was on the other side of the world! Who cared what happened? If anything did happen, it wasn’t going to happen in Australia, anyway! Apart from the blackout, rationing and military service, life went on more or less as it had always done.

It’s widely believed that Australia was largely untouched by the War, which is more or less true. Air-raid sirens never wailed across the city center of Melbourne, and Sydney was never rocked by Japanese bomb-blasts, but the threat, real or not, hung in the air.

In the early years of the war, the idea that Australia might be threatened were passed off as sensational and unfounded. The main aggressor, Germany, was on the other side of the world. And Japan was more interested in China than Alice Springs. But in 1941, everything changed.

With the attack against Pearl Harbor, Australia realised that its safety was threatened…probably. The Japs were never going to reach this far south! They’d be stopped at Singapore, and blasted into the sea! End of story. Roll over and go back to sleep.

Posters like this one from 1942 are believed to exaggerate the Japanese threat to Australia. However, they were probably closer to the truth than most people knew, or were willing to admit

However, the swiftness of Japanese advances struck terror into the hearts of Darwinians. Since 1937, Japan had taken Peking and Nanking. It had bombed Hawaii, invaded Shanghai, in less than a month, it had invaded and captured British Hong Kong. It invaded American possessions in the South Pacific, and was making sweeping advances down the Malay Peninsula.

In February, 1942, the island nation of Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the East”, Australia’s first, last, and only line of defense against Japanese aggression, collapsed and surrendered in just one week!

Suddenly, Darwin felt very exposed.

The Threat Against Darwin

To protect against Japanese aggression, Darwin was to be Australia’s first mainland line of defense. To this end, it had been equipped with anti-aircraft guns, an airbase with fighter-planes of the Royal Australian Air Force, and there was even a small naval-base run by the Royal Australian Navy. These were to be the two main fighting forces which would meet the Japanese threat if they ever came south to Australia.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advances through Southeast Asia being swift and brutal, Australia began to feel increasingly threatened. In the days and weeks after the Japanese December-1941 offensive in the South Pacific, the vast majority of Darwin’s civilian population had been evacuated, and the town’s already small population shrank from 5,800 in 1939, to just 2,000 people in 1942. Most of the 2,000 people were essential civilians, government and military officials, and servicemen. The majority of the women and children had been evacuated from town by railway, or else, had boarded specially-charted evacuation-ships, which would steam them south, to Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, well out of harm’s way.

Darwin’s location at the top of Australia, its harbour, and its proximity to Japan made it a natural target for the Japanese. But as with many defense-plans in the South Pacific at this time, Darwin was not prepared for any kind of substantial and sustained attack.

British colonial bastions such as Hong Kong and Singapore had been overrun in days and weeks. The very might of the United States Navy had been challenged! What chance did a tiny, sparrow-fart town in the middle of nowhere have, against such a superior enemy?

Why the Japanese Attacked Darwin

If Darwin was such a tiny, insignificant town, with barely any armed forces or defenses to speak of, why did the Japanese see it as such a threat and target?

As with any real-estate…location, location, location.

Darwin’s location and its large harbour made it a natural base for the Allies. Any British, American or Australian forces in the area would surely gather there. They would use the harbour for their warships, and the flat ground around the town for its flak-guns and airforce bases. At the time, the Japanese wanted to destroy any and ALL competition in the area, no matter how large or small. Their next target, after China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and the islands of the South Pacific, was the Dutch East Indies (what is today, Indonesia).

To take Indonesia without any opposition, the Japanese had to attack Darwin, to knock out any chance of the Allies to mount some sort of counterattack. And this is why Darwin became a target.

Darwin’s Defenses

Despite the threat against Darwin, the town’s defense was ridiculously small. Darwin Harbour had 45 ships, and the surrounding airfields had only 30 airplanes. Of the 45 vessels in Darwin Harbour, 21 were merchant-ships. Of the other 24 ships, five were destroyers (one of these was the U.S.S. Peary), and another ship was the U.S.S. Langley, a primitive vessel launched in 1912! This was the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft-carrier, a role into which it had been converted in the 1920s.

To protect against the threat of a Japanese air-attack, Darwin was more than capably defended by 18 anti-aircraft cannons, and a smattering of WWI-era Lewis-style machine-guns.

But they had hardly any ammunition between them. And hadn’t for weeks. As a result, the guns had never been fired, and the crews to operate the guns had never been trained!

On top of everything else, Darwin had almost no air-raid precautions. It had only one operational air-raid siren, barely any shelters, no radar, and barely any lookout posts.

At any rate, even if everything was working, they still wouldn’t have been able to mount any sort of serious defense. It was estimated that to defend Darwin effectively, the town would require at least three dozen anti-aircraft cannons or guns, and at least 250 aircraft.

Instead, it had barely twenty guns, and only thirty aircraft.

In the event of an enemy air-attack on Darwin, civilian aircraft-spotters on nearby Bathurst Island (namely the local priest, Father John McGrath), were to sight the aircraft, identify them, count their numbers, and then relay this information via radio, to the authorities in Darwin. Radio-operators in Darwin would then sound Red Danger over the air-raid sirens (the famous, classic high-low wail of an air-raid siren), signalling for the population to seek cover.

The warning would only give people a few minutes to duck and cover, but it gave them a fighting chance to seek shelter before the Japanese reached Darwin. At the sound of the sirens, the flak-cannons would be manned and loaded, and the aircraft on the ground would be readied for take-off, to engage the incoming enemy.

That was how it was supposed to happen.

The Darwin Raid: 19th February, 1942

Less than a week after the fall of Singapore, on the 15th of February, Australia was about to  find out how vulnerable it really was. With a flimsy northern defense, and nearly all its soldiers fighting in Africa or the Middle East, or captured in the South Pacific, and hardly any air-power and hardly two ships to race together, Australia was ripe for the taking.

On the 19th of February, Japanese aircraft carriers sailed south towards Australia. They parked themselves a few miles off the coast, and sent in over 200 fighter and bomber aircraft. 242, to be precise.

242 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, against just 30 aircraft belonging to the Royal Australian Air Force.

As the planes flew south towards Australia, they passed over Bathurst Island. Father McGrath, the mission priest on the island, spotted the aircraft, and radioed his warning to land-stations near Darwin, that a large concentration of aircraft were headed their way. Another aircraft-spotter on Melville Island also spotted the aircraft, and he too, sent a radio-warning to Darwin.

However, much like at Pearl Harbor, the authorities believed the aircraft to be returning American fighter-planes, which had been out on practice-runs and recon-missions. So, no heed was taken of these radio-warnings. The sirens remained silent and no guns were manned in preparation. Darwin was a sitting duck.

The First Raid

The first raid against Darwin was at 10:00am that morning. Even though the town had been warned well in advance by its aircraft spotters, no action was taken in the time between about 9:15, when the first radio-warning was sent out, and 10:00am, a period of forty-five minutes. Then, the bombs began to fall.

With no warning at all, the remaining civilian population of Darwin was bombed relentlessly by the Japanese. After the first explosions, the town’s single operational air-raid siren went off, sounding out the alarm, but it was already too late.

The ships in the harbour were bombed and strafed, and among the casualties were the U.S.S. Peary, which was hit, and sunk. It was just one of eight ships destroyed. In the town, bombs rained down, destroying vital structures as the docks (where 21 longshoremen were killed when the quays received a direct hit), and Government House. The Darwin Post Office was obliterated in a direct hit. The postmaster and his family, sheltering in the nearby air-raid shelter, were killed instantly.

The town post office after the raid

The anti-aircraft defenses of Darwin were woefully unprepared for the raid. For nearly all the soldiers there, this was the first time they’d fired any sort of gun at all! Most of the ground units had no rifles. And if they had rifles, they had no ammunition. And if they had ammunition, they had no training, so most of the shots went wild. Nevertheless, of the 188 aircraft that struck Darwin in the first raid of the day, seven were shot down by Allied flak-guns. A paltry number. The 188 planes in the first wave decimated much of the town, and destroyed the two airbases nearby, as well as wreaking havoc on the harbour and ships therein.

The Second Raid

At 10:40am, the first raid ended. But another one came at a few minutes before midday. This raid, consisting of the remaining 54 of the full force of 242 Japanese airplanes, attacked  the airbases  and town yet again, in a smaller raid lasting just 20 minutes.

At the end of the second raid, the All Clear sounded and the damage was examined. 23 of the 30 airplanes had been destroyed, and in all, 10 ships had been sunk, and another 25 were damaged. 320 people had been killed, either from drowning, burns or bombing, and another 400 people had been injured.

The Aftermath

The air-raids on Darwin were devastating on many levels. Although the majority of the population had been evacuated before the raids, poor preparations and management meant that even with a reduced population, the town suffered high casualty-rates and significant damage. Electrical power was cut, water and gas-mains destroyed and telecommunications disrupted.

The town post-office was blown to oblivion, along with the town postmaster and his family.

What followed after the raids was a complete breakdown of civil and military leadership. Soldiers raided empty houses, and evacuation-marches were bungled up. This last with the result that soldiers and airmen were scattered all over the Northern Territory with no definite rallying point.

The damage and disaster was on such a huge scale that for days, weeks, months, years and even decades after the bombings, the full extent of the catastrophe was hidden from the public.

A Dog Named Gunner

Out of the raids on Darwin came one remarkable story about a dog. An Australian Kelpie puppy called ‘Gunner’. Gunner’s claim to fame was being the canine radar for Allied military forces in the Darwin area during the Second World War.

Gunner possessed remarkably sharp hearing, and was able to detect the sound of incoming aircraft from miles away. Furthermore, he was able to differentiate between friendly Australian and American airplanes, and enemy airplanes flown by the Japanese, based on the sounds of their engines.

Gunner was injured during the raid on Darwin and was taken to the nearby hospital for treatment. The doctor on duty insisted that he couldn’t treat the dog without knowing its name, rank and serial-number! Gunner’s owner, Percy Westcott, fired off that the dog’s name and rank was that of Gunner, and that he held serial No. 0000 in the Royal Australian Air Force!

Gunner’s remarkable ability for accurately alerting ground-crews to incoming enemy attacks was soon noticed. And his success-rate at accurately picking up on enemy aircraft was so high that Westcott’s commanding officer gave him permission to operate a portable air-raid siren whenever Gunner started whining and whimpering, to alert his comrades of an incoming Japanese raid.

Gunner’s extremely sharp hearing meant that he was literally better than radar and on more than one occasion, accurately picked up on the presence of an incoming raid up to twenty minutes in advance, far outside the capabilities of radar-equipment at the time!

During the later stages of the war, Gunner’s owner, Westcott, was posted to Melbourne, and had to leave Gunner behind in Darwin. What happened to the dog remains unknown.

The Affect of the Raids

Australia had previously considered itself untouchable by the hand of war. The war was happening in Europe, anyway! And in Asia, the might of the British Empire would protect Australia from harm.

After these first raids, Australia realised its own vulnerability, and made moves towards securing its own defence. One of the most significant moves was to recall thousands of Australian troops (then fighting in the Middle East and Africa) back to their homeland, a decision made by prime minister John Curtin.

Curtin’s decision was a popular one…but only with Australians. He encountered fierce resistance from both the American and British governments, especially from Winston Churchill, who wanted to send the Australian troops to Burma to fight against the Japanese. However, Curtin was so worried about Australia’s position in the war that he insisted on overruling Churchill and to have the troops steamed home as soon as possible, something which did happen, after many lengthy exchanges through letters and telegrams.

Future Raids on Darwin

Darwin, along with other cities and town in northern Australia, were bombed repeatedly throughout the war during 1942-43. By the time the war ended, the Australian mainland had been hit by no fewer than 62 separate air-raids in the space of two years.

More Information?

Looking for more information? I strongly suggest watching the documentary: “The Bombing of Darwin: An Awkward Truth”, about the air-raids, and the cover-up which followed. website-entry.


Tales of Robin Hood – The History Around an Outlaw

Whether or not Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of English folklore ever really ever existed…is entirely up in the air. At best, Robin Hood can be said to be an amalgamation of a variety of actual outlaws from the period, at worse, he would be seen as the romanticised figure of the age. But while Robin Hood may not have been a real person, his world and everything about it, still fascinates us to this day. Just a few years back, we watched Russell Crowe in “Robin Hood”, in 2010. So, centuries after the time he lived, we remain enthralled with this fantastical figure who may never even have lived.

Robin Hood was an outlaw, who lived in Sherwood Forest in the English midlands county of Nottinghamshire. So famous is his legend that the flag of Nottinghamshire even has a picture of Hood on there! Hood was known as an archer, a swordsman, and as a crusader of sorts, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Here, we’ll look at the various parts of his legend and just how romantic and brave they really were.

Robin Hood: Outlaw at Large

Before Robin Hood was anything else, an archer, rider, horseman and all-round good-guy, he is most famously known as being an outlaw, living in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Gee, it must be nice, living in the midst of nature with your band of merry men and the Maid Marion, holding up stagecoaches, and giving money and food to the needy.

…Not really.

In Medieval times, being an outlaw was a real problem. To become an outlaw, you had to have committed a crime, of course. And if the prosecuting party (the king, the local sheriff or landlord) did not want you executed, he could simply declare you to be an outlaw. Or, in the Latin legalese: Caput Lupinum.

To be an outlaw meant that the law no-longer applied to you. You were literally ‘outside’ the law. You had no obligation to follow it. However, this also meant that the law had no obligation, thereafter, to protect you! Enter ‘Caput Lupinum‘.

It literally means ‘Head of the Wolf‘, or ‘Wolf’s Head’. To be branded a wolf’s head outlaw meant that, not only were you outside the law, and its protection, it also meant that you would forever be hunted…like a wolf. And, like a wolf, anyone who killed you, no matter how it was done, no matter where it was done, automatically received the king’s royal pardon. There was no price or penalty to be paid by anyone for the death of a wolf. Or an outlaw. They were considered scum, and anyone who successfully killed an outlaw was seen as doing the king (and his subjects) a favour.

Robin Hood: The Archer

In the days of Robin Hood, the main long-range weapon was the bow and arrow. Known since antiquity, bows and arrows were simple, but lethal weapons, able to bring death to its target from several yards away. Robin Hood was supposed to be an excellent archer, able to hit targets from impossible distances with remarkable accuracy.

But what was the reality of medieval archery?

To be an archer took great skill. Skill and experience gained over years of practice. It took skill to aim and shoot reliably. But it also took great strength. No weakling would be able to simply pick up a bow, load an arrow and fire it. Considerable arm-strength was required to force the bowstring back to produce the energy required to fire an arrow over dozens of yards, and hit with enough force to kill or at least injure your enemy, or quarry.

Before the age of firearms, archers were essential in any army. Able to stand well back from the field of battle and rain down volley after volley of lethal fire from above, from the relative safety of a hilltop, or behind a castle wall. Since archers were so important, in England, the practice of archery was made a law. Anyone desirous of becoming an archer had to train from the age of seven (co-incidentally, the same age that a boy training to be a knight, also had to start from!), to build up the speed, strength and accuracy required to reliably fire a bow and arrow. In villages and towns, archery-practice was mandatory; at least two hours a day, at least once a week. Usually, this was two hours on Sundays, since that was the one time that people in the community gathered together, for church. After religious services, the men would go out for target-practice every week.

Although bows came in several shapes and sizes, for a full-grown male, the weapon of choice was usually the military longbow. Made from the wood of the yew tree, the longbow was not named-so for nothing. Up to five or six feet high, a longbow was generally designed to fire an arrowshaft up to nearly three feet long!

The first book written in English, on the subject of the longbow, and on archery in general, was produced in the mid-1540s, by Roger Ascham (1515-1568). An educated man of letters, Ascham was a private tutor, and a university lecturer. He also happened to be Princess Elizabeth’s Latin tutor; so when he wrote his book, (titled “Toxophilus“), he dedicated it to King Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father.

The Sheriff of Nottingham

We don’t generally associate sheriffs with England, do we? They’re something you find in the United States, along with their cohorts, the sheriff’s deputy. But the sheriff actually originates in England.

Originally, areas of land in England were governed by Ealdormen. Literally ‘Elder Man’ or ‘Older man’, meaning a man of age, and therefore, experience. These men were royal officials and were in charge of keeping law and order within their allotments of land. The position survives today in the word ‘alderman’.

Eventually, the alderman died out in that capacity, and his duties were taken over by another man: The Sheriff.

The original title was “Shire Reeve”. A shire is a stretch of land, synonymous with the word ‘County’. A shire reeve was the administrative official responsible for the preservation of law and order within that shire. Eventually, the two words were melted into the one word: “Sheriff”.

Much like a modern sheriff, the sheriff of Robin Hood’s day was responsible for the upholding of the law, such as the capture of outlaws like Robin Hood.


Rule Britannia: A History of the British Empire

From the close of the 1500s, until the end of the Second World War, the British Empire grew, spread and eventually dominated the world, and for two hundred years, from the 1700s until the mid-20th century, was the largest empire in the world.

By the 1920s, the British Empire covered up to 22.6%+ of the globe, covered 13.1 million square miles (33.7 million square kilometers), and its subjects and citizens numbered some 458 MILLION PEOPLE. At its height, 20% of the people on earth were British, or British subjects, living in one of its dozens of colonies, dependencies or protectorates.

The British Empire was, is, and will forever be (until there’s another one), the biggest and arguably, the most famous, of all the Empires that the world has ever seen.

But how was it that the British Empire grew so large? Why was it so big? What was the purpose? What was to be gained from it? Why and how did it collapse? And what became of it? Join me on a journey across the centuries and oceans, to find out what caused the Empire to take root, grow, prosper, dwindle and decline. As this posting progresses, I’ll show the changing flags, and explain the developments behind each one.

The Need for Conquest

The British Empire was born in the late 1500s. During the reign of Henry VIII, England was a struggling country, mostly on its own. Ever since the king’s break from Rome, and the foundation of the Church of England, the Kingdom of England was on its own. Most countries saw it as being radical and nonconformist. It had dared to break away from Catholicism, the main religion of Europe at the time. England was seen as weak, and other countries, such as Spain, were eager to invade England, and either claim it for themselves, or seat a Catholic English monarch on the throne.

It was to protect against threats like these, that Henry VIII improved on what would become England’s most famous fighting force, and the tool which would build an empire:

The British Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy had existed ever since the 1400s, mostly as a hodge-podge of ships and boats. There was no REAL navy to speak of. Ships were simply requisitioned as needed during times of war, and then returned to their owners when war was over. Even in Elizabethan times, British fishing-boats doubled up as the navy.

It was Henry VIII, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, who began to build up the Navy as a serious fighting force, to protect against Spanish threats to their kingdom.

But having a navy was not quite enough. What if the Spanish, or the French, tried to establish colonies elsewhere, where they could grow in strength and strike the British? There is talk of a new world, somewhere far to the West across the seas. If the British could grab a slice of the action, then they would surely be more secure?

It was originally for reasons of security, but eventually, trade and commerce, that the idea of a British Empire was thought up. And it would be these reasons that the British Empire grew, flourished, and lasted, for as long as it did.

The English flag. St. George’s Cross (red) on a white background

British America

In 1707, Great Britain emerges. No longer is it an ‘English Empire’, but a British Empire. Great Britain is formed by the Act of Union between Scotland, England, and the Principality of Wales.

By 1703, England and Scotland had already been ruled by the same family (the Stuarts), for a hundred years, ever since Elizabeth I died in 1603, and her cousin, King James of Scotland inherited her kingdom as her closest surviving relative.

The flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The red St. George’s Cross with the white background, over the white St. Andrew’s Cross and blue background, of Scotland. This would remain the flag for nearly 100 years, until the addition of Ireland

It seemed only to make more sense, therefore, that since England and Scotland were ruled by the same family, they may as well be the same kingdom. The Kingdom of Great Britain.

By this time, British holdings had grown to include Newfoundland, and more and more holdings on the North American mainland. At the time, America was being carved up by the great European powers. France, Britain, Holland and Spain were all fighting for a slice of this new, delicious pie called the New World.

And they were, quite literally, fighting over it. Ever heard of a series of conflicts called the French and Indian Wars? From 1689 until 1763, the colonial powers fought for control over greater parcels of land on the American continent. America had valuable commodities such as furs, timber and farmland, which the European powers were eager to get their hands on.

By the end of the 1700s, Britain’s colonial ambitions and fortunes had changed greatly. It retained Newfoundland, but had gained Canada from France, but had lost its possessions in America to these new “United States” guys. Part of the deal with France over getting their Canadian land was that the French be allowed to stay. As a result, Canada at the time (in the 1790s), was divided into Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario, and Quebec, today). Even in the 21st century, we have French-speaking Canadians.

British colonies in the Americas wasn’t just limited to the top end, either. Since the mid-1600s, the British also controlled Jamaica (a colony taken, not from the French, but this time, from the Dutch). British rule of Jamaica lasted from 1655, until the late 1950s!

Just as its former American colonies had provided Britain with fur pelts and cotton, Jamaica was also colonised so that it could provide the growing empire with a valuable commodity – in this case, sugar. In the 1500s, sugar was incredibly rare, and the few countries which grew sugarcane were far from England. Extracting and transporting this sweet, white powder was labour-intensive and dangerous. But now, England had its own sugar-factory, in the middle of the Caribbean.

British India

It was during the 1700s, that the British got their hands on one of the most famous colonies in their growing empire. They might have lost America and gained Canada, but in the 1750s, they gained something much more interesting, thanks to an entity called the East India Trading Company, a corporation which effectively colonised lands on behalf of the British.

In 1800, another Act of Union formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland. The flag now depicts the diagonal red cross of St. Patrick, over that of St. Andrew, but with both below the cross of St. George. This has remained the British flag for over 200 years, up to the present day

Formed as a trading company to handle imports and exports out of countries in the Far East, the East India Company (founded in 1600), got their hands on the Subcontinent of India. And for a hundred years, between 1757 and 1858, more or less controlled it for the British Government.

Indians were not happy about being controlled by a company. True, it had brought such things as trade, wealth, transport, communications and education to the Indian Subcontinent, but the company’s presence was not welcomed.

The end of Company Rule in India came in 1857, a hundred years after they had established themselves there. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 occurred when the Indian soldiers who worked for the Company rebelled over the Company’s religious insensitivity. Offended by the liberties and insults which the Company took, and dished out, Indian soldiers under Company pay, revolted against their masters.

The rebellion spread around India, and fighting was fierce on both sides. It eventually ended in 1859, with an Indian defeat, but at least it also ended Company Rule in India.

However, the British were not willing to let go of India. It had too many cool things. Like spices and ivory, exotic foods and fine cloth. Oh, and a little drug called opium.

In the end, the British formed British India (also called the British Raj), in the late 1850s.

To appease the local Indian population and prevent another uprising, a system of suzerainty was established. Never heard of it? Neither had I.

Suzerainty is a system whereby a major controlling power (in this case, Britain), rules a country (India), and handles its foreign policy as well as other controlling interests. In return, the controlling power allows native peoples (in this case, the Indians) to have their own, self-governing states within their own country.

When applied to India, this allowed for 175 “Princely States”. The princely states were ruled by Indian princes, or minor monarchs, (the maharajahs),  while the other states within India were ruled by the British. As such, India was thereafter divided into “British India”, and the “Princely States”.

British India was ruled by the Viceroy of India, and its legal system was determined by the big-wigs in London. The Princely States were allowed to have their own Indian rulers, and were allowed to govern themselves according to their own laws. Not entirely ideal, but much better than being ruled over by a trading company!

The Indians largely accepted this way of life. It was in a way, similar to their lives under the Mongol Empire before. It was a way of life with which they were familiar and comfortable with. In return for various concessions, changes and improvements, the Indians would allow the British control of their land.

The number of princely states rose and fell over the years, but this system remained in place until Indian independence was granted by Britain in the years after the Second World War.

The Viceroy of India was the head British representative in India, and ruled over British India, and was the person to whom Indian princes went to, if they had concerns about British involvement within India.

Pacific Britain

Entering the 1800s, Britain became more and more interested in the Far East. Britain realised that establishing trading-posts and military bases in Asia could bring them the riches of the Orient and a greater say in world affairs. To this end, it colonised Malaya, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Fiji, Penang, Kowloon, Malacca, Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and Burma. It even tried to colonise mainland China, but only succeeded in grabbing a few small concessions from the Qing Government, such as Shanghai.

The Pacific portion of the British Empire was involved heavily in trade and commerce, and a great many port cities sprang up in the area. Singapore, Hong Kong, Rangoon, Calcutta, Bombay, Melbourne and Sydney all became major trading-stops for ocean-liners, cargo-ships and tramp-steamers sailing the world. From these exotic locales, Britain could get gold, wool, rubber, tin, oil, tea and other essential, exotic and rare materials.

The British were not alone in the Pacific, so the need for military strength was important. The Dutch, the Germans and the French were also present, in the Indies, New Guinea, and Indochina, respectively.

Britain and the Scramble for Africa

The Industrial Revolution brought all kinds of new technology to the world. Railways, steamships, mills, factories, mass-production, telecommunications and improved medical care, to name but a few. And Britain, like other colonial powers, was eager to see that its colonial holdings got the best of these new technologies that they could.

However, these improvements also spurred on the desire for greater control of the world. And from the second half of the 1800s, saw the “scramble for Africa“.

The ‘Scramble’ or ‘Race’ for Africa, was a series of conquests by the colonial powers, to snatch up as much of the African continent as they could. The Dutch, Germans, French and British all duked it out to carve up hunks of Africa.

The French got most of northwest Africa, including the famous city of Casablanca, in Morocco. They also controlled Algeria. The British got their hands on Egypt, and a collection of holdings (including previous Dutch colonies, won from them after the Boer Wars) which they called the Union of South Africa. The British also got their hands on Nigeria, British East Africa (“Kenya”) and the Sudan.  Egypt was never officially a British colony, but remained a British protectorate (a country which Britain swore to provide military assistance, or ‘protection’ to). It was a crafty way of adding Egypt to the British Empire without actually colonising it.

British interest in Egypt and southern Africa was related less to what Egypt could provide the empire, and more about what it would allow the empire to do. Egypt was the location of the Suez Canal, and important shipping-channel between Europe and the Far East. Control of Egypt was seen as essential by the British, for quick access to their colonies in the Far East, such as India, Singapore and Australia.

A map of the world in 1897.
The British Empire comprised of any country marked in pink

Justification for Empire

As the British Empire grew during the Victorian era, and the early 20th century, with wars of conquest, and with other European powers, some sort of justification seemed to be wanting. Why should Britain control so much of the world? What gave it this right? How did it explain it to the other European powers, or the the Arsenal of Democracy that was the rising power of the United States? How did it justify the colonisation of countries to the peoples of the countries which they colonised?

Leave it to a writer to find the right choice of words.

Rudyard Kipling, author of “The Jungle Book“, was the man who came up with the phrase, “The White Man’s Burden“, in a poem he wrote in 1899.

Put simply, the burden of the white man; the white, European man, is to bring civilisation, culture, refinement and proper breeding and upbringing to the wild and uncouth savages of the world. Such as those savages likely to be found in Africa, the Middle East and the isolated isles of the South Pacific.

Britain, being naturally the most civilised, cultured, refined and most well-bred country on earth, producing only the most civilised, cultured, refined and most well-bred of citizens, was of course, the best country on earth, with the best people on earth, to introduce these wonderful virtues to the savages of the world. And to bring them up to date with technology, science, architecture, engineering, and to imbue them with good Christian virtues. Britain after all, had the best schools and universities: Eton, Harrow, Oxford, Cambridge, St. Peter’s., the list goes on. They were naturally God’s choice for teaching refinement, culture and all that went with it, to the rest of the world.

This was one of the main ways in which Britain justified its empire. By colonising other nations, it was making them better, more modern, and more cultured, in line with the West. It brought them out of the Dark Ages and into the light of modernity.

The British colonised certain countries (such as Australia) under the justification of the Ancient Roman law of “Terra Nuliius“. Translated, it means “No Man’s Land”, or “Empty Land” (“Terra” = Land, as in ‘terra-firma’; “Nullius” = Nothing, as in ‘null and void’).

By the British definition of Terra Nullius, a native people only had a right to sovereignty over its land if it changed the landscape in some manner, such as through construction, industry, craft, agriculture, or manufacturing. It had to show some degree of outward intelligence beyond hunter-gatherer society and starting a fire with two sticks.

They did not recognise these traits in the local Aboriginal peoples, and saw no evidence of such activites. Therefore, they claimed that the land was untouched, and the people had minimal intelligence. Otherwise, they would’ve done something with their land! And since they hadn’t, they had forfeited their claim to sovereignty over their land. Under the British definition of Terra Nullius, this meant that the land was theirs for the taking. Up for grabs! Up for sale! And they jumped on it like a kangaroo stomping on a rabbit.

The Peak of Empire

British control of the world, and the fullest extent of its imperial holdings came during the period after the First World War. One of the perks of defeating Germany was that Britain got to snap up a whole heap of German ex-colonies. A lot of them were in Africa, but there were also some in the Far East, most notably, German New Guinea, thereafter simply named ‘New Guinea’ (today, ‘Papua New Guinea’).

It was during the interwar period of the early 20th century that the British Empire was at its peak. By the early 1920s, Britain had added such notables as the Mandate of Palestine (modern Israel), and Weihai, in China, to its list of trophies (although its Chinese colony did not last very long).

The extent of the British Empire by 1937. Again, anything marked in pink is a colony, dominion, or protectorate of the British Empire

The Colony of Weihai

For a brief period (32 years), Great Britain counted a small portion of China as part of its empire. Britain already had Hong Kong, but in 1898, it added the northern city of Weihai to its Oriental possessions. Originally, it was a deal between the Russians and the British. So long as the Russians held onto Port Arthur (a city in Liaoning Province in northern China), the British could have control of Weihai.

In 1905, the Russians suffered a humiliating defeat to the Japanese, in the Russo-Japanese War. Part of the Russian defeat was the Japanese occupation of Port Arthur. Britain then made a deal with Japan that they could remain in Weihai so long as the Japanese held onto Port Arthur. To appease the Chinese, the British signed a lease with the Chinese for twenty-five years, agreeing to return Weihai to the Chinese Imperial Government when the lease expired, which in 1905, meant that Weihai would be returned in 1930.

The Glory of the British Empire

The early 20th century was the Golden Age of the British Empire. From the period after the Great War, to the onset of the Second World War, Britain was powerful, far-reaching and dominant. British culture, customs, legal systems, education, dress, and language were spread far around the world.

Children in school learnt about the Empire, and the role it played in making Britain great. People in countries like New Zealand and Australia saw themselves as being British, rather than being Australian or New Zealanders. After the First World War, monuments and memorials were erected to those who had died for the “Empire”, rather than for Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. Strong colonial and cultural ties held the empire together and drew soldiers to fight for Britain as their ‘mother country’, who had brought modernisation, culture and civility to their lands.

The Definitions of Empire

If you read any old documents about the British Empire, such as maps, letters, newspapers and so-forth, you’ll notice that each country within the empire is generally called something different. Some are labeled ‘colonies’, others are ‘mandates’, some are ‘protectorates’, and a rare few are named as ‘dominions’. And yet, they were all considered part of the Empire. What is the difference between all these terms?

The Colonies

Also sometimes called a Crown Colony, a colony, such as the Colony of Hong Kong, was a country, or landmass, or part of a landmass, which was ruled by the British Government. The government’s representative in said colony was the local governor. He reported to the Colonial Office in London.

The Protectorates

A protectorate sounds just like what it does. And it can be a rather cushy arrangement, if you can get it. As the name implies, a country becomes a protectorate of the British Empire when it allows the Empire to control certain parts of its government policies, such as foreign policy, and its policies concerning the country’s defence from foreign aggression. One example of this is the Protectorate of Egypt.

In return for allowing the British to control such things as foreign relations and trade, and in return for having British military protection against their enemies, a country’s ruler, or government, could continue running their country as they did, with certain things lifted off their shoulders. But with other things added on. For example, the British weren’t interested in Egypt for the free tours of the Valley of the Kings. They were interested in it because of the Suez Canal, the water-highway to their jewel in the Far East, known as India! In return for use and control of the Canal, the British allowed the Egyptians to run their own country as they had always done.

The Mandates

The most famous British mandate was the Mandate of Palestine (modern Israel).

In the 1920s, the newly-formed League of Nations (the direct predecessor to the U.N.) confiscated former German and Turkish colonies, and distributed them among the two main victors of the Great War; Britain, and France. Basically, Britain and France got Turkish and German colonies as ‘prizes’ or ‘compensation’ of the war.

Legally, these mandates were under the control of the League of Nations. But the League of Nations was well…a League! A body. Not a country. And the League couldn’t control a mandate directly. So they passed control of these mandates to the victors of the Great War.

The Dominions

On a lot of old maps, you’ll see things like the Dominion of Canada, the Dominion of Australia, and the Dominion of New Zealand. What are Dominions?

Dominions were colonies of the Empire which had ‘grown up’, basically. They were seen as highly-developed, modern countries, well-capable of self-governance and self-preservation, without the aid of Mother England. They were like the responsible teenagers in an imperial family, to whom old John Bull had given them the keys to the family car, on the condition that they didn’t trash it, or crash it, and that they returned it in good working order.

The Dominions were therefore allowed to be more-or-less self governing. After 1930, the Dominions became countries in their own rights, no-longer legal colonies. But they were still seen as being part of the Empire, and bound to give imperial service if war came. Indeed, when war did come, all the Dominions pledged troops to help defend the Empire.

There was talk of making a ‘Dominion of India’. India wanted independence, but Britain was not willing to let go of its little jewel. It saw making India a Dominion as a happy compromise between the two polar options of remaining a colony, or becoming totally independent.  However, a little incident called the Second World War interrupted these plans before they could be fully carried out.

War and the Empire

The British Empire was constantly at war. In one way, or another, with one country, or another, it was at war. The French and Indian Wars, the American War of Independence, the War of 1812, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars,  the Opium Wars, the Crimean War of the 1850s, the First and Second Afghan Wars. The Mahdist War of 1881 lasted nearly twenty years! Then you had the Boer War, the Great War, and the Second World War.

One reason why Britain managed to engage in so many wars, and survive, and in some cases, prosper from them, was due in a large part to its empire. In very few of these wars did Britain ever fight alone. Even when it didn’t have allies fighting alongside it, Britain’s fighting force was comprised of both home-born Englishmen, but also a large number of imperial troops. Indians, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Africans. They all signed up for war! When Australia became a nation in 1901, instead of being a gaggle of colonies, Australian colonial soldiers, freshly-returned from the Boer War in Africa, marched through the streets of Australian cities as part of the federation celebrations.

“The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire”

The cohesion of the British Empire began to crumble during the Second World War.

Extensive demilitarisation during the interwar years had greatly weakened Britain’s ability to wage war. Britons and their colonial counterparts became complacent in their faith in the might of the British Navy, which for two hundred years, had been the preeminent naval force in the world.

Defending the Empire became increasingly difficult as it grew in size. In the years after WWI, Britain believed that the “Singapore Strategy”, its imperial defence-plan based around Singapore, would protect its holdings in the Far East.

The strategy involved building up Singapore as a military stronghold for both the army, navy and Royal Air Force. In the event of Japanese aggression, the Navy could intercept Japanese warships, and the air-force and army could protect Singapore from land or air-based invasions. The Navy would be able to protect Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaya from Japanese invasion, or would be able to drive out the Japanese, if they did invade.

Under ideal circumstances, such a plan would be wonderful. But in practice, it fell flat. The British Royal Navy simply did not have the seapower that it once had. It had neither the ships, sailors, airmen or aircraft required to protect both England and Singapore. Great Britain was having enough troubles defending its waters against German U-boats, let alone Japanese battleships and aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

On top of that, Singapore simply wasn’t equipped to hold off a Japanese advance, from any direction under any means. Even though the British and colonial forces on Singapore vastly outnumbered those of the Japanese, the British lacked food, ammunition, firearms, artillery, aircraft, and naval firepower, resources stretched thinly enough already due to British disarmament during the 1920s and 30s.

The fall of Singapore after just one week of fighting the Japanese was a great shock to the Empire, especially to Australia and New Zealand, who had relied on Singapore to hold back the Japanese. In Australia, the fall of Singapore showed the government that Britain could not be trusted to protect its empire.

When Darwin was bombed, defying orders from Churchill, Australian prime minister John Curtin ordered all Australian troops serving overseas (in the Middle East and Africa) to be returned home at once. For once, protection of the homeland was to take precedence over protection of the Empire, since the Empire wasn’t able to provide protection, Australia would have to provide its own, even if it came at the expense of keeping the Empire together.

Even Winston Churchill, an ardent Imperialist, realised the futility of protecting the entire empire, and realised that certain sections would be impossible to defend without seriously compromising the defence of Great Britain. British colonies in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and in the Pacific islands gradually fell to Japanese invasion and occupation.

By the 1930s, the Empire was already beginning to fall apart. Independence movements in countries like Iraq (a British mandate from 1920), Palestine (a mandate since 1920) and India, was forcing Britain to let go of its imperial ambitions.

For the most part, independence from Britain for these countries came relatively peacefully, and in the years after the Second World War, many of the British colonies gained independence.

Independence was desired for a number of reasons, from the simple want for a country’s people to rule themselves, the lack of contact and cohesion felt with Great Britain, or in some cases, the realisation or belief that the British Empire could not protect them in times of war, as had been the case with Singapore and Hong Kong.

The British Commonwealth

Also called the Commonwealth of Nations, the British Commonwealth was formed in the years during and after the Second World War. The Commonwealth is not an empire, but rather a collection of countries tied together by cultural, historical and economic similarities. Almost all of them are former British colonies.

The Commonwealth recognises that no one country within this exclusive ‘club’ is below another, and that each should share equal status within the Commonwealth. It was formed when the British realised that some of their colonies (such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada) were becoming developed, cultured, civilised and powerful in their own rights. So that these progressive countries did not feel like Britain’s underlings, the Commonwealth was formed. Now, the Dominions would not be above the Colonies, and the colonies would not be below Britain, they would all be on the same level, and part of the same ‘club’, the British Commonwealth.

The Empire Today

The sun has long since set on the British Empire, as it has on nearly all great empires. But even after the end of the empire, it still makes appearances in the news and in films, documentaries and works of fiction, as a look back at an age that was.

During the 1982 Falklands War, a conflict that lasted barely three months, the famous New York magazine “Newsweek” printed this cover:

An imperial war without the Empire…

In four simple words, this title comments on the recent Stars Wars film of the same name, the former British Empire, and on the fabled might of the Royal Navy, which had allowed the formation of that empire, so many hundreds of years ago.

Imperial Reading and Watching

The British Empire lasted for hundreds of years. It grew, it shrank, it grew again, until it came to dominate the world, spreading British customs, ideals, education, government, culture, food and language around the globe. This posting only covers the major elements of the history of the British Empire. But if you want to find out more, there’s plenty of information to be found in the following locations and publications. They’ll cover the empire in much greater detail.

The British Empire

“The Victorian School” on the British Empire.

Documentary: “The Fall of the British Empire

Documentary Series: “Empire” (presented by Jeremy Paxman).