When it comes to monuments, memorials and landmarks from the British Empire there are a number of fascinating places that are waiting to be explored including the Houses of Parliament, Historic Jamestowne and the famous battlefield of Rorke’s Drift. Other key British Empire sites range from the Port Arthur in Tasmania and the intriguing Waitangi Treaty Grounds to the interestingly presented Lower Fort Garry in Canada. With so many fascinating places to explore, it’s not necessarily easy to select the very best historic sites from the British Empire, but we’ve painstakingly contemplated, deliberated and meditated over this list and come up with our top recommendations as well as a few others worth exploring if you have more time.
What are the most interesting British Empire sites to visit?
The Houses of Parliament were the political heart of the British Empire for hundreds of years. Virtually every major decision that impacted on the lives of countless subjects of the Empire took place here. While the original Westminster Palace burned down in 1834, the building you see today is the result of the subsequent rebuilding by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. The iconic clock tower, housing Big Ben, is probably the most famous part of this building and the complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jamestowne was the location of the first successful English colony in America in 1607. Previous attempts, notably that of Roanoke in 1587, had been made, but the colony the English formed in Jamestowne was the root of what eventually become America. Today, the site forms part of Colonial National Park, which encompasses York Town Battlefield, Colonial Parkway and the Cape Henry Memorial. Amongst its many attractions, it’s worth seeing the Glasshouse, a recreation of the first industrial building of the Virginia Company, the London-based company that founded the colony.
Rorke’s Drift in South Africa was the site of a famous battle during the Anglo-Zulu Wars in which 139 British soldiers fiercely and successfully defended the area and their garrison against between four and five thousand Zulu Warriors. The battle took place on 22 January 1879 and was a welcome piece of good news for the British following their disastrous defeat at Isandlwana, which occurred on the same day. Considered to be one of the most heroic and brave defences in British military history, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift resulted in the award of a momentous eleven Victoria Crosses. Today, there is a memorial at the site, where visitors can tour the battlefield and view the visitor centre.
Port Arthur in Tasmania grew from a small timber station into one of Australia’s most brutal penal settlements until it closed in 1877. Today it’s Australia’s ‘most intact and evocative convict site’ and one of the best places to visit to understand the history of the Penal Transportation system. Today, the is a place of contradiction. The stunning landscapes and vistas of one of the world’s last remaining wild frontiers gives way to a dark history of the brutal punishment of the most hardened of British convicts who landed here in the mid-19th century. There are guided tours of the buildings, the museum, the Convict Study Centre, Interpretation Gallery and the site of the Dockyard.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are considered to be the birthplace of the nation of New Zealand. It was in Treaty House that on 6 February 1840 that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between a large number of Maori chiefs and the British. This treaty was intended to protect Maori property from ever increasing numbers British settlers. Under this document, the Maori were given British citizenship and a guarantee that their land would not be taken from them. In return the British had first refusal on any land which the Maori sold. It should be said though that the actual meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi has always been highly contested. Visitors can see where the document was signed, the Maori Meeting House representing all the tribes and the visitor centre with information boards and exhibits.
Lower Fort Garry is a well preserved 19th century fur trading post in Canada and the site of the signing of Treaty Number 1 between the First Nation people and the Crown. The fort was intended as a fur trading post and served in this capacity for a short time before undertaking a series of other roles including as a garrisoned British fort. On 3 August 1871, the fort took on another important role as the signing place of Treaty No. 1, an agreement between the Crown and the Ojibway and Swampy Cree people relating to the area now known as Manitoba. Today the fort remains beautifully intact and is said to be Canada‘s largest complex of 19th century buildings of the fur trade.
Isandlwana Battlefield in South Africa was the site of one of the most catastrophic defeats of British forces during the Empire period. Part of the Anglo-Zulu Wars around 1,750 British soldiers were camping at Isandlwana when they were besieged by approximately 20,000 Zulu warriors. The Zulu captured the camp and killed almost all of the soldiers, resulting in a decisive and humiliating defeat for the British. It is thought that Lord Chelmsford, who was leading the British in the region, went to great lengths to cover up the defeat. It was also overshadowed by the victory at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Today, memorials and markers stand on the site and there is also a small Isandlwana Battlefield museum at the visitor centre.
Majuba Hill in South Africa was the final battlefield of the First Anglo-Boer War. Sometimes known as the Transvaal War, the conflict saw the Boers reject British annexation of the Transvaal region of South Africa. Approximately 400 British soldiers, made up of the 58th Regiment and the 92nd Highlanders occupied Majuba Hill in early 1881. On 27 February 1881 at the Boers defeated the British in battle, effectively ending the war.
The Lucknow Residency in India was the home of the British High Commissioner during the British colonial period in Lucknow, the capital of what was then the area of Oud. The British annexed Oud in 1856 which created a great deal of resentment. A year later an uprising known as the First War of Indian Independence or the Indian Rebellion took place. As tensions rose, around 1,500 British residents took shelter in the Residency together with Indian private soldiers. On 1 July 1857, the Residency came under siege. Despite being severely outnumbered, the besieged held out for 87 days but ultimately ended in the deaths of over 2,000 people. Many Indian soldiers who had sided with the British were included in the casualties list. The British would later recapture Lucknow and those who perished defending it are now buried at the site. The complex is preserved in the same state as it was at the end of the siege. Inside, visitors can view exhibitions about its history, including weaponry of the time, photographs, paintings and a representation of what it originally looked like.
The Old State House in Boston played an important role in the American Revolution and saw one of the triggers for the war, when British soldiers fired into a group of Bostonians. This balcony was later a scene of equal importance when Colonel Thomas Crafts read out the Declaration of Independence to the public for the first time on 18 July 1776. Today the site is a museum of Boston’s history managed by the Bostonian Society as well as being part of Boston National Historical Park. Guided tours of the Freedom Trail – of which the State House forms a part – are available, but you can also walk it independently.