The British Empire, at its greatest extent, was the largest formal empire the world has ever seen. Over the course of its some 4 centuries-long existence, the empire encompassed lands stretching from North America, across Africa and Asia, to Australasia and the Pacific.
The empire is loosely considered to have begun in the 16th century, with the advent of British enterprises in the New World. Its decline was hastened after World War Two, as countless former colonies such as India and Myanmar (then Burma) declared independence.
For centuries, the British Empire was sustained through seafaring ability, a vast administrative network and violent military engagements.
Given the British Empire’s vast scale and influence, its relics can be witnessed the world over. Here are 10 of the most significant sites to visit.
1. Houses of Parliament
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. The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
2. Historic Jamestowne
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 is the Glasshouse, a recreation of the first industrial building of the Virginia Company, the London-based organisation that founded the colony.
3. Rorke’s Drift
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 4,000 to 5,000 Zulu Warriors.
The battle took place on 22 January 1879 and is considered to be one of the most heroic and brave defences in British military history. Today, there is a memorial at the site, where visitors can tour the battlefield and view the visitor centre.
4. Port Arthur
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. There are guided tours of the buildings, the museum, the Convict Study Centre, Interpretation Gallery and the site of the Dockyard.
5. Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are considered to be the birthplace of the nation of New Zealand. In Treaty House, on 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between a large number of Maori chiefs and the British.
Under this document, the Maori were given British citizenship and a guarantee that their land would not be taken from them. The actual meaning and outcome of the Treaty of Waitangi have always been highly contested, though. 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.
6. Lower Fort Garry
Lower Fort Garry is a well-preserved 19th-century fur trading post in Canada and former garrisoned British fort. It’s also the site of the signing of Treaty Number 1 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.
7. Isandlwana Battlefield
Isandlwana Battlefield in South Africa was the site of one of the most catastrophic defeats of British forces during the Empire period. During 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.
Today, memorials and markers stand on the site and there is also a small Isandlwana Battlefield museum at the visitor centre.
8. Majuba Hill
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 occupied Majuba Hill in early 1881. On 27 February 1881 the Boers defeated the British in battle, effectively ending the war.
In 1981, following the centenary of the Battle of Majuba, an annual festival was founded to commemorate the battle. The Majuba battle site is jointly managed by two different entities, the Majuba-Boarevolk Trust and the Majuba Management Company.
9. The Lucknow Residency
The Lucknow Residency in India was the home of the British High Commissioner during the British colonial period in Lucknow. In 1857 an uprising known as the First War of Indian Independence or the Indian Rebellion took place. On 1 July 1857, the Residency came under siege. Despite being severely outnumbered, the besieged British forces held out for 87 days but ultimately lost over 2,000 people. 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.
10. Independence Hall - Philadelphia
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is one of the most important landmarks in US history, being the site where the nation declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain on 4 July 1776 by signing the Declaration of Independence.
Independence Hall is now part of Independence National Historical Park, which also encompasses a myriad of important sites such as Congress Hall and Liberty Bell Centre sprawled over 55 acres within Philadelphia. Visitors can choose from a variety of ranger-guided walking tours as well as various indoor and outdoor activities.