The history of the UK Overseas Territories is inseparable from the story of the British Empire. For centuries Britain dominated the world, commercially, industrially and militarily. Over the course of four hundred years, the British built the largest empire the world has ever seen, which, at its peak, encompassed one-fifth of the world’s population and almost one-quarter of the Earth’s total land area.
But the two World Wars brought the United Kingdom to her knees. The price of defending world freedom and liberating millions from murderous tyranny totalled more wealth than Britain had accumulated during the previous century. Emerging into the light of victory in 1945, it was clear that the UK could no longer afford to maintain an empire, nor – after fighting Nazi oppression for six long years – was imperial power morally tenable or desirable.
The post-war decades saw Britain and other European powers shed their colonies across the globe, giving the promise of hope and an independent future to hundreds of millions of people. The transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997 finally marked the end of the British Empire, and a new chapter in world history.
During the fifty-year decolonisation process, however, several former British colonial possessions elected to remain under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, rather than become fully independent states.
A colony can be defined as: a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country. The term ‘colony’ no longer applied to the former British possessions that did not want full independence, because they decided to continue under UK sovereignty of their own free will. The British Nationality Act of 1981 redefined most of these lands as British Dependent Territories, but the word ‘dependent’ was a poor reflection of their voluntary association with the United Kingdom. The British Overseas Territories Act of 2002 offered a new name, and with this, the UK Overseas Territories (sometimes known by the acronym UKOTs) were officially born.
Today, there are officially fourteen UK Overseas Territories, scattered across the seven major oceans and seas:
North Atlantic Ocean: (1) Bermuda and (2) Turks and Caicos Islands.
South Atlantic Ocean: (3) Falkland Islands, (4) Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, (5) South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Southern Ocean: (6) British Antarctic Territory.
Indian Ocean: (7) British Indian Ocean Territory.
Pacific Ocean: (8) Pitcairn Islands.
Caribbean Sea: (9) Anguilla, (10) British Virgin Islands, (11) Cayman Islands, (12) Montserrat.
Mediterranean Sea: (13) Gibraltar, (14) Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.
(1) Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands are technically located in the North Atlantic, but both are usually grouped with the four Caribbean Territories (the British West Indies), due to their strong ecological, historic and cultural ties.
(2) Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha collectively comprise one UK Overseas Territory; however, as these three groups of islands are so isolated and ecologically different from one another, I will treat each separately in this work. Many other sources informally refer to sixteen UK Overseas Territories for the same reason.
(3) The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia will simply be referred to as ‘Akrotiri and Dhekelia’ on this page.
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