Zheng He ruled the largest empire ever, according to academic sources, Wikipedia, and so forth. This is most probably true on a technicality only. In the middle-ages, China and Mongolia were so vast and so sparsely populated that most of that territory was essentially empty. The fact is the British have conducted the largest Empire operations in history. The sun never sets on the British Empire was a truism when the Crown had purview over major countries, islands, waterways and protectorates on every continent.
British rule often looked like racism. Consider the words of the bard and poet Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem White Man’s Burden:
Take up the White man’s burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
The condescension of conquerors is a note played throughout history with regularity. Racism and bigotry are embedded in the DNA of human beings; so they are notions we must consider all the time. Of course, look at this from the point of view of a British national in the latter half of the nineteenth century. You live in a country that rules over the entire globe. You have cities and aircraft and a robust army and a system of justice that seems fair even if it comes at the business end of naval guns. On the other hand, the countries under British rule seem like wealds. Copses. Pristine corners of the world ruled by people with no industry: They were there, for the taking.
On the other hand the British laws they applied over their dominions were far more just than the indigenous and cultural traditions. Once the British took to ruling India they decided to outlaw the sati, an Indian ritual that required a widow to immolate herself on her husband’s grave. Even Indians preferred to not have to burn to death if possible. Schooling, education, even if it meant learning English and Classical poetry was still an education. And millions of the native Indian population prospered under the rule of the British. Once, when challenged about the condition of the Indian under British Rule by an American, Winston Churchill responded thusly:
“Before we proceed further let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians in India, who have multiplied alarmingly under the benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America who, I understand, are almost extinct?”
There was definitely a fortunate turn for many who prospered under the British. Yet the British did introduce Opium to the Chinese. They did create concentration camps during the Boer Wars and their predecessors started the slave trade. And we see the gunboat diplomacy that often changed minds was sometimes just a replevin under arms. Consider the Zanzibar leader that refused to relinquish his throne of a British loyalist and received a bombardment that inflicted 500 casualties in 38 minutes. In Hollywood this looks great. In reality, it is a naked, savage, brutal theft.
World War I saw New Zealanders, South Africans and Australians fight alongside the British. In fact, Indians fought in World War I alongside their British allies. Germans must have been surprised to see Indian troops mass against them. The global scope of the British Empire was teetering at the end of World War I and this worried British allies. The sea faring nation had trade routes to protect from the South China Sea to Malayasia, Indonesia, the Mediterranean, Africa and South America. The demands of war that had fronts in France and in Turkey and drained the treasury were attenuating trade routes and cash flow. Yet each of the protectorates, each of the dominions knew that if Britain lost World War I, it would devastate the client states as well. Perhaps this why people in New Zealand were anxious to battle with Germans they had no quarrel with.
At the end of World War I, the British Empire actually expanded for a bit. In a strip of property that expands from Egypt in the North of Africa to the Sudan further south, to Uganda, British East Africa, to German East Africa now in Brit control, to Rhodesia, to Bechuanaland then finally South Africa….most of Africa belonged to the Queen. The French, Belgians, Spanish Portuguese and Italians had all carved up the rest of Africa. Oddly the British had an even larger share after they took control of German East Africa and kept Nigeria Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast.
To maintain order in this complex mashup of territories and provinces, the British Empire was organized more like a patchwork of multinational police forces comprised mostly of indigenous gendarmes. Cartographers were always well employed in the British Empire as avarice and ambition and gunboat diplomacy changed the map daily. The demands of keeping this global empire afloat and functional were enormous. After World War II the bill for the Empire was so great that the British had to contemplate something they had not had to contemplate since the Romans. They had to face downsizing, giving up land and rule and all in hopes that the trade that made them wealthy could go on. The island nation itself had been pummeled. Its capital smoking ruins, and millions of loyalists and British nationals on casualty lists. And with the fall of three great totalitarian regimes, the bells of freedom were being rung across the world. Among the British colonies and protectorates that were granted independence post WWII: Sudan, Gold Coast, Malaysia, Cyprus, Zimbabwe, Rhodesian, Kenya, Virgin Islands, Caymans, Egypt, Palestine, and many many more new nations, birthed in the aftermath of war.
A final note about the breakup of the British Empire. Prior to the Second World War, service in the British Army was something for royal families, and families with long histories of service. Nothing brought the world to the eyes of the British the way WWII did. For millions of British children, the war was a chance to at least travel around the world and see it from a different perspective. Some of these British soldiers got to see foreigners, brown people, ethnic peoples many exploited at the hands of the Empire. They watched as people whose lands were purloined and then humiliated and grew to hate what the Empire really meant below the level pomp and circumstance. The British knew it was time to batten down the hatches, and let go of some of their holdings. And hope for the best.
Sources: Wikipedia, The Second World War. Winston Churchill. 1986 edition, Library of Congress