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In 1496, King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic.
were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own empire.The conflict placed enormous strain on the military, financial and manpower resources of Britain.Although the British Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's pre-eminent industrial or military power.Fourteen overseas territories remain under British sovereignty.After independence, many former British colonies joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states.After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century.
Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman.
By this time, Spain had become the dominant power in the Americas and was exploring the Pacific Ocean, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River area, later to become New France.
Although England trailed behind other European powers in establishing overseas colonies, it had been engaged during the 16th century in the settlement of Ireland with Protestants from England and Scotland, drawing on precedents dating back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169.
Later that year, Raleigh founded the Roanoke Colony on the coast of present-day North Carolina, but lack of supplies caused the colony to fail.
In 1603, James VI, King of Scots, ascended (as James I) to the English throne and in 1604 negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain.
India, Britain's most valuable and populous possession, achieved independence as part of a larger decolonisation movement in which Britain granted independence to most territories of the empire.