In the last four hundred years the political power of European countries
over the rest of the world has increased, risen to a peak and then dwindled
away, though the after-effects of that dominance remain immense. The
British Empire was an important part of the process, and in the nineteenth
century it came closer to being a universal empire – ruling a quarter of
the population of the world – than has ever been seen before or since. But
in the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century the British
had just a scattering of settlements along the coast in North America, the
West Indies, India and West Africa, and in the sixteenth century they had
shown little interest in territorial acquisition while Spain and Portugal
began the European expansion which transformed the world.
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