The British realms beyond the seas have little history before the battle of Waterloo, a date at which the Englishman's historical education has commonly come to an end; and if by chance it has gone any further, it has probably been confined to purely domestic events or to foreign episodes of such ephemeral interest as the Crimean War. It may be well, therefore, to pass lightly over these matters in order to sketch in brief outline the development of the empire and the problems which it involves. European affairs, in fact, played a very subordinate part in English history after 1815; so far as England was concerned, it was a period of excursions and alarms rather than actual hostilities; and the fortunes of English-speaking communities were not greatly affected by the revolutions and wars which made and marred continental nations, a circumstance which explains, if it does not excuse, the almost total ignorance of European history displayed in British colonies.

The interventions of Britain in continental politics were generally on behalf of the principles of nationality and self-government. Under the influence of Castlereagh and Canning the British government gradually broke away from the Holy Alliance formed to suppress all protests against the settlement reached after Napoleon's fall; and Britain interposed with decisive effect at the battle of Navarino in 1827, which secured the independence of Greece from Turkey. More diplomatic intervention assisted the South American colonies to assert their independence of the Spanish mother-country; and British volunteers helped the Liberal cause in Spain and Portugal against reactionary monarchs. Belgium was countenanced in its successful revolution against the House of Orange, and Italian states in their revolts against native and foreign despots; the expulsion of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons from Italy, and its unification on a nationalist basis, owed something to British diplomacy, which supported Cavour, and to British volunteers who fought for Garibaldi. The attitude of Britain towards the Balkan nationalities, which were endeavouring to throw off the Turkish yoke, was more dubious; while Gladstone denounced Turkish atrocities, Disraeli strengthened Turkey's hands. Yet England would have been as enthusiastic for a liberated and united Balkan power as it had been for a united Italy but for the claims of a rival liberator, Russia.

Russia was the bugbear of two generations of Englishmen; and classical scholars, who interpreted modern politics by the light of ancient Greece, saw in the absorption of Athens by Macedon a convincing demonstration of the fate which the modern barbarian of the north was to inflict upon the British heirs of Hellas. India was the real source of this nervousness. British dominion, after further wars with the Mahrattas, the Sikhs, and the Gurkhas, had extended up to the frontiers of Afghanistan; but there was always the fear lest another sword should take away dominion won by the British, and in British eyes it was an offence that any other power should expand in Asia. The Russian and British spheres of influence advanced till they met in Kabul; and for fifty years the two powers contested, by more or less diplomatic methods, the control of the Amir of Afghanistan. Turkey flanked the overland route to India; and hence the protection of Turkey against Russia became a cardinal point in British foreign policy. On behalf of Turkey's integrity Great Britain fought, in alliance with France and Sardinia, the futile Crimean War of 1854-1856, and nearly went to war in 1877.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 introduced a fresh complication. Relations between England and France had since Waterloo been friendly, on the whole; but France had traditional interests in Egypt, which were strengthened by the fact that a French engineer had constructed the Suez Canal, and by French colonies in the Far East, to which the canal was the shortest route. Rivalry with England for the control of Egypt followed. The Dual Control, which was established in 1876, was terminated by the refusal of France to assist in the suppression of Egyptian revolts in 1882; and Great Britain was left in sole but informal possession of power in Egypt, with the responsibility for its defence against the Mahdi (1884-1885) and for the re-conquest of the Sudan (1896-1898), which is now under the joint Egyptian and British flags.

Meanwhile, British expansion to the east of India, the Burmese wars, and annexation of Burma (1885) brought the empire into a contact with French influence in Siam similar to its contact with Russian in Afghanistan. Community of interests in the Far East, as well as the need of protection against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy produced the entente cordiale between France and Russia in 1890. Fortunately, the dangerous questions between them and Great Britain were settled by diplomacy, assisted by the alliance between Great Britain and Japan. The British and Russian spheres of action on the north-west, and the British and French spheres to the east, of India were delimited; southern Persia, the Persian Gulf, and the Malay Peninsula were left to British vigilance and penetration, northern Persia to Russian, and eastern Siam to French. Freed from these causes of friction, Great Britain, Russia, and France exert a restraining influence on the predominant partner in the Triple Alliance.