It was said the sun never set on the British Empire. Given the vast territories the United Kingdom controlled around the world at the height of its international power, the saying was probably true. Although the U.K. remains a force in global politics, however, its once enormous empire is no more. (These are the longest-lived empires in history.)
As British dependencies demanded more sovereignty beginning in the 1920s, many of the largest countries under its influence gained independence or a measure of independence, maintaining only a loose, symbolic connection to the crown. One of the pivotal events in the empire’s history was the Statute of Westminster enacted in 1931. The act gave Britain’s former dominions such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa control over their domestic and foreign affairs as well as the ability to form independent diplomatic corps.
Today, those same countries remain tied to the U.K. through a confederation known as the Commonwealth of Nations. Yet they operate autonomously, recognizing King Charles as their titular leader, but granting him no power over their government.
To determine the largest countries – in terms of land mass – that have gained independence from the U.K., 24/7 Tempo consulted numerous sources including History and Britannica. As some dates are debated, those chosen represent the most recent legislation releasing the country from British control or influence. Land areas come from the World Bank and represent 2021 measurements except in some cases where the country listed no longer exists. In those cases, land area at the time of independence is listed.
The earliest entity to sever ties with the Crown was – no surprise – the 13 original colonies of the United States. (Meet the 56 people who signed the Declaration of Independence.)
But it’s also surprising to see how many large countries remained within Britain’s sphere until well into the 20th century. Canada, for one, wasn’t granted full independence until 1982. Australia followed in 1986.
Today, with the ascension of Charles to the British throne, there is talk in some quarters that even the association of certain nations with the U.K. through the Commonwealth may be coming to an end.
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