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This article focuses on the Territories of the United Kingdom. It is part of a 4-part series explaining current day situation of the remnants of the colonial empires of the early 20th Century, almost all of which are small islands scattered around the world. Other parts of the series will examine the status of Dutch territories, French territories, and United States territories.
Prior to World War II, the British Empire was the largest empire in world history in terms of population and area. At its peak, it ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s population and land mass.
In the decades since the end of the war, the process of decolonization has dismantled the empire as colonies went down the path to independence. 60 independent countries today were former British colonies that gained their independence.
Today, the remains of that empire are a tiny fraction of what it once was. The leftovers are, for the most part, islands and bits of land which are too small to become fully independent.
British territories more closely resemble US territories than French or Dutch territories, in that they do not have equal status with the integral parts of the country (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).
This article will not include countries which are members of the Commonwealth, or which are independent countries which happen to have Queen Elizabeth as their head of state.
Map of British Territories
The Crown Dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom, nor are they British Overseas Territories. They are considered self-governing possessions of the Crown. In each case, “the Crown” is defined as “Crown in right of the dependence”. The Crown on the Isle of Man, for example, is a separate entity from the Crown in the United Kingdom, even though it is embodied by the same person (aka Queen Elizabeth II).
Crown lands in each crown dependency are held in their own name and are not part of the Crown Estate of the United Kingdom.
Each dependency has a high amount of autonomy, setting local laws, with a locally elected legislature. However, defense, trade, and other policies are set by the United Kingdom.
The Crown Dependencies are often called regions which are not part of the United Kingdom, but regions for which the UK is responsible. They all speak English, use their own version of the Pound as currency, and have passports which, while unique, look very much like British passports. The passports say “British Islands” instead of “United Kingdom,” but are otherwise identical. None of the Crown Dependencies are part of the European Union, but many of the citizens also have citizenship in the UK from other family members.
Isle of Man
Area: 572 km2 (221 mi2)
Located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, the Isle of Man has a history which dates back thousands of years. The head of state on the Isle of Man is the Lord of Mann, who is currently Elizabeth II. The title of “Lord of Mann” is the usage regardless if the holder is male or female. The Lord of Mann is represented on the island by the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man, which is appointed by the Crown.
The parliament on the Isle of Man is known as Tynwald, and it claims to be the oldest democratically elected legislature in the world. Tynwald has two chambers: the House of Keys which is directly elected by the people, and 11 person Legislative Council which is selected by the House of Keys.
The head of the government is known as the Chief Minister, and they are chosen by the House of Keys.
As with most of the places listed here, the Isle of Man issues their own pound notes. The Manx Pound is on a par with the British Pound. British Pound notes are accepted on the island, but the reverse is not true. You will have a difficult time finding someone to accept an Isle of Man note in the UK.
Bailiwick of Jersey
Area: 118.2 km2 (45.6 mi2)
Jersey is one of two Crown Dependencies, along with Guernsey, which makes up the Channel Isles. It is the largest of the Crown Dependencies in terms of population, with over 100,000 people living on the island. The island is the closest of the Channel Islands to France. A bailiwick is a name for a region which is administered by a bailiff.
The legal situation of Jersey is very similar to that of the other Crown Dependencies. The Crown of Jersey is a separate institution from the Crown in the UK but is held by the same person. It has a unicameral legislative body called the States Assembly. The laws in Jersey are influenced by its history and location next to France. It combines elements of English common law, French civil law, and customary law from Normandy.
The Channel Islands were the only parts of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans during WWII.
Both Jersey and Guernsey can be reached by ferry or a short plane flight.
Bailiwick of Guernsey
Area: 844 km2 (2,185.9 mi2)
Guernsey is similar politically and geographically to Jersey. The primary difference is that the Bailiwick of Guernsey is made up of several different islands, primarily Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark. Like the other Crown Dependencies, Guernsey can print its own money, but unlike the other Crown Dependencies, the island of Alderney also as the right to issue its only currency as well. It only does this for commemorative coins, however.
The legislature in Guernsey is known as the States of Guernsey. When is in session, it is known as the States of Deliberation. The term states comes from the French word estates.
For both Guernsey and Jersey, English is the most widely spoken language, but the primary language was French up until the early 20th Century. French was the language all real estate deeds were written in until 1971. French continues to be an official language, but it is no longer universally spoken.
British Overseas Territories
British Overseas Territories are territories under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom directly. The Crown is represented via the Crown of the United Kingdom, unlike the Crown Dependencies which have separate legal and regal entities. These territories are the last vestiges of the British Empire. Some of the territories may seek independence in the future, however, all of them are quite small and would remain dependent on the UK for some matters if they were to become independent.
Each overseas territory has a Governor appointed by the Crown, or by a commissioner if there is no permanent population, which serves as the head of state. All of the territories with a population has a degree of self-governance with an elected legislature, however, they are still subject to the laws of the United Kingdom. Territories do not have sitting members of parliament.
Each territory also issues its own currency which is at par value to the British Pound.
The legal status of each territory may differ slightly given its geography and location.
Area: 6.7 km2 (2.6 mi2)
Gibraltar is the second smallest British territory and the only one which is a part of continental Europe. It’s most prominent feature is the Rock of Gibraltar which is a large rock which dominates the entrance to the Mediterranian Sea. The British originally took control of Gibraltar to control shipping and out of the Mediterranean Sea. Gibraltar was a fortress which was never conquered while under British control.
Spain has contested British control of Gibraltar since it was ceded to the British under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. To this day, the Spanish maintain that Gibraltar is rightfully theirs, however, the border is not militarized and is open.
While Gibraltar is part of the European Union (unlike the Crown Dependencies), Gibraltar is not part of the Schengen Zone. Visitors entering Gibraltar from Spain need to pass through passport control and customs.
A referendum in 2002 asked Gibraltarian if they wanted a power-sharing arrangement with Spain, and it was rejected by 99% of the population. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 96% of voters in Gibraltar wished to stay in the EU.
English and Spanish are both widely spoken in Gibraltar as well as the local dialect of Llanito, which is a sort of Spanglish, Spanish with a heavy mix of English words and phrases.
Given the geographical constraints of Gibraltar, entering the territory by land requires the very odd act of crossing over the airport runway. Entering by foot or vehicle can often be delayed if they are expecting a plane to take off or land.
Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
Area: 394 km2 (152 mi2)
This territory governs three different islands in the Atlantic Ocean which are widely separated from each other: Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. The islands are governed as a collective unit mostly due to the low population on the islands. The distance between Tristan da Cunha and St. Helena is 2,437 km, and the distance between St. Helena and Ascension is 1,295 km. The total distance between the islands is greater than the distance between Key West, Florida, and Seattle.
The collective territory is run out of St. Helena, but each island has a degree of autonomy. Because the islands are so isolated from each other, even though they are collectively a single territory, I will deal with each island separately.
Area: 121 km2 (47 mi2)
St. Helena is an island located in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately 1,200 km off the coast of Africa, parallel with the Namibian/Angolan border. it was discovered in 1502 by Portuguese sailors. The island was given to the British East India company in 1657 which fortified and colonized the island. There was no native population which ever lived on the island.
The island was primarily used as a stop for ships which were sailing around Africa to get provisions and fresh water.
St. Helena is best known as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled from 1815 to 1821. Napoleon’s home at Longwood and his original tomb are two of the main attractions on the island. Both the tomb and the house are owned by the French government after they were given as a gift by Queen Victoria. Today the French government keeps a diplomatic representative on the island.
St. Helena originally had slaves who worked on on the island. After emancipation, most former slaves stayed on the island and blended into the population. Today, almost all natives of St. Helena can be described as mixed race.
For most of its history, St. Helena was only accessible by ship. The terrain was too mountainous for a runway to be built without considerable expense and effort. For decades, the RMS St. Helena was the last working Royal Mail Ship ferrying passengers and cargo to the island from Cape Town, South Africa. An airport was finally opened in 2016 which dramatically cut down travel time to the island. There are now weekly commercial flights from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Area: 88 km2 (34 mi2)
Ascension is located approximately 1,200 km northwest of St. Helena and it is best known for the RAF Air Station which is located on the island. The population mostly works at the air base and are natives of St Helena. Ascension had no native population when it was discovered. There are regular RAF scheduled flights from London and a monthly commercial flight from St. Helena now that the airport there is open.
Given its position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Ascension also serves as a European Space Agency tracking station, a BBC World Service relay station, and a British-American Signal Intelligence facility. The RAF station was used to supply units during the Falklands War in the 1980s.
Outside of the monthly flight from St. Helena and the occasional repositioning ship which stops by, there is no tourism on the island.
While 800 people reside on the island, the population is not considered permanent and people cannot buy property on the island.
Tristan da Cunha
Area: 207 km2 (80 mi2)
Tristan da Cunha is the world’s most remote human settlement. It is located approximately 2,800 km west southwest of Cape Town, South Africa.
There is no runway on the island, so the only way to get to the island is by ship. The regularly scheduled supply ship from Cape Town takes seven days to sail one way to the island.
There are other uninhabited islands in the archipelago which are protected areas. The two largest islands, Gough Island and Inaccessible Islands, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Visiting the island is extremely difficult. The only way to visit is via the regularly scheduled supply ship, or via the occasional expedition ship that stops there as they reposition to the Northern Hemisphere. Arrangements to travel on the supply ship and accommodations must be made well in advance. The only accommodations on the island are guesthouses owned by locals.
People on the island make their living from subsistence agriculture, occasional tourism, and the government.
More information about visiting and staying on Tristian can be found on their official website.
Area: 12,200 km2 (4,700 mi2)
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
Population: No permananat population. About 35 staff in the summer.
Area: 3,903 km2 (1,507 mi2)
Area: 1.19 km2 (3.1 mi2)
Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands collectively make up the territory of the Pitcairn Islands. Only Pitcairn Island has any permanent population. The other islands are a protected area and have World Heritage Status.
The population of Pitcairn is the smallest permanent population of any territorial level body in the world. Pitcairn was first settled by the mutineers from the HMS Bounty, who escaped here with several Tahitian wives in 1790. After arriving, they set fire to the Bounty so they could not be found. Almost everyone on the island has the last names of one of four of the mutineers.
The island became a British possession in November 1838. By 1850 the population on the island had grown so much that they needed to move people off the island. The British government offered them Norfolk Island, where many people from Pitcairn settled and where their descendants live today.
Next to Tristan da Cunha, Pitcairn is the most remote human settlement in the world. Traveling here is very difficult and can only be done by ship. There is no natural harbor, so even visiting ships are not guaranteed to bring people ashore if conditions aren’t good.
There is a regular ship service on the MV Bravo Supporter, which leaves from the island of Mangareva in French Polynesia. There are also several cruise ships which stop there every year, although they usually only stay for a few hours.
Information about which ships will be going to Pitcairn, or how to book a ticket on the MV Bravo Supporter can be found on the official Pitcairn Tourism website.
Area: 91 km2 (35 mi2)
Anguilla is a small island just north of the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean. It is a popular and higher end vacation destination in the Caribbean. It can easily be reached by speedboat from the St. Martin Airport, which has international flights from North American and Europe. There is also a small airport on the island for smaller planes. The vast majority of visitors will transfer through St. Martin, however.
The island was very briefly “independent” in the late 1960s. As part of the decolonization process, on February 27, 1967, the British created the associated state of Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla. An associated state is one step below total independence. However, the people in Anguilla were not consulted on the matter and the decision was very unpopular as the new government was dominated by the largest island in the group, St. Kitts (aka St. Christopher). On May 30, 1967, in a bloodless coup, the police from the island of St. Kitts were rounded up by native Anguillans and sent back to St. Kitts.
In July 1967 a referendum was held to see if the people of Anguilla wanted to be part of a state with St. Kitts. The vote was 1,813 against and 5 for.
On February 6. 1969, a second referendum was held with similar results: 1,739 against to 4 for. On February 7, Anguilla declared itself an independent republic.
In March 1969 300 British soldiers entered Anguilla to restore order. There was no violence or bloodshed. The end result is that Aguilla is still a British Territory today, but it is no longer in any sort of union with St. Kitts and Nevis, which became independent in 1983.
Today the UK still upholds Anguilla’s right to self-determination and independence if it so chooses, however it has yet to go down that path towards an independence referendum. If Anguilla were to become independent, it would be the 3rd smallest independent country in the world in terms of population after Nauru and Tuvalu (not including Vatican City.)
Area: 102 km2 (39 mi2)
Montserrat’s recent history and geography are dominated by the Soufrière Hills volcano which sits in the middle of the island. In 1995 the volcano came back to life and erupted, destroying the capital city of Plymouth, burying it in volcanic ash and mud. The eruption caused 2/3 of the island’s population to fee to places such as the UK and the nearby island of Antigua.
Today over half of the island is an exclusion zone where no one other than researchers and official staff are allowed to go.
The population has rebounded somewhat since the eruption, but the island has never been quite the same. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory is open to tourists to learn more about the volcano and how it has shaped the island. You can still see steam and some glowing lava near the top of the volcano today.
There is a small runway where planes can land, but most travelers arrive via ferry from the island of Antigua. There are no large resorts on the island only smaller inns and guesthouses.
If you wish to view the ruins of Plymouth, you can only do so from a helicopter, or via boat from the coast.
Turks and Caicos
Area: 616.3 km2 (238.0 mi2)
Geographically speaking, the Turks and Caicos should be a part of the Bahamas. The island of the Turks and Caicos are the southernmost islands in the Bahamas archipelago and have much the same history and geology. However, back in 1848, the islands in the Turks and Caicos ask for and received a separate charter after complaining about the high salt taxes from the Bahamas.
For decades the islands were administered as a part of Jamaica and were only made a separate crown colony when Jamaica became independent in 1958.
Since then, the Turks and Caicos have toyed with joining the Bahamas as a special autonomous region, or as a part of Canada, either as a separate province or as part of Nova Scotia. Neither idea has gone that far.
The name of the territory comes from the two island groups which make it up. The Caicos is the larger of the two and located in the northwest and the Turks which is smaller and in the southeast.
The Turks and Caicos today is dominated by tourism and offshore banking.
There are several small airports in the territory, but only the Providenciales airport is the only airport with regular international flights.
Area: 264 km2 (102 mi2)
The Cayman Islands are three islands located between Jamaica and Honduras in the Caribbean. There are three inhabited islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The largest of the three by far is Grand Cayman which is also the capital.
Historically, the Cayman Islands were governed as part of the colony of Jamaica. As with Anguilla the Turks and Caicos, when Jamaica became independent, the Caymans were established as a separate Crown Colony.
The Cayman Islands are well known as one of the biggest offshore financial centers in the world.
As with most of the territories in the Caribbean, it is a popular tourist destination and most of its economy is dependent on tourism. It is also a popular destination for cruise ships.
The Cayman Islands use the Cayman Islands Dollar which is pegged to the US Dollar at 1.00 KYD to 1.20 USD.
British Virgin Islands
Area: 153 km2 (59 mi2)
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) compromise the eastern half of the Virgin Islands (the western half being the US Virgin Islands). The official name of the territory is “The Virgin Islands” but the word “British” is often used to distinguish them from the US Virgin Islands.
There are over 50 islands which make up BVI, the largest of which are Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke.
BVI is the location of Necker Island, which is the famous private island owned by Sir Richard Branson.
The official currency of BVI is the US Dollar, which it adopted in 1959.
BVI was originally part of the British Leeward Islands territory but became a separate territory in 1960. As with other British Caribbean colonies, it was part of the West Indies Federation but reverted back to territory status when the federation fell apart.
BVI can be accessed by plane, or by ferry from USVI or from Puerto Rico.
Area: 53.2 km2 (20.5 mi2)
While often thought of as a Caribbean island, Bermuda is not in the Caribbean. It is located on the same latitude as South Carolina.
Bermuda’s history goes back to the early 16th Century when it was discovered by the Spanish soon after Columbus arrived in the New World. The island didn’t receive any permanent inhabitants until 100 years later when a ship headed to Virginia ran around and the passengers were forced on shore.
The island has served as a valuable waypoint off the shore of North American and north of the Caribbean. It was a staging area for troops in the War of 1812, a prison camp during the Boer War, and hosted summits between the US and the UK.
Its location off the coast of the US makes it a popular tourist attraction as flights from the east coast of the US tend to be much shorter than flights to the Caribbean.
British Indian Ocean Territory
Population: No permanant population
Area: 54,400 km2 (21,000 mi2)
The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) has had a very controversial past. The territory is consists of the seven atolls of the Chagos Archipelago and it is strategically located between Africa, Indonesia, and India. Between 1968 and 1973 over 2,000 native people who lived in the Chagos Archipelago were forcefully removed and resettled in the Seychelles and Mauritius.
Today, the territory has no permanent inhabitants. The only people reside on the island of Diego Garcia, which is the home of a joint US/UK military facility. Deigo Garcia is a naval support facility used to keep ships at the ready to head to hot spots in the region. It is also used for other logistical and communications support.
BIOT is notorious for being the most difficult territory in the world to visit for people trying to complete the Traveler’s Century Club list. No visitors are allowed on Diego Garcia. No journalist have ever been allowed on the island. Occasionally, people will charter a boat to try to set foot on one of the uninhabited islands in the archipelago.
A 2019 ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague determined that the territory should be ceded to Mauritius as it should have been part of their country at independence. However, the ruling is non-binding and there are no plans on the part of the UK to change anything.
British Antarctic Territory
Population: No permanant population
Area: 1,709,400 km2 (660,000 mi2)
The British Antarctic Territory has no permanent population. Moreover, its claim on Antarctica constitutes the entirety of the Antarctic peninsula and overlaps claims by both Argentina and Chile. All national claims to territory in Antarctica have been suspended since the 1961 Antarctic Treaty.
The British have two permanently staffed research stations in Antarctica: Rothera and Halley. There is also a historic base which is only staffed in the summer at Port Locroy. The Port Lockroy base is one of the most visited sites in Antarctica getting almost 10,000 visitors per year. It is a stop for most ships which visit the Antarctic Peninsula. The base sells souvenirs and also has a British Post office.
As with all national claims in Antarctica, the British have a token presence, sell stamps, and do other things to make sure they have a claim, but it is not vigorously enforced.
Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia
Area: 254 km2 (98 mi2)
Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are the leftover parts of when Cyprus was a British Colony. When Cyprus achieved independence in 1960, as part of the deal the British kept two small parts of land where they had military bases where they would keep sovereign control.
These areas have always been a sticking point with Cypriots. There have been protests, sabotage, and other attempts to pressure the British to give the territory back to Cyprus.
The British value the bases because of their proximity to the Middle East. They are also used by the United States and other NATO allies.
About 15,000 people live in the territory and about half of those are citizens of Cyprus. The rest are military personnel.
Entering the territory is not difficult. There are roads which pass through and there is no border control. The only security is centered around the actual military bases themselves, not the territory per se.
The British have shown no desire to give up control of the bases, but they have shown a willingness to cede back approximately 117 square km, which is about half the land area, which is currently used for farming.