There was a time when the world was ruled by the British – Britannia ruled the waves, and the Empire stretched to all corners of the globe. Before that, the Romans, Mongols, Ottomans and many others had established their own empires by conquering foreign lands and forcing the natives into submission. Empire-building is a natural human instinct and all these empires have risen and fallen.
But times are changing. The old British Empire is crumbling and falling away, like those that went before but now it’s not about armies retreating, losing ground as they go. In those modern, more ethical times the old conquerors are choosing to give back the land that their forefathers took, like the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997. However, there are still pockets of land around the world that are still controlled by foreign powers, despite being thousands of miles away from the governing country. Some are controversial, and the ownership of them is still under debate. Discover which ones in our Top 10 Modern Colonies.
10. Bouvet Island
This small volcanic island is entirely uninhabited and temperatures hover around the 0C point. It belongs to Norway, so you’d imagine it’s in the Arctic Circle, not far from its governor. Wrong! It’s subantarctic, not subarctic, so entirely the other end of the world. Norway actually owns three territories in Antarctica, but the other two – Queen Maud Land and Peter I Island – are somewhat disputed when it comes to ownership. It was briefly claimed by the British but was declared Norwegian in 1930.
Bouvet Island is home to nothing but a monitoring station and is very difficult to reach via boat. It may be part of the Norwegian Empire but it doesn’t see much in the way of Norwegian tourists…
9. Easter Island
This is a sad example of what imperialism can do to a colony. It was originally settled by the Rapa Nui people, who created the distinctive statues that pepper the island. Rapa Nui numbers declined over the centuries but there were still 2,000-3,000 by the time the Europeans arrived in 1722. 155 years later, the diseases carried by the settlers – as well as slave raiding from Peru – had reduced the native population down to just 111. Smallpox and tuberculosis were the chief causes, and epidemics broke out. Missionaries to the island were quick to buy up the lands of the deceased, which caused conflict between natives and settlers.
Another eleven years on – in 1888 – Chile annexed the island by making a treaty with someone they had designated as “King”. Chile still owns the island today, and Rapa Nui have all been given Chilean nationality, but the treaty has always been disputed and one day the Rapa Nui may just claim the island back.
8. Puerto Rico
Another colony that has suffered at the hands of invaders, these islands were home to an indigenous people called the Tainos until the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493. He claimed the land for Spain, and it remained under Spanish rule for 400 years, despite attacks by the Dutch, French and British. During this time, the Tainos were wiped out by European diseases – smallpox again, among others – and had been forced in slavery.
The islands eventually moved to American rule in 1898, as part of the treaty at the end of the American-Spanish War. It has remained under American rule and Puerto Ricans now have US citizenship. The ownership of the islands were never debated, as there were sadly no Tainos left to debate it after their cruel fate, but there have recently been referendums held to determine the future of Puerto Rico, with many Puerto Ricans keen for the country to gain independence. Further referendums are due to be held soon.
7. The Falkland Islands
This barren crop of rocky islands in the South Atlantic are often seen as the isolated edges of the old British Empire. The islanders certainly see themselves as British, but Argentina has laid claim to the islands several times, most notably in 1982 when an Argentinian invasion sparked the Falklands War.
Britain were victorious and so retained the Falklands, but Argentina has never given up demanding them back, and dismissed a recent referendum in which the Falklanders voted to stay British. It seems unlikely that the conflict will ever be resolved peacefully and conclusively.
6. French Polynesia
French Polynesia is a loose group of islands, including Tahiti that have been under French rule since the 19th century. Originally settled by the Polynesians, they were first sighted by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. 200 years later, the islands were “discovered” again by Dutch, Spanish, British and French explorers, with the French finally claiming the Tuamotu Archipelago (part of the Polynesian group) in the 1880s. The group was renamed Polynésie Française (French Polynesia) in 1957 and it has been a largely peaceful rule. However, there was some controversy in 1995 when the French were found to be testing nuclear weapons on the islands. The following year, they agreed to stop nuclear testing.