The origins of the empire date from the late 16th cent. with the private commercial ventures, chartered and encouraged by the crown, of chartered companies. These companies sometimes had certain powers of political control as well as commercial monopolies over designated geographical areas. Usually they began by setting up fortified trading posts, but where no strong indigenous government existed the English gradually extended their powers over the surrounding area. In this way scattered posts were established in India and the East Indies (for spices, coffee, and tea), defying Portuguese and later Dutch hegemony, and in Newfoundland (for fish) and Hudson Bay (for furs), where the main adversaries were the French.
The early 18th cent. saw a reorganization and revitalization of many of the old chartered companies. In India, from the 1740s to 1763, the British East India Company and its French counterpart were engaged in a military and commercial rivalry in which the British were ultimately victorious. The political fragmentation of the Mughal empire permitted the absorption of one area after another by the British. The Treaty of Paris (1763; see under Paris, Treaty of) firmly established the British in India and Canada, but the financial burdens of war involved the government in difficulties with the American colonies. The success of the American Revolution marked the end of the first British Empire.
The voyages of Capt. James Cook to Australia and New Zealand in the 1770s and new conquests in India after 1763 opened a second phase of territorial expansion. The victories of the Napoleonic Wars added further possessions to the empire, among them Cape Colony, Mauritius, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, British Guiana (Guyana), and Malta. During the second empire mercantilist ideals and regulations were gradually abandoned in response to economic and political developments in Great Britain early in the 19th cent....