The term “the empire on which the sun never sets” means an empire so vast that it transcends different geographical areas so that the sun always shines on its territory. The phrase was popularly used in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries when the Spanish and British Empires were the greatest empires on earth. The term meant that due to the sheer expanse of an empire, with territories in all corners of the globe, the sun was shining on at least one part of the empire.
The Spanish Empire
Initially, the term was used in reference to the Spanish Empire, which at its height was among the largest empires the world had ever seen, occupying an estimated 9.20% of the world’s landmass. Modern countries that were once under the Spanish Empire include virtually all countries of the Americas including the United States, Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina, the Philippines in Asia, and numerous African countries. The wide distribution of these territories over the planet, from the Philippines in the east to Chile in the west, made it plausible that the sun never set on the Spanish Empire. The empire started crumbling after its most important colonies in the New World either gained self-rule or fell under the dominance of the British Empire. By the late 20th century, the last of the colonies in Africa had gained independence, and this was the last blow in the decline of the vast Spanish empire.
The British Empire
But it was the British Empire that became synonymous with the term, and with good reason. The world is yet to see an empire that eclipses the British Empire regarding its sheer size, with the empire giving true meaning to the word “global superpower.” At its peak, the British Empire covered an area of 13.71 million square miles, translating to 23.84% of the world’s landmass. The empire had its presence felt in all of the world’s inhabited continents in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. Inspired by the success of the Spanish Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, the British followed suit and started establishing colonies of its own. The independence of its most important colony; the United States in the 18th century signaled the start of the empire’s decline. Even then the immense size of the British Empire was not rivaled and was still home to an estimated 412 million people or 23% of the then global population in 1913. However, the two world wars of the 20th century made sustaining of the vast empire a tasking and expensive venture. Many of the colonies also demanded independence from the British Empire, and by the late 20th century, the British Empire had ceased to exist.
Legacy of the Empires
The great global empires might have ceased to exist, but their relevance certainly has not. The impact these major global empires had in the world is still felt to this day, decades after their collapse. Even in its demise, the influence of Spanish Empire can still be felt in the architecture, law, language, and sports of its former colonies. As a testament to this fact, Spanish remains the world’s second most popular language. The influence of the British Empire is even more profound, with English being the world’s most famous language, and the majority of the world’s governments borrowing heavily on the British government and legal system.