Visualizing the decline of empires

Visualizing empires decline by Pedro M Cruz, who explains: "The data refers to the evolution of the top 4 maritime empires of the XIX and XX centuries by extent. The visual emphasis is on their decline." Here's more on the data and methodology. (via @visualthinkmap)


  1. Apparently I know far less about this segment of history than I should.

    Why do we learn so little about world history 1800-1980 in high school history courses in the US?

    They go on and on about ancient china, medieval europe, etc., but don’t say a damn word about anything that happened in the last 200 years — unless it directly involved the US.

  2. It’s not much different in Canada.

    We learn that the Spanish and Portuguese empires existed, but they are little more than a footnote in the textbook. I never realized that they were each bigger than the Brits at times.

  3. Interesting, but incomplete. By the methodology at the link this does not show the whole story. I am sorry, but where is the US? During the Spanish-American War we absorbed Spanish possessions. Not to mention German and Dutch overseas colonies that were gained and lost from 1900 to 1950.

    The methodology says the top 4 empires during the 19th and 20th centuries. It looks more like just the top 4 at the *start* of the 19th century, ignoring the rise and fall of everyone else.

    1. @Linnen: It’s not incomplete according to the author’s own description. The animation looks at ‘maritime’ empires. The US was still almost entirely a continental nation, along with Russia and China. The British empire, by comparison, was one middling-size island in control of a heap of overseas territories. Very different emphasis.

    2. The US isn’t there because it didn’t have a significant number of colonies and only the countries with lots of them are represented

  4. Here’s my question: what political, social, economic, and/or technological changes led to the rapid decline of the four main empires in the early 1960s?

    Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    1. It could and should be a very long answer. In stupidly short, let me say this (on the basis that we’re talking of the explosion of the British and French empires in the 1960’s not the Spanish which had already vanished): the two world wars weakened the two European metropolises on their soil and, more important, demonstrated to their colonies that they were weak. Hence, from 1945, every colony knew that its former conqueror was, in fact, fallible. The United Nations Organization developed gradually an emphasis on self-determination of peoples; this stance against colonialism was supported by the only great powers of the post-war period, US, as a former colony, and USSR, as a supporter of communist revolutions in colonies. India, independent in 1948 but already with a seat in the League of nations pre-war, was a role model for the would-be independent. In 1956, a colonial plan by Britain and France (and Israel) in Egypt to capture the Suez channel was prevented by USSR and US, and made the two European nations understand the time of military adventures was over for them.

  5. A number of his dates are off. He states that the dominions are considered part of an empire, so you see Canada and Australia leaving Britain in the 1930s, but he has Cuba’s independence in the 1860s, even though formal independence would not be until 1902. Spain however did grant Cuba more autonomy during the last 40 years of rule, much like Britain did for its dominions.

    There is some slight incongruity to declare that one does not want to sound pretentious by calling this ‘data visualization’ and then refer to the product as having ‘ludic’ qualities.

  6. linnen, a pure eye candy representation like that would never be complete. There are a lot of huge nations/empires that grew and shrinked along this time but are not represented.
    For what its intentions were, it’s pretty damn cool and well done.

  7. Nifty little video, would have been cooler with a soundtrack or commentary and if it didn’t move at such a glacial pace – especially while waiting for 20 years to tick by when nothing happens.

    Would also be interesting to see a similar type of video dealing with eastern Europe – how those nations have come together, broken apart, and so forth.

  8. @7 completely agree, great piece of eye-candy with enough content to make it educational without being over-bearingly details. Excuse my ignorance but would the US qualify as an empire in the same sense as these 4 countries? i.e. have they had and do they have that many other countries that they directly own AND directly rule.

  9. A wonderful visualization. It would be a big mistake to speed up display of the “boring years”, as the contrast between stability and change would be totally lost.

    I did not see the Republic of Ireland fissioning off in 1922.

    It would be really interesting to compare the growth of the Russian Empire with the growth of the European empires.

    1. Russia is quite different from the European colonial empires. Russia has conquered or merged with peoples around it. One could argue fort instance that Georgia or Kazakhstan was a part of Russia, although in more ancient times, it had been part of another country. At any rate, the components of Russia -that left USSR in 1991- were not colonies: its true meaning needs an international sea between the metropolis and the colony. None of the former components of USSR meets this criteria.

  10. jimjambandit: The US is a tricky one. Unlike previous empires, America’s empire cannot be not measured in surface area conquered. Its empire is more economic, more nebulous. For instance, is Canada part of the American empire? One could argue that both ways. (I’m Canadian)

    1. Niel: I like to think that Canada has facilitative symbiotic relationship with the US. The last time America tried to actually conquer Canada, we won and burned down the White House!

      But I digress. Visually this post is beautiful in its simplicity, and is a fun way to illustrate dry facts. The author is clearly into graphic arts more than history. For those of you who wished it included other empires, or dispute certain dates: Make your own!

      I overheard this quote referring to criticism of a municipal design plan yesterday: “If you put five architects in a room you will get seven opinions.” IMHO this can apply to graphic artists and historians too!

  11. Eh….What about Ireland? We faught for and gained independence from the British Empire between 1916-1921. Am really surprised this has been left out.

  12. Nice way of visualising the data but I couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of Irish independence in there. We gained independence from the British empire too you know!!!

  13. The absence of the Dutch empire bothers me. From the late 16th century to the mid 20th, the Dutch had settlements spreading from the Caribbean to the western edge of the Pacific, and did not finally lose the remaining larger ones until World War II and some time after.
    But, yeah, pretty neat.

  14. I think the graphic focuses on land mass controlled by the empires, not necessarily economic or naval strength which is what the Dutch Empire was really known for. After 1800 the Dutch only controlled the East Indies I believe, which is pretty small compared to the other 4 shown.

  15. why don’t the bubbles disappear at the end of the movie?

    To my knowledge, those countries do not have any more colonies.

  16. Seeing the Portuguese empire getting bounced around by the French and British army during the 1860’s was extremely amusing, albeit I’m not quite seeing what particular events they’re mapping.

  17. to fontastique: all former colonial powers retain so-called ‘overseas territories’, which are in fact former colonies now integrated or assimilated (to a varyig extent) to their master. See eg the French islands in the Carribbean and in the Indian Ocean, the British Falklands or the US-controlled part of Samoa.

  18. @16: To my knowledge, those countries do not have any more colonies.

    Britain still has a handful: the Falklands, Gibraltar, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and a few islands in the south Atlantic (Tristan Da Cunha and Saint Helena come to mind). There are several books about them, like The Teatime Islands and The Last Pink Bits.

    1. On the contrary, it’s not Palestine, but Israel.
      Palestine never came to existence as an independant State, because of its invasion by Egypt and Jordan in 1948-49, and by Israel in 1967.

  19. Portugal’s only overseas possessions now are the Azores and the Madeira islands in the Atlantic. Both of which are autonomous to some extent.

  20. aside from lack of other empires (german, russian, chinese, mongolian, japanese, etc.) Canada should have budded off of the British AND the French.

  21. I wonder about the methodology… Australia detaches from Britain around 1940. Is this because of the Statute of Westminster 1942 or because or Curtin’s look to America speech? The split occurred in 1939 but the Australia bubble stabilises a year or two after? Even with those, Australia remained closely allied with Britain well after (fighting for example in Malaysia)… and I’m not so sure why 1901 Federation wasn’t chosen.

  22. la bulle fini toujours par exploser!! lol!!!restons modestes , sereins, humbles et chacun son tour!!! lol!!!

  23. vraiment bien fait , le côté organique est bien saisi ! d’accord sur le fait que seraient pas mal aussi : les autres empires maritimes ( allemagne, hollande, japon, …) et…. une sorte d animation pour les “zones d’influence” ( en chine ou en thailande par exemple) ? mais je dis bravo !

  24. Trent: Canada should not have split off of Britain and France, because the French did not have any Canadian holdings after the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War and saw New France fall under British control in 1763.

  25. Très intéressant. Ce système de visualisation pourrait être utilisé pour représenter les autres grandes nations de cette époque :
    -Empire russe
    -Empire ottoman
    -Empire (Etat) américain

  26. Alors là vraiment Haiti qui fut la colonie la plus prospère de la France à l’époque et le deuxième pays à prendre son indépendance sur le continent américain ne figure pas du tout sur ce graphique. Selon moi, cette omission de l’importance du rôle jouer par Haïti dans la décolonisation de l’Amérique est quelque peu dommage. Mais bon…

  27. Let me point those asking for a version with soundtrack to the community showreel for the opensource libraries used by this project & where it has been featured in too:

  28. As said, some independancies are missing. As said by another, if is showed the protugese empire, it is necessary to show the Nederland’s empire.

    The synthesis is nice but limited. The story began before 1800 (no mention of the concession by Napoleon of the North America to the thirteen United States), almost with the concession of India by the french to the english, then with the anglofrench war in America and his consequency, the America’s Independance. We don’t see how english and french empire grow while turkish empire decline. We don’t see “the” empire, Austria but the exercice is limited to maritime empires.

    We well see the consequency of the second war.

  29. The story of the European colonial empires does not begin with the French giving their first Asian-American empire to the British (btw this is not reflected there, France possessed Louisiana up to 1803). It dates even before the West European discovery of Americas. The first Portuguese colony (i.e. non European) was conquered in 1415, in Northern Africa. First Spanish, in 1491.
    This is apparent in the first images of the synthesis, in 1800, when Portuguese and Spanish empires are much bigger than the French.

Comments are closed.