The empire on which the sun never sets
What's the meaning of the phrase 'The empire on which the sun never sets'?
This expression was coined as a reference to the Spanish Empire but is now most frequently used to refer to the British Empire in the time of Queen Victoria.
What's the origin of the phrase 'The empire on which the sun never sets'?
The expression 'the empire on which the sun never sets' was quite accurately applied to the British Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. Maps of the empire, which typically showed British colonies in red, show that, whatever the time of day it was, it was daytime somewhere red.
The phrase didn't originate in English though, nor in relation to the British Empire. The first empire so described was the Spanish Empire of the 17th century. The English philosopher Francis Bacon used the description in Certaine Miscellany Works, circa 1626:
As one saith in a brave kinde of Expression; The Sunne never sets in the Spanish Dominions, but ever shines, upon one part, or other of them.
The expression has been used to describe several global empires but the British Empire of the 18th and 19th century is perhaps best suited, it being the largest empire in history at its peak.
The expression became widely used in relation to the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria, especially after 1857 when India became part of the empire. However, it was during the reign of George II that the empire spread widely enough across the world to be always in daylight. This was following 1759, the year known in Britain as the Annus Mirabilis, when Britain won territory in the Bay of Biscay, Germany, Quebec, India, Guadeloupe, and North America.
Various authors have been wrongly credited as coining the expression, notably the Scottish author John Wilson, who used the pen name Christopher North in the 1820s. As we have seen, no 19th century author can claim ownership of the phrase as it was first used in the 1600s.
The first person to use the expression 'the empire on which the sun never sets' in regard to the British Empire was the British colonial administrator Earl McCartney. His An Account of Ireland in 1773 included the line:
...this vast [British] empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained.
The British Empire is long gone and the countries that were formerly red on the map now exist under their own flags. The influence lives on though, with those countries having something of a variable love/hate relationship with the UK.