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British overseas territories
The name "British Overseas Territory" was introduced by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, and replaced the name British dependent territory which was introduced by the British Nationality Act 1981. Before that, the territories were known as colonies or Crown colonies.
The territories of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, though also under the sovereignty of the British Crown, have a slightly different constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom, and are consequently classed as Crown dependencies rather than Overseas Territories. Territories and dependencies are distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of former British colonies and latterly other nations such as Mozambique that have joined because of the benefits it offers.
In an historical context, colonies should be distinguished from protectorates and protected states, which though under British control, were nominally independent states, whereas colonies were part of the British state. They should also not be confused with Dominions, which, known collectively as the Commonwealth, were independent states, held to be equal in sovereign status to the United Kingdom within the Empire and Commonwealth after the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Crown colonies, such as Hong Kong, were differentiated from other colonies in being administered directly by the Crown, without the degree of local autonomy found in self-governed colonies such as Bermuda.
The original English colonies in the New World were plantations of English subjects in lands hitherto outside the dominions of the Crown. The first such plantation was in Newfoundland, where English fishermen routinely set up seasonal camps in the 16th century.
What later became known as the "Old Empire" began in 1607 with the settlement of Jamestown, the first successful permanent colony in "Virginia" (a term that was then applied generally to North America). In 1609, a second colony was unintentionally established in Bermuda (as an extension of Virginia), which, with the loss of the American colonies in 1783, is the oldest British colony in existence (English colonies became British with the 1707 unification of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.
The growth of the British Empire in the 19th century, to its peak in the 1920s, saw the UK acquire over one quarter of the world's land mass, including territories with large indigenous populations in Asia and Africa, which were held for commercial and strategic reasons rather than for settlement. The late 19th century saw the larger settler colonies — in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Separate self-governing colonies federated to become Canada (in 1867) and the Commonwealth of Australia (in 1901). These and other large self-governing colonies had become known as Dominions by the 1920s. The Dominions achieved full independence with the Statute of Westminster (1931). The Empire was renamed the British Commonwealth to reflect such changes and in 1949 became known as the Commonwealth of Nations. Most of the British colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean achieved independence. Some colonies became Commonwealth Realms, retaining the British monarch as head of state, others became republics but acknowledged Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth.
The 1980s saw the United Kingdom lose its last mainland colonies, with the independence of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in Africa in 1980 and British Honduras (now Belize) in Central America in 1981. The last major colony that remained was Hong Kong, with a population of over 5 million. Unlike other territories, the bulk of Hong Kong was leased to the UK by China under a 99 year lease that expired in 1997. The United Kingdom negotiated the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which led to the whole of Hong Kong becoming a "special administrative region" of China in 1997, subject to various conditions intended to guarantee the preservation of Hong Kong's capitalist economy and its way of life under British rule for at least 50 years after the handover.
Following the return of Hong Kong, the remaining colonial possessions are generally small island territories with small populations, and the uninhabited British Antarctic Territory.