Counting Down the Ten Largest Empires in History, Nos. 5-1

For number 10 through number 6, click here.

5. Qing Dynasty (1790) – 14.7 million km2 (5.7 million sq mi)

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We begin the second half of our list in the same location we ended the first half: China.  The Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, seen at position number six, was succeeded by the Ming Dynasty in 1368.  In turn, the Ming Dynasty was deposed by the Qing Dynasty in 1644.  Much like the Yuan, the Qing Dynasty was founded by invaders from the north, in this case the Manchu state led by Nurhachi and his son/successor Huang Taiji (known also as Abahai).  Based out of southern Manchuria and with influence extending into Mongolia and Korea, the Manchus employed a multiethnic Manchur/Mongol/Han Chinese army and embraced the Ming model of government, placing Han Chinese in many high-ranking government offices.  In 1636, Huang Taiji roclaimed the Qing Dynasty, and by 1644 Qing troops under the regent Dorgon had captured Beijing, ushering in their reign over all of China.  From there, the Qing Dynasty would go on to establish rule over what is now Xinjiang, extending westward as far as Lake Balkhash in modern-day Kazakhstan.  Taiwan was incorporated in 1683, and Tibet was taken under wing in 1727.

While the Qing Dynasty would persist all the way until 1911 and the founding of the Republic of China, small territorial losses were incurred beginning in the 19th century as China’s isolationist policies and outdated military arsenal became liabilities in the face of encroachment from European powers, Japan, and Russia.  The Opium Wars of 1839-42/1856-60 and the numerous ‘unequal treaties’ that followed forcibly opened up Chinese ports to foreign trade and resulted in territorial concessions such as giving Hong Kong to the British.  Too drained to fend off the foreigners, all but nominal control over Tibet was lost during this time as well.

4. Spanish Empire (1778-1790) – 20.0 million km2 (7.7 million sq mi)

Spanish_Empire_Anachronous_en.svg

The Spanish Empire between1778 and 1790 consisted of all areas marked in red, brown, and orange plus Equatorial Guinea.  Source: Trasamundo, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spanish_Empire_Anachronous_en.svg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Remembering back to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal talked about in Part I, Spain was ‘given’ all of the Americas except for Brazil in exchange for Portugal being ‘given’ Africa and the Indian Ocean.  While originally the Tordesillas meridian dividing the land claims only extended from pole to pole, this would eventually insufficient once both countries’ claim ran into each other on the opposite side of the world; in this case, the valuable spice islands Moluccas(Maluku) in what is now Indonesia.  Under the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza, the Tordesillas meridian was continued in the opposite hemisphere, giving the Moluccas to Portugal.  A key mistake of the treaty was the errant declaration of the Philippines, reached by Ferdinand Magellan in the sail of Spain in 1521, to be on the east side of the new line and thus part of the Spanish domain.  Spain would hold onto the Philippines until 1898.

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Source: Lencer, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spain_and_Portugal.png.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

In the wake of Tordesillas, Spain would overrun most of non-Brazilian South America, Central America, Mexico, Florida and much of the Caribbean.  While its non-Iberian European holdings (the Two Sicilies, Milan, the Netherlands, and Franche-Comté) would come and go during the 17th and 18th centuries, Spain’s American empire would reach its apex in 1762 with the ceding of the vast territory of Louisiana by France in the Treaty of Fontainebleau following France’s loss of Canada to Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War.  This territorial gain would be further augmented in 1778 with the signing of another treaty with Portugal (the 1778 Treaty of El Pardo) that gave Spain a colonial foothold in central Africa in exchange for recognising Portuguese control over most of the Amazon basin.  The territories given to Spain – Rio Muni, Bioko, and Annobon – are today known together as the country of Equatorial Guinea.  Spain would soon sign Louisiana back to France in 1800 under pressure from Napoleon, and within a quarter-century the large majority of its New World colonies had violently obtained their independence, taking advance of the political destabilisation occurring in Spain following the Napoleonic Wars.

3. Russian Empire (1895) – 22.8 million km2 (8.8 million sq mi)

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Source: Hellerick, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Subdivisions_of_the_Russian_Empire_in_1914.svg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

While some may first think that the maximal extent of the Russian Empire would have occurred during the period Russia controlled the portions of North America that would come to be known as Alaska, it actually came after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867.  At this time, Russia under Alexander II was in the midst of its conquest of Central Asia (Turkestan).  While most of Kazakhstan had been part of the empire dating back to the reign of Peter the Great in the early 1700s, the 1860s saw Russia push further south as part of ‘The Great Game’, Russia’s battle with the United Kingdom for military and economic influence over central and south-central Asia.  While the UK attempted to gain control over Afghanistan, Russia took control of most of what is now Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan during the 1860s, turned the Khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara into protectorates in 1873 (something Russia had failed to do in 1717 during its initial military exploits in the region), and gained control of the Transcaspian region (Turkmenistan) between 1879 and 1885.

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This Polish map from 1903 shows the Russian Empire proper in green, Khiva (Chiwa) in brown, and Buchara (Bukhara) in orange.  Note how the two tributary states are nearly entirely surrounded by empire territory.

In addition to these Central Asian gains and the other myriad territories that would transition with the rest of the Empire into the Soviet Union after the October Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire also included at the time the Grand Principality of Finland and the Kingdom of Poland/Vistula Land, neither of which were ultimately incorporated into the union, thus reducing the size of the empire.  Also lost in this era were Bessarabia (Moldova) and the three Baltic States, although all of these regions would be reincorporated into the Soviet Union during World War II.

2. Mongol Empire (1279) – 24.0 million km2 (9.3 million sq mi)

MongolEmpire

Source: Astrokey44, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mongol_Empire_map_2.gif.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The largest contiguous land empire in history was founded by Temujin, who confederated various clans and families in Mongolia into a single state over a period of around 25 years, taking the name Genghis (Chinghis) Khan in 1206 after completing this regional consolidation.  Over the next two decades, the highly effective military prowess of Genghis Khan would consistently push the boundaries of his burgeoning empire west across Asia, unifying the Mongol and Turkic peoples of Central Asia and laying waste to Transoxiana (the same area that would successfully resist the troops of Peter the Great five centuries later).

After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his successors continued the expansion of the empire: the Jin Dynasty of northern China was conquered in 1234, the various peoples of the Russian steppe were overrun in and Kiev was conquered in 1240, and central Europe was host to Mongol victories in Hungary (which lost at least half of its population to the Mongol attacks), Poland, and Transylvania during 1241.  Although the death of Genghis’ successor Ögedei Khan in 1241 put an end to the central European invasion, the Mongols successfully conquered much of the Middle East during the 1250s and under Kublai Khan he Mongols would consolidate rule of the remainder of China.  The empire was already falling apart, however, as various descendants of Genghis had begun consolidating power in the various khanates of the empire: the Golden Horde of northwest Asia and Eastern Europe; the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia; and the Ilkhanate of the Middle East.  After the 1294 death of Kublai Khan, the partition of the three khanates and Kublai Khan’s Chinese-based Yuan Dynasty accelerated to completion.

1. British Empire (1922) – 33.7 million km2 (13.0 million sq mi)

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Source: Maps & Lucy, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BritishEmpire1919.png.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

‘The empire on which the sun never sets’ may have been a phrase originally assigned to the Spanish Empire, but it is most commonly associated today with the British Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  While England was quick to join Spain and Portugal in their New World adventures (John Cabot reached North America for England in 1497 and Humphrey Gilbert established Newfoundland as the country’s first overseas colony in 1583, leading to English/British), the empire exploded in size in the mid-to-late 18th century with the consolidation of power over most of India and the colonisation of Australia more than balancing out the loss of what would become the United States.  The Pax Britannica Victorian era and would see the United Kingdom expand rapidly into Africa, beginning with its acquisition of the Cape Colony in 1806.  By century’s end, one-quarter of Africa would be British.  The UK also established rule in Southeast Asia (Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei, and Sabah), New Zealand and much of the South Pacific, and the Mediterranean island countries of Malta and Cyprus, just to name a few places.  The largest empire as yet seen to this day, the British Empire at its height occupied 22.63% of the world’s land area and one-fifth of the world’s population.

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British possessions in Africa are coloured in pink.  Source: E. Gaba, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colonial_Africa_1913_map.svg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

1922 was the peak year of the empire’s size; that year, Egypt was granted formal independence (although it remained a client state).  In 1926, the term ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ was introduced; a recognition of the growing independence of the six dominions (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa) which was legally confirmed in 1931 under the Statute of Westminster.  When the end of World War II left the United Kingdom victorious but financially devastated, and with independence movements sprouting up through Africa and Asia, the days of the empire as it was were numbered.  India, Pakistan, and Burma (Myanmar) all gained independence in 1948, and the UK’s Southeast Asian and African colonies obtained independence in a great wave from 1956 to 1968.

British_Decolonisation_in_Africa

Further Reading

Cooley, A. (2012).  Central Asia: A Political History from the 19th Century to Present.  Asia Society.  Available at http://asiasociety.org/countries/conflicts/central-asia-political-history-19th-century-present.  Accessed 29 March 2012.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2012).  China.  Available at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/111803/China.  Accessed 29 March 2012.

Kirk-Greene, A. (1992).  Decolonisation in Africa.  History Today 42(1).  Available at http://www.historytoday.com/anthony-greene/decolonisation-british-africa.  Accessed 30 March 2012.

Louisiana State University Institute of Museum and Library Services (n.d.).  A Brief Outline of Louisiana History, 1682-1815.  The Louisiana Purchase: A Heritage Explored.  Available at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/purchase/history.html.  Accessed 29 March 2012.

Rosenberg, M. (1999).  The Treaty of Tordesillas.  About.com: Geography.  Available at http://geography.about.com/library/weekly/aa112999a.htm.  Accessed 28 March 2012.

Smitha, F.A. (2009).  Genghis Khan and the Great Mongol Empire.  Macrohistory and World Report.  Available at http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h11mon.htm.  Accessed 29 March 2012.

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2 thoughts on “Counting Down the Ten Largest Empires in History, Nos. 5-1


  • Very interesting! I would have guessed that the Roman Empire and / or the Ottoman Empire should have been in the Top 10, but that just goes to show how historical importance and cultural influence don't necessarily translate into huge land mass being under control.


  • That kind of surprised me, too. According to Wikipedia (cough), the Roman Empire only comes in at 18th and the Ottoman Empire comes in at 23rd. Even the empire of Alexander the Great only makes it to 22nd, and the Incans are well out of the top 50.

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