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Location of the British Overseas Territories

The British overseas territories are fourteen territories that are under the sovereignty of the United Kingdommarker, but which do not form part of the United Kingdom itself.

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 British overseas territories are also referred to as overseas territories of the United Kingdom, UK overseas territories, or, when the context is clear, simply the overseas territories.

The territories of Jerseymarker and Guernseymarker (collectively known as the Channel Islands), and the Isle of Manmarker, though also under the sovereignty of the British Crown, have a different constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom, and are classed as Crown Dependencies. The British overseas territories and Crown Dependencies are distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of countries with historic links to the British Empire, with the exception of member-state Mozambiquemarker and Rwandamarker.


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 Newfoundlandmarker, 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 Jamestownmarker, 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 Bermudamarker (as an extension of Virginia), which, with the loss of the American colonies in 1776, 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 Britainmarker) .

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 Canadamarker, Australia, New Zealandmarker and South Africa — becoming self-governing colonies and achieving independence in all matters except foreign policy, defence and trade. Separate self-governing colonies federated to become Canadamarker (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 . 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 Caribbeanmarker 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.

After the independence of Southern Rhodesiamarker (now Zimbabwemarker) in Africa in 1980 and British Honduras (now Belizemarker) in Central America in 1981, the last major colony that remained was Hong Kongmarker, with a population of over 5 million. Unlike other territories, the territory of Hong Kong had two different arrangements:

With 1997 approaching, the United Kingdom and China 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. This was because Hong Kong's infrastructure was significantly interconnected with that of Guangdong Provincemarker, which would make it virtually impossible for those areas ceded in perpetuity to continue functioning without importing virtually all of their necessities.

Following the return of Hong Kong, the remaining British overseas possessions are mostly small island territories with small populations – the only territory of significant area being the uninhabited British Antarctic Territory. The reasons for these territories not achieving independence vary, and include:
  • lack of support for independence among the local population;
  • a small population size making the possibility of success as a sovereign nation more difficult;
  • dependence on economic aid from the UK;
  • being uninhabited territories used for scientific or military purposes;
  • a need for British military presence to guard against hostile neighbours;
  • a lack of any economic or political justification for independence.

In 2002, the UK Parliament passed the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. This reclassified the UK's dependent territories as overseas territories and, with the exception of those people solely connected with the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus, restored full British citizenship to their inhabitants.

It was once said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire", and the British Overseas Territories still extend to every geographic region of the world, with the Caribbean Overseas Territories in North America, the Falklands in South America, Saint Helena and Dependencies in Africa, Pitcairn in Oceania, Gibraltar in Europe, British Indian Ocean Territory in Asia, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in Antarcticamarker.

Current overseas territories

The 14 British overseas territories are:

Flag Arms Territory Location Motto Area Population Capital
Anguillamarker Caribbeanmarker and North Atlanticmarker Territories Strength and Endurance 13,500 The Valleymarker
Bermudamarker North Atlantic Oceanmarker Quo fata ferunt (Latin: "Whither the Fates carry [us]") 64,000 (2007 estimate) Hamiltonmarker
British Antarctic Territory Antarcticamarker Research and discovery 50 in winter; over 400 in summer Rotheramarker (main base)
British Indian Ocean Territorymarker Indian Oceanmarker In tutela nostra Limuria (Latin: "Limuria is in our charge") about 3,000 UK & US military and staff. Diego Garciamarker (base)
British Virgin Islandsmarker Caribbeanmarker and North Atlantic Territories Vigilate (Latin: "Be watchful") 27,000 (2005 estimate) Road Townmarker
Cayman Islandsmarker Caribbeanmarker and North Atlantic Territories He hath founded it upon the seas 53,252 (2006 estimate) George Townmarker
Falkland Islandsmarker South Atlantic Oceanmarker Desire the right 2,955 (2006 census) Stanleymarker
Gibraltarmarker Iberian Peninsulamarker Nulli expugnabilis hosti (Latin: "No enemy shall expel us") 28,800 (2005) Gibraltarmarker
Montserratmarker Caribbeanmarker and North Atlanticmarker Territories Each Endeavouring, All Achieving 4,655 (2006 estimate Plymouthmarker (abandoned due to volcano—de facto capital is Bradesmarker)
Pitcairn Islandsmarker Pacific Oceanmarker None
(all islands)
51 (2008) Adamstownmarker
Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha   South Atlantic Oceanmarker Loyal and Unshakeable (St Helena)

Our faith is our strength (Tristan da Cunha)
4,000 (2007) Jamestownmarker
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islandsmarker South Atlantic Oceanmarker Leo terram propriam protegat (Latin: "Let the lion protect his own land") 99 King Edward Point/Grytvikenmarker
Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekeliamarker Mediterraneanmarker (Cyprusmarker) Dieu et mon droit (French: "God and my right") 14,000 (about half British military and staff) ; Episkopi Cantonment
Turks and Caicos Islands Caribbeanmarker and North Atlanticmarker Territories 32,000 (2006 census estimate) Cockburn Townmarker


Head of State

The head of state in the overseas territories is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen's role in the territories is in her role as Queen of the United Kingdom, and not in right of each territory. The Queen appoints a representative in each territory to exercise her executive power. In territories with a permanent population, a Governor is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the British Government, usually a retired senior military officer, or a senior civil servant. In territories without a permanent population, a Commissioner is usually appointed to represent the Queen. For overseas territories with dependencies, the Governor may appoint an Administrator to represent him or her in that dependency.

The role of the Governor is to act as the de facto head of state, and they are usually responsible for appointing the head of government, and senior political positions in the territory. The Governor is also responsible for liaising with the UK Government, and carrying out any ceremonial duties. A Commissioner has the same powers as a Governor, but also acts as the head of government.


All the overseas territories have their own system of government, and localised laws. The structure of the government appears to be closely correlated to the size and political development of the territory.

Territories Government
No native or permanent population, therefore there is no elected government. The Commissioner, supported by an Administrator run the affairs of the territory.
There is no elected government, and currently has no native settled population. However, the Chagos Islanders - who were forcibly evicted from the territory in 1971 and might reasonably be considered as that territory's people - are currently defending an appeal against an English High Courtmarker judgment which quashed an Order preventing them from returning.
There is no elected government, however the British military authorities try to ensure convergence of laws with those of the Republic of Cyprus where possible.
There is an elected Mayor and Island Council, who have the power to propose and administer local legislation. However, their decisions are subject to approval by the Governor, who retains near-unlimited powers of plenary legislation on behalf of the United Kingdom Government.
The Government consists of an elected Legislative Assembly, with the Chief Executive and Financial Secretary as ex officio members.
The Government consists of an elected Legislative Council. The Governor is the head of government and leads the Executive Council, consisting of appointed members made up from the Legislative Council and two ex-officio members. Governance on Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha is led by Administrators which are advised by elected Island Councils.
These larger territories have a larger House of Assembly, (except in the Cayman Islands, which have a Legislative Assembly) with political parties. The Executive Council is usually called a cabinet and is led by either a Premier (in the British Virgin Islands), a Chief Minister (in Anguilla) or (a Leader of Government Business in the Cayman Islands), who is the leader of the majority party in parliament. The Governor exercises less power over local affairs and deals mostly with foreign affairs and economic issues, while the elected government controls most "domestic" concerns.
This territory has a Legislative Council, with political parties. The Executive Council is usually called a cabinet and is led by a Chief Minister, who is the leader of the majority party.
Under the Gibraltar Constitution Order 2006 which was approved in Gibraltar by a referendum, Gibraltar now has a Parliamentmarker. The Government of Gibraltar, headed by the Chief Minister is elected. Defence, external affairs and internal security vest in the Governor as a matter of distribution of powers. The UK therefore has no need to administer in Gibraltar.
Bermuda, settled in 1609, is the oldest and most populous of the Overseas Territories, and most executive powers have been devolved to the head of government, known as the Premier. Its system of government is very similar to that of a sovereign Commonwealth realm. The UK government retains only minor powers, exercised through the Governor, but most of those are handed to local ministers for day-to-day purposes. Bermuda's Parliament held its first session in 1620, and Bermuda has been largely self-governed and self-sufficient since then.

The Turks and Caicos Islands adopted a new constitution effective 9 August 2006; their head of government now also has the title Premier, and their autonomy has been greatly increased.
On 16 March 2009 the British parliament voted to implement Crown colony-governance in the territory. A subsequent legal judgement was upheld by three member British Court of Appeal on 12 August 2009, thus allowing the process to be implemented.

Legal system

Each overseas territory has its own legal system independent of the United Kingdom. The legal system is generally based on English common law, with some distinctions for local circumstances. Each territory has its own attorney general, and court system. For the smaller territories, the UK may appoint a UK-based lawyer or judge to work on legal cases. This is particularly important for cases involving serious crimes and where it is impossible to find a jury who will not know the defendant in a small population island .

The Pitcairn rape trial of 2004 is an example of how the UK may choose to provide the legal framework for particular cases where the territory cannot do so alone.

Relations with the UK

The Foreign and Commonwealth Officemarker has the responsibility of looking after the interests of all overseas territories except one. The Overseas Territory Department is headed by the Foreign Office Minister for the Overseas Territories, currently the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is Chris Bryant. The exception is the Sovereign Base Areas territory, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence.

In 1999, the FCO published the Partnership for Progress and Prosperity: Britain and the Overseas Territories report which set out the UK's policy for the Overseas Territories, covering four main areas:
  • Self-determination
  • Responsibilities of the UK and the territories
  • Democratic autonomy
  • Provision for help and assistance

The UK and the overseas territories do not have diplomatic representations, although the governments of the overseas territories with indigenous populations all retain a representative office in Londonmarker. The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) also represents the interests of the territories in London. The governments in both the United Kingdom and territories occasionally meet to mitigate or resolve disagreements over the process of governance in the territories and levels of autonomy.

The UK provides financial assistance to the overseas territories via the Department of International Development. Currently only Montserrat and Saint Helena receive budgetary aid (ie financial contribution to recurrent funding). Several specialist funds are made available by the UK, including:

Foreign affairs

Foreign affairs of the overseas territories are handled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Officemarker in Londonmarker. Some territories maintain diplomatic officers in nearby countries for trade and immigration purposes. Several of the territories in the Americas maintain membership within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, the Caribbean Community, the Caribbean Development Bank, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, and the Association of Caribbean States. The territories are members of the Commonwealth of Nations through the United Kingdommarker. The inhabited territories compete in their own right at the Commonwealth Games, and three of the territories (Bermudamarker, the Cayman Islandsmarker and the British Virgin Islandsmarker) sent teams to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Gibraltarmarker is the only overseas territory that is part of the European Union (EU), although it is not part of the customs union and is not a member in its own right. None of the other Overseas Territories are members of the EU, and the main body of EU law does not apply and, although certain slices of EU law are applied to those territories as part of the EU's Association of Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT Association), they are not commonly enforceable in local courts. The OCT Association also provides overseas territories with structural funding for regeneration projects.

Since the return of full British citizenship to most 'belongers' of overseas territories (mainly since the British Overseas Territories Act 2002), the citizens of those territories hold concurrent European Union citizenship, giving them rights of free movement across all EU member states.

Several nations dispute the UK's sovereignty in the following overseas territories:


The many British overseas territories use a varied allotment of currencies with very few using the British pound as their native currency.

Location Native currency
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • Tristan da Cunha
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
Pound Sterling
  • The Falkland Islands
Falkland Islands pound
  • Gibraltar
Gibraltar pound
  • Saint Helena
  • Ascension Island
Saint Helenian pound
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • The British Virgin Islands
  • The Turks and Caicos Islands
United States dollar
  • Anguilla
  • Montserrat
Eastern Caribbean dollar
  • Bermuda
Bermudian dollar
  • The Cayman Islands
Cayman Islands dollar
  • The Pitcairn Islands
New Zealand dollar
  • Akrotiri and Dhekelia


None of the overseas territories have their own nationality status, and all citizens are classed as British Overseas Territories citizens (BOTC). They do however, have legislative independence over immigration, and holding the status of a BOTC does not automatically give a person a right to abode in any of the territories, as it depends on the territory's immigration laws. A territory may issue Belonger status to allow a person classed as a BOTC to reside in the territory that they have close links with. Non-BOTC citizens may acquire Belonger status in order to reside in a particular territory (and may subsequently become naturalised BOTC if they wish).

Historically, most inhabitants of the former British Empire held the status of British subject, which was usually lost upon independence. From 1949, British subjects in the United Kingdom and the remaining crown colonies became citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. However changes in British immigration and nationality law between 1962 and 1983 saw the creation of a separate British Dependent Territories citizenship with effect from January, 1983. Citizens in most territories were stripped of full British citizenship. This was mainly to prevent a mass exodus of the citizens of Hong Kongmarker to the UK before the agreed handover to Chinamarker in 1997. Exception was made for the Falkland Islandsmarker, which had been invaded the previous year by Argentinamarker. Full British citizenship was soon returned to the people of Gibraltarmarker due to their friction with Spainmarker.

However, the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 replaced dependent territory citizenship with British Overseas Territories citizenship, and restored full British citizenship to all BOTCs except those from the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprusmarker. This restored to BOTCs the right to reside in the UK.

British citizens do not, however, have an automatic right to reside in any of the Overseas Territories. Some territories prohibit immigration, and any visitors are required to seek the permission of the territory's government to live in the territory. As they are used primarily as military bases, Ascension Islandmarker and the British Indian Ocean Territorymarker do not allow visitors to the territory unless on official business.


Defence of the Overseas Territories is the responsibility of the UK. Many of the overseas territories are used as military bases by the UK and its allies.

Symbols and insignia

Each overseas territory has been granted its own flag and coat of arms by the British monarch. Traditionally, the flags follow the Blue Ensign design, with the Union Flag in the canton, and the territory's coat of arms in the fly. Exceptions to this are Bermuda which uses a Red Ensign; British Antarctic Territory which uses a White Ensign; British Indian Ocean Territory which uses a Blue Ensign with wavy lines to symbolise the sea; and Gibraltar which uses a banner of its coat of arms (the flag of the city of Gibraltar). Gibraltar's coat of arms is unique in that it is the only armorial insignia that dates from before the period of British colonial administration .

The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are the only British overseas territories without an official flag of their own. The Union Flag is used in this territory and is also used for Ascension Island.

Gallery of images

File:Anguilla-sandy-ground-overlook.jpg|Sandy Ground, Anguillamarker.File:Bermuda-Harbour and Town of St George.jpg|St. George's, Bermudamarker.File:Diegogarcia.jpg|View of the military base at Diego Garciamarker, British Indian Ocean Territorymarker.File:Roadtown, Tortola.jpg|Road Townmarker, Tortolamarker, British Virgin Islandsmarker.File:Grand Cayman NASA.jpg|Grand Caymanmarker, Cayman Islandsmarker.File:Upland.jpg|Upland, Falkland Islandsmarker.File:Gib bay.jpg|Rock of Gibraltarmarker, Gibraltarmarker.File:Soufriere Hills.jpg|Soufriere Hills volcanomarker, Montserratmarker.File:Adamstown1.jpg|Adamstown, Pitcairn Islandsmarker.File:St-Helena-Jamestown-from-above.jpg|Jamestown, Saint Helena.File:Thatcher-Peninsula.jpg|Cumberland Baymarker, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islandsmarker.

File:Cockburn Town.jpg|Cockburn Townmarker, Turks and Caicos Islands.

See also


  1. The 14 Territories
  2. CIA - The World Factbook - Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
  3. UK overseas territories
  7. Commonwealth Secretariat - FAQs
  8. [1]
  9. The Sun Never Set on the British Empire
  38. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009 (at OPSI)
  39. Chief Minister’s address at the United Nations Committee of 24 on 5 June 2006
  41. British financial officials in the region for talks with dependent territories - By Oscar Ramjeet, CaribbeanNetNews, (Published on Saturday, March 21, 2009)

Further reading

  • Harry Ritchie: The Last Pink Bits
  • Simon Winchester: Outposts: Travel to the Remains of the British Empire (published in 1985 in the UK as Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire also in the US as The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire.)
  • George Drower: Britain's Dependent Territories, Dartmouth, 1992
  • George Drower: Overseas Territories Handbook, TSO, 1998
  • Boromé, Joseph. 'How Crown Colony Government Came to Dominica by 1898'. In Aspects of Dominican History (Roseau, Dominica, 1972), 120-50.
  • The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492-1992 By Bonham C. Richardson

External links

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