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British Overseas Territories

The British Overseas Territories are fourteen territories of the United Kingdom that, although they do not form part of the United Kingdom itself, fall under its jurisdiction.[1] They are remnants of the British Empire that have not acquired independence or have voted to remain British 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 1981, the territories were known as Crown colonies.

Apart from the British Antarctic Territory, which contains only research stations, and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus and the British Indian Ocean Territory, which are military bases, the overseas territories all have permanent populations. Collectively they encompass an approximate land area of (of which the vast majority, 660,000 square miles, is British Antarctic Territory) and a population of approximately 260,000 people.[2][3] The British Antarctic Territory is part of a mutual recognition agreement with 4 other sovereign nations and their Antarctic territories. The UK is a participant in the Antarctic Treaty System.[4]

The territories of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, though also under the sovereignty of the British Crown, have a different constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom, and are classed as Crown Dependencies.[5][6][7] The British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of 54 countries that mostly have historic links to the British Empire.


Current overseas territories

The 14 British overseas territories are:[8]

Flag Arms Name Location Motto Area Population Capital
80px 40px Anguilla Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories Strength and Endurance [9] 13,500[10] The Valley
80px 40px Bermuda Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories Quo fata ferunt (Latin: "Whither the Fates carry [us]") [11] 64,000 (2007 estimate)[12] Hamilton
border 40px British Antarctic Territory Antarctica Research and discovery [9] 50 in winter; over 400 in summer[13] Rothera (main base)
80px 40px British Indian Ocean Territory Indian Ocean In tutela nostra Limuria (Latin: "Limuria is in our charge") [14] About 3,000 UK and US military and staff.[15] Diego Garcia (base)
80px 40px British Virgin Islands Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories Vigilate (Latin: "Be watchful") [16] 27,000 (2005 estimate)[16] Road Town
80px 40px Cayman Islands Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories He hath founded it upon the seas [17] 51,384[17] George Town
80px 40px Falkland Islands South Atlantic Ocean Desire the right [11] 2,955 (2006 census)[18] Stanley
border 40px Gibraltar Iberian Peninsula Nulli expugnabilis hosti (Latin: "No enemy shall expel us") [19] 28,800 (2005)[20] Gibraltar
80px 40px Montserrat Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories [21] 4,655 (2006 estimate)[21] Plymouth (abandoned due to volcano de facto capital is Brades)
80px 40px Pitcairn Islands Pacific Ocean
(all islands)[22]
67 (2011) Adamstown
80px 40px Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha   South Atlantic Ocean Loyal and Unshakeable (St Helena)
Our faith is our strength (Tristan da Cunha)
4,255 (Saint Helena only; 2008 census)[23]
1,275 (Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; estimates)[24]
80px 40px South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Atlantic Ocean Leo terram propriam protegat (Latin: "Let the lion protect his own land") [25] 99[26] King Edward Point/Grytviken
80px 40px Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia Mediterranean (Cyprus) [27] 14,000 (about half British military and staff); Episkopi Cantonment
80px 40px Turks and Caicos Islands Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories "Beautiful by nature, clean by choice" [28] 32,000 (2006 census estimate)[28] Cockburn Town


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.[29]

The colonisation of North America by England 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). Its off-shoot, Bermuda, was settled inadvertantly in 1609, with the Virginia Company s charter extended to officially include the archipelago in 1612. St. George's town, founded in Bermuda in that year, remains the oldest continuously-inhabited English settlement in the New World (with some historians stating that its formation predating the 1619 conversion of "James Fort" into "Jamestown" St. George s was actually the first successful town the English established in the New World). Bermuda and Bermudians have played important, sometimes pivotal, but generally underestimated or unacknowledged roles in the shaping of the English and British trans-Atlantic Empires. These include maritime commerce, settlement of the continent and of the West Indies, and the projection of naval power via the colony s privateers, among other areas.[30][31]

The growth of the British Empire in the 19th century, to its territorial peak in the 1920s, saw Britain acquire over one quarter of the world's land mass, including territories with large indigenous populations in Asia and Africa. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries saw the larger settler colonies  in Canada, Australia, New Zealand 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 Canada (in 1867) and Australia (in 1901). These and other large self-governing colonies had become known as Dominions by the 1920s. The Dominions achieved almost full independence with the Statute of Westminster (1931). During the second half of the twentieth century most of the British colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were granted independence. Some colonies became Commonwealth Realms, retaining the British monarch as head of state.

Virginia Company]] in 1609. The Company's charter was extended to include Bermuda in 1612, and it has remained an English (since 1707, British) colony ever since. Since the independence of Virginia, it has been the oldest-remaining British colony, and the town of St. George's is the oldest continuously-inhabited English settlement in the New World.[32]

After 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.

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.

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.

In 2002, the British 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.[33]


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. Exceptionally, in the overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, an Administrator is appointed to be the Governor's representative in each of the two distant parts of the territory, namely Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha.

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.

Local 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
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
No native or permanent population, therefore there is no elected government. The Commissioner, supported by an Administrator run the affairs of the territory.
  • British Indian Ocean 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 are currently defending an appeal against an English High Court judgment which quashed an Order in Council preventing them from returning.
  • Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia
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.
  • Pitcairn Islands
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 the Director of Corporate Resources as ex officio members.[34]
  • Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
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.[35]
  • Anguilla
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Montserrat
These territories have a House of Assembly, Legislative Assembly (Cayman Islands), or Legislative Council (Montserrat) with political parties. The Executive Council is usually called a cabinet and is led by a Premier or a Chief Minister (in Anguilla), 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.
Under the Gibraltar Constitution Order 2006 which was approved in Gibraltar by a referendum, Gibraltar now has a Parliament. 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.[36]
Bermuda, settled in 1609, is the oldest and most populous of the Overseas Territories. The bi-cameral Parliament consists of a Senate and a House of Assembly, and most executive powers have been devolved to the head of government, known as the Premier. The Turks and Caicos Islands adopted a new constitution effective 9 August 2006; their head of government now also has the title Premier, their legislature is called the House of Assembly, and their autonomy has been greatly increased.

On 16 March 2009 the British parliament voted to suspend self-government in the territory for a period of up to 2 years. A subsequent legal judgement was upheld by three member British Court of Appeal on 12 August 2009, thus allowing the process to be implemented.[37][38]

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 United Kingdom

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has the responsibility of looking after the interests of all overseas territories except the Sovereign Base Areas territory, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence.[39][40] Within the FCO, the general responsibility for the territories is handled by the Overseas Territories Directorate,[41] which is headed by the Minister for the Overseas Territories. the Minister is Henry Bellingham, a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.[42]

In 1999, the FCO published the Partnership for Progress and Prosperity: Britain and the Overseas Territories report which set out Britain's policy for the Overseas Territories, covering four main areas:[43]

  • Self-determination
  • Responsibilities of Britain and the territories
  • Democratic autonomy
  • Provision for help and assistance

Britain 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 London. The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) also represents the interests of the territories in London. The governments in both London and territories occasionally meet to mitigate or resolve disagreements over the process of governance in the territories and levels of autonomy.[44]

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

Foreign affairs

Map showing the portion of Antarctica claimed by the UK as British Antarctic Territory. Foreign affairs of the overseas territories are handled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. 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 Kingdom. The inhabited territories compete in their own right at the Commonwealth Games, and three of the territories (Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands) sent teams to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Gibraltar 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[45] 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 assortment of currencies, including the British Pound, US dollar, or their own currencies which may be pegged to either.

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


None of the overseas territories has its 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 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 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 Kong to the UK before the agreed handover to China in 1997. Exception was made for the Falkland Islands, which had been invaded in 1982 by Argentina. Full British citizenship was soon returned to the people of Gibraltar due to their friction with Spain.

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 Cyprus. This restored to BOTCs the right to reside in the UK.

British citizens however, do not 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 Island and the British Indian Ocean Territory 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.

  • Ascension Island (part of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) the Base known as RAF Ascension Island is used by both the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force.
  • Bermuda  became the primary Royal Navy base in the Western Hemisphere, following US independence. The Naval establishment included an admiralty, a dockyard, and a naval squadron. A considerable military garrison was built up to protect it, and Bermuda, which the British Government came to see as a base, rather than as a colony, was known as the Gibraltar of the West (Bermudians, like Gibraltarians, also dub their territory The Rock ).[46] Canada and the USA also established bases in Bermuda during the Second World War, which were maintained through the Cold War. Four air bases were located in Bermuda during the Second World War (operated by the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, US Navy, and US Army/Royal Air Force). Since 1995, the military force in Bermuda has been reduced to the local territorial battalion, the Bermuda Regiment.
  • British Indian Ocean Territory  the island of Diego Garcia is home to a large naval base and airbase leased to the United States by the United Kingdom until 2036 (unless renewed), but that either government can opt out of the agreement in 2016.
  • Falkland Islands the British Forces Falkland Islands includes commitments from the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
  • Gibraltar British Forces Gibraltar includes a Royal Navy dockyard (also used by NATO), RAF Gibraltar used by the RAF and NATO and a local garrison  the Royal Gibraltar Regiment.
  • The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus maintained as strategic British military bases in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

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).

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.

Further reading

  • Harry Ritchie, The Last Pink Bits: Travels Through the Remnants of the British Empire (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997)
  • Simon Winchester, Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (London & New York, 1985)
  • George Drower, Britain's Dependent Territories (Dartmouth, 1992)
  • George Drower, Overseas Territories Handbook (London: TSO, 1998)
  • Ben Fogle, The Teatime Islands: Adventures in Britain's Faraway Outposts (London: Michael Joseph, 2003)
  • Joseph Borom , 'How Crown Colony Government Came to Dominica by 1898', in Aspects of Dominican History (Roseau, Dominica, 1972), 120 50
  • Bonham C. Richardson, The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492 1992[47]

See also

  • British Overseas Territories Act 2002
  • British Overseas Territories citizen
  • British overseas territory citizens in the mainland United Kingdom
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Colonial Department
  • Secretary of State for the Colonies
  • Colonial Office
  • British Empire
  • Crown dependency
  • Self-governing colony
  • Dominion
  • Commonwealth Realm
  • Universities in British Overseas Territories
  • United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA)


External links

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