Technically, the Sun Still Never Sets Over the British Empire

Despite all the pageantry of the last two days, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the British Empire ain’t what it used to be. But economist Peter Hammond, guesting at Debraj Ray’s blog argues that the old chesnut that "the sun never sets over the British Empire" is still technically true. There’s always a ...

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Despite all the pageantry of the last two days, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the British Empire ain't what it used to be. But economist Peter Hammond, guesting at Debraj Ray's blog argues that the old chesnut that "the sun never sets over the British Empire" is still technically true. There's always a little bit of sun shining on some piece of land controlled by the crown.

Nobody really refers to it as an "empire" anymore, but in addition to Britain and Northern Ireland, the U.K. still controls territories including "Gibraltar, Bermuda, numerous Caribbean islands, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia." Some have argued that the sun finally set over the empire after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. But Hammond argues this view ignores two tiny but crucial territories which bridge the gab: the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific and the British Indian Ocean Territory -- also known as the Chagos Islands, where Britain and the United States maintain a joint military facility at Diego Garcia. The question is "on midwinter's day in the southern hemisphere, does the sun set over Pitcairn before it rises over Diego Garcia?" 

Here's what his calculations found:

Despite all the pageantry of the last two days, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the British Empire ain’t what it used to be. But economist Peter Hammond, guesting at Debraj Ray’s blog argues that the old chesnut that "the sun never sets over the British Empire" is still technically true. There’s always a little bit of sun shining on some piece of land controlled by the crown.

Nobody really refers to it as an "empire" anymore, but in addition to Britain and Northern Ireland, the U.K. still controls territories including "Gibraltar, Bermuda, numerous Caribbean islands, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia." Some have argued that the sun finally set over the empire after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. But Hammond argues this view ignores two tiny but crucial territories which bridge the gab: the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific and the British Indian Ocean Territory — also known as the Chagos Islands, where Britain and the United States maintain a joint military facility at Diego Garcia. The question is "on midwinter’s day in the southern hemisphere, does the sun set over Pitcairn before it rises over Diego Garcia?" 

Here’s what his calculations found:

[The] results allow for the refraction of the sun’s rays when it is close to the horizon. They indicate that, on 21st June, the sun rises over Diego Garcia at 01:22 hrs GMT, more than half an hour before it sets over Pitcairn at 01:59 hrs GMT.

Thanks to Diego Garcia (uninhabited except temporarily by various U.K. and U.S. military personnel) and to Pitcairn (population now about 50), the British Empire appears safe from sunsets for the time being. 

But this situation may be short-lived. The Chagos Islands are the subject of an ongoing legal battle between Britain and nearby Mauritius, who assert that the local inhabitants were illegally and brutally removed during the 1960s in order to make room for the military base. And of course, these islands are among the places on Earth most threatened by rising sea levels. Not to mention the political challenges to British rule over other territories including the Falklands and Gibraltar. 

All this is to say that by the time the just-born heir takes the crown around 2082 or so, his sun may indeed set on his empire for at least part of the day. 

Via Marginal Revolution

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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