Referring to the expression, "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire"...

Was there any period of time when this was literally true?

If so, what was the first sunset on the Empire after this ceased to be the case as the Empire was gradually dissolved?

If not, how close was it to being true? i.e., how much darkness did the Empire experience at its minimum?

  • 3
    Obligatory call out to "1066 and all that."
    – MCW
    Jun 2, 2017 at 17:00
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    @MarkC.Wallace I've often thought that Sellar & Yeatman should be at the very top of the reading list for any History course! Jun 2, 2017 at 17:03
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    No, because the monkeys in Gibraltar are okay.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jun 2, 2017 at 18:19
  • The sun never sets on France either. Jun 3, 2017 at 20:12

3 Answers 3


The sun has not yet set on the British Empire, and is unlikely to for the near future.

This question was extensively covered by xkcd.

Britain [still owns] 14 overseas territories, [which are] direct descendants of the empire.

These 14 territories are: Akrotiri and Dhekelia; Anguilla; Bermuda; British Antarctic Territory; British Indian Ocean Territory; British Virgin Islands; Cayman Islands; Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Pitcairn Islands; Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Turks and Caicos Islands.

The sun has never simultaneously set on all 14 territories at the same time.

Again, from xkcd:

Every night, around midnight GMT, the Sun sets on the Cayman Islands, and doesn't rise over the British Indian Ocean Territory until after 1:00 AM. For that hour, the [...] Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific are the only British territory in the Sun.

However in roughly 400 years on April 30th 2432, the Pictairn Islands will experience a total solar eclipse. Still, during this time the sun will still be shining in the Cayman Islands and the UK, so the sun will still be shining over the British Empire.

So unless the British Empire loses more territory or the current borders change, the sun will continue to shine over the British empire for millennia to come.

It is worth noting however that the Pictairn Islands has a total population of about 50 people and in 2004 1/3 of the adult male population was convicted of child sexual abuse. So due to population problems or some other disaster they may become uninhabited forcing an early sunset on the empire.

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    @KillingTime I have no problems with acknowledging xkcd, however I added some more serious sources than them, and cite sources which don't appear in the xkcd article. I have edited to include an acknowledgment to them however. Jun 2, 2017 at 17:46
  • could there be an eclipse over the Pitcairn Islands during that hour? Jun 2, 2017 at 18:12
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    @ClintEastwood there is no predicted eclipse during that hour for at least a few millenia Jun 2, 2017 at 18:37
  • Well, the British didn't anticipate the fall of Singapore either! Jun 2, 2017 at 19:44
  • Couldn't there have been a time in the early years of the empire when the sun could set on it? Perhaps when the empire didn't have these territories? Or would it not have been considered an empire yet? Jun 2, 2017 at 19:44

The BBC, Encyclopedia Britannica & Wikipedia state that the British Empire finally ended when the British returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997.

The setting of the Sun began shortly after World War II and the empire was eventually replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations which was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949.

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    This answer isn't nearly as fun as the other one, but it does seem to be accurate (for certain definitions of "Empire").
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 2, 2017 at 18:15
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    One could argue this means the British Empire does not in fact exist and therefore it is impossible for the sun to ever set on it.
    – Vality
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:17
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    Vality - It was fashionable to talk about the British Empire but nobody ever officially decreed that a polity called the British Empire existed from that date forward. The British Empire never officially started. Furthermore, there never was a parliament of the British Empire, a Prime Minister or Cabinet of the British Empire, a monarch of the British Empire, an army or navy of the British Empire, etc. etc. So one could say that the British Empire never existed and the sun never rose or set on it.
    – MAGolding
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:39
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    @MAGolding2 absolutely right! Victoria was the first Emperor of India, George VI the last Emperor of India, but only of the sub-continent. The British Empire was more shorthand for colonies, possessions and spheres of influence than anything more concrete.
    – TheHonRose
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:48
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    Man, FINALLY someone else who realises the british empire never existed. :) - there has never been a british emperor or empress (and technically - the british essentially subsumed the mugal empire and a variation of its titles. Arguably as such, it was the 'indian' empire, as a sucessor of the mugal empire, rather than the british empire, on which the sun never set... contrast this with the austro-hungatian empire - which had a kaiser - their equivalent of an emperor - of austria, who was also king of hungary... Jun 3, 2017 at 14:18

It sets at night-time everyday.

In all seriousness, the Sun has not set on the British "Empire" yet as it still has holdings across the world and remains a major player in the world socio-economic system.

If we were to use the analogy of the Sun Cycle in real life, the British empire would be in that 5 o' clock phase: After the Peak Hours of Noon, but still a few hours before the Sun sets.

Tea-Time. I believe the English call this Tea-Time.

The Once Shining British Empire is in its "Tea-Time" phase right now.

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