British overseas territory

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     British Overseas Territories     United Kingdom     Crown Dependencies

A British Overseas Territory is a territory which is under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom but not a part of it and which is not a Crown dependency. There are 14 overseas territories.[1] They are found in every ocean of the world.

In each territory, The Queen is the head of state, whose authority in the territory is exercised by her Governor. Each territory has its own discrete government appropriate to the territory; most have elected legislatures and locally drawn governments but Akrotiri and Dhekelia and those without permanent, settled populations and are under direct command. The territories are the remaining parts of the once vast British Empire, out of which all the great colonies and protectorates have gained independence.

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, and which in turn had replaced "Crown colony".

The Crown Dependencies, namely the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Isle of Man, are also under the sovereignty of the British Crown but are held to have a different constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom,[2][3] albeit that any practical distinction is obscure.

Collectively the territories encompass an approximate land area of 667,018 square miles (of which the vast bulk, 660,000 square miles, is the uninhabited British Antarctic Territory) and a population of approximately 260,000 people.

The British Antarctic Territory is subject to the Antarctic Treaty System suspending active claims, but Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and France mutually recognise each other's claims in Antarctica.

Gibraltar Harbour

The territories

All but three of the territories have permanent, settled populations, the most densely populated being Gibraltar. Akrotiri and Dhekelia (the Sovereign Base Areas) is inhabited but is principally a military base. The British Indian Ocean Territory, with no permanent population is also a military base. The British Antarctic Territory contains only research stations and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is inhabited by scientific research facilities, a garrison and administrative staff.

The 14 British overseas territories are:

Flag Arms Name Motto Area Population Capital Location
Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5).svg Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government, 1952-2022).svg Akrotiri and Dhekelia 98 square miles 14,000 Episkopi Cantonment Mediterranean (Cyprus)
Flag of Anguilla.svg Coat of arms of Anguilla.svg Anguilla Strength and Endurance 56.4 square miles 13,500 The Valley West Indies
Flag of Bermuda.svg Coat of arms of Bermuda.svg Bermuda Quo fata ferunt ("Whither the Fates carry [us]") 20.8 square miles 64,000 Hamilton North Atlantic Ocean
Flag of the British Antarctic Territory.svg Coat of arms of the British Antarctic Territory.svg British Antarctic Territory Research and discovery 660,000 square miles 50 in winter
over 400 in summer
Rothera (main base) Antarctica
Flag of the Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory.svg Coat of arms of the British Indian Ocean Territory.svg British Indian Ocean Territory In tutela nostra Limuria ("Limuria is in our charge") 18 square miles 3,000 approx (military and staff) Diego Garcia Indian Ocean
Flag of the British Virgin Islands.svg Coat of arms of the British Virgin Islands.svg British Virgin Islands Vigilate ("Be watchful") 59 square miles 27,000 Road Town West Indies
Flag of the Cayman Islands.svg Coat of arms of the Cayman Islands.svg Cayman Islands He hath founded it upon the seas 101.9 square miles 54,878 George Town West Indies
Flag of the Falkland Islands.svg Coat of arms of the Falkland Islands (variant).svg Falkland Islands Desire the right 4,700 square miles 2,955 Stanley South Atlantic Ocean
Flag of Gibraltar.svg Coat of arms of Gibraltar1.svg Gibraltar Nulli expugnabilis hosti ("No enemy shall expel us") 2.5 square miles 28,800 Gibraltar Mediterranean
Flag of Montserrat.svg Coat of arms of Montserrat.svg Montserrat 39 square miles 4,655 Plymouth (abandoned) West Indies
Flag of the Pitcairn Islands.svg 40px Pitcairn Islands 17 square miles 67 Adamstown Pacific Ocean
Flag of Saint Helena.svg Coat of arms of Saint Helena.svg St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha   Loyal and Unshakeable 162 square miles 5,530 Jamestown South Atlantic Ocean
Flag of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.svg Coat of arms of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.svg South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands Leo terram propriam protegat ("Let the lion protect his own land") 1,570 square miles 99 King Edward Point/Grytviken South Atlantic Ocean
Flag of the Turks and Caicos Islands.svg Coat of arms of the Turks and Caicos Islands.svg Turks and Caicos Islands "Beautiful by nature, clean by choice" 166 square miles 32,000 Cockburn Town West Indies

The territories have no official representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, but have informal representation through the All-Party Parliamentary Group.

When Britain was a member of the European Union, Gibraltar was the only overseas territory also within it, though as a free port it was outside the customs union and there have always been rigorous customs checks on the border with Spain.


St. George's, Bermuda

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 seasonal camps up in the 16th century.[4] The colonisation of mainland North America followed from 1607 (the settlement of Virginia) and Bermuda, settled inadvertently in 1609 following a shipwreck. St George's, Bermuda town, founded in 1612, remains the oldest continuously inhabited British settlement in the New World.

The rough-and-tumble of colonisation, buccaneers and privateers, war and conquests followed as a struggle with Spain and with France for dominance, for sugar plantations and trade monopolies in the West Indies, America and India. After the defeat of Napoleon, the Empire grew apace in the 19th century, to its territorial peak in the 1920s, by which time Britain had acquired over one quarter of the world's land mass, including territories with large indigenous populations in Asia and Africa.

The form and direction of colonisation moved with Britain's interests; settlement in the Americas and later Australia and South Africa, sugar in the West Indies, trade in India and the east, naval needs, military security, the promise of the Dark Continent. The British slice of Antarctica was claimed for the Falkland Islands Dependencies in 1910 before any man had trodden much beyond the coast, yet the claim ran to the unreached South Pole.

The larger settler colonies developed into self-governing dominions and all the larger colonies followed in the later twentieth century; the last major colony under British rule was Hong Kong, with a population of over 5 million, returned to China when the lease of the greater part of the territory expired in 1997.

Since 1997, the British overseas territories are mostly small island territories; the only territories of significant area are the Falkland Islands and the British Antarctic Territory.

In 2002, Parliament granted restored full British citizenship to the people of the overseas territories, with the exception of those solely connected with the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.


The Governor's House, Stanley

The essential law of British possessions was examined by Lord Mansfield in the constitutional case of Campbell v Hall; the Crown has unlimited authority in a colony until a representative assembly is ordained for it.

In practice, each territory has a constitution, which in some cases retains the Crown's authority, through the governor. In each territory The Queen appoints a Governor or Commissioner, on the advice of the British Government, to exercise her authority. Often the Governor will be retired senior military officer, or a senior civil servant. St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha is partially federalised; the Governor appoints an Administrator to the territory's two distant islands, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. In the Pitcairn Islands, the Governor sits in New Zealand (and doubles up as the British High Commissioner to that realm) while a Mayor runs things locally.

Where a territory has an elected assembly it has a government drawn from that assembly in accordance with Westminster norms, and the role of the Governor is to appoint the head of government and senior offices, and exercise such power as is reserved to the Crown. On occasion an constitution has to be suspended and direct, autocratic rule re-established, as it was in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009 when widespread and systematic corruption and theft of public founds was found, implicating the government and much of the House of Assembly.

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
No native or permanent population. Commissioner, supported by an Administrator.
No native settled population. Governor has all authority.
Administrator (a serving officer). Governed as military bases; the military authorities try to ensure harmony of laws with those of the Republic of Cyprus where possible.
Governor (not resident) retains almost complete authority. Elected Mayor and Island Council propose and administer local legislation, subject to the Governor's approval
Governor with a local government. An elected Legislative Assembly
Governor with local Executive Council. Elected Legislative Council. Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha have Administrators advised by elected Island Councils.
Governor. A Premier (or Chief Minister in Anguilla) heads the Executive Council / cabinet. An elected House of Assembly (Legislative Assembly in the Caymans and Legislative Council in Montserrat)
Governor. Chief Minister heads the government. An elected Parliament.
Governor. Premier heads the government. An elected, bicameral Parliament of Senate and House of Assembly.
Governor. Local government suspended, but otherwise a Premier would head the government and a House of Assembly be elected.

Legal systems

Each overseas territory has its own legal system independent of the United Kingdom. The legal system is based on English common law, other than in Akrotiri and Dhekelia, with distinctions for local circumstances. Each territory has its own attorney general, and court system, for which the Court of Appeal will be constituted form the judges of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales. Ultimate appeal lies to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, sitting in the Middlesex Guildhall.


RAF Mount Pleasant, Falkland Islands
  • Ascension Island (part of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha): RAF Ascension Island is used by both the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force.
  • Bermuda: the primary Royal Navy base in the Western Hemisphere since American independence. The Naval establishment included an admiralty, a dockyard, and a naval squadron. Once a considerable military garrison and during the War and the Cold War, Canadian and American based were established here too. Since 1995, the garrison has been reduced to the local territorial battalion, the Bermuda Regiment.
  • British Indian Ocean Territory: Diego Garcia has a large naval and air base leased to the United States
  • Falkland Islands: heavily garrisoned since the Falklands War of 1982, with commitments from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force.
  • Gibraltar: initially just a garrison town, British Forces Gibraltar now include a Royal Navy dockyard, RAF Gibraltar and a local garrison; the Royal Gibraltar Regiment.
  • The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus are 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 arms.

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.


At the Commonwealth Games, the territories submit their own teams.

At the Olympic Games, Each of Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands has a National Olympic Committee and sends a team in its own name. The remaining territories are represented by the British Olympic Association and their athletes are eligible to compete at the Olympics as part of Team GB, as are athletes of the Crown dependencies.

At the Island Games, individual teams compete from Alderney, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Sark and St Helena and from a number of islands and island shires of the United Kingdom and from several foreign islands.


A Stoplight Parrotfish at Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
King Penguins at St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

The British Overseas Territories have more biodiversity than the entire the UK mainland. There are at least 180 endemic plant species in the overseas territories as opposed to only 12 on the mainland of the United Kingdom. Responsibility for protection of biodiversity and meeting obligations under international environmental conventions is shared between the UK Government and the local governments of the territories.[5]

Two areas, Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands as well as the Gough and Inaccessible Islands of Tristan da Cunha are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and two other territories, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and St Helena are on the United Kingdom's tentative list for future World Heritage Sites.[6][7]

The three regions of biodiversity hotspots situated in the British Overseas Territories are the Caribbean Islands, the Mediterranean Basin and the Oceania ecozone in the Pacific.[5]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about British overseas territory)



  • 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 Boromé, 'How Crown Colony Government Came to Dominica by 1898', in Aspects of Dominican History (Roseau, Dominica, 1972), 120–50
British territories

The British Isles:

United Kingdom  • Bailiwick of Guernsey  • Bailiwick of Jersey  • Isle of Man

Overseas territories:

Akrotiri and Dhekelia  • Anguilla  • Bermuda  • British Antarctic Territory  • British Indian Ocean Territory  • British Virgin Islands  • Cayman Islands  • Falkland Islands  • Gibraltar  • Montserrat  • Pitcairn Islands  • St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands  • Turks and Caicos Islands