The empire on which the sun never sets

british empire

The phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” has been used with variations to describe certain global empires that were so extensive that there was always at least one part of their territory in daylight.

It was originally used for the Spanish Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and for the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. German historian of language Georg Büchmann traces the idea to a speech in Herodotus’ Histories, made by Xerxes I of Persia before invading Greece.

In the early 16th century, the phrase, ‘el imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol’ (‘the empire on which the sun never sets’) originated with a remark made by Fray Francisco de Ugalde to Charles I of Spain (r. 1512 to 1556), who as king of Spain and as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, had an empire, which included many territories in Europe, islands in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, cities in North Africa and vast territories in the Americas. The phrase gained added resonance during the reign of Charles’s son, Philip II of Spain, when the Philippines and several other island chains in the Pacific were acquired.

When King Henry of Portugal died, Philip II pressed his claim to the Portuguese throne and was recognized as Philip I of Portugal in 1581. He then reigned over all his father’s possessions in Europe, Africa, and the Americas (except the Holy Roman Empire) and Asia and the Portuguese Empire, which itself included territories in South America, Africa, Asia and islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. In 1585, Italian diplomat and poet Giovanni Battista Guarini wrote ‘Il pastor fido’ to mark the marriage of Catherine Michelle, daughter of Philip II, to Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. Guarini’s dedication read, ‘The proud daughter / of that monarch to whom / when it grows dark [elsewhere] the sun never sets.’

In the early 17th century, the phrase was familiar to John Smith of Jamestown, and to English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, who writes: ‘both the East and the West Indies being met in the crown of Spain, it is come to pass, that, as one saith in a brave kind of expression, the sun never sets in the Spanish dominions, but ever shines upon one part or other of them : which, to say truly, is a beam of glory.’ Scottish translator Thomas Urquhart wrote of ‘that great Don Philippe, Tetrarch of the world, upon whose subjects the sun never sets.’ At the beginning of the 18th century, the Bourbon kings of Spain added to their Royal Arms the emblem, ‘A solis ortu usque ad occasum,’ a phrase taken from Psalm 113:3 which is translated as, ‘From the rising of the sun to its setting.’

Joseph Fouché recalled Napoleon saying before the Peninsular War in 1807, ‘Reflect that the sun never sets in the immense inheritance of Charles V, and that I shall have the empire of both worlds.’ This was cited in Walter Scott’s ‘Life of Napoleon.’ It has been claimed that Louis XIV of France’s emblem of the ‘Sun King’ and associated motto, ‘Nec pluribus impar’ (‘Not unequal to many’) were based on the solar emblem and motto of Philip II.

In the 19th century world maps showed the British Empire in red and pink to highlight British imperial power spanning the globe. Scottish author, John Wilson, writing as ‘Christopher North’ in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ in 1829, is sometimes credited as originating the usage. However, British statesman George Macartney wrote in 1773, in the wake of the territorial expansion that followed Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, of ‘this vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained.’ In 1821, the ‘Caledonian Mercury’ (a Scottish newspaper) wrote of the British Empire, ‘On her dominions the sun never sets; before his evening rays leave the spires of Quebec, his morning beams have shone three hours on Port Jackson, and while sinking from the waters of Lake Superior, his eye opens upon the Mouth of the Ganges.’

Daniel Webster famously expressed a similar idea in 1834: ‘A power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.’ In 1839, Sir Henry Ward said in the House of Commons, ‘Look at the British Colonial empire — the most magnificent empire that the world ever saw. The old Spanish boast that the sun never set in their dominions, has been more truly realised amongst ourselves.’ By 1861, Lord Salisbury complained that the £1.5 million spent on colonial defense by Britain merely enabled the nation ‘to furnish an agreeable variety of stations to our soldiers, and to indulge in the sentiment that the sun never sets on our Empire.’

In James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ when Mr. Deasy asks Stephen what an Englishman’s proudest boast is, Stephen offers ‘That on his empire […] the sun never sets.’ Mr. Deasy retorts ‘That’s not English. A French Celt said that.’ Critics suggest Mr Deasy was mistaken. In an 1865 speech in Oakland, California, Rev. W. B. Brown of New Jersey quipped that the reason the sun never set upon the Empire was that God did not trust the British in the dark. The quip has been misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, among others.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the image of the sun never setting can be found applied to Anglophone culture, explicitly including the United States as well as Britain, for example in a speech by British clergyman Alexander Campbell in 1852. It was subsequently applied specifically to the American sphere of influence. An 1897 magazine article titled ‘The Greatest Nation on Earth’ boasted, ‘[T]he sun never sets on Uncle Sam.’ In 1906, William Jennings Bryan wrote, ‘If we can not boast that the sun never sets on American territory, we can find satisfaction in the fact that the sun never sets on American philanthropy’; after which, ‘The New York Times’ received letters attempting to disprove his presupposition. A 1991 history book discussion of U.S. expansion states, ‘Today … the sun never sets on American territory, properties owned by the U.S. government and its citizens, American armed forces abroad, or countries that conduct their affairs within limits largely defined by American power.’


2 Comments to “The empire on which the sun never sets”

  1. fascinating read and history about this gloating phrase. Thanks, I love this stuff. And Go Spain or ¡Viva España! or maybe Vive le France, or French Celts or whatever. Anyway, this still it’s still fun to poke fun at the British. Though they’re still our chums, in’t it?

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