Sat | Sep 24, 2022

Why Great Britain is great

Published:Thursday | October 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Most Jamaicans simply presume that the name Great Britain is about the projection of imperial power by a country which once colonised a quarter of the globe. One indignant letter-writer, objecting to the Cameron prison offer, certainly took that view.

Actually, the name Great Britain goes back to Roman times when Great Britain itself was a Roman colony. The Romans called England and Wales Britannia Major (literally, Big Britain) to distinguish it from Britannia Minor, or Britanny in Gaul, which is now France. The Romans never conquered and colonised Scotland, then known as Caledonia, in the North of Island and, in fact, built a wall named after the Emperor Hadrian to keep out the "barbarian" Picts and Scots.

Ptolemy, a classical writer, in his work Almagest, 148 AD, referred to the biggest island in the archipelago, and there are hundreds of littler ones, as megale Bretannia or great Britain. Merely a reference to size.

The first known official use of the term Great Britain in a public document of the government of the territory was in 1474 in the instrument drawing up the proposal for a marriage between Cecily, the daughter of Edward IV of England, and James, the son of James III of Scotland, which described it as "this Nobill Isle, callit Gret Britanee". King James of Bible translation fame who was James 1 of England and James VI of Scotland in 1604, styled himself 'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland'.

As a political unit, Great Britain refers to the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales in combination but not Northern Ireland. The territory includes islands such as the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland that are part of England, Wales, or Scotland. It does not include the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which are self-governing dependent territories.

This single Kingdom of Great Britain resulted from the union of Scotland and England (which was already united with Wales) in 1707. Many Scots are now seeking devolution and a cancellation of the union. David Cameron's first-term government held a referendum to settle the matter in which the 'no' vote was 55.3 per cent of the vote, with a very high 84.6 per cent voter turnout, so preserving the union for the time being.


Irish situation


When Ireland is added to Great Britain, that political unit is the United Kingdom (UK). The whole of Ireland, another island, had been united with Great Britain by an Act of Parliament in 1800, which came into effect in January 1801. Irish nationalists fiercely resisted this union and achieved the independent Irish Free State in 1922, now the Republic of Ireland, leaving only Northern Ireland as part of the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.'

Northern Ireland has had its own problems of seeking to secede from the UK, with the Catholic majority generally wanting to unite with the Republic of Ireland and the Protestant minority wanting to remain attached to the UK. The Irish Republican Army carried out decades of violent opposition before the 1998 Belfast Agreement, more commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement.

So Great Britain has been Great Britain before it was a global imperial power on which the Sun never sets. And it remains Great Britain, a political conglomerate of England, Wales, and Scotland, after the Sun has set on its empire.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and