The empire on which the sun never sets

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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 that was in daylight.

It was originally used for the Spanish Empire, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its most notable use is in reference to the British Empire, mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time period, the British Empire reached a territorial size larger than that of any other empire in history.

Georg Büchmann traces the idea to a speech in Herodotus' Histories, made by Xerxes I before invading Greece.[1][2]

A similar concept in the Old Testament pre-dates Herodotus and Xerxes I where Psalm 72:8 speaks of the Messianic King: ‘He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth’ [3] for ‘as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations’ Ps 72:5.[4]


The Spanish crown's empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, 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 obtained by Spain. When King Henry of Portugal died, Philip II pressed his claim to the Portuguese throne and was recognised 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 the Americas, in the North and the Subsaharian Africa, in all the Asian Subcontinents, and islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

In 1585, 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, "Altera figlia / Di qel Monarca, a cui / Nö anco, quando annotta, il Sol tramonta."[1] ("The proud daughter / of that monarch to whom / when it grows dark [elsewhere] the sun never sets.").[5]

In the early 17th century, the phrase was familiar to John Smith (explorer),[6] and to 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 [...]".[7] Thomas Urquhart wrote of "that great Don Philippe, Tetrarch of the world, upon whose subjects the sun never sets." [8]

In the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller's 1787 play, Don Carlos, Don Carlos's father, Philip II, says, "German: Ich heiße / der reichste Mann in der getauften Welt; / Die Sonne geht in meinem Staat nicht unter." ("I am called / The richest monarch in the Christian world; / The sun in my dominion never sets.").[9]

Joseph Fouché recalled Napoleon saying before the Peninsular War, "Reflect that the sun never sets in the immense inheritance of Charles V, and that I shall have the empire of both worlds." [10] This was cited in Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon[5][11]

It has been claimed that Louis XIV of France's emblem of the "Sun King" and associated motto, "Nec pluribus impar" were based on the solar emblem and motto of Philip II.[12]

United Kingdom

The British Empire in 1919, at its greatest extent with presence on all inhabited continents

In the 19th century, it became popular to apply the phrase to the British Empire. It was a time when British world maps showed the 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.[13][14][15][16] However, 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." [17]

In a speech on 31 July 1827, Rev. R. P. Buddicom said, "It had been said that the sun never set on the British flag; it was certainly an old saying, about the time of Richard the Second, and was not so applicable then as at the present time." [18] In 1821, the Caledonian Mercury 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." [19]

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."[5][20] 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." [21] By 1861, Lord Salisbury complained that the million spent on colonial defence 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".[22]

United States

"Ten Thousand Miles From Tip to Tip", 1898. The sunbeams of this famous cartoon are a visual reference to the expression.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the image of the sun never setting can be found applied to Anglophone culture, explicitly the British Empire as well as the United States, for example in a speech by Alexander Campbell in 1852.[23]

An 1897 magazine article titled "The Greatest Nation on Earth" boasted, "[T]he sun never sets on Uncle Sam".[24] 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";[25] after which, The New York Times received letters attempting to disprove his presupposition.[26]

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." [27]

The phrase is sometimes used critically with the implication of American imperialism, as in the title of Joseph Gerson's book, The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases.[28]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Büchmann, Georg; Walter Robert-turnow (1895). Geflügelte Worte: Der Citatenschatz des deutschen Volkes (in German) (18th ed.). Berlin: Haude und Spener (F. Weidling). p. 157. Retrieved 23 February 2016.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "γῆν τὴν Περσίδα ἀποδέξομεν τῷ Διὸς αἰθέρι ὁμουρέουσαν. οὐ γὰρ δὴ χώρην γε οὐδεμίαν κατόψεται ἥλιος ὅμουρον ἐοῦσαν τῇ ἡμετέρῃ" ("We shall extend the Persian territory as far as God's heaven reaches. The sun will then shine on no land beyond our borders.") Herodotus (1910). "Book 7 (Polyhmnia)". Histories. translated by George Rawlinson. ¶8. Retrieved 23 February 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Psalm 72:8
  4. Psalm 72:5
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Bartlett, John (2000) [1919]. Familiar quotations. revised and enlarged by Nathan Haskell Dole (10th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 495. ISBN 1-58734-107-7. Retrieved 23 February 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Bartlett, John (1865). Familiar quotations (4th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 388. Retrieved 23 February 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Bacon, Francis (1841). "An Advertisement Touching a Holy War". In Basil Montagu (ed.). The works of Francis Bacon, lord chancellor of England. Vol. 2. address to Lancelot Andrewes. Carey. p. 438.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Duncan, William James; Andrew Macgeorge (1834). Miscellaneous papers, principally illustrative of events in the reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI. E. Khull, printer. p. 173. Retrieved 23 February 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Don Carlos, Act I, Scene 6.
  10. Fouché, Joseph (1825). The memoirs of Joseph Fouché. Vol. 1. Compiled and translated by Alphonse de Beauchamp and Pierre Louis P. de Jullian. p. 313.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Scott, Walter (1835). "Chap. XLI". Life of Napoleon Buonaparte: With a Preliminary View of the French Revolution. VI. Edinburgh: Cadell. p. 23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Tiedeman, H. (29 February 1868). "The French King's Device: "Nec Pluribus Impar" (3rd Ser. xii. 502)". Notes and Queries: 203–4. Retrieved 14 May 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Wilson, John (April 1829). "Noctes Ambrosianae No. 42". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. XXV (cli): 527. Not a more abstemious man than old Kit North in his Majesty's dominions, on which the sun never sets.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Vance, Norman (2000). "Imperial Rome and Britain's Language of Empire 1600–1837". History of European Ideas. 26 (3–4): 213, fn.3. doi:10.1016/S0191-6599(01)00020-1. ISSN 0191-6599. It seems this proverbial phrase was first used by 'Christopher North' (John Wilson) in Blackwood's Magazine (April 1829).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Morris, Jan (1978). Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat. as Christopher North the poet, had long before declared it, an Empire on which the sun never set.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Miller, Karl (9 August 2003). "Star of the Borders". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 June 2009. the British empire, on which, as Wilson may have been the first to say, the sun never set.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Macartney, George (1773). An Account of Ireland in 1773 by a Late Chief Secretary of that Kingdom. p. 55.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>; cited in Kenny, Kevin (2006). Ireland and the British Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 72,fn.22. ISBN 0-19-925184-3. Retrieved 23 February 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Scott, William; Francis Garden; James Bowling Mozley (1827). "Monthly Register: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel: Liverpool District Committee". The Christian remembrancer, or the Churchman's Biblical, Ecclesiastical & Literary Miscellany. Vol. IX. F.C. & J. Rivington. p. 589. Retrieved 15 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "The British Empire". Caledonian Mercury (15619). 15 October 1821. p. 4. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Lodge, Henry Cabot (1907–21). "XVI. Webster". In W. P. Trent, J. Erskine, S. P. Sherman, and C. Van Doren (ed.). [American] Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. XVI. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. § 6. Rhetoric and Literature. ISBN 1-58734-073-9.CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Waste Lands of the Colonies". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 25 June 1839. col. 847.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Roberts, Andrew (October 1999). "Salisbury: The Empire Builder Who Never Was". History Today. 49.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "To Britain and America God has granted the possession of the new world; and because the sun never sets upon our religion, our language and our arts..."Speeches of Alexander Campbell Archived 10 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Archived April 10, 2011 at the Wayback Machine[dead link]
  24. Jordon, William (July 1897). "The Greatest Nation on Earth". Ladies' Home Journal: 7–8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>; cited by Kaiser, Kaitlyn (2005). "Americanizing the American Woman: Symbols of Nationalism in the Ladies Home Journal, 1890–1900". Salve Regina University (thesis): 17, fn.57,58. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Bryan, William Jennings (1908). "American Philanthropy". In Richard Lee Metcalfe (ed.). The real Bryan; being extracts from the speeches and writings of "a well-rounded man". Vol. 2. Des Moines: Personal Help Publishing Company. pp. 44–45.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "That never-setting sun". The New York Times. 5 August 1906. p. 8. Retrieved 14 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Williams, William Appleman (1991). "Expansion, Continental and Overseas". In Eric Foner, John Arthur Garraty (ed.). The Reader's companion to American history. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 365. ISBN 0-395-51372-3. Retrieved 23 February 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Gerson, Joseph (1991). The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-399-3. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>