LONDON -- When the crown jewel of Britain's colonies, Hong Kong, reverts to China's control in 1997, the British Empire will lose 5.5 million subjects.
Outside the British Isles, only 12 colonies or territories will remain, most of them Atlantic islands with a total population of only about 150,000.
The biggest is balmy, tourist-packed Bermuda, with 55,000 residents. The smallest is Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, with 54 people, all descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions.
The most desolate is undoubtedly the British Antarctic, which is so uninhabitable only about 100 scientists at research stations live there.
Hong Kong is the last of the 'crown colonies.' The Foreign Office doesn't call anything a 'colony' any more, because it connotes dominance.
Instead there is the 'commonwealth,' a free association of 48 sovereign states with a population of over 1 billion. Queen Elizabeth II is 'head of the commonwealth,' but each member nation is autonomous.
It's a far cry from the days when the empire's population stood at over 500 million, from Tamils and Malays in the Far East, to the Zulus and Hottentots of Africa, the aborigines of the new world.
The empire's colonies, protectorates, mandates and possessions were a magical tangle of cultures -- from Ceylon and Cyprus to Zanzibar and Zululand -- and a rich harvest of raw materials.
From India came jute and tea, from Burma rice and wood, from West Africa gold and cacao, from East Africa copper and tobacco, sugar and coffee. The Pacific supplied rubber, copra, phosphates and bananas.
Today that vast expanse is centered on the British Isles, comprising England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
The rest of Britain's possessions are 'dependent territories' - the modern term for 'colonies.' They include Bermuda, Gibraltar, British Virgin Islands, West Indies, the Falklands, the British Antarctic, St. Helena, Pitcairn Island and the British Indian Ocean Territory.