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Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
by Jeremy Paxman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

36 of 44 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars One-sided, naive, heavily opinionated and at times unreadable., 18 Sept. 2012
First off, I would like to make clear that I am an academic historian, specialising in the history of Colonial Africa, and currently lecturing on the British Empire. I read this book to see whether it would be suitable as an introductory text to my undergraduate students doing a course on the legacy of British Imperialism.

The answer, quite simply, is no.

From the very first page Paxman makes clear that he despises the fact Britain ever had an Empire, and is explicit in emphasising how awful the Empire was for everyone it touched. I must admit now that the book is well written throughout and contains a large proportion of the facts and stories that are necessary to gain a basic understanding of the history of British imperialism, but his persistently derogatory tone towards all things British and all things to do with the Empire feels like being repeated struck over the head with a hammer of Paxman's naivety. He makes no effort to show the positive aspects of the British Empire, except perhaps in occasional sentences or paragraphs, and this dangerously misinforms and misleads the reader into assuming that British imperialism in general is something to be ashamed about.

This is most apparent in his chapter on the Atlantic slave trade. If ever 'White guilt' exists, Paxman makes abundantly clear it should be for the British involvement in slavery. He goes on and on about how the British invented slavery (and then contradicts himself by saying in only a few words that both the Portuguese and the Africans themselves already had a practical system of slavery in place by the time the British turned up), whilst constantly imposing 21st century values onto the moral and ethical views of the time. Paxman should know that by judging the people of the time by today's moral yardstick is a definite no-no, since the beliefs and circumstances for many of those in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries were substantially different to those we have today.

In some parts the author intentionally does not include certain aspects of history. Keeping our focus on his chapter about the slave trade, Paxman claims religion played a significant part in motivating the anti-slavery protestors, which is true, and yet he forgets (or deliberately omits) to mention the significant religious argument at the time in favour of slavery, the same argument that was used in the American South in the mid-nineteenth century and actually factored into the American Civil War. This sort of omission-to-strengthen-his-argument is repeated throughout the book and, whilst frustrating for anyone who has studied the topic before, is downright misleading for casual readers.

I could go on, but I don't see the point. This book claims to lay bare the historical facts of the British Empire, which it does to some extent, and yet Paxman is so blinkered, and naive, that to continue reading past the introduction takes some significant willpower. This sort of post-imperialistic guilt is damaging both to modern-day England and to it's history.
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