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4.4 out of 5 stars25
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on 5 April 2001
The British Empire at one time encompassed a quarter of the globe, from countries as immense and diverse as India to ones as tiny as Tristan da Cunha. Jan Morris has the rare skill of not only painting the large canvas of history, but also of illuminating for her readers the daily life of distant quarters of the Victorian empire. She writes with warmth and affection of Zulus and Maoris, of Quebecois and Boers, of explorers suffering terrible ordeals, of be-whiskered colonial politicians in London and dear old Queen Victoria herself. She writes with a pleasing absence of political correctness, seeing the Empire not only in the currently fashionable way as an instrument of exploitation, but also as a power for good. She introduces us to colonialists dedicated to the welfare of their subjects, as well as those out to feather their own nests. And the texture of the book is typical Jan Morris - crafted in such a way that you at last understand what it was all about, and why it happened.
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on 3 June 2013
A fascinating and thought-provoking account of the almost inadvertent rise of the British empire. However I can't recommend the Kindle edition - it's continually spoiled by typos and misspellings: "Icelanders" for "Irelanders", "feet" for "fact" and "Either" for "father" are some of the more obvious ones. But worse, almost all the footnotes are numbered 1. The link to the footnote seems to work, but the link back doesn't - so you end up spending ages trying to find your place again. Or just not following the footnotes.

Great read, beautifully written - just buy the book not the Kindle edition.
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on 22 October 2000
For someone who never got to study the British empire at school (far too politically incorrect and besides, I was more interested in 20th century stuff), this is a superb introduction to the subject. Probably not rigourous enough for anyone who knows anything, Jan Morris uses a sequence of anecdotes and vibrant case studies to track the rise and rise of the Empire, without ever giving in to being triumphalist or one sided. You'll have to excuse me now; I'm off to read the next book in the series!
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2011
The period here is 1837-1897, the reign of Queen Victoria. Sixty Glorious Years, as the film was called. Jan Morris takes three books to trace the rise of the British Empire, its years of ascendancy, and its decline. Heaven's Command, the first of the trilogy, records how religious evangelism was embraced by the profit motive, leading swiftly to the conclusion that both were made easier once conquest had been achieved.

So the map of the globe was painted red, sometimes with vision, sometimes with well-meaning paternalism, sometimes with brutal ruthlessness, almost always with courage and conviction. Morris is clear-eyed: the history of imperialism is of good and bad and all shades in between. While India is all pomp and ceremony, South Africa is a muddle, Ireland is a near disaster. If the breadth of the narrative is impressive, it is the anecdotal evidence that lingers when the book is closed. The author's great skill is in searching out the detail that illuminates the canvas. Then there is the prose - sharp, precise language organised in long, elegant sentences (pace the note below for Kindle readers).

Unlike in some histories, humour lurks. In Fiji, for example, "shipwrecked sailors were assumed to have been discarded by the gods, and were accordingly eaten as a matter of course." How much more readily would one have been engaged by the subject at school had such as Heaven's Command been standard text books.

Five stars, then, without hesitation - but an important note must be appended for Kindle readers. My version was littered with typographical errors, many inexplicable, some impossible to translate. There were no fewer than eight examples of "in fact" appearing as "in feet." Or "The Lard gave and the Lord batb taken away." The good news is that when I reported these and others to Kindle Customer Services they proved to be a model of the efficiency which is so signally lacking in others of their kind. A courteous response within hours and an assurance that corrections would be made. I forbore to mention punctuation so random it could surely not have been the author's original; the cavalier use of the colon was simply mystifying.

Never mind, I simply hope you will read without trouble for this is a book to be cherished.
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on 28 October 2010
Jan Morris' style is to ignore the "big issues", which often only become apparent in retrospect, but instead to concentrate on individuals, good and bad, in their own contemporary setting. This approach may be too anecdotal for some people, but, unlike most academic historians, JM is a superb English stylist, which makes this book a pleasure to read. Rereading this book after many years, it occurs to me that if our politicians had read Chapter 5 on the disastrous British retreat from Kabul [1842] we would probably not have our troops in Afganistan now.
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on 27 August 2007
The great thing about Jan Morris is that she brings so many different qualities to her books. Nostalgia, humour, insight, and wonderful storytelling, all of which are present in abundance in this marvelous account of the Genesis of that most remarkable of Empires. It was an Empire that was cruel, repressive, civilising, gracious and compassionate depending on which subject of the Crown was dispensing the rules to the natives. Being a native of one of the former colonies (Ireland) I am all too familiar with the negative aspects of the Empire. Our famine is at once an epic tragedy and also an indictment of the British Empires lack of compassion. On the other hand when you read this book you cannot but admire the great energy and sacrifice of so many loyal British subjects who lived their lives many miles from their native shores and their families in the belief that they were not only doing their duty for queen and country, but also in the belief that they were genuinely bettering the lives of those around them, primarily by spreading Christianity and Civilisation. I think what Jan Morris succeeds in doing is illustrating the futility of trying to sum up the Empire. It has too many sides to it, some good, some bad, but always so very very interesting. I cant wait to read the other two books in the trilogy.
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on 26 June 2011
This first volume of Jan Morris' trilogy tracing the rise and fall of the British Empire, is simply riveting. Morris is a romantic - and none the worse for that, of course - and the story she has to tell is simply fascinating. I hadn't previously realised, for example, quite how accidental the Empire was; I think someone referred to it as having been acquired in a fit of forgetfulness, and that seems spot on.

Morris manages the huge sweep of the growth with exemplary skill, and is often extremely funny too, particularly in some wonderfully pointed foot notes.

This is a very easy read, and I mean that s a big compliment. Do give it a try - you'll be entertained and instructed, and come out at the other end with a real appetite to move on, as I did, to the succeeding volumes and see what happened in the end!
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on 24 May 2009
Just like the others who have reveiwed this book, I was completely entranced by the vivid descriptions of the Empire and its protagonists and players. For many of my generation (I'm 44) the Empire was never taught at school. Perhaps it was seen as politically incorrect at the time. Who knows? However, I am firmly of the belief that everyone in the UK should read this book - even if only to explain why we have had such large immigration from the West Indies, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Many who might choose otherwise to be blindly xenophobic, might understand the path that led them here better.

A thorough joy to read!
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on 18 September 2013
This is highly readable and very informative. When you read her accounts of historical events, the descriptions of what you'd see and hear make you feel she must have been there and witnessed it at first hand. This is no dry history, but a vivid survey of the greatest Empire the world has ever known. And what a phenomenon! How quickly it rose, and how fast it fell, yet it leaves behind a free association of 53 nations in the Commonwealth. Certainly the trilogy evokes nostalgia, but the author is not in the least jingoistic.

My favourite passage of all is how the third book ends, which I won't spoil for readers, save to give the phrase, "mingled ... gratitude and resignation".
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on 11 May 2002
Essentially a series of accounts of remarkable characters woven together to illustrate the rise of the Empire. Sets many myths to rest. Written with style and warmth.
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