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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Empire's ghosts
The author, a British-borne Ghanaian and Member of Parliament has selected a group of countries to demonstrate the good and the bad of their being part of the Empire. He considers that most of their present problems arrose from the autonomous system of administration in which key decisions were made by career-diplomats. His historical descriptions of these individuals are...
Published on 28 Sept. 2012 by Dr. R. H. Webber

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55 of 67 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment
I was influenced to buy this book by several effusive reviews. The book does not warrant such praise. Kwarteng selects 6 case studies to illustrate his theme that the formation of the British Empire lacked a coherent policy. Surely this is a truism which was recognised in the later 19th century. One reviewer (in the Guardian) enthused that he learnt something new on...
Published on 9 Sept. 2011 by Groundhog


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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Empire's ghosts, 28 Sept. 2012
By 
Dr. R. H. Webber (Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Hardcover)
The author, a British-borne Ghanaian and Member of Parliament has selected a group of countries to demonstrate the good and the bad of their being part of the Empire. He considers that most of their present problems arrose from the autonomous system of administration in which key decisions were made by career-diplomats. His historical descriptions of these individuals are superb and his knowlege of the countries involved of the highest order.

Having worked in the colonial service myself this is a fair appraisal although one wonders what better system the author might have recommended, certainly the present experience of these countries with democracy or with whatever system of government they have adopted leaves much to be desired.

Roger Webber
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but fabulous, 20 Aug. 2014
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Paradoxically, though many of its hypotheses and conclusions are revealed as possibly flawed within its own text, I would recommend this book unreservedly. It is an exceptional work of scholarship which gives great historical context to a number of ex-empire parts of the world that remain a focus for conflict to this day.
Kwarteng’s book isn’t any kind of overview of the British Empire; rather he focuses entirely on just six different territories – Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, the Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong – providing an account of each area’s history under colonial rule or influence, and how that experience colours their political state in the present day.
There is a breathtaking range of quotes and references throughout, brilliantly bringing to light the range of personalities involved, and giving real insights into their characters.
Although he has interesting things to say about all the regions he features, one has a suspicion he has reverse-engineered a common theme to connect them all in this book – namely that each one’s post-colonial history has been coloured by an error made during British rule. It’s an interesting idea but in each case one is not entirely convinced. Too often we are left feeling that the root cause of the problems described, both pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial, is actually the long-time presence of mixed and conflicting ethnic groups – and so nothing to do with anything that happened under the Empire.

For example, we are told that the British error during their brief involvement in Iraq was imposing the Sunni Hashemites as a royal family – a concept allegedly alien to Arab culture - in a Shia majority country (which also has substantial Sunni and Kurd minorities). Unfortunately, as the author mentions in passing, a very similar royal set up was arrived at in Saudi Arabia without any British involvement, and that continues to this day. As does the Hashemite royal family in Jordan. On the Sunni versus Shia debate, he omits to point out that the Sunni Ottoman Empire had been ruling Iraq for hundreds of years previously, and most of the successful Iraq leaders since the Hashemite dynasty were deposed were also Sunni. Today, the country finally has a Shia dominated administration, and, as we see, it is in the throes of breaking up as a result.

The British error in Kashmir (a princely state, so never under direct British administration) was allowing a prominent Hindu member of the previous Sikh administration to take control of the region (on payment of a fine) after the British had defeated them in the first Anglo-Sikh War. But to have done otherwise would have been difficult, if not impossible, bearing in mind the Hindu controlling elite in the country at that time, regardless of the fact that a majority of the population in the diverse region were (largely oppressed, and poor) Muslims. However it is tragic that his successor, as absolute ruler, chose to take Kashmir into post-colonial India (in spite of vigorous British attempts to convince him to join Muslim Pakistan).

On Burma the author is on much firmer ground – he has a very good case for saying that Britain should never have annexed upper Burma – it was an outrageous and high-handed act by Lord Randolph Churchill, taken while the British parliament were in recess so couldn’t challenge it, and went against all the advice he received from colonial administrators. But it was widely condemned at the time by other British politicians. Sad to say, also bearing in mind his son Winston’s attempts to thwart moves to Indian independence in the 1930s, and his alleged refusal to help relieve the Bengal Famine in the 1940s, that part of the world has been poorly served by the Churchill family.

When he comes to the Sudan, though, Kwarteng is back on shakier territory. We are told it was a mistake for Britain to first treat the northern (Muslim Arab) and southern (black African) parts of the country in different ways, and them try to bring them together again before independence. But the point is they were already one country before the Brits arrived, though fundamentally divided, and the (much admired) colonial administration recognised that the more developed northern part would be ready for self government early, with the more primitive and historically oppressed southern part needing to remain under British rule for longer, perhaps to be integrated into black African countries further south. However, they ran out of time; the moves to self-government across Africa, and the USA’s agitation against colonialism, meant they were left with no choice but to grant independence to the whole country. So the mistake was forced upon them; it was not of their own choosing.

Nigeria, like Iraq and the Sudan, was an already divided society before the Brits arrived. They are condemned for honouring the respective leaders of each faction, but surely they were just recognising what already existed. However, they are also condemned for not engaging with the fast developing new educated urban class (a group which the empire largely created) and Kwarteng makes a far more plausible argument for that.

Finally, Hong Kong is seemingly tacked on at the end of the book. It doesn’t really fit his hypothesis in any convincing way, but in spite of that, he presents a hugely readable and informative history of this unique part of the world.

One other small point about this flawed but wonderfully enjoyable book: we are told in the introduction that to get anywhere in the empire, it was necessary to have gone first to one of a small group of prominent public schools, and then Oxford or Cambridge. Unfortunately the author is then completely undone by his undoubted scholarship, because we are treated to a fascinating cast of characters over the succeeding pages who peopled the areas of Empire he chose to discuss, and it turns out that many, if not most, of them went neither to a posh public school nor Oxbridge. In fact a surprisingly large amount of them (including that colossus of empire Lord Kitchener of Khartoum) went through the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, the distinctly less exalted brother of the much smarter Sandhurst. Sadly Woolwich is now long gone, but it clearly had illustrious alumni.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!!!, 9 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Hardcover)
Kwasi Kwarteng's brilliant book Ghosts of Empire deserves the fantastic reviews it has received from the Sunday Times to the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph. By focusing each section on different areas of the British Empire the reader is able to get a thoughtful overview of the conflicting policies and Kwarteng skillfully provides the rationale for British occupation, the key policies employed by the colonial administrators and then reviews the countries' fate since independence in a very succinct manner - no mean feat given the geography and timelines covered! The quirky facts and personal stories of the leaders involved bring the story alive and often provide a real insight into the social context and norms of the day. By not simply arguing for or against Britain's colonial past, Kwarteng adds an interesting dimension to the debate on Britain's legacy and with that context for the country's responsibilities today.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anatomy of British Imperialism, 22 July 2013
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This book presents a unique take on British Imperialism, arguing that it was Philosopher king like British aristocrats who ruled the colonies on whim rather than some defined set of policies dictated by the mainland British government. The most informative and enjoyable bit personally for me was the Kashmir chapters as it presented some of the most balanced views I have yet had to read. I also enjoyed the chapters on Iraq, Burma and Hong Kong. This book is highly recommended to any seeker of Imperialism.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellently researched - extremely interesting analysis., 15 May 2015
An excellent book - a balanced assessment of the British Empire and its present-day legacy, excellently researched and full of fascinating details. Interesting to read in conjunction with Niall Ferguson's 'Empire' which, although written with the same high standards of research and readability, in comparison comes over in parts as a thinly veiled apologia for the British Empire. Ghosts of Empire is a more detached - more critical - analysis of how the British Empire was run in reality and its questionable indelible legacy on the present-day world.
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55 of 67 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment, 9 Sept. 2011
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This review is from: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Hardcover)
I was influenced to buy this book by several effusive reviews. The book does not warrant such praise. Kwarteng selects 6 case studies to illustrate his theme that the formation of the British Empire lacked a coherent policy. Surely this is a truism which was recognised in the later 19th century. One reviewer (in the Guardian) enthused that he learnt something new on every page. Perhaps, but filling the volume with a plethora of interesting but gossipy facts distracted from rather than enhanced the argument. The fact that Mountbatten left Rangoon on HMS Birmingham in January 1948, the constituency that Randolph Churchill failed to win in 1885 is not 'ironic' relevent or even interesting (p205). One or two facts were dubious. Is it possible that the daily death rate for indigenous Burmese was as high as 80,000? (p195) I got the impression that the book had been rushed out. It would benefit from more focussed editing and proof reading. At one point the word 'not' is omitted!
The book needs maps! I challenge anyone to follow the narrative without the benefit of a high resolution atlas. The single map of the world hardly facilitates following the action in the Sudan or tracking the pipeline debate in inter-war Iraq. The book is saved by being an easy read but it is not a serious contribution to the historiography of empire.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Empire through fresh eyes, 16 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Hardcover)
What an enjoyable read. This is not a defence of the British Empire neither does it try to lay the ills of the world at Britians door but it does examine where we are now and how we got there. Not the whole Empire but six areas of the world that even now are in turmoil. A very helpful book in understanding why.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 1 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Hardcover)
Well, I agree with the critic who said he learnt something new on every page. I did too, much of it radically adjusting my views on both the debit and credit side of our Imperial past.
Instead of competing with Jan Morris's magisterial and hugely enjoyable Pax Britannica trilogy (the unmissably good history of the whole Empire), Kwarteng has taken a group of (often short-lived) members of the Empire and carefully analysed their progress up to the present day, showing how the decisions made early on have had good (or more often, disastrous) results and why. Burma and Kashmir are shown to be particularly egregious examples of Imperial bungling!
He writes clearly and has evidently undertaken an immense amount of research. One way one can judge any historian's reliability is if, by chance, you know some minor detail of his subject well. Every time on this criterion he scores 100% for total accuracy.
I recommend this book very strongly to anyone interested in well-told history.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book, 4 Oct. 2011
By 
T. J. Jones "tjamesjones" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Hardcover)
A wonderful book, interesting, wry, humourous. Kwazi Kwarteng puts at centre stage the stories of men and woman who ran the British Empire, and the locals who inherited the new nations after independence. I felt he achieved the historian's main aim which is to help the modern reader understand why the historical characters cared about the things they cared about. And his endless anecdotes keep the stories fresh. On page 238, describing the interview process to join the new Sudan Political Service (state bureaucracy):

"The interview process in London was not particularly rigorous, but involved a series of questions designed to show mental toughness; cranks and people with foreign accents were firmly rejected. When asked 'What made you want to serve in Sudan?', one candidate replied, 'I always wanted to serve in the Sudan, Sir, ever since seeing Tarzan of the Apes [the 1918 film]'; he was not selected...."

My key criticism is that I felt his theorising doesn't always stand up. In particular it ends up being an odd criticism of empire to focus on the 'lines in the sand' that define modern nations. Surely at a theoretical level it's nationalism that needs to answer to the problem of getting nations and states free of inconsistency and minorities. Empires don't much care for the masses they rule, but the tend to be comfortable with minorities where new nations are not (e.g. the Burmese Hill Tribes, who have not enjoyed Burma's transition to modern nationhood). That is to say, the theoretical arguments for nationalism (which nobody today would really question) are good for the majority, but not for remaining minorities, and yet it's the problem of minorities that is the most notable legacy in Kwarteng's book.

But that's not my final point - I really cannot think of any reader who would not gain from reading this book. Michael Burleigh said that he "learned something new on virtually every page", and that's a fine complement for a fine book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars What was bad about the British empire? Read this., 25 May 2015
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I read this as part of my history degree. Interesting and, despite the author's claims to be unbiased, I don't think he is (he's a politician..is there any such thing as an unbiased politician?) This serves as an anti-Ferguson book. Just as Niall Ferguson claims the empire was on the whole a good thing, Kwarteng blames the empire for everything from Saddam Hussein to conflict in Kashmir. I still enjoyed the book and, even though it only a covers a few parts of the British empire (Kashmir and Iraq for two) , it is still a useful book in assessing Britain's contribution to modern history.
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Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World
Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World by Kwasi Kwarteng (Hardcover - 15 Aug. 2011)
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