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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars John Darwin - Rise and Fall of the British Empire
All history students are subject sometime to inevitable essay question whether the British Empire was a dynamic benevolent force for good or a monstrous imperial atrocity imposed with a gunboat diplomacy? Anyone reading Jeremy Paxman's recent tome "Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British" will inevitably fall into the latter camp as he mounts a well written if...
Published 19 months ago by Red on Black

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive but sometimes hard going
Like many growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I had formed a dim view of empire, colonialism, etc.. John Darwin's book takes the slightly revisionist view that the experience and impact of the British Empire was more nuanced, less black and white that many people have assumed.

Darwin is good at setting out the European backdrop to territorial expansion as the...
Published 15 months ago by Marand


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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars John Darwin - Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 6 Feb 2013
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Red on Black - See all my reviews
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All history students are subject sometime to inevitable essay question whether the British Empire was a dynamic benevolent force for good or a monstrous imperial atrocity imposed with a gunboat diplomacy? Anyone reading Jeremy Paxman's recent tome "Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British" will inevitably fall into the latter camp as he mounts a well written if ill tempered critique of the Empire and its legacy which is explicit in emphasizing how generally awful it was for everyone who came into contact with it. Perhaps a more scholarly if slightly less readable approach comes in this excellent book by John Darwin's "Unfinished Empire" which is revisionist in the sense that it questions the strict dichotomy of British rulers on the one side and colonial victims on the other. Darwin has been treading these boards in previous books. But here he gives full vent to the thesis that it is a myth to speak of "A British Empire" when in fact the governing characteristics was a system that was contradictory, tangled, messy and in one sense very short lived. Therefore to speak of some strategic "Imperial Project" is a complete misnomer. As he points out "even in 1914, the Colonial Office contained only 30 senior officials who were ostensibly in charge of 100 different colonial spaces, not to mention 600 quasi-autonomous Indian princely states that technically owed allegiance to the British crown". In this respect therefore this book could be more accurately subtitled "Empire by hotchpotch" with free trade providing the only really coherent unifying theme. As he states "it was largely a private enterprise empire, the creation of merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries amongst many others"

Studying how the Empire developed in India, Ireland, Africa versus the Americas, Australia and Canada for example shows entirely different models of British rule largely provisional and improvised. Most English speaking Canadians and New Zealander settlers would have seen the process has an empire of partners. In other parts of the global map the wistful cliché that "the sun never set" on the Empire should not disguise the fact that it did witness astonishing levels of violence and cultural racism. Richard Gott has pointed to Britain's use of "terror by example" such as the brutal treatment of sepoy mutineers at Manjee in 1764, where it was ordered that they should be "shot from guns", was a terrible warning to others not to step out of line. Moving into the sorry story of British rule in Ireland would throw up even worse horrors. Darwin is certainly no apologist for any of this but he is is keen to explore why the textures of Empire held together with such resilience and held off challenges from other equally aggressive European nations. This he believes was testimony to a range of "qualities", not least the underpinning foundation of British imperialism which was its "extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object." In particular, the British excelled at recruiting local elites and interest groups as collaborators without whose consent little would have been possible. This more than all the boastful talk of "enlightened reform and disinterested trusteeship" was at the heart of British rule and more accurately explains its extraordinary grip on countries the sheer size of India, where the resources of Empire were almost deployed by a skeleton staff.

Andrew Roberts the conservative historian in reviewing this book concluded that "Darwin's book might at long last herald the victory of the post-Marxist phase of imperial historiography, and not a moment too soon". This reviewer is not so certain about Roberts schadenfreude not least since Darwin's emphasis on the role of free trade could readily appeal to supporters of Karl M. In the last analysis Darwin's book is a cool, logical and well argued case. Its central thesis that rather than being "constituted by empire" for Britain's Empire was actually "only a phase, an exceptional moment" is neatly provocative. Winston Churchill certainly wouldn't have agreed with that sentiment and for generations of British politicians, particularly in the Victorian age, the "Empire" was a humongous source of national pride which appeared to beguile any rational analysis. Darwin has done a service here putting it into more subtle and sophisticated context and unlike some of the more radical revisionist historians he makes no attempt to take the Empire's fall and dress it up as victory. Recommended
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Box Lid to the British History Jigsaw, 28 Nov 2012
By 
K. Petersen "Ken" (Hemsby,UK) - See all my reviews
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I thought that this book might be fairly interesting to read: I was wrong! It is one of the best books that I have read all year.

Like many people. either born in Britain, or with an interest in British history, I had a passing knowledge of the main events affecting the UK from the 17th to 21st centuries: I knew about Suez, the World Wars, Trafalgar, the Battle of the Nile, Invasion of and expulsion from the United States and other incidents that have helped to shape this great country of ours. Where this book is so useful, is that it stitches these historical events into a single fabric.

John Darwin is above turning this story into a political diatribe, either in favour, or against the British Empire; rather, he shows how, through happen-stance, as often as shrewd political calculation, events conspired to allow the creation of an extraordinarily elastic empire. He also gives a plausible, although he is the first to admit, not necessarily a definitive explanation of its decline. So many authors, nowadays, make the fatal mistake of judging the past by the moral codes of today. Mr Darwin avoids this trap by the simple expediency of not judging at all. He merely relates the story, the reader is free to insert his/her own opinion on the rights and wrongs of the situation.

I find this type of history absolutely fascinating: after all, if one does not understand how we got to where we currently stand, how can we make valid decisions as to where we should be heading? I thought that I would enjoy it, I did not expect it to be quite so "unputdownable". Anyone with political aspirations, an interest in British and world history, or indeed anyone able to appreciate a darned well written book NEEDS to read this. Definitely high upon my top ten books of the year!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very academic tome, 6 May 2013
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Darwin has set out to write a comprehensive history of the rise and fall of the British empire, exploring the how, why and when in some detail. He succeeds spectacularly, in what is a rich but quite academic tome.

He takes the approach of broadly splitting Britain's empire into three categories: North America, India and 'the rest'. Taking each of these in turn, he considers how they were first invaded, the nature and extent of settlement, rebellions and the eventual independence of each.

At times I found the book a struggle to get through - as a non-specialist reader it was a little too detailed for me. All the same, I can see the quality of the scholarship and appreciate the attempt at a balanced approach.

Elsewhere in the reviews section for this book there is a debate about whether that balanced approach is appropriate given the fundamentally oppressive nature of empire (in theory) and the atrocities committed by all sides in practice. For what its worth I do think Darwin falls down a little on this. It is easy to claim a balanced, neutral approach, but much harder in practice to decide where to put emphasis, which reports to cite, how much to focus on this or that rebellion and its consequences. Darwin does acknowledge the arguments either side, but in my view he then goes on to paint a rather-too-rosy picture in the next few hundred pages. It's a matter both of nuance and personal taste, but to me the book falls a little too far into moral and cultural relativism, particularly in the case of the 'terra nullius' proclamations that have so influenced the history of Australia.

But so be it. This is a very impressive work, ambitious in scope and rich in detail. It's well worth devoting the considerable time it will take to read it cover to cover.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading, 9 Oct 2012
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J. Davies - See all my reviews
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A beautifully written and well researched explanation of the rise and fall of the British Empire. Darwin describes how Britain acquired the largest empire the world has ever known. Then Darwin concludes why in logical argument. The hyperbole that other writers on empire seem to find necessary is refreshingly absent. Darwin is not afraid of condemning the worst excesses, or of praising the success of British rule, but is careful to put them into context. This is a very readable book that should appeal to both academic and interested laymen alike.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent analysis. Non-partisan history can still be done, 25 Aug 2013
By 
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
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Empire is an embarrassment and imperialism a dirty word. That goes for the British Empire, too. Plenty of people hate it, wish it had never happened, denounce it, loathe it, and work themselves up into righteous rage over its crimes. None of this alters the fact that Britain did have an empire, and it has left its mark on the world and will continue to do for ages to come. No amount of angry denunciation can ever alter this fact. Merely listing its crimes doesn't explain the how and why (and I would insist this observation applies for all history generally, for Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union as well as the British Empire). This book shows that it is possible to write history that does just this.

If you are looking for empire's defence, or empires prosecutor, then this book is not for you. What you will find is empire's historian, not in the cynical sense of a history written for the winners, but one that explains why empire emerged, what made it so durable and what lay at the roots of decline. John Darwin succeeds brilliantly in doing this.

The book is fluent and well written. It does not try to do everything and it is not an A to Z of empire. The book adopts a thematic structure and is not a conventional `rise and fall' narrative. We come to understand that the clichéd representation of the British Empire on old maps colouring vast swatches of pink (or red) does not represent the truth. The empire was no monolith. The truth is a lot more interesting than that. Various themes - governing, settling, rebellion, trade and empire's eventual eclipse are considered, with their various, untidy nuances forensically dissected, revealing that there was not one but several empires, molded by many different forces, including the colonized, who were not always hapless victims but actual shapers of its history. Empire did not arise by some master plan. Many hands were at work. Violent as it could be, it was not held together merely by force or the threat of force. Some of its supposed victims saw opportunities as well as threats in the rise of empire. Accommodation was as much a fact as resistance. The empire did not make Britain - Britain made it, but echoing Marx, frequently made it in circumstances not of their choosing, and made it not in ways it always expected. Its eventual fall, like that of the Soviet Union, took many by surprise, including most its critics. Hence, it was in many ways an unfinished empire, and its definition was by no means concrete at the time of its collapse.

The book does not overlook the crimes of empire. It is not a whitewash. I doubt anyone is going to come away from this book and turn into a fan of empire. But it refuses to treat the fact of these crimes as sufficient explanation for why the empire rose in the first place and why it lasted as long as it did. The book is refreshingly free from any overt political agenda - it does not seek to exculpate or to condemn but to explain. This approach will not suit all temperaments - those who insist on annexing history to contemporary political agendas will probably not want to read this book. This is their loss
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free enterprise empire, 16 Oct 2012
By 
T. Burkard (Norwich, England) - See all my reviews
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Most empires have been built by conquering armies. They had to grow or die--rulers were judged by how much new territory they annexed. This was the way things happened when political power was concentrated in the hands of a monarch or emperor.

As Darwin argues, the British empire was created mostly by entrepreneurs in search of profit. Although the Royal Navy enabled ventures to succeed and governments were generally supportive of colonies that increased trade (and hence taxable imports), they weighed up the cost of sending gunboats and soldiers against the strategic and commercial value of a given colonial enterprise.

Darwin writes well, but the thematic format entails jumping around in time from one sentence to the next. As a historian, I could cope well enough, but I suspect that it would prove confusing for readers who can't instinctively place Pitt the Elder with the Seven Years' War, Plassey and Quebec.

Darwin covers a huge subject, and he makes a few questionable judgments. Now, most historians accept Jonathan Israel's contention that the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 was in fact a hostile Dutch invasion. William's fleet was far bigger than the Spanish Armada, and the 'invitations' sent to him by Whig grandees were simply a precautionary measure indulged in by any nobleman who wanted to hedge his bets. One can be sure that these self-same grandees also wrote letters to James II pledging their undying loyalty to the Stuart cause.

Darwin perhaps gives too much weight to the dark side of the Empire. Slavery, killing and exploitation were pretty much the norm throughout the world before and during the Empire. We cannot understand history if we view it through modern sensibilities. We should never forget that the Empire was based upon collaboration with native elites, and respect for native culture and religion. Nor should we forget that the Empire could never have been so successful if our colonies could see no benefit to the arrangements. Our modern obsession with race obscures the fact that outside of the lands settled by white colonists, most colonised people never saw a white face.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Empire, 19 Mar 2013
By 
Sussman "Sussman" (London CA) - See all my reviews
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This is a well-researched piece of academic exploration of how the British Empire rose and fell. This is not a dry academic treatment, but designed and explained so that non-academic can read this large undertaking. There is a vivid description of how Britain acquired the largest empire the world has ever known. The author does condemn some of the more terrible things done under the premise of `Empire', but he also comments on the positives that enabled relatively small groups to control vast areas of the globe, but these statements are couched in the circumstance of the time and place. This is a work that is an important read to both academics and non- academics a like. Well worth a four star rating.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive, 11 May 2013
By 
The Emperor (UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a well written and thoughtful study of the British Empire. Personally I thought that it was quite unbiased and a sober assessment. The author always gives reasons for his opinions and it seemed to be less biased than many other accounts that I have read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well argued and an interesting read, 22 May 2013
By 
K. Waran (UK) - See all my reviews
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Accurately shows how the British Empire was always a work in progress. Particularly liked the chapter on "Ending Empire."
Strongly recommend it .
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Putting Britain's empire into perspective, 14 May 2013
By 
Claretta (London, England) - See all my reviews
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I found the first few pages hard going, but perseverance was richly rewarded. Darwin's book is cleverly structured so that though there is to some extent a chronological narrative thread running through it, it is mainly organised thematically; so, for example, there is a chapter on the problems raised by having to defend the empire, one on the different forms of government that were applied in different territories and another on trade, as well as a chapter on the end of empire. That may mean it is not the ideal book for a complete newcomer to the history of the empire, but for someone with a little existing knowledge it was a great way to get into some very thought-provoking analysis.
Darwin emphasises the diversity of empire and the lack of central planning. His book is a great antidote to one-sided views of the empire as either the bringer of civilisation to backward countries or a pure machine for exploitation. It also makes one reflect on how much Britain itself has been shaped by the imperial experience.
And Darwin reminds the reader how recently the empire was a reality that many thought would continue indefinitely. Darwin argues that even after the "geostrategic disaster of 1940-42" it was not obvious that the empire must be lost. Into the late 1950s the orthodox view was that Britain's future prosperity lay in trade with the empire and commonwealth, not Europe. That may prompt readers to reflect on what might have been.
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