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John Darwin - Rise and Fall of the British Empire
on 6 February 2013
All history students are subject to inevitable essay question whether the British Empire was a dynamic benevolent force for good or a monstrous imperial atrocity imposed with 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 but ill-tempered critique of the Empire and its legacy which is explicit in emphasizing how generally awful it was for those who came into contact with it. Perhaps a more scholarly if slightly less readable approach comes in this excellent book by John Darwin "Unfinished Empire" which is revisionist in the sense that it questions the strict dichotomy of heartless 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 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. The consequence of this was that "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"; 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 this, but he 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 a 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 Marx as a step towards the formation of a bourgeoisie. 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 "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 a victory. Recommended