Top critical review
7 people found this helpful
on 24 July 2013
Having read several of the 'Very Short Introductions' I came expecting to be surprised, informed and stimulated and maybe finish feeling a little more knowledgeable. My expectations weren't met this time, partly because I studied the British Empire at University (over a decade ago so I'd still expected something new). As the writer explains this book is in line with the English academic orthodoxy on the topic. So as a precis of English academic opinion it is adequate, but not as exciting or engaging as other books in the series.
Jackson acknowledges the difficulties about writing about Empire (and he means the History of the British Empire he doesn't take multi-disciplinary approach). His solution - trying to give a 'hard edged' summary in an area where everything is caveated - is not entirely successful. It could be seen as an excuse not to address significant critiques of Empire and the subject of 'Imperial History' (Jackson's specialism) itself. There is no historiography in the volume which other 'Very Short Introductions' don't neglect and often use as a framework to dissect and explain current thought.
An example might be his use of Edward Said who is quoted - but from an autobiographical paper illustrating the racism of British Officials. There is no mention of the key significance of Edward Said's explosive impact on academia and the debate his seminal 'Orientalism caused. Similarly he quotes a long list of people who 'wrote' on Empire:
"Franz Fanon, Gandhi, Lenin, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Naipaul, Orwell, Bob Marley, George Padmore, Lenard Wolfe and Kwame Nkrumah".
Its as if someone has handed him a list and said 'you really need to include these people' and so he added it to the text! Had he academically considered what people like Nkrumah and Padmore wrote and more importantly how Gandhi & Nkrumah acted this book would be a significantly better read. As it is British blushes are spared and anti-colonial struggle in the colonies which some of the above people initiated in is ignored. This is a history of the British Empire from a pronounced English perspective where independence was 'given' not fought for, 'desirable' not necessary.
Crucially for me he introduces us to little evidence for his assertions on the nature of the British Empire, sometimes going pages without a reference or citing other authority. Maybe because it is all 'orthodox'?! Other 'Very Short Introductions' give a sense of being at the cutting edge of the current field. This one reads, by it's own admission, from the middle and so is bland, safe and from an historian's perspective not all that well argued or structured.