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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain Hardcover – 6 Sep 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 61 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (6 Sept. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846140889
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846140884
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 4.2 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 329,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


A breadth of perspective few other imperial historians can boast. The British Empire really does look different in the light of it ... Breadth of vision, fizzing ideas and a brilliant style as well as superb scholarship ... It deserves to supplant every other book on this topic, including - though my publisher and bank manager won't thank me for saying this - my own. It is British imperial history at last without hang-ups; the one we've been waiting for (Bernard Potter History Today )

A brilliantly perceptive analysis of the forces and ideas that drove the creation of an extraordinary enterprise ... Bringing together his huge erudition, scrupulous fairness and elegant prose, Mr Darwin has produced a wonderfully stimulating account of something that today seems almost incredibly yet was, in historical terms, only yesterday. It is also a much-needed antidote both to the leftish consensus of the past 50 years that Britain's empire was unrelievedly awful ... and the recent triumphalist revisionism of more conservative historians (Economist )

Engrossing ... What Darwin adds to this insight is a rare, wonderful capacity for comparison. Empire here is a jigsaw of dreams and anxieties, conquests and loss of faith ... Seeing the imperial experience in the round like this does gives us a clearer, more subtle appreciation of the range of power and violence at play. It raises the historical writing on empire to another level (BBC History Magazine )

Balanced, original and impressive ... Subtle ... intelligent (Literary Review )

Comprehensive ... Darwin's erudition allows him to skirt around the narrow orthodoxies of apologist v critic and provide an insightful account of Britain's unlikely period of global hegemony (Sunday Times )

How incredibly refreshing it is when as distinguished an historian as John Darwin ... writes something as thoughtful, well-researched and persuasive as Unfinished Empire, which explains the half-millennium-long expansion of Britain across the globe in terms that genuinely make sense ... The author's deep familiarity with all the key sources of this vast subject allows him to pluck examples for his arguments from across the centuries and continents ... Best of all ... is the thought 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 (Andrew Roberts Sunday Telegraph Book of the Week )

John Darwin's Unfinished Empire surpasses even his own previous work to give an unmatched overview of imperial Britain's rise and fall (Stephen Howe Independent BOOKS OF THE YEAR )

[Darwin] emerges from the imperial brine with poise and balance where lesser historians would have beached themselves like lost whales ... In Unfinished Empire, he turns his attention to the British Empire's why, who and how: small words that signify very big questions ... the breadth of Darwin's learning is impressive ... [his] tone throughout is admirably detached and scholarly, though his dry wit keeps it well away from being boring ... Sharp, thoughtful, enjoyable and levelheaded (New York Times Book Review )

About the Author

John Darwin's interest lies in the history of empires, both their rise and fall.He has written extensively on the decline of Britain's empire and teaches imperial and global history at Oxford, where is a Fellow of Nuffield College. Most recently he is the author of After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, which won the Wolfson History Prize, and The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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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.
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