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
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!
on 9 October 2012
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.
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.
I've read several books about the British Empire, and found them something of a struggle, as I'm not particularly captivated by the subject. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this effort, which I found to be a generally good read. It didn't venture into the excessive detail of some books which some books on Empire have done (and I'm thinking in particular of Niall Ferguson's and Piers Brendon's efforts here) but looking at the wider picture of Empire, mixing facts and anecdotes in well laid out in rounded chapters. It covers history impartial as you can be an issue that still raises controversy, even as the last generation involved with the Empire passes away and Britain faces a multicultural future largely brought about as a consequence of Empire. It looks in its various chapters about how the Empire came into being, how it ran, the basis of its existence, the challenges it faces and how it met its end. Darwin both looks at the benefits that the Empire brought to Britain, as well as the injustices that were perpetrated, and the methods, ultimately backed by force, that were used even when the emphasis was on trade. He also, unusually, puts the Empire into historical context, i.e. by acknowledging that Empires have always exist, and very likely to continue (through economic or soft power methods), or will undergo some form of revival in the future as new countries come to the fore that might not feel so hidebound by western colonial guilt. Like many histories of Empire, it understands that there was no project as such, and that the Empire came into being and was held together by an set of exceptional circumstances that Britain took advantage of, and which when it ended also brought with it the end of Empire.
In summary I would say this is a good read and would benefit both the student of Imperial studies and the development of the modern world but also the interested layman.
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
on 28 January 2016
There may well be better, more objective, studies of the British Empire, but I've never heard of one : he shows superbly how the reason why the different parts of the Empire developed, and were run, in very different ways, is because the Empire was not really a master-plan of any Government, until it actually existed, at which time people started to realise the responsibility that running an Empire of different types of government can make life for the 'Mother' country quite difficult. Very informative, without becoming bogged down in statistics.
The properly deserved pedigree of prize-winning author John Darwin is beyond doubt as a highly respected historian and expert on the rise and fall of empires. His latest book `Unfinished Empire' embraces the British Empire from medieval English ambitions, through the golden age of British imperialism, up to decolonization after World War II. The detail and depth of scholarly input is endorsed by the comprehensive `Notes', the specialised suggestions for `Further Reading', and the meticulous `Index'. After an introductory `Preface' the main content of `Unfinished Empire' examines ideas and options for rule, and presents the core activities of making contact and taking possession with provision for war and suppression, administrative arrangements, legal procedures and operating trade with pragmatic tactics on converts and cultures. With shifts along the way, and with defining moments, this continues through to ending of empire.
Narrative is crammed with facts and figures and often comes across as piecemeal with a degree of repetition, as instead of a linear style there is reliance on a series of themes that are somewhat convoluted. Perhaps it is geared more to academics rather than lay readers, but there is much to expand the knowledge and understanding of those limited to the usual school text approach of the Armada, Clive of India, Nelson at Trafalgar etc. or more modern commentaries on home rule in Ireland, the Suez crisis etc. Instead of a swashbuckling strategy with gunboats up the river John Darwin outlines more complicated situations with colonization involving traders, investors, immigrants, missionaries etc. as possibly more meaningful than the military and politicians. His subject is huge yet the author seeks always to allow his readers to reach their own conclusions whilst remaining neutral with analyses and explanations. In addition to descriptive enlightening text on the various forms of colonization he outlines multi-sided arguments giving insights to positive merits and benefits of the British Empire balanced with references to the negative effects of exploitation and the often brutal acts under British rule. `Unfinished Empire' may not be an easy read, but it is rewarding - and thought provoking.
A boldly-conceived one volume history of the rise and fall of the British Empire, written by one of its foremost modern historians. He uses a number of broad, generally chronological themes to outline its progress, illustrating them with a wealth of examples drawn from various colonial environments and all set within a global context. There is space also for a brief review of the major debates which continue on issues such as the reasons for British involvement in the Scramble for Africa, the effect of empire in its heyday on British society, the end of empire after 1945; and the wider philosophical debate about the morality of empire. Darwin eschews over-simple, monocausal explanations for what was, in each particular case study, a complex process involving a variety of agencies, operating both at home and overseas.
The Preface sets out Darwin's basic approach to the study: empire was no abstract notion, it was a thing made by real people, driven by different motives and a wide range of quite distinct objectives. The following pages of the text are filled with hundreds of characters caught up in the experience of `empire', from the Indian chiefs of the American seaboard confronted by the first English settlers in the early 17th century; the great imperial figures, Rhodes, Gordon, Kitchener and Curzon, all household names at one time; the rebels and resisters, like Cetshwayo and Langalibalele in South Africa; imperial governors like Frederick Lugard, trying to find an accommodation between traditional and British values in local administration through the instrument of Indirect Rule; leaders of the independence movements such as Gandhi and Nkrumah, helped by the weakening of British power after 1945; and those Colonial Office ministers who dug trenches after the loss of India from which to protect what was left in Africa after Indian independence, only to retreat steadily but inexorably after the Gold Coast obtained freedom in 1957.
This may suggest a very scholarly densely-written historical text, but Darwin has an entertaining, lively style, and full of shrewd and witty observations about the capacity of people to delude themselves, while at the same time he is scrupulously fair to the majority of empire-builders who genuinely believed that their efforts would improve the lot of colonial peoples. In a well-paced account, with a fund of `good' stories, some familiar but others not, he engages the reader's attention throughout a 400 page text. The important events in this history, those that significantly shaped its future such as the Indian Mutiny and the quieter, but no less weighty decision of Canadian governor Lord Elgin to accept the advice of his ministers in the late 1840s and set in motion a process that was to lead to the modern Commonwealth of Nations, are given the coverage they deserve.
Such criticisms that I have are small and particular. The discussion of missionaries and their influence is quite brief, and the Attlee government's endeavours to develop colonial Africa as a potential dollar earner for post-war Britain needs further treatment as it was an important background factor in the 'second colonial occupation' referred to in the text.
A very distinguished contribution to the ever-growing list of works on the history of the British Empire that will appeal to amateur historians as well as students.
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.