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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 October 2011
Jeremy Paxman stylishly, wittily, sardonically and graphically summarizes the history of the British Empire. The Introduction is a treat in itself, and already it shows the author ready to spice his comments with adjectives like "unhinged" (for Gordon's mission to Khartoum) or "cracked" (for Baden-Powell) - there will be more such in the rest of the book.

It is quite a challenge to cover some three and a half centuries and involving every continent - many of which Paxman has visited for the television series to be based on his book - in under 300 pages of text (plus a bibliography of 32 pages! No wonder he pays generous tribute to Jillian Taylor, his researcher). In such a small space, Paxman not only manages to tell the stories - brutalities, heroics and all - with which many members of an earlier generation would have been more familiar than among those who have grown up in our post-imperial days - but he also finds room, in the text or in the footnotes, for the unfamiliar, the illuminating or witty anecdote, and for personal comment or interpretation. There is, for instance, the lovely scene of the first trade mission to the Chinese emperor in 1793 (followed by the weasel words with which the website of Jardine & Matheson conceals the origin of that firm's prosperity in the opium trade); or the extended account of the building of the Uganda Railway, beset as it was by two huge man-eating lions (one of whom had too diseased a lower jaw to kill larger prey - Paxman's comment: "the railway workers were a sort of convenience food.")

Scathing though Paxman is about the materialist motives (often cloaked in beliefs about the superiority of the white man and of his religion) which led to the expansion of the Empire, he pays due tribute when he comes to the high-minded: the Evangelicals who put an end to the slave trade; the genuine outrage about the abuse of power in 18th century India and the subsequent insistence on standards of integrity; the sincerity, endurance, unselfishness and educational work of the missionaries, who often strove to protect the local people against exploitation and sometimes supported the cause of independence; the ethos of pluck, fairness, leadership, team-work, and playing by the rules inculcated in so many colonial district officers on the games fields of their public schools (and, he might have added, the belief in hierarchy, the sense of responsibility and the confidence of command resulting from the prefect system).

Given the space devoted to anecdotes and many extended accounts of picturesque incidents, it is remarkable that almost all the major themes of British imperial history appear in this book. One exception, I think, is the story of how, learning from the loss of the American colonies, the British, between the 1840s and the 1870s, relaxed their grip successively on Canada, the Australian colonies, New Zealand and Cape Colony, giving them "responsible government" - essentially what would now be called autonomy or Home Rule - so that, by the outbreak of the First World War, they were all but independent. The British declared war on their behalf in 1914, but effectively acknowledged their full independence when it invited them to sign the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty gave Britain yet more territories to control - acquisitions by which Paxman considers "the reach of empire finally exceeded its grasp."

And so we come to the decline of the Empire. Paxman mentions diminishing lack of public interest as early as 1924, when the Empire Exhibition at Wembley was rather a flop. There was some anti-imperialism on the left; but that was as nothing compared to the influence of anti-imperialism from outside: from the United States (critical at Suez), the Soviet Union, and of course the increasingly vocal nationalist opposition in the colonies themselves, which had begun in India as early as the foundation of the Congress Party in 1885 and the Muslim League in 1906.

The Empire survived the First World War, but, as Paxman says, it was the Second World War which "really sank" it. At its end, Britain recovered the lands she had so shamefully lost to the Japanese; but, like France and Holland, she was too exhausted to hold on to what she had regained and, during the next two decades, to hold on to almost all her other colonial territories. Today, Paxman tells us, there are just fourteen tiny specks left; the most important of these are Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, reconquered from the Argentinians.

Paxman thinks that Dean Acheson's 1962 dictum that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role" is still true today. In a rather acid conclusion, he writes that, though Britain no longer has an Empire and has even all but forgotten it, she still thinks that this island nation is so different from her European neighbours that she stands aside from it; that the work of her colonial subjects had brought her wealth that, according to him, still makes her feel that the world owes her a living; and that this has made her economic decline steeper than it might otherwise have been. A sparkling book ends on this rather depressing note.
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on 21 January 2012
There is not enough discussion of the British Empire. Generations of British children have grown up with a view of history which focuses too much on Hitler and Stalin, while remaining ignorant of the Empire. As a young schoolchild in the late 1960s and early 1970s some of our (older) schoolbooks still spoke proudly of the Empire, and we even had on the wall a map of the world with the Empire coloured in red. But by my teenage years the subject had been mysteriously airbrushed out of existence. So this book is especially welcome.

Paxman's book is very well written. It is lively and informative. He has an unerring eye for picking out the juicy and entertaining episodes, so the interest never flags. He keeps a good balance - criticising the racism, greed and violence where appropriate, but pointing out some positive aspects too. I note that in the Amazon reviews some accuse him of being an apologist for the Empire, and others make the opposite claim that he is unpatriotic and too politically correct. That suggests he's probably got the balance about right.

The blatant racism of the empire builders, reaching quite far into the twentieth century, is rather shocking to our modern selves. Reading here some of the quotes from the time, one wonders whether Nazi ideology was a little more mainstream in the first half of the twentieth century than we are led to believe today. And the chapters which describe how the Empire reached its largest extent in the 1920s and 1930s are interesting - I guess it is more comfortable to imagine the Empire as something from the very distant past.

The one weak part of the book is the conclusion. A longer discussion of 'what ruling the world did to the British' (it is in the title after all!) would have been welcome. And not only is it too brief, but rather shallow (the last two paragraphs of the last chapter are a real let down). Hint to Paxman for any revision: Britain is one of the most open economies on the planet and London is an economic and cultural phenomenon - please discuss.
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on 11 March 2012
You would have to be a very mean-spirited critic (even more vicious than a Newsnight presenter on a bad day) not to like this book. The British Empire combined the ludicrous and laughable with the impressive and the inspiring. The thesis of the book is that its very creation and collapse shaped the nation that is Britain today. Empire tells the story of development and decline and does it with the skill of a great writer on top form.

Jeremy Paxman (helped by a lifetime of practice) has a wonderful way with words and tells his chosen story with wit, verve and skill. The characters he introduces to us like Kitchener, Gordon, Rhodes and Baden-Powell are intriguing and captivating. The stories of Sudan, Rhodesia, India and the rest are told here with a greater levity but no less insight than would be in a more formal history. Events such as the comic farce of the first navel battle of World War One, which took place in colonial Africa on Lake Nyasa, illuminate almost every page. The book is probably greatly helped by its association with a BBC television series as this has enabled an enormous volume of research which provides the rich stream of detailed anecdotes. On a more serious note the book explains the context for much of the present days political strife from Ireland to Israel; from Iraq to Iran. All can trace their roots to British colonial decisions.

The premise that building the Empire has changed the British themselves is not wholly explored and indeed it feels a bit like a publishers gimmick to provide a catchy subtitle but this book must be judged as a popular work of non-fiction rather than a PhD thesis. As such it is 100% successful and worth every penny.

For those of us born this side of WWII this book goes a long way to helping to explain a earlier generation's state of mind and the models they had of the place of Britain in the world. As the author notes in the famous phrase "Britain lost an empire and is yet to find a role"

For non-British readers of this review Mr Paxman, on BBC television, is a master exponent of the raised eyebrow and the quizzical expression. The text of this book abounds with a similar spirit of sceptical interrogation. So for entertainment and enlightenment settle down with Empire to enjoy a master craftsman, at the top of his game, treating you to a slightly cynical but always informative view of the absurd and oddly admirable British Empire.
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on 14 November 2011
If this book were positioned as an easy to read, brief and occasionally light-hearted history of the British Empire, I would happily give it five stars out of five.

Paxman gives a nice potted history, with an enjoyable focus on some of the Empire's more colourful characters. He nails his colours clearly to the mast and we know he doesn't really approve of what went on. I think he's quite unfair to some of those living abroad in 'the dominions', portraying people as racist and unkind, based on their comments about general life, the difficulty of finding good servants, etc. A bit of context would be handy. I would like to see Paxman try to get people to do simple things to his standards in certain parts of the world today, for example. The sneering tone he adopts when commenting on a guide housewife's guide to making sure 'the help' do their job properly is totally misplaced.

Where the book fails is in its promise to discuss what ruling the world did to the British. I was expecting an in depth discussion on this topic - instead all we really have is the last chapter or two telling us we have curry houses and corner shops and that the UK likes to get involved in global conflicts. This part of the book, which is positioned as being the central theme for the entire work, feels more like an appendix.

So, an enjoyable, biased, discussion of the British Empire. Not, however, the treatise on how Empire has affected the British, as promised by the book's title.
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"Anyone who has grown up or grown old in Britain since the Second World War has done so in an atmosphere of irresistible decline to the point where now Britain's imperial history is no more than the faint smell of mothballs in a long-unopened wardrobe. Its evidence is all around us, but who cares?" - from EMPIRE: WHAT RULING THE WORLD DID TO THE BRITISH

"When India became independent in August 1947, the Empire lost four out of five of its citizens and freedom beckoned for all the others: Without India, the Empire was no more than a sounding gong." - from EMPIRE: WHAT RULING THE WORLD DID TO THE BRITISH

I acquired a fondness for England early. Growing up in my demographic - white, upper-middle class - in Southern California in the 1950s, it's not surprising that I was exposed to the tales of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Sherlock Holmes by parents who loved to read. Moreover, while attending Catholic elementary school, the nuns instilled a hypnotic fascination with Henry VIII, who beheaded wives and dared wrench England from the embrace of the Holy Mother Church. (Dude!)

And, while collecting stamps, my perception soon expanded to Great Britain and the Empire. There were so many little, gummed pieces of paper from a multitude of faraway, exotic places with the young Queen's image on them! But even by then, the Empire was dissolving, India having gone its own way two years before I was born. But I wasn't aware of it.

EMPIRE by Jeremy Paxman is an intelligent and congenial discourse on the sociological effects on the British of possessing an Empire. Mind you, it's not, nor claims to be, a chronological history of the imperium, though the scope of the book is from beginning to end of the Empire's golden age.

The author is quite candid about a significant portion of the early Empire's financial underpinnings, i.e. the trade in slaves and opium. However, Paxman also points out that, once the British government took over administration of the foreign territories from the great trading houses and put it into the fairly reliable hands of the stolid colonial officers recruited from the home island's middle class eager to serve Queen and country, the British Empire wasn't a necessarily bad empire to be ruled by as far as such go; it left many valuable legacies (as exemplified in Road Through Kurdistan: Travels in Northern Iraq). It was only after the Second World War that a growing sentiment among the British public of "Why bother?" acted as a catalyst to bring the Empire low.

Occasionally, the author injects a bit of wry humor:

"Even those who had arrived in (India) as bachelors had only to wait for the longed-for cold season and the arrival of what later became known as the Fishing Fleet - young women from the home country out to net themselves a husband from among the single men serving in India ... The women who failed to find anyone suitable went back to England, nicknamed 'returned empties'."

A reader well-versed in Empire history may wonder why the author barely touches on some topics, if at all: the loss of the American colonies, the rise (and fall) of the British navy, the Afghan Wars, the partition of India. However, these omissions do not detract from the effect of the whole narrative in any way.

As an adult reader, such books as Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar and Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift created for me mental pictures accompanied by a soundtrack that included "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule Britannia." Of course, there's not much of that anymore. As Paxman concludes:

"The British Empire had begun with a series of pounces. Then it marched. Next it swaggered. Finally, after wandering aimlessly for awhile, it slunk away."

Nowadays, the state of the Empire is best reflected in Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire and The Teatime Islands: Adventures in Britain's Faraway Outposts, though even here, as noted in the former by author Simon Winchester when visiting Tristan da Cunha, the last faint echoes of Empire can still call-up some of the old feelings:

"A bugle was blown, a banner was raised, a salute was made, an anthem was played - and the Colonial Governor of St. Helena was formally welcomed on to the tiniest and loneliest dependency in the remnant British Empire. I found I was watching it through a strange golden haze, which cleared if I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand: the children looked so proud, so eager to please, so keen to touch the hand from England, from the wellspring of their official existence."

The reader may be left wondering what Queen Elizabeth II, who's presided over the Empire's ever diminishing status over the past 60 years, thinks of it all, but she's never been interviewed - not ever. Perhaps, "We are not amused."
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on 17 February 2013
I have no great knowledge of the history of the British Empire and was looking forward to reading this Christmas present. Given Paxman's reputation as a TV interviewer, I expected a witty, entertaining read, and I was not disappointed. Overall, I enjoyed what is an informative and lively account, which is clearly based on a prodigious amount of knowledge and research. However, I have some reservations.

Paxman describes the development of the BE in roughly chronological steps. But the chapters have no titles. Quick changes from one theatre of Empire to another, interspersed with highly opinionated commentary sometimes left me a little lost in trying to follow the thread of the development.

By the time I finished the book, I was becoming a little tired of the witticisms and what appeared to me to be value judgements based more on modern interpretations of the morality of empire building, rather than the mores of the times. Sometimes, what appeared to be just one side of the story was presented and I couldn't help thinking there was another side. Paxman's skill in hounding politicians on TV, I much admire, but they can, and do, answer back. Perhaps such a style is not quite so appropriate in a book, where the protagonists of history have no opportunity to 'answer back'.

And I could not but admire the sheer energy, bravery and guts of many of the explorers, entrepreneurs, missionaries etc. who helped forge the BE, - characteristics which in Paxman seeking to criticise, were perhaps underplayed.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, I enjoyed much of the wit.
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on 2 September 2012
Paxman's "Empire" is a distinctly mixed book. It has numerous positives and numerous negatives, but when all is said and done it is an entertaining read.

So first, the positives.

The British Empire is obviously a huge topic, and Paxman does well to move through it at pace enough to sustain interest. It would be very easy to fall into a series of reports about acts, events and biographies and thus lose sight of the overall picture, not being able to see the forest for the trees. Paxman does not do this, showing an appreciation of the topic that is very impressive.

The research is considerable, and wide-ranging, and the actual nitty-gritty of the subject matter touches upon events that are known by name alone to the majority of people ("black hole of Calcutta", the Empire Exhibition of 1924) and illucidates on them. As such it "joins the dots" in a most pleasing manner, leaving one feeling much more educated by the end of it, although in terms of viewpoint nothing really changes.

The approach is broadly thematic rather than chronological although it does all wind together in the final chapters dealing with the end of the Empire and the start of the Commonwealth. There's enough broadness, and enough depth, to suggest further areas of interested reading to any reader of the book who's motivated enough. The section on women in the Empire was particularly impressive.

And now, the problems.

The history is a little imbalanced. Events such as the US War of Independence get virtually glossed over, likewise Australia and New Zealand (although there is more.) Canada barely gets a mention. By contrast, the sections on Africa and Asia are reassuringly thorough.

One review has already mentioned the language used - "crackpot" and "unhinged" being two examples. However, there's enough of this that (for me) Paxman moved away from being the man-of-the-people he was trying to imitate and ended up seeming like an overfamiliar 50-something trying to talk to a group of people 30 years his junior. This is a man who presents Newsnight and tries to go for gravitas - do we really need "hard case" and "nut-job"?

Then there's the inconsistency. Paxman wants to talk about something - this is good. But I'm not convinced he really knows what he thinks. The idea that Britain acquired an Empire during "a fit of absence of mind", the view of Sir John Seeley, is "a half-truth" (p.29), but it "simply will not do" (p. 29 again), before becoming completely wrong, then possibly right, then definitely wrong, then possibly right, and then finally definitely wrong again, by p. 250. A further example would be over Gladstone's attitude towards the Egypt and the Sudan (neither of which did he want to annex.) On p. 174, Gladstone is noted as having "scepticism about many of the claims made for empire". Two pages later, "Gladstone was about to learn that seizing Egypt was like putting your hand...inside a primed mousetrap". Ha! Ha! Let's all laugh at Gladstone, the silly empire-building Prime Minister! Hang on, wasn't he the same one who tried desperately to avoid expansion and spoke of equality of race and so on? Well, he certainly came a cropper over Egypt, the fool! Having clearly demonstrated that Gladstone wanted no hand in Egyptian affairs and was obliged to act by a combination of factors beyond his control, this is an odd turning for Paxman to take and again suggests that his own position on this may not have been considered.

This next point is a delicate one. Paxman, correctly, draws attention to the fact that no person is superior to another by virtue of the colour of their skin. Now on this, I'm 100% with him. Colour of skin is not important, content of character is. Correct. And yet a great deal of "Empire" is given over to pointing out that a) not everyone has always believed this and b) this has, in the past, made life very uncomfortable for people of different skin colours to the most powerful. There is a great deal of Paxman apologising. Whist emphatically agreeing that a lot what was carried out in the name of Britain was appalling, racist, bigoted and evil, I do feel that he could have tried a bit harder to look at the alleged "justifications" for what was happening, or at least been consistent. If you're condemning the white races for racist suffering and torture, you must take a similar approach when dealing with events like the Cawnpore massacre. He's so apologetic towards one side that an otherwise even-handed book loses out here. There are further problems in that Paxman doesn't act apologetically to the other groups who lost out due to the empire - victims of piracy, Spanish sailors, the dependents of the young men in hill stations and so on.

Further, I got the impression that the first stage of research (from whoever it was) was to read the "Flashman" novels and elaborate on the best bits...the only parts of the Indian Mutiny mentioned in depth, for instance, are Cawnpore and Lucknow. Even instances like Gordon's departure from London, and the God-save-the-Queen-playing musical bustle, mentioned first by George Macdonald Fraser, crop up here...most unusual.

Finally, Paxman seems obsessed with letting us know the size of moustaches possessed by various empire-builders. It sometimes seems he's not taking the topic entirely seriously.

So in summary, a very good book but with a few flaws; it sits uncomfortably between being a really accessible and knowledgable tome on a vast topic, and an apology for institutionalised racism with echoes of Flashman that almost, but not entirely, convinces the reader that Paxman is certain about what he is saying. But at the end of it, I am not certain that he adds anything more to the debate about Empire than Orwell did, although he certainly adds a lot more information.
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on 18 September 2012
First off, I would like to make clear that I am an academic historian, specialising in the history of Colonial Africa, and currently lecturing on the British Empire. I read this book to see whether it would be suitable as an introductory text to my undergraduate students doing a course on the legacy of British Imperialism.

The answer, quite simply, is no.

From the very first page Paxman makes clear that he despises the fact Britain ever had an Empire, and is explicit in emphasising how awful the Empire was for everyone it touched. I must admit now that the book is well written throughout and contains a large proportion of the facts and stories that are necessary to gain a basic understanding of the history of British imperialism, but his persistently derogatory tone towards all things British and all things to do with the Empire feels like being repeated struck over the head with a hammer of Paxman's naivety. He makes no effort to show the positive aspects of the British Empire, except perhaps in occasional sentences or paragraphs, and this dangerously misinforms and misleads the reader into assuming that British imperialism in general is something to be ashamed about.

This is most apparent in his chapter on the Atlantic slave trade. If ever 'White guilt' exists, Paxman makes abundantly clear it should be for the British involvement in slavery. He goes on and on about how the British invented slavery (and then contradicts himself by saying in only a few words that both the Portuguese and the Africans themselves already had a practical system of slavery in place by the time the British turned up), whilst constantly imposing 21st century values onto the moral and ethical views of the time. Paxman should know that by judging the people of the time by today's moral yardstick is a definite no-no, since the beliefs and circumstances for many of those in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries were substantially different to those we have today.

In some parts the author intentionally does not include certain aspects of history. Keeping our focus on his chapter about the slave trade, Paxman claims religion played a significant part in motivating the anti-slavery protestors, which is true, and yet he forgets (or deliberately omits) to mention the significant religious argument at the time in favour of slavery, the same argument that was used in the American South in the mid-nineteenth century and actually factored into the American Civil War. This sort of omission-to-strengthen-his-argument is repeated throughout the book and, whilst frustrating for anyone who has studied the topic before, is downright misleading for casual readers.

I could go on, but I don't see the point. This book claims to lay bare the historical facts of the British Empire, which it does to some extent, and yet Paxman is so blinkered, and naive, that to continue reading past the introduction takes some significant willpower. This sort of post-imperialistic guilt is damaging both to modern-day England and to it's history.
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VINE VOICEon 5 November 2011
This is a nicely written book with excellent pithy little footnotes, which enhance the overall "edginess" of the book and it even has, these days mandatory, lashings of self-flagellation, so we can all remember what absolute rotters our predecessors were.

I was hoping, however, and was really looking forward to a discussion about Britain's modern day place in the world and the strapline on the cover with the sleeping ? exhausted ! ), magnificent, lion promised that this would be the case. Unfortunately this ground was only lightly covered by tangential discussions in the last two chapters and my, hoped for, discussion about our place today, anticipated, but unfortunately absent.

So: If you have bought this book already then it's not bad.
If you are yet to buy and want a more uplifting, well rounded account then I would advise Niall Ferguson's 'Empire'.
If you are more interested in the closing days of empire, then Peter Clarke's " The last 1000 days of the B.E." is very much better and if you just want a fantastic book about the English speaking peoples then, of course, it has to be Andrew Roberts.
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on 15 December 2011
Apart from anything else, this easily read book had me smiling idiotically trying to suppress laughter on the tube. Paxman manages to weave compelling and often humorous anecdote into an informative history.

As an Irishman well schooled on the ills of the British Empire, or perfidious Albion as we liked to call it, I was surprised to find how I ended up quietly convinced that there were some aspects of the British colonial project which had beneficial influence (and not only railways!). By contrast, it makes one shudder to consider what might have happened had Prince Leopolds Belgians ran an empire as large as Britains.

The theme of the book is supposed to be how the legacy of empire has shaped modern Britain and Paxman seems to make the argument that Britain has been unable to forge a proper post empire identity. Indeed he compares the uk to Germany who despite starting two world wars have forged their identity and industry in the heart of Europe.
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