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A sparkling account of the British Empire
on 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.