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
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