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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“The Rise and Fall of the British Empire”, by Lawrence James


720 pages, St. Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312140397

In The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Lawrence James, biographer and military historian, takes the entire empire as his subject, from the days of North American colonization in the early 1600’s to the post-World War II era and its “winds of change,” Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s description of the movements of national self-determination and anticolonialism which resulted in the empire’s demise, except for such remaining outposts as the Falkland Islands. In his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote that “[i]t has been calculated by the ablest politicians that no State, without becoming soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness” (how true; Britain maintained only a 17,000 man army and an 18,000 man navy in the peace prior to the American Revolution). Which is why the Empire was so spectacular, for with just sparse numbers of men (which expanded during wartime) Britain was able to initiate, maintain, expand and control almost the entire world trading centers from China to North America. Hardly a country in the world today was not impacted, for good or for ill, by this sudden expansion of these tiny islands off the northwest coast of Europe, bought about by its ability to design, build and crew the finest ships. Control the sea and you controlled the world, until the United States invented aircraft and the freedom of all individuals and the US took over Britain’s role.

Although, unlike Gibbon, James discusses the origins of Britain’s empire, like Gibbon he seems more interested in its fall; almost half the volume discusses the decline that James contends significantly began only in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and its lasting economic, psychological, and intellectual consequences. Democratic and nationalist ideologies undermined the rationale for empire and declining resources made it too costly to maintain. But James’ work is not just history from the top: he also incorporates the “voice” of the ordinary citizen as well as that of the politicians, generals, and imperial pro-consuls. More attention is paid to the British perspective than the colonial, and by necessity the treatment of some topics is brief, but the work is well written and provides an excellent overview of an important era whose effects and influences are still in evidence. Indeed, the book constantly emphasizes what, to my mind, is a shamefully overlooked subject in many histories: to wit, the disparity between how Britons themselves viewed the empire – as an enlightened, divinely inspired enterprise – and how those in the hinterlands administering and attempting to cope with matters saw things – shoot the wogs first and ask questions later.

Overall, Lawrence James gives the reader an excellent survey/overview of the British Empire (he even covers the Falkland War with some detail) for amateur historians interested in the British Empire; I particularly enjoyed his use of artistic achievements to setup the historical context of the particular period he is discussing. A comprehensive, perceptive, and insightful history of the British Empire, spanning over 400 years, this critically acclaimed book combines detailed scholarship with readable popular history.

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