Establishing some kind of unified field theory concerning British hegemony in the 19th and first half of the 20th century has become something of a grail quest for historians. Perhaps one of the most incisive and exhaustively academic is “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire” by Lawrence James. For as rigorous as James’ study is (700+ pages), it was published some 15 years ago. Current academic and social understanding of empires have continued to evolve from then. For example, when James was published, Hong Kong still had two years of its 99 year lease left.
Into this vacuum enters English historian John Darwin. Having previously tackled imperial attitudes in After Tamerlane and The Empire Project, Darwin uses his experience as a lecturer and researcher to attempt to provide a complete account of the question that has haunted the British establishment since perhaps 1948; What caused the decline and fall of the great British Empire?
I said before that historians looking for a united theory in explanations have discussed this topic in academic journals and publications for years. In an attempt to square this historical circle, Darwin proposes that the reason Britain became an empire at all was because of the “four C’s”: colonizing, civilizing, converting and commerce. It is a neat and tidy grouping that does its best to contain the bloated weight of two hundred years of imperial memory.
However, I give credit to where credit is indeed due. Darwin has an excellent moment of real keeping early on when he states:
“Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither peculiarly modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over.”
In fact I think it is fairly easy to defend the thesis that empire was the default setting of early nations and states. The fact that some succeeded for longer than others is a testament to the brutality of these empires.
Darwin doesn’t exactly offer his work in supplication to the formerly ruled. Instead, it acts more as contextualization of European empire in general and British policy in particular. None of which is to say he does not call out the sadistic nature of the occupying forces. His coverage of Indian policy and also the internment of both Boers and later Mau Mau is particularly acidic in nature. If permitted, I would take Darwin’s conclusions a bit further and reference George Orwell, whose experience serving the glory of the Raj drove him nearly insane with anger at the local population (see “Shooting and Elephant”).
Understandably, empires are destructive not just to the people that are being occupied. They also wear on the emotional stress of the occupier and colonial elite. Tales of alcoholism, violence and madness are a common theme stitched through his whole narrative.
Indeed, if Darwin succeeds in creating a great narrative of British rise to hegemony, it is on a kind of cumulative radicalisation. “entrepot imperialism”, using force and soft power to force British goods into new markets, ruled policy until the foundation of the American Republic in 1783. From this cataclysm for British soft power, new markets were already opening up, as Darwin points out:
“…far from heralding the implosion of British imperial power, the loss of America was the prelude to a colossal expansion of its scale and ambition.”
This ambition had a name; India and (and greater South Asia as a whole). From here Britain would make its mark into the history books as its laissez faire rule through corporatism led inexorably to direct rule and from there to complete domination of the sub continent and elsewhere.
While Darwin does cover the various entry points into local societies around the globe that marked the modern world with anglophone names on a majority of the world’s landmass, his best work is when discussing how India and South Asia were the real linchpin to British hegemony in the world. The navy they used kept markets relatively stable for British goods which could be produced ‘freely’ from cheap Indian labour.
Darwin doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the table regarding British rule of the world’s largest empire. But perhaps the fact that it keeps civil society discussing the legacy of imperialism and how it very visibly affects our day to day life is worth while enough.
Recommended for readers with interest in broad anglophone histoy, great for introductory courses.
Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain By John Darwin. Bloomsbury Press USA 2012. 496 Pages. Purchased Copy