Watching the sun set on the great British empire
Many accounts of the British empire have appeared in recent years, but few are as entertaining as this hefty volume by Piers Brendon. Pointed, sharply drawn, wide in its sweep, at times luridly overwrought, "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire" asks for a commitment. But the author is such a lively writer that I'd be hard pressed to find dull patches in this whopper of a book.
The title - an allusion to Edward Gibbon's 18th-century classic "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" - bluntly signals Brendon's intention. In his version of British imperialism, there is little rise, and even less triumph. "Less emphasis is placed here on triumphs than on the disasters that undermined the fabric of the Empire," he writes. Indeed, his narrative seems to lead from one crisis to another: the loss of the American colonies and the surrender at Yorktown in 1781; the 1857 mutiny in India; disaster in Afghanistan; famine and uprising in Ireland; and humiliation at Suez. His view of empire is fashionably dim, and he will have none of the argument made by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson that the empire was largely a force for good. Where Ferguson sees virtue in the imperial mission, Brendon sees hypocrisy.
Brendon argues the empire was doomed from the start, undone by the lofty principles it espoused. "The Empire carried within it from birth an ideological bacillus that would prove fatal," he writes. He is a savage ironist, and if his writing is sharp, he can also be a heavy-handed moralist.
Still, what Brendon shows is how the empire was not a faceless monolith devouring all before it. It was often quite the opposite, making alliances with local elites who did the actual ruling. This was particularly true in India. Elsewhere, forces were spread thin: "Britain ruled the forty-three million in the two million square miles of its dozen or so African colonies with 1,200 administrators, two hundred judges and legal officers, and a thousand policeman and soldiers (not one above the rank of lieutenant colonel)." But the British employed a kind of mystique, backed up, of course, with superior firepower. At the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, a small British force armed with Maxims killed 11,000 Muslims in the Sudan. The British commander, General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, vainly tried to reign his men in, shouting, "Cease fire! Oh what a dreadful waste of ammunition!"
Brendon's narrative is wonderfully stocked with generals, politicians, rugged adventurers, consuls, eccentrics, administrators, and famous imperial hands like Kitchener, "the most ruthless technician of empire."
The end of empire played out in many ways in the 20th century. Two world wars, which saw valiant contributions from Indian, Irish, Australian, African, and Canadian troops, left Britain financially reeling. Activists such as Gandhi pressed the British to live up to their claims about favoring freedom, even if Britain was reluctant to do so.
Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, each from the start semiautonomous colonies, remained peaceable allies. But in Africa and Asia, the process of decolonialization was fraught, marked, in some instances, by shocking violence and savage repression. Brendon's account of the end of colonial rule in East Africa, when Britain tried to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, is hair-raising. British security forces detained suspects in camps, where they were tortured. "The Kenyan archipelago was one of the worst blots on Britain's imperial escutcheon," Brendon writes.
From 1945 to 1965, the number of people living under imperial rule dwindled rapidly, from 700 million to 5 million. "Many patriotic Britons deplored the swift removal of such huge swathes of red from the map. They lamented it as a grievous national humiliation." The Colonial Office wondered if it had become a department of "rocks and islands." In 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would fight an almost comical war with Argentina over a group of these rocks - the Falkland Islands - in a bid to restore some of Britain's luster. Still, the empire would end not with a bang, but with a whimper in 1997, when the Union Jack was lowered in Hong Kong.
Matthew Price (www.pricewrites.com) is a regular contributor to the Globe.