The title of the most recent book I read, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (Vintage) by Piers Brendon, intrigued me because of its similarity in title to Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, in the book’s introduction, Brendon acknowledges that his humble book echoes Gibbons’. Brendon does compare the administration and fate of the Roman Empire with that of the British Empire (in some cases his comparisons are a bit thin).
The book is generally organized in chapters according to the colonies. Several of the colonies have more chapters dedicated to them. For example, Brendon devotes chapters on India regarding the initial British incursion and expansion, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and its route to independence. I think this organization works best (rather than a chronological one) because the reader gets to focus on one colony or group of colonies at a time – it helps the reader to put events in the context of that country for a period of time.
Brendon’s general argument is that the British Empire began to decay after the loss of the American colonies even though the Empire had explosive growth in the 1800s. He argues that the very nature of empires is the reason for their demise – they are brutal and illegitimate. In addition, he argues that the decisions made by British leadership were ultimately the reasons for its relative quick demise. One of these arguments was right on – the racial discrimination of the British toward the native populations weakened their rule because this inspired hatred and a desire for freedom in the natives. The natives’ feelings were compounded by their experiences in World War I when native troops went to Europe to fight and they saw the liberties given to the British population (in the eyes of the native troops, the fighting diminished whites’ superiority because they saw their colonial masters lose in battle).
Brendon compares and contrasts the different colonies – for example some such as Australia, Canada, and Kenya had white settlers whereas others were more for economic purposes only such as India, Ceylon, and parts of Africa. Brendon explains that the white settlement colonies were held longer than the other colonies. For example, Britain gave independence faster to Ghana and Nigeria than Kenya and Rhodesia.
I enjoyed learning more about British Imperialism. I knew that the British controlled much of the world at one time, but I did not realize to what extent. At one point, 1921, the British Empire controlled nearly a quarter of the world’s land area and a quarter of the world’s population. These figures are astounding to think about. British power seemed to be unstoppable and yet, in less than 80 years after 1921, this was all gone – an even more amazing fact.
However, this expansion came at a cost to not only the freedom of hundreds of millions of people, but also the lives of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands). Brendon does an excellent job of bringing forth the evils of this expansion. I knew about the British slaughter of Indians and African tribes like the Zulu, but I never knew about the brutality of the British settlers in Kenya to put down the Mau Mau movement.
I have one criticism of the book and it is relatively minor. Brendon rightly highlights the blatant racism of the British. Many colonial administrators despised the native populations that they ruled. This racism creates undue hostility and conflict. However, Brendon does not focus on the good of some administrators. He briefly touches on more humane administrators, but he does not spend time on those administrators who genuinely wanted to help improve the lot of the average native.
One final thought, because the book is organized in separate, independent chunks, it is easy to pick up and put down the book without losing a beat. This organization is great because the book is 662 pages and hard to read cover to cover in a continuous manner. I highly encourage you to read this book in chunks because the amount of information and the density of the writing (no fault on Brendon – it is the nature of the subject).