Add to my Circle of Trust

Subscribe to reviews

About me: 2000-2015, 886 reviews. Thanks all - it was fun while it lasted, but nothing lasts forever.

Member since:13.07.2000


Members who trust:237


Coming to terms with our imperial past


Very well - researched, sometimes wryly amusing account of the Brtish Empire


Recommendable Yes:

Detailed rating:

Degree of Information

How interesting was the book?

How useful was it?

Would you read it again?

Value for money

How easy was it to read / get information fromVery easy

75 Ciao members have rated this review on average: very helpful See ratings
exceptional by (18%):
  1. CelticSoulSister
  2. ladybracknell
  3. Praski
and 11 other members
very helpful by (82%):
  1. hiker
  2. jonathanb
  3. Wee_Jackie_163
and 60 other members

View all ratings

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.

Share this review on

In the 21st century, the British Empire may be an anachronism, something for which hand-wringing politicians and church leaders may be ever ready to apologise. Many of us have grown up just as the last imperial remnants overseas were crumbling away. Yet its legacy is everywhere, and for better or worse will always be part of the very fabric of Britain.

The book

As Jeremy Paxman demonstrates in this excellent overview, published as a curtain-raiser to his forthcoming TV series on the subject, the empire is never very far away from us. After a period of trying to distance ourselves from it, the pendulum appears to have swung a little the other way and we seem to be on the verge of coming to terms with the simple truth that it was not so bad as it has sometimes been painted. Moreover, it should be remembered that even if Britain emerged from the Second World War battered and broke, it still possessed sufficient imperial presence to become one of the Permanent Five on the United Nations Security Council.

Obviously, not even the most ardent apologist can unreservedly defend the imperial tradition and all that it infers. Since the Seven Years War of 1756-63, which historians sometimes consider to have been the first 'world war', and the point at which the British recognized the extent to which their destiny lay not in Europe but elsewhere, the saga has been plentifully strewn with fools and racist tyrants, those obnoxious characters whom we might prefer to forget ever existed. The white man was convinced of his superiority and of that of his religion, too readily convinced of the woeful inadequacy of other races. General Gordon was a 'half cracked fatalist' who paid the ultimate price at Khartoum, while barely a generation later General Baden-Powell was nothing better than a juvenile ego-maniac who in his early days of service in Afghanistan might witness 'the hanging of recalcitrant tribesmen with the casual indifference of an occasional visitor to a provincial theatre'.

During the last days of empire Prime Minister Anthony Eden, beset with health problems after a botched operation for gallstones, was 'a man whose physical condition almost precluded measured judgment', and it was Britain’s misfortune that his final months in office coincided with the Suez crisis of 1956. And it is duly observed that Charles Dickens, whose radical credentials were generally impeccable, wrote that he was so incensed at the horrors inflicted on the British during the Indian mutiny of 1857, that if only he had been Commander in Chief, he would have done his utmost 'to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested…and to raze it off the face of the Earth'.

Yet against these negative images, Paxman shows that it was the British who put an end to the slave trade when the other main European powers would almost certainly have had it otherwise. He also pays due tribute to the unselfishness and hard work of missionaries, who were generally unsparing in their efforts to protect local people against exploration and help them gain their independence. Some of them were quick to develop a genuine affection for the country in which they went to work. This was never more evident than in the case of Annie Besant, who moved to India in 1893, took to wearing Hindu mourning dress in grief at what she saw the British had done to the country, and spent some years actively encouraging the people of India to throw off the shackles of colonial rule.

The process of British retreat from empire was inevitable, and the crowning moment of humiliation came, not with Suez, but during the Second World War when Japanese soldiers inflicted on the empire what was probably its greatest humiliation of the century (arguably worse than Suez) with the surrender of British troops at Singapore. However, as Paxman reminds us, the Japanese were invading as part of a plan to establish an empire of their own, and their brutal occupation of the territory showed how benign British rule had been in comparison. We weren’t that dreadful.

In the hands of many a lesser author, such a book would have either been hagiography or diatribe. This is a very fair-minded, even-handed assessment. Mistakes were made, and cruelties were inflicted. Paxman can be quite scathing, and not without good reason, about some of the occasional superiority to and intolerance of the cultures the white man found in the empire, but on balance most successive governments as opposed to certain individuals had little reason to feel ashamed of their role. And being Jeremy Paxman, that twinkle in the eye is rarely far below the surface. He tells us about the building of the Uganda railway, hindered by the presence of two man-eating lions (well, they usually are, aren’t they?). The railway workers, he suggests, ’were a sort of convenience food. Lucky lions, eh.

These days there may just be a scattered handful of imperial outposts left across the globe, the most conspicuous being the (still somewhat disputed) Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. Maybe, as Dean Acheson pointed out in 1962, Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Paxman concludes that in general we are neglecting the history of the British empire, at a time when our imperial past still has the power to influence current British foreign policy, for example in the decisions of Prime Ministers to send troops to war, and in the way in which we view adventurers from the past. If we can come to terms with what was done throughout the world in our country’s name, he says, as a nation we might 'find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world'.


Anybody who has read and enjoyed any of Paxman’s previous historical books, all superbly researched (the bibliography alone accounts for over thirty pages here) and enlivened with his customary dry wit, will find this equally entertaining and thought-provoking.

This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on Bookbag

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British - Jeremy Paxman Empire
Jeremy Paxman
  Write your own review

Share this review on


Rate this review »

How helpful would this review be to a person making a buying decision? Rating guidelines

Rate as exceptional

Rate as somewhat helpful

Rate as very helpful

Rate as not helpful

Rate as helpful

Rate as off topic

Write your own review Write a review and you will earn 0.5p per rating if other members rate your review at least helpful. Write a review and you will earn 0.5p per rating if other members rate your review at least helpful.   Report a problem with this review’s content

Comments about this review »

jonathanb 21.03.2012 14:20

I tend to be put off anything written by Paxman by his smug, sneering TV persona but nonetheless this sounds like an excellent book.

tallulahbang 27.02.2012 16:19

I think I have a copy of this somewhere. I shall have to dig it out. xx

CelticSoulSister 10.02.2012 23:13

Sounds an interesting book, but it might be a bit above my poor little head lol.

Add your comment

max. 2000 characters

  Post comment

Product Information »

Product details

ISBN 0670919578
ISBN-13 9780670919574
Type Non-fiction
Genre History
Title Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
Author Jeremy Paxman
Release Date 06/10/2011

Show all Product Information

Review Ratings »

This review of Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British - Jeremy Paxman has been rated:

"very helpful" by (82%):

  1. hiker
  2. jonathanb
  3. Wee_Jackie_163

and 60 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.

Products you might be interested in »

Europe: a History - Norman Davies

Europe: a History - Norman Davies

Non-Fiction - History - ISBN: 0712666338, 0198201710, 0195209125

User reviews (2)

Buy now for only £ 25.00

Edwardian Farm - Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands, Peter Ginn

Edwardian Farm - Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands, Peter Ginn

(+) very informative, a great complement to the TV series, well illustrated
(-) likely to appeal to quite a specific audience

User reviews (1)

Buy now for only £ 3.86

Are you the manufacturer / provider of Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British - Jeremy Paxman? Click here