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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.
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