British Empire Books

The Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East

AuthorJohn Keay
PublisherJohn Murray
First Published1997

This is a fascinating book that specifically covers the fall spread of the European and American Empires. It was originally written to coincide with the British departure from Hong Kong in 1997 and thus bringing the Imperial era to a close. In fact, this cross Imperial examination is very useful to the reader. It helps provide a much wider perspective on the individual Empires and why some prospered when they did or why they declined when they did. The geographical spread of the book covers the myriad of imperial contacts from Malaya to the Philippines, from Shanghai down to Indonesia.

Despite being entitled 'The Last Post' it does actually cover a far wider period of history. The book is really divided into three parts. The first part charts the initial contact of the various Empires with the Far East. It explains why the Portugese were displaced by the Dutch and how the Dutch attempted to keep their area of influence insulated from the other European powers. The British, of course, were relative late comers but the European politics of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was a catalyst for the Royal Navy and the East India Company to make inroads into the region. The author is good at raising the various kinds of Imperialism employed by the Europeans which were simply dazzling in their variety and differences. The British aimed to be far more hands off and yet ended up with a larger and more powerful Empire than any of the other European powers. It is interesting to read about European interactions with China which was a commercially vital centre but often without the political power to match. Consequently, the British (and then the other Europeans) really could have their cake and eat it. They could gain all the benefits of Imperial trade without any of the bothersome necessities of actually governing the provinces. It is interesting to read the relative stories of Shanghai and Hong Kong. The former was by far the most substantial and consequential of the Chinese ports. Up until the arrival of the Japanese that is.

The second part of the book examines the period from 1930 to 1945. Empires in general were definitely on their way down. The first bombshell was the Wall Street Crash. This failure of the economic system would quickly spread to the various colonies and question their entire rationale. Many individual colonists could not afford to keep going any more and many had to return to their home countries or eke an existence in places like Singapore or Hong Kong. As if this was not a catastrophe in itself, the Japanese were about to go on the war path. Initially in China but then further afield as it desperately sought the oil products of the Dutch East Indies (and everything else on the way there). The author explains the shock to the Imperial powers as the World War in Europe gives way to the Japanese advances in Asia. Colony after colony would fall to an Asian nation. The inhabitants of the colonies did not particularly appreciate replacing one Empire with another but it did help boost a sense of nationalism in many communities across the Continent. The third item that is picked up in this section was not particularly important yet, but it would grow to become the dominant theme of the third section of the book, namely the growth of Communism.

The final section addresses the end game for all the various colonies and their colonisers. It explains how the Japanese played a very complicated part in the dying days of World War Two. On the one hand, they would grant independence to 'some' of their territories as it was obvious they could no longer be defended. The atomic bombs changed the timetable signicantly - but there was enough of an interlude to allow the Indonesian leaders to gain some form of legitimacy in their diplomatic battle against the Dutch. I said that the Japanese played a complicated role as within days of surrendering, many of these same soldiers would be employed by the British Commander Mountbatten to help stabilise these countries whilst Allied forces were rushed around the continent. There are some strange battles where the British and Japanese are fighting nationalists in Indonesia and Vietnam for example. The confusion of Nationalism and Communism is very neatly addressed by the author. He explains the appeal of Communism to poor farming or plantation communities but realises that very often it was used as a vehicle for mobilising forces against the colonisers. He explains the American volte face from being the anti-imperialist Roosevelt administration to the Cold War Anti-Communist priorities of Truman and Eisenhower. Whilst initially being in favour of de-colonisation, the Americans would actually volunteer to take over much of the imperialist responsibilities in an attempt to forestall further Communist advances in the region. There was added urgency after the Communist take over in China in 1949 - with the Korean War falling hot on its heels. The Americans would send equipment, advisers and eventually troops to many of the non-communist regimes - leading ultimately to the quagmire of Vietnam.

Overall, this is a very impressive and useful book. It concentrates on one particular era - but it builds up to it so that you understand the full context. There are a few nit-picking errors such as the author claiming that Simon Bolivar was inspired by Abraham Lincoln - despite predating him. There was a slightly more baffling comment that the Americans had nothing to feel sorry for about their colonisation of the Philippines before going on to explain the vicious fighting of the US Army against Philippino nationalists. In fact, he does gloss over a number of atrocities in the region. He seems to regard them as a part of the process - both for colonisers and for decolonisers! He is also unduly pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong in Communist control. Perhaps understandably given the diplomatic and political situation when he was writing the book. He gives an excellent account of how Hong Kong thrived with the existence of Communist China and no doubt felt that it would be eclipsed with its re-integration. The Chinese Communists though have managed to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Possibly to impress on the Taiwanese that reintegration into China is a possibility for them. I do think that the Chinese work on much longer time scales than Europeans do and so a fifty year rule is not seen as that consequential for a nation that has existed for millennia. Having said all that, this is a really informative and interesting book and I highly recommend it to Imperial historians.

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