British Empire Books

Britannia's Empire: Making a British World

AuthorBill Nasson

I do have a sneaking admiration for those authors brave enough to tackle huge swathes of history and Bill Nasson does exactly that. He has written a book with a very simple structure but with an ambitious reach. He divides The British Empire into 4 convenient periods: 1500 to 1700, The Eighteenth Century, 1815 to 1914 and the Twentieth Century. It should be said that he goes into overdrive into filling those periods with a dense patchwork of historical events tracking the rise and fall of The British Empire and all the various obstacles, difficulties and rivalries on its journey. He does this in a very clear and concise way, the book is only 223 pages long! What is interesting is how much analysis of the forces and actors involved in the process that he manages to cram in. Of course, it can be very general and brief in places, but he is still able to make enough impressive connections and strands to make the scarcity of detail more than tolerable.

A very simplistic overview of his narrative would be that raiding and trading provided the initial impulse to colonise from the Tudor times to the Glorious Revolution followed by the maintenance of monopolistic and exclusive trading rights of the administratively simpler mercantlist period before embarking on Free Trade in the 19th Century as the terms of trade of an industrialising Britain no longer feared competition or was content with the inefficiencies of mercantilism. The Twentieth Century decline is attributed largely to the effects of two World Wars draining and exhausting the empire and being supplanted by the upcoming Superpowers but especially the United States. Of course, these interpretations are not in themselves earth shattering or novel, and yet the author manages to weave the complex interactions of colonisers and colonised together in a riveting read.

There are some factual errors which does undermine your confidence in the book somewhat: the Zulu Wars supposedly being at the end of the 1880s or the East India Companies amalgamating a century after they actually did and Flight Sergeant James Hyde did not fight in the Battle of the Britain as claimed. The quantity of analysis on the other hand is all encompassing. He deals with economics, individual motivations, interactions of rival actors, methods of production, benefits and costs of actions and many more besides. He can be forgiven for a single paragraph description of the Indian Mutiny due to his integrating of so much history into such a short book! Within the individual chapters, the chronological structures can be a little on the hectic and confusing side as he races from one topic or geographical area to another. I would suggest that this book would suit someone who already has an understanding of the basic outline of the imperial adventure. It would be an excellent text for an undergraduate student. However, a non-student who is interested in the topic of The British Empire should be equally fascinated by large swathes of the book. I also think that the last section of the book looking at the impact of The British Empire on the wider world makes for very informative and nuanced reading. It is scrupulously fair in examining the pluses and minuses of empire and considering its impact on the wider world. However, it does not always reach the kind of simplistic conclusions that are often trotted out simplistically by vehemently pro- or vehemently anti- imperialists. He offers a surprisingly broad range of impacts felt across the world thanks to the existence of The British Empire. For example, I particularly enjoyed his comments about how post colonial peoples had incorporated, adapted or come to terms with imperial conventions or tastes into their cosmopolitan lifestyles as the 'construction of an imaginative citizenship geared to a post-colonial era.' In short, he explains how they might love Cricket and Whiskey and happy to have their property rights enshrined in law and yet be perfectly at ease as Indians, Australians or South Africans. Bill Nasson appreciates that The British Empire was a massive institution with many competing influences, positive and negative but that it was also a formative institution for large swathes of the world's population. It created trade patterns, legal norms and opportunities on a global scale for the first time in history. It certainly could be brutal, exploitative and corrupting but it was important nonetheless for all its faults and all its glories. I think that Bill Nasson has provided an excellent jumping off point for discussion and further exploration into the impact of The British Empire.

Buy this book at: Amazon or at Abebooks

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by Stephen Luscombe