The British Empire Library

The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire 1781-1997

by Piers Brendon

Courtesy of OSPA

John Smith (Nigeria 1951-1970, Western Pacific 1971-1978)
A health warning: those who worked in or for the empire may find their blood pressure rising when categorised by ‘trimmed moustaches and clipped foreskins, their addiction to games and to work, their low-brow ideas and high-minded attitudes, their curious blend of honesty and hypocrisy, their preoccupation with protocol and prestige, their racial prejudices and the extent to which they lived in symbiosis with their charges’. At times, too, they will feel that Brendon, Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, must have googled ‘empire+disaster-i-nastiness’. In following the loss of empire from the defeat at Yorktown to the handing back of Hong Kong, with never an incident we would prefer forgotten missed, rather than its triumphs and glories, Brendon is emphasising what undermined empire. Our human and geographic base was small and remote from our overseas possessions. We were always over-extended and ‘no vindication can eradicate the instinctive hostility to alien control’. Our very nature was against us. We valued liberty too much to be comfortable imperialists. Not that Brendon allows us to bask in our role as stewards; he is, however, not as dismissive of it as many historians, seeing trusteeship as paternalism tinged with hypocrisy.

He tells an exciting story and he tells it well with delightful turns of phrase: Cornwallis ‘embracing duty’; the flat bottomed Nemesis attracting ‘more barnacles than the Colonial Office’; the ‘Nile’s transcontinental incontinence’; ‘the Snider at odds with the bible’; and so on page after page. Brendon also quotes many of us extensively, if selectively and not always wisely. On page 538, for example, he cites Harold Smith’s "Squalid End to Empire" as authority for saying that Sir James Robertson, last Governor-General of Nigeria, ‘freely employed dirty tricks’ and ‘election rigging’, a statement that most Nigerians as well as British would have found laughable at the time and totally ignores the well-briefed academic authorities on the period, notably John Mackintosh and K W J Post. Brendon should have relied on these and Martin Lynn’s account in the Nigeria volume of the British Documents at the End of Empire series. But he wanted the bad news.

Nonetheless it is salutary to be reminded of disasters, which are part of the story of empire but which most of us find impossible to associate with our empire - Irish famine, opium wars, the genocide of Tasmanian aborigines. When set alongside the sad events within our experience - Indian partition, the Palestinian mandate, the Malayan emergency, Aden, Cyprus, Hola camp, it is easy to understand why empire gets a bad press. But the fact remains that for several centuries the British Empire was hugely significant thanks to what Jan Morris, in a review of Brendon’s book, called ‘the everyday diligence and efficiency of British Empire-builders down the generations’ and ‘the diurnal slog of a thousand nameless functionaries simply doing their best in what they thought was an honourable cause.’

British Empire Book
Piers Brendon
Jonathan Cape Publishers Ltd
978 0 224 06222 0


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