British Empire Books

Pax Britannica

AuthorJames Morris
Originally published1973
Original publisherFaber & Faber
This publisherFolio
This Edition1992

Pax Britannica is actually a collection of three books charting the history of most of the British Imperial experience. It is a very friendly, approachable set of books full of interesting vignettes and attention to detail that help make them a riveting read from beginning to end. The author is something of a product of the imperial system himself and talks about the Empire from a real insider's point of view. Indeed he states that the rationale for this book is akin to how interesting and enlightening it would have been to read a fifth century Centurions view of the Imperial Roman Empire. He achieves his goals with aplomb and panache. Although, sometimes he can feel like a Daily Telegraph reader with some of his views on the Empire. He is not afraid to make statements that would offend more politically correct readers, although he generally justifies himself admirably.

The first book in the trilogy is entitled Heaven's Command and charts the rise of the Victorian Empire. It documents the bravado, confidence, absent mindedness and cunning that led to the creation of the largest empire the world has ever seen. Time and again he is able to evoke a real sense of adventure, calamity, triumph or just the plain drudgery of colonial existence and expansion. He has wonderful asides that add to the whole in a way that most historians ignore in the pursuit of their own theories and justifications. He tells us the theories of empire that the empire builders gave themselves and charts the disasters and failures as fully as the successes and triumphs.

The second book is entitled Pax Britannica and is intended as a snapshot of the Imperial world at the apogee of its power in 1897. This is the year in which Queen Victoria held her Diamond Jubilee in truly imperial pomp and ceremony. James Morris sweeps his pen across the colonies looking at the beautiful and banal that made the empire what it was. He tells us how the peoples interacted with one another, how technology aided and abetted the spread of empire and the dark clouds of imperial and ideological rivalries appearing on the horizon.

The Final book is entitled Farewell the Trumpets and documents the final retreat from the great adventure. In many ways this is the most interesting of the three books in that the author was an actor in many of these proceedings and seems to have visited many of the places and has known many of the people of whom he writes about. This personalising of the history is quite enthralling and adds a very believable human quality to the work. He explains that the very process of the British becoming more enlightened, less patronizing and more willing to become involved with the subject peoples removed the bravado and arrogance that were necessary qualities to sustain the empire. The more reasonable the British became the less justifiable was the imperial experience. Although not everybody could recognise the wind of change, the wind was assuredly blowing. Finally, the author ties the end of the empire to the death of one of its most important exponents, Winston Churchill, in a way that makes perfect sense of the contradictory values and shifting attitudes of both the man and the institution.

This book is one of my favourite imperial tomes and one that in many ways expresses many of my own beliefs and ideas. The book takes joy in revelling in the awe of Empire but at the same time acknowledging the incongruities and iniquities of the Imperial system.

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by Stephen Luscombe