The British Empire Library

Unfinished Empire The Global Expansion Of Britain

by John Darwin

Courtesy of OSPA

John Smith (Nigeria, Western Pacific 1951-78)
This is a concise, fair and straightforward account of the British Empire from its earliest beginnings to the present day, with no underlying ideology. Well researched, well written and logically presented Unfinished Empire tells the story, the basics of which we all think we know but have very different views about, with a rare clarity and understanding. And that understanding includes explaining just why views on empire differ so widely, why they have changed over the years and why they now tend to be antagonistic.

John Darwin gently disposes of myth after myth, his title chosen because he sees the empire as always in the making, improvising, developing from a long chain of mundane activities, reconciling differences and seeking compromises, its end impossible to envisage or plan for adequately. He also sees the empire as an expansion of Britain and British values set in a world that is the relic of many empires, a world in which empire has been the norm rather than the exception and in which the British were usually 'only one element in a much larger equation', our imperial rivalries with continental neighbours correctly taken into account. Just as he dispels many a popular myth, so Darwin also introduces facts that can startle, for example that between 1815 and 1930 twice as many people (19 million in all) emigrated from the British Isles than from any other part of Europe.

In four hundred pages the approach has to be general, concerned primarily with central policy rather than with issues related to specific territories, a reminder to those of us for whom our district or province was naturally the centre of our empire that we were always part of something very much bigger. Darwin's analysis is always helpful, explaining why things happened as they did and why some things are as they are. He refines the concept of the empire of settlement, from its earliest days up to the creation of the Commonwealth, by distinguishing between the nature of settlement in North America and Australasia and of that in the West Indies and South and Central Africa. He likewise demonstrates the differences between the first empire of rule in India and the later one in Africa and elsewhere. That later one is, of course, 'our empire' and some OSPA members will resent the description of it as a 'ragbag': bases and fortresses, such as Malta and Aden, originally acquired as way stations for the East India Company, plantation colonies such as Ceylon and Malaya and what began as maritime bridgeheads in West and East Africa. But set in the context both of the old dominions and India and of the hugely influential informal empire in countries such as Argentina, and of an expansion of Britain that Darwin reminds us was much more the work of private entrepreneurs than of the Crown, it all makes very good sense.

Darwin understands how things actually happen in real life. He is always aware of the complexities, the uncertainties, the unintended consequences and the influence of unexpected external events. His approach reminded me how easy it was for us, when the central issue in our lives was the timetable to independence in the territory in which we served, to forget that the dominant and very frightening issue for our masters in Whitehall was the cold war. He is enlightening on the Macmillan Macleod partnership that speeded up our departure and on the influence that both Algeria and the Congo had on their decision making, just as he understands the reason for indirect rule and the effects it had.

Despite empire being so controversial a subject I was only once seriously niggled. Darwin comments on the ease, in most territories, of the final transfer of power, something in the best interests of both parties directly involved, as we always recognised, but he then dismisses the final independence ceremonies as 'pleasing pantomime in which all could delight'. Pantomime it may have been to foreign and uninvolved observers and to the media but never to those of us, on both sides, who had played an active role in the achievement of those events and in the course of which we had drawn so close, sharing both aspirations and fears for the future. The emotion was genuine. No occasion in Britain has ever moved me more.

British Empire Book
John Darwin
Allen Lane
978 1 846 14088 4


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