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The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994)

by Lawrence James

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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936522,668 (3.93)12
Great Britain's geopolitical role in the global scheme of things has undergone many radical changes over the last four centuries. Once a maritime superpower and ruler of half the world, Britain's current position as an isolated, economically fragile island squabbling with her European neighbors often seems difficult to accept, if not comprehend. Although still afforded nominal status through membership of groups such as G7 and the retention of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the simple truth is that Britain has been resting on her laurels since 1945, if not before. The British Empire is both cause and effect of this spectacular transformation. At first an exercise in straightforward profit-making, foreign exploration and colonization by British settlers, traders, and entrepreneurs soon gave rise to serious moral misgivings about the exploitation of native peoples and resources. But the riches to be gained from empire-building were always a powerful argument in its favor, although changes in the domestic social and political climate made benevolent imperialism a more desired objective. The lure of profit was tempered by an urge to uplift and civilize. Those responsible for the glories of empire were also driven by questionable motives. Personal fame and fortune formed an inevitable and attractive by-product of the conquest of new territories, and many empire-builders felt an unimpeachable sense of destiny. The achievements, however, cannot be denied, and during its heyday the British Empire was the envy of the world. Revisionist historians make much of the stunted potential of the former colonies, but as always, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.… (more)
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The largest empire in history ended less than a century ago, yet the legacy of how it rose and how it fell will impact the world for longer than it existed. Lawrence James’ chronicles the 400-year long history of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, from its begins on the eastern seaboard of North American spanning a quarter of the world to the collection of tiny outposts scattered across the globe.

Neither a simple nor a comprehensive history, James looks at the British Empire in the vain of economic, martial, political, and cultural elements not only in Britain but in the colonies as well. Beginning with the various settlements on the eastern seaboard of North America, James describes the various colonies and latter colonial administrators that made their way from Britain to locations around the globe which would have an impact on attitudes of the Empire over the centuries. The role of economics in not only the growth the empire but also the Royal Navy that quickly became interdependent and along with the growth of the Empire’s size the same with the nation’s prestige. The lessons of the American War of Independence not only in terms of military fragility, but also politically influenced how Britain developed the “white” dominions over the coming centuries. And the effect of the liberal, moralistic bent of the Empire to paternally watch over “lesser” peoples and teach them clashing with the bombast of the late-19th Century rush of imperialism in the last century of the Empire’s exists and its effects both at home and abroad.

Composing an overview of 400-years of history than spans across the globe and noting the effects on not only Britain but the territories it once controlled was no easy task, especially in roughly 630 pages of text. James attempted to balance the “positive” and “negative” historiography of the Empire while also adding to it. The contrast between upper-and upper-middle class Britons thinking of the Empire with that of the working-class Britons and colonial subjects was one of the most interesting narratives that James brought to the book especially in the twilight years of the Empire. Although it is hard to fault James given the vast swath of history he tackled there were some mythical history elements in his relating of the American War of Independence that makes the more critical reader take pause on if the related histories of India, South Africa, Egypt, and others do not contain similar historical myths.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire is neither a multi-volume comprehensive history nor a simple history that deals with popular myths of history, it is an overview of how an island nation came to govern over a quarter of the globe through cultural, economic, martial, and political developments. Lawrence James’s book is readable to both general and critical history readers and highly recommended. ( )
  mattries37315 | Jan 18, 2019 |
Excellently written proving that history books don't have to be written in a dull and boring fashion. The facts and history are beautifully written and the in a delightful and easy manner that doesn't leave the reader feeling tired or overpowered by history or fancy wording ( )
  NikNak1 | Mar 17, 2016 |
An excellent narrative overview of the history of the British Empire. Well-researched and footnoted, James makes you realize that we are still feeling the effects of the British Empire and that perhaps, perhaps, the Empire did a bit of good for the world (e.g. trying to end the slave trade). ( )
  tuckerresearch | May 4, 2011 |
Quite well written. This comprehensive survey of the makings, runnings, and collapsings of the British Empire provides excellent perspective. Writing about anything as large and sweeping as the British Empire in a single book is a challenge, and James succeeds admirably. More than a simple narrative, James draws connections between colonies, policies, and movements that were very compelling. If you are looking for a single volume on this gigantic topic, this one is a good place to turn. ( )
  Oreillynsf | Jul 5, 2010 |
James' take on the Brish empire in this lengthy book sweeps, as expected could be, a long stretch of time (400 years) over a wide frame of space (nearly 1/4 of the world). Writter and reader need stay focused in topic so as to avoid any illusion of finding here a complete national history of modern and contemporary Britain, or a domestic history, either as colonies or as an independent countries, of the peoples and territories at some point subject to british power. If anything, the story of the empire, in this book´s scope, would be the story of the relationship between the british and their colonies, and how everyone saw the phenomenon at each side. Here the author offers countless literary sources as example.

As colonies gain autonomy and the empire begins to evolve more into the particular notion of Commonwealth (ultimately a failed federation of states), the storytelling of it´s latter stages belongs more to the field of international history, aiming at trade, diplomacy and war rather than one-sided account on administrative direction. Of course you can´t generalize and bundle the white dominions together with the not-so-white ones into the same category like if they all received the same treatment from british colonial officials. British were harsher on India and Egypt, it would seem in proportion to their strategic importance, as well as the number of chapters dedicated to them by which James' pays due heed (4 for India and 3 to Egypt, and numerous mentions in non-specific chapters, all combined making 53 chapters). Importance stressed, it's reasons are however not adressed until relatively deeper into the book. The jewel of the crown imported british goods for 21 million pounds in 1867, that is as much as United states (p. 172), out of a total of 181 million, 131 of which accounted for exports to the empire. Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru imported products worth just over 12 million (p. 171), while Australia totalled 8 million. Thus James concludes that it were british trade interests that made an unnofficial empire, of worsening relative conditions in the years leading up to WW1.

The war gave chance for the empire people, and especially India, to provide millions of manpower, though of doubtful combat effectiveness, who served as the backbone of the logistical effort. They would again prove useful at ww2, this time against the asian power Britain had little wherewithal to do something about, leaving United states as the main opposing force to Japan. In the cold war, again, Britan provided a sideshow yet valuable effort in containing the emergence of communism in it´s colonies, despite severe man shortage and economic strain undermining desired deployements in the middle east.

So in a way this is a book about Britain, it´s men, it´s empire, and it´s rivalries, both internal and external. I really enjoyed the first 200 pages about Britains push towards world primacy through trade and navy, when they had to cope with France in the second hundred years war. Once Napoleon´s done, the victorian era of Pax britannica offers some good time to search a meaning for the empire, all while foreign policy leans to peace, abstention from continental affairs; at home there´ll be reflections on race, empire, industrialization, civilization, the irish question, etc. not forgetting opportunities for enrichment, enforced through gunbout diplomacy if neccesary.

In the first half of the 20th century the empire is gonna stand for Britain and the challenge posed by Germany and it´s allies, but notwithstanding the decay, will seize chances of further expansion in middle east. James lacks no wit when he calls a chapter "the defence of archaic privilege: the empire restored, 1942-45". The second half of the century will deal with decolonization and cold war. Unable to rely on it´s empire for self defence, Britain had to go missile and nuclear.
What is the meaning of the empire today? James doesn´t give a clear answer, but reckons that there must be reasons (whichever they are) for the existance of some kind of affinity between former ruled and rulers, no matter imperialists' best efforts to look and sound old-fashioned. ( )
  MarcosKtulu | Dec 7, 2009 |
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Great Britain's geopolitical role in the global scheme of things has undergone many radical changes over the last four centuries. Once a maritime superpower and ruler of half the world, Britain's current position as an isolated, economically fragile island squabbling with her European neighbors often seems difficult to accept, if not comprehend. Although still afforded nominal status through membership of groups such as G7 and the retention of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the simple truth is that Britain has been resting on her laurels since 1945, if not before. The British Empire is both cause and effect of this spectacular transformation. At first an exercise in straightforward profit-making, foreign exploration and colonization by British settlers, traders, and entrepreneurs soon gave rise to serious moral misgivings about the exploitation of native peoples and resources. But the riches to be gained from empire-building were always a powerful argument in its favor, although changes in the domestic social and political climate made benevolent imperialism a more desired objective. The lure of profit was tempered by an urge to uplift and civilize. Those responsible for the glories of empire were also driven by questionable motives. Personal fame and fortune formed an inevitable and attractive by-product of the conquest of new territories, and many empire-builders felt an unimpeachable sense of destiny. The achievements, however, cannot be denied, and during its heyday the British Empire was the envy of the world. Revisionist historians make much of the stunted potential of the former colonies, but as always, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.

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