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One Fine Day: Britain's Empire on the Brink

by Matthew Parker

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'Breathtaking... vital and important. A wonderful read' PETER FRANKOPAN'Marvellous... escapes the inane, balance-sheet view of Empire and sees its full complexity' SATHNAM SANGHERA'A new, global history of British imperialism which feels both epic and immediate' TRISTRAM HUNT'Extraordinary... [brings] the world of a century ago to fresh, vivid life' ALEX VON TUNZELMANNTHE STORY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE AT ITS MAXIMUM TERRITORIAL EXTENTOn Saturday 29 September 1923, the Palestine Mandate became law and the British Empire now covered a scarcely credible quarter of the world's land mass, containing 460 million people. It was the largest empire the world had ever seen. But it was beset by debt and doubts. This book is a new way of looking at the British Empire. It immerses the reader in the contemporary moment, focusing on particular people and stories from that day, gleaned from newspapers, letters, diaries, official documents, magazines, films and novels: from a remote Pacific island facing the removal of its entire soil, across Australia, Burma, India and Kenya to London and the West Indies.In some ways, the issues of a hundred years ago are with us still: debates around cultural and ethnic identity in a globalised world; how to manage multi-ethnic political entities; racism; the divisive co-opting of religion for political purposes; the dangers of ignorance. In others, it is totally alien. What remains extraordinary is the Empire's ability to reveal the most compelling human stories. Never before has there been a book which contains such a wide spread of vivid experiences from both colonised and coloniser: from the grandest governors to the humblest migrants, policemen and nurses.… (more)
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This was chosen by Pratinav Anil, Lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and author of Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947-77 (Hurst, 2023), as one of History Today’s Books of the Year 2023.

Find out why at HistoryToday.com.
  HistoryToday | Nov 24, 2023 |
On September 29, 1923, the League of Nations’ Mandate of Palestine became law. The Mandate formally transferred the regions of Palestine and Transjordan to the UK from the Ottoman Empire, which had ceded them at the end of World War I. On that date the British Empire reached its maximum extent. The Empire covered a quarter of the world’s landmass at 14 million square miles of land. It was home to four hundred and sixty million people - a fifth of the world’s population at the time - all subjects of His Majesty King George V.

British historian Matthew Parker has built his book One Fine Day around the state of affairs inside the Empire on that day. While the British had achieved the largest Empire ever known, there were cracks apparent in 1923 that would lead to its eventual dissolution.

The book is a collection of stories about British colonies. Ocean Island in the Pacific, India, Malaya, Burma, Kenya and West Africa are the main focus. As the author’s sights shift to each colony, he provides the history and context leading up to the events of September 1923. The result is a rich and in-depth picture of the Empire at its height, with an amazingly wide range of characters.

The whole point of the Empire was for the colonies to provide resources to (in other words increase the wealth of) the Mother Country. The exploitation of the colonies’ resources and people was baldly excessive. Much of the picture that Parker paints is not pretty. There are some dark, tragic stories covered in this book, like the massacre in Amritsar, India in 1919.

Ocean Island ends up uninhabitable due to the removal of the island’s phosphate stores. Hundreds and thousands of tons of the island itself - the very ground under the natives’ feet - were removed to provide fertilizer for the farm fields of Australia.

The chapters on Kenya casts a dark shadow as well, with systematic exploitation (slavery in all but name) of the local population to work the fields of the Europeans who had taken their land.

Of course, the picture varied from place to place. The Dominions were self-governing, largely white colonies - places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In those places in 1923 the people were mostly happy with their lot within the Empire.

In other places where the dominant races were not white, and where the hand of Empire was keeping the local populace working on behalf of their white rulers, there was much discontent. The end of World War I only exacerbated tensions. Returning veterans of the native populations were treated poorly in contrast with their white counterparts.

The social impacts of the end of the Great War were one factor weighing against Empire, but there were others. Economically Britain had not kept up. Built on railroads, steel, coal and textiles the Empire had failed to modernize and could not compete on things like oil, refrigerators, radios and automobiles. In Malaya, the Empire’s richest colony, Parker points out that in 1923 only a sixteenth of the colony’s international purchases came from Britain.

The whole model of Empire was now in question. If the Empire wasn’t going to make the UK rich, then what was it good for? This was the question hanging in the air on September 29, 1923.

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rating Comment: One Fine Day circles to globe 100 years ago at the height of the British Empire. It highlights the challenges and contradictions that will ultimately lead to the Empire’s demise. A hefty, well researched and enlightening book.

NOTE: I read an advanced review copy courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher PublicAffairs. The book will be generally available next Tuesday, September 26, 2023. ( )
  stevesbookstuff | Sep 19, 2023 |
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'Breathtaking... vital and important. A wonderful read' PETER FRANKOPAN'Marvellous... escapes the inane, balance-sheet view of Empire and sees its full complexity' SATHNAM SANGHERA'A new, global history of British imperialism which feels both epic and immediate' TRISTRAM HUNT'Extraordinary... [brings] the world of a century ago to fresh, vivid life' ALEX VON TUNZELMANNTHE STORY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE AT ITS MAXIMUM TERRITORIAL EXTENTOn Saturday 29 September 1923, the Palestine Mandate became law and the British Empire now covered a scarcely credible quarter of the world's land mass, containing 460 million people. It was the largest empire the world had ever seen. But it was beset by debt and doubts. This book is a new way of looking at the British Empire. It immerses the reader in the contemporary moment, focusing on particular people and stories from that day, gleaned from newspapers, letters, diaries, official documents, magazines, films and novels: from a remote Pacific island facing the removal of its entire soil, across Australia, Burma, India and Kenya to London and the West Indies.In some ways, the issues of a hundred years ago are with us still: debates around cultural and ethnic identity in a globalised world; how to manage multi-ethnic political entities; racism; the divisive co-opting of religion for political purposes; the dangers of ignorance. In others, it is totally alien. What remains extraordinary is the Empire's ability to reveal the most compelling human stories. Never before has there been a book which contains such a wide spread of vivid experiences from both colonised and coloniser: from the grandest governors to the humblest migrants, policemen and nurses.

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