It is now roughly 50 years since the British Empire came to an end – it’s difficult to give an exact date and of course there are still some bits left – during which the controversy over it has, if anything, increased; mostly over whether it was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing. That has made it a minefield for serious historians, who are more interested in finding out what it was, why it arose and what its real repercussions were, and are aware (as they must be if they have worked for any length of time at any of the coalfaces of imperial history) of how complex all these questions are. At the beginning of this book John Darwin describes the ‘conceits’ such historians often find themselves resorting to in order to pick their way through the minefield: feeling ‘obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it’ (I’m embarrassed to recognise myself there); or conveying ‘the impression that writing against empire is an act of great courage: as if its agents lie in wait to exact their revenge or an enraged “imperialist” public will inflict martyrdom on them.’ Darwin will have none of this. His own ‘act of courage’ is to refuse to be put off by such ‘harmless’ threats and distractions from recounting the history of the British Empire as he sees it.
He has been here before. Unfinished Empire is the third in what might be considered a trilogy of massive books on European and British imperial history, the second of which, The Empire Project (2009), overlaps to some extent with this, but the first, the greatly admired After Tamerlane (2007), provides more of a jumping-off point for it, by placing Britain’s imperial expansion in the context of others’, and of global history more generally, over the past 600 years. (Empires, Darwin has always insisted, are the ‘default position’ of human history, not exceptions.) That gives him a breadth of perspective few other imperial historians can boast. The British Empire really does look different in the light of it. For a start, as in most other cases, it was not just a question of British rulers on the one side and colonial victims on the other. That degrades the ‘victims’, whose active and often positive participation in the process was crucial. Or rather, ‘processes’ (plural); for Darwin also stresses how many substantially different ‘British Empires’ there were, even at one and the same time (three or four); and how these, and people’s ‘visions’ of imperialism, changed radically over the years. It was never organised systematically; which is what gave it its staying power – ‘English elasticity’, in the words of a German commentator. But in any case that staying power was not all that great: Britain’s was a short-lived empire compared with most; collapsing dramatically when Britain’s luck – simply that – turned. Those great early 20th-century world maps that show British red splattered over a quarter of it are, of course, grossly misleading. (Hence the book’s title.) The idea of a civilised and ‘managed’ decolonisation by Britain after 1947 is nothing more than a ‘myth’. (Decolonisation was Darwin’s original research coalface.) There is no single pattern of imperialism, no over-arching ‘theory’ or generalisation (which is what is often meant by a ‘theory’) that even begins to characterise or explain it on its own, no moral judgement we can make of it that covers every aspect. Freed from these straightjackets, Darwin presents a history that may not deliver the single, knock-out punch that some of the more polemical accounts strive for (though it doesn’t shy away from broad brushstrokes, or sharp criticism); but more than makes up for that in sophistication and richness. Complex history, after all, is far more interesting than straightforward.
Other academic historians have been saying some of these things for years, but not all of them and not in ways that have percolated through to a more general readership, which still seems to be monopolised by the ideologues, celebrities and others who can get ‘tie-ins’ with TV series. This book has all the qualities that should enable it to challenge on this front – breadth of vision, fizzing ideas and a brilliant style as well as superb scholarship – and the imprint of a general publisher with a powerful paperback arm to boot. It deserves to supplant every other book on this topic, including – though my publisher and bank manager won’t thank me for saying this – my own. It is British imperial history at last without hang-ups; the one we’ve been waiting for.
Bernard Porter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle