The Dawn of Empire

Ian Duffield finds much of interest in a new account of the beginnings of British imperialism

Ian Duffield | Published in

Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires From the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s, by Angus Calder

xxiii +916 pp (Jonathan Cape, London, 1981)

The task of writing a one-man general history of the British Empire reminds one of Samuel Johnson's remark, 'no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money'. Angus Calder set out, about ten years ago, to write not only a one-man, but also a one-volume history of the British Empire, undaunted by the serried rows of the multi-author, multi-volume Cambridge History of the British Empire, written at a time when the approaches to the subject were less complex and less contentious than nowadays, and the burden of knowledge was far smaller. The subject was always dauntingly vast. It embraces a gallimaufry of peoples and cultures, spans five centuries, and its events were enacted in every continent and climate. It was, furthermore, the most decentralised of the European overseas empires. In its early period, it was extraordinary loosely run – if it can be said to have been run at all. At the late Victorian 'high noon of empire', the areas of white settlement were largely self-governing, while the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office and India Office divided control of the rest between them. And this is only to take account of the formal empire; spheres of informal influence introduce further complications to an already complicated pattern. With all this in mind, it is easy to understand how Angus Calder's one volume has become the first of two, or perhaps more.

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