Ends of British Imperialism

A.J. Stockwell reviews a new collection of writings by Wm. Roger Louis.

From the University of Texas at Austin to St Antony’s College, Oxford, Wm. Roger Louis bestrides the Atlantic world of British studies.  For Louis, the study of Britain has come to mean the study of its empire.  Although some Americans claim not to ‘do empire’, while some Britons feel an American has no business to do their empire, Roger Louis is a pastmaster of the high policy of British imperialism.  When he was a student at the universities of Oklahoma, Freiburg, the Sorbonne, Harvard and Oxford, his interests ranged over the histories of Britain, continental Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  As an academician at Yale and later at Austin, where he has held the Kerr Professor of English History and Culture since 1985, he wove these strands into the skein of imperial history.

Each summer since the early 1960s he has immersed him­self in The National Archives at Kew and every year our knowledge and under­standing of the British ex­perience overseas have been enriched by his publications. Louis’ first monograph was on Ruanda-Urundi, 1884-1919 (1963), but his most original work is a succession of books on decolonization, notably Imperialism at Bay, 1941-1945: the United States and the decolonization of the British empire (1977), The British empire in the Middle East 1945-1951: Arab nationalism, the United States, and postwar imperialism (1984), and two major edited collections for the British Documents on the End of Empire series covering the Macmillan government (co-edited with Ronald Hyam, 2000) and the period from 1964 to 1971 (with S.R. Ashton, 2004).  He has collaborated with other scholars, such as Prosser Gifford on the partition of Africa, Roger Owen on the Suez crisis and Ronald Robinson on post-war decolonization. Boundlessly energetic, Wm. Roger Louis is also an outstanding motivator and co-ordinator of diverse luminaries and curmudgeons in the pro­fession. He has been president of the American Historical Association. His British Studies Seminar at Austin attracts scholars from all over the world and enter­tains a wider public with its serial collections of essays on Adventures With Britannia, of which four have been published so far (1995-2005). Most significantly, the Oxford History of the British Empire (1998-99), to which over 120 historians contributed, together with the subsequent companion volumes devoted to specific themes would never have appeared without his drive and diplomacy as general editor.

Such is the vigour of his scholarship that it is startling to discover that the appearance of Ends of British Imperialism coincided with Louis’ seventieth birthday.  It also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Suez crisis which he had witnessed as a student.  In 1956 he happened to be in Cairo when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company.  This event would shape his inter­pretation of the unscram­bling of empire, just as it influenced Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher when they examined the scramble for Africa in Africa and the Victorians (1961).  Indeed, Louis sees decolonization as ‘the mirror image of the Scramble for colonies’ and suggests that the issues of intervention, self-deter­min­ation and internationalism, which proved to be so momentous during the British debacle over Suez, had previously surfaced time and again in periods of rampant British expansion.  Historians have contested the view that Suez, in the words of Brian Lapping, ‘wrote finis not only to the British empire but to all the empires of western Europe’ and continue to differ over its consequences. In the opening essay of this book Louis reflects on the contro­versy and explains how four decades of research have modified his assessments of Suez and imperial decline. In so doing, he introduces us to themes in imperial history that run through the rest of the book. Louis wrote ‘Suez and Decolonization: scrambling out of Africa and Asia’ especially for this volume but the other thirty-three pieces have already appeared as chapters in books or as articles in academic journals. They cover topics ranging from the pursuit of imperial ends to the end of imperial pursuits. Louis presents them coherently under the follow­ing headings: the legacy of European colonialism; the scramble for Africa and the Congo; the First World War and the origins of the Mandates System; Singapore and Hong Kong; India, Palestine, and Egypt; decolonization; Suez (six further papers); the Middle East; Historiography.

Reprints of previously published articles in book-form do not necessarily deserve or attract many readers. This collection, however, is exceptional.  It brings together the oeuvres of an eminent historian rather than a mere selection of writings.  Each article is attractively written as well as thoroughly annotated. The book is underpinned by a magnificent index. Finally, the price means that over one thousand pages of schol­ar­ship are placed within easy reach of a large audience.

Ends of British Imperialism: the Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization
Wm. Roger Louis
I.B. Tauris 


A.J. Stockwell is the editor of British Documents on the End of Empire: Malaysia (The Stationary Office, 2004)