The Rise and Fall of the British Empire Analysis

Lawrence James

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At its fullest extent in the early twentieth century, the British Empire was the largest in the history of world. The cliche that the sun never set on that empire was true, for it extended from Europe to India, Australia, and New Zealand, from Hong Kong to Canada, from Africa to islands in the Pacific and Atlantic and beyond. In THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, Lawrence James, biographer and military historian, takes the entire empire as his subject, from the days of North American colonization in the early 1600’s to the post-World War II era and its “winds of change,” Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s description of the movements of national self- determination and anticolonialism which resulted in the empire’s demise except for such remaining outposts as the Falkland Islands.

Any historian of empire is likely to be compared to Edward Gibbon and his eighteenth century study of ancient Rome’s decline and fall, and James’s choice of title explicitly invites that connection. Although unlike Gibbon he discusses the origins of Britain’s empire, like Gibbon he seems more interested in its fall. Almost half the volume discusses the decline that James contends significantly began only in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and its lasting economic, psychological, and intellectual consequences. Democratic and nationalist ideologies undermined the rationale for empire and declining resources made it too costly to maintain.

James’s work is not just history from the top: He also incorporates the “voice” of the ordinary citizen as well as that of the politicians, generals, and imperial pro-consuls. More attention is paid to the British perspective than the colonial, and by necessity the treatment of some topics is brief, but the work is well written and provides an excellent overview of an important era whose effects and influences are still in evidence.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, December 15, 1995, p. 683.

History Today. XLV, March, 1995, p. 48.

New Statesman and Society. VII, November 4, 1994, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, January 14, 1996, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, November 27, 1995, p. 60.

Reference and Research Book News. XI, May, 1996, p. 6.

The Spectator. CCLXXIII, November 26, 1994, p. 50.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 11, 1994, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 3, 1996, p. 1.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The world map found in a typical classroom at the beginning of the twentieth century saw much of it colored in red, signifying the extent of the British Empire, the largest in human history. The proud British claim that the sun never set on the empire was true: some place the sun was shining, be it in Britain itself, India, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, Canada and Latin America, the Middle East, China, or islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The story of the empire—the reasons for its development, the causes for its decline—is the subject of Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. The author of several other popular works about the British Empire, its wars and notables, the author is well-equipped for his task. In the history of western civilization, the British Empire perhaps invites comparison only with that of ancient Rome, whose decline and fall was famously chronicled by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century. It is probably impossible for any historian of empires to escape from Gibbon’s shadow, and the title of James’s monumental work explicitly invokes the connection. Gibbon stated his inspiration came while in Rome, “musing amid the ruins.” James, in his introduction, recalls his tour of the abandoned docks and warehouses along London’s Thames. Unlike Gibbon, however, James discusses imperial origins and evolution as well as its decline and fall.

His reference to empty warehouses and decaying docklands is apt, for more than any other single factor it was sea power which made the empire. Still just England in the seventeenth century—it would not become the United Kingdom of Great Britain until the union with Scotland in 1707—it was the Atlantic and the seas beyond rather than nearby Europe which proved to be the route to imperial greatness. That naval supremacy was reflected in James Thomson’s patriotic “Rule, Britannia” (1740) and solidified by the victories of Lord Horatio Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars, a supremacy which continued well into the twentieth century.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire proceeds chronologically, beginning with the establishment of England’s North American colonies in the early seventeenth century, and concluding in the imperial twilight after World War II. As James notes, there was never a master plan for empire; no ultimate goal was envisioned. Given that complexity and the scope of the empire, by necessity the author relates the story in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, moving from North America to India to Australia to Africa and back again. This has its difficulties, but the author’s command of his material and his accessible style ensure that the reader is never confused nor loses interest.

The empire’s development was a complex phenomena, as much reactive as proactive. Motives and causes were always mixed. Economics played a part, but so did religion. If some sought personal fame and adventure, others patriotically claimed that Britain had a moral responsibility to uplift supposedly backward races and societies. The flag might follow businessmen, explorers, and missionaries, but for most British politicians’ strategic considerations and questions of the balance of power within Europe and without were usually primary. The initial conquest of the Indian subcontinent was due largely to the private East India Company and its employees such as Robert Clive. It was only in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 that the company was finally taken over. In Africa in the late nineteenth century the impetus came from such individuals as Cecil Rhodes, with his mixture of greed and patriotism. The government followed along, in part because it feared German ambitions in southeast Africa. James is no Marxist; he does not view the empire as just Lenin’s last stage of capitalism. In reality, in financial terms the empire was frequently more costly than profitable.

The major focus of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire is upon the formal empire, upon those territories and colonies that were ruled directly by Britain and at whose head stood the British monarch. A belief in Britain’s cultural supremacy, and its allied racist assumptions, was a consistent theme throughout the empire’s history. Where European settlers had established themselves as the majority—in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—dominion self-government came sooner. It was assumed that non-whites, whether native Americans, Maoris, East Indians, or Africans, lacked the innate capacity to govern themselves and must be ruled for an unlimited time before the British yoke could be even slightly loosened. Benevolent paternalism was to be the model, but the resort to force was not infrequent; even in the mid-twentieth century bombs and machine guns were used in the task of governing. Still, James argues, the British were less ruthless...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)