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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Unfinished Empire’

- - Wednesday, May 15, 2013

By John Darwin
Bloomsbury Press, $35, 496 pages

A more appropriate title for this book might be "Empire Happens." No British king or minister made a conscious decision to create the greatest empire in history. The imperium was created as a patchwork over the centuries beginning with the subjugation of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The establishment of colonies in North America made the British a transoceanic power, but not yet on the scale of the Spanish and Portuguese empires at their height. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the British surpassed all their competitors. "Unfinished Empire" describes how this was accomplished.

The British Empire evolved using three distinct, yet simultaneous, models. The reader may struggle to figure this out since the author does not present his unifying theme upfront. In an otherwise excellent book, this is not a fatal flaw.

The first model involved pure colonization, a method by which Europeans moved in to a virgin territory and elbowed aside the indigenous populations — as happened in North America, Australia and New Zealand. In the second model, the British came as weak interlopers bringing valuable trade goods and establishing industrial and commercial enclaves along the littorals of powerful native empires. Though they arrived as relatively unthreatening supplicants, the British soon proved themselves to be something more intrusive. Using a combination of guile, military leverage and outright bribery, they came to dominate the host nation's people without ever becoming a majority among them, eventually supplanting the native rulers. India is the prime example of this model at work, although most of Britain's African colonies were gained in this manner.

Naked military conquest or the acquisition of territory through treaties as a result of victory in war is the third model, but it is the exception rather than the rule. This makes the British Empire unique among the world's empires until the 20th century, since virtually every other empire was gained largely by naked conquest. The British obtained Canada in this matter as well as Gibraltar and several post-World War I trusteeships.

Author John Darwin is an accomplished scholar of empire. He wisely chooses not to use a linear narrative; rather, he uses the first few chapters to tell how this patchwork empire was built and how each of the three imperial models existed simultaneously, devoting the middle of the book to tell how the empire was managed and ruled. He allocates chapters to trade, missionary work (a driver in the industrial-trade model) and rebellion. The final chapters are devoted to defense of the empire, its eventual decline and its somewhat precipitous demise, a result of deliberate British policy.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the story of the rebellions, of which there were many. These are often referred to as "Queen Victoria's small wars." Although the British military leadership over time has had its share of Colonel Blimps, there were some amazingly good performances by British commanders such as Lords Kitchener and Wellington. However, the absolute superstar of the empire-building era was Garnet Wolseley, who operated successfully in theaters as diverse as India, Africa and Canada with nearly unwavering success. In so doing, he employed a combination of tactical skill, superb logistical planning and leadership by example to gain his victories.

The British Empire had huge warts. The inherent racism of the day was not unique to the British and was much more blatant among the Dutch, Belgians and Spanish. What made the Brits different was a genuine and largely successful desire to pass on their ideas about democracy, rule of law and entrepreneurship. Despite the faults of the British system, its former colonies have generally fared much better in independence than her imperial contemporaries.

This book will not be for everyone. It has too much detail for casual readers. Nevertheless, there are some gems for the patient reader with an interest in British history and grand strategy. I, for one, did not know that the primary rationale for the British occupation of Ireland was to deny it to the Spanish as a base from which to invade England. "Unfinished Empire" is worth reading.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.