THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
By Piers Brendon
Knopf, $37.50, 816 pages
REVIEWED BY GARY ANDERSON
When Gen. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, many Britons thought it was the beginning of the end of their empire. According to Piers Brendon in his book, “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire,” they were both right and wrong. Soon after Yorktown, the same Gen. Cornwallis won a military victory that destroyed the power of the Indian Empire and paved the way for British domination of all of India. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, England controlled an empire many times as large as Rome at her zenith. Yet, as Mr. Brendon points out, the doom of the empire lay in her greatest strengths.
Mr. Brendon does not attempt to replicate Gibbon’s classic on the decline and fall of Rome, but schoolboys will not be forced to read his book as was the case with Gibbon.Instead, Mr. Brendon chronicles the rise of the British empire and its eventual demise in clear prose laced with anecdotes that range from the occasionally knee-slapping to appalling acts of cruelty that sometimes rivaled those of Rome.
Indeed, until the great race to colonize Africa, there was never a deliberate policy to create an empire. The British acquired colonies hither and yon for a combination of three reasons. They got some as a result of treaties that ended wars or in outright conquest such as Canada and India. Others were acquired as trading outposts like Singapore and Hong Kong, and still others - Australia in particular - were established as dumping grounds for unwanted criminals, political malcontents and people with unpopular religious beliefs. The 13 American colonies were established for a variety of all three reasons. Most of the African colonies came later in what could justifiably be called a national hobby.
However, under Queen Victoria and the influence of social Darwinism, the British embarked on a more deliberate policy of expansion - by diplomatic persuasion and missionary work if possible, but with the Maxim gun if needed. Stanley, Livingstone, Gordon and Rhodes became household names in the British Isles, and English sons read with fascination Kipling’s prose and poetry of the great exploratory expeditions and battles that seemed to occur monthly during the Victorian age. Sometimes there were disasters. Khartoum and the horrors of the Sepoy Mutiny became as familiar to Britons as the Alamo and Little Big Horn are to Americans.
Mr. Brendon points out that the British could be cruel, petty, racist and sanctimoniously hypocritical such as in their condemnation of American slavery, after making fortunes selling the slaves to the Americans in the fist place, while flagrantly becoming the largest narco-state in the world while igniting the Opium Wars. However, the author also points out that if you were going to be colonized, you wanted to be colonized by the British.
Although they had a habit of playing favorites among native elites in picking local civil servants, the Brits invariably insisted upon the rule of law and fostered local democracy along the British parliamentary model. The justification for continued British rule was that the natives werenot yet ready for self rule, and until the mid-20th century, most Britons probably believed independence was decades if not centuries way. Herein lay the beginning of the decline of the empire. After World War II, a majority of the colonies had decided that they wanted independence near immediately, and many citizens of the home islands came to agree. The sun was setting. However, the edifice that Britannia left behind was a solid basis for independence. With the exception of Zimbabwe and several other examples of local misgovernment, the former British colonies are far better off than those of her European neighbors.
The author is a former Keeper of the Churchill Archives, and spins an epic yarn of heroes, villains, dreamers and fools who risked and often lost their lives to establish and maintain an empire for the glory of the crown; and who often enriched themselves in the process. Throughout it all, the Brits maintained a stiff upper lip, and a genius for understatement. When warned by Whitehall to prepare his tiny Royal Marine detachment for an invasion by the Argentine Army, the governor of the Falklands remarked, “the buggers are really going to do it this time.”
Twenty years ago, Colin Walters, the beloved former book editor of this paper, remarked that “the British Empire was a magnificent accident.” He should have known. Born a Briton, he had served in the empire’s army as a Tommy in the 1950s during the Suez campaign. He would have enjoyed this book.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who teaches at George Washington University.