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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 28, 2008


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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (October 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307268292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307268297
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 6.6 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #773,627 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The title, taken from Gibbon’s immortal work on imperial Rome, was chosen since British imperialists consciously compared their empire to the Roman imperium. Despite the title, this is no dreary tale of imperial decay and collapse. Instead, Brendon, a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, has written a colorful and often brilliant examination of the imperial experience from the American Revolution to the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. He combines the genres of narrative history, travelogue, and biographical sketch to capture the richness, majesty, squalor, and injustice that created and maintained a vast edifice that has left an indelible imprint on the contemporary world. The narrative ranges across imperial settings in a successful effort to illustrate how both ordinary and extraordinary people lived, thrived, and often suffered under the British flag. Of course, decline and ultimate fall is part of the story. As a liberal empire based (in spirit if not always in practice) on the ideals of political liberty and even equality, it was an empire that contained the seeds of its own destruction, as citizens from America to India took those ideals to heart. The breadth, diversity, greatness, and failures of the British Empire have rarely been portrayed as well. --Jay Freeman

Review

“Splendid . . . Graphically narrated . . . [Brendon’s] book is history with the nasty bits left in . . . Provides a cautionary text for a new administration that will inherit autocratic allies, penal colonies, reliance on coercive power, and pervasive cynicism about America’s declared global arms.”
–Karl E. Meyer, Washington Post Book World

“Complex . . . Lucid . . . Every page is consistently readable and stimulating.”
–Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The New York Times Book Review

“The author is such a lively writer that I’d be hard pressed to find dull patches in this whooper of a book . . . Brendon’s narrative is wonderfully stocked with generals, politicians, rugged adventurers, consuls, eccentrics, administrators, and famous imperial hands.”
–Matthew Price, Boston Globe

“A richly detailed, lucid account of how the British Empire grew and grew–and then, not quite inexorably, fell apart.”
--Kirkus

"A book of enormous range and complexity and leavened with a splendid sense of wit and irony. It takes courage to emulate the great Gibbon, but Brendon succeeds magnificently. And while there may be many books on the British Empire, this is undoubtedly the most entertaining and the best."
--Dominic Sandbrook, The Evening Standard

"A masterpiece of a historical narrative. No review can hope to do justice to the depth of Brendon's research, the balance and originality of his conclusions, or the quality and humor of his prose. Our imperial story has been crying out for a top-flight historian who can write. Now it has one."
--Saul David, Literary Review

"Brilliant . . . An enthralling mini-series of colonial adventure . . . [Brendon's] book is stuffed with a myriad spectacular examples of human vanity, folly, depravity and greed--and is all the better for it."
--Robert McCrum, The Observer

"[A] sumptuous chronicle of the British empire. . . . A compelling and spectacularly detailed retelling of imperial "rise" as well as fall . . . A glittering panoply of decadence, folly, farce and devastation."
--Maya Jasanoff, Saturday Guardian

"A narrative masterpiece. The settings are exotic, the cast of thousands full of the most eccentric, egotistical, paranoid, swashbuckling players you are likely to meet in any history.... An endlessly engrossing and disturbing stream of anecdotes and vignettes that Brendon tells with extraordinary flair and sympathy, warts and all." --Richard Overy, Sunday Telegraph

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Customer Reviews

This book is well worth reading as the endgame of the British empire is still unraveling today.
Izaak VanGaalen
It's not hard to find fault with our ancestors if you judge them by today's fastidiously politically correct standards, and this Brendan has done on every page.
Alan Ryan
Among the many things to savor in this book is Brendon's recognition of the US's place in any history of the British Empire.
John D. Cofield

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Izaak VanGaalen on December 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Piers Brendon was not being whimsical when he titled this book after Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unlike Americans, who never considered themselves imperialists, the British took their imperial duties seriously. The sons and daughters of empire saw themselves as present-day Romans. They were steeped in the classics, they learned the languages of their subject peoples, and they prepared to spend many years abroad in the service of the Crown. Brendon makes the case (as did Niall Ferguson in Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire) that they saw themselves on a civilizing mission, that their empire - unlike Rome's - was a liberal empire. The British Empire would be a caretaker government until the locals were deemed capable of self-government. The conflicting goals of developing self-government and maintaining loyalty to the Crown manifest themselves often during this period in the form of uprisings and rebellions.

The story begins with the surrender of Cornwallis to Washington at Yorktown in 1781 and ends with the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Ironically, the British thought that their empire had started to decline with the loss of the colonies in America, instead their most glorious - or most infamous - days were still ahead of them. After the Napoleonic Wars, the other European powers were greatly weakened. For the British the years from 1815 to 1914 were indeed the British Century. The Empire reached its apex during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. It was an Empire on which the sun never set, consisting of a quarter of the world's population and habitable land.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By John Nordin on June 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I lived in post-colonial Africa for two years, and saw firsthand the complicated legacy of the British Empire. Brendon's book has been well received but attacked bitterly by a few who seem to think he only looks at the negative side of occupying a country, coercing people, forcing them to learn a new language, changing their religion, regarding them as less than human and stealing their land. Where is the positive side of this?

Well, I have a small, but only a very small, amount of sympathy for that critique. The value of this book is that he shows, relentlessly and with a thousand examples the careless racism of the empire, the vast parade of eccentrics sent off to manage it and the injustices that would be bizarre, ironic and comic if people hadn't died from them.

For make no mistake, freed from their original society, the whites sent to the empire often behaved oddly, badly, weirdly. And they still did in Kenya in the 80s.

What I miss in Brendon's book is the wider sweep of empire. His is a political history with occasional forays into cultural and religious issues. So the minor officials of the empire, the rank and file missionaries, the ordinary expatriates do not figure much here. And it is among those people (as a generalization) that you find those who loved their foreign country they were posted to and who were advocates for its people - at least some of the time.

So, while he does not make up the racism and oppression of the empire, he does underplay the complexity and that even in a colonialist system, something positive did get left behind to go with the oppression. I'm glad for his documenting of the contempt of the whites for the locals, the way they misplayed minor movements for reform into full scale rebellions and their utter disregard for human values. I only wish that, in addition to this, he'd given us more of how people, in the midst of an evil system, found ways to be human.
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57 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Doak on February 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The message of Piers Brendon's magnificent history of the British Empire is that its fall was inevitable and that that is the fate of all other empires, past and future. Because empires are founded on brutality and illegitimacy, says Brendon, their fault lines in the end prove too great. Brendon starts his account of the British Empire's fall with defeat at Yorktown in the American War of Independence - more than a century before the Empire reached its geographical apogee - because it was in America that the trust between Britain and its colonial peoples was first undermined. He carries on through the watershed of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and the 19th-century colonisation of Africa. The First World War badly shook the edifice, the Second World War sent it crashing down: in the two decades following 1945 Britain went from an empire of 700m people to one with very few subjects indeed. Something of Brendon's ambition can be seen in his Gibbon-echoing title and it's not hubris: this is a wonderful piece of narrative history. [...]
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Robert E. Maxwell on April 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover
First, Brendon seems really enamored with his comparison of the British Empire to the Roman Empire - he refuses to be quiet about it. This is, of course, not really an original thought. Pretty much everyone who even drifted through their British History survey course made that connection at one time or another. I think it might rank for one of the most tired historical comparisons in existence.

Second, Brendon seems to misunderstand what made Gibbon great. His opinion seems to be that Gibbon was a historian of the first order because of trivia, and this reflects itself in The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Yes, Gibbon did give wonderful little details about everything, but in the end they served to illustrate a character point, and didn't form the core (or, in Brendon's case, the everything). Instead of really being told anything about, say, the Duke of Wellington, I'm given snippets of anecdotes about him and related to him, and not in any structured way to prove any point. It's almost stream of consciousness on Brendon's part. Furthermore, on one side (the British), the anecdotes are almost invariably bad, and when they aren't, Brendon dismisses them anyway as a racist and a bigot without any support. (This first struck me in the section on Cornwallis in India - Brendon very begrudgingly notes the positive reforms Cornwallis carried out, and gives his standard gossip on his incorruptibility, but then dismisses him as a racist and a cheat without giving so much as an example.) The native rulers are almost always portrayed positively. Sticking with the first India section, Tipu Sultan is portrayed as a man of letters, a generous man, a great ruler, with a vast library.
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