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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 Paperback – February 9, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

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*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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


A Washington Post Book World Notable Book

“Brilliant. . . . A splendid popular history of the British Empire. . . . Brendon [has] a gift for catching the moments of history that people treasure.”
The New York Review of Books
“Hair-raising. . . . Pointed, sharply drawn, wide in its sweep. . . . Many accounts of the British empire have appeared in recent years, but few are as entertaining as this.”
Boston Globe
“Entertaining. . . . Lucid and well informed. . . . Every page is consistently readable and stimulating. . . . [Brendon] doesn’t draw a purely bleak picture, or present a bill of indictment. He captures the nuanced relations between the English and the peoples they ruled.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Splendid. . . . Brendon’s book is history with the nasty bits left in.”
The Washington Post Book World
“Sharply drawn. . . . A rich panorama of triumph, splendor and folly that is truly global in scale.”
“Only a very confident historian with a massive, comprehensive, and thoroughly researched manuscript would willingly invite comparisons with the British historian Edward Gibbon. [Brendon] fits that bill.”
Foreign Affairs
“Magnificent. . . . Provocative. . . . Marvellously readable.”
—Financial Times
“An outstanding book. . . . Compelling reading from start to finish: it is the best one-volume account of the British Empire. . . . At once popular and scholarly, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire demonstrates a thorough command of the historical literature.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“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. . . . Endlessly engrossing and disturbing.”
The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“[Brendon] 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.”
The Washington Times
“A compelling and spectacularly detailed retelling of imperial ‘rise’ as well as fall. . . . Not since Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy has anyone recounted these events with such sustained panache. . . . Remarkable.”
The Guardian (London)
“Magisterial. . . . A huge and hugely impressive book, mighty in scale as its subject, elegantly written and rigorous in its research.”
The Daily Telegraph (London)
“Brendon packs his narrative history of Great Britain with adventures, eccentrics, and other interesting characters.”
National Geographic
“Readable and highly provocative. . . . This is not a dry, blow-by-blow account of Britain’s impact upon the outside world. . . . This is the story of the British Empire, warts and all.”
The New York Sun
“While there may be many books on the British Empire, this is undoubtedly the most entertaining and the best. . . .  A book of enormous range and complexity, driven by a powerful narrative engine and leavened with a splendid sense of wit and irony. It takes courage to emulate the great Gibbon, but Brendon succeeds magnificently.”
—The Evening Standard (London)
“Unlike some recent chroniclers of empire, Brendon has no agenda. . . . [This] is, quite simply, a masterpiece of 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 humour of his prose.”
Literary Review
“Prodigious. . . . Stuffed with myriad spectacular examples of human vanity, folly, depravity and greed—and is all the better for it. . . . [Brendon] persuasively demonstrates that so much of the contemporary Middle East crisis can be laid at the door of the Foreign Office. . . . A brilliant account.”
—The Observer (London)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 Reprint edition (February 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307388417
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307388414
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #767,486 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 55 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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28 of 30 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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By John Kwok HALL OF FAME on December 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Piers Brendon's "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 11781 - 1997" certainly will strike well-versed readers as a clever homage to Edward Gibbon's justly celebrated literary landmark on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. While it isn't nearly as vast in scope as Gibbon's work, it does come across as a brilliant bit of historical writing in its own right, tracing the rise and fall of a British Empire that claimed mastery of the world's oceans in the aftermath of the American Revolution and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Over his own broad canvas, Brendon shows how and why the British Empire, regarded by many of its most diehard admirers as a "liberal empire", was truly a substantial contradiction in terms, often promoting both harsh, brutal imperial rule and benevolent "guardianship" to the teeming tens of millions that it ruled in Africa, Asia, North America, and even in the British Isles (referring of course to Ireland). But Brendon doesn't dwell overwhelmingly over the worst aspects of British imperial rule; he often refers to its eventual successes, describing how in the "non-white, non-European" portions of its vast global empire, British subjects, whether Africans, Indians, or Malaysians, eventually learned substantial aspects of democratic rule and a commitment to just rule under well-established law; a political legacy which Great Britain has bequeathed successfully to many of its former colonies throughout the globe. With its ample cast of colorful characters - both European and native non-European - Brendon's book is one of the most intriguing, most engaging, narrative histories I have stumbled upon, and one that is well deserving of a wide readership.
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