Customer Reviews: The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970
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on September 21, 2011
There has been a plethora of books regarding the British Empire in the last decade or so, some of them easily accessible to the general reader such as Niall Ferguson's Empire. There has been a number of reasons for this, much of which involves researchers looking back to history to draw parallels the Globalization of present day. (Examples include the decline of the American Superpower, the rise of a multi-polar world, global free trade and trade flows and the impact of technology (the telegraph, railways, etc.) on world trade and political development, British adventurism in the Middle East and Afghanistan).

But in terms of scholarship, much of the exciting new work has been thanks in great part to impetus provided the multi volume work - The Oxford History of the British Empire which drew a lot of academic interest into what was once seen as a stale subject or a dead horse that had been flogged one too many times.

Having read a number of books on the subject I must admit I wasn't sure what this brick of a book would add to the subject, and thus I was pleasantly surprised and hooked after reading the introduction. This book doesn't treat the British Empire as a monolithic entity nor does it delve into great depth into the personalities that created the Empire. Instead it analyses the Empire as a balance between its constituent parts which included the British Isles (which was a font of investment capital and emmigration to the other parts), India (which provided an army, revenues and security to the East) and the Dominions (which provided manpower and capital under an idea of a shared culture and identity) and a bunch of less important holdings. How unimportant the scramble for Africa was, was particularly revelatory.

It provides analysis as to how these various entities interacted and provided the stability for the Empire project to survive and continue through different crises until it ultimately came apart after the independence of India after the Second World War. It then concluded that without India and the Dominions drifting away into the US sphere of influence, there was no way to sustain the Empire project with just Britain and the other lesser holdings alone.

There is much here for someone who is looking for parallels with our present situation with analyses of global investment flows, the impact of technological change and the global political backdrop and interactions between major powers. However, although it states that it is a general history, it does presuppose a fair amount of familiarity with the material and might not be appropriate as a first text. but still an extremely important work - I am surprised that it has not been publicized more.
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The Empire Project is a wide-ranging study of the British Empire that surveys the period from 1830 to 1970. Darwin is widely regarded as one of the leading historians of the British Empire, and this book has been called his life's work and magnum opus. Describing the British empire as a ‘system’, rather than an ‘empire’ in the traditional sense, allows Darwin to analyze under a single framework both formal and informal empire as well as the full range of Britain’s constitutional, diplomatic, political, commercial, and cultural relationships. The starting date itself is highly significant and underscores Darwin’s conception of a ‘world-system’. It is true that by beginning the book in 1830 he omits the early phases of British imperialism. But the preceding period ‘was less the classical era of British world power than its turbulent pre-history’, Darwin writes, ‘when prevailing conditions remained very uncertain’. Only in the 1830s and 1840s did favorable conditions converge ‘for the growth of the loose decentralized construct that sustained British world power into the 1940s’ (p.18). The system that emerged was characterized by the interdependence of its parts, based on four pillars that upheld British power. British naval and military preeminence held together the strategic points and ensured British access to trade and resources; British commercial strength connected overseas territories to a global trading system centered on Britain; demographic growth provided migrants to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and thereby strengthened Britain’s connection to its settler colonies; and a global network of communication, centered on Britain, facilitated the spread of news, information, and personnel, and allowed Britain to promote the unity of the system. Because this system was diverse and the power exercised over it was diffuse, Darwin focuses on what he calls ‘imperial politics’ – the ‘almost continual debate over the terms of association by which the various member states (including Britain itself) were bound to the British system’ (p.8).

At the heart of Darwin’s study lies a reconsideration of the global context within which the British imperial system existed in the period between 1830 and 1970. Darwin argues that the British empire, as a global world-system, first expanded and later declined and fell according to the opportunities and challenges presented by geopolitical events occurring around the world, many outside the empire and beyond British control. Geopolitical change determined the fate of the British world-system in part, he argues, because the empire lacked a master plan and developed instead as a haphazard collection of disparate elements, presided over by London but guided largely by the schemes devised by private enthusiasts (like Cecil Rhodes) and by ‘men on the spot’ whose ambitions for expansion sometimes complemented and sometimes flouted the policy of the British government. ‘British expansion’, he argues, ‘was driven not by official designs but by the chaotic pluralism of British interests at home and of their agents and allies abroad’ (3). The success of the British world-system, since it depended upon bringing together its disparate parts, thus required specific conditions – a balance in Europe, a ‘passive’ East Asia, stability in the colonies, a globally competitive British economy, and an unaggressive United States – the absence of which would cause the imperial system to break down. ‘The key to British power’, Darwin argues, ‘lay in combining the strength of its overseas components with that of the imperial centre, and managing them – not commanding them – through the various linkages of ‘imperial politics’: some persuasive, some coercive, some official, some unofficial’ (13).

The international dimension in Darwin’s study holds interest for the present discussion because it attempts to shift the geographical focus from the internal developments of Britain and the colonies – whether formal or informal – to the wider world, and particularly to the regions outside the empire whose developments impinged directly on the fate of the British world-system. ‘British possessions,’ he writes, are only ‘parts of the larger conglomerate’ (6). The links between colonial territories and other parts of the system, and the ‘exogenous’ forces of the global environment, exerted a constant pressure on the terms of the British connection. ‘Their collective effect’, Darwin writes, ‘was to create an “external” arena of extraordinary turbulence before 1900, and of volcano-like chaos in the twentieth century’ (8).
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on June 27, 2013
This is Darwin's best book to date. He presents a vast yet detailed analysis of the different 'Empires' we call the British Empire. No one writes as engagingly and convincingly on the topic as Darwin. I especially enjoyed his insights on Britain in South Africa, the Empire's Weakest Link'. I heartily recommend this book!
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on February 20, 2015
Very comprehensive and thought-provoking
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on January 5, 2013
I am very interested in the subject. But the prose is turgid. Almost as bad as reading Gibbon, but without the stimulation and interest. The author is attentive to a greater variety of possible influences than, say, Churchill (who keeps me riveted for thousands of pages), but it was hard for me to stay focused.
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on March 19, 2014
Hoped for a complementary book after reading some of N. Ferguson books on the same subject. Here indeed a lot of information, BUT it is not a pleasant lecture. Repetitive and many times frankly boring. Not clear as well in many respects. Overall a disappointment
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on September 21, 2011
It is a good book, it's worth the buy and is in top condition. The book was worth the read as well.
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