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

3.6 out of 5 stars 39 customer 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


“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.”

"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

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (October 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307268292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307268297
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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