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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain Hardcover – February 12, 2013
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Founded in a fit of absentmindedness, as the saying goes, the British Empire was never a monolithic polity but had different circumstances surrounding the establishment, growth, and rule of its colonies. Combine the variations in its parts and the range of historical opinion about it, from praise to condemnation, and one wonders whether a single-volume history of it is even possible. Darwin confidently forges one, however, that accentuates the decentralized character of the centuries of its expansion, which proceeded in tension with the links of trade, law, and military power between an outpost and London. If imperial control varied from colony to colony, it waxed and waned in a general sequence everywhere. British contact with a foreign land was followed by growth of a colonial society, assertions of autonomy or rebellion, and eventual independence. To contemporaries at all times, the worth and justice of the empire provoked debate that Darwin quotes amid his accounts of empire building in America, Africa, India, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Vast and controversial though his subject, Darwin raises all key historical issues in this solid survey of British imperialism. --Gilbert Taylor
“The depth of Darwin's learning is impressive…. [his] tone throughout is admirably detached and scholarly, though his dry wit keeps it well away from being boring…. [a] sharp, thoughtful, enjoyable and levelheaded book.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Mr. Darwin's informative and intelligent book is ably written, and it is brimming with interesting statistics and acute observations.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“[A] remarkable history of the empire…. immensely important and useful. As an Englishman, Darwin declines to be either boastful or self-lacerating about the empire his country presided over, but simply examines it with a clear eye. This he has achieved to a laudable and indeed remarkable degree.” ―Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“John Darwin has crafted a brilliant historical account of what the British empire was, stripped of the ideological fog that usually clouds the subject, and how we still live in its shadow.” ―Timothy Brook, author of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
“In his sweeping new book Unfinished Empire: the Global Expansion of Britain, John Darwin reminds us that empires are created by people. This is the story of the British Empire from the perspective of the men and women who built and ran it. As such it provides a new and sober look at the complex workings of one of the longest lived and most influential empires in world history from a preeminent authority on imperial history. Those interested in an accessible, comprehensive, and up-to-date survey of the British Empire need look no further.” ―Timothy Parsons, Washington University in St. Louis, author of The Rule of Empires
“Temporally and geographically sprawling, Darwin's study is as expansive as his subject, yet his lucidly rendered project holds together remarkably well.” ―Publishers Weekly
“A brilliantly perceptive analysis of the forces and ideas that drove the creation of an extraordinary enterprise … Bringing together his huge erudition, scrupulous fairness and elegant prose, Mr Darwin has produced a wonderfully stimulating account of something that today seems almost incredibly yet was, in historical terms, only yesterday.” ―Economist
“Engrossing … What Darwin adds to this [subject] is a rare, wonderful capacity for comparison .... It raises the historical writing on empire to another level.” ―BBC History Magazine
“Balanced, original and impressive … Subtle … intelligent.” ―Literary Review (UK)
“Comprehensive … Darwin's erudition allows him to skirt around the narrow orthodoxies of apologist v critic and provide an insightful account of Britain's unlikely period of global hegemony.” ―Sunday Times (UK)
“A breadth of perspective few other imperial historians can boast … Breadth of vision, fizzing ideas and a brilliant style as well as superb scholarship … It deserves to supplant every other book on this topic.” ―History Today (UK)
“A sweeping, nondogmatic study of the gradual and not always secure development of the British Empire…. The author does an excellent job delineating the remarkable British rule in India…. An evenhanded, erudite book that finds the work of empire building more nuanced than catastrophic.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Clever analysis, poignant argument, accessibility of the text, and inviting prose make this work a must read for those interested in the British Empire. Summing Up: Essential.” ―CHOICE Reviews
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Unfinished Empire is an erudite but very accessible and entertaining work. Rather than attempting a purely chronological approach (which would have probably required several volumes to complete) Darwin chose a more comparative approach in which he analyzed the processes of contacting, taking possession of, and settling new areas of territory. He then moved on to the details of how the different colonies were governed, protected, forced into submission or eventually allowed to regain independence, and made part of a growing international economy. This approach works well, although Americans will find the less prominent place it allows the sections dealing with the thirteen Atlantic colonies and the American Revolution somewhat surprising. Throughout the book Darwin emphasizes that the British never went after an empire in the way the French, Spanish, and Portuguese did: as an organized and centrally directed enterprise. Instead, Britain's pluralistic society, growing economy based on private enterprise, early industrialization, and control of trade routes and shipping all combined with a world power vaccuum in the 18th and 19th centuries to create an empire. Once the British had power in a region like India they were determined to keep control of it, using their superior armed forces and weaponry and skillfully working to co-opt any possible areas of resistance.
There are many fascinating stories in Unfinished Empire: the details by which the British East India Company managed to weaken and replace the Mughals in India, or the process by which China was forced to open itself up to British trade, or the devious efforts of men like Cecil Rhodes to establish themselves in Africa and Asia, becoming personally wealthy and making their motherland's empire even larger. Just as fascinating are the stories of how the British Empire came to an end in the twentieth century as a result of catastrophic world war and economic exhaustion. Unlike some historians of Empire Darwin gives plenty of attention to the indigenous peoples who came under British domination and either suffered for it (like most Indians and Africans) or managed to maintain some independence and cultural autonomy (most notably the Maoris of New Zealand.)
Unfinished Empire is a balanced work which both the British and their former subject peoples can enjoy. It is highly scholarly and scrupulously referenced, but it is also a lively and entertaining read that does much to explain how a small island off the northwestern shores of Europe became a world power, and how the cpmsequences of that accomplishment still affects the world today.
The discussions of Iain Mcleod and Macmillan's decolonization efforts are well put. This book would suffice for a broad survey course on the British Empire. That a small island nation could effectively rule over much of the world is a remarkable feat of technology and innovation. I also like the fact that Darwin isn't needlessly apologizing for the Empire, he states the facts and does so with appropriate scholarship. I recommend its purchase for those who want to learn about the Empire and Commonwealth.
The interactions between the home government in England and the Anglo-european colonists, native inhabitants and the often violent or extra-legal actions of the various parties is explored. The author attempts to analyze and explain these actions and how it shaped the various components of this disharmonious collection known as the British Empire.
As an American (of a number of ethnic threads) I naturally have my own biases but found this to be an interesting read ... especially in the description of the Australian and New Zealand colonial periods. I did not perceive, however, that much of this interaction which seems to be universal in human civilization, especially the disconnect between ethnic colonist and Imperial interests, was described in these terms. There was little compare and contrasts with other Imperial states.
Overall a worthwhile read on Kindle.