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The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Lawrence James

For any single author to produce a single volume covering what is a huge

The book is not a definite chronology – a timeline might have been helpful – but examines each section of the empire within a loose chronological framework. For example, the first section on India covers the first encounters to the results of the American revolution – a subject that is covered in one chapter – that touch India, leaving the British as absolute masters of the continent.  While there are studies of the nature of British power, with notes on sea power and the advantages that it brought to Britain, there is little discussion of the wars with the bigger powers – aside from the World Wars – in detail.  With the possible exception of the American Revolution, no war is studied in detail, merely its effects upon the empire.  The Second World War, a war that came close to toppling the empire altogether, is only discussed in the context of its effects upon the empire. 

The public opinion of the empire, the British people, the subjects, Indian, African, and the opponents is studied in some detail.  The views of the British people about the empire are discussed, with the surprising conclusion that the views of the empire changed with every generation.  Even Adolf Hitler’s views are mentioned, although the Author – rather snidely – points out that he (Hitler) missed out a crucial detail.  With the interposition of snippets of songs, poetry and rhyme, he allows us to see what the people who made the empire thought of it, although there is insufficient space for a complete discussion of the men who made the empire. 

Given the vast size of the subject, it was inevitable that some things were glossed over or missed out.  The Great Game, a Victorian cold war involving a struggle between themselves and Russia for influence in central Asia, is barely mentioned.  Canada is hardly mentioned, although I suspect that that was because Canada had an unexciting time compared to India or Australia.  The alliance with Japan, the Boxer Rebellion and the Trent Affair are all barely mentioned, save to note that they helped secure the empire. 

The subject of the decline and fall is treated with surprising sympathy.  In a chapter entitled ‘no good blustering’ James discusses the situation that the empire found itself in between the wars and how precautious the empire had become.  When the end came, James hints that the British had simply decided to get rid of the empire as quickly as possible.  The final parts, Falklands and Hong Kong, are barely covered. 

To Conclude, this book provides a fantastic overview of the Empire’s history, although it’s short on detail.  James’ other book, Raj, provides a guide and history of British India, which could be used as a starting point for further investigations.  Nine points out of Ten.

James, Lawrence.  The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (4th Ed.).  Great Britain, Abacus, 2001.  



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