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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

September 20, 2012

From The Economist:

JOHN DARWIN has spent his whole career thinking about Pax Britannica. Three years after his magisterial study, “The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970”, the Oxford historian has returned yet again to the subject. This time, though, his focus is different and the period he covers is longer. His new book is not a straightforward narrative of the British empire’s rise and fall. Rather, it is a brilliantly perceptive analysis of the forces and ideas that drove the creation of an extraordinary enterprise. At its zenith the British empire was almost impossibly grand in conception and yet was frequently so “improvised and provisional in character” as to appear almost ramshackle.

In fact, argues Mr Darwin, there was, at least for its first 100 years or so, no single vision of empire, but several. These reflected the unusually pluralistic and intellectually open society that Britain had become during the “long” 18th century (from 1688 to 1815). It was, above all, at this stage an empire driven less by the state than by the personal ambitions of people with vastly different backgrounds and agendas: from fortune-seeking gentry to merchants looking for new markets, impoverished economic migrants and evangelical missionaries.

Over time the state began, often reluctantly, to take on more of the protection and ultimately the running of these inchoate ventures overseas. Before that, the colonising of America and the gradual takeover of India by the East India Company were chiefly commercial projects that were dependent on private capital and private risk. And the American settler uprising that began in 1775 was essentially a reflection of the tensions between this private-enterprise notion of empire and the growing financial burden of securing it both from rival European colonial powers and from displaced indigenous peoples. [More]

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