Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

Frank Trentmann finds much to admire in a nuanced exploration of the years when Britain dominated the globe

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Reviewed by: Frank Trentmann
Author: John Darwin
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25

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No other subject in British history excites as much passion today as the British empire. On television and in seminar rooms, historians keep turning to it for moral lessons. Did colonisation and slavery leave a dark stain on British society that calls for repentance, even reparation? Or should we instead turn to the British empire as an exemplar for how to rule the world today?

Empire may be the text for our times, but, as John Darwin shows in this engrossing book, such moral concerns do little to explain how Britain grew into the world’s superpower and why its empire took the shape it did. To try to identify a single essence is doomed to failure. The empire was a hotchpotch of different societies, political systems and types of rule. Empire meant one thing in the white-settler self-governing Dominions, quite another in India and in the crown colonies. It was this messiness, Darwin argues, that made it so uniquely flexible and powerful.

Why did it lack the systemic nature of other empires? Darwin mainly points to the lust for profit and trade that drove expansion from Ralegh to Rhodes. In contrast to agrarian empires, Britain’s hinged on commerce. It began as “a private-enterprise empire” that adapted to opportunities, collaborators and resistance as it found them.

Variety, however, does not mean that Britons walked into colonies unprepared in a “fit of absence of mind”. One of the many things to admire about this book is its emphasis on the bureaucratic quality of imperial rule, shown in late Victorian warfare. First against the Ashanti in the 1870s and then in Cairo in the 1880s, General Wolseley perfected a military campaign based on meticulous planning, speed and a well-organised supply base.

Generations of students will appreciate the book’s intellectual debt to Robinson and Gallagher’s seminal article ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, written in 1953. Britain, they argued, chose trade with informal control “if possible” but switched to rule “when necessary”.

What Darwin adds to this insight is a rare, wonderful capacity for comparison. Empire here is a jigsaw of dreams and anxieties, conquests and rebellions, conversions and loss of faith. Putting several rebellions alongside each other enables Darwin to reflect on the kinds of imperial force employed in different parts of the empire against local tribes and indigenous peoples. White settler militias in South Africa were the most vicious, and Britons as bad as Boers. Collective punishment was in proportion to white fear and how thin their control was. Where colonisers were more secure, repression was less brutal. Such comparative forays may fail a simple ‘empire-good-or-bad?’ test. Yet seeing the imperial experience in the round like this does give us a clearer, more subtle appreciation of the range of power and violence at play. It raises the historical writing on empire to another level.

The downside of filling the jigsaw with one thematic piece after another is that it sacrifices a single overarching chronology. We thus follow visions of empire from the Tudors to JR Seeley’s 1883 Expansion of England, which made the popular case for the white settler colonies as Greater Britain’s historic destiny, long before we are taken through the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and later conquests that first established Britain’s global hegemony.

In our post-colonial times there is a temptation to see all history as driven by empire. While fully appreciating the force of Britain’s empire and the suffering it caused, this book is at the same time a reminder of its contradictions and limits, with thought-provoking suggestions for liberals and progressives alike. More often than not, commerce was driving imperialism rather than the other way around. Nor did Britain evolve as a by-product of empire. Britain, Darwin emphasises, was unified long before she started expanding beyond Europe. Imperial culture never defined Britain’s DNA. Once decolonisation took its course, “Domestic imperialism died with a whimper”.

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Frank Trentmann is professor of history at Birkbeck, London, and a fellow at SCI, Manchester