A sweeping, nondogmatic study of the gradual and not always secure development of the British Empire.
Darwin (After Tamerlane, 2007, etc.) looks fairly at both sides of the scholarly debate over the rightness of British imperialism, as both a civilizing force and imposition of a “cruel yoke of economic dependency.” Versatility seemed to be the key to Britain’s success in fashioning mercantile strongholds in the Americas, Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, China and Africa. The Tudor conquest of Ireland imparted some rough, lasting lessons in British territorial security, while British seamen, latecomers to Atlantic exploration, played catch-up against the exclusionary Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, insisting on the universal right of “freedom of the seas.” Private entrepreneurs, such as the leaders of the companies that first made contact in Virginia, West Africa and India, took the first steps; from possession by government charter, the privateers needed protection and assurance from London in luring settlers to the regions who would then enjoy the same civil rights as they had at home. Darwin moves steadily from this “assertion of sovereignty” to annexation to resorting to war in order to retain possession and quell rebellion, with more or less success (read: American colonies). The author does an excellent job delineating the remarkable British rule in India, which succeeded by “sheer bureaucratic persistence.” Scottish missionary David Livingstone’s formula for empire success—“commerce, Christianity and civilization”—gives a good idea of the myriad evolving colonies Darwin pursues in this vigorous but restrained historical survey.
An evenhanded, erudite book that finds the work of empire building more nuanced than catastrophic.