Thursday, 2 February 2012

Empire: What Ruling The World Did To The British - Jeremy Paxman (2011)

Paxman's Empire is an extremely well researched and a highly readable account of the history of the British Empire. Whilst it may not appeal to the higher levels of academia (over 400 hundred years of history are condensed into less than 300 hundred pages) it is an excellent volume for those wanting to either refresh their knowledge on or know a little more about the birth, growth and decline of Britain's Empire.

Paxman is sensitively aware of the grave issues surrounding this topic: the subject of Britain's empire is either a taboo, a controversy, a disgrace, an embarrassment or, at worse, just simply ignored. Whilst his work is not a jingoistic, patriotic celebration of the British Empire, the Mother Country and the Land of Hope of Glory, he does punctuate it with stories which celebrate the unique British character when it finds itself overseas, in adversity and coping with the heat (usually anything over 19 degrees Celsius).

Paxman artfully steers the reader through the development of the empire. The reader is taken on a journey from when Britain set up outposts for trade and financial gain, to the onset of further inland gains, the establishment of an administration (eventually run by the Colonial Office) and its inevitable break up. Within this time frame, he reminds the reader of the people that helped to build and dismantle the Empire with superb character vignettes.

He does on occasion allow twenty first century opinions to interject into historical mindsets, but it does not detract from his readable narrative. This is most apparent when he describes the darkest aspect of British history with its involvement in the slave trade (although I'm in no way defending this dispicable era of history). Christian missionaries in Africa are given a similar treatment. Within their own social context they thought they were doing the right thing as the British knew best, but with today's precepts their efforts seem ignorant and intolerant of other people.

Whatever your opinion of the British Empire, Paxman argues that it has left an indelible mark on the world, for both good and bad. Its Empire cannot simply be consigned to the past to be conveniently forgotten or glossed over. Whether the British like it or not, the British must in the very least be aware of their empirical past as it continues to shape and influence contemporary British society and foreign policy. Paxman's volume tries to correct the current lack of interest in this subject. Subject wise, it is not always a comfortable read (indeed, a volume on empire should not be) but it is an essential read for anyone trying to appreciate and understand Britain's place in the world today.

Publisher's link & jacket image: http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670919574,00.html

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