The Empire Strikes Back

The themes and debate over the merits and horrors of Empire, like the sun on that of the former British, seems never to set.

While not a strict historian, I have spent years reading heavy leather bound tomes telling of dash and heroism which added (subjected?) nations and peoples to the Pax Britannica once shaded a light cartographers pink. Likewise I have stumbled through a goodly proportion of the post colonial, Subaltern, reassessment of Empire that so keenly divides historians. Needless to say, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis of the whole of Empire, just an acknowledgement that the debate still rages long after most, but by no means all, of the troops and administrators have set sail. (If you want a closer analysis of what I call the ‘temples of the mind of Empire’ have a look at chapter five of my thesis, but take a stiff drink beforehand… its supremely boring!) 

The polarisation is remarkable, from, on the one hand the likes of Kwarteng portraying “jolly good fellows [leaving] a great mess wherever they were unleashed on hapless natives,” to Ferguson on the other, who believes that the British empire brought the benefits of democracy and free trade to Asia and Africa, and was no less than the maker of the modern world.

Either way, three new and interesting books have been published this month to add to the pantheon of debate on the subject. They are all reviewed in a brilliant article by Mishra (the author of ‘Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet and Beyond’) in the Financial Times. While I think that his statement that “The enthusiasm for a new western empire seems a strange hallucination today as Anglo-America lurches from one crisis to another,” and believe it to be short sighted for a historian, the article is well worth a read, and can be found here. And the books are listed below:

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, by Jeremy Paxman.

Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, by Richard Gott.

Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, by Kwasi Kwarteng.


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