Nov 04

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997, by Piers Brendon ????

This book is  monumental, 662 rather thick pages. It could not be read quickly. A very compelling read, the book was difficult to put down. Brendon starts the fall of the Empire at the time of the loss of the American colonies. Brendon then details the rise and fall of the British slave trade, the early attempts at colonization of India, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Further, he speaks of the spread of empire through the Far East and Afghanistan, Africa, and then the troubles with Ireland and the Boer War in South Africa. The First world war was detailed as the first truly significant decline of the British rule of the world, though they did acquire holdings in the Mid-east, including Egypt and Cyprus. The second world war seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with which India, then Ceylon, Myanmar, Signapore and other smaller entities rebelled and were able to obtain freedom from England. Brendon walks through the loss of Israel, the Suez Canal debacle, and Aden loss. The 1960’s showed British attempts to stabilize their hold on Africa, only to see Gold Coast (Ghana), Nigeria, Kenya, Rhodesia and the other African republics peel off. Finally, the loss of holdings in the West Indies and Cyprus, the comical attempt to show strength in holding a worthless set of islands off of Argentina (the Falklands), and lastly the loss of Hong Kong to China in 1997 left England with only a few insignificant rocks and islands scattered throughout the world.

Brendon writes in style that is mostly ad hominem. He doesn’t give you straight history, and often, if unfamiliar with any particular history, one would need to look elsewhere to find details of the events that he is discussing. Instead, Brendon will linger at length at what various politicians, generals, and other leaders may have said at the time of the historical event. It is more a history behind the closed doors, or a history that you would experience on the streets. This is both good and bad, since Brendon tends to dwell on the most foppish remarks made that perhaps don’t always reflect true feelings or intentions. Several Amazon.com reviewers gave the book very low scores with the complaint that it has a vile bias against empire building. That is certainly true. Most histories that you read of the British Empire tend to extol the virtues and blessings that the British bestowed on forcefully occupied populations. If one wished to purely look for the good that came out of something, one  could argue the virtues of Napoleon since he brought a liberal rule of law to many lands, and the goodness of Hitler since he gave Europe the gift of the Autobahn. I appreciate Brendon because he gives one balance in thinking about the history of the British Empire, even though it is biased heavily against British rule over half the world. Brendon’s terrible biases become most apparent in his interpretations of modern history. He has a terrible dislike for Margaret Thatcher and fails to say any good about her, even though she was following the general wish of most Britons. Even still, forget or sweep under the rug the abominations and atrocities performed by Her Majesties Service in the colonies, such as total and complete mass genocide in Tasmania, forced opium sales in China, brutal slaughters of major portions of the population in the Boer wars as well as other colonies, tyrannical forced rule in India, Ceylon, Burma, Kenya and many other African countries, arrogant racial snobbery towards blacks, Indians, and yellow folk suggesting that European (British) whites were a master race, and the absolute ineptitude of many military enterprises such as in Gallipoli and the Falklands.

By the time one has read all 662 pages of this book, it should be very clear that the Brits are intolerably arrogant, profoundly hypocritical, brutally racist, almost making Stalin, Hitler and Mao look like school children in the art of vice. Yet, I see many Americans possessing this arrogant attitude towards the rest of the world, suggesting that the problem runs deeper than just the British thought pattern. With its problems and limitations, I would still highly recommend this book as a worthy read, even if just to get one thinking about how certain foreign policies tend to create messes that will be around for centuries to come.

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