Book Review: The Sun Never Sets

The Sun Never Sets, by Simon Winchester

Although I am not much of an imperialist myself, I must say that the thought has crossed my mind to do what this esteemed author did, and that is travel to as many as possible of the forlorn remnants of British imperial rule in the mid 1990’s, places that occasionally appear in my own blog: the Falkland Islands, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, the Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, the (British) Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Bermuda, Ascension Island, the British Indian Ocean Territory, and Pitcairn [1]. With wit and verve, Winchester discusses his arrival in areas, his casual disregard for the laws and practices preventing him from arriving in Diego Garcia where he is confronted with the reality of American power in the Indian Ocean, his unlucky arrival in the Falkland Islands right as the Falklands War was beginning, only to spend most of it in an Argentine jail for three months on a bogus accusation of spying, and of breaking into the rental house of a couple suspected of drug running who disappeared without a trace. This book is not only a humorous travel history, told by a witty and urbane journalist with a supreme grasp of irony, but it is also about a man coming to terms with the decline of his country and enjoying the melancholy feeling that results from the almost end of empire.

Although this book is not organized in a chronological fashion, it has a rough geographical organization, and it is clear that Winchester used quite a few means of transportation in his heroic effort to visit the vestigial outposts of British imperialism. He tried, unsuccessfully, to walk from Spain to Gibraltar. He traveled on a yacht to Diego Garcia, and then failed to arrive in Tristan da Cunha on that same yacht after its unpleasant encounter with a small American flotilla. He flies into Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, and somehow manages to travel overland into Hong Kong from China. He arranges for tea with various British officials, meeting many of them, even if one of them was arrested for drug smuggling shortly after his visit. His accounts tell of the origins of the British imperial presence in a given territory, how the small areas like the Cayman Islands or Turks & Caicos or Anguilla, to give but a few examples, were originally part of other areas and were the loyal remnants of those areas once the larger parts opted for independence.

It is to be admitted that not all of this book is enjoyable to read. Like many English writers [2], he seems to have something against Florida, but doesn’t everyone. Of the Cayman Islands, he says, “There is little left which is obviously West Indian about the place: it seems like an outpost of Florida, rather than of the British Empire, with a tawdriness, a mixture of the seedy and the greedy that was less attractive than the shabbiness or the decay of the other islands (246-247).” These minor quibbles aside, the book is noteworthy to read because he and I happen to be of the same belief concerning the need for the British to take responsibility for showing concern and compassion for their minor outlying islanders, given the fact that these people are the most loyal of colonists and that a little respect and care would go a long way, not merely by throwing money at a problem but by recognizing such people as worthy of British citizenship and some dignity and self-respect. This is a book that is worthwhile to read, not least to remind us that imperialism still lives on, and still remains attractive to many settlers, and that the possession of an empire means seeking to reassure one’s colonists that one is serious about protection and that one takes their concerns seriously. One wonders if Great Britain does. That said, this is a book to read, to enjoy, and to ponder over, and to take seriously. Most of all, this book provides an opportunity to hear, at least through a sympathetic narrator, the voices of often obscure people in the forgotten areas of the contemporary British Empire.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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