Book Review: Empire: The British Imperial Experience From 1765 To The Present

Empire: The British Imperial Experience From 1765 To The Present, by Dennis Judd

Although I have to say that this book was more than a little bit disappointing because of some of its contents, there are at least a few virtues to the book and some things that a reader would do well to pay attention to. For one, the author draws a parallel between the various imperialisms of the British, showing the continuity between the indirect approach of the second British imperial system in India and Africa along with the similar approach that had been undertaken successfully in North America until 1765 or so, when the British empire desired more control than local elites were willing to accept, leading to the rise of revolutionary politicians and a lack of place for moderates to be able to oppose them, ultimately. The author notes, in looking at a wide variety of instances, that there was a great gulf between what was politically possible in Parliament and what was minimally acceptable to restive populations (like Ireland), and notes that British imperial efforts, and especially English ones within the British Isles, demonstrated a consistent approach that was based on self-interest and not absent-mindedness, as they wanted to think of themselves. Whether or not you agree, there is interesting material here.

This book is between 400 and 500 pages long and it is divided into 31 essays that discuss various aspects of the British imperial experience in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries from a markedly pro-labor and anti-conservative perspective, even a somewhat extreme leftist perspective that, quite frequently, hinders the historiographical value of what is being discussed. Even so, the topics discussed are frequently of interest even if the presentation of the author’s discussion is both highly biased and also very discursive and in no way limited to the topic at hand. Included among the topics are discussions of America (2), Australia (3), and Ireland (4) during the late 18th century. The author explores the imperial implications of the repeal of the Corn laws (6), the great Jamaican rebellion (8), the legacy of people like Cecil Rhodes (11), and Joseph Chamberlain (15). There is an unseemly focus on British defeats in South Africa (10, 13), and elsewhere, like Singapore (24). Imperial conferences are discussed (17, 22, 29), and the author manages to comment some on sports, such as a cricket tour in Australia (23). As might be expected, the author takes some swipes at Anthony Eden, speculating that he and Nasser were more than friends (27), while also showing a lack of credibility while talking about the democratic deficit in post-colonial regimes (28), and showing a completely irrational optimism in South Africa (31), after which there is a chronology, notes, bibliography, and index.

Even though there is interesting material, though, it must be noted that there are some clear problems with this book as well. For one, the author is far too interested in issues of sexuality that frequently derail his efforts to discuss people in a fair manner. The author’s taste for sexual deviancy and its effect on empire leads him to speculate that not only were various kinds of sexual abuse common in British schools and prisons (including the convict population of early Australia) but that one of the important aspects of imperialism for Britain was to allow a population of those whose sexual tastes were outside of the norm to find a place where they could serve British interests and live a more relaxed lifestyle, whether that involved asexuality with emotional longings of a problematic type, or the enjoyment of prostitutes and various local women, or the practice of pederasty as was apparently the case for some. This is mentioned repeatedly in the book, so it is not an accidental thing, whether one looks at the founding of Australia, the life of Rhodes or the founding of the Boy Scouts or the discussion of the suicide of a British imperial figure in the early 20th century.

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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