- A friend sent me a link to a YouTube video (George Monbiot - The Dark Side of British History) put out by George Monbiot1 that strongly suggested that the British Empire was an unmitigated disaster for the subject peoples, and that the British record made the Third Reich look virtuous (he didn't actually say this, but some commentators did).
- This is such a polarizing subject, that I though it about time that I learnt something about the Empire. As the video says, they didn’t teach us about all that wickedness at school. But they didn’t teach us anything about the Empire at school, as it had gone out of fashion in the 1960s-70s.
- So, I decided to buy – and hopefully read – a representative sample2 of books either supporting or repudiating the Empire to hopefully get a balanced view:-
→ "Lawrence (James) - Rise And Fall Of The British Empire"
→ "Brendon (Piers) - The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire"
→ "Paxman (Jeremy) - Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British"
→ "Ferguson (Niall) - Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World"
- I’d expected Paxman to be in the “negative” camp, and – as is to be expected – some of his comments are a little snide. However, in general it’s a balanced and interesting account. It points out many of the failings, but is quite positive in places. He seems to have a soft spot for the toiling colonial administrators of late Empire.
- It’s more a history than an attempt to answer the question in the title. However, he seems to think that properly facing up to our history, rather than covering it with an embarrassed silence, would help us better find our current place in the world. Also, he admits that – while this doesn’t excuse the failings and atrocities – if the British hadn’t taken such a central role in the Age of Empire, others would have filled the void and made a much worse job of it.
Back Cover Blurb
- ‘A magnificent historian, and Empire may he remembered as Paxman’s finest work. Told with great pace, a sharp eye for details, and prose that is clear and cogent'
→ Independent on Sunday
- The influence of the British Empire is everywhere: from the very existence of the United Kingdom to the way we send our troops to war, from the way we travel to the way we trade. In his brilliantly illuminating new book, Jeremy Paxman goes to the very heart of empire. As he describes the crazed end of General Gordon of Khartoum or the sweating domestic life of the colonial officer’s wife, the importance of sport or the horrors of battle, Paxman reveals the profound and lasting effect that the empire has had on all of us.
- ‘Excellent. Paxman writes with wit and penetration, and every page of Empire can be read with relaxed pleasure’
- ‘A very engaging account, built mainly around the dramatic incidents in exotic places and the lives of fascinating people, with a good sprinkling of jokes’
- ‘Shrewd and readable, effective and entertaining'
Amazon Book Description
- The influence of the British Empire is everywhere, from the very existence of the United Kingdom to the ethnic composition of our cities. It affects everything, from Prime Ministers' decisions to send troops to war to the adventurers we admire. From the sports we think we're good at to the architecture of our buildings; the way we travel to the way we trade; the hopeless losers we will on, and the food we hunger for, the empire is never very far away.
- In this acute and witty analysis, Jeremy Paxman goes to the very heart of empire. As he describes the selection process for colonial officers ('intended to weed out the cad, the feeble and the too clever') the importance of sport, the sweating domestic life of the colonial officer's wife ('the challenge with cooking meat was "to grasp the fleeting moment between toughness and putrefaction when the joint may possibly prove eatable"') and the crazed end for General Gordon of Khartoum, Paxman brings brilliantly to life the tragedy and comedy of Empire and reveals its profound and lasting effect on our nation and ourselves.
- 'Paxman is witty, incisive, acerbic and opinionated . . . In short, he carries the whole thing off with panache bordering on effrontery'
→ Piers Brendon, Sunday Times
- 'Paxman is a magnificent historian, and Empire may be remembered as his finest work'
→ Independent on Sunday
- Jeremy Paxman was born in Yorkshire and educated at Cambridge3. He is an award-winning journalist who spent ten years reporting from overseas, notably for Panorama. He is the author of five books including "Paxman (Jeremy) - The English: A Portrait of a People". He is the presenter of Newsnight and University Challenge and has presented BBC documentaries on various subjects including Victorian art and Wilfred Owen.
- Introduction – 1
‘It seems a shame when the English claim the Earth, That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth’
→ Noel Coward, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, 1931
- ‘To plunder, to slaughter, to steal – these things they misname empire’ – 15
→ Tacitus, c. AD 98
- ‘I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places along this coast’ – 38
→ Captain James Cook, 1770
- ‘Tribute from the Red Barbarians’ – 54
- ‘I stand astonished at my own moderation’ – 70
→ Robert Clive, 1773
- ‘We had scarcely breakfasted before he announced to me the startling fact that he had discovered the source of the White Nile’ – 98
→ Richard Burton, 1860
- ‘Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live’ – 113
→ John Milton, 1645
- ‘Producing capital meals with three bricks and a baking pot’ – 127
→ The Handbook for Girl Guides, or How Girls Can Help Build Up the Empire, 1912
- ‘The more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race’ – 148
→ Cecil Rhodes, 1877
- ‘Patriotism, conventionally defined as love of country, now turns out rather obviously to stand for love of more country’ – 167
→ John M. Robertson, Patriotism and Empire, 1899
- ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ – 191
→ Henry Newbolt, ‘Vitai Lampda’, 1892
- ‘A thousand years scarce serve to form a state; An hour may lay it in the dust’ – 214
→ Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1812
- ‘I did not even know that the British Empire is dying’ – 241
→ "Orwell (George) - Shooting an Elephant", 1936
- ‘We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us … but what if we were a mere after-glow of them?’ – 274
→ J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Kashnapur, 1973
- Notes – 289
Bibliography – 311
Index – 344
In-Page Footnotes ("Paxman (Jeremy) - Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British")
Footnote 1: Footnote 2:
- This sample has grown, and I’ve got round to reading some of them, but I can’t be bothered to keep updating these lists.
- Paxman read English Literature, so is not – strictly speaking – a trained historian.
- Hence, this book is full of his opinions based on a selection of facts supplied by others.
- That said, there’s a considerable Bibliography. I can’t believe Paxman has read them all (though he won’t be alone in that case). The book was written prior to the TV Series, and he acknowledges that he had a team of researchers to help him out and “check his facts”.
- See Wikipedia: Jeremy Paxman.
- The book has no TOC, so I took the rather facetious quotations heading up the Chapters as a hopeful indication of what they were about.
- Having now read the book, I think they give an entirely wrong impression of the style which is far from being an unremitting lampoon.
Penguin; UK edition (7 Jun. 2012)
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)