Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain
Darwin (John)
This Page provides (where held) the Abstract of the above Book and those of all the Papers contained in it.
Colour-ConventionsDisclaimerNotes Citing this Book


Amazon Book Description1

  1. A both controversial and comprehensive historical analysis of how the British Empire worked, from Wolfson Prize-winning author and historian John Darwin
  2. The British Empire shaped the world in countless ways: repopulating continents, carving out nations, imposing its own language, technology and values. For perhaps two centuries its expansion and final collapse were the single largest determinant of historical events, and it remains surrounded by myth, misconception and controversy today.
  3. John Darwin's provocative and richly enjoyable book shows how diverse, contradictory and in many ways chaotic the British Empire really was, controlled by interests that were often at loggerheads, and as much driven on by others' weaknesses as by its own strength.
  4. John Darwin was until his retirement last year Professor of Imperial and Global History at the University of Oxford. He is the author of After Tamerlane, Unfinished Empire and The Empire Project.

Amazon Reviews
  1. A breadth of perspective few other imperial historians can boast. The British Empire really does look different in the light of it ... Breadth of vision, fizzing ideas and a brilliant style as well as superb scholarship ... It deserves to supplant every other book on this topic, including - though my publisher and bank manager won't thank me for saying this - my own. It is British imperial history at last without hang-ups; the one we've been waiting for.
    → Bernard Potter, History Today
  2. A brilliantly perceptive analysis of the forces and ideas that drove the creation of an extraordinary enterprise ... Bringing together his huge erudition, scrupulous fairness and elegant prose, Mr Darwin has produced a wonderfully stimulating account of something that today seems almost incredibly yet was, in historical terms, only yesterday. It is also a much-needed antidote both to the leftish consensus of the past 50 years that Britain's empire was unrelievedly awful ... and the recent triumphalist revisionism of more conservative historians.
  3. Engrossing ... What Darwin adds to this insight is a rare, wonderful capacity for comparison. Empire here is a jigsaw of dreams and anxieties, conquests and loss of faith ... Seeing the imperial experience in the round like this does gives us a clearer, more subtle appreciation of the range of power and violence at play. It raises the historical writing on empire to another level.
    BBC History Magazine
  4. How incredibly refreshing it is when as distinguished an historian as John Darwin ... writes something as thoughtful, well-researched and persuasive as Unfinished Empire, which explains the half-millennium-long expansion of Britain across the globe in terms that genuinely make sense ... The author's deep familiarity with all the key sources of this vast subject allows him to pluck examples for his arguments from across the centuries and continents ... Best of all ... is the thought that Darwin's book might at long last herald the victory of the post-Marxist phase of imperial historiography, and not a moment too soon.
    → Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph Book of the Week
  5. Balanced, original and impressive ... Subtle ... intelligent
    Literary Review
  6. Comprehensive ... Darwin's erudition allows him to skirt around the narrow orthodoxies of apologist v critic and provide an insightful account of Britain's unlikely period of global hegemony
    Sunday Times

    List of Maps – ix
    Preface – xi
  1. Imagining Empire – 1
  2. Making Contact – 33
  3. Taking Possession - 61
  4. Settling In – 89
  5. Resorting to War – 117
  6. Traffic and Trade – 150
  7. Ruling Methods – 189
  8. Acts of Rebellion – 223
  9. Converts and Cultures – 265
  10. Defending Empire – 304
  11. Ending Empire – 342
  12. The Last and Largest Empire? – 386
    Notes – 403
    Further Reading – 445
    Index – 457

  1. Few subjects in history evoke stronger opinions than the making of empire. Indeed, some historians of empire still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it. Others like to convey the impression that writing against empire is an act of great courage: as if its agents lie in wait to exact their revenge or an enraged ‘imperialist’ public will inflict martyrdom on them. These are harmless, if rather amusing, conceits. But they reveal something interesting: that for all the ink spilt on their deeds and misdeeds, empires remain rather mysterious, realms of myth and misconception.
  2. This is partly the result of thinking in monoliths. ‘Empire’ is a grand word. But behind its facade (in every place and time) stood a mass of individuals, a network of lobbies, a mountain of hopes: for careers, fortunes, religious salvation or just physical safety. Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the ‘irresistible’ pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now. This was certainly true of the British overseas empire. Far from being the mere handiwork of kings and conquistadors, it was largely a private-enterprise empire: the creation of merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries, among many others. Building an empire was not just an act of will or an imaginative impulse, though both were essential. It required a long chain of mundane activities to bring it about: the reconnoitring of ‘targets’; the founding of bridgeheads; the raising of money; the recruiting of sailors, soldiers, emigrants and adventurers; the rallying of allies (not least at court or in government); the writing of rules (not least about property in ‘newfound’ lands); the regulation of trade as well as of moral behaviour in exotic locations; the framing of governments. It is not hard to see how much could go wrong. One of the most difficult tasks, but also one of the most vital, was settling the terms on which indigenous peoples and their leaders would become the allies, the clients or the subjects of empire. It is easily forgotten that across much of the world empire was ‘made’ as much if not more by the local auxiliaries that ‘empire-builders’ recruited as by the imperialists themselves. The result was an empire of hybrid components, conflicting traditions, and unsettled boundaries between races2 and peoples: a source of constant unease as well as extraordinary energy.
  3. It was also, and crucially, an unfinished empire. When we stare at old maps of the world with their masses of British imperial pink, it is easy to forget that this was always an empire-in-making, indeed an empire scarcely half-made. As late as 1914 (sometimes imagined as the ‘high noon’ of empire), the signs of this were everywhere: in the derelict state of some of Britain’s oldest possessions; in the exiguous strands of settlement that made up Canada and Australia; in the skeletal administration of tropical Africa, soon to be even more skeletal in the 1930s depression; in the chronic uncertainty over what kind of Raj would secure British control and appease Indian unrest; in the constant avowals that there would be no further imperial expansion, and the no less constant advances, a pattern that continued even after 1945; in the fuming and fretting of imperialists at home that public opinion was not imperial-minded enough. Indeed, the most ardent Edwardian imperialists believed that far from constructing a durable edifice that needed only periodic attention, the Victorian makers of empire had bequeathed their successors little more than a building site and a set of hopelessly defective plans.
  4. If empire on closer inspection betrayed its improvised and provisional character, there were good reasons for this.
    1. Firstly, no single vision of empire had inspired its founders. Instead, society at home threw up a mass of competing interests and lobbies that pursued different versions of expansion and empire. Colonizing (with British migrants), civilizing (with British officials), converting (with British missionaries) and commerce (preferably without migrants, officials or missionaries) coexisted in uneasy and often quarrelsome partnership as the ‘objects’ of empire. Colonial politics were the cockpit where the local protagonists of these parties struggled for mastery.
    2. Secondly, the ‘command and control’ of this empire was always ramshackle and quite often chaotic. To suppose that an order uttered in London was obeyed round the world by zealous proconsuls is an historical fantasy (although a popular one). For this was an empire that depended on the cooperation of local elites, on the loyalty of settlers and the (often grudging) acquiescence of British officials, impatient of Whitehall’s demands. None of these could be tested too far. Each was susceptible to myriad local pressures and problems unsuspected in London. Imperial governance was by necessity a series of compromises, some of them forced by the explosive rebellions - Irish, American, Canadian, Indian and African - that periodically blew it on to the rocks. Empire in practice required the continual adaptation of the methods of rule. ‘Constitutional reform’ was an elegant term for bringing new players on to the political pitch, widening (or narrowing) the goal, or changing the shape of the ball. Its aim was not to achieve a ‘final solution’ but to ensure the empire’s survival as a going concern - to keep the game going. Who was subject to which laws remained, in many colonies, a quagmire of uncertainty.
    3. Thirdly, this intra-imperial activity could not exist in a closed sphere of its own. Perhaps more than most empires, that of the British was exposed to external influences: the ideological claims and religious appeals that attracted its subjects; the effects of economic competition and crisis; and (most dangerously) the appearance of geostrategic challenge. The price of empire was constant attention to the unpredictable impact of geopolitical change, and a constant reshuffling of plans and priorities as new dangers or prospects appeared.
  5. In this unstable world, no version of empire could be final, no imperial ‘end-state’ more than a temporary respite. Nor - until it happened - could the end of empire be realistically envisaged, let alone planned for. Indeed, until the very last moment, the British themselves (certainly some of their leaders) went on believing that their empire could survive in some form, however reduced. Much of their policy in the era of decolonization (1945-1965) was meant to preserve an invisible empire of economic and political influence. Mundane reality was cruel to this dream. But its effects - as that of empire itself - linger still.
  6. This book is meant to be read as a study in the processes of empire-building spread, in Britain’s case, over three centuries of expansion beyond Europe, and with their roots in the history of medieval English imperialism.
  7. A book such as this could hardly be written without the assistance of a vast body of scholarship inadequately acknowledged in the references that accompany its chapters. I am also greatly indebted to my colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere from whose knowledge and insights I have tried to learn. In framing some of the questions that have shaped this book, I have been guided by the curiosity of both undergraduate and postgraduate students - confirming the old adage that to teach is to learn. A particular mention is needed of the late Freddie Madden, whose monumental study of the constitutional practices of the British Empire from the medieval period to the end of empire is fundamental to understanding its byzantine workings. It is a work of extraordinary scholarship.
  8. [ … ]

In-Page Footnotes ("Darwin (John) - Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain")

Footnote 1:

Penguin (1 Aug. 2013)

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Jan 2021. Please address any comments on this page to theo@theotodman.com. File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page