Wednesday, March 05, 2014

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

            This one is even worse.  I’ve been slowly reading this book for over 2 and a half years now.   (In fact, those of you with long memories might remember that this book has popped up a few times before on this blog.  As I read through this book, I’ve been using it to fact check some of the Flashman books I read.  I’ve cited this book in my reviews of Flashman and the Dragon (June,2011), Flashman on the March (March, 2012), and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (December, 2012) )
            So, before I even begin this review, I should make a caveat: some parts of this book were read almost 3 years ago, and may not be very fresh in my mind as I write these words.  Accordingly, you should probably take my review with a grain of salt.

The Review
            This is a peculiar book.  I’m not even really sure how to classify it. 
            It’s not really a narrative history.  It covers a lot of time and space, but I wouldn’t call it a survey history.  And it’s not really an analytical history.
            The book seems to be operating under the assumption that you know the basic facts of the history already, but that you don’t fully appreciate all the strange little incidents that occurred along the way.
            Author Piers Brendon’s primary purpose seems to be telling anecdotes.  He’s uncovered thousands of strange little stories in his research, and he couldn’t resist filling his book full of them.
            He’s also discovered lots of personality quirks and gossipy information about the major figures of the British Empire, and he can’t resist throwing those in either.  Very typical, for example, is his character portrait of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan:

            Harold Macmillan had trodden a dogged but tortuous path to Downing Street.  A shy, introspective publisher, he had been crushed by a dominant American mother and humiliated by an adulterous English wife—Lady Dorothy, a daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, conducted a long and barely concealed liaison with one of her husband’s fellow Conservative MPs, the raffish, bisexual Robert Boothby. Macmillan was once seen banging his head against the window of a railway compartment from sheer despair.  During the 1930s he was too left-wing to gain preferment and even his old nanny declared, “Mr Harold is a dangerous pink.”  With his fussy manner and his clammy handshake, he struck others as a bore and a prig….He was the last British Prime Minister to sport a moustache, relic of his gallant service during the Great War and earnest of imperial orthodoxy. (Dorothy Macmillan also had a faint Moustache.  Seeing it in a photograph, a family member remarked: “At last I know what it was that Bob [Boothby] saw in her.”) Actually, like much else about Macmillan, it was a form of camouflage. The Prime Minister concealed his wounded psyche behind a facade of Edwardian insouciance.  The very private man wore flamboyant hats in the manner of Churchill.  The intellectual bourgeois pretended to be an antique grandee, extolling the merits of overripe grouse when he really preferred cold chicken. The old entertainer, who consulted the comedian Bud Flanagan about his delivery and employed a speech writer called Christ, was often physically sick before addressing the Commons. Above all, the Conservative did not scruple to retreat from empire….” (p. 548)

            If you liked that, there’s 662 more pages where that came from.
            Actually, it is admittedly pretty well-written, and it’s pretty interesting as far as it goes.  But the problem is, the book is all like that.  It’s just page after page of gossipy anecdotes without bothering to construct much of a historical frame to hang them on. 
            Depending on which part of the world Piers Brendon is describing, some sections are better than others in terms of giving the appropriate background information.  But there were plenty of chapters when I was completely confused about what was actually happening in that particular colony, despite getting a very detailed picture of the personality quirks of the British administrator in charge.

            I wouldn’t call the book uninteresting—it’s packed full of fascinating details.  But it’s all details, with no sense of a coherent larger picture.  And, at least for me, this style of writing prevented me from getting immersed in the book, and I think this is one of the reasons the book took me so long to finish.

            As for the message of the book, it takes a strong anti-Imperial stance, and the whole of the book is very critical of the British Empire, and of the men who created it.
            What is somewhat surprising is that no one escapes criticism.  Everyone in British government was responsible for the evils of empire.  Even Gladstone, the great anti-imperialist British Prime Minister, comes in for criticism as being a closest imperialist:

            Unlike Disraeli, who discerned the possibilities of making royalty, empire and paternalism into a platform from which he could appeal to the enlarged electorate, the Liberal leader [Gladstone] was wedded to peace, retrenchment and reform.  This did not mean, as Disraeli claimed in his famous speech at the Crystal Palace in 1872, that the Grand Old Man (GOM) favoured imperial disintegration. On the contrary, Gladstone in office almost invariably kept territories—Fiji and Cyprus, for instance—whose acquirement he had condemned in opposition. Indeed, he was sometimes prepared to augment British sovereignty, notably to protect “the rights of the savage, as we call him.” Moreover, he later became “an active aggressor” in Egypt, concerned about England’s major economic interests there and perhaps mindful of the fact that 37 per cent of his personal portfolio consisted of Egyptian stock, which rose enormously after the British occupation. (p. 169-170).

            Not even William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist, gets off without criticism:
            No one preached that gospel [abolition] with more fervour than Wilberforce, leader of the abolitionists “Saints,” as they were dubbed, in parliament. It is true that he was deeply conservative as well as genuinely philanthropic. He was keen on suppressing vice, especially among persons whose income, as Syndey Smith said, “does not exceed 500 pounds per annum.” He was eager to enforce virtue, particularly among the lower orders—he might easily have supported the organization invented by Wilkie Collins to lampoon excesses of puritan social discipline, “the British Ladies’ Servants’ Sunday Sweethearts Supervision Society.” In consequence radicals such as William Hazlitt thought Wilberforce morally slippery: “he trims, he shifts, he glides on the silvery sounds of his undulating, flexible, cautiously modulated voice, winding his way betwixt heaven and earth.” (p.27)

            Piers Brendon is not telling the story of good British versus bad British—they’re all a little crazy in his book.  (And he may well be right—although from a readability standpoint, I found this one-note song a little bit tiring after 662 pages. I would have preferred some positive appraisals just for variety, if nothing else.)

            However despite my criticisms, the book is chocked full of fascinating information.  I learned tons of interesting things from it.  I’ll comment on a few of them down below.

The Title
          The title of this book is deliberately meant to recall Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, something Piers Brendon is quick to explain in the first few pages.  “No historian in his senses would invite comparison with Gibbon” (p. xv) Piers Brendon says, but the title was chosen because Gibbon’s work “has a profound and hitherto unexplored relevance to my subject” (p. xv).

            The inevitable decline of empire is the subject central to Gibbon’s work. 
            I’m reminded of what my 8th grade history teacher once told us, when he was emphasizing to us that the American empire was not immune to the trends of history.  “Never think,” he said, “that God is on our side, and we’re never going to fall.  That’s what the Greeks thought, that’s what the Romans thought, that’s what the Spanish thought, and that’s what the British thought.”
            The words made an impression on me, and I remembered them.  And this caused me to think that America was the first super-power in history that had absorbed the lessons of history well enough to be aware of its own inevitable decline.  (Talk of the end of the American empire is everywhere these days.  Personally I think much of it is pre-mature—I tend to think we’ve got another 100 years at the top before the age of the Chinese—but it still shows that Americans are hyper-aware of the temporary nature of super-power status.)

            Actually, it turns out that Americans are not the first empire to be self-aware of their inevitable decline.  Gibbons had published his work at the end of the 18th century, and it had a huge impact on the Victorian age.  All the Victorians had read Gibbons, and they knew very well that their Empire would not last forever, and (as Piers Brendon shows) they were often given to contemplation about how and when their own Empire would fall, and what future historians would make of it.  
            Piers Brendon has dug up innumerable quotations to illustrate this point.  In many of his quotations, the British even go so far as to instruct future historians about which points they should emphasize when writing about the inevitable fall of the British Empire.  For example:
            Travelling through South-East Asia during the 1920s, Somerset Maugham met “judges, soldiers, commissioners who had no confidence in themselves and therefore inspired no respect in those they were placed over.” Their will to rule was impaired. And the master whose conscience was troubled could scarcely be master for long. The whole situation presaged “the Decline and Fall of the British Empire.” Maugham even presumed to counsel its future historian (assumed to be male) on the style that he should adopt for this “great work”: “I would have him write lucidly and yet with dignity; I would have his periods march with a firm step. I should like his sentences to ring out as the anvil rings when the hammer strikes it.” (p. 355)

            Since I had previously thought the Imperial British arrogant and blind to the lessons of history, it was a surprise to learn exactly how wrong I had been.  And also not a little eerie to read about the numerous Victorians, now dead and buried, who had correctly predicting their own Empire’s fall long ago.

Notes/Other Stray Observations
* Perhaps my favorite passage in the whole book—from p. 369-370.  When describing the British army in Khartoum:
            Sometimes members of the SPS [Sudan Political Service] were facetious at the expense of the Sudanese, one wag guying their (sensible) habit of riding on the hindquarters of their donkeys:
            As I sat on my ass on the ass of my ass
            This thought came into my mind
            That though three parts of my ass was in front of my ass
            The whole of my ass was behind.

* I took this book with me during my travels in Malaysia and found it a very useful reference.
            For example, when following the Lonely Planet walking tour around Kuala Lumpur, the Lonely Planet indicated that one of the old colonial bars on my path used to be frequented by Somerset Maugham (W).  At the time, I had no idea who Somerset Maugham was, but I was able to look his name up in the index to this book, and at least get some idea.

* Speaking of Malaysia, Piers Brendon makes the Malayan Emergency Period in the 1950s sound eerily similar to the Vietnam War: Communist troops fighting in the jungle, a battle for “hearts and minds” of the villagers, and villagers being forcibly relocated to government controlled hamlets to prevent them from supporting the Communists.
            The difference, of course, is that the British actually won the struggle against the Communists in Malaya. 
            Although the Malayan Communist insurgency is left out of American history textbooks (I never even knew about it until I saw the monument to the fallen Australian soldiers in Melbourne), I wonder if the example of the British victory in Malaya didn’t have an influence on the American architects of the Vietnam War.  Was this why they pushed deeper and deeper into the quagmire, seemingly against all reason—because the British had done the same thing and emerged victorious?

* When talking about Winston Churchill’s legacy, one of my Calvin history professors once told us: “In the West, we remember Winston Churchill very fondly as the man who stopped Hitler.  But if you talk to an Indian about Churchill, you’ll find that they regard him very differently.  I have Indian friends who regard Churchill as almost as bad as Hitler.”
            Those are strong words, but in Piers Brendon’s book, it’s possible to see where this animosity comes from.  To quote a section on Churchill’s attitude towards India:

            Meanwhile, conditions in Bengal had deteriorated, reaching a ghastly nadir during the autumn of 1943. Altogether malnutrition and diseases stemming from it killed some three million people. But Churchill’s chief scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, who thought that Africans and Indians were subhuman, dismissed the famine as a statistical invention—just as he likened Gandhi’s “change of diet” to taking the cure.  Despite pleas from Amery, the Prime Minister [Churchill] refused to divert scarce shipping to Calcutta and little was done to bring relief when it was most needed, though American aid came later. Churchill regarded the dispatch of food to India as an appeasement of [the Indian National]Congress and he believed that “the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious [than that of] sturdy Greeks.” He added that despite the famine Indians would go on breeding “like rabbits.”  The Prime Minister continued to harp on this theme at the very time when the new Governor of Bengal, an able Australian administrator called Richard Casey, was sending Wavell a shocked indictment of accumulated British failures in his province.
            “Bengal has, practically speaking, no irrigation or drainage, a medieval system of agriculture, no roads, no education, no cottage industries, completely inadequate hospitals, no effective public health services; consequently there is no real attempt to deal with malaria, which is the province’s principal scourge and killer, and no adequate machinery to cope with distress.  There are not even plans to make good these deficiencies.”
            The Prime Minister’s view seemed to be that it served them right.  In February 1945, recorded his private secretary Jock Colville, Churchill described Hindus as a “foul race ‘protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due’ and he wished [Air Marshal] Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.” Amery was once bold enough to tell the Prime Minister that he had a “Hitler-like attitude” to India, for which, according to Wavell, he “got a first-class rocket.” (p. 406-407)

* Like most Americans, I usually tend to laugh-off Canadian history as being dull and boring, and something no one in their right mind would want to study.
            But actually it turns out the history of Canada, as part of the larger story of the British Empire, and British Imperial policy, can be pretty interesting.  Piers Brendon doesn’t spend a lot of time on Canada, but he really piqued my interest with the few pages he does give it.  (I may even have to pick up a Canadian history book some day!)

* Reading this book has given me lots of useful ammunition against my British friends and co-workers the past couple years.
            Since I’m living abroad, I mingle in the expatriate crowd, where my friends are just as likely to be British and Australian as fellow Americans.  And I frequently am the recipient of jibes or criticism about my country’s history or government.  Most of these criticisms are actually true as far as they go, but it’s still nice to have some facts to fire back with.
            When a British colleague was incensed about the American drone attacks in Pakistan, and said this was typical about how we Americans thought we ruled the world, I replied that I believed Britain had some history in that region as well.
            When another British friend was criticizing America’s legacy of slavery, I responded by pointing out just how extensive the British slave trade had been.  (In the words of Piers Brendon the British slave trade “was the greatest involuntary migration in history and it established the largest slave empire since Roman times” (p. 16).)
            And when yet another British friend was talking about the Vietnam War, and said that no other country in the world could have gotten away with the atrocities America committed there, I said, “Oh I don’t know.  Countries get away with atrocities like that all the time.  I was just reading last night what you British did in Kenya in the 1950s.”
            (Although granted, as the largest bombardment in history, the scale of which has never happened before and has never been repeated since, the Vietnam War is arguably sui generis.  But that’s another discussion for another post.)

* Speaking of slavery, the description of what happened to slaves in the British West Indies is enough to make anyone physically sick.  I won’t even quote it here.

* Piers Brendon marks 1997 as the end of the British Empire, because that was the year Britain lost Hong Kong.
            It’s true that Britain hasn’t lost absolutely everything yet—it still has the Falkland Islands for example.  But Hong Kong was the last colony with any significant population, and when it reverted back to China, the British lost 6 million people overnight.  Once Hong Kong was lost, Piers Brendon remarks the “British empire had now passed away (except for a sprinkling of rocks and islands containing fewer than 200,000 people)” (p. 660).
            By that logic, it does indeed seem like Hong Kong is the true end of the story.
            On the other hand, the recent re-birth of Scottish nationalist aspirations is some cause to think that Piers Brendon may have been slightly pre-mature when he chronicled the end of the British Empire.  If Scotland votes for Independence in the scheduled referendum this September (W) (or if the referendum re-occurs at some future date) then the dissolution of Britain itself will truly mark the end of the British Empire.

* Ordinarily, when I review a book I’ve read on this blog I like to try and connect it to other books I’ve read.  (As regular readers no doubt have realized).
            In this case, however, making a complete list would be ridiculous.  The scope of this book spans over 200 years, several continents, and, because of Piers Brendon’s love of making references, it manages to touch on just about every political or literary figure alive during that time.  (Thomas Paine, George Washington, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Rider Haggard, Queen Victoria, Lenin, Stalin et cetera, et cetera et cetera…)
             In fact Piers Brendon loves to drop references so much that many literary and historical figures outside the scope of his work get quoted or name dropped: everyone from Cicero to Robespierre to Cromwell.
            However the two books on the British Empire I’ve read that overlap most with the subject material covered in this book are Three Empires on the Nile by Dominic Green and The Scramble for Africa: 1876-1912 by Thomas Pakenham.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky "A People Centered Society" (2013)


angrysoba said...

Thanks for writing this review. I've been looking forward to reading it, as I have had this book on my shelf for maybe as long as you have been reading it. So, if you are worried about it taking nearly 3 years to read, it could be worse; it could have taken you three years to start!

Interesting observation at the beginning, that the book seemed to be somewhat over-written and full of detailed descriptions rather than analysis. Because that immediately made me wonder if Brendon was trying to write a piece of literature rather than a piece of history, and when you pointed out the Gibbon angle and Brendon's oh-goodness-me-please-don't-start-calling-me-the-next-Gibbon! I thought the author did protest too much.

I am sure that I will eventually get round to reading it sometime in the next three years but probably not until I have finished 1) My MA, 2) The Flashman saga 3) Steven Pinker's massive book about violence.

Joel said...

Actually my take is that Brendon probably is guilty of trying to write literature. The good news is that he half pulls it off. The bad news is that all the in depth literary descriptions of people and places keep the book mired in detail, and don't give it a forward momentum. Which for me at least made this a hard book to finish.
Still, I'm not sorry I read it. It's packed full of fascinating details. But I'd definitely be cautious about recommending it. Since it sounds like you're already committed to the book, I'll just wish you good luck with it. Let me know what you think of it when you finally get around to it.