Sunday, July 15, 2007

Empire Record

Prior to my recent trip to London (more on that later), I decided to do something that I had been meaning to do for a while - read up on the history of the British Empire. I wrote this exercise off as trip preparation, but I knew from the beginning that studying the British Empire wasn't going to help me find my way around London. Still, it was as good an excuse as any and I checked a copy of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire out at my local library. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It covers approximately 400 years of history in just over 600 pages. It's a thick book, no doubt, but you would probably need a couple more volumes of the same size to really get into the fine details of the empire. This book is more of a survey of the empire from start to finish, which is exactly what I was looking for, since I knew very little about the history of the empire.

I was most surprised by how late the British were to amass their empire. The empire didn't reach its peak (from a teritorial standpoint, at least) until after World War I. The Spanish and Portugese (and perhaps the French and the Russians, I'm not sure) had a significant head start, but the British managed to catch up and surpass all of them. The author doesn't spend too much time trying to justify the negative aspects of the empire, but he also doesn't condemn the empire for failing to live up to modern standards. He highlights the things that the British got right, such as leaving behind the legacy of a free press in their colonies. The author does not mourn the end of the British Empire, but he is clearly of the mind that if you had to live under imperial rule and were given a choice in the matter, you'd certainly want to choose the British.

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