Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

John Darwin. Bloomsbury, $35 (416p) ISBN 978-1-62040-037-1
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Nostalgic Brits esteem the Empire as a redemptive “civilizing mission,” others as an exercise in greed on a global scale. Oxford historian Darwin (After Tamerlane) argues convincingly that it was an ad hoc, largely private enterprise pursued by traders, migrants, soldiers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs with sporadic official support from the Crown. The book begins with Elizabethan England, at the time an outsider on the world stage: Spain enjoyed a “silver-rich empire” in the Americas; Holland controlled Asian spice islands; and Portugal had an outpost on the west coast of India. But by 1700, an “English Atlantic” was prospering with settlements strewn from Jamaica to Newfoundland, and though colonists played a minor role in Asia, traders there used military aid to assume control of the Indian subcontinent. By century’s end, America had broken free, but the defeat of France at Waterloo in 1815 ushered in a golden age of trade and enlargement for the U.K. Though U.S. and German economies surged around the dawn of the 20th century, British expansion continued until WWII, when the unwieldy and far-flung agglomeration of territories began to finally break free from the shackles of colonialism. Temporally and geographically sprawling, Darwin’s study is as expansive as his subject, yet his lucidly rendered project holds together remarkably well. Maps, illus. Agent: Adam Eaglin, the Wylie Agency. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 10/15/2012
Release date: 02/12/2013
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