cover image Rise & Fall of the British Empire

Rise & Fall of the British Empire

Lawrence James, Lloyd James. St. Martin's Press, $35 (720pp) ISBN 978-0-312-14039-7

James, a British historian whose previous books have dealt chiefly with military matters, writes engagingly about the British Empire from the time of Sir Walter Raleigh at the beginning of the 17th century to Nelson Mandela at the end of the 20th. The struggle that drove France out of Canada, he says, was ``Britain's first large-scale imperial war of conquest,'' and it set the pattern for future colonial wars from the American Revolution through the Napoleonic, Crimean, Boer, Afghan and Opium wars to WWI and the beginning of the end of the empire in India, Ireland, the Middle East and Africa. WWII finished the job. Except for the travels of Captain James Cook, tales of exploration play almost no part in this account. It is, instead, a history of how a fairly simple international mercantile enterprise--in which white dominions were definitely regarded differently from black ones--changed itself and the face of the world. James peppers his account with illuminating and entertaining excerpts from period songs and popular literature. His conclusion: few empires have given their subjects so much of the intellectual wherewithal to overthrow their rulers. A sprawling and complex subject handled with admirable style and selectivity. Illustrations. (Jan.)