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THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE covers the history of British expansion overseas from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Narrative and analysis are interwoven with revealing eyewitness quotation to provide keen insight into the minds of those involved in conquering, settling and ruling the greatest Empire the world has seen. Throughout, there are consistant themes; the search for profit and the moral misgivings it generated; domestic developments which made imperial expansion desirable; and the sense of national and personal destiny felt by the empire-builders. Spanning four centuries and six continents, James' magnificent survey examines the imperial experience and its legacy with tremendous verve. Informed, comprehensive and perceptive, it is the essential summary of the era. 'James' epic is not only a first-rate narrative, but also a penetrating portrait of the British...Having largely, if often inadvertently, selfishly or ham-fistedly, engineered the world we live in, we need the courage now to face up to our record as coolly and intelligently as Lawrence James has done' - John Spurling, TLS

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780349106670
ISBN-10: 0349106673
Format: Paperback
(199mm x 134mm x 36mm)
Pages: 736
Imprint: Abacus
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 2-Nov-1995
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


US Kirkus Review » A history of the British empire from its earliest swashbuckling days to the era of its maturity, when it buckled rather than swashed, by the biographer of Lawrence of Arabia (The Golden Warrior, 1993, etc.). At its height at the time of WW I, the empire covered a quarter of the earth's land surface and had a population of 425 million; now there are "a few scarlet pinpricks on the globe." But James argues that the British empire "transformed the world" and believes that prime ministers Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan and Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod were the "real heroes of imperial retreat" because of the political adroitness they showed in handling the process and because, unlike the empires of the other major colonial powers, the British empire "did not dissolve in tears." In the course of its colonial history, Britain veered from lusty acquisition through gunboat diplomacy (Prime Minister Lord Palmerston's view being that "half civilized governments . . . all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order") to an era when there was greater skepticism about the value of what Britain had brought to its colonies. James notes that the forces which led to the breakup of the empire were at work even before the massive blow to British prestige caused by her defeats in the Second World War. He is less clear about whether the great loss of life that accompanied decolonization in India could have been avoided or about why the subsequent history of so many of the colonies has been so unsatisfactory. He suggests that the growth of the Commonwealth, however little it may have accomplished, enabled the British to accept the loss of empire with greater equanimity. In sum, he believes that "few empires have equipped their subjects with the intellectual wherewithal to overthrow their rulers. None has been survived by so much affection and moral respect." A worthwhile if not particularly innovative study. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Lawrence James

Lawrence James was a founder member of York University and then took a research degree at Merton College, Oxford. After a distinguished teaching career he has emerged as one of the outstanding narrative historians of his generation.

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