Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

Book Cover

Book Title

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012


Darwin, John


Hard off the heels of two well received broad studies of ‘the rise and fall of global empires’ in modern history and the ‘rise and fall of the British world system,’ John Darwin revisits the British Empire in an interpretive essay that will become a standard work on the subject. The book is timely, both regarding the unfolding of Darwin’s own work and scholarship in the field more broadly. Big events prompt big reassessments; we all publish around anniversaries. Darwin’s masterful monograph long essay may be seen as a deeply learned assessment of the wave of scholarship on the historical experience of the British Empire, and all things and peoples touched by it, touched off by the decline, disintegration, dismantling, or deconstruction of that empire after the Second World War. One suspects Darwin would argue for the use of all four adjectives, and more, in defining the British and British Empire experience so inadequately summarized by the code word ‘decolonization.’ But Unfinished Empire is also an original argument about the nature of that imperial experience, one deeply contextualized in a wider global historical framework.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book is structured thematically, with chapters taking the reader through the historical problems involving a given theme and the scholarly treatments of that theme. Darwin occasionally zooms directly in on a scholarly discussion as the focal point, for example in identifying Edward Said’s work as the launching of a new direction in the cultural interpretation of Western overseas imperialism. But more frequently he weaves historiographical evaluation into his own assessment of the problem at hand, debunking more often than not. Starting with a discussion of visions and concepts of empire, Darwin moves through the experiences of contact, claiming and taking possession, settlement, conflict, and trade. After this fairly chronological progression he moves on to evaluating problems of governance, dealing with ‘rebellion,’ culture and religion, imperial defence, and the always lively problems relating to ‘ending empire.’ Readers of Darwin’s previous work will find both familiar and reconsidered arguments herein—that the settlement colonies which become Dominions occupied a central position in both the empire itself and in the perceptions of that empire held by British people; that British imperialism was indeed flexible and pragmatic in handling so many problems, across a wide range of time and space; that so called ‘indirect rule’ was one such pragmatic adjustment to circumstances, rather than any grand theoretical insight. Darwin maintains his argument about the reasons for and consequences of the British special position in India and its influence on the Empire as a whole, especially during and after the Second World War. On the other hand he clearly takes on board the arguments made by Cain and Hopkins about the importance of an ‘empire of influence’ without the hard framework of territorial possession. And while acknowledging the contributions made by scholars expressing strongly critical views of the empire experience, whether from the orientalist or the subaltern or the national or the postmodern vantage point, Darwin demonstrates convincingly why all such narrow interpretations must fail to explain such a multifaceted experience that involved so many, from such a wide range of space and backgrounds, for so long.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Darwin’s central argument is that there were many British empires, developed by, and reflecting, multiple vectors from both within Britain itself and from wider global forces. But this British imperialism only became a pre-eminent world system for about a century because of a remarkable conjunction of fundamental historical developments—the exhaustion of European Great Power conflict from 1815; the onset of the Industrial Revolution; the ability to coexist profitably with the USA; economic dependency in South America; disarray in Africa; and perhaps most important of all, a period of division and weakness in both South and East Asia, particularly India and China. Britain was uniquely well placed to exploit this window of opportunity, for many reasons, and it did so. But while it became a great Asian power, that position always rested as much on circumstances it could not really manage as on any enhancement of British power. From a longer and broader global perspective, Britain’s empire was remarkable but hardly unique, in either its geopolitical structure or its methods of governance and control. But the habits of empire, which was really the concrete base which sustained Britain’s wider influence in global economics and politics, proved hard to outgrow. This made for a much messier and more conflicted experience of ‘dismantling’ empire, especially in Asia, than is usually suggested; Darwin debunks the memoir writers and spin doctors who argue for a smooth British exit from empire with as much conviction and success as he dealt with the more ideologically negative schools of interpretation. It was all just too untidy for both. The synthesis presented in this book is little short of masterful. It will contribute strongly towards re-historicizing the study of both the British and empires more broadly, and should be widely used in reading lists by students and specialists alike.

Annotated by Brian Farrell